Zumbura Restaurant, Clapham, London

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We arrived at Zumbura feeling pretty agitated. We were late for our reservation, and I hate being late, especially when it’s not really my fault. It’d taken us almost two hours by bus to go from Chelsea to where the restaurant is near Clapham Common, even though Google told us it would’ve taken us only an hour to walk (we should’ve taken the Underground; it only took us 15 minutes to get back to Victoria at the end of the evening). What a very bad joke London traffic is! Take note, London buses are an iconic site so go ahead and take photos of them, ride them at midnight and enjoy the general look of them as they pass Piccadilly Circus but don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of trying to use them as effective public transport!

Our waiter at Zumbura for the evening, Adrian, read our minds as soon as we’d been seated. We needed to chill right out after that bus journey before we could even think about ordering food; he handed us the cocktail menu. We went for the Zumbura signature cocktails; Lamia had a Bloody Spicy and I, a Molly Moo Moo.

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The Bloody Spicy was a Bloody Mary with chilli, coriander, cherry tomatoes and Chef Raju’s spicy sauce twist.

“It’s lightly spiced with a strong, pulpy tomato taste,” said Lamia, “I can’t taste the alcohol at all, which is how I like it.”

The light spice was a theme druring the evening. At a real Indian restaurant subtle spicing should be order of the day but sadly Britain has so few places where this is the case. Lamia was born in Bangladesh and is used to eating food that’s actually representative of the sub-continent so going to British Indian restaurants, which are more than often run by Bengali’s anyway but geered up to cater to the British palate, is mostly a disappointment.

‘It’s too hot,” is a common criticism from her. “Both the temperature and the spiciness, it’s not how it should be at all!”

I’m not sure how the trend came about but all too often nowadays Indian restaurants in Britain cook their food as if they’re engaged in some unofficial who-can-cook-the-spiciest contest or rather, who-can-appeal-to-beer-deadened-taste-buds. The extreme heat is fine if you’re too drunk to taste anything subtle, or want to prove how hard you are, or even if you’re running a restaurant in Brick Lane and want to conform and serve the same old inauthentic stuff that everybody else seems to, but it’s definitely not ok if you’re interested in eating real Indian, well spiced food.

But at Zumbura, we were to learn, it’s a different story. The website states that the restaurant features authentic homemade food from the Purab region in North East India, using recipes handed down through the generations and offering a taste of what the chef’s family would eat at home, and our experience there certainly indicates that this is true.

When we got round to eating the food, Lamia couldn’t talk for a few minutes at first – she’d been away from her mums cooking for 5 months and hadn’t had a decent curry for all of that time – but when she’d satisfied her initial lust for decently cooked curried dishes she said,

“Everything is delicately spiced, all of it, which is how it should be. For those people who’re used to traditional Indian restaurants in London this’ll be a very different experience, a much better one in my opinion. Everything I’ve tasted here at Zumbura tonight is very similar in texture and spice level to that which my mum cooks, and that which I’ve tasted in other Indian and Bangladeshi homes, I love it.”

Ok, back to my Molly Moo Moo cocktail.

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It was made with Vanilla vodka, Raspberry vodka, Limoncello, fresh raspberries and apple and passion fruit juice and dressed with a frozen raspberry and a small half of passion fruit. It was beautifully fruity and like Lamia’s Bloody Spicy I couldn’t taste the alcohol in it, although I could definitely feel the effect of it.

Suitably chilled, we checked out the menu. It was quite short which we took as a good sign. A lesser number of items on the menu generally means the food is cooked fresh and not just reheated from frozen.

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Lamia understood the names of many items from the menu but not all – different areas of India have different names for similar dishes so whilst she was later familiar with the food, often the names were new to her – so Adrian very attentively listened as we laid out our general likes and dislikes and suggested dishes based on heat level and portion size.

We only had a wait of ten minutes or so for the food to arrive. During that time we checked out our surroundings. The ceiling was painted with images of wild exotic birds, the lightbulbs were exposed (giving it a semi urban-industrial feel in places)…

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…and the music was varied but always soft, allowing for easy conversation. The place was packed but there wasn’t the rowdy vibe that you might associate with some Indian restaurants, it was all very civilized and relaxed. Here are some images of the surroundings and the staff, starting with the bar.

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Adrian had advised that it was best to share dishes (Lamia agreed; “it’s how we do it at home, too.”) so for starters we’d ordered a number of items; Pakoras (spinach, onion and chickpea flour fritters), Aloo Tikia (spiced potato cake), Dhaal (lentils), Namuna (stir-fried peas with garlic and ginger) and Ghuggni (black chickpeas braised in onion and mango powder).

For drinks through the evening I had a Pale Ale and a beer and Lamia a Guava Spritzer.

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“Another lovely cocktail!” said Lamia, “it tastes just like guava juice but with a little kick. That might seem obvious but that’s all a cocktail really has to do for me – if it’s a guava juice, it should taste like real guava. There’s a lovely colour gradient too, from pink to white, and the freshness of the juice is heightened by the sprig of mint.”

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The Pale Ale and Beer were a departure from the usual Indian restaurant offering of Kingfisher or Tsang. Both complimented the many varied dishes and were of a good strength – 4.8%.

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Alongside the starters Lamia had the Hari Murghi (chicken marinated in fresh herbs and yoghurt overnight and then roasted) Poori (fluffy fried bread) and Muttar Pulao (braised rice with peas and spices) whilst I shared the rice and added an Anda Salan (egg curry), Paratha (buttery and flaky flat bread) and Chapatti.

Everything was a success as far as we were concerned, with our favourite starters being the Ghuggni and the Pakoras.

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The spinach and onion chick pea flour Pakora were crispy, not oily at all, quite airy and had the sort of crunch that only fresh pakora can have.

The Aloo Tikia (spiced potato cake) was soft yet crispy. I could taste cumin as the dominant flavour. The potato was pulped smooth so had little texture which isn’t totally for me – I prefer more texture in such things – but it was a pleasantly spiced starter all the same.

Lamia’s Hari Murghi (chicken marinated in fresh herbs and yoghurt overnight and then roasted) was just like her mom makes it. Well marinated, soft chicken. cooked thoroughly and roasted almost to the point of being charred. Just the perfect balance, Lamia said.

The Namuna (stir-fried peas with garlic and ginger) were very similar to the garden peas you’d have with a Sunday roast except they’re spiced. Important to repeat here that they’re spiced in the real sense of the word rather than the usual Indian restaurant macho-spice-contest meaning. Even if you usually have to stick to a Korma because you don’t like chilli-heat food you’re going to enjoy these peas; in fact, you’ll enjoy pretty much all that we tried. Nothing was going to have you gasping and reaching for the beer or water, that’s for sure.

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The way the food was created and served we found it difficult to bother eating with utensils. The food is bought to the table not too juicy and at just the right temperature so that if you want to use your fingers to eat it – which is how Lamia and I eat this sort of food when we’re at her house – then you can do so without getting burnt or in a right mess. It was so good, to be in an atmosphere where this food was being served correctly. We hadn’t eaten with our fingers for months, it was a great feeling to be eating Indian food properly again!

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The Ghuggni (black chickpeas braised in onion and mango powder) were neither hard nor mushy. Not at all like the chickpeas we’re used to in England; much smaller, softer and more like a hard daal. The Daal itself was creamy, garlicky and of a soft, loose consistency.

The Anda Salan (egg curry) was nice enough although having tasted it I would have liked just to have stuck to the dhaal, chickpeas and other starters. There was nothing wrong with it, just that the eggs had a slightly tough, almost deep fried coating which I didn’t enjoy so much.

The Poori, Paratha and Chapati all tasted fresh and homemade. A little charred at times as they should be, not oily and they held together excellently when we used them to scoop food up with.

Finally the Muttar Pulao (braised rice with peas and spices) was firm, delicately spiced and, as Lamia said, just like mum makes.

For dessert we had Kheer (Indian rice pudding) and Gajjar ka halwa (carrot halva).

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Here was the real test. Lamia loves sweets and has been enjoying them throughout her life, first in Dhaka and lately in Toronto. If anybody can tell if an Indian dessert is decent or not, it’ll be her.

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“The Kheer is pleasantly creamy,” she said, “soft rice, ample nuts, yes, not bad at all. But where this place excels is with the Gajjar ka halwa. It smells like real ghee has been used, it’s very creamy, the carrots are soft and it’s topped with the right amount of pistachios and almonds, just like the man with the hole-in-the-wall dessert shop in Dhaka used to make, and my mum for that matter!”

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Zumbura’s not for everybody. If you want a boozy, noisy, vindaloo style night out then you might be disappointed. If you’re after tasting real Indian food, however, in a relaxed, photo and vegetarian friendly environment with excellent cocktails and beers thrown in for good measure, then we reckon you’ll love it.

To discover more, please visit http://www.zumbura.com/

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