31 March 2022: Punjab - Dialling up the tradition
A three week holiday to Chile in March, and trying to stay Covid free in the build up, meant 2022 had got off to a slow start on the review front. However, time away had meant I’d built up quite the appetite for curry. Luckily I had two willing co-diners in the shape of Pete and Sam. The former a blog veteran, famously responsible for organising one of the worst curries on record, the latter a long time fan keen to get in on the action.
We hadn’t planned to go for dinner but after a few jars in Soho’s Coach and Horses, and a brief visit to the oversubscribed Soho house, a curry couldn't be resisted.
With local options in Soho typically on the fancier or spennier side, we opted for a more traditional venue. In fact, Punjab, our restaurant of choice, is London's oldest North Indian restaurant. But would our visit be as historic? This was my second visit to Punjab but first review; only time would tell.
Founded in 1946, it's hard not to be impressed by Punjab's longevity. Taking over a local teahouse in Aldgate, then subsequently moving to its current site on the edge of Seven Dials in 1951, it is a culinary institution still run by the same family as founder Gurbachan Singh Maan, four generations on. The restaurant's history is played out inside, with numerous, gold-framed, black and white photos adorning the bold, navy blue walls. And it's this history that grabbed my attention on Instagram in 2021, with various posts celebrating their 75th anniversary, including one relating to Udham Singh. Famous in India, Udham was a patron who went on to assassinate Michael O'Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab, in revenge for the Amritsar massacre. For any history buffs, I would highly recommend the book The Patient Assassin that tells the story of Udham Singh in full and explains the significance of these events in British and Indian history.
But, for now, back to this review...
With 75 years of back story, Punjab is very much of the old school much like the India Club on the Strand, with which it shares much history in common. It has the familiar, British Indian restaurant feel and allegedly set the trend for red patterned wallpaper in curry houses nationwide. However, this comes with a lack of the excitement found in more modern, local rivals like Dishoom, Darjeeling Express and Soho Wala. Nevertheless, it is clearly a popular haunt with regulars and tourists alike, as exemplified by a bustling atmosphere on our Thursday night visit. Also, to survive for so long with so much change around it, Punjab has to be commended, and so gets a bonus point for its place in London curry folklore.
Starters and sides
Poppadoms and Chutney
For starters we had poppadoms with a decent mix of four chutneys, including an unusual minty, diced onion relish that teased the palate. Another mint sauce came with the classic dish of Amritsari fish, five fried tilapia pakora that also proved popular, if not unmissable, with a nice spicy and cumin-y batter.
That was it for appetizers, but we did have peshwari and bullet naan to go with our mains along with pilau rice. All were solid, with the bullet naan living up to its name, delivering a searing heat with generous helpings of chilli and garlic. However, this bread based bang wasn't quite enough to blow us away so it's just a modest 6 out of 10 for Starters and Sides.
Amrit's Amritsari chole
For mains it was a chicken, lamb and chickpea curry, respectively. The former - an acharri murgha - came with the byline of having 'to be experienced once in a lifetime'. This traditional pickled spice curry was just average, enjoyable yes, but certainly not lifetime defining. The methi gosht was also just good. The lamb wasn't the most tender and the methi wasn't too influential, whilst the signature chole wasn't a touch on my favourite chickpea offering from Spice Village / Royal Mahal in Tooting. However, fans of a good old Ruby Murray will not be disappointed with these dishes likely to be comfortingly familiar to many.
Given the busy Thursday night vibes you could be forgiven for a longer wait, but there was seemingly no impact on the service which was very prompt and polite. Not much more to add, not least because we'd had several jars and I can't really remember much more. All I know was the food came quickly with no complaints to report.
Value for money
Punjab's central London location comes with central London prices which seems to go up on a daily basis at the moment. They're not beyond the pale, but don't quite represent great value for money with £12-14 price tags per meat main. The food is good but not great and those extra couple of pounds are felt, especially with Cobras on draught for nearly £6 each. However, the starters and vegetarian dishes are far more reasonable, so worth noting. In total we paid £85.86 between three including three Cobras and service which isn't too bad really these days.
Punjab is a London legend and a stalwart. To stand the test of time after pioneering Punjabi food in London it deserves to be revered. That said, there's a delicate balance to be struck between tradition and progress and I fear the new lick of blue paint since my last visit needs a bit more behind it to take Punjab into the next 75 years. But that's my opinion, and the large number of diners on our visit shows plenty of others are very happy to return for a tried and tested, traditional Indian. And, I for one, love the history associated with the place and long may it continue.
Read our review of nearby India Club here
Address: 80 Neal St, London WC2H 9PA
Cuisine: Punjab Indian
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: The oldest Punjab restaurant in London