We all have our go-to cuisine when dining out. I’m a sucker for Thai and Mexican, but one cuisine I’ve left in the dark for too long is Indian. Truth be told, I’ve only dined in three Indian restaurants in London. One is now permanently closed, the other is on my VIP list of ‘must spread the word and visit again’, alongside the cult staple that is Dishoom… naturally. After coming across Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai and doing a little bit of digging online, it was clear that the time for me to up my number of Indian restaurant visits from three to four was imminent, the biggest anchors being their 2022 Michelin Bib Gourmet Award and a secret bar below the restaurant that’s disguised as an Indian smuggler’s den.
Located in the heart of Fitzrovia, just a six-minute walk from Oxford Circus, you’ll find Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai. The 60-cover restaurant is named after an old city neighbourhood in Bombay and its mission is to serve regional small plates that represent the true spirit of India, all while using traditional techniques and home recipes. Settled into our seats directly in front of the open kitchen, my immediate reaction to the snug restaurant was how unpretentious it was. There’s no grand decor but the look and feel still manages to make an impression. Colourful cartoon illustrations come to life against royal blue washed walls and the furnishings have a retro twinkle to them. Think mahogany tables and comfortable chairs wrapped in soft leathers of burnt orange and deep blue.
Talking food - as far as crab starters go, the kitchen has pretty much smashed it. Their Mangalore bun and Dorset crab sukkah (£16) was a playful dish that encouraged you to get your fingers dirty by breaking open bread and stuffing the hollow insides with fresh portions of shredded crab enriched in a fragrant sauce. Similarly, their kulcha (£18) was another hand-to-mouth gig. Fleshy cuts of girolles in all shapes and sizes were layered onto soft bread with generous shavings of blackened truffle.
After asking for our waiter’s wine and main course recommendations, we were sold on the Cornish lamb biryani (£30) which is known to be one of their signature dishes. It wasn’t long until our starters were cleared, a bottle of Alphabetical Vin Blanc and several bowls scattered the worktop in front of us: including a piping hot bowl of lamb hidden by a treasure trove of rice, with extra bowls of Bombay onion and cucumber raita plus banana chilli and baby aubergine Salan. Although the lamb was a little on the dry side, if you’re after a filling dish, this is the carb feast you’ve been waiting for. Although it wasn’t at the top of the recommendations from our waiter, my plus one couldn’t turn his head away from the home style fish curry (£26). Soft chunks of wild halibut (one of the most expensive pieces of fish on the market) and plump mussels were brought to life in an authentic sauce chopped and blended with tomato, green mango, tamarind and coconut.
Nursing our stomachs from our rice overload, we declined a dessert but were reassured that we would be making a mistake. Inevitably, we were slicing our spoons through the restaurant's seasonal dessert - spiced panettone bread and butter pudding (£12), 15 minutes later. The festive take on the traditional dessert was topped with crushed pistachios and a warm cardamom custard that added moisture and a welcome crunch to the springy cake.
Dinner done and dusted, we descended the stairs towards Bandra Bhai which welcomed us with a questionable painting of a young Indian man sitting underneath the text ‘sexologist dawakhana clinic’. The dimly-lit space only added to the mystery of the secret drinking den as bustling birthday parties and the odd loved-up couple took up almost every table and chair. The atmosphere was quickly turned up a notch when the DJ took to the decks and our cocktails arrived at the table. Sifting through Bandra’s signature drinks, we couldn’t not order the gold fashioned (£12.50) and the blueberry and apricot margarita (£12.50). The gold fashioned was a twist on the classic, stirred with Woodford Bourbon, chaat masala, cassia, smoked jaggery and a dash of bitters. Mixed subtly with spices and an ingredient that turned the liquid into a shimmering gold elixir, we approved of the revamp so much that we ordered another round. The blueberry and apricot margarita was another champion of twists, shaken with El Rayo Reposado Tequila, blueberry, balsamic, apricot, lemon and lime.
The DesignMyNight Digest
Recapping my visit to Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai, it’s clear why it’s making a name for itself, scooping up Michelin gongs and in a certain instance, being published as a well-known critic’s favoured death row meal. The menu is accessible to those who are familiar with Indian cuisine but it goes far enough beyond the threshold to invite regional nuances to the mix. Sitting by the kitchen we had a front row seat to the action, listening to sizzling meats, watching technical prep and every so often, having some banter with the head chef. There’s no doubt that it’s a welcoming spot, plating up quality, delicious dishes in a laid back setting. With the added value of a secret bar downstairs, the time you would have wasted on Google Maps post-meal, can be spent wisely ordering your nightcap before hopping on the tube home. With that last time saving hack as the cardamom custard on the panettone pudding, it's safe to say that my fourth Indian restaurant visit was a roaring success.
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