“Can I have Prosecco as my drink?” asks Lady C as we ride in our taxi to our lunch date.
It’s her customary question whenever we head out anywhere to eat or drink. “I expect so” I mutter in reply. In normal circumstances this is not a remarkable answer, but today we are heading out for a curry. A decade ago you wouldn’t expect to order bubbly with your Biryani, but that was then. Curry has gone haute cuisine. Across the city and beyond, curry aficionados are sampling spectacular dishes, quite removed from the Indian takeaways of old. The likes of Lasan, Five Rivers, Asha’s and today’s review, Itihaas, have gone upmarket, providing an altogether different spice experience. Smart Indian entrepreneurs have realised that people will pay more to sit somewhere pleasant with good music, and eat a meal that doesn’t give them a belly ache the next day. They no longer want to go to an unlicensed eatery to munch on stale poppadoms and compete on who can eat the hottest curry. They don’t want to listen to the sound of an air con drowning out naff music from the sub-continent. It’s bad news for The Balti Triangle, or rather it’s a wake-up call, which many will sleep through.
Itihaas sits on Newhall St, half way between the city centre and the Jewellery Quarter, which makes it walking distance for most offices in town. The interior is a sort of post-Colonial affair with lanterns, wooden chests, statuettes, polished metal work, animal skins and pictures of the old country. It’s tables are wooden without table clothes, the floor is stone and it all has a slightly regal feel, without being pretentious. We are quickly shown our table and Lady C is brought her bubbly with speed, which guarantees a good review from her. We had some crispy poppadoms with a few nice dips, then the starters said “hello”. We shared a mirchi lasooni jhinga (batter-coated prawns), chilli paneer (Indian cottage cheese) and a paapri chaat, a kind of Indian salad with chickpeas, potatoes and yoghurt. Happy days. There were prawns galore and the sauce was deep and smoky. The cheese mixed well with it all and the creamy salad brought relief when things got a bit spicy. It was all served up on triangular metal plates – a reference to the days of the Balti – kept warm with candle burners. We happily mixed mouthfuls, but had to hold back from scraping the bowls because we had mains to consume.
For my main I picked Bahterey, two slow cooked quails that had been marinated in saffron, turmeric and garam masala overnight. The meat retained a subtle flavour and the sauce was thick and sticky. Quail is an interesting one to curry. It’s a boney bird, which is hardly a complaint, but it takes time to pick off the meat when it’s coated in spice. The best way is to suck the meat off the little bones. Not exactly refined but fun. Meanwhile, Lady C was tucking into a Makhani Murgh, a creamy chicken dish with tomato and fenugreek, cooked in a clay oven. She liked it and so did I. As a side, we dug into an Aloo Ravai, a pleasant vegetable curry of aubergines, potatoes and tomatoes. We also enjoyed some pilau rice and a roti.
MORE STARTERS PLEASE
I feel mean reviewing Indian desserts because they are never good. So let me point out that the coffee was fine and by the time we had finished mains we were full. No-one ever goes to an Indian restaurant to eat dessert, because they seldom do them well. Our ginger cheesecake didn’t have much flavour, but I wasn’t really bothered. I had eaten a fine meal and the service was very good. The Itihaas menu is wide enough to offer choice for most parties, without going over the top. It’s a nice place which was quieter on our Friday lunchtime than it deserves to be. I’ll go back at night and try the fish or have three starters all to myself.