Kokum, London SE22: ‘The cooking brims with ambition and pride’ – restaurant review | Indian food and drink

Kokum is a fruit that’s used like tamarind in southern Indian cooking to add sour, fruity, salty depth to curries and to lend punch to coconutty veggie dishes. Kokum is also the name of a modern Indian restaurant on East Dulwich Road in south-east London that, like all contemporary subcontinental restaurants, has a tightrope to walk: they’re brimming with ambition and a need for authenticity, while at the same time having to cater to a neighbourhood clientele.

Kokum the restaurant offers uthappam rice pancakes, fish koliwada and beef short rib stewed nihari-style, and aims to explore different culinary corners of this vast country while also being aware of the need to list at least one chicken dish in a tomatoey sauce on the mains so as not to scare the horses. New openings such as this want their decor to be chic, semi-industrial and never cosy or chintzy, and to offer complex cocktails spiced with chai and cayenne, but know they run the risk that locals may come to visit once, deem the place “a bit trendy” and never return. The other dilemma is that this kind of authenticity doesn’t come cheap: that nihari short rib contains saffron and kewra, and the boozy Kalcutta cosmos feature roasted fenugreek syrup. “Eleven pounds fifty for a raan uthappam!?” some will shriek, overlooking that this stew of kid lamb is simmered for 12 hours and served with homemade coconut chutney.

‘Simmered for 12 hours’: Kokum’s goat raan uthappam.

If anyone can pull this trick off, it is Sanjay Gour, who used to be head chef at Gymkhana in the West End of London, which was a gamechanger in the British-Indian restaurant world. I could wax lyrical about the cooking, service and Michelin stars (of which, as of last week, it now has two), but that would possibly mask the main message, which is that Gymkhana is simply one of Britain’s best reasons to leave the house. Should anyone ever offer you a table there, say yes without blinking, order the lasooni wild tiger prawns, the methi malai mutter paneer and the rasgulla tiramisu. After leaving Gymkhana, Gour and his Gymkhana colleague Nand Kishor opened the much-loved Dastaan in Ewell in 2016 (and a second branch in Leeds in 2022), and Black Salt over in East Sheen. Kokum is Gour’s newest baby, where he works alongside co-founder Simeron Lily Patel and executive head chef Manmeet Singh Bali, ex of the Turnberry hotel in Scotland.

The samosa chaat at Kokum Dulwich: ‘a crunchy, balm-like side dishmouthful.’

We visited on the wettest, windiest winter Wednesday night imaginable, fully expecting to be the only people there and instead finding an almost booked-out restaurant. Whatever Kokum’s doing, word of mouth has certainly spread. From the small plates section of the menu, we tried the uthappam, which to the untrained eye looks a bit like a pikelet, all pale and puckered with holes, but which is, in fact, a kind-of dosa made with fermented rice batter and, in this instance, topped with a rich, dark, meaty stew. There are deceptively spicy pani puri: spherical, deep-fried little vessels of chickpea and potato singing with tamarind, mint and coriander and littered with moong sprouts. There’s an ornate samosa chaat in which chopped vegetable samosa, chickpeas, herbs and yoghurt combine to create a crunchy, balm-like mouthful. From the tandoori section, which also features kasundi prawns and roast cauliflower, we had the seekh kebab – a kofta-like roll of minced lamb made aromatic with cardamom and cumin, and served with a pile of softened onion salad and a quenelle of tempered apple chutney.

If those starters sound a little on the fancy side and perhaps overly arty, you’ll be pleased to learn that the mains selection is much more brown, beige, gravy-laden things-in-bowls. Nobody wants butter chicken, lamb rogan josh or pork vindaloo deconstructed and served with a sparkler. Still, Kokum’s main courses are made with the same seriousness as the small plates: prawns are made lively with lime leaf, coconut sauce and patty pan squash, and a paneer makhani with cottage cheese has just the right amount of fenugreek.

The chicken kholapuri and truffled pecorino kulcha at Kokum, south London.

There is a pride in this cooking, in each Hyderbadi biryani and even in each serving of pre-dinner papads and pickles, while attentive staff keep a close eye on the likes and dislikes of every table. Writing about bread can sometimes feel a waste of words, but Kokum’s truffle pecorino kulcha is outrageous. Did I really need a cheesy, truffly flatbread to wipe through a puddle of slow-cooked black lentil dal? No, it was probably louche and unnecessary. But would I do it again, then carry on and order the bebinca coconut and cardamom cake, leave clasping a variety of paper bags full of little leftover bits and eat the rest of the kulcha stood at the door of my fridge the next day? Yes, in an instant.

Kokum is a neighbourhood restaurant that’s bringing Gymkhana-style newness and experimentation to a corner of south-east London, and at about half the price. By the looks of things, the locals have already found it, and they probably won’t thank me for telling you.

  • Kokum 58-60 East Dulwich Road, London SE22, 020-3551 1883. Open Tues-Fri dinner only, 5-11pm; Sat noon-2.30pm & 5-11pm, Sun noon-9pm. From about £35 a head, plus drinks and service

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