What do you get after an hour and a half of waiting in the cold, poor service, a mix up with your table and a restaurant that doesn't have several items you want? It definitely isn't a restaurant that I would term as 'One of the Best in the UK' as was voted by the reviewers on Yelp. What on earth were you thinking people!?!?! You must have been out of your mind... In a city that probably has more restaurants than trees and probably more Indian restaurants than any other kind, surely there are better options?
This was Dishoom, and as the name suggests, this night felt like one big blow (for those of you that don't know Dishoom is the background sound that is used in Bollywood movies when a punch is delivered by the hero of the movie on one of his countless adversaries)... As the night unfolded, I could almost hear that sound - that Dishoom - as each part of the night unfolded...
An hour and a half long wait... Dishoom... we have your table ready; ummmm, no... we just gave it away ... Dishoom... Okra fries? Sorry, we don't have them this evening... Dishoom... Can I have a Thums Up (if you grew up in India in the '70s and '80s, this was the drink you lived on; your equivalent of Coca-Cola)... No more Thums Up today sir... Dishoom, Dishoom... By now I had been beaten down and was ready for the knockout punch. What were they going to tell me next? We don't have any more food? There's no water? The lights aren't working? The toilet is overflowing? I mean, just about anything was possible on this amazing night it seemed.
Thankfully, none of it happened. After much drama, my wife and I were finally seated in the basement area of this eatery located in the Covent Garden area of central London. We were so starved that I was sure my eyes were going to be bigger than my stomach this evening... My wife had already picked what she wanted and given that she was really keen on this restaurant, I was going to let her have her way (but then, I usually let her have her way anyway; or she just lets me think so!) I was in the mood for some meat this evening though; something traditional, something very reminiscent of Bombay; something you probably cannot find anywhere else outside of India.
My eyes fell to the Kheema Pav - a dish that comprises minced lamb meat and peas cooked in aromatic and traditional Indian spices. The Kheema or minced meat is served with pav. Translated literally, pav means foot and it derives its name from the state of Maharashtra in India where the method of kneading this bread with the feet was devised. Or at least that's what I was told growing up in India. Thanks to the advances of technology and that oh-so-useful reference guide called Wikipedia, I found out that pav is simply the Portuguese word for small rolls of bread that was introduced in the Indian dictionary when they ruled Bombay in its early years of colonization by the Western powers. The bread, a brioche at Dishoom, was cooked well, just the way it should be... heated up on a stove or a griddle and coated in tons of butter. So good was the bread that it compensated for the poor or rather insipid taste of the meat. Maybe my expectations were too high? Maybe I was being unrealistic by comparing it to what I was used to eating in India.
Let's try something else... Maybe it'll just get better from here. Maybe they have a specialty or something they're good at that might make it all worth it.
Next up was pav bhaaji... Another local street food favorite in India. Served with the same bread, this was the vegetarian version of the kheema pav. Instead of the meat, you have a medley of vegetables, mashed up and cooked in a spicy tomato based gravy the accompanies the bread rolls. Again, the bread seemed to overshadow the dish here. All I could taste in the vegetable part of the dish was spice and pure tongue blistering spice. Maybe I really was expecting too much here and being a little unrealistic; maybe I needed to tone it down a bit. Tone it down as much as Dishoom needed to tone down the spice in the bhaaji.
Then there was something I was looking forward to; it was a dish that had been highly recommended by one of my friends - a friend who wasn't always forthcoming with praise... Dishoom's famous and well publicized black daal. Popular in the northern parts of India, the daal, a concoction of black lentils cooked in a soupy style with tomatoes and cream is thick, rich and a meal in and of itself. If cooked right, it is absolutely delightful and offers a nice respite on a cold winter's day. And on this day, it didn't disappoint either. The daal was everything it should be... beautifully cooked, warm, creamy and a wholesome meal. We ordered some naan to accompany the daal, and with that first bite I could have almost forgiven the Dishoom team and forgotten everything that had gone on. I could also have gulped down a whole other bowl of that sumptuous daal if I wasn't so full already.
Tired, sleepy, cold and now full, we were ready to call it a night. However, our sweet teeth were not satisfied yet; we surely couldn't leave without ordering some desserts. A big fan of kulfi, my wife was keen to order one; her only dilemma was which one - mango, pistachio or malai (cream) flavored kulfi. This is a very common dessert found across the subcontinent and could literally be termed as the ice cream of the subcontinent -- a thicker and creamier version of ice cream though. At difference times of the year, depending on the fruits in season in that part of the world, you may find other iterations of the Kulfi: e.g. a fig kulfi or a custard apple kulfi. And just like the daal, the kulfi didn't disappoint either. Rich, creamy, sweet and absolutely delicious, my wife and I bit our way through one pistachio kulfi stick (served like an orange Popsicle). Our only regret here was that we didn't order more, and as we were finishing this, my wife and I looked at each other knowing that as much as we enjoyed the kulfi, neither she nor I was ready to stand in line for an hour and a half, to suffer through poor service just for this little bite of sweet heaven. Surely, we could find another, more efficient alternative somewhere in London -- surely there is someone out there who is reading this who can either point us to another option, or better yet, someone with an entrepreneurial sense who could take it on themselves to cater to this ever-ready market.
All in all, barring the two dishes at the end, the experience was a poor one. As we left the restaurant, both my wife and I knew that we wouldn't be coming back to the restaurant; we wouldn't be giving them another chance. I've always known the first impression to be the most important, and in this case Dishoom failed to deliver the punch with that first impression.
(P.S. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that the staff at Dishoom were attentive and realized that I was annoyed with everything that had gone on that evening. They made it a point to stop by our table often to ensure that everything was in order, and at the end even took £10 off our final bill to compensate for the earlier disasters... Sadly, it just wasn't enough).