black salt, 505-507 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7DE (020 4548 3327). Starters and tandoori grills £6.50 to £15.50, mains £11.90 to £14.90, desserts £4.50 to £5.90, Cobra (large) £6.50, wines from £22 £
We often talk about the British high street as if it were a seamless shopping experience. In truth, there are many places, not all of them absolutely delicious. In London, that may mean increasingly glitzy Oxford Street, where legacy brands desperately struggling against the rising tide of online shopping sit alongside a bizarre number of joints seemingly selling shelves of weird fizzy and sour sweets no one seems want to buy. It has been suggested that some of these are fronts for money laundering and various kinds of recklessness. Although obviously that’s not what’s happening, heavens not.
Then there’s the other kind of main street: the suburban dredges that service the needs of those who live nearby. In the case of the Upper Richmond Road running through Sheen in South West London, it is mostly a well-heeled lot, who might prefer the pleasures brought to them. Here, there’s a cheery-looking Persian restaurant, a swanky Thai spot, a slew of swanky nurseries and an outpost of Elysium Healthcare, a company unwittingly named after the paradise to which those who had obtained the immortality by the Greek gods could be sent. .
Admittedly, I doubt that the team behind black salt, which opened its doors almost a year ago, stopped in to wonder if this was the right place for their elevated and intense take on Indian repertoire; for, say, a magnificent big-fisted sheekh kebab, the color of copper coins, made not with the usual ground lamb but with rich fatty duck and guinea fowl, vigorously spiced, accompanied by a chutney of fresh apples, sparkling mustard plant. Well, of course it is. During the long and dark stretch of the pandemic in 2021, many in the hospitality industry wondered if the downtown restaurant’s days were numbered; if all the hottest stocks would now be closer to where people actually live. Big claims are always dicey, but if it’s resulted in such classy restaurants popping up in places like this, then that’s a positive.
Black Salt is a side project from the folks behind the much-loved Dastaan at 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 with Atul Kochhar, as well as at Javar and the copper fireplace. That’s about as serious and experienced a team as the Indian catering industry in Britain could muster right now.
The three-room space is unburdened by any of the clunky cultural signifiers of the main street curry house. The sitars don’t play. It’s an urban brasserie with parquet floors, bare brick walls, metallic gray woodwork, pendant lights and an assertive, spicy cuisine that will make you, anyway, look more at your plate than at the decor. Even on a quiet Tuesday night, there’s a gentle contented hum in the place. The map is relatively short, but hits all the bases. I know immediately, just by reading it, that all foods go from light brown to, ooh, dark brown, maybe with the occasional flash of red from a tomato chutney or a bit of green from something involving mint. That’s a good thing, because as we now know, all the best foods are brown.
In the tandoor menu, we have mighty king prawns to accompany these sheekh skewers. They’re crispy and scorched, but still bouncy and fresh from the extreme heat. I could have had the lamb chops. I wanted the lamb chops. I still want the lamb chops. But I know that it is foreseeable that I order them and decide to deprive myself of my natural desires on this occasion. I’ve seen them go by, though, and they’re big beasts, as they should be at £9.50 a pop. The next time.
Entrees come crisp and airy patties of mixed bhaji made with kale, potatoes, spinach and onions and with a crisp tamarind and mint chutney. (God, how I wish I hadn’t banned the use of the word “punchy.”) A large, lightly breaded and fried soft-shell crab is served whole, as if it came straight from the beach. It is accompanied by a tasty shrimp chutney. It’s a cheerful accompaniment to sweet crab, but would, I think, be a cheerful accompaniment to almost anything. I want a jar of stuff to spread on toast. Or just for a neat spoon.
The star of the curries is a pork cheek vindaloo, which stays true to the vinegary Goan origins of the name, rather than the testosterone-fueled chilli heat monster it has become in some places. The fibrous meat has been braised until it can be sliced with a spoon and sits in an outrageously succulent, very dark but fragrant sauce that has been cooked down to its essence. I could imagine coming here on my own and ordering just this dish and one of their always flaky parathas to pick it up with, and being very happy. I have that kind of imagination. Goat keema is a sweeter, milder affair, a throwback to the dish served at Gymkhana.
The chicken biryani, from a list that includes an entertaining version made with asparagus, artichokes and snow peas, has the requisite burst of aromatics, although it needs the mint raita and cucumber with which it is served to lubricate it. We use it as the base for everything else, including roasted eggplant until a smoky mess and a soothing but garlicky tarka dal. The dessert menu stays true to form, short and not confusing. There are of course the gulab jamun, those bronzed and shiny balls made of soft and reduced milk, in a light sugar syrup; it’s a very well done if a little monotonous way to end the meal.
We drink Cobra, served in large bottles, accompanied by glasses of a French vermentino. Black Salt could easily be mistaken for another suburban restaurant, there to spare those who can afford it the tedious task of cooking on a school night. It is much more than that. It’s a serious and sometimes rather exciting take on otherwise familiar dishes. It happens to be hidden here, in this tidy defile, some distance from the bright lights of the big city.
To keep with the theme, Nand Kishor and Sanjay Gour will open 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 Italian restaurant Mio Modo, on Otley Road north of Headingley (dastaan.co.uk).
Even in a crowded market, some cookbooks are definitely worth waiting for. Finally, the great Jeremy Lee, former leader of the Blueprint Cafe and lately with Quo Vadis, will publish his first book on September 1st. It’s titled Cooking: Simply and Well, for Two or Many, along with 150 of the recipes his devoted fans love him for, will feature memories of his childhood in Dundee. The pudding will be a big part of the story as it always is on his menus.
Irishman Richard Corrigan of Bentley’s in London is to open a restaurant in Dublin. The Park Café, on the site of what was the Shelbourne Social, will offer a menu made up in part of ingredients grown on the estate of its Virginia Park Lodge country hotel north of the city. In addition to the dining room with a counter, there will be a 60-seat all-weather terrace and a roof garden for smaller parties. Corrigan expects it to be open by September.