Indian

Rajdoot, Birmingham

We live in a society that isn’t kind to restaurants.  One that eats them up and spits them out.  One that is so fickle it could be a contestant on Love Island.  A staggering 90% of restaurants in this country fail within the first twelve months. Why? I don’t bloody know, I’m not a restauranteur; I’m an over opinionated twerp with a keyboard. But the ones that I have seen demise with my own eyes have been poorly judged concepts (lobsters), rotten locations (sea food restaurants above Café bloody Rouge) and just bad luck (Comida, you were brilliant and you’ll be back). It almost puts me off my dream of a little Italian restaurant of my own. Almost. The restaurant business is not a lottery, it’s a cleverly thought out line of ticked boxes and processes, as my good friend Barry Sherwin has pointed out to me on many an occasion. And he knows a thing or two about opening these places. So there.

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Once past that opening year it’s no guarantee that it’s an easy ride. Profitability and longevity are the two things that the industry craves, and to achieve this takes hard work and constant reflection. The machine chugs along, driven by trends and an ever changing customer focus. React or die, it’s as simple as that. Take a chameleon approach and you might see two, maybe five, even ten or twenty years if you’re really lucky. But fifty? There can’t be too many successful businesses that even dream of reaching half a century. Rajdoot have, which is a crazy number given that I would have been but a twinkle in the eye of the raging hormonal body of my fifteen year old pubescent father when they first opened in 1967. I struggle to comprehend pieces of furniture that are fifty years old, never mind places to dine at. How they have achieved this is too much for this pea brain to take in.

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Maybe a good starting place for an explanation would be the service. It’s old school slick, customer orientated and polished to a high sheen. We are seated in a plush waiting area and watered, given menus and then taken to a sultry dining room way bigger than it first appears, which is a talent they share with me.  Our corner table is adorned with thick white linen, preloaded with crisp poppadum’s and a spritely chopped onion salad.  A singular candle sits on one corner, more a romantic gesture than a lighting requirement.  At first I assumed they were going all out because they knew I was coming, though it would later transpire they had no clue at all about me.  I like that.  They go to this effort for everyone.  Which probably goes someway to explaining the buzzy dining room on a midweek night.

What also explains the mostly full room is the food, which, on our meal here puts it in the upper echelons of its type in the city.  Its wonderfully traditional, rich and decadent.  We share a platter to start that is probably too much food to successfully proportion our meal.  Like we care.  We each devour the mini fillet of chicken shaslik we have each been portioned to, and make light work of crisp samosa with the most fragrant of potato and pea filling.  We cloak batons of shish kebab with onion kulcha which, with the ingenious addition of mint yogurt, turns it into the most delicious lamb sandwich you could wish for.  Only the tandoori chicken lets the team down for being on the dry side.  It still gets eaten.

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We go for two of the chefs recommendations for main.  He clearly knows what he is talking about.  On paper the Murgh Kebab Masala looks like a tarted-up description of a chicken tikka masala.  Thankfully, it is nothing of the sort.  The kebab is a tightly packed mixture of minced chicken and herbs that have been skewered and blasted through the tandoor until the outside is charred and the centre is just cooked through.  The sauce is nutty and complex, heavy on the spices that trouble the nasal passages, not the other ones.  I just wish there was a little more of it.  I want to glaze the supple garlic naan with sauces this good, and whizz it the individual grains of pilau rice.  The other main was a lamb chilli bhuna that doesn’t disappoint.  It’s heady and spicy, littered with chilli and chunks of pepper.  The tender lamb is a testament to the virtues of patience.  We wipe the bowl clean with the last shreds of the naan.

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They make both gulab jamun and kulfi in-house here, so we request a smaller portion of each to try both.  Indian desserts are often a massive disappoint, but these were lovely.  The gulab jamun was not over soaked in syrup, the kulfi delicate and sprinkled with crushed pistachios.  They work surprisingly well in the company of each other.  If you can find room for dessert, I suggest you harass them into doing the same for you.

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I’d not eaten at the Rajdoot before this.  I guess that I’d been scared that a business open for that length must be old fashioned and reliant on the aging regulars for custom.  I couldn’t be any more wrong.  It’s done fifty years because they serve precise and comforting Indian food with the sort of service that shames many a Michelin starred restaurant.  It is rightly a stalwart of its kind in the city.  I already cannot wait to go back for more.

8/10

I was invited to dine at Rajdoot by Delicious PR

Rajdoot Tandoori Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Adil’s Balti, via Deliveroo

The Deliveroo menu for Adil’s is littered with warnings, instructions, and goading’s for us feeble Westerners. Are you the kind of fool that orders mango and lime at Nando’s? I pity you if so, but you can order the Maliah which is ‘suitable for Kurma eaters’ whilst hanging your head in shame. Those ‘feeling brave’ are instructed to order a Vindaloo, a statement that usually makes me as brave as I am stupid. And then there is the curries described as ‘not for the faint hearted’, a clever turn of words that appeals to idiots like me. I can’t turn that stuff down; it’s a red rag to a bull, a picture of Princess Diana to The Daily Mail. It’s the stuff I live for, the fuzzy wave of pure heat that pulsates through my veins and escapes via sweat on my brow. By telling me I that it is not for the faint hearted I have to order it, despite knowing all too well that my body will hate me for it. Which, 16 hours on, I can confirm that it does.

So, yeah, Adil’s Balti. Those not familiar should know that it is the original home of the Balti in Birmingham, maybe even the UK. It resides in the Balti Triangle, where nostalgic fiftysomethings go for a ‘real Balti’, armed with a six pack of Carling. All of this is fine. I go there, quite a bit actually. It’s dependable and consistent and they do chilli bhaji’s that might even trump the naan as the greatest thing to dunk into a curry.  I’ve written at length about it back in the early days of this blog.  If you were one of the two people that read it back then congratulations, if not, please let me tell you about the recent meal I had courtesy of those dandy people at Deliveroo.

Pani Puri is the first thing to enter our gigantic gobs.  The puffed up shells arrive intact as we crack open the top and pour in the spiced water to neck in one go.  They are delicious, all umami and spice.  Paneer tikka is charred on the heavy side and is all the better for it.  The bland cheese has taken on all the marinade, transforming it from a nothing to something extraordinary.  We fight over the last piece.

 

The Balti’s do not disappoint. A lamb Balti Jalfrazzi is the ideal bastardization of complex masala and spice. The bite of pepper is welcome with the softly braised meat and heat that grows on the palate. And then there is my curry, the Balti Chicken Chilli Masala that I have been teased in to ordering with the provocative wording. It as subtle as The Suns disdain for Corbyn, a punch in the mouth of chilli; as fiery as a hungry Jeromy Clarkson. It is relentless in the best possible sense, a full out attack on the body. I love it, even if the look on my face says otherwise. The meat is tender, the sauce pungent and vibrant. I use the pilau rice to coax the last of the sauce on to the fork because a yellow garlic naan, the colour of a radioactive warning sign, goes untouched.

I’ll end with the gushing bit, so if me sucking on the proverbial nipple of Deliveroo isn’t your bag, please close down the window now and resume your normal duties. It’s meals like this that make me love Deliveroo in the way that I do – restaurant quality food delivered to my front door in under half an hour. It allows me to be lazy, to watch TV and eat dinner in my pants without compromise. To treat myself to one of the better curries in this part of the city without leaving the door. It’s the most convenient of treats. When you can get somewhere the calibre of Adil’s I fail to see why you would ever consider another option.

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this meal.  For money off your first order, please see the following link roo.it/simonc3898

Canal Square, Birmingham

The term ‘Indian food’ is one generalised and frequently shy of the mark, often taking in the cooking of Bangladesh and Pakistan, sometimes Nepal, less often Sri Lankan.  India itself is a vast country of 29 states, 7 union territories, and 1.2 billion people (thank you, Google).  Add the sub continent and you can make that almost 2 billion people – more than double of all of Europe.  Yet we have come to accept a sweeping generalisation; a world where the only separation of madras and vindaloo is a tablespoon of chilli powder, the mark of a Balti is a unique serving wok, and where chicken tikka masala actually existsI could go on, but I won’t, because I’ll combust and ruin my day.  Needless to say I find the ignorance of it all baffling.

So, in many respects, Canal Square is doing the right thing in sticking to just one of those states.  The food of the Punjab is driven by its position at the north of the country;  protein and pulses from the farms, very little fish due to the distance from the coast.  Spicing is bold, and dishes are often rich with ghee or butter.  As it happens, it is one of my favourite regions of India.  Fat and spice speak to me in a language that I understand.

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The reason that I am here is for the launch of the new Maharajas tasting menu, seven courses dictated by the seasons.  We start with fragrant onion bhaji’s, crisp and light, before moving on to aloo tikka.  The potato cake is soft and boldly spiced with cumin and chilli, the whole thing draped in a chickpea masala sauce and the cool murmur of mint yogurt (we’ll gloss over the random addition of  blueberries).  What impresses me most is the depth of flavour in the sauce – they know how to make a masala here. We move on to chicken tikka, one marinated in mixed pickle so that there is heat and tang on the surface, the other a far more gentle offering that was fresh with herbs.  I happen to prefer the more spicy of the two, though both are well executed, the meat timed so that it is only just cooked through.

Battered morsels of cod are a cheeky wink back at the UK.  The batter is crisp and greaseless, the fish correctly flaking apart inside.  Best on the plate  glass is the homemade chilli sauce that teases, rather than threatens the taste buds.  Back to meat, we take a pork samosa with a tart apple chutney and a solitary lamb chop blasted in the tandoor – a cooking process that we have the Punjab to thank for.  The chop would be one of the stars of the evening, a good piece of meat from a properly reared animal.  The thick ribbon of fat is crisp, the marinade full of fiery funk.  It is a delight.

Six courses in and we get curry.  I bloody love curry.  The lamb in this curry was good, the tomato sauce a lovely buttery thing thicker than Joey Essex.  It made for enjoyable eating; uncomplicated and homely.  A lot like Joey Essex, I suppose.  The naan on the side was a fabulous thing of buttery niceness, which I dredge through the last of the sauce and stain my fingers with pride.  I apologise for the photo’s – my camera was struggled with the glare from the glass it was served on.

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I was pushed for time and missed out on the dessert, so I cannot comment on the final course.  What I can say for sure is that the service was attentive and the drinks well sourced; the wine was carefully matched to each course and the beer I tried fresh and crisp.  The competition for the higher-end of Indian restaurants in Birmingham is fierce, though the best dishes here stand up to anything in the city; so much so that I am going to stick my neck on line and say that when word gets about, Canal Square will competing with the big boys for your cash.  And for anyone with an interest in how the food of the Punjab should taste, I recommend that you give it a try for yourself.

8/10

I was invited to try the Maharajas tasting menu at Canal Square by Delicious PR

Zindiya, Moseley

Chicken Tikka.  It’s really all I remember about the opening party at Zindiya.  Being a very short walk from my house I decided to attend for an hour despite being in a haze of tonsillitis and antibiotics.  I recall chatting to a nice man from a local newspaper when the food started coming out from the kitchen.  We both agreed that it was the best chicken tikka we had ever eaten.  Another man who has happened to win an award or two for street food came and joined us.  He commented on just how much it tasted of chicken, a rarity in the age of tasteless barn reared poultry, we all agreed.  Soon newspaper guy and I were raiding the kitchen pass directly, and I was being pushed out the door by my girlfriend with my coat pockets full of the stuff to eat at home.  It was a good night.

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I’ve waited two weeks for that bloody tikka, so apologies for my poor manners in ordering it before our drinks request was taken.  It’s every bit as good as I remember; the marinade has broken down the proteins, the tandoor catching the edges so that they are charred and slightly bitter; the meat sweet and tender.  They tasted even better with a lick of lemon juice and a dunk into the thick vivid green puree that is the mint sauce.  You can stop at this point if you like, close down the window and go purely to eat this.  That’s okay with me – I wouldn’t blame you.  Or you can read the rest and see if anything else takes your fancy.

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Zindiya isn’t the first of its kind to focus on ‘street food’ but it is easily Birmingham’s finest of this type.  Obvious care has been taken with every detail to ensure this is the case.  Beer is from Purity, wine from local merchants Connolly’s, and a stellar cocktail list curated by drinks legend Rob Wood.  The interior is a flash of colour with wall murals depicting the food markets of India.  The menu is mostly familiar and we order widely across it.  Fish Amritsari are morsels of firm white fish (pollock, I think) in a batter vibrant with cumin and ginger.  Chilli paneer see’s the pale cheese purely as a vessel for the pungent sauce – a good thing when the main ingredients best quality is it’s ability to take on other flavours.  The Papri Chaat here is probably the best I have tried anywhere.  Think of it as a wedge salad for the interesting.  The dough wafers are intact so that they can lifted from bowl to mouth with minimum fuss – get them loaded with both sauces, the red onion, and plenty of herbs and wait for the magic to happen.  It’s lighter and fresher than the Indian food we have come to know in this country, and is all the better for it.

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Back to the tandoor we go for  charred lamb chops, still wearing the thick marinade like a winter jacket.  The meat is well judged to just beyond medium, the flavour good, if not perhaps the best example to be found in the city.  Personally, I thought it could have been a little more bolder with the spicing.  No such problems with the pani puri, which are as textbook as you like.  The shells are properly assembled and hold their own when sunk into the murky tamarind water.  Pani puri are the ultimate amouse bouche; a mouthful of everything that is good about Indian street food – how to take cheap staple carbohydrate’s like potato and chickpea and fuse them together with spices into something utterly bewildering.  The last dish to arrive is the chicken dosa, taking a break from tradition with a presentation more akin to tacos.  The filling is light and aromatic, with chunks of chicken in a coconut milk marinade that ties in nicely with a coarse chutney from the same fruit.  Throw in a sambhar that contains all of the flavour of lentils without the chalkiness and what you have is one of the better ways to spend £6.50 in the city.

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I was being treated to dinner by a friend with an expense account, so we get stuck in to the cocktail list.  Put simply, it’s brilliant – an excursion through India’s different states, each pinned to the vast countries larder.  The pick is the vodka with the lime pickle cordial, worthy of a trip to try on it’s own, with the bourbon and masala bitters a close second.  Bravo, Mr Wood.  Bravo.  All of this combined makes for a rather wonderful experience.  I’ve often bemoaned the quality of food in Moseley at all levels below Carters, but Zindiya now joins Cheval Blanc in places I can grab a good bite to eat without breaking the bank.  This place is a class act in every respect.

9/10

A very nice man from Deliveroo paid for my dinner, so I’ll give them a little shout-out as thanks.  Zindiya are not on Deliveroo yet, though when they are grab some chicken tikka from them here; http://www.deliveroo.co.uk

 

 

Indico Indian Street Kitchen, Shirley

Tonight I find myself in Shirley, a statement I haven’t said too often in the last decade or so. I have nothing against the place; on the contrary, actually – it’s very congenial. If I cast my mind towards Shirley it has several large supermarkets, a good wine shop, an equally good chippy, and a lovely hotel marred by the fact I had to spend an evening at ‘celebrating’ the wedding of some idiot from the office who I happen to detest. I don’t go as for years though its been a culinary graveyard. Locals rejoiced when they got a Beefeater and practically orgasmed when Miller & Carter set-up shop. Neither of those are going to draw me out to this suburb, for the simple reasons that I am a man of taste and I like my steak to rested in the kitchen, not on my plate. I like to eat at places that excite; restaurants that offer something different, and not afraid to show a little ambition. So now here I am, sat down at Indico Street Kitchen, pleased that I made the trip.

It succeeds in claiming attention from the second you walk through the door. The décor is colourful, kitsch, and charming. Painted murals of Bollywood style imagery line the walls, a myriad of umbrellas canopy the ceiling space. At one end is the view into the kitchen with the surrounding wall creating the aesthetic of a street food van (a concept that fits in with the menu here). There is interest to be found from both levels, wherever you look, and wherever in the restaurant you may be sat down for dinner.

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From the menu that deceptively looks like a newspaper, we look past the small section of curry house staples and on to the less common options. There is a large selection of street food options, some familiar from the starter sections of other Indian restaurants, others only from brief travels in India.  All, with the exception of two chicken dishes, are vegetarian. There are fat samosa’s, stained on the underside by softly braised chickpeas in a soured tomato sauce, and spongey paneer tikka, dusted in spices and roasted to the point that edges become charred. Neither dishes are particularly new to me, though both are well executed and seemingly more authentic than the spice-by-numbers, perfunctory cooking found in many establishments offering this cuisine.

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And then things start to get interesting. Bhel puri is a riot of textures that run from sweet, through to savoury, somehow crossing spicy at the same time. The puffed rice, sev, and veg mixture is lightly bound by tamarind and dotted with nuts and pomegranates.  It’s addictive and we continually return back to pile it from tray to plate.  I’d seen, but never tried, Pav Bhaji before.  I’m sure I could get shot for such a flippant generalisation, but it tasted to me much like a thickened vegetable curry, served with bread.  Curry and bread, what’s not to like about that.  It was spicy – so spicy that my poor girlfriend was reaching for anything to cool her head down – but I liked it in a primal way.  The raw onions on top a rustic way of getting the necessary acidity in to the dish.

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The only real slip of the night was a Vanda Pav – a deep fried patty of potato in a bread bun.  The best ones punch with plenty of heat, whereas this tasted of little other than the stodge of mashed potato and mustard seed. As much as that could have been ramped up a gear there was nowhere for our only meat option to go.  A lamb sheekh kebab roll, picked from the kathi section, as big and brash as Jeremy Clarkson though far more likeable.  The meat needed the flatbread roll to hold its shape, and was pungent with aromatics and fiery with chilli.  I loved it. This would serve me happily for lunch on its own one winters day.

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They have desserts, though our greed left us far too full to even consider them – a shame given that these looked the part and would have been a fitting way to finish a distinctly Indian meal washed down with Indian beer and cider.  They do Indian wine, too, which I will reserve judgement on until I try it.  The best thing for me about this place happens to be my partners gripe; its authentic to the point of no compromise.  The spicing was as it would be in Indian; great for me, less so for the delicate taste buds of my girlfriend.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  As we exit out past the Wetherspoon’s, the one owned by the dreadful Lounge group, and the identikit Prezzo and Pizza Expresses, it became clear:  At last Shirley has somewhere genuinely good to eat.  I hope that it prospers.

7/10

I was invited to eat at Indico Indian Street Kitchen.

Umami Indian Kitchen, Harborne

I used to live in Harborne.  Lovely place, polite and well mannered, with the whiff of affluence in the air.  It’s middle-class and proud; gents wear polo shirts with upturned collars all year round, occasionally pulling over a John Smedley knitwear when the wind outside Waitrose turns chilly.  Ladies sport designer handbags, often with designer pups perched inside.  Its a great place to live – home to the best pub in Birmingham, The Plough, and with far greater eating options than Moseley, its slightly rougher sibling which I now call home.  I miss it there.  What I don’t miss is the Indian food.  I love a curry and honestly, Harborne does the food of the subcontinent as well as it does parking.  We lived across the road from one that tried to kill me twice, with others not fairing much better.  So with the recent revelation that Harborne now has a restaurant that does Indian cooking as well, no one was more shocked than I.

First, let me address the name.  Umami is a term Japanese in nature, the so-called fifth taste sensation of savoury that they claim to have discovered in recent times.  The reality is that savoury has been a recognised flavour profile for hundreds of years, Escoffier noting a couple of hundred years back that it if it is brown it will taste good.  I digress, but still, naming an Indian restaurant after a Japanese term for a flavour not prominently found in the food of the sub-continent is curious at best.

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And then the food happens.  Three fat scallops, seared to medium rare, in a thick puddle of a tomato gravy flavoured with black peppercorns. It was reminiscent of a dish I had in Goa, though this has more depth and clarity to the sauce without losing the essence of the shellfish.  At £7 its hard to see where the restaurants profit margins are, but we care little as we chase the last of the sauce around the plate.  Shekh Kebabs and Somasa are on more familiar territory, though each are a delight.  The lamb kebabs are fragrant with cinnamon which needs the salad for respite, and the somosa transcended by a warm chutney underneath full of garlic and chilli heat.

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Mains are split in to more traditional curries and the chefs signature dishes, seemingly more expensive for bearing his expertise.  We try two curries, both with chicken of obvious quality.  We could smell the chettinad with it’s unmistakable aroma of coriander seeds as it made its way through the narrow dining room to our table, the multifaceted sauce rich with curry leaf and fiery heat.  Much calmer was their take on tikka masala, equally big on flavour with the smooth gravy, tempered and thickened by yogurt.  The chunks of chicken meat as tender as you could wish for.

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A  monkfish main from the chef’s signature dishes may seem steep at £18.00 but it wins the night hands down.  The fish is dusted in a rich spice blend and cooked just through so it avoids any chewiness.  The medallions sit on a sauce of chilli and garlic that demands you sit up and pay attention.  Like me, its refined in appearance and extremely naughty in nature.  Two seabass fillets are nestled on a spiced mushroom ragu, dotted with peas and bound with a tomato chutney full of warming freshness.  If they have one dish that truly captures the savoury of umami, this is it.  We share supple naan breads and rice that has been cooked so that each grain is distinct.  Not a scrap is left as they clear up our table.

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seabass Look, its not perfect.  They like cress as a decoration a little too much and there are as many managers as there are waiters, with more of the latter possibly rectifying the wait between dishes on the same courses.  Drinks take a while to arrive and when they do the cocktails require work, veering between overly sweet and too boozy.  But if I want cocktails I’ll go to a cocktail bar and the food, Oh My, the food is so Good.  A bill, amended to remove a glass of champagne that arrived late, hits just over forty pound a head with a couple of drinks each.  A cheaper meal could be had on much of Harborne High St, indeed at most of the cities Indian restaurants, but this is food of ambition and quality.  I have done the spectrum of Indian food in Birmingham, from the cheap to the costliest, but if you ask me which one is best I’d be hard pushed to suggest anywhere other than Umami.

9/10

 

 

 

Kababish, Moseley, Via Deliveroo

I need no reason to eat curry. I would, if my doctor would allow me, feast on the stuff every night.  Cut me open and I bleed ghee, ask me what my aftershave I’m wearing and the answer will be eau de garam masala.  For me, the food of the Indian subcontinent is simply the best.  A go to cuisine whenever my body needs a lift; whether that be I am ill or hungover or emotionally down or overexposed to back-to-back episodes of TOWIE.  It is a special kind of food that lends itself as equally well to dinner for two as it does to a post-pub feed or the simply takeaway.

Where I am from (Moseley, if you are planning on stalking me), the long standing king of the curry is Kababish.  With a reign of over 30 years, they have seen the suburb go from its arts of crafts roots into the national hotspot which it is now.  My future mother-in-law recalls queuing for Kababish when she were a student, and she is officially ancient.

I have eaten here many times, though tonight I am kicking back and letting those boys at Deliveroo sort my dinner whilst I watch another British team fail miserably in the Champions League.  I order, crack a beer open and meet the driver at the door before the bottle is finished.  Its piping hot, which is a marked improvement on the first time I had a delivery from here some time back.

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I’m a simple soul when it comes to the menu here, every time ordering the lamb kebab followed by the Dhesi Karai Murgh with a peshwari naan on the side.  The kebab is shaped into roundels and is deftly spiced with cumin and green chilli.  It has tenderness to the mince meat that could only be achieved by a lengthy marinade and a gentle touch in the tandoor.

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The Dhesi Karai Murgh is the star turn.  A Balti for the brave, fragrant with spice and with a healthy kick in the finish.  The cubes of poultry collapse into loose strands when pressured and have to fight for attention, which they just about manage.  The peshwari naans sweetness is a natural foil to the heat and mops up the last of the thick juices.  I have converted many to this curry over the years.  Give it a go and you wont be the last.

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I meant to post this last week to coincide with National Curry Week, though I am useless.  It matters not; curry may as well be our national dish, its ingrained in our culture and should be eaten often and with pride.  And those who do indulge could do far worse than doing so at Kababish.

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this meal.  Use the link roo.it/simonc3898 for £10 credit

 

Five Rivers, Walsall

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When it comes to champagne my will is weak. I may have started this restaurant blog with ideals and a sound moral compass, but these have withered occasionally. I’m not proud of it, though I am also not stupid. When I receive an invitation to an evening hosted by Laurent Perrier at an award winning Indian restaurant, of course I was going to accept it: It’s curry and fizz, two of my favourite things in the world.

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The restaurant in question is Five Rivers, a smart space not far from Walsall town centre, where wooden beams arch across the vaulted ceiling and elbows and arses are greeted by thick linen and deep, plush seating alike.  We start the meal with a sweet potato cake, heavy on chilli and cumin, with the spicing offset by the sweet funk of fig.  What I like most is the disregard for the etiquette that too often exists in Indian restaurants at the higher end, where smart presentation often means the spicing is turned down.  I want heat; lots of it.  I get it here and the dish is all the better for it.

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If the opening course nodded politely at classic Indian street food, the next course was pure theatre.  Warm lobster broth was poured tableside into a bowl containing morsels of the crustacean and a tiny dice of carrot and courgette.  Plumes of dry ice smoke encompass the table, with wows intermittently interrupted by people looking for their mobile phones.  I like it, less so because of the drama and more because of the flavour, rich with more heat and cut through with lemon acidity.

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Monkfish, charred with from the extreme tandoor heat, is cooked for a few seconds longer than I prefer.  A sweet puree of mango the natural foil to the fish.  Also from the tandoor came duck, boldly flavoured with garlic and ginger.  It was a stellar piece of cooking, the meat dense and vibrant with more of the chilli kick.   A lemon and lime sorbet appears after this point, but like I care.

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By now the fizzy stuff had kicked in and with it the rest of the evening became a glorious blur.  I just about remember a chicken dish, stuffed with spinach and topped with a sauce that I wished there were more of.  And there were desserts, which I can be sure of because they were on my camera and suit jacket.  I recall little of a mango sundae type thingy and a little more of a deep fried ice cream that whacked of cinnamon.  I think I recall being pleased with them, which says a lot, as Indian desserts are too often all sugar and no substance.

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And with that there was more champagne (of course there was) and a taxi home to sleep off a serious amount of booze.  Its hard to properly score a restaurant when the experience is far from the norm, but I woke up the following day telling everyone just how good the food was.  Maybe the fizz and the jubilant atmosphere swayed it, but more than likely not.   Either way I’ll be heading back to Walsall under my own steam to find out.  Five Rivers is admirable for having lofty ambitions away from the big cities and for executing it with aplomb.  I, for one, had a great time in their company.

9/10

The meal at Five Rivers was part of a celebration dinner with Laurent Perrier for which there was no charge.  Opinions, hazy memories and hangovers all remain my own

 

 

 

 

The Keg and Grill, Birmingham

I have been quiet of recent; I know this and I apologise. I had taken a couple of weeks to go on one of those silly diets that permits pork scratching’s, cheese and not much else. I have become an eggspert (apologies) at omelettes and being boring, forgoing alcohol and my sense of humour to halt the waistband creeping up towards 36 inches. Diets aren’t fun – anyone that tells you otherwise needs to invest in a life instead of the latest juicer – they suck the life out of mealtimes and make it impossible to eat out. Midway through my descent into hell I was put in the usual position of being tasked with finding us somewhere to eat: I had nothing, not through lack of good options, but for my singular restrictions of what I could put in to my system without committing carbicide. For that reason the suggestion of The Keg and Grill is owed to the personal trainer at my local gym, who, in-between scolding my crash dieting plans, almost shed a tear when telling me about the mixed grill there.

Fortunately, I saw sense on the day and decided that I had a life to live and curry to eat.  We keep the booking in place because I have a good idea of what to expect.  The owner here used to run The Hen & Chickens, a pub that features high up Tripadvisor’s  list of Birmingham thanks to its Indian grill kitchen.  I’m a big fan of these places; they breath life into public houses that would probably close otherwise, providing a style of food that far exceeds the soggy cheese sandwich’s which once frequented the counter.  Inside it’s a cosy pub, fully functioning with locals perched at the bar.  A lick of bright orange paint about covers the extent of the refurbishment.

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About eighty percent of all dishes we saw leaving the kitchen were mixed grills, so that seems the obvious place to start.  For a tenner, its a beast, where you can fill your boots with whatever meat you like just as long as it is chicken.  I lie:  There is also lamb seekh keebab’s, though the skewered dry meat is instantly forgettable.  Going back to the bird, we have accurately butchered morsels coated with honey & mustard and tandoori drumsticks that are both piquant with heat and soothing with yoghurt.  Breast meat is represented two ways; as a traditional tikka with a similar marinade to the drumsticks and as a chilli tikka, unlike anything I had tried before.  This is their bright green calling card, all balanced heat and mellow bitterness.

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We try curries because it would be rude not.  Both, despite traditionally being from the tamer end of the menu, are firmly set to “Hot”.  A rich butter chicken cannot escape from the big whack of chilli, as neither can the tikki masala, despite being heavy on the cream.  They are unrefined, but then we are on a backstreet in a part of the city centre where refinement is low on the list of priorities.  Fluffy naans and rice perked with the umami whack of mushrooms complete the order.

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With no desserts on offer we pay the bill and consider our next move.  Its remarkably cheap, with only the large grill over a tenner, and that will feed three people comfortably.  I’ve been to enough of these grill pubs to say the cooking is honest, if maybe not up some of its competition on the outskirts of the city.  Would I rush back especially to eat the food?  Probably not.  But as a one-stop-shop of meat, beer, and Sky Sports; The Keg and Grill has that in the bag for its locations.  That’s where places like these come into a league of their own.

6/10

The Keg and Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Vivaanta, Birmingham

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As a city we are not short of Indian restaurants. From the pioneering yet humble ones found in The Balti Triangle, to those that have incorporated fine dining approaches to presentation and service, you can guarantee that you never too far away from a Tikka Masala. We have pubs that focus on the charred cooking of the tandoor and street food stands where pani puri and dosas can be had for a pittance. We have restaurants that have found their niche in All You Can Eat buffets and others that have stream-lined the approach to covering just one of the regions of the vast country that is India. Birmingham is a city where spice and heat is now as much as our DNA as industry and daft accents. What we do not have, or at least to the best of mine and Googles knowledge, is one that specialises in the seafood that makes up much of the daily diet in regions such as Kerala and Goa.

Until now. Now we have Vivaanta, an ambitious Indian restaurant situated close to the Mailbox with a majority emphasis on seafood.  The restaurant is an airy space, glass fronted to make the most of its canal side location and views to The Mailbox and The Cube.  Inside the thickly carpeted dining room has well spaced tables dressed in thick linen which I would eventually leave looking far from the white colour it started the evening as. We order cocktails from a large bar that is central to the space whilst I recall a dismal meal I had when the building previously hosted a Thai restaurant that was big on grand decorations and less big on serving edible food.  All that gold and trash has made way for something far more elegant and sympathetic to its environment.  It’s a vast improvement to say the least.

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After the customary munching of popadoms we proceed to a starter of various fish dishes.  An impeccably fresh piece of salmon, gently spiced with mustard, is whizzed through the tandoor so that the outside is tinged and inner still pink.  A piece of cod has a light pakora batter that zings with ginger and lime and mussels that still sing of salt water with just enough heat to make us remember our settings.  Only a crab cake disappoints, with the crack of anise from fennel seeds not enough to save a texture that borders on flabby.

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From here we were treated to many of the dishes that should stand them apart from the crowd.  King prawns in a tomato sauce fragrant with fenugreek and a robust lobster tail in a similar sauce, this time softened by coconut milk.  It takes a level of skill to not kill the delicate flavours of the crustacean with spice; something they managed with aplomb here.  A whole sea bass handled carefully with turmeric and cayenne was a fraction overcooked, though admirable in effort.

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Meat dishes hit similar heights and occasionally surpass what was previously served.  A Chicken Jeera Methi was a rich dish pungent with mustard and gharam masala that begged to have the last of the sauce mopped up with the naan.  Best of all was a Lamb Gosht, deep with savoury notes and pellets of heat from dried black chillies.  Perhaps it is the very nature of red meat being able to stand up to more powerful flavours, but it was nice to see the kitchen not hold back as they had rightly done with some of the seafood dishes.  I could take a big bowl of this with a roti and leave a very happy man.  Dessert featured amongst other things a properly saturated Gulab Jamun. Its the Indian Baba, only without the decadent rum and with the addition of enough sugary syrup to induce a diabetic coma.  I enjoyed it a lot, though I was on my third Old Fashioned at this point.

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By positioning themselves at the finer end of the Indian food spectrum, Vivaanta are up against some pretty serious competition.  For the most of it, I believe that they more than hold their own.  They have guile and a light touch which is hard to find.  It would be easy to pigeon hole them to just seafood, but the meat dishes we tried prove they are much more than just that.  After only being open for a month I am excited to see how the food evolves; so much so that I am already looking at booking a table and going back.  The city that is the original home of the Balti has added another major player to its ranks.

8/10

I was a guest of the restaurant on this occasion and did not pay for either food or drinks

Vivaanta Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato