London's got a solid reputation for Indian food — which isn't surprising, considering Britain spent more than a century ruling India. But you don't think of the average Indian restaurant in London as necessarily classy, or expensive.
This, however, is starting to change. London now boasts a cadre of Michelin-starred Indian restaurants.
"I mean, we're talking $130 tasting menus, six-courses," says food writer Steve Dolinsky, who has just returned from a quick tour of London's upscale Indian eateries. "I went to this one place called Benares, which is next to a Rolls-Royce dealership, and there were servers in suits carving whole tandoori chickens tableside, rubbed in red chilis. Super sophisticated, very elegant presentation."
Perhaps the most interesting of Dolinsky's finds in London is a place called Dishoom, which pays homage to the long history of Iranian migration to Bombay.
"Iranians have been coming to Bombay for centuries," says Dishoom's owner Shamil Thakrar. "But a recent wave of immigration in the early 20th century were called the Iranis, and they subsequently set up cafes in Bombay. And by the 1950s and 60s, there were maybe 400 of these cafes. Sadly now, they've died out."
"These places," Thakrar continues, "have enormous affection in Bombayites's hearts. People love them. In a way, these cafes were some of the first places people actually went out to eat as leisure. That wasn't really done before in India. These spaces, as a result, began welcoming all sorts of people. And because the Iranis were outsiders, they welcomed everybody. It wasn't a Hindu place, it wasn't a Muslim place. They didn't have any problems letting everyone in."
Thakrar has tried to recreate the Irani cafe experience in London at two locations, one in Covent Garden and another in Shoreditch. "It really looks like they picked up a Bombay cafe from the 1940s and transported it to London," Steve Dolinsky says. "The tiles on the floor, the worn wooden chairs, the lazy ceiling fans up above."
Also in a nod to those Irani cafes, Dishoom's prices are reasonable, says Dolinsky. He highly recommends Dishoom's take on that London classic — the bacon sandwich.
In the Dishoom version, thick bacon is wrapped in Indian naan bread. "And so they combine this bacon with the naan, and then add a little bit of cream cheese and herbs. And then, to bring the Indian side back, give you a little side of chili tomato jam," Dolinsky says. The cost? About five bucks.
And yes, you can wonder whether bacon would've been on the menu at an original Irani cafe. But, Dolinsky says, Dishoom owner Shamil Thakrar prides himself on such a blending of tastes and cultures.
And he recommends grabbing lunch at another upscale Indian place called Moti Mahal, also in Covent Garden. Especially good, he says, is the green chili braised rabbit, with a side of cumin-spiked cauliflower. Pass over the Kingfisher beer, he says, and instead try a glass of German riesling or gewurtztraminer.