Roti Chai, Street Kitchen (££)
3 Portman Mews South, London W1H 6HS
Summary: All the basic ‘get right’ boxes were ticked at this bustling, friendly South Asian street food eatery (the ground level restaurant), but overall nothing was memorable or outstanding. Pick and choose your dishes well, though, and you’ll have a pleasant enough meal. Overall verdict: 6.5/10
Value for money: 7/10
Recommend: yes, worth a try if you’re in the area.
Other practical details: no reservations taken for street food section. Chicken and lamb is verbally confirmed as halal.
‘You look like a regular here, what would you recommend?’
I had barely sat down, and I had never been to Roti Chai before. But there must have been something in my demeanour which sent a signal of ‘this girl takes her food seriously’ that made the man and his companion ask me for my view. As it happens, I knew the menu, and so I reeled off a few recommendations: they wanted biryani so I told them to also ask for the off-menu options (little secret: Roti Chai offer chicken or lamb biryani but don’t have it on the menu – how do I know this? Aha…). In the meantime, my friend and I were seated and dived into a selection of South Asian street food…
Roti Chai is a restaurant of two halves. Downstairs is the swanky, dimly lit restaurant offering more elaborate meals at high end prices; upstairs is the hectic, heaving, cheaper Street Kitchen, offering street food. The latter does not take reservations and had a queue on a mid-week night in the pouring rain. Given the quiet downstairs and how busy it was upstairs, I think the street food option is the better bet.
I am always a little dismissive of South Asian restaurants in general, whether they’re authentic – owned and run by Indians/Pakistanis/Bengalis normally in ethnically diverse areas, serving up classic dishes for people who know and eat the food regularly – or the more polished, normally pricier but typically more imaginative version aimed at Western appetites. Coming from a Pakistani background myself, it has to take a lot to make me part with good cash for food which I could probably trump at home. But I do love our street food, and its explosion of colours, textures, temperatures, and flavours. Crunchy sev sprinkled over creamy yoghurt sauce and tamarind chutney, housing a warm samosa underneath the sauce mountain – yum. Or juicy, seasoned meat cooked in a fresh tandoor, with a hint of fire in the flavour, served with freshly baked naan – my personal favourite. Or maybe some quick fried chilli paneer, served with sautéed peppers – a household favourite. To name but a few…
It was the lure of that which brought me to Roti Chai, because that’s what they do: they call it ‘modern Indian soul food’, and it’s essentially South Asian street food in a small plate version, so you can order a few and share, and hopefully get your fingers deliciously mucky while you do.
It took us 30 minutes to be seated, which was a little unexpected (not in a good way) on a Wednesday night. The place was packed, and the hostess offered us a seat inside while we waited. Once seated at our table, we were seen to straightaway by a friendly, smiling waiter who seemed to have been made-to-order for the place: he looked like a Middle Eastern Salman Khan, complete with flexing muscles and cheeky smile. He did his job well: at his recommendation (plus the smile), we ended up ordering the pulled chicken bun as well as the lamb, which I hadn’t planned on doing.
The menu is divided into ‘street’ dishes – small, tapas-style dishes designed to order in volume and share; ‘buns’, essentially a slider/burger, in a pulled chicken, lamb patty, and veg version; and ‘road and railway’, which has more substantial rice and curry-style dishes. They recommend getting one bun/railroad dish and 1-2 street dishes each. We ordered two buns and three street dishes between us, and that was more than enough.
We kicked off with drinks: a cantaloupe and papaya cooler, and the iced chai. The latter was delicious, and probably my favourite part of the meal: it was sweet (maybe a bit too sweet for some), and deliciously laced with heady spices, mixed into milk and crushed ice. I loved it. The cooler was nice and fresh, but I definitely preferred the iced chai.
Now, the food…
We ordered the Hakka Chilli Paneer, Aloo Papri Chaat, and Parsi Chicken Farcha from the ‘street’ menu, and the (lamb) Kebab Bun and – thanks to our Salman Khan-lookalike – the Chilli Chicken Bun from the ‘bun’ menu.
The Parsi Chicken Farcha is small pieces of marinated, battered and fried chicken, served with a house curried ketchup. We originally ordered the Chicken Lollipops but switched to this when we saw them arrive at another table, and they looked really enticing. They were nicely spiced (not too spicy at all) and moreish, although my friend thought the sauce was what made the dish interesting, rather than the chicken itself. I liked that the batter was not heavy, and for a fried dish it was not greasy or too heavy, but seemed to have the chicken-to-batter-to-oil ratio just right.
The Aloo Papri Chaat is a street food classic. Served cold, it is a hearty ‘salad’ made of boiled, seasoned potato, crunchy pieces, chickpeas, yoghurt sauce and tamarind (imli) chutney, which gives it a brilliant sweet-sour, almost literally lip-smacking flavour. What can go wrong is an incorrect ratio of ingredients, or bad seasoning, or no imli chutney, which is a crime. The Roti Chai was none of these things, thankfully, but it was on the teeny side – £4.80 for essentially four bites of potato, crispy pieces etc is steep, especially when you know you’d get a small tub of this from an authentic South Asian snack bar for the same price.
The Hakka Chilli paneer is described in the menu as ‘fiery Indo-Chinese warm salad with fresh green chilli’. I was expecting chunky pieces of marinated fried paneer with a hint of fire, but what I got instead was a few pieces of very mild paneer in a strange, warm salad with spring onions and lettuce. I’m always mildly offended by lettuce anyway – it’s a filler with no taste, and a cheap substitute for real food – but warm lettuce was really puzzling. The paneer was nice enough, nothing special, but again for the price – £5.50 – I’m expecting more paneer and more sautéed peppers and appropriate vegetables than warm lettuce coated in a mild, indistinguishable sauce. Not impressed by this.
The buns are fairly light burgers: brioche buns filled with either pulled, spiced chicken (Chicken Chilli Bun), or a lamb kebab patty (Kebab Bun), not dissimilar to a chapli kebab (a Pakistani meat classic). Both came with a sweet-sour sauce, I suspect tamarind-based (which I love).
The chicken bun was nice but again, nothing special. The sauce gave the whole thing a bit of a lift.
The lamb kebab bun was more flavoursome, being more seasoned and topped with a few pomegranate seeds. However, it was no match for some of the kebabs I’ve tasted elsewhere, particularly my mum’s home-made ones. The lamb bun was the one I really wanted to try, and it wasn’t bad, but again it wasn’t amazing.
We saw the Chicken Lollipops floating by on a plate headed to another table, and I noted to myself that if I were to come again, I would order those because they looked pretty dang good.
I’m a total sucker for ogling at what others are eating at nearby tables, and I was tempted by the chocolate cake being devoured at the table next to ours, so I ordered that for dessert – purely for the sake of this review, obviously. It looked decadent and rich, and came with a nicely speckled scoop of vanilla ice cream, but sadly the taste did not match the appearance: it was underwhelming, with no real taste of anything, even though the texture was nice and gooey. The vanilla ice cream was also a little flavourless, so that was a disappointment.
The service was quite frenetic and a little disorganised, which is not entirely surprising given how busy it was. The kitchen got our order wrong once, and we almost missed out on a dish (the chilli paneer), until we reminded the staff that we hadn’t got it yet. However, the staff were polite and, when they were with us, were attentive and helpful.
Overall…I thought about my recommendation to the couple before our meal. If I were to be asked the same question again now, I would say: go, it’s worth a visit, but choose carefully. My selected dishes would be the Kebab Bun, the Chicken Lollipops, the Parsi Chicken Farcha and maybe something from the Road and Railroad menu, like the Manchurian or even the off-menu biryani (which is served in a little steaming pot and looked pretty good, even though I don’t really eat biryani). Our bill came to around £23 per head, including tip, but I think you could eat well for under £20 a head. But don’t go expecting well seasoned dishes with punchy taste. It’s not that authentic. Just expect to not be offended by the food. And do order the iced chai, which is not authentic at all but tastes pretty damn good anyway.