Gunpowder Spitalfields review by Adam Boatman
Ordinarily, Indian cuisine in London tends to swing between two extremes. The first is epitomised by Brick Lane, geographically close to Gunpowder but a world away otherwise.
Somehow the invariably thick curries only ever seem to hold two or three flavours: tomato, chilli and almond; with the pungent sting of onions overwhelming everything else. Great with a bottle of Kingfisher, but not exactly good food.
The other end of the spectrum is Indian fine dining, a good example being the Cinnamon Club. Unfortunately I don’t get to try this too often, as it’s mostly well out of my price range, but what I have had of it has been fantastic. What we’re missing is that delicious middle ground. A middle ground whose food is not based on thick curries, or dishes too expensive for the average person to afford.
On the outskirts of Spitalfields there lies a red-lit, tiny brick-walled restaurant that has some of the best Indian food in London, yet doesn’t cost the Earth. And you can forget about the same old dishes. In the words of the owner, Gunpowder serve the kind of food that Indian people enjoy when they’re not eating curries. Prepare for some new and exciting creations.
Despite turning up on the wrong night, Harneet, the owner come manager managed to find us a table for two in the restaurant already packed to the rafters. His enthusiasm for his restaurant, his food and my friend’s humour (not mine unfortunately) really shone through.
Out fellow diners were varied. It’s the type of clash you get when two distinct areas of London collide. To my right, half a metre away were two men straight out of the one of the office blocks of Liverpool Street. One of them said to the other, ‘Bud, you know why you were punished today though yeah?’. His colleague nodded contritely and tried his best to emulate what I like to call ‘apologetic lad’. It’s a mix of a softly chanted “ya, ya”, with a slight sideways grin, complemented by a nervous, deep chuckle. It must have worked because after half an hour they were tucking into the rabbit pulao like a married couple. Further down the restaurant away from the kitchen window sat a group of four ‘hipster chicks’ that made me wish I’d worn the headband and loose flowing shirt tonight. Alas I too was in a suit.
We let Harneet choose our dishes for us, and I would thoroughly recommend that you do too. We had no idea what was coming and on more than one occasion had to ask what it was. Among these unknown dishes was a delicious chickpea and yoghurt mix. I still have no idea what it was, but the marbled, cumin-y mixture was different from anything I’d tried before and something I would definitely have again. It’s not always cheap, letting the restaurant choose for you, but it works particularly at places designed for sharing.
Before we began the feast that nearly toppled our tiny table we started with a bottle of red. I chose Secret de Fonteneille. I chose it partly because I had no idea what it was (see a theme here?) and partly because it sounds like a French detective novel. I start by mentioning the wine because after it arrived the evening turned a little hazy. It was like a frenzied dream. One moment I had a venison doughnut in my hand and a split second later I’m tearing the leg off a deep fried soft shell crab with no idea how I got there.
The venison doughnuts are worth a mention for the vermicelli noodle crust. It was ludicrously crunchy and if it weren’t for the decidedly Indian slant I would have sworn that it was a close cousin of the Bitterballen (if you’ve never tried them, imagine creamy, meaty lava inside a thermal breadcrumb overcoat). The disappointment was the crumbly venison inside. Venison is a particularly dry meat and unfortunately the coating did nothing to change this. A pinch of salt wouldn’t have gone amiss either. It’s lack of flavour was saved only by the fruity sauce that came with it, which with a slightly more powerful venison mix might have made this dish sensational.
The soft shell crab, however, was amazing from crust to core. It was deep fried as soft shell crab so often is, but unlike many other variations sweet, subtle flavour of the crab was not overwhelmed by the thing crispy layer of batter. In fact the salty crust only served to enhance and protect the juiciness of the creature entombed within.
Out came the broccoli, paturi maach, and the lamb chops. The broccoli, a childhood favourite, abandoned when I developed my first tastebuds, was the most surprising success. Short of covering broccoli in flour, chilli and garlic and shallow frying there is very little that will make me go near these terrifying dwarf trees (thanks Garth Marenghi). But this was no ordinary broccoli. This was sigree grilled mustard broccoli. The burnt, barbecue aroma reminded me of the churrasqueras that fill the streets of Lisbon. I fall in love with any food that invokes such positive memories, but when it tastes so revelatory and makes a food I’d written off as irrelevant good it’s even better.
The paturi maach, or fish covered in mustard seeds wrapped in a banana leaf (don’t eat the leaf – my friend learnt this the hard way), was a favourite. The fish tasted like it had been born in a mustard seed river, so complete was the marinade. The banana leaf had kept all the moisture in and added its own bitterness that had my eyes rolling back in my head like a cut-rate porn star.
What amazed me the most about Gunpowder was their ability to pack so much flavour into such tiny portions. The lamb chops were small enough to take down in two bites, a feat that proved easy considering how easily they relinquished their grip on the bone, but the pungent swamp like delight that came from them utterly belied their puny size.
By this point my stomach was groaning with strain and the wooden table was entirely concealed by crockery. However, my friend decided this was not it. Not by a long shot. So after seeing the giant plate of rabbit pulao at the table next to us, my friend decided we should get started on that. I protested, but to no avail and soon a steaming bowl of rice peppered with rabbit sat in front of us. I tentatively scooped and ate. In an odd way it was the perfect final dish. It was fluffy and went down easily, and yet again it hit me with flavour. It was intensely savoury and unbelievably moorish. I felt my strength return.
When it came to dessert, once again Harneet knew what we needed: Old Monk Rum Pudding. It gave nothing away, but when it arrived we recognised it as a kind of Indian bread and butter pudding. For the record I hate bread and butter pudding – the texture makes me gag and the stodge just makes me unhappy. I know now if someone had just been a little more creative my school lunches could have been a whole lot better. Again bear in mind, I was absolutely stuffed, but the second the sweet, crispy edged, rum tinged, raisin filled mess hit my mouth my dessert stomach opened it’s arms willingly. It was heaven and thankfully this time dug up no memories. With the final bite of Old Monk we nodded slightly at each other, a job well done.
Big thanks, then, to Harneet, who made us feel so welcome; to Nirmal Save, the head chef responsible for the incredible food and to our neighbouring table for providing the entertainment. Visit Gunpowder, and experience the joy for yourself.
Gunpowder Spitalfields review by Adam Boatman