Shirley

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

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.