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
We went to Hazraj on the basis of your "exceedingly rare 9/10". After one of the most disappointing meals I have ever has in this city, I can only conclude that you have never eaten real Indian food.
Raj is Bengali and his chef is Gujarati. The food has sweet, packet masala flavours of Brick Lane's Bangladeshi curry houses and not of real spices. Gujaratis don't quite understand how to balance tamarind and date and therefore their version of street food is mostly bland. The garlic naan was so doughy it barely tasted cooked and the black daal was a saltless, watery mess. The lemon rice however was excellent - even though neither a Mumbai dish nor a street food - just like 90% of the menu isn't.
Ah yes of all the memorable meals in my life one has to be the steaming iridescent bowl of tomato soup dad used to bring into the lounge with a buttered slice of bread for us to eat in front of the tele in total bliss of its warm glow and that of the soup when mum was out and his skills of cooking just extended to being able to open a can and heat its contents till they gave Sellafield a run for its money. Its salts and sugars doing well to mask any real taste of tomato, and who says it has to contain any anyway, it's orange isn't that good enough for you?
It was therefore somewhat of a curious thing that those halcyon days should be bought back on a trip inspired by the advice of this website to go eat there.
Orders for starters and mains were taken and after discovering that most of the delicious aforementioned (and reviewed) chaats were no longer available (ever) there was a choice between 2 cold and 1 hot starter, the mixed options no longer being and option either, the adventures had truly begun!
A single samosa covered in a salad should not by any accounts count as a starter no matter how you present it and chopping it up only removes the ability to savour its crisp battered crust not that it would have one anyway after being heated in a microwave long after it was ever fried. But the salad was not bad, but that was not one had come for.
As an aside they don't do lunch at the moment and have not done for some time apparently, something to do with a lack of customers and being closed for 3 months, this may change apparently but not given the way things have gone and probably a good thing given the rush to make things in such a short time you would not be able to hear yourself over all the pinging as things are reheated.
The touch of the chefs freshly prepared skills therefore were definitely nowhere to be seen, more on this later, and as this place closes early unless there is a back exit this could truly be a two person affair given how things are done and one of them being the server. As we left the lights went off and the place shut up shop, aren't the cooks meant to scrub the place down each night?
So what's the deal with the tomato soup you ask? Ahhh that guardian puzzle of wondrous delight was still to come , well lets put it one way the Mumbai chefs must have definitely, given the above, left the building that night as what was served was precooked chicken pieces in tomato soup - slice of white anyone?
THANKS so much for this recommendation. Finally too a trip there and couldn't agree more. Was fortunate enough to be served by Raj himself which was just the cherry on top of an incredible evening. Totally deserving of 9/10!
I just wrote a blog on my site about it too if you want to read more ravings about the joy of Hazraj!
The food is sooooo delicious, authentic and they are super lovely in there - only way to support these fantastic businesses in our hood is to spend our hard earned wonga and spread word - so pleased you guys made it there - chai latte is incredible there too - on that note Arancini now do Chai Latte too - yummy!!
Awesome - will definitely be checking this place out at weekend - thanks for the heads up...!
Sidenote - visited Arancini Factory upon your review, told them I'd seen your post about the place - and have to say - have had the best flat white in the area - absolute gem of a place.
Had several great meals from here. The food is always sublime and fabulous value, you can tell that they really care about their stuff!