Indian fine dining has come a long way from the high street curry houses that have almost become part of Britain’s culinary DNA. Michelin starred restaurants like Quilon and Tamarind have paved the way for like-minded Indian entrepreneurs (many of whom earned their chops in those two trailblazers) to bring their own ideas to the table.
Salim Sheikh who opened his Raj of Kensington restaurant in 2016 is a perfect example, successfully combining excellent food with a love of the British Raj era.
Now comes expansion with the opening in January 2020 of Raj of Islington. Following the exact same formula, he’s transposed Kensington for the fast – gentrifying environs of the Holloway Road. One of north London’s latest havens ripening for hipsterville.
Raj of Islington keeps all the ingredients of Sheikh’s flagship; the same menu prepared to order, same eclectic mix of mocktails, cocktails and drinks, a thoroughly modern interior and excellent tableside service.
The first thing I notice is the size. With 82 covers, it’s an ambitiously large space to fill. That said, the purply-blue hues and wood flooring offer up a highly contemporary welcome, as does the soft jazz, a very pleasant change from your typical Indian musical accompaniment. Another modern take is the lack of tablecloths. No need for any faded curry stains here, just clean black tabletops with stiff starched white napkins and good cutlery. A big tick from me.
The menu is a celebration of Indian regional cuisines crafted through the British Raj era; a culinary journey around the continent. Although Sheikh is quick to point out dishes are prepared freshly each time which might be a concern with a full house, but that remains to be seen.
Raj of Kensington has curated a few signature dishes and these are replicated here including the railway lamb curry, once served on the long train journey from Bombay to Calcutta, and Murg Salli Zardaloo, from the Gujarat region, both made based on 100-year-old recipes. Delhi’s butter chicken simmered in tomatoes and fenugreek leaves and Meen Moilee from Kerala, which is pan-fried sea bass in coconut milk, curry leaves, garlic and chillies.
With the travelling theme in mind, there is a Traveller’s Yatra menu, a four-course feast with all the sides for £38 but I want to have a pick and mix and see what pops up.
Picking some of the appetisers creates a debate; the Sharabi jingha, cider soaked sauteed tiger prawns with peppers, spring onions and tomatoes (£6.95) is an option, or perhaps the Raj platter (£12.95) a tandoori selection of lamb chop, chicken tikka, sheekh kabab, and salmon.
In the end, we go for onion and spinach bhajias spiced with fennel and gram flour with tamarind chutney (£4.95), Punjabi samosas stuffed with tempered potatoes, ginger and spices, tamarind & green chutney (£4.95) and paneer sashlick (£5.50/£10.95) another Punjabi dish with cottage cheese stuffed with prunes, diced mixed peppers, onions and marinated in pomegranate, ground mace and yoghurt. The murg bezule (£5.95) is a west coast Mangalorean street food recipe made from juicy chicken pieces coated in aromatic spices and roasted in the tandoor.
These turn out to be an absolute triumph. Not hint of any oil drenching, just beautifully cooked and presented. The four large bhajias are crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside; the samosas are clearly home-made, the buttery pastry a perfect coat for the very tasty spiced potato inside, and the paneer, gorgeously barbecued and skewered chunks of cheese with a tasty prune surprise hidden inside each one. The tamarind and green chutney sauces delicately laced around each plate is a delightful pairing.
Our mains are up next and the murg tikka (£9.50) arrives triumphantly. Generous pieces of boneless chicken flavoured with cumin and rock salt My chicken dum biryani (£13.50) comes encased in a covered clay pot which reveals small pieces of tender chicken, fluffy basmati rice, cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom and yoghurt, all cooked over a slow fire and served with a dollop of raitha on the side.
Once again not a hint of residue oil, just beautifully cooked food that seems totally authentic yet fit for a maharaja.
To keep things ticking over we have a couple of vegetable sides too; aloo gobi adraki (£5.95) cauliflower florets & potatoes cooked with onions, fennel seeds and ginger, and a good old fashioned saag bhaji (£5.95) spinach cooked with spices and onions.
This was an absolute belter of a meal. With the soothing jazz, the sophisticated contemporary setting, the tip-top service and Salim Sheikh’s top-notch cooking, Raj of Islington is a stand out newcomer to Holloway Road.
As we came out of the restaurant a local passing by asked us “I see this is open now. What was it like?“
“Bloody marvellous “
“Right, well we’ll give it a try then.“
Tell me more about Raj of Islington
Raj of Islington, 359 Holloway Road London N7 ORN
T: 020 7607 0801