Who is Madame D?
She is a fictional character who was forced out of China and made her way across the Himalayas, taking in Nepal and Tibet. She then headed south to Calcutta, which is the city I grew up in and the only one in India with a Chinatown. The new restaurant, which is within the top room of a pub, moments from Gunpowder, called Number 76, is her new London flat. There are some curiosities from her travels and the decor also evokes the ramshackle back rooms that once littered the Commercial Street rag route. The restaurant is a similar size to Gunpowder at about 25 covers. We serve food inspired by the Himalayas with a bias towards the Indian side.
You don’t hear much about the food from this part of the world...
No you don’t. When most people think about the places in and around the Himalayas they just think of Nepal and Tibet but it’s a huge area running from north-west India all the way to China. Geopolitically speaking, it’s a complicated place and it’s hard to navigate, particularly the Chinese side. It’s an interesting, distinctive and varied cuisine. The Indian dishes are different to the ones people are familiar with in the UK and the Chinese food is totally different to what you get here. The food is hot and fresh-tasting. Cooks there use a lot of fresh chillies and herbs. Some of the dishes use Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce and Sichuan pepper.
Baweja: "It’s an interesting, distinctive and varied cuisine"
Why open a restaurant serving such unfamiliar food?
This is a passion project for my wife Devina and me. My grandfather lived in the area and I’ve been going to the Himalayas since I was very young. We have been back a couple of times recently, and Devina and I realised we couldn’t return to London and face daily life without these intoxicating flavours. We’ll only run the restaurant at this location for a year but we will look at relocating it if it proves popular. We don’t want to leave Madame D homeless.
What are the stand-out dishes?
During our softs early last month, people were asking for seconds and thirds of the Hakka chilli paneer. Our Himalayan-style fried chicken made with birds marinated with six different types of herbs and roots and our duck momos have gone down well too. Other dishes include whole sea bass with ginger and soy – which is more Chinese in style – and Nepal-style pork, which is cooked then dried and served with a tomato and red onion salad. The latter is a typical mountain dish because preserving meat is an important part of Himalayan cookery.
Will any of the ingredients come from the Himalayas?
No. That would go against our policy of sourcing everything as locally as possible. There are some varieties of herbs specific to the region but they’re related to herbs we can easily get here. We do source some of our spices from Spain and Iran, but via the local suppliers in and around Brick Lane. Restaurants are local businesses and should support nearby businesses.
How involved are you in the food at Gunpowder and Madame D?
Both my wife and I take a big interest in the curation of the dishes and how they are cooked. I’m not nearly as professional as Nirmal [Save, head chef] but I have worked in kitchens and can hold a section at my restaurants. I try and keep learning about Indian food. Lots of different people have input on Gunpowder’s and now Madame D’s menu, including my mother. She has no shortage of opinions on Indian food.
The new Madame D's restaurant contains curiosities from the fictional character's travels
Is the format of the menu and pricing comparable to that at Gunpowder?
It’s small plates with the odd sharing dish and the price point is very similar, at around £20 per head. The menu is a little shorter than Gunpowder – we only offer around 10 dishes.
We hear you’ve been looking at other London sites...
We’re looking at a lot of sites at the moment for a new Indian concept – we have no plans to do another Gunpowder at the moment. We want to push the envelope. We have been encouraged by the Michelin Bib Gourmand we received at Gunpowder, which has given us the confidence to keep pushing and trying new things. We are finding negotiations with larger landlords tricky at the moment, hence a tiny site in a pub. We’re not looking for outside investment at the moment. As soon as you take funding you need to start taking other people’s opinion into consideration, and we’re not ready to do that yet. We’re keeping it simple for the moment.