I’d be danc­ing on the ceil­ing, if there was one

TA­BLE FOR TWO A cos­mopoli­tan take on the ar­che­typal In­dian restau­rant de­lights Keith Miller GUN­POW­DER 80 9/ 10

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - The Sunday Cook -

A“home­style” restau­rant is, on the face of it, a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. At any rate, it’s un­likely to de­note a place where food is pre­pared while the cook bat­tles to keep the cat off the work­tops, fields re­quests for help with maths home­work from the next room, con­ducts Un-level ne­go­ti­a­tions con­cern­ing whether we’re to have “bowl food” (sofa, TV) or “plate food” (pros: more at­mo­spheric and con­ducive to con­ver­sa­tion, a pos­i­tive role model for an im­pres­sion­able young per­son; cons: rapid pre-pran­dial kitchen clear-up re­quired, the said im­pres­sion­able young per­son may pre­fer to catch an episode of The IT Crowd, as­sum­ing she’s fin­ished her maths home­work) and man­ages, some­where along the line, to get out­side a ne­groni or three.

It may sig­nify a restau­rant that’s cheaper or more in­for­mal than some, that treats you like a reg­u­lar and en­cour­ages you to feel like one: such places are rare and pre­cious. Or it may con­tain coiled within it a whis­pered cri­tique of “restau­rant-style” restau­rants – the rhine­stone glitz, the group­think, the cliché.

In the con­text of In­dian and other south Asian cuisines, I guess the is­sue isn’t so much with glitz, rhine­stone or oth­er­wise, even if am­bi­tious restau­ra­teurs from these cul­tures have of­ten tried to move up­mar­ket, with mixed re­sults. But there is a prob­lem with group­think and cliché – an in­tel­li­gent alien might travel the length and breadth of the land and con­clude that a stock palette of dishes, flavours and wall fur­nish­ings was laid down at a ple­nary ses­sion of the Curry Mar­ket­ing Board in some sticky-car­peted func­tion suite in the West Mid­lands in about 1974, nev­er­more to be di­verged from on pain of ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, loss of al­lo­cated park­ing space etc.

Plenty of places have stress-tested that par­a­digm lately, of course, viz. the Miche­lin-fac­ing haute-crafts- man­ship of the Cin­na­mon Club or Ku­tir, the met­ro­sex­ual buzz of Bri­gadiers, the re­gional an­gle of the won­der­ful Gu­jarati Ra­soi in Dal­ston and the bur­geon­ing Dishoom em­pire – not to men­tion a counter-ex­am­ple, the lamented Cal­cutta Street, which aimed to do jus­tice to the sym­phonic sub­tleties of true Ben­gali spic­ing, but some­how failed to land quite right.

Gun­pow­der, which has re­cently opened a sec­ond branch near Tower Bridge – pleas­ingly for stu­dents of Lon­don’s oc­cult ge­ome­tries, it’s about the same dis­tance from one Hawksmoor church, the van­ished St John Hors­ley- down, as its par­ent restau­rant in Spi­tal­fields is to an­other, the mag­is­te­rial Christ Church – sug­gests an­other way of do­ing so. They serve a few re­gional spe­cial­i­ties, rang­ing from Kash­mir in the north to Ker­ala in the south, and some dishes an­nounce their home­stylish­ness (“Aunty Sulu’s rab­bit pu­lao”), but their shtick is more about tak­ing flavours and tex­tures that any­one who’s eaten “In­dian” food in the UK will recog­nise and sharp­en­ing the fo­cus a lit­tle, ad­ding a touch of colour and clar­ity, think­ing about pre­sen­ta­tion in a mod­ern and, yes, In­sta­gram­friendly, but by no means fussy, way and draw­ing in­flu­ences from other food cul­tures.

We ar­rived for an 8.15pm book­ing and, af­ter some milling around, were in­stalled next to an on­trend con­crete pier and equipped with cock­tails – south Asian takes on a Bloody Mary and a mar­garita re­spec­tively – and a plate of ad­dic­tively good chaat. We eye­balled the menu, and glanced at our gener­i­cally faux-dus­trial sur­round­ings.

I’ve slightly had it with these “raw” restau­rant in­te­ri­ors now. Just get a ceil­ing, al­ready! There’s a kind of anonymity to them: the more they re­sem­ble one an­other, the more you have to look to the food you ate and the wel­come you re­ceived to make this restau­rant stand out from that one. And, by and large, stand out Gun­pow­der did.

It seems moot to quib­ble about small/shar­ing plates when peo­ple have been eat­ing thalis since, say, 3000 BC. But the in­evitable dec­la­ra­tion that “they come out when they’re ready” – maybe you could time it so they’re not all ready at once, you find your­self think­ing – was in­evitably an­noy­ing. Though we liked hav­ing a va­ri­ety of dishes on the ta­ble – we just could have done with a big­ger ta­ble. Which is the story of my life, re­ally.

As for the food, I don’t have any neg­a­tives to speak of. It’s a tiny bit odd to serve pulled duck with uthap­pam (a spongy rice and lentil pan­cake) as if it were a taco or a bao, given that uthap­pam is as­so­ci­ated with the largely veg­e­tar­ian south; sim­i­larly, a plate of melt­ingly ten­der pork ribs with “tamarind katchum­ber” felt out of place – though the dish claims in­spi­ra­tion from the re­mote prov­ince of Na­ga­land, which, as well as be­ing home to the world’s hottest chillies, has a Chris­tian, and so I sup­pose por­civ­o­rous, ma­jor­ity.

But this sense of, if not quite fu­sion, then a def­i­nite di­a­logue be­tween the tra­di­tions of the sub­con­ti­nent and the wider world, or the wider world as re­fracted through the Lon­don restau­rant scene of the late 2010s, seemed ex­cit­ing and ad­mirable – and there was plenty of “au­then­tic­ity” on dis­play as well, if that’s what floats your ket­tuval­lam, from the fra­grant and beau­ti­fully pre­sented pu­lao to a south­ern-style dry beef curry “fry” with green pep­pers.

There was even a nod to the Ten Com­mand­ments of the Curry Mar­ket­ing Board in the form of a thicket of broc­coli, charred but fresh-tast­ing, bathed in a pool of what looked and tasted not un­like a clas­sic tikka masala with all the notes of its flavour some­how picked out, sep­a­rated, am­pli­fied and put to­gether again, still them­selves but some­how bet­ter, like a Dolby sur­round sound demo at the cin­ema.

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