One day, an eccentric old Irani Café (born circa 1930, Bombay), creaking slightly at the seams, made the long trip from Bombay in 1970 to London in 2012. Tired from the long journey, it shuffled into an empty space in Shoreditch and made itself comfortable. This old Café had for some time been maintaining correspondence with its slightly more showy cousin who had made a similar trip and had found a home in Covent Garden.
However, while the cousin in Covent Garden had worked hard to polish, primp and style itself, this Café was less concerned. It knew instinctively that the layers of imperfection and eccentricity built up over the many years of serving customers in Bombay weren’t merely clutter to be cleaned up and scratches to be polished out, but were in fact its very memory and character. It decided to leave its disheveled corners right where they were, as little reminders of home.
Gradually, as it grew to know and love its new community, it realised that it felt very much at home in it. The customers enjoyed hearing its stories of old Bombay, many of which were even true. They liked the faded pictures of the relatives on the walls. They smiled as they gradually grew to know the quirks of this old Café – which seemed constantly to be hankering after a lost mid-century Bombay. They seemed to care little that the shininess of the Covent Garden cousin was absent.
And most of all the Café loved serving food and drink with so much enthusiasm. The food which came quickly out of the open kitchen. The Lamb Raan which had been cooked overnight and seemed completely at home in a burger. The warm baked biscuits and Keema puffs, just like those still being served at Sassannian Café in Bombay. The endless cups of chai, the best thing to revive energy levels on a wilted Tuesday afternoon. The bar, which served the most delicious and sincere old cocktails – Flips, Gimlets, Juleps and Sours, felt even a bit pre-‘47.
Brunch on Sunday would be deliciously lazy, laced warmly with the aroma of the bakery. Lunch with colleagues on a Wednesday, busy and brisk, waiters bustling on to the verandah with trays of abundant food. Afternoon chai would provide a calm refuge from the East London street. Meanwhile, dinner and drinks on a Friday or Saturday night would see the place at its liveliest, buzzing with Londoners coming to a good old knees-up hosted by the eccentric old Café.
Throughout, the Café smiled inwardly to itself. It was never happier than when it was being true to itself and serving its guests – sharing its love for Bombay, serving its food, telling its stories. And before too long, the Café began to feel as if it had always been there wedged comfortably into Boundary Street, accumulating its own East London layers.
DISHOOM SHOREDITCH, 7 BOUNDARY STREET, LONDON E2 7JE. (OPENED OCTOBER 2012.)
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IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.