Not that Tufnell Park born and bred George Pitkeathley, pictured below, is exactly inexperienced: he’s been manager at Quo Vadis in Soho and senior maître d’ at the Rosewood. Plus he’s mates with Ollie Norman (son of Polpo owner Russell Norman) who was initially involved in Pilau as a pop-up, but is now focusing his energies elsewhere. And he’s managed to bag investment from mentor Luke Wilson (10 Greek Street) to roll out a couple of branches in prime W1 locations.
So Pilau can’t fail – and it must be really, really good, right?
Right (thankfully). It’s the kind of concept (although I hate that word) that’s so simple it makes you kick yourself that you didn’t think of it. The USP? Contemporary Indian streetfood.
“Traditional Indian restaurants have large menus,” says George. “But we wanted to offer just three things we do well. I’ve eaten Indian food all my life; and we visited the country twice to do research.”The upshot is that lamb, chicken or vegetarian options come with a selection of toppings and presentation styles (wrap, salad or rice bowl). The dishes were conceived by Lorcan Spiteri (Quo Vadis) who worked with and trained the key chefs, who George is keen to point out are all experienced Indian chefs of some standing. As for the space? Just a counter, some stools, big windows, reclaimed wood, bare lights and exposed brick.
The options on our visit included butter chicken, lamb with bone marrow, and paneer (the fresh, crumbly unsalted cheese). We tried the first two in differing wrap and rice bowl options. Significantly the two prices are £5 for medium and £6 for ‘big’: this has instantly to be one of W1’s best-value good quality fast-food outlets.
In the wrap, the breast was moist, with its various big-flavour toppings and salad ingredients singing heartily through: the crunch of the shoestring bhaji, the sweet tang of red onion, heat from the pickled ginger, kick from red chillies.Bigger on flavour – and as warming as a hot toddy on a snow-capped summit – was the slow-cooked lamb, although its presentation, in a polystyrene ‘burger-and-chips’ style takeaway box, could perhaps be rethought.
Despite the meat and rice being somewhat splattered with a kaleidoscope of toppings, the taste was divine. With slow-cooked lamb it’s all about the balance between falling-apart-tender and dry: here the meat was juicy, the sauce the right side of fiery, and the various textures and hits of the toppings – especially a creamy vivid pink slaw – adding interest with each munch.
And you know what? The tiny rice puddings, a snip at £3, are addictive: loaded with the creamy hit of vanilla they disappear in two mouthfuls. We should, we concluded, never have shared just one.
There are also home-made lassis: a mango one smoothly exuded cardamom and vanilla (the secret is full fat yogurt, apparently); while Cobra beer, in those outsize 660ml bottles, is lined up in the fridge for those after something harder.On our visit the store had a stream of the curious, the regulars and the odd tourist; it’s packed with office-workers at lunchtime more than evenings right now, says George.
Finally, if you’re still not sold, this is a concept with a heart. The ‘Feed Yourself, Feed a Child’ was devised by George and tested out during a trip to Mumbai to meet their charity partners, Akshyra Patra (the biggest human feeding charity in the world). Put simply, every meal sold is being matched with a donation to feed an entire meal to a child in India. You can’t say fairer than that.
So the passion, and thought, and careful pricing, is all there. The only other bit of advice? With the next outlet, George might consider a softly-lit sit-down area: that slow-cooked lamb rice bowl is so good that some attractive presentation, on a plate, would be an even greater winner.