Andy Mossack reviews Babur in leafy southeast London and finds out why this family-owned Indian restaurant is so revered by locals.
It seems I arrived at Babur in the middle of the Hindu Holi festival. Otherwise known as the Indian Mardi Gras, people take to the streets in India to throw coloured powder and perfume over each other.
No hint of that sort of behaviour here in leafy Honor Oak Park, southeast London. But that doesn’t deter Executive Head Chef Jiwan Lal from creating not just a Holi celebration menu, but a Holi cocktail (£10.95) to go with it – a heady mix of red, green, and yellow vodka and rum shots, presumably to mirror Holi’s coloured powders.
“You can drink them individually or go the traditional route and mix them all together” I was reliably informed. Never one to shy from tradition, I mixed them all and drank heartily, wishing a happy Holi to the diners at the next table.
Babur has been a local staple since owner Emdad Rahman opened the doors back in 1985, and following his acquisition of chef Lal, Babur has become the talk of southeast London.
Tucked away on a nondescript street a few minutes walk from Honor Oak Park station, the Bengal tiger perched above the doorway was the only indicator of what lay inside. Once through though, I could feel the magic begin to weave.
Named after the first Moghul Emperor of India, Babur’s interior is very different from your average high-street curry house. The exposed brickwork and industrial-style air ducts are bang on trend, while the cool lighting and contemporary wall art adds a distinct Mayfair vibe.
But the biggest difference for me is how Babur places its cocktails and wine pairings both red and white front and centre, courtesy of mixologist Rupam Talukdar. An almost unheard-of addition to a neighbourhood Indian restaurant menu, where matching choices tend to be between a bottle of Cobra or Kingfisher. To have such passion for pairing each dish not only takes a rare talent but also complete confidence in the chef to deliver the right flavours.
Back at my table, a poppadum-laden basket arrived as I was perusing the menu complete with a tray of four homemade chutneys: ginger chilli, garlic and mustard, tamarind with raisin (the best of the bunch) and mango.
Much as I was keen to carry on with the Holi theme and take the celebration menu, there were way too many other delicious-sounding choices on the a la carte to miss out on. So, after much debate about starters with my dining partner, we picked achaari paneer tikka with beetroot sauce (£7.95), spinach and sweet potato shingara (£7.75) and Kalounji chicken tikka (£8.50).
The char-grilled chicken came flavoured with black onion seed, with a delicate pile of pickled beetroot and was deliciously soft and smoky. The pickling spice-flavoured slices of paneer came topped with mango chutney and masala puffed rice, an absolute killer combo of tangy flavours. While the spinach came wrapped in homemade Bengali pastry, not dissimilar to a samosa and packed full of spinach and sweet potato. A hat trick of very memorable starters and already seduced by chef Lal’s culinary magic.
On to mains now, and even more debate ensued. I was engrossed by Babur’s signature dishes of which there were several. In the end, we went with the suggestions of the waiting team who were perhaps keen to put a stop to our heated debate. I went with a black pepper chicken Chettinad (£17.75) a southern Indian dish which came topped by a giant rice dosa-like conical hat, and underneath, a stunning masala sauce. “May I suggest a glass of Passimiento Baglio Gibellina 2020 from Sicily with your chicken Mr Andy?”
“Really? a red with chicken?”
And indeed, it was. Genuinely, a perfect pairing.
My partner took the fabled steamed shoulder of lamb (£19.25) marinated for 100 hours no less. Both proved to be further examples from Lal’s extensive book of culinary spells. A delicious lamb jus was poured over the soft as butter lamb shoulder just to add to the theatre of it all. It was a triumph, particularly with the beetroot rice.
Chef Lal took a break from his cauldron and popped out to greet us. “I love experimenting with flavours and most of all creating dishes for special occasions,” he told me. “I’m coming up with a special menu for the King’s Coronation and also Easter, maybe playing around with an Indian version of a Scotch egg.”
He talked us into trying one of his signature desserts before popping back into the kitchen. A cumin-infused chocolate fondant sided with a mound of salted caramel gelato (£6.95). Talk about heaven on a plate. If you’ve never had melted chocolate infused with cumin you haven’t lived.
My whole Babur experience was extraordinary. Perhaps I just wasn’t expecting Indian food and drink of such quality in a leafy Forest Hill suburb. Chef Lal has every intention of trying for a Michelin star at some point, and for me, I think he has every chance. But it is the whole package, the brilliant vibe, the cocktails and wines, and the top-drawer food.
No wonder the locals so revere this place. I suggest you try it before everyone else finds out about it. Happy Holi. Unmissable.
Images (C) Andy Mossack and Babur,
Tell me more about Babur Indian restaurant
Babur, 119 Brockley Rise, Forest Hill, London SE23 1JP
E: email@example.com @baburrestauran T: 020 8291 2400
Babur also runs regular Sunday buffets £21.95 pp Children 7-12 £14.95 while under 7s eat free.