Now playing in London: Bombay’s jazz age
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One very cold evening in late November, a large enthusiastic crowd braved the chill outside the new Kensington branch of London’s wildly popular Dishoom chain of Indian restaurants (they have a branch in Edinburgh too). As some of us sipped on hot tumblers full of mint tea that Dishoom offers to waiting customers, staff members swarmed around, setting the evening’s unusual events into motion. When I walked through the doors, I was handed a brown envelope and a small blue card.
The card was a convincing facsimile of a government of Maharashtra liquor permit. It was signed by one Mr Cyrus Irani. I was politely asked to set my phone on silent, and slip it into the manila envelope. “Mr Irani will tell you when you can use your phone,” a hostess told me.
For the duration of the evening, Dishoom Kensington would be transformed into the Bombay Roxy, a sparkling new jazz club-restaurant set in 1949 Bombay (now Mumbai). Freedom is in the air, farfar is on my table, and filmi dialogue would soon bounce off the art-deco wall. It is opening night, and mischief is afoot.
Cyrus Irani is the fictional proprietor of the fictional Bombay Roxy. Played, quite splendidly, by the actor Vikash Bhai, Irani is the star of the theatre production, Night At The Bombay Roxy, that accompanied dinner each night from 27 November-14 December at the new Kensington Dishoom, leading up to the official opening on 15 December. Tickets, it goes without saying, sold out as soon as Dishoom put them on sale. Tickets are priced at £72 (around Rs6,100) and include a welcome drink and a choice of two lavish menus (vegetarian and non-vegetarian).
Since opening their first branch near Covent Garden in 2010, Dishoom has become something of a London phenomenon. As the restaurant’s co-founder, Shamil Thakrar, once told this paper, success was anything but a foregone conclusion. But the brand has carved a niche for itself in the city’s tumultuous gastronomic scene, and with that has come constant growth.
A few days before my run-in with Mr Irani, I met Thakrar and Eduard Lewis during a test service at the restaurant (Lewis is the director of the theatrical production). Thakrar told me how each branch of Dishoom— there are now five in London and one in Edinburgh—had its own “founding myth”. The original Covent Garden outlet was, and is, unmistakably influenced by Bombay’s Parsi cafés (each time I dine there, I am assailed by high-calorie memories of eating Wrestler’s Omelettes at Koolar & Co in Matunga, Mumbai).
The cavernous King’s Cross branch is all 1920s industrial Bombay. The Carnaby Street branch is a tribute to Bombay’s rock scene from the 1960s.
The Kensington branch is all jazz and art deco. The space, as a whole, is intensely reminiscent of Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema. All over the space, from pillars to screens to brass embellishments and air-conditioning vents, are details and designs picked after numerous reconnaissance trips to Bombay’s art deco buildings, theatres and offices. Thakrar whips out a tablet and shows me photographs from Mumbai, and then compares them to details in the restaurant. Things look, as they say in Bombay, ditto.
Bombay’s once vibrant jazz scene is depicted on the wall in countless photographs, album covers, and in the soundtrack to Night At The Bombay Roxy.
Thakrar tells me that the branch owes much to contributions from two collaborators. The first is Simin Patel, a well-known historian of the city. The second is a man looking at me from a picture on the wall as I tuck into good masala theatre and even better Masala Keema Pau. The somewhat grumpy man in the picture is Naresh Fernandes, editor of news website Scroll.in and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot, an excellent history of Bombay’s jazz age. Thakrar is something of a Fernandes fanboy. He shows me his severely annotated copy of the book as we tuck into a portion of mutton pepper fry.
The picture on the wall is a tribute to Fernandes’ help in enriching the new Dishoom with “jazz” detail and aesthetic. To the keen eye, there is a lot of history on the walls of this and other Dishoom branches. What is most satisfying about this richness in detail is that it is worn with great lightness. There was jazz in Bombay. Not interested? Okay. Then eat your food.
The “immersive noir” experience that is Night At The Bombay Roxy is good fun. The acting is earnest, the production smooth and the denouement suitably filmi. By the end of the evening, there are secrets spilt and some blood. And then everybody sings a song and all is well. But like all the other bells and whistles at Dishoom, they don’t come in the way of the food. The food and drink, especially the mocktails, are quite good. And that is probably why Dishoom holds its own in one of the world’s great culinary cities. Good food, good prices, good fun. And just to make sure, I ate at Dishoom four times in four weeks.