When I was first sent a press release about Namaaste Kitchen in Camden, I was intrigued. Owner, director and “patron chef” Sabir Karim has described the restaurant as an “Indian grill and bar”, with the grill open to view from the restaurant.
Unusually, drinks, bar snacks, and an all-day menu are served seven days a week which could prove useful when trying to dine outside of regular meal times.
But the main attraction for me was the year long regional food festival featuring dishes from a different part of India each month. In February diners tasted the delights of traditional Hyderabadi dishes; in March Karim showcased the cuisine of Goa; during our April visit we sampled specialities from Lucknow; in May diners can try food from Mumbai.
Karim has worked in the restaurant industry for many years, including time at Chutney Mary (which also offers food from across India). His first restaurant, Salaam Namaste in Bloomsbury opened in 2006 and Namaaste Kitchen was launched last year.
Incidentally, am I the only one slightly bothered by the two different spellings of namaste/ namaaste in the restaurant names?
In a continuing trend away from flocked wallpaper or faux Raj, Namaaste Kitchen boasts exposed brick walls, cream leather banquettes and seats and colourful modern art and light fittings.
Settling in, we quickly ordered drinks. A rich, thick Sweet Lassi (£3.50) for me made from good quality natural yoghurt with a decent tangy flavour. Mum enjoyed her Noon On The Equator non-alcoholic cocktail (£4.50) which included Tabasco, salt and pepper to spice up the orange, tomato and lemon juices, with grenadine for sweetness.
As we ordered, our waiter suggested we try their poppadoms and chutneys (£2.40 per person). We were particularly impressed on asking whether the poppadoms are fried or cooked in the oven, to be told they could accommodate either.
The chutneys were excellent, with one that was so good that mum and I spent a considerable portion of our lunch tasting and re-tasting in an attempt to work out what could be in it. Understandably, Mr Karim kept the recipe close to his chest!
He did tell us that the mango chutney was enhanced by the addition of pineapple. Certainly this gave a rounder flavour.
The green chutney was freshly made but fairly standard and not dissimilar to mum’s green chutney recipe, though we found it a touch bitter.
The tomato one is the one that blew us away! It was sweet and rich with a really distinct spicing. The tomato was still fresh tasting rather than cooked down long and slow. Mum guessed that it had turmeric, fennel seeds and perhaps smoked nigella.
I am going to be begging Mr Karim to reveal his secrets or at the very least, start selling it in jars to enjoy at home!
From the regular menu, Spicy Soft Shell Crab (£5.95) was OK. The texture was both crunchy and very soft, but let down by an excess of greasiness. The crab was very mild indeed and the key flavour that came through was of the green sauce dolloped over the crab. Listed in the menu as a “green pepper corn lemon sauce” to me it tasted the same as the green coriander chutney served with the poppadom. I guess the contents of that spoon must have been the “spicy fig n prunes sauce” and was nice enough, though not sure it was a particularly good match for the crab.
As we were still exclaiming over the last of the tomato concoction served with the poppadoms, a second dish of this was kindly brought out for us, and this worked better with the crab than the chosen condiments.
Also from the regular menu, the Chingree Samosas (£3.95) were disappointing. Described as “spicy prawns wrapped in home made filo pastry” the wrappers were very thick and soggy. The filling was stodgy with little taste of prawn, though I did spot one. The “crystal raw papaya chutney” served alongside tasted good but was a little lacking in moisture.
Our third starter was chosen from the special Lucknow menu. The Dal Chini Macchi Tikka (£5.50) made up for the other two starters. Three generous chunks of salmon fillet were nicely coated in spice and additionally flavoured using the dhungar (smoke) method of tempering that infuses the food with a pleasant smokiness. The fish was soft and moist within a crunchy, spicy coating.
For our mains, we stuck more closely to the Lucknow menu, as mum grew up in this region of India and would be able to comment on the authenticity of the dishes. Our first choice was the Lucknowi Shahi Kofta (£10.95). Shahi translates as fit for a king (or Shah) and usually describes a rich sauce often thickened with ground nuts as well as cream or butter. Kofta is often translated as meatball (or meat kebab) but in India it can also refer to vegetable croquettes, as in this case. The deep-fried balls of vegetables were fabulous, with the textures of the different mixed vegetables still distinct, having not been overcooked to a mush. The sauce was suitably rich and beautifully flavoured and it was nice to find large chunks of cashew nuts left whole for additional bite. Both mum and I were impressed with this dish and mum agreed that it was certainly like versions she’s had in Lucknow.
Also from the Lucknow menu, we chose the Peethiwali Macchli (£13.95). The menu explained that sea bass fillets are coated in a rice batter before being fried in mustard oil and simmered in an Avadhi sauce. (Lucknow is located in what was originally known as the Avadh region and hence the cuisine of the area is often referred to as Avadhi). Again the fish inside the crispy coating was soft and moist and the flavours in the coating and sauce were delicious. I was a little disappointed to encounter quite a few fish bones in this dish, but again, we both enjoyed it very much.
From the regular menu side vegetables dishes we tried the Sesame Baby Aubergine (£3.50). Cooked with mustard and curry leaves this reminded me a lot of mum’s stuffed aubergine recipe, which is best made with small sized vegetables. The only negative here was that my little aubergine was undercooked, with that slightly tongue-furring texture that aubergine has until cooked through. But mum’s pieces were cooked all the way through. Good flavours.
We also tried a South Indian style stir fry Vegetables (£3.50) which we quickly realised wasn’t a good fit with anything else we ordered.
Roomali roti (£2.25) was nothing like the soft, draping ones I so enjoy at Dishoom. Rather it was dry and brittle, and we left it to one side.
But the Sheermal (£2.95) from the Lucknow menu was lovely. A rich, thick and soft bread baked in the tandoor and flavoured (and coloured) with saffron milk, this was like a sweet naan and very nice with the fish and vegetable curries.
As mum’s a pescetarian, I’d intended to avoid meat dishes as there were plenty of seafood and vegetable ones for us to choose from. However the friendly restaurant manager Mannu Dahiya recommended that I try the lamb chops, and since the restaurant prides itself on its grilled offerings, I agreed to try a half portion. They were pretty good, with robust spicing and soft meat, cooked deftly to retain a touch of pink inside but with the lovely flavour of charring on the surface. My only disappointment was that, typically for Indian style, every last scrap of fat had been trimmed away, denying me the very special pleasure of lamb chop fat cooked over charcoal. London Turkish restaurants get this right, always leaving a tasty layer of fat on their lamb chops.
Full to bursting, but when we learned that the Rasmalai (£3.95) is made in house, we ordered one portion to share. This sweet dessert is made from paneer or milk curds, cooked in cardamom-flavoured milk or cream. Usually, the balls are served in the cooking liquid, but Namaaste Kitchen presented the dish in a more modern way, with the liquid served chilled in a small shot glass. The liquid was thinner than usual, though this worked well given the way it was served. The curd ball was well flavoured, and not as sweet as it can often be in India. This was definitely a good thing!
We finished with Masala Chai (£2.50 per person) which was served in individual tea pots. We both liked that the tea is made unsweetened, allowing customers to sweeten to their taste, enjoy unsweetened or use artificial sweeteners if they prefer. As mum’s diabetic, this is really helpful.
In the main part, we really enjoyed our meal with some dishes really standing out above the rest. A few let downs mean the meal wasn’t wholly fantastic, but I’d certainly visit again.
We were looked after by a friendly team including Johnny, our waiter and Mannu, the manager who took our order and was able to give us some extra information on the dishes. It was good to see that the owner, Mr Karim, was also on site, and he answered a few more of our questions about the special menu in particular.
Kavey Eats dined as guests of Namaaste Kitchen.