on August 6, 2009
India – 31/07/09'Going for an Indian' is a time-honoured British tradition. Indian food really has been taken to heart in the UK, with restaurateurs putting their own spins on classic dishes - balti originated in Birmingham, and Britain's favourite dish, chicken tikka masala, seems to have had its genesis in Glasgow. However, as discussed elsewhere, the majority of British curryhouses are owned and run not by entrepreneurs of Indian descent, but rather of Pakistani and Bangladeshi . The number of restaurants with the Arabic halal sign in the window is a testament to this. So what was I to do to find a proper Indian curry? Famously, the legendary Curry Mile in Rusholme has just one authentically Indian restaurant, Punjab. But then a suggestion came in to look at a long-standing member of the city centre food scene, Shimla Pinks. Unusual name? Well Shimla is a Himalayan mountain town, the summer capital of the British Raj, and the 'pinks' are the Indian equivalent of Britain's 'Sloane Rangers', the moneyed and well-connected young alumni of India's top universities. Likewise Shimla Pinks caters for the moneyed and well-connected following its refurb. From the outside it is a rather unpreprosessing eau-de-nil shaded wall. Inside it is lovely. Behind the expansive black bar there is a Himalayan mountain scene in which the sky colour subtly shifts as you watch, stars twinkling above. Violet and electric blue recessed lighting gives it a contemporary stylish theme. Even the glasses are one of a kind with an asymmetric design suggesting elephants' feet, arched doorways, or the tree roots that overhang the Bayon at Angkor Wat. This place is a cut above - as you can tell by the expansive wine list that features no less than seven choices of champagne! However, marvellously, a visit does not have to break the bank. Paul and Ross accompanied me to check out their pre-theatre menu. This comprises their set 'banquets' but at a knocked-down price. Between 16:30 and 18:30 Tuesday to Saturday the cost of the Gormet Banquest is reduced from £14.95 to £8.95 per-person; the Executive Banquest is likewise reduced from £19.95 to £12.95. The three of us plumped for the Gourmet Banquet. So what did our £8.95 get us? Firstly a pile of that curryhouse favourite, crisp poppadoms. Porcelain dishes of dips were brought out - mango chutney, mint & yogurt, and 'red onions'. 'Red Onions' seem to be a local feature in Manchester, onions in a tomatoey sauce. Here however they were in another class, spicy and lip-tingling. So far this boded well for the meal. And our starters did not disappoint either. Each of us was served with a plate holding a specimin of each of five different starters artfully arranged. A spinach pakora was caught in the moment like an exploding nebula, its batter crisp and non-oily. A lighter batter was used on the dum saunfiya paneer - two pieces of home-made cheese sandwiching a refreshing mint and fennel filling and then lightly fried. There were two chicken starters. The murgh malai tikka were chunks of chicken marinated in cream and cheese before being tandoor grilled, and the joojeh seekh was a minced chicken shawarma. The final starter was aloo tikki, potato and herb patties. These were deceptively spicy, more so than any of the other tidbits. And of course it was the first one I had tried. What would have been nice would have been if the waiter, as well as describing what everything was, had also suggested an order in which to try them, so that the stronger flavours did not overpower the more delicate ones. In fact, this was pretty much my only complaint at Shimla Pinks - there was a lot of different foods produced, all with different and delightful flavours, but there was a real risk that the more subtle spices could be drowned out by the more powerful. When it came to the mains each of us was presented with a plate holding a timbale of pilau rice. Five pots of different curries were put down on the table for us to share - two chicken, one lamb, one veg, and one lentils. The lentil dish was panchmeal daal, a cumin and coriander flavoured mix of five types of lentil (chana, massor, arhar, urid and moong). Paul, the only one of our party to have actually been to India, had intended to order this dish even if we were just going a la carte. The vegetable dish was a lightly spiced jalfrezi, and the lamb came with spinach in a spicy masala called harrey masaley ka gosht. The first chicken dih was nentara in a dry tomato, coriander, fenugreek and ginger sauce. The other was chooza makhani - marinaded and tandoor-fired chicken tikka chunks in a smooth yellowy sauce. Being a fan of makhanis anyway, this was a personal favourite of mine. And when our waiter re-appeared and said that actually the curries were unlimited so we could have free repeats of any we wanted, this was the dish that we requested another bowl of. (We also requested more rice, though we later found that we were charged for this). Accompanying it all were naan breads, fluffy and light, and not the fat, dense undercooked ones you can sometimes be saddled with. So all that cost us £8.95 each. An absolute bargain. With all the dishes we were treated to delicate and subtle flavour combinations that are often missing in your usual high-street curry-house. These were curries cooked to perfection using carefully selected and balanced ingredients, and food wise it would be impossinle to fault what we were given. By the time we finished we were stuffed like a keema naan. We couldn't even think about desserts. Frankly, even if we had paid the full £14.95 I would still have classed this as a bargain, but at £8.95 it was one of the deals of the year! Cheap as chappattis! Drinks were not as economical unfortunately - the large bottles of Cobra beer Ross and I had cost £4.95 each! Much better value was the £4.50 jug of mango lassi we shared. I do hope that Shimla Pinks keep this pre-theatre menu deal going. It is well and truly on my 'return again' list. And it is nice to see that you can have a premium quality Indian banquet in premium quality surroundings - and for less than the price you would pay in the average suburban curry-house.
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