The word “Dishoom!” is the onomatopoeic Bollywood equivalent of “Kapow!” As such it provides a fitting name for the growing chain of Indian restaurants that has given a wallop of vitality to the food scene in London and beyond. With their first restaurant opening in Shoreditch to great acclaim in 2009, Dishoom have sites as far afield as Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and now Brighton. Permit Room on East Street builds on the brand’s vision of transporting the ambiance of the streets of Mumbai to the welcoming British culinary landscape, bringing with it a palpable sense of history, culture and good food.
The concept of a “permit room” dates back to the years after the 1949 Bombay prohibition when hitherto clandestine front-room establishments could obtain a permit to serve alcohol. That homely aesthetic and café-style seating plan is expanded in the busy warren of the new Brighton premises. There’s a speakeasy feel to the place. Unassuming on the outside, it could be another tiny Lanes coffee shop, but as you enter it spreads out before you like a well-kept secret, bustling with people and activity, the alluring aroma of spice in the air.
The focus here is less on a wide-ranging food menu than on a long list of cocktails with a selection of small to medium dishes to keep you going. It’s a version of Indian cuisine that works well. When every condiment or side is a new taste explosion it pays to have as broad a range of dishes as possible. And the cocktails further add to the palette of tastes with twists on the old classics, some sweet and fruity, some downright dangerous…
We started with a couple of sweet fruity selections from the drinks menu. The Permit Room Clover Club (£11) is almost a dessert with its roseal mound of coconut-cardamom foam atop a deep pink liquid that looks like it might just be good old-fashioned children’s party jelly. It is in fact a concoction of sumptuous in-house raspberry and lychee liqueur with gin and a hint of lemon oil. It’s a drink that tastes different with every sip, the smooth foam mellowing the sharpness of the fruit and the bitterness of the gin – rather like the cooling effect of raita accompanying a curry. The Marmalade Mimosa (£9) is a simpler fruity delight: homemade marmalade liqueur and fresh red grapefruit juice combined with Integrale organic sparkling wine. It’s a gentler aperitif, but one bursting with the punch of real fruit.
Representing the allergy-sufferers out there (gluten and I have a very antagonistic relationship), I can safely say Dishoom have got you covered. Our wonderfully patient waiter Harry was an angel at the shoulder with an iPad clearly highlighting the allergens in each dish, demonstrating that beneath the homely aesthetic there is infrastructural rigour, tried and tested approaches to dining in the sense of giving people a good time, not just a good meal. The service throughout was excellent, the staff always happy to offer recommendations and answer questions. Though it was a busy Friday night, everything was under control.
Small morsels to accompany a night’s drinking – such as samosas, crispy chilli chips and masala whitebait – take up more room on the menu than the curries. The Crispy Spinach Chaat (£8.50) pairs deep-fried spinach with yoghurt, chutneys and fresh pomegranate, making the spinach into a salty indulgence balanced by the mellow condiments. Mellowness also led the way in the South Indian-inspired Cauliflower Moilee, a dish described on the menu as “very peaceful”. Whole dried chillis were scattered around to slightly disrupt the peace, but a deliciously rich creaminess engorged the soft florets. Though dreamy, it felt like the cauliflower could have done with a bit more elevating flavour-wise before being plopped in there. A bit of char from the tandoor would have been welcome.
The chicken in the Kali Mirch Chicken Salad (£11.90), on the other hand, had clearly been shown a lot of attention: tender, crispy, spicy with pepper. Combined with the yoghurt sauce there were echoes of a chicken Caesar salad but with a kick. The most beguiling dish of our selections may have been the Carrot and Chilli Sharp Bites (£2.90). The shards of carrot and whole chillis were pickled in a liquor that pitted together salty, bitter and acid with the sweetness of the carrot and crunch of fennel seeds and onion seeds. Like a more refined lime pickle, it took our tastebuds on a thrilling little spin.
As we savoured the dishes it became very natural to order more cocktails. The Aunty Bar Coffee (£9) was a frozen slushy of a Dishoom original coffee liqueur with chai double cream on top, making a perfect palate-cleanser or liquid dessert. But for the strong stuff, the stuff that feels like it’s getting you drunk before it’s even touched your lips, we finished with two from the “Short & Boozy” column. The traditional Vermouth is left out of the Feni Martini (£12.50) in favour of Axia Extra Dry Mastiha Spirit and cashew eau de vie.
And then the Thums Up Sazerac (£12.50), an ice-cold elixir of rye whiskey, cognac, bitters and absinthe, sweetened with a reduction of Thums Up (a popular Indian cola brand) was pure intoxication, like a fortified super-strength whiskey and coke. In these sorts of settings it’s easy to imagine the thrill of decadence and transgression that contraband liquor would have provided as the first sip took effect. It makes you appreciate the freedom to be a bit wild.
With a bustling atmosphere, and waiting staff twisting in between the tightly packed tables, the vibe of the place is far more akin to a café than a restaurant. The space is mostly devoted to walk-ins, rewarding the spontaneous thrill-seeker out on a jaunt over the sensible forward-thinker. This lack of decorum is great fun, but note it may not be the place for a romantic dinner for two – those sweet nothings might have to be raised a decibel or two above a whisper to be heard. Admittedly, coming in on a Friday night in the heart of the Christmas party season may well have increased the feel of rambunctious jollity, but I suspect the cocktails had a lot to do with it.
Permit Room, 32 East St, Brighton, BN1 1HL