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Restaurant review: Hot in the city

AA Grill has been searching the land for a curry to remember since he was a chip-loving lad who knew no better. Will he finally find that something special at the Sultan's Palace, or will he be yearning for the sultan vinegar?

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: Hot in the city

THERE is something about a curry that brings out the worst in the occasional, would-be-but-really-shouldn’t-be reviewers of restaurants who afflict local newspapers.

In this land where the cliches roam, waiters forever curry favour and reviews always, always start the same way: “Thirty years ago, Indian restaurants were all flock wallpaper blah blah, 10 pints of lager blah blah, and bad sitar music – but now that’s all changed.”

One hack on a leading provincial publication blithely wrote that he had never before been to an Indian restaurant. What was his boss thinking? "Who shall I get to write about Indian food for our readers? I know, someone who knows sod all about it."

Turns out it’s a quarter of a century since first I uttered those three little words “fancy a curry?” to my old mate Mattie, so off we went to the Sultan’s Palace to chew over old times.

Twenty five years ago, Mattie and I were strangers abroad in Gloucestershire, young and eager, the curries hot and plentiful, the women not. Years later, fate brought us both to Merseyside, a family apiece, but the curry habit intact.

Mattie’s from White Rose country where they call a spade a dirt-digging bastard. The insensitive, Yorkshire git is fond of recalling one of my greatest humiliations in a lifetime devoted to embarrassing myself in front of others.

The ignominy in question occurred at an Indian restaurant in Gloucester where, callow and uncultivated, I ordered chips instead of rice. Some yokel at the next table who was what passed for sophisticated in those parts – the ones who dipped their sheep before they shagged them – witnessed my gaucheness and punished it with a volley of potato-related barbs.

I tried, in vain, to defend myself, briefly gesticulating with my right hand. “Eh, watch out everyone,” he jeered. “He’s got a knife! Oh, no, don’t worry, it’s just a potato peeler, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha."

Worse, my so-called pal laughed like a drain at each of his jibes. And there were lots. I was crushed like late autumn leaves as, paradoxically, he pissed on my chips while taking the piss out of them.

In all the time Mattie and I have diced with the spice, you could count our truly great curry experiences on the fingers of a Saudi shoplifter’s hand. The standard at the top end has got better but way too many still register average and below.

The problem is complex but partly lies in the commercial imperative to appease an arid English palate taking precedence over any desire to reflect the glories of the sub-continent’s cuisine.

The Sultan’s Palace is one such. It is popular and good at what it does (though a little patchily when we visited) but however hot the madras gets, it is not going to set the world on fire.

We chose it on the basis of its claim to be “the finest Indian cuisine in Liverpool”, an assertion one or two rivals might dispute and one which you need to be very sure about if you are not to risk a vaguely dissatisfied punter.

The ornate, arched entrance in city centre Victoria Street is easily missed, nestled amid the ostentatious, double-fronted windows of the Mandarin Chinese restaurant. Downstairs is a pink palace whose walls and ceiling are awash with elaborate plaster mouldings.

We were greeted by a pasty-faced scouser in a Liverpool FC away shirt, which did not say “fine Indian cuisine” (“Carlsberg” actually), but spoke perfectly nicely to us nonetheless.

Two things struck us straight off: the broad vegetarian range and the massive wine list. We began, naturally enough, with poppadoms, dry and crisp but with undistinguished companions, one or two smacking of straight-from-the-jar.

Mattie’s starter of keema matta samosa (£5.95) was on the dry side but he brightened when I gave him a scrap from my prawn puri (£5.95), actually baby shrimps in a tasty sauce of herbs and spices. The puri, like the naan we got later, was bread of the highest quality; light, sweet and flavoursome.

The mains, chicken bhuna and south Indian garlic lamb (both £9.95), were both zingy, fresh tasting and nicely balanced. Pints of Cobra beer slipped down well enough but we should have made an effort with the wine because they clearly had; the list meticulously designed to consummate the difficult marriage of a fiery curry to the subtleties of a good wine.

Think Naomi Campbell tikka masala in bed with a cheeky Ian Hislop – you see, it’s not so easy.

AA Grill

Sultan's Palace
75-77 Victoria Street

Tel: 0151 227 9020

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