Tomorrow marks ten years to the day since I moved to London to start work as a corporate lawyer. How things have changed — personally, but (more interestingly) generally too; not least the options for and attitudes towards eating out.
On our first night in The Big Smoke my housemates and I did what we had been doing for years in our university and home towns: we went to the local curry house. Lamb bhuna, peshwari naan, side of sag aloo and a few pints of Cobra, ta. Other evenings, when meeting friends on their patch, we’d seek a similar scenario and receive the exact same experience: from the standardised base sauces, through the default ordering, all the way to the yellowing, misunderstood yet proudly displayed 1.5 star review from Fay Maschler; the words “edible” and “food” highlighted, though not necessarily next to each other.
If we were feeling really exotic we’d make the pilgrimage to Lahore Kebab House or Tayyabs (“it’s kind of crazy — you’ll probably have to queue“), or Rasa in Stoke Newington, because Time Out said it was properly authentic. Maybe we hadn’t yet opened our eyes to what London offered. But this was surely the routine of more seasoned city dwellers too.
It’s so different now. I can’t remember the last time I chose to go to an identikit Bangladeshi curry house, and I’d bet a jalfrezi that I’m not alone. Tastebuds and expectations have moved on and the curry houses have not. Perhaps more significantly, alternative casual eating options have exploded. Urbanites still seek something with heat and layers of spice, but they find that in Korean, Vietnamese, Sichuan and Turkish cuisine too. Plus better options for burgers, pizza, ramen et al means there are other affordable and low key ways to eat out.
Bee Wilson recently wrote an excellent long read on the death of the British curry house, which covers more themes than are possible to touch on or repeat here. Suffice to say it’s well worth fifteen minutes of your time. You’ll find yourself nodding throughout.
And yet as the (predominantly Bangladeshi) curry houses fade, a raft of accessible restaurants based on the cuisine of the subcontinent are suddenly appearing; basking in the trickle-down effect of Gymkhana and Trishna, jumping on the tails of Dishoom and Hoppers, and generally taking the view that if the people want small plates with spiced chicken wings, fresh coriander and pomegranate seeds, then they shall have them. Gunpowder and Talli Joe have been getting decent reviews for a while, another place, Lokhandwala, opens in Fitzrovia today, and both Kricket and Tandoor Chophouse set up shop at the end of last year. Modern, fast casual Indian is very much A Thing.
The Soho (but not really Soho) outpost of Kricket ticks all the boxes: stylish counter eating and booths for walk-ins upstairs, appealing and bookable dining room below; responsibly sourced, seasonal British produce; small plates to share; a savvy play list; and a selection of craft beers, wine and cocktails. Thankfully, the food hits the spot too.
This is a venture that stems from a number of years of cooking in Mumbai, and then a remarkably good, small and so understandably busy sea container based kitchen in Brixton. Dishes reflect chef and co-founder Will Bowlby’s time spent learning the art of Indian spicing (rich butter crab with a seaweed dusted poppadom is reminiscent of the famous dish at Trishna), but most are a contemporary, anglicised interpretation of his education, rather than a straightforward replication.
So though the tang, crackle and pop of bhel puri brings back vivid memories of the same puffed rice, sev, mango and tamarind snack assembled in front of me on the traffic-logged smoggy streets of Mumbai, deep-fried British samphire pakoras with sweet-sharp date and tamarind chutney and chilli garlic mayonnaise is a new (and welcome) experience. Lamb haleem is a thick and heavy mix of slow-cooked lamb, masses of onions fried until dark and sticky, and lentils cooked a pulp, and is both the closest thing to a curry house curry that Kricket does, and an authentic Hyderabadi stew. In contrast, duck leg kathi roll with peanut chutney is a hybrid sausage roll for those Millennials with eclectic, global tastebuds; that chutney almost like miso in the umami qualities it brings to the dish. There’s a plain, spiralling, flakey paratha, but also a bread shloshed with bone marrow, onions and cep (powder?) too. You get the picture.
The best dish, I think, is the ‘kichri’, a rice dish run through with a loose, creamy, smoked haddock fuelled sauce, served with pickled cauliflower and a raw egg yolk just waiting to be pricked. It’s neither colonial kedgeree nor the Indian original kichiri (which involves lentils too), but, as each of those two things are, it is deeply comforting. Easily one of London’s ‘must order’ dishes.
It’s less of a shock to find this food coming from a well-appointed shiny kitchen than it is in the micro set up in Brixton, which doesn’t necessarily work in Kricket Soho’s favour. And a few dishes don’t quite hit the heights of their menu mates: the spiced batter of the fried chicken dries the mouth and to counter that needs more of the pickled mooli that come artfully but frugally balanced over the top; similarly either the portion size of misti doi (yoghurt baked and set in a clay pot) should be reduced to match the cutely presented scattering of pomegranate, rose, baby mint leaves and pistachio. Or that scattering should increase.
But it’s early days and the changing menu is full of surprises and delights. Balance your meal by choosing a mix of the veg dishes to go with fish, meat and bread options (rather than focussing, say, on meat only), and you won’t go wrong. Kricket provides good vibes and gently spiced, nuanced and cheering food. It’s worth checking out.
There’s not much nuance to the food at Tandoor Chophouse, which sits just between the Trafalgar Square end of the Strand and Covent Garden. Instead picture lashings of headily spiced, viscous marinades sloshed over a variety of meats and fish, all dramatically cooked in a tandoor behind a glass screen at the back of the restaurant. Subtle and inventive this is not.
Which is fine, actually.
‘Bone marrow naan’ seems a gimmick (some fat brushed over a plain naan), but otherwise the fresh breads (no rice) are decent and serve their purpose. And those meats are generally finger-licking, lip-smacking eats, not least charred but succulent lamb chops, black pepper chicken tikka, plus a couple of flavourful snacks at the start (seekh kebab roll with green chutney and pomegranate, and a beef mince topped bread the best of them).
This isn’t a find or a ‘game changer’ by any means. A rib eye steak was dominated by, maybe even drowned in its marinade-sauce, and chutneys for different dishes repeat on each other too often. But other than that I find myself strangely forgiving of comically large, and consequently flavourless cubes of paneer, carbonised broccoli, sickly puddings and an extraction system that makes a night under a busy Cape Canaveral launch pad appeal. For this is curry house v.2.0, and to my mind it’s actually an improvement on what went before.
Tandoor Chophouse is clearly a proto-chain, a concept restaurant gearing for roll-out, with an easily replicable menu and considered (if slightly cartoonish) fittings. Think of that what you will, but essentially it’s not complicated, nor is it amazing, and sometimes that’s OK. Especially when there’s a guy smashing out flavourful food from a steam-billowing tandoor straight in front of you.
It’s not in Dishoom’s class yet (neither was Dishoom when its first St Martin’s Lane site opened …), and I’m not sure it ever will be. I also wouldn’t advocate it over a meal at the likes of Kricket, Kiln, Black Axe Mangal etc. However different moments call for different meals. And for a decent, crowd-pleasing, low-key, high-flavour meal, this’ll do.
Loss of livelihoods and independent businesses aside, the death of the traditional curry house is not something to mourn (as it happens, I suspect many thousands of will limp on for a while longer, and the better offerings will thrive). Rather, the overall experience of a cheap cuzzla feels increasingly archaic, including the notion that it’s OK to suffer the consequences of the night before because you’d “been for an Indian”.
Places like Kricket and Tandoor Chophouse, and particularly Dishoom, Gunpowder and Hoppers are obviously a good thing. They haven’t replaced the older restaurants, and I feel there’s a whole host of regionally focused Indian restaurants to come. But they’ve moved things on and added ‘contemporary Indian’ to the current narrative.
Might pop out for beers and a bhuna to celebrate.
Kricket in 3 words
Moreish, modern Brindian.
£25-35pp on food, plus whatever you’re drinking.
www.kricket.co.uk — 12 Denman Street, W1D 7HH — email@example.com
Tandoor Chophouse in 3 words
Bish spice bosh
Again, £25-35pp on food, plus whatever you’re drinking.
www.tandoorchophouse.com — WC2N 4HZ — 020 3096 0359
Disclosure: I was a guest of Kricket for one meal, though later returned under my own steam. And ate at Tandoor chophouse as part of a big group, receiving a wee discount; I’m confident I would’ve written the same at full price.