Never have I waited in such anticipation for a restaurant to open. It was 2 months overdue but it didn’t matter because I was just glad it was finally open. Why? What’s so special about this place?
This restaurant is part of my childhood and it makes it quite nostalgic for me. I remember going to Salt n Pepper in Lahore, Pakistan when it used to be in a basement and even then it’s burgers and food, in general, used to be so popular that every trip to Lahore had to include a trip to Salt n Pepper. Fast forward 2 decades and this restaurant has turned into a hugely successful food conglomerate that not only ended up expanding to the full length of the building whose basement it occupied but also opened many other successful restaurants, each with their own niche. So when I found out, through their head chef in Pakistan, Mr Tauseef Butt, Salt n Pepper was to open it’s first international branch in London, I was beyond excited! This wasn’t some franchise opening their doors, but the first of it’s international chains. Some of my drool-worthy favourites they serve up back home are as follows. Taste has priority over presentation but who cares if the food is this amazing! : The stuffed chicken breast with pineapple sauce and Pakistani VIP #foodcoma
The exterior of Salt n Pepper with its seating outside and deck chairs gives a feeling of summer in the middle of, soon to be, a long winter. I love the fact they proudly display huge text emblazoned outside stating “contemporary Pakistani cuisine” which not many Pakistani restaurants in London would do!
On arrival, we were greeted by the staff and it was lovely meeting their GM Max Paswal who was very attentive and got us seated. Once comfortable, we were asked if we would like to drink anything. Max sat down with us and made us feel extremely hospitable. We were given a full background of what had been going on prior to Salt n Pepper opening, the delays they experienced and how they worked really hard to ensure they opened as smoothly as possible. Whatever it may be, I’m so glad they finally decided to open.
I loved the way they’ve designed their menu because at the beginning they have a map of Pakistan which highlights all the major cities and provinces of Pakistan. It also gives a background on Pakistani cuisine and the origins of some of the main dishes in the menu. For e.g the Balti dish that you get fed in most of the restaurants in London is not meant to contain 50 different spices. It is very concise and has dishes ranging from “handis” (meat dishes traditionally cooked in clay pots) to their ever popular grilled meat minus the nausea-inducing food colouring, a good selection of vegetarian dishes and traditional Pakistani desserts to satisfy your sweet tooth.
It’s great to finally be able to experience food from a really famous Pakistani food conglomerate that is cooked the Pakistani way. To ensure the authenticity of their food, four of their main chefs were sent to Pakistan to train in one of the Salt n Pepper restaurants in Lahore. These people are serious about their food and you can tell how passionate they are. It took them 8 years to finally make a move outside of Pakistan and they did not take this decision lightly.
It is far easier for a food business from abroad to get set up in Pakistan because you don’t have a gazillion regulations to follow. Yet, these guys persevered and are finally open for business. As Max said.” They didn’t come here to open another curry house” nor are they here to please everyone meaning they’re not going to make their curry sauces out of some sweet curry paste or alter the taste of the dish other than what it should be. They want to set themselves apart and in the process are setting out to re-educate the locals on what Pakistani food is really about. Hence, their choice of such a prime location behind the National Gallery in Leicester Square away from the “curry belts”.
Now time to talk about the food- I bet you were waiting for this! We decided to order off their special all day taster menu which had all the dishes I wanted to try. I wanted to try their karahi, how well made and spiced their biryani was and quality of their grilled meat. So we ordered seekh kebabs (mince meat cooked on skewers and traditionally grilled over charcoal), chappali (you’ll find different spellings) kebabs that are flattened mince meat kebabs originating from Afghanistan but very much a part of Pakistani cuisine and can be as big as your hand! The word chappali comes from Pashto word Chaprikh which means “flat”, Lahori chicken karahi and chicken biryani with a side of one garlic naan and one plain naan. (I will refrain from calling it naan bread because naan already implies it’s a bread so don’t quite understand the addition of bread next to naan in every single Asian restaurant!)
While we were waiting for the food, Max told us that they have chefs from all over Pakistan as well as some local chefs from England. They have a BBQ specialist, a curry specialist, “tandoor” specialist and even someone who makes an epic fully spiced biryani for the staff! (I was told I can order that too if I order a portion of 10-20 servings!) They make all their mother sauces fresh every single day. Everything that’s not used is thrown away because “if your basic ingredient isn’t fresh then your whole dish gets ruined.”
Alcohol is served on the premises so no need to bring your own. They have a big collection of whiskey so those into their drinks can indulge themselves quite happily with a curry main. The food finally arrived and the aromatic smell of spices and grilled meat was delicious. I just hoped the food was as good as the smell. I wanted to try the seekh kebabs first as they are one of my favourites back home.
I braced myself and took the first bite. If you’ve seen the cartoon movie Ratatouille, then you must’ve seen the scene where fierce critic Anton Ego takes the first bite of Ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood; that time he took his first bite of Ratatouille his mum cooked for him.
That was me.
The seekh kebabs tasted the exact same as they did when I first tasted them in Pakistan, and every single time thereafter. Food has the ability to invoke emotions in you that render you speechless. With a sense of euphoria, I moved onto the chappali kebabs- they were so tender and well spiced that I could’ve eaten them on their own.
After the chappali kebabs, I moved onto the much anticipated Lahori Chicken Karahi (my favourite!). It wasn’t swimming in oil and had fresh green chillies and sliced ginger mixed in the gravy- just how I like it. However, I would’ve liked a bit more spice to it but then again that varies from person to person. I like spicy food anyway!
Last one up from my mains was the Chicken Biryani. This was the only dish I gave feedback on as it wasn’t spicy enough to be a biryani and did not seem like it was cooked like a biryani. I looked and tasted more like a chicken pulao which is more subtle in taste compared to a biryani. Every spoonful of a biryani should pack a punch. Nonetheless, the rice was fluffy and aromatic.
Generally after eating a meal that should normally be shared by at least 3 people, I’d be ready to be carted off in a wheel chair. Or if you eat such a meal in a regular curry house you’d still be digesting it in the morning. Surprisingly, I did not feel heavy and fortunately for me, I did not feel like I was going to be sick. It was as if I had a home cooked meal and felt completely at ease ready to devour the dessert!
So, for the dessert we ordered two variations of a kulfi (a popular dessert in the sub-continent, it is denser and creamier than ice cream)- a mango kulfi and malai matka kulfi. The mango kulfi came in a regular ice cream bowl but I loved how well presented the matka (clay pot) kulfi was including the pot it came in topped with shavings of pistachio. Both were delicious! I was surprised to find out these kulfis are made by Italian gelato manufacturers in Italy. The owners tried the local suppliers but the kulfi they were selling is not the real deal. Not happy with the quality and lack of authenticity, they supplied an Italian company with the kulfi’s recipe and had them manufacture it for them. All I can say is- wow! They also have a “daal halwa” (popular Punjabi lentil dessert) in the menu on the insistence of Ms Nina Akbar who absolutely loves it and made sure that is one dessert her husband definitely included in the menu.
You can tell this isn’t just any business venture for Mr and Mrs Mahmood Akbar (owners and founders of Salt N Pepper UK). They are hardcore and passionate foodies who have decades of experience in the food industry, love food and the idea of sharing well-cooked delicious meals with their loved ones. A testament to the fact that they were entertaining their guests on their own turf rather than taking them to any other high profile restaurant that London has to offer- such is the confidence in their own food and their graciousness in accepting feedback. One can only hope this venture is successful as they’ve put in a lot of love and effort into it. Since it’s a soft opening, they’re working on making it better every day based on their diners’ suggestions and what they come across themselves.
Do visit Salt n Pepper, it’s a personal recommendation of mine.
View the Salt n Pepper menu.
Location: The closest station is Leicester Square station and the restaurant is located at 32 Orange Street WC2H 7HQ, behind the National Gallery. For the exact details, click here.
Contact number: 0207 9302 939
Some suggestions I’d like to make:
- The London food palate is very experienced and most of the people living here are well traveled and aware of different cuisines- they’re spoilt for choice so Salt n Pepper should not be scared to experiment or try something different even if that means serving up dishes proper “Lahori style”
- The chicken biryani definitely needs to be more spicy and more biryani-like
- The Pakistani VIP should make a surprise entrance for a limited time to gauge how diners would react to it. I think it will do really well.
And lucky for you! They are also running a 50% off all day taster menu till 20 October 2013.
So, If you’re around central London and confused about where to eat, then do give these guys a call! Their GM Max Paswal and their courteous staff will take good care of you. They’ve not only brought over authentic Pakistani cuisine but also the warm Pakistani hospitality that not many people get to experience in London.
P.S.: The day after I woke up, I had no stomach pains neither did I feel like I was still digesting my food from the night before, even though I ate like a total pig; says a lot about the quality of their food. Here’s hoping the standards are upheld and the food is as delicious and consistent on every single trip!