This passion is something I’ve carried with me into adulthood, and although I’ve tried more Indian and Pakistani dishes than I could probably list (if I could pronounce them in the first place), I am constantly discovering new and exciting delights. The first time I tried pani puri was probably one of the most defining moments in my foodie history and is an experience I endeavour everyone to seek out.
However, talking about ‘Indian food’ as a concept seems a bit too broad. Even within the vast subcontinent itself, there is so much variation in cooking styles and flavours. South Indian cuisine is a far cry from the food of the Northern regions (both are distinct, but equally delicious in my view). So for today, I’ll be going a little bit more specific, and talking about what I think may be the most decadent and comforting of all the country’s cuisines; Punjabi street food.
That’s why I was super excited to hear about the opening of Dhaba 59, a new Punjabi street food restaurant on Oxford Street. When I heard the concept, I immediately booked onto one of the pre-opening tasting sessions to ensure that I had the opportunity to experience as much of this menu as possible as soon as I could.
My experience of Indian restaurants in Southampton has varied widely in my many years here. Some produce fantastic, vibrant food – Chennai Dosa, Sanjha and Kohinoor of Kerala are three that spring to mind – and some offer watered down, flavourless fare. I won’t name them, but you’ll never see them on any list of recommendations I make. A running theme throughout all these restaurants I’ve visited, whether they’re good or bad, has been the formal (and quite old fashioned) dining experience. The white tablecloth (which always seemed a bit of a risk when you’re dealing with the staining power of turmeric), the fabric napkin, the odd decor that always felt like you were stepping into someone’s parent’s lounge. It has a quaint charm, don’t get me wrong, but when you have vibrant and gorgeous venues like Mango Thai or La Baronia, this outmoded setting for a meal doesn’t quite hold up.
That’s one of the things I really loved about Dhaba 59. It’s an unpretentious setting, where the waiters aren’t walking around in black tie, but wearing bright orange t-shirts. The cutlery sits in buckets on the table and there’s not a white tablecloth in sight. Instead of feeling like you’re setting foot into your nan’s lounge, you feel at ease when confronted with this renovation of the Indian dining experience.
There is nowhere else I can think of locally that you could order a plate of keema nachos. And what a plate it was! A rich and savoury topping of lightly spiced keema, complemented by the crispy nachos underneath, it was an excellent way to kick off our meal.
Then we moved onto one of the best dishes of the entire night (and from the sounds of it, a true fan favourite) – the Bombay Badboy. No, it doesn’t bear relation to the Pot Noodle of the same name. It’s much, much, much better than that. Brioche buns grilled in butter until lightly toasted, with aloo tikki sandwiched in the middle and topped with fresh coriander, these little sliders were an absolute dream. We added some of the chutneys that stayed on the table for the duration of the meal, and this really took the flavours to the next level. Perfectly balanced layers of soft, spiced potato with fresh bursts of onion and coriander, with a crisp, buttery brioche bun… my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Another highlight were the tandoori chicken wings – vibrant, tender and moreish, these were another great take on casual eating. Who doesn’t love a huge plate of hot wings, after all? Perfectly seasoned and balanced with a sharp squeeze of lemon, these wings were really quite delicious and perfect to share.
Now, another dish that really captured my heart was the pau bhaji. The buttery brioche buns make another appearance here, but this time are served alongside what initially looks like an unassuming bowl of vegetable curry. The kind of thing that looked like pure comfort food on a chilly winter’s day. Well, comforting as it was, it was also incredibly tasty. I didn’t expect the curry to be so light, but because it’s a mix of finely diced vegetables it bulks out the masala without making it stodgy and greasy, as can be the case with veggie curries.
We were served the restaurant’s signature curries with sides of naan and rice, sampling the eponymous Lamb and Chicken 59 and a helping of dal makhani. Creamy, buttery and delectable, that dal got me more excited for lentils than I’ve been in a long time. It was perfect.
The curries were nice, but for me weren’t the focal point of the meal. I think when you come to a place like this, you’re doing yourself a disservice to order curry when its specialty is high quality street food. If you want to make the most of your time here, order yourself table full of small plates to give yourself the best experience of the variety of Punjabi street food on offer!
After all our dishes (I literally couldn’t mention them all, but we also tried the Indo-Chinese inspired chilli paneer, chargrilled chicken tikka and some chaat), we were pretty stuffed, as I’m sure you can imagine. Nevertheless, we made room for some jalebi and masala chai, which was a perfectly indulgent end to a very indulgent meal. I’m pretty sure my body was about 40% butter on the way home (and I wouldn’t have had it any other way)!
I think Dhaba 59 is a great little addition to the Southampton restaurant scene, and offers a decent alternative to the other options on Oxford Street especially, which are quite pricey and not quite so fun! The way it caters to its target market of perhaps younger diners who are looking for a casual eating experience with a bit of personality is very clever, and I have to commend it on that.
With an unpretentious menu that adjusts the focus of Indian food away from curries and towards street food, the food on offer reminds me a lot of Dishoom in London. As a new restaurant, it’s already doing a lot of things very well, and I’m excited to watch them get even better! If you get the opportunity, pay them a visit and support a fantastic independent restaurant in our local community – this is not one that you want to miss!