The Tamil Prince, London N1: ‘In short, it’s just great’ – restaurant review | Food

Ah, The Tamil Prince: Behold, the rise of the pub that is no longer a pub, but a pub-shaped restaurant serving beer. We will see a lot of this in the coming years. The British didn’t fall in love with the sights, sounds or shapes of their locals, but aimless drinking has certainly lost a place in our lives. “Food is cheating” was the rallying cry of the 1990s barfly, which sounds so oddly licentious these days, while food is the glue that binds us and now, more than ever, the kitchen profits hold the light.

At the Tamil Prince (which used to be The Cuckoo), the bar is still intact and serves pints of the likes of Purity, Harbor and non-alcoholic Lucky Saint, but they’ve given the place a glorious, comforting Farrow hue. & Ball Studio Green, turning it into a rather sleek, unofficial, South Indian reincarnation of the much-admired Malaysian/Singaporean street food joint Roti King. Prince Durairaj, the former executive chef at Roti King, now creates an upbeat atmosphere halfway down the Caledonian Road, offering flaky, soft, luscious rotis that are heavenly proof that God’s chosen carbohydrate is bread.

‘Beautiful and feather-light’: the onion bhajis of the Tamil prince.

If you’ve never heard of Roti King, it started life in a basement opposite a side entrance to Euston station and has since spread its toes to other venues and food halls across London, and this no-frills cafe has long been a favored by food addicts, commuters and hungry college students. So much so that it is massively oversubscribed, dangerously addictive and the queue starts growing at 11am every morning. After a month in the spice-starved Lake District, I’ve been known to get off the Avanti west coast, unroll my suitcase from platform 13, and join the wait for a recovering roti canai.

Hailing from Tamil Nadu, Durairaj has found a more genteel environment for his take on valley makhani and bread butter masala. He built this vision with Glen Leeson, ex of slick food conglomerate JKS, while the cocktails are by Simone Pugi of Soho’s Bar Termini, where top bartenders spend their Mondays off. So the Tamil Prince would never become just another rundown pub spewing bhunas and pilafs from the microwave – which I say with no respect for Curry Club Thursdays in Wetherspoons, my father’s favorite restaurant, but not once have I ever felt asked to the chef there and shake his hand over the deft seasoning of his shrimp.

The 'sweet, pungent, crimson' paneer butter masala, at The Tamil Prince, Islington.
The ‘sweet, tart, crimson’ paneer butter masala, at The Tamil Prince, Islington.

Instead, the Tamil prince fires out a menu similar to Gymkhana’s in Mayfair. Intensely spiced grilled tiger prawns are so large they resemble a terrifying alien task force, followed by channa bhaturaa giant pillow of deep-fried dough with a satisfying chickpea curry.

In fact, about half of the short but meaningful menu is vegetarian and focuses on delicious things, mostly from Durairaj’s home state, and it’s broken down into the inevitable small plates and a few bigger offerings. Bowls of crispy, delicately spiced fried okra give way to spiced chicken lollipops with sweet homemade chutney to wipe them down. My favorite among the smaller dishes was the pulled beef masala uttapum, a thick, soft, spongy dosa that reminded me a bit of a drop of scone flavored with shredded meat. It was served with a brutally delicious chili coconut chutney that slips into your mouth like a balm, then turns into something incredibly spicy, yet forces you to devour the whole pot.

The pulled beef uttapum at The Tamil Prince, Islington.
Pulled beef uttapum from the Tamil Prince: ‘A thick, soft, rather spongy dosa that reminded me a bit of a licorice scone flavored with shredded meat.’

In many Indian restaurants it might be a shame to waste your appetite on the humble onion bhaji, but at the Tamil Prince it’s worth the risk as they’re gorgeous, feather-light and come with a vibrant mint chutney to complement their allium hues. We ate breaded butter masala, dunked our rotis in its sweet, tart, crimson sauce, before rocking the rest through vats of decent Thanjavur chicken curry and a dark, creamy dal makhani, which for a lentil lover was pure bliss.

In short, the Tamil Prince is simply amazing. It’s dog-friendly and the cocktails are imaginative, reminiscent of cardamom, rose water, and lime. The staff are cheerful and didn’t flinch when I showed up at opening time, along with the vans, to get a table for two. Nor did they know when, right after I started eating, I realized that two rotis would never be enough for all these delicious sauces and that I would need more right away. Desi pubs have been around for years, of course, but this is a sharp, bold rework of the concept into the here and now. In the current climate, the desi pub may be just what the industry needs. Curry and a Pint: Name a more iconic duo? At the moment that feels impossible.

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