“GOD, two years ago there was nowhere to eat around here,” my companion commented as we met for dinner near the top of Petticoat Lane.
She’s half right. Spitalfields, a mere block away, has been building its rep as a dining destination for the last decade or so while its neighbour, Brick Lane, has of course been bang up for a curry since the beginning of time.
However, the ‘foodification’ of E1 had largely forgotten this little pocket of Aldgate.
That was until about two years ago when Harneet and Devina Baweja opened a tiny, no-reservation homestyle Indian restaurant called Gunpowder and White’s Row suddenly became home to row upon row of hungry diners.
The husband and wife team followed up with Himalayan hotspot Madame D’s in May this year, summoning Sichuan, Nepalese, Tibetan and Bengali flavours from the swathe of mountains separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau and planting them on Commercial Street.
Back across the road and the third reason we’re headed to this formerly-forgotten corner has arrived in the form of Gul & Sepoy, a return to Indian cuisine, but not as you know it. The two-part name refers to head chef Nirmal Save’s two-part menu, divided along the class lines of colonial India.
One half, Gul, focuses on dishes inspired by the banquets of the Raj palaces in northwestern India. The other, Sepoy, features more rustic, provincial-style dishes based on what the soldiers of the old Indian army would cook in the south.
It’s a sort of high/low mishmash that is old news in the fashion and art worlds, but has remained relatively untouched by the restaurant industry beyond the advent of the posh kebab.
This is a great oversight, as it turns out, because Gul & Sepoy’s selection of rich, sumptuous dishes balanced out by rustic cuts and simple flavours is a match made in heaven – or, as it turns out, Aldgate.
Armed with instructions to order two or three dishes per person and a couple of cardamom and chilli margaritas, we try to keep our selection evenly distributed across both sides of the menu, but Sepoy finishes with a slight edge on its upmarket neighbour.
Yam and paneer kofta chaat is a standout; the creamy texture of the cheese working wonders with the meaty yams on a bed of crunchy sev, while melt in your mouth masala pork is served chutney style with caramelised onions in a pot for diners to scoop out with crisp bread.
Also from the Sepoy side, a fillet of ambedi stone bass arrives crispy-skinned and sitting in a creamy, bright green ‘corgi’ sauce of spinach and coconut, a lighter alternative to the impressive looking tandoori sea bream served whole and richly spiced from the other side of the menu.
But that’s not to say the finer things in life shouldn’t have their place on your tiny table at Gul & Sepoy.
Giant wild prawns are punchy in a tangy kali mirch dressing, and the morel pulao’s buttery rice was the perfect vessel to mop up another Gul winner; bharva paneer with a rogan josh curry.
It’s all about balance, as they say, which means that by our reckoning Commercial Street might be due another restaurant from the Bawejas in 2018, just to round out the set.