London’s Newest Regional Indian Restaurants
Not so long ago, ‘regional Indian’ in London meant smugly knowing the difference between North Indian and South Indian. Now, Londoners are more likely to knowingly ask: is it rustic Punjabi, or the royal Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow? And which part of South India — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka?
Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express in Soho agrees: “So much has changed in the Indian food scene since I moved to this country 26 years ago! The most significant change has been the increased availability of regional food — from Andhra specialities in East Ham to Kashmiri food in Putney. You can now do a culinary trip around India in London.”
Thankfully the days of generic Indian fare of lurid-coloured rice and indistinct curries without a sense of place seem to be well and truly behind us. All the notable new places that have opened in the last few years fall into these two categories: highly innovative and experimental modern Indian, or traditional regional Indian -– with the two frequently overlapping.
You’ll find well-travelled chefs experimenting with obscure ingredients and techniques they’ve discovered on their journeys around India, and former supperclub hosts cooking their family’s heritage recipes. Often, even when a dish is strongly rooted in Indian tradition, it will be given a British touch –– marking the way recipes always evolve and progress throughout centuries.
For instance, Darjeeling Express only uses British-grown vegetables rather than “jetlagged” ones flown in from India; and Dishoom turns its classic Parsi bun maska (rich, sweet butter-slathered bread rolls) into bread and butter pudding. British Regional Indian… that’s an exciting phenomenon we can all get behind. Here’s our pick of the best new places that reflect it.
North East Indian, Himalayan and Nepalese cuisines and the food of the Chinese-Tibetan immigrants aren’t familiar even to most people in India. Harneet and Devina Baweja, the husband and wife team behind the hugely popular Gunpowder, have opened a nearby restaurant to put them on the map.
Located near Old Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets, the small venue sits above the Blessings Bar, rather handily as it doesn’t take bookings. It has a charmingly disarrayed look and is named after a fictional 19th century woman who trekked across the Himalayas, was smuggled into London and, they imagine, settled in the East End.
The curious menu — unlike anything else in London — features Newari potato, and cabbage and carrot pickles (originating from the Newari region around the Kathmandu Valley), Naga chilli beef puffs, Himalayan fried chicken, Tibetan pan-fried duck momos, pork Nepali, and tiffin masala lamb noodles with fried egg, served in a metal tiffin.
Harneet Baweja tells us: “During our travels earlier this year we were fascinated by the techniques used to preserve and pickle along the region. We learnt about new spices and how to use them. We have tried to practise these learnings; the pork Nepali, which is aged and double-cooked, is one of my favourites. We have also included pickles from the Newari region, and continue to experiment with different vegetables and meats. Our version of momos is also a big hit. Our locals have been very supportive and have embraced the cooking style and menu.”
Madame D, 76 Commercial Street, E1 6LY
The team behind Madame D has also opened this two-floor venue nearby, also on Commercial Street. It is, in fact, two separate restaurants serving totally different styles of cuisine that nonetheless complement each other. Upstairs is Gul, named after a queen named Begum Gul, which serves the luxuriant dishes of the royal kitchens of north India. Expect large sharing platters based on prime cuts of meat, served on marble feasting tables. Sepoy (which means ‘soldier’), located downstairs, specialises in the rustic fare cooked by the Indian army in Karnataka region on the southwest coastline. Its focus is on seafood, game meats and offal.
The fine, rich fare of Gul includes silky-smooth jackfruit and walnut galouti kebabs that mimic the texture of their famous meat counterparts, red leg partridge in Afghani sauce, and three-bird Awadhi korma. At Sepoy, traditional dishes are given a similarly contemporary makeover, with the likes of potted pig’s head with blood masala onions, and Ambedi stone bass marinated in fresh turmeric with Coorgi sauce.
Gul & Sepoy, 65 Commercial Street, E1 6BD
Helmed by an all-women team of self-taught cooks, supperclub host-turned-restaurateur Asma Khan’s delicious food isn’t easy to categorise. It’s a mixture of Calcutta Mughlai and Hyderabadi styles, featuring recipes she learnt from her mother and the cooks of her aristocratic family in India.
The menu, which changes every couple of months, is a mixture of cosmopolitan Calcutta street food, with its characteristic international influences, the ‘greatest hits’ festive fare of Bengal and Hyderabad, and everyday dishes cooked by Indian families.
Getting rave reviews at the moment are Calcutta tangra chilli garlic prawns (a darling of Instagrammers), the classic kosha mangsho goat curry, beautifully spiced Bengali beetroot chops, and Hyderabadi stewed Hunza apricot dessert, luscious with cream.
Darjeeling Express, Kingly Court, 48 Carnaby Street, W1F 9PX
Calcutta Street Brixton
Food blogger and chef Shrimoyee Chakraborty’s Bengali pop-up-turned-restaurant in Fitzrovia has just opened a new branch in Brixton. Like the original, it serves a mixture of classic street food and famous sweets from Calcutta, combined with Bengali classics based on Chakraborty’s mother’s recipes.
Here you’ll find sliced aubergines fried in chickpea flour batter, chicken tangri kebabs, crab curry, seabass steamed in banana leaves with mustard and coconut, and a delicious traditional five vegetable mix, notable for the distinctive taste and texture of bitter gourd and vegetable drumsticks.
At lunchtimes, there are Calcutta kathi rolls (wraps) and tiffins to choose from, and the dessert menu includes much-loved Bengali sweets like rice flour pancakes with coconut and jaggery. You cannot visit a Bengali restaurant without trying the famous sweets and desserts — it’s simply unthinkable.
Calcutta Street Brixton, 395 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8LQ; also at 29 Tottenham Street, W1T 4RU
This much-loved, award-garlanded chain is now a mainstay of London’s dining out scene — who doesn’t have a favourite branch that they visit time and again? The concept pays homage to the old Parsi-owned Irani cafés of twentieth century Bombay that are now on the brink of extinction.
This newest branch is scheduled to fully open after 11th December, but will be open for a unique “immersive theatre experience” (with food) from 27th November, and a soft launch before that — the dates are being finalised. Making the most of the iconic Barkers building location, it will draw inspiration from the glamorous but little-known jazz and art deco scene of the Bombay of 1930s and 40s.
The famous breakfast menu is filled with Parsi classics such as spicy scrambled eggs and chicken mince with fried eggs, and quintessentially Bombay favourites like bhel and vada pau (spiced potato burgers) punctuate the all-day menu. We love the kala khatta gola, a slushy or granita-like ice dessert traditionally sold by Bombay’s street vendors in rickety ice carts.
Dishoom Kensington, The Barkers Building, Derry Street, W8 5HR; also at Covent Garden, Shoreditch, King’s Cross, & Carnaby
Sakonis Hatch End
The massively popular Gujarati vegetarian restaurant in Wembley, which has been around since the mid-1980s and attracts coachloads of Indian tourists, has just opened a branch in Pinner. The menu — somewhat different from the original — is currently undergoing changes, but expect a mixture of street food, teatime snacks and curries.
Here you might find dhebra (fried millet flour and fenugreek leaf puffs), khandvi (delicate chickpea flour strips rolled like swiss rolls) and dhokla (steamed savoury semolina cakes), rarely seen outside a Gujarati mama’s kitchen. There are also South Indian and Indian-Chinese dishes, a favourite of the younger members of Gujarati families dining together.
Sakonis Hatch End, 330 Uxbridge Road, HA5 4HR; also at 127–129 Ealing Road, HA0 4B
Although primarily a Sri Lankan restaurant, this new branch of the Soho favourite — which captured Londoners’ imagination when it first opened a couple of years ago — also serves toddy shop tiffin staples from its south Indian neighbour, Tamil Nadu.
Rice and lentil-based classics such as dosa, idli and sambhar are present and correct; as are the all-important chutneys and karis (curries). The food is reliably superb – don’t just visit while shopping in nearby Oxford Street: make it a destination. You can also read our full review here.
Hoppers St. Christopher’s Place, 77 Wigmore Street, W1U 1QE; also at 49 Frith Street, W1D 4SG