At Gunpowder the menu reads like poetry and everything comes with a backstory. Not least the pork belly marinade – comes from the Indian-Burmese borderlands, the recipe charmed at length out of the chef’s cousin’s aging aunt, requires overnight marination in a top secret mix of wet spices and has Aphrodisiacal Properties. The masala spice blend in the Pani Puri margaritas is also secret. The gunpowder spice mix in the potatoes: secret.
I have a few questions about 100% of everything we’ve just been told, but it seems easier to take our chances with the secrecy and the sexiness than to try to get answers over the heavy roar of voices. Because on a weekday evening, a fortnight after opening, the place is heaving.
Gunpowder doesn’t scream its presence from the outside. Walking up from Spitalfields Market the only forewarning is a tiny, dark sign hanging from a doorway, with small lettering and a silhouetted trumpeting elephant. But word’s clearly spread. Inside the bar some people are seated, but a lot are standing buttcheek-by-jowl in any spare floorspace, with secretly-spiced cocktails and an eye on the next free table. They’ve thrown in bare brickwork, exposed wiring and crates for chairs, but with this army of people very badly wanting Indian sharing plates the effect’s less winsome neighbourhood bar than Gates of Thermopylae.
Not ideal first date territory, unless you’re ok with getting to know the punters waiting for a seat a lot more intimately than your intended. But I’m here in a non-romantic capacity tonight, so if the high-volume crush of people helps counteract the sexier qualities of the pork belly then it’s all to the good.
As it turns out, the pork belly’s no more aphrodisiacal than any other plate of great meat. So basically: Very, but in a way you’ll be used to keeping under control in public, unless your work lunch trips to Patty and Bun take a more debauched turn than ours. But if good meat’s likely to get you inappropriately hot under the collar, then consider yourself equally cautioned re. the pulled duck oothappam rolls.
The venison and vermicelli doughnut, the Gunpowder signature getting the most social media air-time ahead of our visit, is disappointing. It’s true ‘venison and vermicelli eggless Scotch egg, sort of’ would’ve been less of a hook. But to draw me in with doughnut in the title means however good the minced venison and battered shell is – very good, says Jen, who feels less emotionally invested in the whole savoury doughnut vision and so can speak without bias – it just tastes of wistfulness and dashed dreams. Unlike the gunpowder aloo chaat, which I order hoping it’ll be a fraction as brilliant as the gunpowder potatoes at Dishoom and then turns out to be, impossibly, better.
Grilled mustard broccoli’s another left-field surprise, because it sounds like something you don’t want but order to look like you care about nutrition. The same thing’s happened to me with the grilled cauliflower at Berber and Q recently – it’s cauliflower, how is it even passable, let alone incredible? – so I should have been prepared for this. Cruciferous is exciting now. This is real.
The dessert menu’s also fairly appealing, although there’s some rogue custard – masala chai-flavoured – slipped in under the sheltering wing of a molten chocolate cake. Sounds satanic. In the interests of impartial reportage you should know my guest claims not to see anything wrong with it; just one more reason this evening won’t be taking a romantic turn, Jen. But that custard does help us refine things down more efficiently than we did for the main courses, to a shared rum baba.
It’s everything you’d want from a rum-based cake, but at the same time seems like a poor substitute for being able to hit another dish from the main menu. Cake, no matter how much rum it’s steeped in – and here that’s what we in the business would classify as: a shedload – is never going to match up to the weird majesty of that broccoli or the sticky chili-heat of the pulled duck.
In summary: arrive early at Gunpowder and lock down a table. Then order many of their margaritas, all of their broccoli, and as much Sexy Pork as you think you can handle in polite company.
Gunpowder, 11 White’s Row, Spitalfields, London, E1 7NF. Tel: 0207 4260542. Website