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Tuesday, 1 October 2013
Words & Photography by Marina Benjamin
Name: Imli Street
Where: 167-169 Wardour St, London, Greater London W1F 8WR. www.imlistreet.com
Cost: Cocktails: £7.50-11.50. Tapas style individual dishes: £4-50-9. Stand Menu: £19.95 per person.
About: Imli Street is one of a brace of Indian restaurants in London owned by the Tamarind Group. Specialising in Indian street food inspired by the coast, the borders, the railways and also roadside ‘Dhabas’, or foodcarts selling boldly-flavoured snacks to be eaten on the hoof, Imli offers a down and dirty counterpart to the fine dining experience represented by Tamarind of Mayfair and Kensington’s Zaika. The food here is all about the rough and ready, the loud and robust, the mix and match. It conveys the idea of sharing; and it suggests that exchange and conversation are as important as eating.
Imli Street’s aesthetic is unpretentious: cowboy shack meets beach hut just about captures the stripped wood, bare brick, soft lit feel, and the night I went with Plus 1, it was heaving. Two extensive floors were packed with a boisterous Leicester Square crowd – international, touristy, post movie, post shopping, hungry and not (I fear) especially discerning.
What we ate: As we bartered over what we fancied noshing on, we ordered some cocktails to smooth our way – me, a champagne-guava juice number, and Plus 1, a Twisted G&T – as in ‘bitter and twisted’. Both were delicious, and they primed us to summon up a smorgasbord of dishes from the different sections of the menu – street, beach and railway – although we didn’t anticipate that these would all arrive at once.
They did, and so faced with a bewildering array of dishes, we dived in pell-mell. There were succulent lamb kebabs and meaty grilled paneer cubes, both nicely flavoured and served with a minty coriander and chili dip. There were Kolkata putchkas’s – crisp mini puris filled with spiced potato and served with pomegranate vinaigrette – and a mixed platter of coastal-shack inspired treats, including spicy squid, pepper prawns and tilapia fish fingers. These jostled alongside bowls of yellow dhal, rice, sag paneer, onion bhaji, baby aubergine curry, and a bucket of naan. The table was, well, teeming.
Our neighbours were more modest. Working to a theme of less is more, they opted for the ‘stand menu’ – literally a cake stand, with three preselected popular dishes for customers to sample, plus rice and dhal. This stand menu is innovative and appetizing, as well as good value. Perhaps we ought to have followed their example.
As it was, we experienced highlights and lowlights.
Likes: The pluses included; clever culinary innovations; good cocktails; flavoursome grilled food, and a stunning dessert - the exemplary malai kulfi. Think Indian milk shake, with ice cream, rose water, vermicelli and squidgy basil seeds, yum.
Dislikes: The downsides were that some of the food was served cold, and the timing of service was all wonky: we waited half an hour to get our food and then everything came at once. Also, some of the dishes were either completely bland (the dhal), uninspiring (the puris), or in one dish, offensive – a slimy sag paneer that tasted overwhelmingly of fenugreek.
Verdict: The thing about street food is that you’ve gotta kinda be there, or there’s it ends up feeling fake. With Imli Street, I suspect that we might have gone another evening and found the food fine, but on a Saturday night, and with the lovely wait staff rushing around to keep up with the incoming crowds, standards weren't perhaps what they might be. This is a challenge that Imli Street can, I am sure, rise to meet. But at the root of my quibble, there’s a serious point to be made about the potential of the current fad for street food to devolve into High Street food – indifferent to eat, and as far removed from authentic grit and spit as it is from fine dining.