D.C.’s energetic new London Curry House pays homage to the bustling city streets of U.K.’s capital where fiery curries, ales, and fish and chips are king.
Restaurateur Asad Sheikh (Bombay Street Food, Butter Chicken Company) revives the brand he used to own in Alexandria with a D.C. edition centered around popular Indian dishes long loved by the British (1301 U Street NW). London Curry House officially opens for dinner on Friday, January 14, with a 75-seat dining room displaying the confluence of Indian and British cultures: “We were colonized by the British for 500 years and just got our independence in 1947,” says the Bombay-born Sheikh, and a reminder of India’s independence date (August 15) is spelled out across one themed mural.
Elsewhere, find British flags framing the bar, a towering print of Big Ben, and an iconic red telephone booth from England with its original rotary phone inside. A supersized image of a smiling Anthony Bourdain double fisting Mumbai’s ultimate veggie street snack steals the show in one corner. Sheikh memorializes his culinary icon by putting up his picture in each location. At London Curry House, the late Parts Unknown host and known lover of Indian cuisine overlooks a six-top of glowing white tables that could double as a club’s VIP bottle service area.
Despite lots of loud and entertaining eye candy, the real focus is on the top-notch (and hot) curries London is known for.
“London has the best, best, best curry houses out[side] of India,” Sheikh says.
A section of five signature dishes introduces D.C. to curries like dopiaza, an onion-heavy South Indian staple with bold notes of red chile, ginger, and garlic. Saagwala, a light curry common in northern Indian cooking, features spinach and warm spices. Other curries in the house include a smooth jaipuri (roasted red chile with yogurt) and coconut-free madras fish curry that’s big on tamarind. Britain’s national dish, chicken tikka masala, naturally makes an appearance, too. To sample a popular cross section at once, opt for a trio of small curries (veggie or meat) served in a row of cups. The one-person order includes mini versions of its celebrated chicken tikka masala, flavorful goat curry, and tender lamb rogan josh in a creamy tomato curry.
Meanwhile, to perfect the restaurant’s fish and chips, Sheikh says he taste-tested the local competition at “each and every” D.C. restaurant known for it. “It’s London, so the fish and chips has to be right,” he says.
London Curry House’s final cut plates super crispy cod alongside thick potato wedges. There’s intentionally no ketchup or tartar sauce in sight. Instead, its fried spuds arrive slathered with one of kitchen’s spiciest curries. (Sheikh suggests taming its heat with a milky mango lassi, or a side of cool raita will do.) “I’m hoping people do like it. The flavor is there, the spice is there,” he says.
Its elements speak to the days when ex-British merchant navy seamen from Bangladesh would sell curry alongside fish and chips on London’s streets, going on to open what are considered some of the world’s finest curry houses today.
Starters like nargisi kofta come with a history lesson. The popular Indian appetizer features halved hard-boiled eggs encased in a lamb mixture, deep fried and doused in rich curry. The dish is arguably where Scotch eggs originated from. Other openers include jalfrezi fries starring stir-fried bell peppers and bite-sized Amritsari fish fritters, a street snack rooted in Punjab’s city of Amritsar.
Sheikh previously ran a string of successful Indian restaurants with British ties across the Potomac, which includes the original London Curry House in Alexandria, Curry Mantra, and 1947. He sold the whole Northern Virginia portfolio at once in order to put all his eggs in one D.C. basket, starting with the 2018 opening of Bombay Street Food in Columbia Heights. The love letter to the Bombay street foods he ate growing up has since expanded to Adams Morgan and Barracks Row, with another en route to National Harbor later this spring.
London Curry House shows off some best sellers at Bombay Street Food, like biryani and fiery vindaloo, served with lamb, goat, or chicken.
It’s his first establishment with a full bar, and cocktails unite Indian spices with across-the-pond spirits. A “Chaiwala Martini” is built with Chase English potato vodka, and a “Jal-Jeera Gin and Tonic” works with Minke Irish gin, cumin-spiced honey, and Fever Tree Indian tonic. A bottled beer list includes India’s Taj Mahal and U.K.’s Newcastle Brown Ale and Old Speckled Hen, along with drafts and D.C. favorites. For dessert, Britain’s beloved rice pudding joins India’s creamy pistachio kulfi and mango chutney.
The 95-seat space that formerly housed a sushi spot is capped at 75 for now due to COVID-19. The renovation required swapping woks for all new kitchen equipment suited for an Indian restaurant. A tandoor oven is tasked with cooking spicy tandoori chicken wings and an array of naan to sop up all the sauces on-site.
The pandemic posed expected supply chain issues, and chairs alone took five months to arrive. Basmati rice — a necessary curry accoutrement — is so hard to get from India these days, he says, it’s doubled in price. The fast-moving restaurateur says seven months is the longest he’s ever taken to open a dining establishment.
It was worth the wait in order to finally bring his London Curry House to its intended home, in a dense city like D.C., he says. Before the Northern Virginia original opened to high praise from Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, he took a 10-day trip to London with his chef to experience all the curries firsthand. He’s also always loved the metropolis for the punctuality of its public transit that flows in a circle.
“The buses and trains are so good. Our Metro is a mess,” he says.
The famous London Underground logo gets big props on one wall, rebranded with the D.C. restaurant’s address: 1301 U Street.
London Curry House opens at 5 p.m. for walk-in dinner to start, with bar and food service until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends (closed Monday).
Next up for the owner: taking his homegrown Butter Chicken Company brand nationwide. He has franchise deals in the works to open up to 100 fast-casual location its in two years, he says.