Roti Chai. Do you have soul?

A few weeks ago my boss and I were preparing for an interview. One of my questions to him was what he feared the most; he replied “failure”. I’m not sure what I would have said just then if he had asked me the same question. My fear is that once I admit my fear I will also be accepting my dream. So here goes everything…

My greatest fear is that I may never gather the courage to run my own restaurant. Now that I have admitted this, it brings up a spell of related fears. Topping that list is the fear that when someone walks into my restaurant they won’t find its soul.

A lot like how I felt when I walked into London’s latest entrant to the Indian food scene. Roti Chai calls itself an Indian Street Kitchen. How exciting! Even if you have never been to an Indian street, or its kitchens, I bet the words conjure up an assortment of vibrant and delicious scenes. My high expectations were not unwarranted.

I walked past Roti Chai the first time. And even when I turned around I was hesitant to walk in. A half-dressed table with bags of token Indian brand names, an empty reception desk and a wall sparsely decorated with more Indian stuff greeted me… am later told that they are trying to figure out how to sell Indian favourites like Frooti, Lays and Parle G. But until then these are for “display only”. Why a restaurant would want to display a constipation remedy (Isabgol) is anybody’s guess!

Nothing about the restaurant says Indian, Street or Kitchen. Its deathly quiet and if it wasn’t for two other tables of people I would have walked out and come back another day. It’s a squareish dining room with nondescript tables, the odd splash of colourful backrests and an ugly ceiling (I’m sorry but exposed ducts and wires were done and gone in the 90s). Far too much shelf space has been given to a service bar and a monster coffee machine. The kitchen is hidden behind a black wall and three uncoordinated posters. Change the three Indian posters with pictures of sombreros and this could easily turn into an ordinary Tex-Mex canteen.

The chai (£2.20) I ordered arrived just as they remembered to turn on the music (Bollywood). It is brewed for a few minutes one cup at a time, and as long as they do this it will never have the ferociousness of flavour and gentle warmth of proper Indian chai. Theirs tastes very similar to the Twinings Chai in my larder. If you call yourself Roti Chai you better have bloody good roti & chai – don’t you think?

The man behind Roti Chai used to manage the Cinnamon Club restaurants. I wanted to believe that there was more to this restaurant than disappointing chai, a “Bread Selection” (hidden under Sides), and half-hearted attempts at cuteness (all sorry cousins to Dishoom, especially the staff Chaiwallah tee-shirts). The menu is small – I like small menus. I ordered:

  • Bhel Puri (£3.90) – light but slightly low on tang. This version has tomatoes… a giveaway that the chef is North Indian.
  • Papri Chaat (£4.50) – nice! And miles better than the version served at Mooli’s. I wish though that it didn’t look so sterile on the plate.
  • Chicken Lollipops (£4.80) – succulent and moreish. Just as the menu promises.
  • Bun Kebab (£7.50) – the lamb is the best thing I tasted that afternoon. Moist and bursting with flavour (served with an unfortunate side salad).
  • Green chillies & chopped onion – at £1 this is not expensive but if the vendor on the streets of Delhi has the heart to offer me onions on the house maybe Roti Chai could too?
  • The Italian manager brought me some red chilli sauce (too spicy to put on the menu apparently) – now that I would quite happily pay for.
  • Mango Frooti (£1.50) – classic! This brought back memories of pocket money spent in school canteens.

The food presentation is Western, bland and does no justice to the flavourful dishes. Everything I ordered tasted good and I’m sure as the kitchens spend more time cooking the menu the food is going to taste great. The service is excellent. Unfortunately Roti Chai’s under construction website has more character than the restaurant itself. Soft opening or not, you have only one chance to make a first impression…

To quote from a Simon Sinek book I am reading: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” When I begin work on my restaurant I hope I won’t be too scared to surround myself with people who will always challenge my why. I would rather have my feelings hurt than create something that has no soul.


Roti Chai on Urbanspoon


Filed under Cafe, Indian, London, Street food

16 responses to “Roti Chai. Do you have soul?

  1. Now you’re talkin’! Can hardly wait.

  2. tariq

    love your posts pooja!
    one correction…while many people use isabgol as a constipation remedy, it’s one of the best sources of soluble fibre – much like oatmeal. regular use cleans out your alimentary canal and arteries and keeps heart disease at bay. needless to say, as someone who eats out on a regular basis (try 10 meals a week!), the need to flush out the system regularly is de rigeur.

  3. waheedsofi

    Superlike Poooja…

    I appreciate the way u describe in ur blog………..thanks for it

  4. Charles B

    Loved the food when i went there. Service also great and staff very smiley and engaging. Not sure about your comments as to the restaurant having no soul – dont know where you got that one from. I’m looking forward to a return visit to try a few more items from the menu.

    • Thanks for reading and responding to my blog! I liked the food very much too and know that it will get better! We’ll have to agree to disagree on the rest :-). Bon appetite for your future visits!

  5. hi there. i wrote your post before going to roti chai. tried to keep a very open mind but looks like we came to similar conclusions anyway….

  6. i really enjoyed your dishoom post! i have a bit of a love affair with dishoom’s dhal and the aloo tikki buns! so good!

  7. Priyanka

    I have to disagree with u.. I think they do amazing food, service is excellent and I found the ambience very chilled out and frankly these are the things I look for when I go to a Restaurant dont know how u would relate that to soul connection.

    • I absolutely agree that the food was very good. The pseudo Indian ambience and copy-cat cheese just didn’t do it for me I’m afraid! But thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my blog 🙂

  8. We would challenge you! Fab post as always! Great to see yo last night… x

  9. Have you tried Kati Roll?! Chilli Paneer roll is the best (recommended to me by true Mumbaites)! 😉

  10. Firstly Pooja, I love your blog. Very well written and your conclusions are very similar to my own. I also tried the chicken manchurian when I was there (not impressed) and being born in Hyderabad, theres nothing better than a classic manchurian (gobi or chicken) from Naanking so I was a tough critic in many ways.

    Secondly, In this ‘modern indian cafe/restaurant’ space would you say theres only Dishoom and Roti Chai to choose from?

    • Hi Dhruv – thank you 🙂

      This post was written some time ago and since then London has seen a few other casual (not necessarily modern) Indian cafes/restaurants. Others – like Imli took an average restaurant and turned themselves into a sorry excuse for a cafe. And less said about Cinnamon Soho the better. They all feel generic, a bit bored with themselves and the bandwagon they tried to jump on.

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