FORGIVE us for thinking bad thoughts in this season of goodwill. When Dishoom announced their Manchester special it turned out to be a pie. A pie – that’s what Mancs like. OK, it could have been a bee-themed cocktail presented to us, an incomers’ cliche that finally ran out of steam (and honey) in late 2018. ‘Bee for Bombay’? We’d never have forgiven them.
Maybe, we’re too sensitive. Rahul Mandal kicked off his debut Times mag column at the weekend with a curry pie. Spiced chicken thigh and basmati rice inside a hand-raised crust combined his baking skills and Indian roots. If it’s good enough for the treasured Great British Bake Off winner?
The Dishoom special, the Nalli Nihari Biryani, is a different beast. Literally. In India Nalli Nihari, a lavishly spiced, slow-cooked stew dating back to the Mughal era, uses mutton or goat. Here it’s lamb shank, which Dishoom exec chef Naved Nasir has folded into the rice of a biryani and stuck a feather light blanket of pastry on top.
On our first visit to their new restaurant in Manchester Hall – joining five in London and one in Edinburgh – we had to try it. The price, £16.90, should have warned us. Dishoom prides itself on its all-day affordability. It’s breakfast signature dish, the bacon naan roll is just £5.90, you can linger over a single coffee; later in the day no one’s going to object if you settled down with a simple bowl of their long-simmered house black daal (£6.20) and a £5 glass of Dishoom’s own IPA (or ask to see their guest Manchester craft beers list).
When our rather ample Nalli Nihari Biryani (above) arrived it was obviously for sharing. Problem was we had done an awful lot of sharing in the meantime. Were still doing actually – as so often with a small plates menu they all arrive at once – and by the time we cracked the pie crust and poured in the accompanying nihari gravy and chicken liver raita, the rice and lamb (falling off the bone, as they say) it was on the lukewarm side.
If we didn’t do this crusty, aromatic centrepiece justice – and we were offered a goodie bag – it was because we had enjoyed all that had gone before. Immensely. Heartily.
Sharp staff and a beautiful conversion of the old Freemasons hang-out added to the comfort zone of a long carefree lunch. From the incense wafting through the foyer on arrival to the before-staggering-out delight of a Khala Katta Gola Ice it was an experience to be cherished.
That £3.50 palate cleanser, offering ice flakes steeped in kokum fruit syrup, blueberries, chilli, lime and black salt, tipped its hat to the cocktails we had kicked off with. Cocktails are a big deal at all their venues and Manchester has a separate Permit Room specifically for them. That name recalls the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which states that all tipplers are required to have a permit to consume alcohol (if only ‘for preservation and maintenance of one’s health’).
We sipped ours at table in Dishoom’s front dining space. My Viceroy’s Old-Fashioned (£9.50) came in a peg (jar). Perhaps this bottle-aged muddle of Woodford Reserve bourbon, bayleaf reduction, green tea and spices is more suited as a night cap cockle warmer, but hell this is Christmas.
I had to Google Meenakshi, whose name is tagged on to the house Mojito. She’s an undefeatable Hindu Warrior Goddess. Whatever, she sure mixes a mean Mojito. Of course, there’s soda but not too much mint; the distinctive ingredients are the stuff to stiffen the sinews for battle – El Dorado rum, Ceylon Arack, coconut milk and ginger (£8, in a tall glass).
Alas, the £15.50 500cl carafe of Siclian white Il Folle Grillo that followed was all abject surrender. Touted as wild (the name means ‘the mad one’ in Italian) with elegant aromas of exotic blooms tropical fruits, it couldn’t handle the strong spices of a succession of dishes. Not a dud among them.
First two up complemented each other companionably – the spice-dusted of okra fries with the fresh cold tang of Bhel with its classic mix of puffed rice, Bombay mix and nylon sev, tossed with fresh pomegranate, tomato, onion, lime, tamarind, mint. £4.50 each.
Then we had three dishes off the grill, a real strength at Dishoom. Panner tikka (£8.20), spicy lamb chops (£4.30 each) and masala prawns (£11.90) were all outstanding. The slices of marinated Indian cheese in the tikka with sweet yellow and red peppers was a remove from the usual rubbery paneer. The chops were at least the equal of our own Mughli’s thanks to an invigorating overnight marinade lime juice and jaggery, ginger and garlic plus a heap of roasted spices. Grill-blackened, the inside of each was medium rare and juicy.
Both lovely dishes, but the kings were the prawns (main picture). Simply charred, lovely firm texture – perfection. We cradled them in delicate roomali rota breads (£2.90) “thrown, stretched and freshly griddled to order on an upturned tawa”. Their words. Pure poetry. Manc does not live by pie alone.
Dishoom, Manchester Hall, 32 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BT. 0161 537 3737. Open from 8am on weekdays and 9am at weekends with a breakfast menu.