A clue lies in the names of the following restaurants. Firstly, there was Dishoom, then Gymkhana, then Gunpowder, then Hoppers and, most recently, there is Kricket that has just opened in Soho.
The names link England with the Indian subcontinent in a way that is both evocative and relevant. Gymkhana in Mayfair is the most sophisticated and sounds a common theme through shared sporting events. While Dishoom embraces the feeling of an Irani café once so popular in Bombay; it has caused a sensation since its first branch opened on St Martin’s Lane. It has even proved its popularity as a breakfast venue serving egg and bacon naan rolls and cups of hot chai latte.
Gunpowder, a smaller, more home-style restaurant in Spitalfields, serves dishes that manage to convey the heat of its name. Hoppers’ menus exude the spice and particular culinary dexterity of Sri Lankan chefs. And now there is Kricket, in its first bricks and mortar building after a successful nine months as a pop-up in Brixton that continues until at least April 2017.
And while these five restaurants are very different in style they have several features in common.
The first is the size and scope of the subcontinent’s food as well as its different cooking styles and in particular the ease and attractiveness of its recently discovered street food. There is enough culinary inspiration to go round and these chefs’ ability to downsize so many of their dishes into either smaller dishes or dishes to share, every waiter’s current refrain, have been major advantages in these restaurants’ popularity.
Then there is the added bonus of a classy cocktail list, an aspect perhaps that the British rather forced on the Indians, but the synergy is extremely useful. Even non-alcoholic cocktails seem more inspired when given an Indian twist.
But until the appearance of Kricket, this culinary association seemed to have been picked up entirely by enterprising young Indians. The menus at Gymkhana and Hoppers have been inspired by chef Karam Sethi; the fun of Dishoom has been created by cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar; Gunpowder’s food is inspired by the recipes that Harneet Baweja and his wife Devina remember from their grandparents while growing up in West Bengal. Kricket, on the other hand, is the creation of Rik Campbell and Will Bowlby, two out-and-out young Englishmen who first met at Newcastle University.
This was to be the classic meeting of a wannabe restaurateur and a determined chef. While Campbell subsequently went off to work at Deloitte’s, Bowlby trained as a chef under Rowley Leigh at Le Cafe Anglais before taking a job as head chef in a European restaurant in Bombay, where he promptly fell for the charms of the restaurants that focused on more local cuisine. Returning to London he worked as a chef in an Indian restaurant to learn more about the essential spicing of Indian food and then he and Campbell opened the initial Kricket in a shipping container in Pop Brixton last year.
Today, with the financial backing of the White Rabbit Growth Fund, Bowlby and Campbell have taken over a former Italian restaurant and converted it, ably assisted by the design company Run For The Hills, whose first restaurant commission this was, into a place that at first sight looks very much like the original Barrafina on Frith Street. There is a large L-shaped counter opposite an open kitchen and the place mat serves as a menu, with tables for larger parties downstairs. (Barrafina, I subsequently learnt, is Bowlby’s favourite restaurant when off duty.)
The menu is divided into four headings with four choices in each – breads and rice, vegetables, fish and meat. There is also a choice of two desserts – a jaggery treacle tart, whose sweetness is cut by milk ice cream, and a misti doi, a sweetened and fermented yoghurt which I saw Bowlby carefully top with pomegranate seeds, rose petals and diced pistachios.
Before then I was able to watch as the young British chefs worked hard to bring me my first dish, two scallops topped with Goan sausage (made in collaboration with Brixton-based Jones the Butcher), and poha, flattened rice. Then I witnessed my kulcha being rolled and then placed into the tandoor oven by another young British chef before it was covered with ceps and bone marrow. Then I moved on to a rich and filling dish, rather innocently called butter garlic crab, which was just that, 90% white meat, 10% brown meat mixed with chilis, and served warm with crisp seaweed papadums.
All this seems to have been part of deliberate thinking on Bowlby’s part. When I asked him about the absence of Indians from the kitchen, his response was that he prefers to work with ‘newbies’, young cooks whom he can train to his style of cooking.
When he explained the open kitchen to his Indian friends, they were baffled. It does come as quite a shock, even to someone as experienced as myself, to watch chefs close up preparing Indian food, a style of cooking that has for too long been confined to basement kitchens or kitchens behind swing doors.
Kricket Soho breaks down these barriers. As such, I can see numerous further openings, especially as Bowlby has so sensitively mastered such a richly popular and transportable vein of food, here served with a singularly light touch.
Kricket Soho 12 Denman Street, London W1D 7HH; tel +44 (0)20 7734 5612
Bookings for four or more.