If you’re planning a trip to KoolCha, be sure to take even the shortest of glances at Wembley Stadium’s calendar first.
I didn’t. Unwittingly, my visit to Boxpark Wembley coincided with a Tottenham match day – the North London derby, no less – and was therefore accompanied by a full house of fans visiting the largest capacity football stadium in the UK. The Jubilee line was more than a little cramped.
It is both a hazard and a blessing of the unusual locale for Rohit Ghai’s latest venture. The chef earned a Michelin star while at Mayfair restaurant Jamavar, and before that presided over the kitchens of the JKS Restaurants group, which boasts Trishna (and its Michelin star), Gymkhana (and its Michelin star) and Hoppers (and its Michelin Bib Gourmand). In November of last year, Ghai opened fine dining restaurant Kutir inside a converted Chelsea townhouse, before revealing KoolCha three months later – in a corrugated steel-clad street food market in a particularly north western bit of London. It’s not where most people imagined Ghai heading next.
To be fair to the chef, he’s not exactly peddling a hot dog cart – KoolCha takes up three designated vendor units at Boxpark, which Ghai and business partner Abhishake Sangwan have turned into a 60 cover sit-down casual restaurant.
The name is wordplay on the restaurant’s feature ingredient, kulcha – an Indian flatbread that is typically stuffed and sold as a street-side snack. Don’t expect a glorified sandwich shop: in practice, the kulcha bread is more of a casual dining signpost than a rock-hard menu linchpin. KoolCha’s offering is varied, with a surprisingly large selection of small plates, including samosa chaat with a richly flavoured chickpea curry, and masala prawns that arrive sprinkled in grated coconut, their succulent meat encrusted with fried-on spice. Their partner plate is a masala “chicken popcorn”, spiced nuggets of deep-fried chicken thigh flavoured with curry leaf and black pepper.
The kulcha-orientated options are mixed. Fire regulations at Boxpark prevent Ghai from having a fully raging tandoor oven – the traditional method for cooking kulcha – which means the breads themselves are without the smoky charred flavour that one would hope for or, indeed, expect. The mince lamb-filled keema kulcha is billed as a one-plate meal, but the main event falls flat and we’re too underwhelmed to work through it. The chutney that comes with it, however, is delicious – great hunks of chopped chilli peppers aren’t hot, but perkily sour.
The bread also makes an appearance on the “combo meals” – hideously named, but the thali-style selections give a glimpse into the curry concocting prowess that Ghai is known for. Butter chicken is sumptuously creamy and comes with that fabulous chutney, raita, salad and pulao.
Ghai may not have a tandoor, but he does have a panini maker. Kulcha is reimagined in grilled sandwich form, and the pressed paneer wrap is a highlight of the meal, firm but yielding cheese dripping with masala spices and an aromatic mint dressing.
With the occasional near-captive audience of a cool 90,000 people, business at KoolCha should be good – but it also deserves to be. Don’t expect Michelin-star quality food, but it is tremendously cheap. The “combo meal” is just £11 all in, which is superb value. Small plates are priced between £5-8, and are generously portioned.
Boisterous appetites are sufficiently catered for. At one point, my dining companion (and younger sister) announced, “I’ve just burped the most fragrant burp of my life.” The menu and set up is casual enough for passing football fans, and they would be hard pressed to find a better match day meal in the capital.
Spurs fans are soon to be moving back to White Hart Lane on the eventual completion of their new stadium. Before they do, they should find out what they’ll be missing at KoolCha.