THERE are many things to recommend living in Liverpool. An abundance of excellent Indian restaurants is not one of them. Sorry.
Conversely, Birmingham,100 miles away, has no particularly redeeming features on the face of it. Its charms remain hidden.
Cottage cheese. Yes, it is boring, and dressed up as paneer it is rarely any different. Here, as shashlik, it sounds like something the dog
would enjoy doing.
The aspirational rarely talk of locating there, and it never makes the Conde Nast list of desirable travel destinations to flock to.
On the subject of flock, some will remember that 1970s public information film sponsored by The British Heart Foundation. The action took place in a traditionally wallpapered curry house.
“Eeer, you're looking reeel flushed!” declares the lady to her hubby in the Black Country's finest timbre. Seconds later the tikka lover's ticker gives out and he falls head first into the crunching poppadoms, as the nee-naw-nee-naw of the ambulance kicks in.
Even then the Midlands was notable for one thing. And that thing keeps people happy there now. Top curry. Dangerously good curry. Well, in his case at least.
“Even the crappest-looking, poorest shop takeaway counter in Birmingham sells fantastic Indian food,” declares Yousaf, who I work with and who has been around the block a few times.
In Waterloo, on Bank Holiday Monday, the beauty of Birmingham was mine when I went to Saffron, Unremarkable name; auspicious find.
The owners are veterans at this. One, Krishna, had a similar enterprise in Solihull, a place whose subhead is “The Posh Bit” on the signpost leading the way off Spaghetti Junction.
“Fate brought me to Liverpool,” he says mysteriously. And family. With a couple of partners, one from Birmingham and the other from Warwickshire, and a Nepalese chef, Tiwari, who gets a whole page to himself at the front of the menu, they have opened up in Sam Browne's doomed Ceylon Spice Company in St John's Road.
How did they meet? Well that was many years ago when they all worked in a five star hotel in Dubai, he mentions casually. It was the dream of the team to work together again. And now here they are.
Blimey. This was boding well.
Cottage cheese. Yes, it is boring, and dressed up as paneer it is rarely any different. Here, as shashlik (£4.95), it sounds like something the dog would enjoy doing.
Don't be put off. It's what you do to an ingredient, that matters. Like tofu, another completely pointless invention when left undressed.
Here they have taken cubes and marinated them in piquant spices that have left the most delicate residue. Then they have whacked them into a clay oven until charred away at the corners, and served them up sizzling with spicy onions, peppers and tomato. It's good.
As is Ms de Leng's reshmi kebab (£5.25), which the cheery chap serving us, also from Krishna's triumvirate, says he's taken a shine to. It's not the only thing. The chicken, again given the long slow treatment in spices, with cashew nuts is tender, moist and excellent.
Saffron gives itself that “contemporary Indian food” tag line and I've never really understood what this means in practice, apart from modern furnishings (which this gaff, indeed has) and crisp fonts on the menu. They all still do rogan josh and bhuna and poppadoms. Again, as does this.
But you sense Saffron are raising the bar. They've employed a maitre'd, a chap from the North East for a start, who addresses me as “madam” and who had earlier startled me by explaining that there is no reduction in price on the takeaway menu, because “that's just the way it is”.
The menu is lightly populated by old Brit favourites in chicken, lamb, vegetable, balti and fish sections - dansaks and saags and the like - interwoven with a healthy smattering of many less familiar dishes from the Nepalese end, plus several “Saffron specials”.
Tawa lamb (£9.50) is cut from leg meat and cut into cubes, and could well be as disappointing and tough as the stuff that ALL our nearest takeaways lash out. No such thing. It comes in the “chef's unique recipe”. I'm not going to even hazard a guess, but he's certainly devoted a lot of care to it. It's melting, it's belting, packed with layer after layer of flavour. (Good) memories of living in London are starting to surface.
A nice slab of seabass hides below what is described as a thin sauce (excuse me, look at the picture) in the “Mangolian” fish curry (£9.95). This avalanche of whizzed onion, mango, chilli and mint lends it a sweet-and-sourness that, in amateur hands, would suffocate the fragile flavour of the bass. But no. It was delicious.
Lemon rice (£2.95) was yellow and average, no more; dainty quarters of garlic naan (£2.50) were everything they should be: completely unnecessary, hot and puffed up in blisters (you can't keep a good naan down) and the house plonk white was perfectly fine at £13 a throw.
Thank you for opening, I want to tell them. In fact I may well have done.
It's only been here a month but, on this early show, Saffron is worth a punt of anyone's money on a trip up the northern line.
Think of it as a bit of a destination restaurant. After all, it's not like I'm sending you to Brum.
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL. Critics dine unannounced and the company picks up their bills - never the restaurant, never a PR company.
92 St John's Road,
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it; 6-9 get a DVD; 10-11 if you must; 12-13 if you’re passing; 14-15 worth a trip; 16-18 very good to exceptional; 19-20 As good as it gets.
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