Ah, The Tamil Prince: behold, the rise of the pub that is no longer a pub, but rather a pub-shaped restaurant that serves beer. We’ll see much of this over the coming years. The British didn’t fall out of love with the sights, sounds or shapes of their locals, but aimless boozing has certainly lost a place in our lives. “Eating is cheating” was the battle-cry of the 1990s barfly, which sounds so quaintly debauched today, when eating is the glue that bonds us and now, more than ever, the kitchen profits are keeping the lights on.
At the Tamil Prince (which used to be The Cuckoo), the bar is still intact and serving pints of, among others, Purity, Harbour and no-alcohol Lucky Saint, but they’ve painted the place a glorious, comforting shade of Farrow & Ball Studio Green, and turned it into a rather sleek, unofficial, south Indian reincarnation of the wildly admired Malaysian/Singaporean street-food joint Roti King. Prince Durairaj, the one-time executive chef at Roti King, is now creating joyful vibes midway up the Caledonian Road, offering flaky, soft, luscious rotis that are heavenly proof that God’s chosen carbohydrate is bread.
If you’ve never heard of Roti King, it began life in a basement opposite a side entrance to Euston station and has since spread its toes into other locations and food halls across London, and this no-frills cafe has long been a favourite with food obsessives, commuters and hungry students. So much so that it’s wildly oversubscribed, perilously addictive and the queue starts building at 11am every morning. I’ve been known, after a month in the spice-starved Lake District, to get off the Avanti West Coast, trundle my suitcase from platform 13 and join the wait for a restorative roti canai.
Durairaj, who hails from Tamil Nadu, has found more genteel surroundings for his takes on dal makhani and paneer butter masala. He has built this vision with Glen Leeson, ex of the slick dining conglomerate JKS, while the cocktails are by Simone Pugi from Soho’s Bar Termini, which is where top bartenders spend their Mondays off. So, the Tamil Prince was never going to be just another dilapidated pub flinging out microwaved bhunas and pilaus – which I say with no disrespect to Curry Club Thursdays at Wetherspoons, my father’s favourite restaurant, but not once have I ever felt prompted to find the chef there and shake his hand over the deft spicing of his prawns.
Instead, the Tamil Prince is firing out a menu of a similar standard to the likes of Gymkhana in Mayfair. Intensely seasoned grilled tiger prawns are so huge that they resemble a frightening alien task force, and are followed by channa bhatura, a giant’s pillow of deep-fried dough with a satisfying chickpea curry.
In fact, about half of the short yet meaningful menu is vegetarian and focuses on delicious things primarily from Durairaj’s home state, and it’s divided into the inevitable small plates and a few larger offerings. Bowls of crisp, delicately seasoned fried okra give way to spiced chicken lollipops with sweet homemade chutney to sweep them through. My favourite among the smaller dishes was the pulled beef masala uttapum, a thick, soft, spongy dosa that reminded me a bit of a drop scone flavoured with shredded meat. It was served with a brutally delicious chilli coconut chutney that slips into your mouth like balm, then transforms into something incredibly punchy, yet still compels you to devour the entire pot.
In many Indian restaurants, it may feel a shame to waste your appetite on the humble onion bhaji, but at the Tamil Prince, it’s worth the risk, because they’re gorgeous, feathery-light and come with a vibrant mint chutney to complement their allium tones. We ate paneer butter masala, dunking our rotis into its sweet, pungent, crimson sauce, before moving the rest back and forth through vats of decent Thanjavur chicken curry and a dark, creamy dal makhani, which, for a lentil lover, was sheer happiness.
In short, the Tamil Prince is just plain great. It’s dog-friendly, and the cocktails are imaginative and redolent of cardamom, rose water and lime. The staff are upbeat and didn’t flinch when I appeared at opening time, at the same time as the delivery vans, to cadge a table for two. Nor did they tut when, moments after starting to eat, I realised that two rotis would never be enough for all these delectable sauces and that I’d need extra immediately. Desi pubs have, of course, been around for years, yet this is a sharp, bold reworking of the concept into the here and now. In the current climate, the desi pub may just be what the industry needs. Curry and a pint: name a more iconic duo? Right now, that feels impossible.