It appears that Brighton and Hove is a city of curry lovers with a Dishoom restaurant due to launch shortly, Malika relocating from Brighton Marina to Kings Road and the recent opening of Mowgli on Dukes Lane.
Mowgli – the brainchild of former barrister turned chef-restaurateur Nisha Katona – opened in Liverpool back in 2014 and since then the Indian street food dining concept has grown into a thriving chain of 18 venues across the UK.
The Brighton restaurant opened a couple of months back and has thankfully brought some much needed life and energy to an increasingly desolate feeling Dukes Lane – a twitten that only a few years ago could quite rightly claim to be the city’s premium shopping destination.
The restaurant itself is spacious and airy, with plenty of light pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows. The decor isn’t particularly characterful with the furniture being functional; think ‘canteen’-style. That said, there’s a pleasant demarcation of spaces and you don’t feel other diners on top of you even on a busy seating: when we visited at 5-ish on a Thursday evening the restaurant was pretty much full, unlike many other eateries in the city centre.
Our server was a friendly-face from the past, having worked in the city’s hospitality industry for at least as long as I’ve written and promoted it. Thankfully we weren’t offered the swinging benches; they looked fun in a hokey Pollyanna kind of way but when you’re dining with a pensioner you want to be looking them in the face rather than the derrière. I’ll leave that thought with you.
The menu has plenty of choice ranging from snacks and wraps, gravy-based curries, daals, house specialities and sides. The descriptions are mouth-watering and with prices from £5 to £9 there’s a distinct temptation to over-indulge so - if your eyes are bigger than your belly - I think you’d definitely want to share plates with a friend or two.
The flip side of the menu has a comprehensive listing of dietaries – not just lacto and gluten but every major allergen is listed so you can make a really informed choice. Needless to say vegetarians and vegans are also well-catered for. I genuinely tip my hat at how clear and comprehensive this is; other restaurants should take note.
Now I’m very familiar with Mowgli: not because I’ve eaten at one of their restaurants before but because we have three of their cookbooks at home and they are probably the most used of our collection with at least one meal a week coming from the well-fingered pages.
So I thought it would be a fun experiment to order some of the Mowgli dishes we regularly make and enjoy at home: Sticky Chicken, House Chicken Curry and House Lamb Curry with a side of Temple Dahl and basmati rice.
This is where it all, unfortunately, began to unravel.
The Sticky Chicken had a nice enough texture but just tasted sweet; even the fresh chillies didn’t temper the over-riding sickliness. The House Lamb Curry was utterly one dimensional with no depth of flavour at all – there were chunks of congealed, unmelted fat and the larger pieces of meat were tough as proverbial old boots.
The Temple Dahl, despite being their most-vaunted daal option, was nothing to write home about. There was little flavour other than from the scattering of thinly diced chilli peppers; it could have been a tin of supermarket-bought thick lentil soup.
The meal was only marginally redeemed by the House Chicken Curry, which had more going for it than all the other dishes combined. The dominant flavours of creamy coconut juxtaposed with coriander at least gave it some level of depth.
Despite the dishes arriving in a traditional stacked tiffin, each had a very different level of temperature leading me to assume that there’s a lot of pre-prepared, pre-portioned food here that lands in vacuum-packed plastic bags out of the back of a lorry a couple of times a week. I sincerely doubt there’s a tandoor oven to be found in this kitchen; I question whether anything is even deep-fried here.
It seems to me an incredibly bizarre experience that my partner and I cook better Mowgli food at home than Mowgli do in their very own restaurant. And – whilst a keen amateur cook – I’m certainly no Raymond Blanc. The food wasn’t terrible but, looking back over my years of professional and personal eating and drinking – the good, the bad and the ugly –, I genuinely cannot think of a single restaurant that I’ve left feeling more disappointed by.
With so much existing good Indian food – both traditional and modern – in the city, and much more to come, to survive in Brighton Mowgli really needs to work hard on the ‘bare necessities’. And sharpish.
Mowgli Street Food, 12-14 Dukes Lane, Brighton BN1 1BG
01273 033 558 • www.mowglistreetfood.com