Catch her off-guard, and Mrs Kentishtowner will slyly admit that her favourite hobby is to epater les bourgeois. And she has awarded Hazraj, a low-key diner on Fortess Road specializing in Mumbai street food, an exceedingly rare 9/10. These two facts may, or may not, be related.
Hazraj is unassuming, for sure, but its intriguing menu yielded unexpected delights. A sharing Chaat (£6.50) of street food came with little flags sweetly instructing us to scoop up all the ingredients together, thereby maximising the crunch and twang of the different textures. Bhel Puri’s combination of layers – puffed rice, lentils, chick peas, chutneys and salad – was our favourite, whilst Papdi Chaat replaced rice with crispy wafers. And accompanying these were Crispy Puri and Dahi Puri – mini round flatbreads gulped down with tamarind in a mouthful.
For mains we were served colourful tiffins (£6.95, pictured above), the first with a tender lamb rogan josh, lemon and mustard rice, and garlic nan; the other a nicely-spiced chicken jalfrezi with pulao rice and a sweet carrot nan. All the flavours swam together: we couldn’t recall more impressive Indian food at these prices in Kentish Town – or even north London.
In fact Mrs Kentishtowner, a veteran of the backpacking scene, began to recount tales of cockroaches crawling over raw squid on a beach in Kerala, inedible meat served to her in an orphanage near Mysore, and a seafood lasagne in Goa which damn near destroyed her innards-
Enough already! As we polished off our BYO bottle of Fleurie we cornered the owner, Raj, for some facts: 1) his Dad ran the legendary Covent Garden restaurant ‘Last Days Of The Raj'; 2) he named his own by adding his wife’s name (Haz) to his; and 3) they wanted originally to open in Belsize Park, but took a chance in a slightly tricksy spot in NW5 (Go Raj!) Oh, and as of tomorrow, it’s licensed, too.
So why the 9/10? Because if you take all the important things into account – taste, value for money, service, ‘returnability’ – it’s right up there. Our only caveat? Perhaps the decor could be more atmospheric. But how brilliant that NW5 is becoming a hotspot for budget international restaurants: Lahore Masala House, Queen Of Sheba, E.Mono, Satuma, Guanabana, Meze Ocakbasi: all these are worth investigating.
As we stepped outside, the sky overcast, the rain hitting us cold and hard, Mrs Kentishtowner appeared to be wiping a tear from her eye. ‘Where do we go from here?’ she asked, cryptically.
By way of answer the winds howled, and the litter swirled, for a moment, like a dervish – before disappearing back into the kerb.
Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms
Hazraj, Ia Fortess Road NW5. A meal for two, without wine, costs around £20-25. Kentishtowner Rating: 9/10