In one of life's odd little coincidences I was telling someone about "dishum dishum films" just a day or two before I first heard about Dishoom, a new London restaurant modelled on Bombay Cafés.
Dishum or dishoom, however you wish to spell it, is the Indian version of Kapow! – that exaggerated noise when a fist connects with the flesh of a baddie in a superhero cartoon or film.
There are many staples to the traditional Bollywood "fillum" – much singing and dancing in an outrageously huge wardrobe of ever-changing and colourful outfits, a beautiful heroine, a handsome goodie and the villainous but appealing bad-boy with whom the goodie exchanges some dishum dishum!
This I knew.
But what is a Bombay Café?
Back at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Persian immigrants to Bombay (now Mumbai) started a trend for local all-day cafés based on the style of elegant European coffee houses. These were grand and airy spaces, indolent fans barely turning through the thick hot air, a clutter of bistro-style chairs and tables, ornate mirrors on the walls, and family portraits on the walls…
All of life happened in these cafés from brisk business breakfasts to leisurely family lunches, friendly and loud social gatherings to peaceful interludes reading the newspaper with a cup of chai, earnest authors eating brain food whilst penning their next masterpiece to local workers on short breaks…
From their hey day in the 1960s, when there were nearly four hundred such cafés in Bombay, now there are fewer than thirty remaining, though perhaps a sense of nostalgia amongst Mumbaikars will save the surviving institutions.
Time to see if London takes to this all-day dining experience.
Dishoom Bombay Café in London
Three of the owners of Dishoom (two brothers and a family friend) have no previous restaurant experience but plenty of business acumen and a deep love of the Bombay Cafés of India. The fourth partner has a background in the hospitality industry. Together they are all set to find out what London thinks of the Bombay Café culture.
The predominantly wooden furniture, brass fittings and high white ceilings feel French. The (presumably deliberate) chaotic wiring of the ceiling lights and the many family portraits on the walls feels Indian. The effect is attractive and quirky. I like it.
Even the loos meet with my approval, with their feature wall cabinets full of Indian branded toiletries!
thanks to Pete for the pictures – I didn't take my camera with me when I visited, so he kindly did the honours
We are quickly seated in a comfy booth and told a little about the restaurant by our waitress who explains that everything is served when it's ready. She advises us that we can order a few of the small plates to start and then order some additional dishes afterwards, if we'd like to linger, or order everything at once if we'd like to be out sooner.
We start with drinks, an Alhambra Especial (£3.90) for Pete and a bhang lassi (£5.90) for me.
The Alhambra Especial is a fairly ordinary lager, perfectly acceptable, nothing special.
The bhang lassi is described as fresh ginger, mint and hints of Bombay spice - with rum (or without). I opt for "with", of course. Unfortunately, when it comes, it's really disappointing. The only flavours I can make out are mint and rum. There are spices on the top but very little taste of them in the drink itself. I cannot detect the ginger or yoghurt flavours no matter how hard I try. And it's too thin too. I'm a huge fan of lassi so this is quite disappointing, especially given that yoghurt should be the main ingredient and a dominant flavour.
I intended to go on and order some of the other lassis such as the rose and cardamom or mango and fennel versions. But fear of similar lack of yoghurt put me off.
Luckily, our second round of drinks, ordered later during the meal, goes down better.
Pete's second tipple is the Meantime Union (£3.90), a rich Amber beer which he is familiar with and enjoys much more.
I cannot resist a Thums Up (£2.50) cola.
As a kid, during our many visits to stay with family in India, I was fascinated by this all-Indian brand. Coca Cola left India in 1977 (rather than reveal it's secret formula to the Indian government and reduce it's equity stake in it's Indian subsidiary). In a market suddenly devoid of the famous cola, Thums Up was quickly launched by the Parle brothers, the makers of Limca lemon and Gold Spot orange. I remember all three vividly.
In the 1990s India opened up again to foreign multinationals, but Pepsi were the first in and gained a decent market share against Thums Up. The two cola brands were fiercely marketed against each other.
When Coca Cola returned to India in 1993, they initially joined the existing battle before buying out Parle and the Thums Up brand. Though Coca Cola considered killing off the Thums Up brand, they realised Pepsi would benefit from such a move far more than they would, and instead, re-launched it as a manly and adult drink.
Of course, as is often the case with childhood memories, the reality doesn't live up. I discover that I don't care for the oddly spicy taste (to me, it tastes strongly of cumin but web searches reveal that the extra dimension comes from the betel nuts that are part of the recipe). It's not as sweet as Coca Cola either, which may appeal to some drinkers.
I do love the scuffed bottle – that definitely reminds me of buying fizzy drinks in India. There, glass pop bottles are recycled. Customers get a tiny refund for returning the empties and these are sent back to the manufacturers for re-use.
Dishoom Small Plates
On to the food: To start with, we order some Café Crisps (£1.90), Lamb Samosas (£3.90) and Keema Pau (£4.50).
The crisps are wonderfully thin and crunchy, loaded with spice and served with three dips – a sweet sour tamarind sauce, a tangy green chutney and a fiery hot salsa. A good start!
The samosas are nice but not amazing. Pete comments on the thickness of the wrapping but it is more authentic than the filo pastry that is commonly used in the UK. For me, the main disappointments are (low) volume of lamb to vegetable and far too much cinnamon. Oh and these are HOT! I'm a chilli wuss but even Pete reckons they packed a slightly too hefty chilli punch. I would like the chilli to be toned down just a fraction.
The keema pau (toast) is great. The keema itself is really lovely – a well-spiced, dry-ish mix – we both love it. The muffin toasts are a bit limp, they could do with a little more time in the toaster. I'd also appreciate the option to switch the toasts for a roomali roti.
After we've finished these, we place our order for some mains, choosing Sheekh Kabab (£6.90) and Paneer & Mushroom (£6.90) from the Grills section, a Lamb Biryani (£8.20) and a Roomali Roti (£1.70) and Raita (£1.90) as sides.
Oh, this is a lovely, lovely sheekh kabab! Really moist, smoothly minced (possibly even pureed) and packed with flavour. We both love this one!
The paneer & mushroom too is a lovely dish, though I'd like a more generous portion for the price and would rather have more mushroom in place of the ubiquitous green and orange peppers. But the paneer is clearly home-made with that perfect balance between firm and crumbly. The marinade is delicious and clung nicely to the cheese cubes. And the cubes are cooked well to give those lovely charred edges.
I seldom order biryani Indian curry house takeaways – they're so often completely alien to the dish I know by this name. We are therefore delighted to be served our biryani in a small clay pot, the rice and meat sealed inside for cooking in the traditional method – a strip of pastry used to glue the lid onto the pot. Opened at our table, steam and aromas spill out and we sigh appreciatively. Layers of rice, flavourful cooked onions and lamb. The rice and onions are delicious. The lamb needs reworking – it's bland and a little too tough – I wonder if a tenderising marinade before cooking the meat might help, or simply more spices added when cooking the meat? Still, this already beats most biryanis I've had in the UK, so we're talking a little tweaking here, is all.
Next to the biryani you might just be able to see a dish of raita. Made from thick, full-flavoured natural yoghurt with crunch from cucumber and onions and just the right subtle touch of spicing, it's the perfect side-dish to balance our other choices.
If they have such lovely yoghurt in their fridge, why are the lassis so lacking in yoghurt flavour?
The roomali roti is a marvel. Light and as soft and pliable as a sheet of cotton we use it to scoop up bites of kabab and paneer and it's gone far too quickly.
We have just enough space for desserts.
Pete chooses the Chocolate Fondant (£4.70).
As I start to order a Malai Kulfi (£2.50 with mango and chocolate the other two listed flavours) our waiter explains that they have no malai (cream) flavour available but they do have pistachio available today, which makes me very happy.
I had my doubts about an Indian restaurant's ability to turn out a decent chocolate fondant but I should wash my mouth out with Lux! The fondant is perfectly cooked to be soft and gooey inside and has a really good quality chocolate flavour, dark and luxurious. Pete's not too happy when he realises the ice-cream is cinnamon flavour, not something he's a fan of, but he quickly retracts his initial objection muttering about how it actually works well with the dark chocolate.
My pistachio kulfi is pretty good though not the best I've had by a long shot. The texture is spot on – rich and creamy. But the pistachio flavour doesn't come through as much as the colour would suggest – it tastes more like a plain kulfi to me. Then again, I was intending to order a plain malai (cream) one so… I'm happy anyway!
Desserts done, we order Chai Chocolate (£2.20) and Caffè Latte (£2.20). Pete says his latte is one of the nicest he's had for a while. I enjoy my spiced hot chocolate. Both of us like the small glasses in which the hot drinks are served – much nicer than American-style venti portions.
One of the three owners, Amar, comes by to our table for a chat. We talk about the history and definition of Bombay Cafés, a little about the design and launch of Dishoom and we share memories and stories of India. Talking of memories, I mention mine of Thums Up and Limca and am very happy when Amar says he's hoping to put Limca on the menu if he can find an importer to bring it in for them.
He also points to one of the wall-mounted photographs hanging above our booth and identifies his mother, and again in one of the photographs on their menu. The menu photo reminds me of a gorgeous black and white of my own mother in the 1970s…
Amar insists we try the Gola Ice (£1.90) and has two of the pomegranate and chilli flavour ices delivered. (The other flavour on offer is passion fruit and ginger). The chilli kick is too hot for me, but I think these simple ices, served in sweet little glasses, are a lovely, light and refreshing alternative to a heavier pudd, if you haven't the space.
We've had a really lovely evening. The atmosphere, food and service has put a smile on our faces and the evening has felt like a proper date, much more so than our many visits to more formal restaurants, which surprises me.
We've been invited to review, so the service we've received might be atypical. That said, although the owners and floor manager know about our visit, I'm not sure the waiting staff have been told, and certainly, we over hear them treating other customers just as warmly and helpfully.
Our bill would have come to around £40 each or a touch over, which may seem a lot, but we have tried a wider selection of dishes and drinks than we would probably choose for a weekday evening meal. I wanted to sample and review a reasonable range of what is on offer. Plus we're greedy.
You could enjoy a drink, starter (or small plate), main and a couple of sides for £20-£25 per person.
Of course, one of the things I particularly like is that Dishoom welcomes those looking for a quick snack or drink from breakfast through to dinner, or a longer, more relaxed affair. Whilst we have been relaxing in our comfortable booth, many customers have come and gone, stopping just for a drink or a few plates to share. Others have lingered, as we have.
What's my final verdict? A big Thums Up!