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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was invited to eat at Indico Indian Street Kitchen.