| Iqbal Wahhab (right) at Roast
London, Oct. 23: This might come across as a little cheeky but a South Asian, Iqbal Wahhab, 41, has just opened a new restaurant called Roast in southeast London with the aim of educating the British that their food does not deserve to be the butt of jokes.
Wahhab, a Bangladeshi who is best known for running the most expensive Indian restaurant in Britain ' the Cinnamon Club in Westminster is the haunt of top politicians ' now intends to do his bit to restore the reputation of British food.
After a two-week trial period, the Roast in the heart of the ancient Borough Market formally opens for business tomorrow.
It will offer traditional dishes such as Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, Bangers and Mash (sausages and potatoes), Fish and Chips, Steak and Kidney Pie and items less well known such as Cullen Skink (Scottish soup made with haddock) with Quails’ Eggs.
Beating off powerful rival bids from the likes of Sir Terence Conran, the style and food guru; the Ivy, the legendary restaurant at Covent Garden; Wagamama, the international chain of noodle bars; and Hakkasan, the high-class Chinese eatery created by Wagamama, the trustees of Borough Market put their faith in Wahhab.
The chairman of the trustees, George Nicholson, who has just returned from a pandal-hopping Puja trip to Calcutta, is now encouraging Wahhab to open a restaurant in one of the warehouses in the Strand Road waterfront development.
Asked what sort of cuisine he wanted Wahhab to offer, Nicholson replied: “Who knows' Maybe even an Indian restaurant.”
Nicholson, who clutched a copy of the Metro section of The Telegraph and another of Ananda Bazar Patrika from his latest trip to Calcutta, knows the city well. He was until 1986 the chairman of the planning committee of the Greater London Council and is now chairman of the London Rivers Association.
He mentions his dealings with environment and IT minister Manab Mukherjee and urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya and his own efforts to help with redevelopment of the Calcutta waterfront on behalf of the British deputy high commissioner.
“We are trying to promote the use of the Strand Road warehouses ' there are four of them ' and that’s where Iqbal Wahhab comes in,” said Nicholson. “Sooner or later, that will be an ideal location to have a high- quality restaurant.”
Nicholson, who says his latest trip to Calcutta was to take Puja pictures, visited the fish markets and was impressed that Bengalis are willing to pay “'1.50 a lb for hilsa”. That has convinced him that Indians are now prepared to spend money on good food.
Wahhab’s Cinnamon Club certainly isn’t cheap. The average spend for lunch is '60 per person and for dinner '78. He wants Roast to be more affordable and will keep lunch prices down to '30-35 and dinner to '45-50.
There will also be set two-course menus for '18.
Wahhab is certainly extremely lucky to have been given the space, where he has 6,000 sq. ft to seat 120. Part of the structure comes from the old Floral Hall at Covent Garden, which was dismantled and kept in storage as it was not needed when the Royal Opera House on the site was redeveloped.
One set of giant windows now looks down on the stallholders in Borough Market who will provide Wahhab with his fresh meat and vegetables. Another set of ceiling-high windows offers a stunning view of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Wahhab, who was born in Bangladesh but was brought over to London by his parents when he was a few months old, is a colourful figure on the Indian cuisine scene in Britain. More than once, his sense of humour has got him into trouble.
On one occasion, he faced death threats after accusing Bangladeshi waiters of being “miserable gits” (which they are usually not).
When the Borough Market trustees asked: “Where are you going to get your chefs'” he said: “I’m going to outsource the cooking to Bangalore.”
He admitted: “They didn’t find that very funny.”
Wahhab, in his turn, was not amused by the joke made by President Jacques Chirac of France who allegedly quipped at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is bad. The only thing they (the British) have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease. After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.”
But no longer if Wahhab has his way. His team of 20 cooks will be led by Lawrence Keogh, previously head chef at The Avenue in Piccadilly.
One dish banned from his Cinnamon Club is chicken tikka masala, a British invention.
“It would be more relevant at Roast as a British dish,” he said.
“That’s a joke!” he added hastily.