Indian

Tap and Tandoor, Solihull

Very occasionally I sit somewhere and know the success is fully deserved. That they have a clear idea of what the area demands, and that those who are demanding it will leave happy. Often it is the most basic of ideas, as is the case here at Tap and Tandoor. It is as simple as location and provenance; the former will see them come in droves, the latter see them returning time over. If Solihull needed this as an area, the market it sits within needed the innovation more. The idea that the grill and curry food could be done using entirely free range meat for the same price as the competition is a genuine game changer for a sector not known for conscientious meat purchasing. And the quality of that meat shines throughout the meal. That is why Tap and Tandoor is one of the most important openings of 2018.

I thought it would be good; I know its sister venue Zindiya intimately. The menu has the infrequent nod towards that Moseley restaurant whilst managing to be an entirely different beast. Here you will find curry, breads, and mixed grills alongside the Indian street food dishes of Zindiya. It is a menu designed to be grazed over a longer period, washed down with any one of the beers that line the back wall. We order and settle in to a table under the painted mural on the back wall. It is heaving. The inhabitants of Solihull clearly have more taste that I credited them for.

From a succinct list of home style curry we have the butter chicken of all butter chickens. So good that all other versions must now feature ‘I cant believe its not butter chicken’ on the packaging. Its unashamedly rich, clogging the arteries with happiness. The poultry is firm, well cooked, and tastes of chicken; a rarity in these places. It is a stunner. We mop this up with a chilli and cheese naan that is supple and light. Exactly how it should be but rarely are.

And then there is the mixed grill. And my, what a mixed grill it is. It is the best of its kind in the city because the quality of the produce is allowed to shine. We have a regular sized one that is too much for two people, but will not stop me ordering the large next time. The chicken tikka is made to the same recipe as the sister restaurant. If anything the morsels here are larger, so whisper it, but this may be even better than the place that does the best I have eaten. There are meaty chicken wings smoky from the grill that do less for me, king prawns that linger with chilli notes for a while afterwards, and heavily spiced sheekh kebab cut to an uneven number that has us arguing over the last piece. Best of all are the lamb chops, charred so that the marinade has crusted up and left a pink centre. Once again the quality of the meat shines through; lamb chops simply don’t taste this good in places like this.

The only slip-up I can find are the beer battered onion bhajis that are a touch greasy and need a little work, but that is it. Even the one dish lifted from the Zindiya menu is an improvement; paneer tikka in an indo-Chinese style sauce. It is no longer caked in sauce, instead it happily shares its space with cooked onions and peppers, splayed out across a plate with the sweet and fiery sauce merely joining the dots. I want to stay and eat the chocolate samosa but I am defeated.

Far too much food, a beer, and a soft drink comes in at just over £40, an obscene bargain. And it is this that impresses me the most. With the premium location and free range meat costs it would have been easy to ramp up the prices, yet they have resisted this, choosing to sit at a price point below their direct competition. It’s all rather brilliant, helped by a team of staff who clearly know their stuff. If I lived closer I’d be here twice a week without fail. The people of Solihull are a lucky, lucky bunch.

9/10

Transport provided by another of Solihull’s finest, A2B Radio Cars

Ruchie, Shirley

In a change from the norm, lets begin this post with a quick geography lesson. The length of India, from the Himalayan mountains to the beaches of Kanyakumari, sits around 3500km. Pretty big, right? To put that into perspective it is approximately the same distance from Birmingham to Istanbul. Draw a straight line between the two to drive it and you’ll enter Belgium, graze France, pass through the south of Germany and into Austria, hit Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, have a hefty time in Bulgaria and finally reach Turkey. From a culinary perspective there’ll be moules frites, quenelle de brochet, sauerkraut, schnitzels, goulash, and tarator, the latter presumably all down the white Levis and Kenwood jackets of those oh so trendy Bulgarians. Now you can make a half decent sausage and mash, right? In which case I can only assume your tarator has perfect acidity, and your quenelles are as light as your wallet now is. I assume all of this because this is the exact approach we take to Indian food in this country. We assume that every chef grew up perfecting the Balti and Tikki Masala, which is casual racism given that the Tikki Masala was invented on these shores as a way of appeasing the spice loathing palette of the average Brit, and the Balti originated from Pakistan. India is rich in regional variety from the vegetable dominated diets of the Gujarati, to the more identifiable dishes taken from the snack culture in Punjab. So if you are the type to go to your local Indian and order a Balti know that I am judging you. And I am blaming you for Brexit.

My borderline obsession with this meant that my ears pricked up when I heard that regional Indian cooking had found its way to Shirley. Ruchie promises to stick to the south of India, namely the regions of Kerala and Chettinad that lean on less heavy styles of curry, of fish and dosa. It is a region that I know a bit about because my other half has spent time there. From the opening gambit I know they take it seriously: deep fried banana chips join the usual poppadoms, with a spritely lemon chutney in amongst the more conventional dips and pickles. For starters we take two types of dosa; one with paneer, the other with potato. Both are excellent with vibrant spicing and a healthy kick of heat, the batter that encases them light and delicate. They even succeed in making me like sambar, the light vegetable curry that here tastes of something. We also try Kathrikka, a new dish for the both of us. The aubergines are deep fried in a batter and served with a tomato chutney. It could almost be a tapas dish in Spain had it not been for the cumin that runs through the batter. Maybe the position so close to the Portuguese influenced cooking of Sri Lanka has more of an effect that I credited it.

For mains we look to both sides of the southern peninsular. A Meen Kuzhambu gets ordered for direct reference point. Claire thinks it is better than the one she had on a boat in Kerala. The kingfish is beautifully cooked, the tamarind sauce sweet and sour without ever overpowering the fish. And then there is the Chettinad chicken curry, a gravy base more silkier than the usual robust identikit sauces. The overriding flavour is black pepper, though there are plenty of chilli and aniseed notes lurking behind. Without either of us visiting Chettinad before it feels authentic; unfamiliar and cooked with love. I like it here.  Pulao rice is good, a paratha better. The layers distinct, the rich butter flavour distributed expertly throughout.

Given that we take some of the curry home for later, we skip dessert, though Claire is vowing to return for Semiya Payasam, a lesser known Indian dessert that happens to be her favourite and yours for £3.50. Ruchie is a bold move and one that I hope is embraced by the local community, though whether or not Shirley is ready for an Indian restaurant that doesn’t serve Baltis remains to be seen. I think it will be fine; the service is excellent, the bill very good value and we try a couple of very nice cocktails. For me it moves straight into my top five Indian restaurants in the city and somewhere I can see myself returning to frequently. There is so much to learn about the regional cooking of India and Ruchie is the ideal first chapter to start with.

8/10 

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Opheem, Birmingham

Such was the brilliance of Opheem that we found ourselves arguing about the best bits for hours after our meal. Was it the deboned, rolled and stuffed trotter on the pork main course? Or the subtle use of jaggery to add a treacle flavour on the lamb dish? Maybe it was the acidity of the raw mango with the softshell crab? I always think that it says a lot about a place if you remember the garnish as much as the protein, and here we are, two blokes sat in a boozer discussing the finer merits of what my mate Jim thinks it is the best meal he’s eaten in Birmingham and me adamant is the finest Indian food I’ve ever had. We go over the small elements over and over, where on the plate every ingredient matters. It is a meal of outstanding taste, that much we can both agree on.

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This will come as less of a shock when you learn that Opheem is the new restaurant of Aktar Islam, long servant to the city from his time at Lasan where he won The F Word’s best local restaurant, and TV chef from Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. Aktar has gone it alone now, with a large dining room and bar where a notorious nightclub once stood. The space has an industrial feel with lots of brushed concrete effects, whilst tables are spaced far enough apart to upset an accountant. A glass partition separates the dining room from the open kitchen. Aktar is present at the pass, tasting and casting his eye over every dish. There is fire in those eyes.

I’ve been eating his food for years now, and this feels like him cooking without fear or constraint. The flavours are familiar, though there is a lighter touch to the spice in general, and more purpose in the complex techniques. Of the three snacks that launch our dinner the clearest example of this is the use of sphererification, the gel membrane releasing a spicy tamarind water when popped whole in the mouth. It is pani puri reimagined via molecular gastronomy that has more in common with Indian Accent and Gaggan than the Ladypool Rd. And then there is a tempura oyster with spiced batter and puree that tastes cleanly of tomato chutney. Only a onion bhaji style fritter is instantly recognisable and even then it’s greaseless and a world away from the norm.

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There are nods to his previous accolades on the menu and from this we take the soft shell crab dish that pays homage to his winning fish course on Great British Menu. The batter on the crustacean is delicate, the crab itself tender. A silky puree of raw mango has all the acidity and sweetness it needs, whilst the fermented rice batter bowl it comes in at first feels superfluous until you realise it adds a nuttiness and additional texture that enhances the dish. Everything has a purpose.

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Chicken comes smothered in a moss green mass of herbs, the marinade breaking down the protein in the meat so that it is implausibly tender. A simple salad of heritage tomatoes is all it requires, along with a little more of the same diced fruit and a yogurt dressing. It is fresh and clean in taste, with a predominant flavour of herb over spice. There is an intermittent course of sweet potato and cumin bread with a lamb brain pate; a nod to him smearing his mothers cooking on to crusty white bread as a youngster. The delicate jewels of offal still pronounced in amongst the robust spices. His mother clearly taught him well.

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Mains show the concept of Opheem in full force; one that takes the traditions of India and recreates them. Traditionally a spicy mutton curry, Laal Maans is reimagined with slices of pink lamb loin and crisp beignets of tongue joining pearls of smokey aubergine and barley. The gravy style sauce pulls it back towards its roots though there is obvious alchemy involved with the liberal use of chilli and silky bone marrow. Pork is given a similar treatment with pink cuts of loin, a pastilla of smoked ham hock, and the rolled trotter that I am still dreaming of. There is so much to get excited about on the plate, like the carrots cooked with star anise and another killer sauce, but the genius element is the puree of vindaloo that is ferociously hot with chilli and soured with vinegar, just how you’d find it in the beach shacks of Goa. It is this that is the highlight of the meal. It takes everything it touches and throws it into the clouds.

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Dessert is a fragrant rice pudding panacotta served with various preparations of rhubarb, which include more molecular dots of jammy fruit and a sorbet of astonishing depth of flavour. Indian desserts are often the weak link, yet here he is proving that a little classic European cooking technique can go a long way at rectifying that. It is a smart move and one that guarantees I go home happy. It is is well balanced and pretty impeccable in delivery; Oh boy, does this man do flavour.

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And that concludes a truly superb meal. One that isn’t just a coup for the city of Birmingham, but is important to Indian cooking in this country. I’ve seen what the best in this cuisine has to offer and in my eyes Opheem already stands up to them, even surpassing them in places. Aktar Islam has been long touted as a standout talent, yet Opheem feels bolder than ever before; the product of a man cooking without shackle and allowing that creative stream to run riot. It is fresh yet relatable, distinctive cooking from a man clearly in tune with his craft. We are lucky to have Opheem in this city, but we must share far and wide. Food as good as this deserves celebrating.

10/10

https://opheem.com

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

 

 

Itihaas, Birmingham

Without wishing to generalise or resort to stereotype, Indians do service better than any other country. Maybe it’s cultural, or even driven by its colonial history where their position in society meant they served as a secondary nature, but the very basic level is elevated when in, or provided by, those from the sub-continent. My girlfriend saw this first-hand in India when staying at the majestic Taj hotel in Mumbai last November. Here a five star hotel is built around amenities; valet parking, afternoon tea, and then somewhere to work it off afterwards. At the Taj they would fold and recoil phone chargers, and turn down bed sheets whilst they were out for dinner. She was even able to send the concierge out for some cheap brandy I requested that she couldn’t be arsed to look for herself. You try going into The Connaught and asking them to fetch you some cheap brandy; they’ll have you downstairs in the bar drinking the very expensive stuff as a compromise.

Some of the very best service I think I’ve ever received in this mighty fine town was last week at Itihaas. It was hammering down outside when we pass into the entrance, the team quick to remove coats and offer towels to dry us off. And then we’re seated in chairs so deep they could be Leonard Cohen lyrics and offered champagne whilst poppadum arrive, whilst the team buzz around a dining room far too busy to be an Indian restaurant on a Monday evening. And then dishes arrive at a good pace and wine is topped up immaculately. Pitched well above casual and more towards those bestowed with accolades, they succeeded in that personal level of service that makes a diner feel special. Even when they’ve been soaked to the bone coming to eat here after an awful day in the office.

But what about the food, I don’t here you asking? It’s bloody good, probably the best of it’s too-expensive-for-a-casual-Balti-but-nice-enough-to-bring-the-parents category that it sits within. Soft shell crab pakora is the best soft shell dish I have eaten, with a crunchy spiced batter that avoids grease and never loses the flavour of the crustacean. Lamb tikka is remarkable; the quality of the fillet meat and the length of the marinade resulting in chunks of so tender they require no chewing. Both of these are outstanding but for me its the scallops that take the starters. Accurately seared to an opaque centre, the light curried dressing has bags of acidity and garlic, with whole bullet chillies for those who like a challenge. I do. Three starters of the highest order. We speak only in approving nods and doe eyes.

This being a night organised by the PR company behind the restaurant we are being fed plentifully and without choice, so the next two courses would not have been ordered by me usually on account of zero meat. Soy tikka masala is a clear riff on the nations favourite dish, the soy protein a substitute favoured by those who make their diet the first conversational piece. I love the spicy gravy but the texture of soy is one that I cannot get on board with, despite its obvious benefits. And you don’t need to because they have the Makhani Paneer, which I am calling one of the cities great vegetarian dishes. The homemade paneer is deliberately cooked without colour, allowing the creamy curry to star front of stage. It’s rich and buttery with a backnote of tang that stops it becoming too much until you soak it up with a truffle oil and poppy seed naan. This absolute genius addition of truffle oil works brilliantly when in the restrained environment of a naan, less so when applied liberally throughout the rice already laden of wild mushrooms. Too much luxury can be a bad thing occasionally. Just take the paneer curry with the truffle oil naan and order a plain pilau rice. Thank me after you’ve wiped the dish clean.

We also get a lamb shank, braised until the bone comes away from the protein with a singular tug, in a gravy style sauce that has the soul of cooking juices. Running low, I request a little more bread to protect my fingers as I tug away at the last of the meat, to which they produce a roomali roti. My favourite! It’s as if they’ve read my mind. Or this blog. The bread is perfect, almost transparent thin layers that collapse upon themselves like the English cricket team’s lower order, but this is all about the lamb which is delicate in texture and robust in flavour.

Dessert comes in the way of two courses; up first is a pistachio rasmali, a dish I tend to care little for, even with the metallic tang of saffron livening up the milk that moats around the sponge. I have a lot more time for the deep fried samosa filled with molten chocolate and coconut. Naughty, naughty, very naughty. The pastry is thin, the centre liquid. It goes very well with the almond kulfi drenched in bourbon. I don’t normally like kulfi. Maybe booze was the answer all along.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think for a second that the specially planned menu with generous amounts of wine and a brandy nightcap isn’t a conscious effort from the restaurant to show off, but frankly, it worked. And my eye was firmly on the table of city workers behind us who received the same level of brilliant service despite being heavily under the influence. Everyone gets the same brilliant service, its just that most have a bill to settle at the end. And that bill is worth it; from beginning to end it’s total class, with smart Indian cooking using some very good ingredients. As a city Birmingham does Indian food better than all others. Itihaas is right at the top of that pile.

8/10

I was invited to dine here on a complimentary basis

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Niraj’s Kitchen, Dudley

I’m not good with dinner parties. And when I say I’m not good, what I really mean is I’m dreadful at them. I never get invited to them, maybe because I’m overly opinionated, a little arrogant, and drink too much. Maybe it’s because the last one I went to I asked for salt and pepper to make a truly horrific chilli con carne marginally better, or maybe it is because the time prior to that I criticised the technique in making an frittata. For some reason, and I have every idea why, people do not want to cook for me in their own home. And I totally understand that. I don’t want to cook for me in my own home. I just chastise myself continually until I’m told to shut up for talking over Don’t Tell The Bride.

So it’s a good thing that neither Niraj and Leena had no preconceptions of who I was prior to their supper club. Had they known in advance what a horrendous human being I am they may not have greeted us so warmly at their doorstep, taken our jackets and wine away and sat us down in their living room with a mocktail whilst we awaited the other guests. Then, when they arrive, they may not have been so eager to sit us in the large kitchen diner and serve up some of the very best Indian food I have ever had the privilege of eating anywhere. So good that on the drive back to Birmingham we contact them about coming back again. So good that I would gladly travel back to Dudley to eat. It’s that good.

This event, as part of WeFiFo’s supper clubs, is a showcase for the cooking of Niraj, a local government employee whose passion lies elsewhere; a sentiment that I can very much relate to. Over the space of an hour and forty five we get food cleverly layered with spice from a chef with serious talent. Even the homemade chutneys that get served with poppadum’s are great; a sweet and sour date and tamarind puree, a more conventional mint yogurt, and a vivid green one that has coriander at the front and the blast of green chilli at the rear. This is just a prequel to the knockout starter. Chicken wings, deboned just like those legendary morsels at the greatly missed Modu, with a Manchurian sauce. The wings have been cooked twice, my guess being first sous-vide and then pan fried to crisp up and render down the fatty skin. The sauce is an Indo-Chinese one I’m not familiar with that has bags of chilli heat and vinegar acidity. The two together are incredible; put these in Digbeth Dining Club and you have an instant street food classic, stick them on a restaurant menu and people will be asking for an extra portion to take and eat at home the following day. For the only time in the evening there is total silence at the table. Not a scrap is left by anyone.

Mains are communal and generous. There is a warming karai ghost with slow cooked lamb that breaks down at the slightest suggestion, and a butter chicken that is complex and rich. A chickpea and spinach curry that we cook at home shows just how rubbish we are in comparison to Niraj and an aubergine curry is everything you want a vegetarian curry to be; smoky with plenty of spice, yet still putting the aubergine as the star. All of it is absolutely brilliant and if it sounds like I am gushing it is because I genuinely am. This is the very reason I started this blog, to find food of this standard in places I never thought to look, and to hopefully encourage others to then seek it out. Even the naans are brilliant, light and pliable, as we get plain ones and garlic ones and ones flavoured with plenty of chilli. My partner spent much of November in India. She elbows me to whisper that this is better than anything she ate there.

Dessert is the ultra traditional chocolate and ginger fondant, with Chantilly cream hiding a pond of raspberry gel. It’s a crowd pleaser executed with precision, the oozy centre with a hint of spice and a huge whack of chocolate. It’s rich and unexpected given the food served prior, but I would personally take this over kulfi every day.

I was sceptical before going: After all there are a lot of variables involved. Will the food be any good? Will I like the hosts? Will I like the other people who are here? The truth is this was one of the best Saturday evenings that I can recall having, with lovely company, hosts who care and a meal that will linger far longer in the memory than most restaurants. An evening at Niraj’s Kitchen will be one of the best ways you will ever spend £30, that much I can guarantee.

I was invited by WeFiFo. Book Niraj’s Kitchen here; https://www.wefifo.com/event/212770520476624/5-course-indian-feast

Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10

Raja Monkey, Hall Green

I’ll keep this post nice and short, just like Paul, my dining companion on this evening. Just last week, Michelin starred chef and fellow Moseleyite, Brad Carter, was interviewed by the Good Food Guide about his favourite places to eat in Birmingham, whereupon he stated that Raja Monkey was his ‘best place for dinner’. I’m going to stop there and call it quits. Brad has the palate of a fine artist, making mine look like etch-a-sketch in comparison. I’ll be honest, given the choice of Brad’s recommendation or reading my badly put together, slightly angry, and marginally tainted opinion, you should 100% switch off this crap, Google the piece I’m talking about and take his word about going. Do as he says. The End. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Still there? WHY?! Can you not take instruction? You are worse than my hamster. Should you want my opinion, I am going to echo that of Mr Moseley Michelin Man. Raja Monkey is a brilliant little place in a spot worth travelling to, occupying a little crevice in the Indian dining scene quite unlike anywhere else. They do curries and dosa, and all encompassing thali. It’s the spirit of roadside India, those cheap dinner stop-off joints filled with locals and stale, humid air. Here we are in Hall Green, opposite Waitrose, sat in deep leather booths whilst others wait for spaces to come available in a packed dining room. I’d much rather be here, if only for the air conditioning.

I was in love from the first mouthful. It was the lime pickle which got me, blood red and aggressive. It has acidity at the front, lingering heat at the back. It takes considerable effort and skill to make pickle this good, not buy it in a jar like ever other Indian restaurant in the city. The mango chutney, too, with a back note of clove and onion seed, was impressive. I use this to spoon into a dosa filled with potato, mustard seed and curry leaf. The savoury pancake is delicate, the filling generous. I really like the punchy tomato chutney, less so the coconut one. It is as good a dosa as I have eaten anywhere, India included. Opposite me Paul is destroying a mixed fish starter. I don’t try it so we’ll have to take his past career as Birmingham Mail’s food critic as word that it is good. If you’ve read his previous work I’ll leave that decision up to you.

I do get to try his Chicken Bhuna and when I say ‘try’ I really mean finish off the third that he has left and work the last of the sauce out of the crevices with a roti. The curry is drier in style than I expect, fragrant with garam masala, and rich with the base of onions took well past the point of colouring. It is special but nothing compared to my thali. Thali, for those who have fell upon this blog by mistake and still order chicken tikka masala, is a complete meal on a tray. The components within the little pots is changeable, but this has paratha for bread, rice, an onion and tomato salad that zings with light pickling liquor, a dhal, vegetable dish, and curry. My curry is a chicken korma, a dish that Brits have destroyed by labelling it as the not spicy option in the post-pub curry houses. This is how it should be; a gravy base not destroyed by coconut, comforting and perfumed by cardamom. The meat has taken on the curry flavour, a hard boiled egg adding further richness. I like it, but it is the vegetable dish that amazes me. Whoever can take red kidney beans and elevate them to a rich, smoky dish is a magician. I bet they have beanstalks in their back garden. I’d gladly sell my cow to get my hands on them.

We skip dessert because there is no room at the inn for any more. Paul picks up the bill and we finish off our beers and idle gossip. My dining companion is clearly a huge fan, but let’s be real about it, he has skin in the game. Me, I owe it nothing other than more frequent visits to eat all of the menu. And I will. Raja Monkey is but three miles from our home, conveniently over the road from where we like to shop. It’s too good to ignore, a true taste of the no-frills dining in India. It shakes its thang better than any of its kind in Birmingham. That bloke from Carters is right, but then I did tell you that right at the beginning.

9/10

I did not see the bill on this occasion.

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The Horseshoe, Hall Green

The plate on which I portioned my half of the starter now resembles a Jackson Pollock painting; a drunken blend of vivid mint yogurt and a crimson chilli sauce that has the background funk of molasses and tamarind. The platter, once sizzling, is now a luke warm graveyard of bones. We have left nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. The waitress, a young and affable lady in her early twenties, asks how it was, to which I respond with a simple and concise ‘excellent’. She is pleased, like she had cooked it herself, and goes on to tell us how the new menu for the refit centred around creating this mixed grill to be as good as it can be. She goes into details about the different marinades they trialled for the three types of tikka, and how the lamb chops cooking time was constantly tweaked. It is a level of attention that I was not expecting, yet alone to hear of in such detail from the staff. Frankly, I am impressed. Welcome to The Horseshoe version 2.0.

It is still The Horseshoe, I just added to the version 2.0 bit on the end to make it sound like a Hollywood movie. They’ve sharpened up the lines of the old interior. They’ve tweaked the menu to give it a more Desi pub feel. And they still offer a European menu which is sent back as soon as it is offered on account of the kitchen team looking more Mumbai than Milan. I blame the local community for this who clearly cannot accept that a pub which used to do pub food badly can now exist in the same bricks and mortar under a different cuisine. Would you ever go into a Fish and Chip shop and ask for Nasi Goreng? Exactly. If you come here and complain about the state of your carbonara, you’re an idiot and you only have yourself to blame.

That mixed grill starts and pretty much finishes us off. It’s gargantuan in size and only a starter to the optimistic or American amongst us. Three types of chicken tikka; one a conventional marinade, another sharp with the acidity of pickle, and one fiery with green chilli. Two types of mince kebab; one lamb, the other chicken. Both with personality, the latter packed with the hot stuff. Lamb chops that have the funk of a James Brown record only without the domestic violence. Chicken drumsticks. I think I’m done. No, sorry, I forgot the quarter of tandoori chicken, all communist in colour and scorched on the fringes. It’s all good; some, such as the chicken tikka, minced chicken kebab and tandoori chicken, are knock out brilliant. It is, right now as a collection, the best mixed grill in Birmingham. And I say that with the confidence of a man who has eaten many of recent in those considered as the premium.

We take a couple of curries and a dhal, because we are greedy and promiscuous with our choices. The tarka dhal gets ordered again, as does the methi chicken whose fenugreek flavour slowly reveals like a burlesque dancer. The punchy achari gosht is a little more one dimensional – we get heat and tomato and not much else with the tender cubes of lamb. From a bread basket is a good naan and roti, with a stellar paratha that’s all buttery wafer.

What we don’t finish they are happy to box up, and the following day we load the last of the lamb curry onto the leftover roti, with some yogurt which they correctly guess we would need. And there in a leftover box is all you need to know about The Horseshoe – they have their finger on the pulse and a firm eye on giving the customer what they want. And if you go looking for a mixed grill you really can’t do much better in Birmingham. Just go hungry.

8/10

The meal was complimentary and arranged by Delicious PR

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Hen and Chickens, Jewellery Quarter

Claire has been banging on about the mixed grill at the Hen and Chickens since we met, which, if you’re either of our previous partners reading this, was seven lovely months ago and not a day before. We had come into the city centre with the intention of going to a vegan restaurant but sometimes tofu and quinoa just doesn’t cut it. Actually, never does tofu and quinoa cut it. We opt for the Hen and Chickens, beloved of my beloved on account of the mixed grill that is her benchmark for a mouthful of protein. And I’m happy with this. It’s a pub, I can drink beer and eat meat. I can pretend to pay attention to her whilst watching the football over her shoulder. Very happy indeed.

It’s hot in here. So hot Nelly wrote a song about it. The recent refit is a smart move towards bare brick walls, leather booths and dark wooden tables. It’s a close space and our table is initially a spill over area for those either side of us. We fallout over the size of the mixed grill, I want to spend the extra £4 on a large, whilst Claire wants a medium, which is not an analogy for our relationship. I win, which is an analogy for our relationship.

She was right, which is absolutely an analogy for our relationship. It’s massive, a group feed rather than just the two of us. It’s all good, some of it is spectacular. The green chicken is part of the latter; spicy with marinade seemingly full of chilli heat, it knocks spots off the more conventional chicken tikka and that is one of the city’s better versions. We love the chicken niblets, which are thigh drumsticks coated in a thick cornflour batter, and chunks of a firm white fish coated in a batter fragrant with garam masala. Sheekh kebab could maybe do with more heat, but chicken wings make up for it with aggressive spicing that penetrates throughout the meat. In short, it’s a monster feed for seventeen quid. The reason to come. If you’re not ordering this you’re simply missing out.

Stupidly, we order more food and it fails to hit the same dizzying heights of the mixed grill. Masala fries are as passable as frozen chips coated in garam masala will ever be. A chicken balti initially starts off as one dimensional until the spices slowly start to reveal layer-by-layer. By the time we finish we are chasing the last dots of sauce around the bowl with a very good garlic naan.

All this, a pint and a gin comes in at £36, and we leave with half the mixed grill in a bag which serves well for lunch the following day. The Hen and Chickens wasn’t one of the original desi pubs, but it did take the appeal of places like The Vine and stick them in a more convenient and appealing location. I liked it, it’s probably my favourite at this point in time. And that large mix grill is a reason to go in itself.

8/10

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; www.a2bradiocars.com

Zindiya, via Deliveroo

December, a food lovers nightmare. Reservations are impossible to come by, and when they do happen, you’ll mostly find yourself dining from an overpriced set menu, surrounded by those who only get out once a year. The types who get pissed on two drinks and cop off with Martin from accounts in the toilet cubicle whilst you really need the loo, and clog the bar with orders for the entire department. I can’t take those pricks. Had I never had friendships that only survive on that one annual piss-up, I’d stay in all month, eating, watching Masterchef and pulling apart the plot holes in a two-thousand-year-old story about the alleged son of God and an intact hymen. I’m not buying it. I fail to accept that booking.com was down on the very day that they landed in Jerusalem, or that three men that rocked up with such useless presents could ever be called wise. At this time of year the only wise man I’m opening my door to is a Deliveroo driver bearing the gift of Zindiya.

Zindiya being on Deliveroo is a BIG thing. They’ve previously had no takeaway option and the increasing success means it’s harder than ever to get a table. What opened as a Moseley favourite is now a Birmingham hero, beloved of the lowlifes like me to Michelin starred chefs.

That delivery process hasn’t affected the quality. The chicken tikka is still in Birminghams top five dishes and tastes better than ever. The aloo tikki chaat still zings with heat and deft spicing. That bhel puri is still a textural delight.

We tried a couple of dishes that have incredibly still eluded us. There was a toastie of sorts that has the crunch of raw onion hidden under melted cheese and chillies that at £3.50 for two pieces doesn’t feel like value for the first time. It’s the Chole Bature that steals the show. The bread is delicate and airy, the perfect vehicle for the chickpea curry. Top it with a bit of the sev and nuts from the bhel puri and thank me afterwards.

The above, including the delivery charge, comes in at £27.00. That chicken tikka is £7, the aloo tikki chaat £4, the Chole Bature a couple of quid more. It’s astonishing value, some of the best food in the city for really very little. Deliveroo have landed big with this and I for one will be making the most of it. In our household, Christmas really has come early.

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this meal.