Attawa, London E8: ‘I’ve eaten my own dal for months: it tastes like a wet weekend in Bognor’ – restaurant review | Grace Dent

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On the way to Attawa, a brand new Punjabi restaurant in east London, I sighed that, for a restaurant critic, the rules of engagement were once so simple. I’d stuff down three courses, in London, Leeds or Liverpool, kip like a Kardashian in a Premier Inn bed, feast lavishly on its 7am tureen of simmering tinned mushrooms, then write up the adventure on the train home. You’d reply telling me that the restaurant was too far away, too pretentious, too pricey, and that my prose was like damp fog and that you’d never read me again. We did this week in, week out. It was brilliant.

I genuinely miss what we had. I miss proper restaurants desperately. I even miss the war of attrition that is a 15-course tasting menu starring yeast fragments, wood ants and pickled bracken, served with tales of the chef’s childhood and capped off by a digestif of Fernet-Branca, which tastes of bin juice. The UK restaurant scene, pre-Covid, was exhausting and endlessly silly; but it was also robust and alive and forever entertaining.

But as I looked at Attawa’s menu online, I started wondering whether I should do the 10-mile round trip to collect, and worrying if delicious things available in Dalston are something you really want to read about. Presently, the UK dining scene is delicate. There are haves, there are have-nots. In the far north, where my family are, there’s no delivery restaurant food or takeaway; snaring an Asda online slot is still a nocturnal game of wits. Millions are still in the “long stare into the freezer and busking it with couscous” stage of lockdown.

Meanwhile, the Mayfair restaurant and oligarch’s playpen Novikov, I’m informed, is offering to deliver king crab leg gratinated with wasabi cream to your private jet on the runway. For £70, excluding delivery. It’s the type of green shoot of hospitality recovery that might make Lemmy stir from his grave and re-record Motörhead’s Eat The Rich. London is currently awash with fancy places pivoting to build-your-own-signature-dish hubs, where, for about £100 and provided you live within five miles of Covent Garden, you can unpack your own confit duck breast and pommes aligot from a sea of plastic, arrange it wonkily on a plate and regain a fresh appreciation for sous-chefs and catering colleges.

Attawa is the next stage of the comeback. Just as life erupted, MasterChef: The Professionals 2019 semi-finalist Arbinder Duggal was about to open a bricks-and-mortar sit-down spot named after the owners’ home village in north India and serving handed-down recipes. I spent Friday perusing the menu of Punjabi chicken kari, dal makani, pindhi chole and tandoor roti, and felt unable to resist. I’ve eaten my own dal for months: it tastes like a wet weekend in Bognor. How do they do it at Attawa?

And, let it be said, it’s ballsy in the extreme to open anywhere new right now. Good for them, I say. Anyone who hopes to turn a profit in summer 2020 has had seriously to scratch their heads. How can the sums work now that chefs are beholden to Just Eat and Deliveroo surcharges? How can customers collect food when British traffic wardens are some of the world’s most enthusiastic?

Most importantly, new openings are all about making a great first impression, creating future regular customers with delicate flavours and arch technique. Pretty, complex things such as Duggal’s palak papdi chaat – a dreamlike arrangement of potato, chickpeas and crisp, frittered baby spinach – should probably not be driven miles and spooned straight out of the carton. His fragrant, creamy black dal makani is the stuff of dreams; possibly London’s greatest, most pacifying use of lentils. It wasn’t ideal that I had to reheat them in the microwave or that the delicate, homespun roti was ever-so-slightly past its best. When Duggan sketched out the Amritsar khatta ladoo – fluffy, fried lentil dumplings on sweet relish and carrot – he possibly did not envisage them being eaten, 14 hours later, by a northern woman in her dressing gown reaching into the fridge.

Yet Attawa was worth leaving the house for. These warriors at the forefront of the UK dining comeback – use them or lose them. None of this is perfect, but we don’t have time to wait for that.

Attawa 6 Kingsland High Street, London E8, 020-7254 1236. Open (for takeaways only currently) Weds-Sun 5-10pm. About £25 a head for a full meal.





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