Indian restaurants in London come six a penny. They’re sort of like your “local” pub; everyone’s got at least one curry house ‘round the corner. And then there are the Bombay Brasseries, the Cinnamon Clubs and many others which attempt upscale Indian and often fall short.
On this typically rainy Saturday night, we’re in Bloomsbury, home of London’s literary ghosts, headed to Salaam Namaste. From a side street heavy with former council housing blocks, we enter the white table-clothed restaurant, crowded with locals.
The area is surrounded by University College London, Great Ormond Street Hospital, and nearby Gray’s Inn Road, home to London’s law chambers. If first impressions are anything to go by, we’re expecting nothing more exotic than chicken Tikka Masala. How wrong we were.
With a menu that stretches over several pages, we finally narrow down a choice of experimental dishes with classics. We begin with Tandoori Portobello mushrooms filled with figs, cashew nuts, curry, raisins, chilli and paneer. It’s like a neutron bomb – meaty, multi-textured, and warm as the medley of spices hit the tongue.
Mint grilled salmon is a stand out dish, able to convert even fish-haters with its charred flavour. What’s immediately obvious is that all of the spices here are freshly ground. A chicken Tikka, perhaps the most basic of Indian foods, is exemplary for its powerful cumin and pungent coating. It’s served with green apple chutney, which perfectly balances the salty Tikka. We declare it the best chicken Tikka we’ve tasted outside of India.
If all of this is starting to sound like a feast for twelve, thankfully, it’s not. Portions are small enough to allow for lots of sampling. Sabbir Karim is responsible for the menu, and fills in when the award-winning chef takes time off. During the week, he’s a flight steward for British Airways, which explains the diversity of Salaam’s offerings.
Karim came to the UK, like so many others in the Indian restaurant trade, from Bangladesh. He married a woman from Karachi, and if Pakistani and Bengal dishes aren’t enough, he gathers recipes from his weekly travels to try at the restaurant, including a Goan Crab Vindaloo sourced from Dorset, and a Persian Chicken Dhansak cooked with lemon juice, herbs and lentils in a hot, sweet and sour sauce.
The thoughtful balance of flavours excites the palette, together with a fresh ginger and date naan, and lashings of the spicy root vegetable and tamarind rice cooked with cashews, peanuts and dried chillies.
There are no copper Balti bowls here; only large, white palette shaped plates to enhance the artistry of the food, aimed at those with adventurous taste buds.
The meal is like a theatrical performance, with eye-catching headlines delivering sensationally rich, and thoughtful tastes, playful twists of rhubarb and cheese, lamb and papaya. All the while, the favourites are executed with as much care and attention, making one wonder whether all the other Jalfrezi’s and Tikka’s aren’t imposters.
Salaam Namaste isn’t exactly on the tourist track, but it’s worth a special trip. A comparable meal in the West End would cost twice as much with half the flavour. It may not be “local,” but I’ll be back.