Leaving the DLR station you cut across the mall, and step out blinking into the glare of sunset on skyscraper in Canary Wharf. Then you take a right past the Financial Conduct Authority and a left turn just before the Bank of America Merrill Lynch office block, which brings you to Crossrail Place.
Not exactly names to conjure with. But this is where Chai Ki, the new restaurant from the owner of Mayfair’s much-applauded Roti Chai, sits hemmed in by water in one direction and concrete in all others.
Like many a Londoner of professional age, I think of Canary Wharf as something which occasionally happens to the best of us. Nothing about this bit of E14 screams destination dining. It’s a punchy move for owner Rohit Chugh to go from Roti Chai’s Portman Mews spot, with all its foot traffic, to this grey-and-glass sprawl on the edge of E14.
But arriving at Chai Ki’s entrance in a light drizzle, it’s a beacon of warm, orange light and yellow silks, as if all the colour in Canary Wharf has seeped into this section of it. The Toddy Shop bar at the front of the building, serving up cocktails and bar snacks on high tables, gives way to the lower, wooden tables and leather banquettes of the restaurant at the back.
There are obvious parallels with Dishoom, not least the breakfast and cocktail menus, both heavy with Anglo-Indian influence – the spicy potatoes and tamarind ketchup of Chai Ki’s Sausage and Aloo Tikki Buns not a million miles from the famed Dishoom breakfast naans. But where Dishoom is knowingly kitsch, Chai Ki leans towards a shipping warehouse aesthetic, more East London than East India Company. The space is big enough to have a steady stream of diners on a Monday evening, yet have a river-view table free for us, and our closest fellow customers still farther away than the full length of a good few Soho bars.
My date’s extremely dry gin and artisanal tonic – from a cocktail menu which devotes a whole section to variations on the G&T alone – plus my Chai and Orange Martini, go some way to filling up our table space. They also carry us perfectly through some extensive deliberating over our order, because we want to do justice to all sections of the menu – which covers small plates, mains, bar snacks, most known meats and an equally large range of naan and paratha breads.
We settle on the Goan prawns and paneer skewers to start. In honour of the tamarind and coconut in those my date switches to one of the Toddy Shop’s house beers, an infused pilsner with an undertone of fruit, and I go for a pomegranate martini, where the fruit’s less an undertone than a mighty chorus. Neither of those prove to be mindblowing choices, the pomegranate syrup a bit too dense for the spirits to cut through, but maybe we’re just not paying them the proper attention. Because the paneer skewers – of all our ordering, the dish we were least excited about on paper – are crispy on the outside, fluffy inside, heavily spiced and the first time, to my knowledge, that my date’s ever been convinced by the idea of paneer as more than just meat for vegetarians.
Thankfully the paneer more or less sets the tone for our main courses. Both my butter chicken and my date’s Dum Ka Gosht, a slow cooked Welsh lamb shoulder with saffron, Kashmiri chilli and spinach, are so rich and dense that what looks like a reasonable amount of food when it arrives is something we struggle to finish. Something that might be partly the fault of the thick sauce the butter chicken arrives in, and the variety of carbs we work our way through in order to make sure that not even an orangeish smear of it is left behind.
Somewhere during my date’s valiant attempts on a kulfi ice cream stick, I realise that I’m filled with not only chicken, but also a sense of contentment. And maybe this is the Chai Martini or Dum Ka Gosht sauce talking, but it feels like Chai Ki might actually have found that secret alchemy – of cushions and warm lighting, and spice-coated paneer and thick paratha leaves – to turn this corner of Canary Wharf into a place you’d come out of your way for.
Chai Ki, Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf, London E14. For bookings please call 020 7408 7630. Website.