Sparkbrook

Chaiiwala, Sparkhill

I lost a good friend last week. He’s not dead, not physically at least. We just metaphorically waved goodbye to one another for good as I ran to a taxi unannounced and he looked on with a bemused look on his face. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew it was done; we were sat in the pub post local derby, beers, and food. I should have been elated given the result, instead I had the harsh realisation that a fifteen year friendship had grown mould and additional ears. There is no escaping that he is tied to past bindings, that good ship Past Relationship which set sail a year back from which I am free and he is confined to the middle passages awaiting a lifetime of ruling in pastures new. I’ll miss him, I think. He’s a good bloke that is not allowed to be happy for me. I’m happy for him to be free from that, it makes both of our lives easier.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now. Not because of him, but because I have just been subjected to a heinous culinary crime. I am sat on the Ladypool Rd, once an equilateral side of the Balti triangle and now home to the countries quota of dessert bars. A light bulb above my head has gone on – dozens of them that make up the interior – and my mind wonders to why anyone would eat this that wasn’t a necessity to stay alive.

On paper a butter chicken looks value at £2 until the pencil dick is unwrapped and lifted flopping from the paper. The first mouthful is bearable, the rest a mush of protein that could frankly be anything. Masala chips are fries drenched in some cloying sweet and sour sauce that leaves them clinging to one another like avalanche victims on a mountainside. I’d rather be on the mountain than here eating this. They’ve taken something with texture and turned it into children’s food. They’ve ruined the humble chip. I’m raging.

Dainty Samosas manage to look like raw pastry despite being cooked. They are as colourless as Casper and with less substance. Flavour-wise they are the best thing I eat, resembling at least the vegetarian snack. The same cannot be said about little cubes of paneer, barely touched with heat and dressed in a sauce that refuses to play nicely. It is bitter and acrid, a brutal assault on the taste buds. It is hands down the worst way I ever spent three pound, and I once purchased The Mail on Sunday. Yes, eating here is cheap, but that’s a worthless quality if the food is inedible.

And now the positives. The chai itself was deliciously fragrant and the front of house is brilliant – those serving are being done an injustice by what is coming out of the kitchen. But that is it. I have no problem telling you that it is awful, because realistically we are not the target market. On the evening I dine the place fills up with young Asian ladies eating and gossiping with friends. The food is the least important detail in their social scenario, which is the only time that it becomes acceptable to be here. If food is your thing then take your pick of any of the remaining restaurants in the area, anywhere is better than here.

3/10

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

Adil’s Balti Restaurant, Birmingham

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The good people of Britain are in debt to Adils. Way back in 1977 when a Findus crispy pancake would be classed as an adventurous dinner, a family arrived from northern Kashmir, bringing with them the very first Balti to these shores. From this small restaurant on a residential street in Stoney Lane led to the famous Balti Triangle, as well as a national obsession of going for a curry, with or without the seven pints of lager beforehand in the pub. I, like many others, am prone to waking up on a Sunday morning with a sore head, curry on my shirt and stained fingers. It’s my badge of honour, earned over many years of king-sized naans and table-top renditions of songs from The Little Mermaid. Going to Adils would be my Jerusalem; the place I could dip my daily bread into the hallowed pressed-steel Balti dish.

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The recently refurbished dining room has succeeded in making it look like a spruced up version of all the other curry houses in the Triangle. Whatever they have done has worked; an hour after its opening time they are already turning tables and we see others waiting through the partitioned glass wall that separates the booze-free bar and thickly carpeted dining room. Crisp popadoms fill a hole whilst the starters are cooked. Grease-less vegetable pakora, delicately spiked with turmeric and cumin, are a large portion for the bargain two pounds.  Being the heat freak that I am, the very sight of green of green chilli bhaji on the glossy menu made me twitch down below.  What came was five complete chillies, seeds and all, each adorned in a light batter that added more spice to the mix.  It was an addictive whack of heat, lip numbing and life affirming.  I took two home in a box with the intention of eating them for lunch the following day.  They are still there.  I am too scared.

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But we are here for the Balti, lets not forget.  Two of them, each ordered from the chefs special menu would test both ends of the spectrum. A garlic chilli chicken was tame in heat compared to the starter, whilst a Makhan chicken owed more to a traditional butter chicken than a Balti, with its creamy texture and almond powder. Both had small pieces of pre-cooked poultry with a spongy texture and a complex level of spicing garnered from forty years of cooking the same dish. I’d like the recipe for the garam masala at the root of these dishes. A peshwari naan was superb; light, supple, and not overly sweet.

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With the dessert menu looking like a fine collection of freezer favourites, we pay the twenty-five-quid bill and leave. Is it the best Balti I have ever eaten? No, not by a long shot. One in Bearwood immediately comes to mind which I will one day get off my arse and share with you about. But it is a good example, cheap and in pleasant surroundings. Adil’s call themselves the Balti pioneers, which seems accurate. Indian food has evolved since they took up shop four decades ago, though there is always room for the originators, provided the passion is still there. Adils is still firing on all cylinders. Here is to another Forty.

7/10

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