black salt, 505-507 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7DE (020 4548 3327). Starters and tandoori grills £6.50 – £15.50, mains £11.90 – £14.90, desserts £4.50 – £5.90, Cobra (large) £6.50, wines from £22
We often talk about the British high street as if it were one homogeneous shopping experience. In reality there are many places, not all equally delicious. In London, it could mean the increasingly tacky Oxford Street, where old brands desperately battling the emerging wave of online shopping sit next to a bizarre number of joints that seemingly sell shelves of weird fizzy and sour candies that no one seems to want to buy. It has been suggested that some of the latter are fronts for money laundering and various types of dodginess. While that’s clearly not what’s going on, heaven’s no.
Then there’s the other kind of high street: the suburbs that cater to the needs of those who live nearby. In the case of the Upper Richmond Road, which saunters through Sheen in south-west London, it tends to be an affluent group, who may prefer to have the delights brought to them. Here is a cheerful-looking Persian restaurant, an upscale Thai restaurant, a bunch of chic nurseries, and an outpost of Elysium Healthcare, a company unknowingly named after the paradise to which those who had been given immortality by the Greek gods could be sent.
I certainly doubt the team behind Black Salt, which opened nearly a year ago, questioned whether this was the right place for their lofty, intense take on the Indian repertoire; for, say, a drop-dead gorgeous sheekh kebab with big fists, the color of copper coins, not made with the usual minced lamb but with rich fatty duck and guinea fowl, firmly seasoned, next to a fresh apple chutney, popping with mustard seeds. Well, of course it is. During the long, dark sprawl of the 2021 pandemic, many in the hospitality industry wondered if the city center restaurant’s days were numbered; whether the most interesting action would be found closer to where the people actually live. Big pronouncements are always risky, but if it has resulted in restaurants of such class appearing in locations like this, then that’s a good thing.
Black Salt is a side project of the people behind the highly regarded Dazijn in Epsom. Chefs Nand Kishor and Sanjay Gour met while working at Gymkhana in Mayfair. They have now reunited with Chef Manish Sharma, who has worked at Atul Kochhar as well as Jamavar and the Copper Chimney. It’s about as serious and experienced a team as the Indian restaurant industry in Britain could bring together at the moment.
The three-room space is relieved by one of the clumsy cultural signifiers of the high street curry house. Sitars don’t play. It’s an urban brasserie with wooden floors, bare brick walls, gunmetal gray wood panelling, dangling lights and sharply spiced, assertive food that will leave you staring at your plate more than the decor. Even on a quiet Tuesday evening, there is a soft, contented buzz. The menu is relatively short, but hits all the bases. I know right away, just from reading it, that all the food will range from light brown to, ooh, dark brown, maybe with the occasional red flash from a tomato chutney or a little green from something with mint. That’s a good thing, because as we know by now, all the best food is brown.
From the tandoor menu we have mighty king prawns to go with those sheekh kebabs. They’re crispy and seared, but still springy and fresh from the extreme heat. I could have had the lamb chops. I wanted the lamb chops. I always want the lamb chops. But I know that it is predictable that I order them and on this occasion decide to deny myself my natural desires. I saw them come by though, and they’re fat beasts, as they should be for £9.50 a pop. The next time.
The appetizers come with crispy and fluffy mixed bhaji patties made with kale, potato, spinach and onion and topped with a spicy tamarind and mint chutney. (God, I wish I hadn’t banned the use of the word “spicy.”) A large, lightly battered and deep-fried softshell crab is served whole, as if straight from the beach. In addition, there is a savory shrimp chutney. It is a happy companion of the sweet crab, but would, I think, be a happy companion of almost anything. I want a jar of the stuff to spread on toast. Or just to spoon it out neatly.
The star of the curries is a pork cheek vindaloo, staying true to the vinegary Goan origins of the name, rather than the testosterone fueled chilli heat monster it has become in some places. The stringy flesh has been simmered until it can be cut with a spoon and is in an insanely luscious, very dark yet fragrant sauce, which has been cooked to the essentials. I could imagine coming here alone and ordering just that dish and one of their always flaky parathas to scoop it up, and be very happy. I have such a fantasy. Kid goat keema is a sweeter, softer affair, a reminder of the dish served at Gymkhana.
The chicken biryani, off a list with a distracting version made with asparagus, artichokes, and snow peas, has plenty of flavor, though it does need the mint and cucumber raita it’s served with to lubricate it. We use it as a base for everything else, including aubergines roasted to a smoky mess, and a soothing yet garlicky tarka dal. The dessert list stays true to form, is short and not overly distracting. There is, of course, gulab jamun, those bronzed and shiny balls made from sweet, reduced milk, in a light sugar syrup; it’s a very well made albeit a bit bland way to end the meal.
We drink Cobra, served in large bottles, next to glasses of French vermentino. Black Salt could easily be mistaken for just another suburban restaurant, there to spare those who can afford it the tiring activity of cooking on a school night. It’s much more than that. It’s a serious and sometimes rather exciting take on otherwise familiar dishes. It happens to be tucked away here, on this neat parade, away from the bright lights of the big city.
Keeping with the theme, Nand Kishor and Sanjay Gour are opening a second Dastaan, this time in the suburbs of Leeds. The new restaurant will open later this year on the site of what was until recently Mio Modo Italian restaurant on Otley Road north of Headingley (dastaan.co.uk)†
Even in a crowded market, some cookbooks are well worth the wait. Finally, the great Jeremy Lee, formerly head chef of the Blueprint Café and later of Quo Vadis, will publish his first book on September 1. It has the title Cooking: simple and good, for one or for many, and alongside 150 of the recipes his devoted fans have come to love, will be memories of his Dundee childhood. Pudding will be a big part of the story, as it is always on his menus.
Irishman Richard Corrigan of London’s Bentley’s is opening a restaurant in Dublin. The Park Café, on the site of what used to be the Shelbourne Social, will feature a menu made in part from ingredients grown on the estate of his Virginia Park Lodge country house hotel in the north of the city. In addition to the dining room with counter, it will have an all-weather terrace with 60 seats and a roof garden for small parties. Corrigan expects to have it open in September.