I’ve long been a fan of Black Sheep restaurants, from the always-excellent Carbone to the unbeatable wagyu short rib at ho lee fook. A couple of their more recent openings were good, but a bit underwhelming compared to the bar they initially raised so high. Happily the spanking New Punjab Club on Wyndham St has them roundly back to very best form, just as they mark five years in the business.
It’s a compact space, in what used to be the odd and always-empty burger joint called Wilburs. Tonight it’s nicely buzzing though and impressions are positive from the off. There’s a turbaned sardarji at the door in case you can’t find it, while there’s another right behind the welcome desk in the form of a brilliant portrait of another Punjabi.
I spent a couple of weeks in Punjab a few years back, from the tranquil glory of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to the raucous circus that is the Pakistan-India border ceremony, the elegant deco lines of Chandigarh to the hilly borders with Himachal Pradesh. I also ate shamelessly, as one is constantly implored to do in India. Roadside dhabas served brilliant morning chappatis dripping with ghee, while restaurants seemed to constantly challenge the greediest bastard of appetites. Punjabis are often big people and their diet explains why, thanks to its mix of dairy and bread. Not unlike the Irish, in fact.
Anyway back on Wyndham, the walls are covered in beautiful, idiosyncratic photos and artworks, there are deep red Chesterfield sofas while even the lights have a Mughal touch to them. The service is impeccable, from the off, Sandeep and company bringing back memories of Carbone circa 2014 when Louis ruled the roost. Also the music, always a Black Sheep hallmark, is bang-on. That translates as the beautiful original Harold Melvin version of Don´t Leave Me This Way, before some Tom Jones and the rather excellent Haule Haule from ´Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi´ where Shah Rukh Khan looks like an accountant:
The selection on the gin trolley was passed up to make way for a whisky soda, served with a non-plastic straw, for extra points. It seemed an apt choice as whisky, especially Johnny Walker, at times seemed like Punjab’s official drink. But of course Punjab also stretched into Pakistan, pre partition in 1949, so the menu reflects the region in all its diversity of flavours and traditions. New Punjab Club is also a hugely personal launch for Black Sheep´s co-owner Asim Syed Hussein as it pays homage to The Punjab Club, Lahore´s social and athletic club where he spent his childhood, while it is also a nod to his father who owned The Mughal Room, a Hong Kong hotspot in the 80s.
In a really nice touch, he even salvaged and restored the original tandoor ovens (below) from The Mughal Room for New Punjab Club and they helped deliver one of my plates of the year.
But first to starters. Michelin-starred chef Palash Mitra (from always-excellent Gymkhana in London) helms the kitchen and helped Asim oversee the menu. Frankly I wanted to try everything, especially the Amritsari Machli, chickpea-battered river fish, with dill raita and mustard chutney. And the wagyu mince kebab with green chilli chutney. And the lentils and beans in lamb stock. You get the picture.
But choose I must, so keema pau ($118) won the day, deep and dark and spiced mutton mince, spooned over soft buns, topped with chopped red onions and a squeeze of lime. A lovely, lovely plate of food, Punjabi comfort at its finest.
Despite Punjab being such a meat culture, our vegetarian friends are also well-served by the menu. Dahi Bhalla ($78) were lentil dumplings with yoghurt, coriander and swirls of tamarind, the occasional pop of pomegranate seeds adding to the party.
Likewise the sides, two of which were big enough to have as a main along with sensational bread. Aloo gobhi, the old fave of spuds and cauli was well rendered, but my eyes were all about the paneer kulcha ($32), hot from the tandoor and humming with herbs, melting paneer cheese, also made in-house.
The bread was also the perfect accompaniment to the tandoor oven´s finest hour, a stonkingly-good lamb chops with beetroot korma and roasted onion, or masalewali chanp ($468). These were hefty, generous pieces, not the one-bite wonders you often find. But it was all about that marinade, the sticky, brown remnants of which stuck to the bones, while the perfectly-pink centres blushed. The beetroot cut through, the onion added sweetness and softness to combine for a seriously good dish, one of my top plates of the year anywhere – and worthy of a place alongside Jowett´s rightly-famous short rib just down the road.
Like a true Punjabi feast, by now I felt defeated, but sensationally replete and happy. I´ll be back before long to hit up the tandoori fish, the lamb shanks, the salads, breads and brilliant-sounding desserts including a carrot sticky toffee pudding number. Incidentally, make sure you visit the loos. They are gold khazis the colour of Johnnie Walker. What´s not to love?