L.ately I’ve been noticing how a restaurant smells when you first walk in. At Park Chinois, it’s overwhelmingly of truffles; at Cédric Grolet at The Berkeley, it’s rich with butter; but at Pahli Hill, a smart Indian outfit in London’s Fitzrovia, it’s hard to describe.
To be sure, an intoxicating blend of Indian spices lingers in the air. But it’s more than just a scent – it’s an inviting feeling, like someone wrapping a woollen shawl around you when you’ve just come in from the rain. Or maybe that’s just the warm glow cast from the open kitchen, highlighting colors in the eclectic artwork as it sweeps across the indigo blue walls of the dining room. I suppose you could call the overall effect transportative, taking you from dreary London to the restaurant’s roots in the tropics.
Pahli Hill is actually two concepts in one space. Upstairs you have Pahli Hill, the spacious, family-friendly dining room named after Pali Hill in Mumbai, a vibrant neighborhood home to people from all over India – the variation in spelling is deliberate, owing to another London restaurant having a similar name. The food, likewise, takes inspiration from all over India, and perhaps Bangalore in particular, where its head chef Avinash Shashidhara is from.
The basement houses Bandra Bhai, a bar and live music space named after the neighboring suburb of Bandra. Lavishly dressed in velvet and brass and finished with a stuffed peacock, the shamelessly gaudy speakeasy is a nod to the smugglers who oversaw India’s thriving black market. It’s only open in the evenings, and feels quite a lot less reputable.
When I sat down for Sunday lunch with my mother a couple of weeks ago, the Pahli Hill dining room was still quiet; we pretended we were on holiday and people watched as we waited for our order. The diners were as different as the two spaces. In one corner, by the covered windows, a lone guest was deeply engrossed in her book. A couple on the next bank of wooden couches were sitting side by side as they tucked into a lavish spread that’s just hidden from my view. A family with a baby are cocooned in the far corner, sheltered from the hubbub of the main dining room by a lattice screen.
Within a few minutes, a steady stream of plates interrupts our people watching.
The summery papdi chaat comes first. Dollops of yoghurt, cubed pumpkin, and pomegranate seeds are layered with crisp papdi (fried crackers); finely sliced red onion, mint and coriander add extra zing; and a generous sprinkling of sev (fried gram flour noodles) furnishes the dish with crunch and spice.
Next, the Dorset crab sukka. At Pahli Hill, this means a rich, spreadable paste of white and brown crab meat – rather than the usual whole beast – made fragrant with a heady mix of ginger, coconut and spices. The consistency was just right for generously smothering over the pair of Mangalore buns, an airy bread puff made with bananas and flavored with fennel seeds. Shashidhara is playful with the combination of flavor and ingredients here, partly because he spent a decade cooking Italian food at the River Cafe; and partly because… well, why not?
We get a couple of cocktails in, too – a pineapple and mint daiquiri, and a Pahli whiskey sour – but neither turned out to be quite what we had imagined. The first was closer to a tropical martini while the latter was more sweet than sour. No matter. The flavors were agreeable enough for the food.
When the mains arrive, we realize we’ve made a mistake.
The menu is divided into small plates, tandoor and grill, big plates, sides and desserts. Like most pedestrian diners, we are conditioned to think that the dishes in the middle sections were the main courses. Except at Pahli Hill, each section is more like a different style of cooking. So to make the most of it, we should have picked something from every section and tried them all together.
Case in point, our chargrilled lamb cutlets and mango-marinated wild sea bass were perfectly adequate, but compared to the punchy flavors of the first two dishes, these felt naked, if not a little underwhelming. Similarly, the naan-style tandoori roti and the flaky flatbread (similar to a small paratha) were great for scooping up the delicately spiced black dal, but they would have been put to much better use mopping up the smears left on the papdi chaat plate . And oh reader, when I spotted the gloriously oversized dosa, with tiny pots of chutney and sambar (vegetable stew), going to another table, the food envy was too much.
We got a second round of cocktails in as a consolation prize: a trusted negroni – spiced, of course – and a tamango (vodka, Cointreau and mango puree with a dash of tamarind syrup and lemon juice) in anticipation of the Alphonso mango cheesecake and carrot halwa we had ordered. The thinly sliced Alphonso, first of the season, was so obscenely fragrant that it didn’t need the cheesecake at all. And the carrot halwa, richly sweet and sticky, was a comforting reminder of a childhood spent grazing from the dessert counters of Leicester’s Golden Mile. Things were firmly back on track – not that they were ever really derailed.
As we left the restaurant, bold flavors still tingling on my tongue, I marveled at how quiet the dining room was given it had recently gained a Bib Gourmand, Michelin’s accolade for “good quality, good value restaurants”. It never got busy while we were there, but it thoroughly deserved to be packed.
79-81 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SJ X | pahlihillbandrabhai.com