British pubs, driven by an unexpected burst of immigrant cuisine and culture, have been a longtime obsession of mine. At the Caribbean-run Golden Anchor in Nunhead, domino players slam their tiles amid oxtail stew. In Hounslow’s Punjabi-influenced African Queen, the blue-lit clubby room echoes with the sizzle of tandoori mixed grills and the constant roar of televised sports. Dive into the Castle Tavern in Woolwich and you’ll see pints of Stella used to wash down vast platters of Ghanaian red beans and fried plantain. They are rambling monuments to a specific type of multicultural, hybrid Britishness. But outside the Midlands, in particular – where South Asian-run ‘desi pubs’ proliferate – they remain a stubbornly unknown quantity.
In London at least, The Tamil Prince might be about to change that. A partnership between former Roti King colleagues (namely, Tamil Nadu-born executive chef Prince Durairaj and general manager Glen Leeson), this cleverly rendered Islington spot flies the flag for the desi pub while doing advance the medium. I can think of few other places where the sneak attack of exceptional food in an unassuming environment has felt so complex and electrifying.
And it’s really a pretty modest expression of form. Tucked away around the corner of a residential street in a 19th-century site that recently housed The Cuckoo, The Tamil Prince offers a kind of clever minimalism. The exterior was painted a buttery off-white; the main bar and dining room are largely bare, but for some plants, scuffed tables and bottle-green walls; there is no TV permanently on Sky Sports and there is Aesop and incense in the toilets. Arrived for a midweek lunch to find my mate Mark at one of only two tables occupied; a sign that, even though temperatures had yet to reach this week’s highs, eating king prawn moilee or slipping roti into chilli chutney was understandably low on the city’s heatwave priority lists. most Londoners.
It didn’t take long to realize that the loss of others was largely our gain. The okra fries were exceptionally effective: nubby green fingers, generously coated in batter defined by assertive spices as much as lace, an audible crackle. The chicken lollipops – essentially wings with the meat scraped off the bone and pushed down into a bulbous, browned mass – had an outrageous, gushing succulence. Elsewhere, the “large plates” section of a concise menu brought sumptuously charred lamb chops along with equally gargantuan tiger prawns, coated in a garlic masala marinade. “Honestly,” Mark said, “it might be one of the best shrimp I’ve ever eaten.”
These dishes demonstrate the kitchen’s ability to ignite a rocket under certain familiar combinations. But where The Tamil Prince excels is in its little surprise flourishes. The Desi salad brought a mass of kachumber-ish vegetables invigorated with sesame seeds and a mango vinaigrette; the pulled beef uttapam (a fluffy dosa pancake and Tamil breakfast staple, vigorously encrusted with chillies, tomatoes and coriander) had a wonderful swell of heat. That Durairaj riffs on his own South Indian heritage – in stark geographic contrast to traditional Punjab-inspired desi pubs – only adds to the richness of an experience that is so much more interesting than curries and pints. Of course, in addition to summer-ready nectarine spritzes, there are some really good draft beers from Harbor.
Yes, the dal makhani – beyond the incomparable crumpled roti canai we ordered alongside – was oddly forgettable. But it’s a mark of the gratuitous and blind lust of the Tamil prince who, looking at the menu again, all I can think of are the things I must try (the most pressing, channa bhatura: the zeppelin fried bread souffle which was not available when we were). We finished with a warm and syrupy gulab jamun, savoring every cool moment as the sun beat down outside. Pub restaurants have a fresh new prince. We have no choice but to bend the knee.
115 Hemingford Road, N1 1BZ; Meal for two plus drinks around £120. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.; thetamilprince.com