One of the stranger aspects of the British love of curry (or perhaps just an illustration of its importance to us) is its prominence in our political life.
Robin Cook once argued that Chicken Tikka Masala was a ‘true national dish’, representing the perfect fusion of Indian and British influences. Some Indian restaurants adorn their walls with photographs of political diners, while Gordon Brown secured his succession to power following an infamous ‘curry house coup’.
Our experience at Punjab 58, billed as a ‘new concept in Indian dining’ on Stoke Newington Church Street, certainly began with intense deliberation and suspense, and even the potential for conflict. But we were not plotting anything, merely negotiating the extensive list of cocktails we were presented with on arrival.
Alongside classics such as Whisky Sour, Cosmopolitan and Mojito were some truly exotic house specials like Pomegranate and Basil Daiquiri, and a ‘Champagne Cocktail’ (pomegranate, vodka, gomme, bubbles). My own choice was the Punjab 58 Hot Chai Bajito: warm chai spices with basil and a choice of spirit. I opted for gin and was most impressed. Both comforting and energising, the drink proved a suitable introduction to the meal.
This isn’t actually an Indian restaurant: the recipes are from the Punjab region which incorporates both that country and Pakistan. And while many of the names on the menu are very familiar (Jalfrezi and Rogan Josh, for example), the food stands out for its subtlety, relying on depth of flavour rather than pure heat to win us over, making entirely believable the claim that dishes are prepared to order with fresh ingredients.
We were very happy with our choices of Rogan Josh, Shahi Haleem, Ginger Chicken, and Karahi Chicken (each roughly £7). We didn’t try any of the seafood mains, but they would have been good to judge by the Sindhi Fish starter: cooked to a fine degree of succulence and encased in a tasty spicy batter. The mixed grill starter for two was polished off with telling speed, and the Garlic Naan, Paratha and Pilau Rice accompaniments were also excellent. What you won’t find on the menu is Chikken Tikka Masala: a nebulously defined dish whose generic quality makes it typical of the kind of food that this restaurant takes pains to avoid.
So, a general thumbs-up: the generous portions were gratefully consumed, even by one friend who claimed to be “never hungry”. But we awaited the comments of another dining companion, a self-professed gastronome with a history of withering culinary judgements. His verdict: “I’m not sure about the plates. They’re shaped like eggs.”
Indeed, the plates were rounded triangles rather than the more conventional circular model. But I have confidence that most Hackney residents will be able to take them in their stride, and I think we can take the observation as a compliment to the food. (Whatever their shape, they were after all left clean.)
What our friend had put his finger on was the restaurant’s modern design: Punjab 58 has a smart and sleek aesthetic and you’ll find tasteful prints on the walls here rather than a photo of Anne Widdecombe or John Major. Along with the cocktails, the decor demonstrates the continuing evolution of Indian (or partly Indian) cuisine in Britain. We are now more curious and discerning about where our food comes from: but alongside authenticity we also look for innovation.
This restaurant does well on both counts. It could be somewhere to go for a special occasion (with non alcoholic cocktails, lagers and wines also well represented on the drinks list) but the reasonable prices of the food also suit it to more everyday visiting. The friendly service contributes to the welcoming atmosphere: in turn, this restaurant is a very welcome addition to Church Street. That is, unless your ideal Indian meal consists of Chicken Tikka Masala on a round plate.
58 Church Street
020 7254 5021