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Hot favourite

Angie Sammons revisits the ever popular Shapla and finds it reassuringly familiar. In fact the only thing that has changed is the name

Written by . Published on September 28th 2010.

Hot favourite

Which is the best curry house in Liverpool? Solicit the opinions of those around you and, frustratingly, you will discover no clear winner.

One man's masala is another man's toxic shock. So what are the rules?

Should we crave ultra hot, highly coloured dishes? Should we seek out places that do authentic specialities from regions across the Indian sub-continent? Or should we merely go for a bucket of Kingfisher to swill down whatever tikkas our good old British fancy.

A choice would be a fine thing. In terms of cosmopolitan culture, Liverpool is no Rusholme or Bradford, therefore you may learn more about the riches of eastern cuisine by visiting Matta's, the food emporium in Bold Street.

But there are a smattering of places that defy this and have loyal fan bases: Aigburth's Gulshan, for example, Master Chef on Renshaw Street, Maharaja on London Road and Shapla. All of these stick their heads high above the parapet of the at-best-ordinary, with X-Factors of fresh ingredients, an understanding of spices and how to use and prepare them.

Shapla had these qualities by the spadeful when it opened around seven years ago. The modern, western interior décor a then-novelty, it attracted lovers of Indian food in their hordes. When it was time for a revisit last week, it appeared to have held on to them.

For some reason, the Whitechapel restaurant was in the business of rebranding itself when we turned up late and unannounced, as is often the custom with curry establishments. It has a new name “Saffron” and new signage. The menu was largely the same as the old, but there was a section of “Saffron Specials” Saffron being the name of the chef, according to our waiter.

What to drink? There is a wine list but there was nothing on there that we would have wished to partner with the fire of the food to come. Our chap would have probably made recommendations, but, on closer questioning, he confessed that he had never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. This was shortly after he had suggested Bangla beer. No doubt he'd been drawn to the slogan on the label: "stronger brewed for stronger food". It was good enough for us, too, and came in 750ml bottles at a very reasonable £3.50.

You can go badly wrong with poppadoms and pickle trays, especially if the kitchen operative doesn't understand the principles of deep fat frying. But not here. The former were crisp and dry, the latter fresh and delicious.

Similarly the king prawn puri (£5.95) and stuffed mushrooms (£2.95) were cooked bang on to perfection. The massive juicy seafood of the former had the scent of that day's catch. They were further levitated by a delicate creamy sauce and all encased in a light-as-air puff of delicate leavened bread. The mushrooms were stuffed with minced lamb and vegetables and deep fried in breadcrumbs. They were every bit as good as the promise, tender meat and a crunchy coating. The decorative salad was passable, but the iceberg lettuce seemed to have been struck by a titanic wave of apathy and had long lost its cutting edge. A casualty of the late hour, perhaps.

My friend did very well with his Nawabi Murghi (£8.45), chicken breast “roasted in herbs and spices”, and in a light and flavourful sauce. It was fragrant and plentiful and he paired it with a very pleasant mushroom pillau rice which, after the size of the starters, would have been ample as a stand alone course for anyone in the mood.

We had arrived starving, but, like Scarlett O'Hara (sans16in waist), I would never be hungry again after a long tussle with the Trout Tandoori (£11.95) a very handsome whole fish, marinated “with delicate spices” and baked in the clay oven. The taste and texture was sweet and fine, but there was nothing gentle about the hue: It was as purple as a church in Lent and seemed to reproduce itself every time I looked away, as if some holy miracle were at work. I abandoned the Bangla for a glass of something more sympathetic and got stuck in, eventually defeated by the hand of God. It was a good choice, but I'd have loved it even more in its true colours.

We lingered too long over these feasts, and soon the people wanted their restaurant back. First the shutters silently came down, like those at bedtime in the Big Brother house, then the bill arrived and we were asked to leave. The time: Ten past 12.

Early doors at midnight? The place had been rocking when we arrived and we weren't last in. Perhaps it is the thought of the late and loud Mathew Street crowd making a beeline to their pristine palace that keeps them clock watching in here. Or is it that our notions of a curry house are too ingrained? Maybe we need to think of this as an ordinary restaurant with ordinary hours instead. Why, even do the unthinkable and book next time.

This is no ordinary Indian restaurant and has much to recommend it.But the best in Liverpool? Well, it's up there - with a few reservations.

Shapla/Saffron, 51-53 Whitechapel, Liverpool, L1 6DT. Tel: 0151 258 1144.

Overall rating 14/20

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pat connollyApril 5th 2007.

Love it in the Shapla and have been loyal customers since it opened. It sets the standard and we go very week and tell all our friends to go there too. Good to see your write up!

Colin PriceApril 5th 2007.

It's consistently good at the Shapla and we could do with more curry places like it in Liverpool. But I suppose until the day that the city becomes truly international in an ethnic sense, ie gets a substantial Indian or Pakistani community, most of the places will continue to cater to the jaded British ideas of what an Indian meal should be. This and the place in London Road are the exceptions

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