The concept of Hammersmith's Chai Naasto, coupled with the fact that the venue specialises in food that I've grown up eating, compelled me to head west and try out this Indian restaurant for myself. Family-run and claiming to place authenticity at the top of their priorities, I thought I'd put them through the ultimate test by taking my 'masala-wouldn't-melt' dad along with me, a man who's been eating North Indian cuisine for the past 59 years.
The Venue & Concept
The venue, as a whole, combines a distinctive rustic vibe with bright colours to perfectly embody the character and vibrant passion that India is famous for. While the outdoor seating area is simply decorated with wooden furniture and candlelit tables, the inside contrasts with an explosion of colour and pattern. The walls are lined with Bollywood movie posters and the sleek albeit small bar contrasts with the cosy seating booths, decorated to look like a makeshift wooden food cart. No corner is left untouched; either covered in bright paint or holding a quaint Indian antique.
The venue's concept is equally as charming. The three brothers at the helm are using this restaurant to recreate the travels of their grandmother, who journeyed across the Subcontinent in the 1960s, sampling different delicacies along the way. I know, it's incredibly sweet and a heart-melting tribute to someone that, in the words of the head chef, defined their childhoods with her home-cooked meals. With that in mind, the main dishes on the menu - named after the city they are from - are chopped and swapped with the seasons. Head down during the winter and you'll find a selection of hearty, belly-warming curries from the north, while the warmer months feature coconut-and-lime heavy dishes that originate in India's coastal towns.
The Food & Drink
Onto the big headliner of the night. To get the ball rolling, we ordered the chickpea and samosa chaat (£5), the fried soft-shell crab (£9), the red chilli and pepper king prawns (£10) and the sheesh kebab, served on fresh parantha (£10). Each was incredible and, from the first bite, made clear that only the best ingredients were used by the chefs. The chaat, in particular, is a must-try dish. The deconstructed samosa's piping hot interior and fried exterior offered a great texture and temperature clash with the chilled, pepper-infused yoghurt.
Feeling like my eyes were slightly bigger than my stomach, I was taken aback when more plates appeared, this time signature dishes that the chef was desperate to show off. From the presentation, you could tell the lamb cutlets served on a bed of masala mash potato (£10) were delicately placed together and tenderly cooked. Falling effortlessly off the bone, this is easily up there with the best Indian-style lamb dishes that I've eaten in London.
The mains quickly followed the clean small plates. Being North Indian, we only had eyes for the Punjabi menu and chose the Amritsari Daal (£6.50), alongside the rich butter chicken (£8.50). To accompany each curry, we opted for a garlic naan and a few bone-dry tandoori roti (£2.50 each). The lentil-based daal had a dark, earthy and almost smoky taste to it and was tamed nicely by the rotis. But the lentils could not compete with the butter chicken. A dish that's difficult to get right, the chicken was perfectly cooked while the thick cream sauce perfectly walked the tightrope between sweet and spicy. Each mouthful drew out waves of nostalgia and perfectly represented the great flavours of Punjabi cooking that are often lost due to an unfortunate tendency to over-spice and therefore butcher recipes; a pitfall that Chai Naasto easily avoids by keeping things simple.
The entire dinner was framed by the venue's themed cocktail menu. Given how keen the waiter was to ply me with booze, I think they've thought long and heard about these concoctions. The Ginger Darru Smash (£9) stood out in particular, infusing Red Label scotch with ginger liqueur, orange, lime and mint. Almost like a cross between an old fashioned and a mojito, and as with the rest of the cocktails on the menu, the drink had been created with the spice-heavy food menu in mind, being served with plenty of crushed ice and offering a smooth, refreshing taste.
Sitting in the centre of the restaurant and overlooking everything that happens is a black-and-white portrait of the brothers' grandmother. And for me, that perfectly sums up why Chai Naasto is such a success. Everything here is driven by one family's desire to simply show off the home-cooked dishes that they grew up eating. Simple, authentic and with a few cocktails thrown in to make you smile, I think Naniji would be proud of what the brothers have achieved here.