Chef Sabbir Karim has recently reopened his two restaurants, Namaste Kitchen in Camden and Bloomsbury’s Salaam Namaste, as well as opening a brand new venue in Highgate. We pop along to his flagship Bloomsbury branch to see how things have been going for the team and whether the pandemic has put much of a dampener on this well-established restaurant.
As we walk down the cold and windy streets around Chancery Lane, we can’t help but notice how uncommonly quiet it is. With most of the offices in the area closed, there’s hardly anyone on the streets and most pubs and restaurants are deserted. Happily however, Salaam Namaste has been able to make use of its established takeaway service and loyal customer base to weather a substantial portion of the COVID storm and, whilst we have the venue to ourselves on a Monday night, we’re assured that its staunch supporters have been keeping the Bloomsbury neighbourhood hotspot in good spirits, with some of the most devoted patrons even eating out there twice a week.
As we rock up to the glass front, divesting ourselves of the scarves and coats that the worsening weather has made commonplace, we are greeted by Rohan, our host for the evening, who ushers us through to our seat. The space is open and cosy, furnished with mid-century style forest green and scallop shell pink velvet chairs and low-hanging pendant lighting. We take our place on a plush banquette facing an attractive feature wall covered in a gold botanical print, and peruse the sizeable menu.
Focusing on largely Northern Indian cuisine, with a few specialities towards the South and from the East and West coasts, Sabbir’s menu is a catalogue of classic favourites with the odd contemporary twist. Baffled by the choice, we do the sensible thing and ask Rohan to do our thinking for us. We’re rewarded with a balanced Mango Margarita and a range of starters. The cocktail’s mango purée is prevented from getting too thick and sweet by the use of wonderfully biting fresh lime and enough tequila to still be a focal point. There’s a rumour that there’s chilli in it, but we can’t taste that.
Starters-wise, the Amritsari Champen lamb chops (£7.95) are wonderfully tender – possibly from being marinated in yoghurt and spices – and beautifully flavourful, with a good level of spice. These come on a bed of crushed South Indian style potatoes that are creamy but still hold some bite and have been cooked with turmeric, curry leaves and black mustard seeds – amazing. A street food favourite, the Kurkuri Tokri Chaat (£6.50) has a delicious balance of flavours with the fresh pomegranate seeds and diced cucumber adding brightness to the chickpeas, with yoghurt and tamarind bringing a delightful tang. The temperature play between the crispy potato basket and the filling is sadly absent, but other than that, it’s a strong choice.
Unfortunately, the Tellicherry Spicy Soft-Shell Crab (£6.95) is bit of a let-down, with the unseasoned semolina batter feeling unappealingly bitty. Its accompanying spiced fig chutney is nice with a tiny hint of background spice and pepper working well with the sweetness. The final dish of plump and succulent Coastal Malabar Scallops (£7.50) however makes up for the crab’s lacklustre with its thick and luxurious, almost buttery coconut milk sauce, which we proceed to mop up with the lamb chop bones – give it a go and thank us later.
Ever-attentive with relaxed and genial hospitality, Rohan comes to check on us and our emptied plates. He tells us how this site has been open for 15 years, with the Camden branch going strong for six or seven so far. Each location has a very different feel, with the brand new Highgate restaurant reported to be almost like you’re not in London. He clears our dishes and we confirm that we’d like to continue leaving the night’s food selection in his more-than-capable hands.
He returns with a slightly worrying array of delicious-looking dishes that instantly makes us feel simultaneously full and determined. Our personal feast includes: Mangalorean Korri Gassi chicken curry (£13.50); Rajasthan Laal Maas (£13.95); Kalonge King Prawn Adraki (£14.95); a Namaaste Kebab Platter (£15.95); a side of Saag Paneer (£6.95); both Garlic and Peshwari Naans; and fragrant rice with black cardamom pods.
The chicken and prawn curries are both wonderfully aromatic with an elegant spice mix and tender meats. The prawn dish has a distinctive tamarind tang that pairs perfectly with the tomato base, whilst the chicken is creamier and richer with a gentle sweetness. The lamb’s gravy is robust and thick, with rich flavours and a warming feel. The meat itself is a little on the tough side and the dish certainly does not warrant the three chilli rating that sits on the menu, but it’s nevertheless a well-crafted curry that we happily mop up with the moreish garlic naan.
By the time we get round to the platter, we’ve already loosened our belt-buckles two notches, but we soldier on. Each Tandoor item, from the flaky salmon to the sheek kebab has been well-cooked and seasoned, offering a delicious option to those keen on grilled offerings.
Somewhat defeated by Salaam Namaste’s generosity, we wave the white flag and ask for our remaining food to be packaged up to go, but not before Rohan cajouls us into getting a dessert of Gajar ka Halwa – an Indian pudding made with fresh carrots, milk, sugar, ghee and nuts – accompanied by coconut ice cream. Somehow we find extra room and devour the gloriously fragrant, warm and sticky sweet that’s somehow luxurious and creamy without being overly heavy. The temperature play of the hot dessert and cold ice cream also adds to the decadence and fun of this final course.
We leave Salaam Namaste feeling a good bit heavier but happy and very spoiled. The food was comforting and the service fantastic – what more could anyone ask for on a wet autumnal eve?
Salaam Namaste, 68 Millman Street, Bloomsbury, Russell Square, London WC1N 3EF