8 July & 8 Sep 2022: Watan - Watan you waiting for
Do we need another curry house in Tooting? The answer is simply always, yes, but perhaps with a few caveats: is it going to be good (usually they are); will it offer something different; and will it last?
As well documented on these here pages, many a Tooting restaurant has come and gone in this vastly competitive market and testing economy. But something tells me this latest addition is here to stay. Certainly the investment has not been small (as you will soon read), and coming as an extension of a popular Southall franchise (much like Spice Village), forecasts are optimistic.
I am, of course, talking about Watan, the high street’s latest Afghani/Pakistani offering. I first heard about this new opening from the omnipotent Tooting Newsie (big shout out to them) and eagerly awaited news of the start date, booking myself in within the first week or so.
The weather was warming up and demand to join me again on my curry adventures was equally hotting up from Sam and Pete of recent Punjab travails. As on that March occasion, several jars were consumed prior to our meal at no less than 3 pubs (and one after). We also enjoyed some pool at the Mayfair Tavern – a regrettable decision given the inflation of Pete’s ego after winning just two of three games. Pathetic really, but at least some extremely good value Guinness made it a little more palatable.
I then visited again in early September with the blog's now most reliable contributor - Spellins - to sample more of the menu. The thoughts below come from a summary across both visits and, as indicated by my prompt return, I enjoyed both. The rest below explains why.
Any regulars to Tooting’s curry scene will be familiar with bustling rooms crammed with covers and typically tired and prosaic interiors. Luckily a recent and much welcomed renaissance has seen design standards improve to match the lively atmospheres and excellent food.
Watan, situated in a new commercial and residential development, already home to a new Lidl, has taken the local refurb one-upmanship to the next level. This is a cavernous cathedral of curry and chops; by far Tooting’s largest. Personal dining space is not at a premium here like elsewhere, as sky high ceilings, not immediately obvious from the street, give the restaurant a vast, open feel. For a moment it's easy to forget you're in south London and not a Dubai hotel or somewhere equally eastern and lavish that I haven’t been to.
Ample seating with tastefully patterend soft furnishings provide comfort; huge hanging wire-mesh and metallic lamps offer warmth and mood; and an abundance of greenery from wall and ceiling planters bring added freshness despite a dearth of natural light. The inside of Watan is nothing short of a statement, as are the patterned feature wall to one side and the sand-blasted and coloured 20ft arches on the other.
Despite some witless remarks from Sam and Pete who were trying (but failing) to make their mark on this review (e.g. 'it feels like I'm in Nandos' and 'it's wannabe high end'), my verdict is all that counts. To me this is certainly the new place to be on the Tooting food scene, without rival in scale and style.
Sides and starters
Special Afghani Mix Grill
But would the food live up to the establishment - as Sam said (more wisely this time), 'don't be fooled by the vibe'.
Fortunately, we were in luck.
On my first visit we ordered the princely special Afghani mix grill an enormous platter consistenting of roasted vegetables, lamb chops, lamb tikka, chicken tikka, seekh kebab and reshami kebab, all served on a generous bed of saffron rice, vegetable rice and an Afghan naan. As the menu dictated, this was 'masterly marinated', with the smoke of the charcoal grill infused throughout the meat. Spices oozed through the arrangement, with the sprinkled topping on the wonderfully tender lamb chops a notable delight. All the meat was of high quality, perfectly cooked, and full of succulent moisture. These juices also soaked into the rice and naan beneath to add to their already fine flavours. And, as if the canvas of flavours wasn't enough, three excellent sauces of chili, yoghurt and herb sauces (complimentary on every table) added extra heat and zing to proceedings.
The Afghan naan was the size of the whole platter; itself, a good arm in length. Likewise, the rice was laid on generously. However, the unbalanced ratio of rice to meat, raised some consternation from my fellow diners given the £54 price tag. An additional lamb karahi was ordered to utilise the huge pile of leftover grains, but it was nevertheless a hugely satisfying dish between three.
On the second visit, more naan and meat was the order of the day, sampled this time in the form of a keema naan and lahori lamb chops. Different to those on the Afghani platter, these chops had a spicier rub but were equally delectable.
The huge keema naan, almost matched the other in size, but with minced lamb and spices spiralled through it bettered on taste. However, it was a little lukewarm - perhaps not served immediately fresh out fo the tandoor - but otherwise there were no complaints; the Starters and Sides here are superb.
Dum Chicken Biryani
My second visit to Watan was really to try some other dishes after our special mix grill bonanza. Yes, we added the lamb karahi as a late addition, and it finally had the detractors (Sam and Pete) eulogising, but would other curries live up to it? The answer was simply yes. The daal gosht matched the karahi in housing beautifully tender mutton in its spicy split lentil and red chilli depths. Superb stuff.
Sadly the biryani wasn't quite up to the standards of the curry. It was good, but no more than that. The chicken thighs within fell off the bone as expected, but the rice was generally a little dry and not packed with the flavour of the best. It was more rice with meat than a true dum biryani, and certainly not a scratch on Hyderabadi Zaiqa's down the road.
Despite the slightly disappointing biryani, the standard of the curries was still excellent and I'm sure I'll be back for more. It's therefore an 8/10 for the mains.
Service here isn't the swiftest, but the staff are very polite, if more formal than friendly. And there are a lot of them for the large number of customers which justifies the touch extra wait. In general, it's busy here but more relaxed in the more spacious surrounds, with nothing to bemoan service-wise.
Value For Money
There's no hiding from the fact that prices here are a little higher than in neighbouring competitors. This says more about the great value to be found nearby than Watan being too expensive, but it's fair to say some dishes have surprisingly high tags. The keema naan at £6 and many of the kebabs coming in at over the £12 mark are a little richly priced. Likewise, our special Afghan mix grill was £54. There's even a whole lamb available for £330 if you order in advance, highlighting a strange inconsistency to the prices which is hard to interpret from just the menu. For the quality of the experience and food though, great value is still to be had, but we just can't score it quite as highly as elsewhere.
There's no denying Watan has made an impression on me, and clearly also on the large number of patrons gorging on its grills on a daily basis. Yes, the no-alcohol policy will put off some, but if you're reading this blog and are still to branch out of a lager and ruby murray mindset, then you may be a lost cause.
Most notably, Watan definitely adds something different to an already diverse Tooting scene and sets the bar high for any other new entrants. The kebabs, curry and chops here are not to be missed.
Address: 180 Upper Tooting Rd, London SW17 7EW
Cuisine: Afghani, Pakistani
Alcohol Policy: No-alcohol
Summary: Spanking great big new restaurant in the heart of Tooting serving Afghani grilled delights