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FEATURE

Small plates, cocktails and hardly any curry: meet the next wave of Indian restaurants

By Joe Lutrario , 16-Feb-2017
Last updated on 23-Feb-2017 at 10:38 GMT2017-02-23T10:38:56Z

New wave Indian restaurants

On first inspection Kricket doesn’t look like an Indian restaurant. Only a design geek would straightaway clock the subtle subcontinental touches, namely the hand-glazed Indian scallop tiles, motifs by British-Indian artist Natasha Kumar and the Soho restaurant’s elegantly-carved Haveli door. The only overt clues – aside from the menu, of course – are an earnest looking chef working a tandoor and the heady smell of roasted spices in the air.

In the background The Velvet Underground plays softly as the dispiritingly youthful brigade – its well-connected founders, Will Bowlby and Rik Campbell, are both just 28 – ready their stations for service. A3 menus that double as placemats line the marble counter that runs round the street-level kitchen and bar. There are just 18 dishes with no delineation between starters and mains – plates are arranged into meat, fish, vegetables, and bread and rice – which arrive when ready, often simply passed over the counter by the chef that has cooked it.

As an experience it’s about as far removed as possible from the curry houses that have become ubiquitous on the UK’s high streets. Stylistically, Kricket owes more to Barrafina and The Palomar than the forward-thinking Indian restaurants that laid much of the groundwork for its success. 

Bowling a blinder

Bowlby – who trained under Rowley Leigh at Le Café Anglais and latterly worked at Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen – serves a selection of dishes found in some Indian restaurants, including bhel puri, allo chaat and carrot halwa, but the majority are of his own creation. Indian flavours are applied to seasonal British ingredients and some classic Indian dishes are reimagined, resulting in the likes of goose vindaloo with sprout thoran and fried onions; and samphire pakoras with chilli garlic mayonnaise and date and tamarind chutney.

Bowlby has previously worked in Mumbai, which is a melting pot of different Indian food cultures, he says. “Kricket’s menu is reflective of this. Each dish is inspired by somewhere or something. All the cooking methods are authentic, but we give some dishes a small twist and experiment with ingredients you might not find in India. We gravitate toward dishes that are light but big on flavour.”

“The idea is not to come out of Kricket feeling bloated,” adds Campbell, who did a stint in corporate finance prior to running his own events business. “It’s not intended to be a blow out meal."

Kricket is one of a new wave of mid-priced (£30 per head) Indian restaurants that are focused on small, high-impact plates with far less of an emphasis on curry and carbs. Menus are usually tight, allowing for smaller kitchen teams and - commensurately – dining rooms are bijou. Cocktails play an important role and usually involve classics with an Indian twist – (Kricket serves a mean Tom Collins-esque drink called the Yellow Fairy made with gin, absinthe, tumeric and egg white, for example). 

Kricket started life in a 40ft by 8ft shipping container within the POP Brixton development and seats 20 around a communal table. Its second, opened late last year in Soho, is larger, but it’s not the 100-plus cover brasserie-style model favoured by the likes of Dishoom, Roti Chai and MW-Eat’s Masala Zone brands.

An explosion of taste

Billed as a ‘home-style’ Indian restaurant, Spitalfield’s Gunpowder – a tiny family-run restaurant conceived by Harneet and Devina Baweja – is an altogether different proposition to Kricket, although it does share a number of operational similarities. Serving suitably explosive small plates, it is the antithesis of the Bangladeshi-owned curry houses that line nearby Brick Lane.

The kitchen is headed by Nirmal Save, who has cooked at Michelin-starred Tamarind in Mayfair and Indian Zest in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey. According to Harneet, a young Calcutta-born entrepreneur, the fuse for Gunpowder was lit when he, his wife, Save, and some friends wrote down a list of the dishes they loved in India but were unavailable over here. 

“We all got a bit drunk and Save confided in me that he was tired of cooking the same old dishes,” he recalls. “My career before Gunpowder involved travelling all over India. You go to a new city or area and there’s always a dish that makes you think ‘wow, I’d come back here for that’. That’s what we try and give people a taste of.”

The bomb: Gunpowder's famed venison and vermicelli doughnuts  

Many of Gunpowder’s dishes will be unfamiliar to non-Indians. During the soft opening, the team used the proper Indian names for each dish but it ended up taking too long to explain the menu, forcing it to take a more literal tack. “If you call something a doughnut people instantly have a frame of reference for what it’s going to be like,” says Harneet. 

Making less familiar Indian dishes approachable 

As such, the menu is a masterclass in making less familiar Indian dishes more approachable. Plates include the rasam ke bomb (a masala dosa in a shot glass); pulled Chettinad-style duck served with oothappam; and, most famously, the previously mentioned spicy venison and vermicelli doughnuts - tennis ball-sized spheres of thin deep-fried bread filled with mince and with a crispy vermicelli coating.

Like Kricket’s founders, Harneet and his wife have identified a fertile middle ground between mainstream curry houses and top-end restaurants such as Gymkhana and Trishna, only recently occupied by a handful of operators. “There are only a few places serving the huge number of people who want to eat great Indian food at an affordable price,” he explains.

The anti-curry houses

Both Kricket and Gunpowder eschew heavily-sauced dishes that British people would consider a ‘curry’. The reason for this is twofold: firstly they are making the point that Indian food is not just about curry, and secondly they’re focused on top-quality produce. “If you have great ingredients you generally don’t want to cover them in a sauce,” says Harneet. 

“We don’t avoid curry. But equally we don’t feel like we have to have one on the menu,” says Bowlby, who is currently serving a light pumpkin dish topped with puffed rice and hazelnuts that uses The Punjab’s makhani tomato and butter based sauce that’s more commonly served with chicken. 

Newly opened Tandoor Chophouse, meanwhile, doesn’t serve curry at all. The schtick of the Covent Garden restaurant is not entirely dissimilar to Gymkhana – a wood-panelled Indian take on the gentleman’s club – but it is more casual and affordable. 

The menu kicks off with five ‘snacks’ including keema naan made with Dexter beef dripping served with green chilli and yoghurt; and a tuna tartare made with fried curry leaves, coconut milk and Keralan spices. These punchy small plates are followed by six tandoor-cooked dishes, such as black pepper chicken tikka and Amritsari lamb chops, a few different types of naan and a handful of sides, including tandoor-cooked broccoli and corn on the cob ‘tikka’ served with black sesame and lime.

Second to naan: Covent Garden's Tandoor Chophouse

Tandoor Chophouse is owned by Ennismore, a London-based developer/operator that designs and runs its own restaurant and hotel projects (it’s also behind Eggbreak in Notting Hill, Breddos Tacos in Clerkenwell and The Hoxton international hotel chain). “The idea was to combine an inexpensive communal north Indian eateries of the type you might see on the Grand Trunk Road with a traditional British chophouse,” explains Ennismore’s half-Indian founder and CEO Sharan Pasricha. 

Pasricha has been following closely the rise of this new kind of Indian restaurant since the launch of Dishoom back in 2010. “Those guys did a lot of the heavy lifting,” he says. “We watched them and a few others enjoy great success. They deserve it because they have played a hugely important role in moving Indian food on and making it more accessible.”

Regional revelations

Located just down the road, Talli Joe is yet another modern Indian restaurant to have opened in 2016. Majoring in ‘half plates’ of regional Indian dishes and Indian-inspired cocktails, Talli Joe claims to present a ‘new avatar of India’ with its food.

Its chef, Sameer Taneja, has a less conventional career than his new-wave Indian compatriots, having trained at The Oberoi Group in Delhi before heading to the UK to cook at The Waterside Inn and Pierre Koffmann’s restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel. He has spent the past four years running the kitchen at Atul Kochhar’s Benares in Mayfair.

At Talli Joe, each dish is credited to a specific area of the subcontinent. “People are interested in exactly where the food comes from,” says Taneja. “India is vast. The idea of a restaurant offering Northern Indian food is odd to an Indian person, because there are huge differences between the food in, for example, Kashmir and The Punjab. There’s so much to explore. 

“There are even markedly different cuisine styles in the same geographical location because India is home to lots of different communities. Gujarati is famous for its vegetarian cuisine, but it’s also home to Bohra Muslims, who cook a lot of interesting meat dishes.” 

Half plates specialist: Talli Joe

The format of the menu allows Taneja to explore challenging flavours. And, despite its mainstream location just off Cambridge Circus, the cooking at Talli Joe is bracingly authentic. There are bowls of a pungent pickle from Goa made with pork, pork offal, jaggery and coconut vinegar that brings to mind a properly made vindaloo and a dish from Rajasthan that sees papad simmered in a spiced sauce of yoghurt and tomato until it has the same texture as hand-made pasta. 

Some dishes would raise eyebrows in the subcontinent, such as its crab meat scotch egg, which is a play on the potato bonda (a spiced deep fried potato cake), while others reference Taneja’s background (the ghee used on the kulcha is spiked with black truffle).

An English response to an Indian problem

Operators outside London are also rethinking the Indian restaurant. Craft beer and Indian food concept Bundobust started out in Leeds and opened a second site in Manchester late last year with more expansion on the cards. It serves authentic Gujarati vegetarian dishes in small biodegradable containers.

On the south coast, Brighton has for some time punched well above its weight when it comes to authentic and progressive Indian restaurants, not least The Chilli Pickle, Indian Summer and Curry Leaf Cafe. Last month the latter opened a small plates restaurant in the east of the city. “The first Curry Leaf restaurant is focused on the cooking of Hyderabad because that’s where my chef and business partner is from,” says co-owner Euan Sey. “Kemptown Kitchen will loosen the shackles and serve food from all over India. We opted for small plates because there’s a bit more excitement about this style of dining.”

Circumnavigating recruitment headaches

As well as being on trend, this new wave of Indian restaurants is less reliant on Indian staff, something that will become increasingly important in coming years. The UK is on the brink of a curry crisis, with the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association predicting that as many as a third of the UK’s 4,000 curry houses could close if something isn’t done to address crippling curbs on immigration, competition from supermarkets and rising rents and rates. 

This is partly by accident and partly by design: menus are smaller and these new players tend to be headed by younger people who are perhaps more open-minded about using non-Indian staff than the generation of restaurateurs that preceded them. 

“Indian staff aren’t essential to what we do here,” says Bowlby. “We have an excellent sous chef who has cooked Indian food for a long time, and happens to be Indian. Our approach is to get a young enthusiastic team and not worry too much about their background or nationality.”

Howzat: Kricket's food is largely cooked by non-Indian chefs

Talli Joe’s Taneja is also open minded about non-Indians cooking Indian food. “We have some Indian chefs in our kitchen but lots of other nationalities too.” Interestingly, he initially struggled to recruit Indian chefs because they thought the restaurant would go bust. “They said it didn’t look like an Indian restaurant and it didn’t serve the dishes they were used to cooking. They thought it might not work. Now we’re a bit more established it’s a lot easier.”

Another advantage these new players have over their curry house rivals is their lunch-friendly feel. Indian restaurants with limited daytime trade in prime areas are finding it increasingly difficult to balance the books. By contrast, the light, small-plate cooking offered by the likes of Kricket and Gunpowder makes them a much more viable option for daytime eating, and even breakfast and brunch.

Riding the new wave

Expansion is high on the agenda for this new wave Indian operator. Kricket was initially pursuing organic expansion – its Brixton site cost just £50,000 to set up – but had to shift up a few gears when its founders realised the space it occupied was about to become more crowded. It’s now backed by the White Rabbit Growth Fund, the hospitality investment vehicle founded by ex-Soho House commercial director Chris Miller, and is already eying international expansion. 

Growth is also on the agenda for Tandoor Chophouse. The restaurant was developed with scalability front of mind, with sites in the West End and in the City on the cards. Gunpowder, meanwhile, is expected to announce a new restaurant concept within the next few months. 

New wave Indian food will continue to make its mark on the UK restaurant scene in 2017. In a sector that is crying out for modernisation, the future looks bright for this streamlined new breed of subcontinental restaurant.

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