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
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.