13 August 2020: Dishoom Carnaby - It's potentially carnaby a little disappointing
I'm sure many have wondered how any self-respecting curry blogger could have overlooked Dishoom for so long. The truth is, I have been a couple of times before, but twice with work so neglected to write a review until now.
This time I had another 'absolute colleague' with me in the form of insatiable socialiser Joe 'The Colleague' Luetchford of India Club and Lahore Spices renown. Joining us for some drinks and curry were two young ladies and neighbours from Tooting, debuting on the blog for the first time - one a self-confessed black daal murderer, the other with less penchant for curry, but unable to resist the social.
We sensibly booked on a Thursday during the Government's Monday-Wednesday 'Eat out to help out' offer, but after a few drinks at The Clachan on Kingly Street, the financial error of our ways was quickly forgotten. After a few squirts of alcohol cleansing gel, we were shown to our seats ready to being our first post-lockdown review.
For anyone who hasn't heard of Dishoom, I fear you may be in the wrong place. For the last decade Dishoom has set the trend for modern, casual, Indian dining in the capital, spawning further restaurants from its Covent Garden origins and many further copy cats in its wake.
Inspired by the relaxed Persian cafés of Mumbai, its founders sought to break away from the tired stereotypes of the British curry house and bring a more authentic take on Indian fare to the nation's public. With Indian food already firmly cemented in British hearts it's no surprise this refreshingly modern change up to the usual vindaloo and lager has been met with huge success. With fresh dishes and trendy interiors, it has attracted a younger, foodie crowd, as Indian cuisine has become cool again and not just for dinner, but lunch and breakfast too.
Great marketing, limited booking, and iconic dishes like the bacon naan roll, mean long lines have formed in anticipation outside Dishoom's many branches since its doors opened a decade ago. I would, however, be lying if I said I didn't find the queues a bit of a turn off. Thankfully, on our mid-pandemic visit, booking was more readily available, but I fear the lines of people and hype around Dishoom may just be a little too great. Yes, the dining experience is extremely pleasant, with each restaurant's interiors styled around a relevant local theme - be it station café (King's Cross), 1930s jazz bar (Kennington), or Freemason's Hall (Manchester) - but one can't help but feel the back-stories are a little contrived and potentially too great a distraction from the food (but more on that later).
As for Dishoom Carnaby, it loyally follows along the same theme of creating a restaurant around the history of the locale; in this instance, the rock n'roll glamour of Carnaby Street in the swinging sixties. Whilst the interior's link to Bombay rock cafés of the same era may be overstated, the furnishings aren't. The small entrance deceives a vast burrow of covers within stylish surrounds, including psychedelic green and yellow paintwork, colourful seating and records on the wall. The lack of natural light also lends itself to romantic, mood-lit dining, sat below organ-pipe lampshades. The ambiance is a lively but relaxed one, reflecting, what is undoubtedly, Dishoom's legacy of bringing finer Indian restaurant dining to a more mainstream British audience. For the loyalists of Southall, Whitechapel or Tooting, this may not truly represent an 'authentic' Eastern dining experience, but Dishoom has certainly revitalised the genre and credit to its marketing efforts where it's due.
Starters and Sides
In line with its break from tradition Dishoom has a more limited menu of around 30 items, split into small plates, grills, curries and the like. For starters we had a range of the small plates - a snacking trio of bhel, okra fries and vegetable samosa.
The bhel, a dry mix of onion, sev, tomato and pomegranate had a lovely blend of coriander, mint, lime and tamarind flavours and rivaled the best Drummond Street has to offer, albeit whilst lacking in any yoghurt-based accompaniment. Equally fragrant were the samosa, delicately spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and delightfully light and non-greasy. The okra were also perfectly fried and up their with the best, second probably only to Gunpowder's. That said, for a restaurant of such renown, there was little else on the menu to get really excited about and all these dishes are matched elsewhere. To be fair, this may be that other restaurants have followed and bettered Dishoom's template, but I still can't help but feel the food here is over-hyped. Perhaps the buzz surrounding it sets expectations too high, but Joe, trying Dishoom for the first time, felt the same. It says a lot that I got most excited about the three sauces that came with the samosa, particularly the garlic/chilli number, that added a much needed, extra edge to proceedings.
As for the other sides, the mains were accompanied by Dishoom's signature gunpowder potatoes, a melée of crushed, skin-on roasted potatoes, drizzled in a zingy lime butter and sat on a bed of aromatic spring onion. Whilst unusual, they were a welcome addition, much like the cheese naan that had a very unique flavour, if perhaps a little out of place. The other breads were par for the course, reflecting a tokenism often given to them on small plate menus. Fortunately, Dishoom redeems itself at breakfast with the phenomenal British-Indian fusion, the bacon naan roll, but this doesn't factor into the scores on this occasion.
With all starters and sides of requisite quality, but failing to set the world alight, and the dips the most exciting element it's only a steady 7 out of 10.
Spicy Lamb Chops
House Black Daal
As at other similar small plate restaurants the curry options here, filed under 'Ruby Murray', are limited. This is balanced by other grilled dishes and biryani that can be consumed as mains if choosing to eat in courses.
From the grill we tried the spicy lamb chops and the murgh malai. The murgh malai (chicken tikka) wasn't the most exciting nor neatly presented, and was certainly trumped in the latter regard by the chops, even if ultimately the colourful pomegranate seed garnish added little to the dish. The spicy lamb chops were nonetheless very tasty, benefiting from an overnight marination in lime juice, ginger, garlic and other spices. They were charred and smokey from the grill, but were a little fattier than the 'untrimmed for juiciness' in their description suggests.
With the grills we had the signature house black daal, a slow cooked, rich lentil makhani. A certified favourite of one of my fellow diners, it certainly packs more weight than similar daals, but for me (as noted elsewhere) this often means the rich tomato flavours feel more Mexican than Punjabi.
Alongside the daal we tried one of the curries, the mattar paneer, which contained perfectly cooked paneer within a likewise rich tomato base. This was again satisfactory, but in danger of being a little bland. The other 'chicken ruby' curry on the menu was avoided for fear of falling into this category and sadly reflects the neglect curries on these small plate menus typically receive (see Delhi Grill and New Delis).
It's obvious that, in boldly moving away from the traditional British curry house menu, these more contemporary Indian restaurants have deliberately sidelined curry. However, the inclusion of uninspiring curries on their menus (perhaps to please the sensibilities of less adventurous patrons) risks becoming uninspiring tokenism. It's certainly possible to deliver both a limited, accessible menu and more inspiring curry dishes as the pioneering Darjeeling Express (soon to be moving to new and bigger surrounds in Covent Garden) demonstrates.
As with the starters and sides, Dishoom delivers good quality, but for the more seasoned Indian foodies in London, greater excitement can be found in main dishes elsewhere.
As outlined at the start, Dishoom has brought a more refined Indian dining experience to the mainstream and the service reflects this professional, yet relaxed philosophy. Staff are efficient and friendly, without any stuffy, uniformed pretense. This is the expected norm for London dining now so nothing here to either complain about or score highly. For anyone looking for a more formal dining experience, who are you and why?
Value for money
With its prime locations and in-demand status, you expect to pay a little more here, but some of the prices are toppy; £11.50 for the mattar paneer is too much. Yes, you're paying for the atmosphere and pleasant surrounds, but the quality of the food at times doesn't quite justify the price tag.
If you've read this far you'll have sensed I'm not Dishoom's biggest fan, but neither are other friends who also feel it is over-hyped. Don't get me wrong, everything here is good quality, but little jumps out on the menu and nothing (but a dipping sauce) ended up blowing me away. The fact that most of the food can be bettered elsewhere and the extra price you pay to realise that does lead to a slight sense of disappointment. Asked to describe the overall experience, my fellow diner unwittingly summed it up when she said, 'its just nice'.
Credit where it's due; Dishoom is a marketing success that has played an important role in the revival of Indian food in the capital and nationwide, but for me it's not quite worth the usual evening queue. With an overall score of 35, it doesn't even make my top twenty, but having said all that, I will probably be returning for their breakfast.
Address: 22 Kingly St, Soho, London W1B 5QP
Cuisine: Persian Indian
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: Extremely popular food chain with good food, but not the best.