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Restaurant review: A Passage to India

The old 'Back Passage' isn't what it used to be, says AA Grill

Published on January 14th 2010.

THERE are a couple of Indian restaurants that have been around on a certain Liverpool city centre street for as long as most of us can remember. One, the Asha, succumbed a year or so ago, but has since reopened – different names on the lease, but the same name above the door.

Welcome, says the website, to Liverpool's finest restaurant. Confidence is one thing, delusion quite another

The other, A Passage To India, is still going strong after 22 years on Bold Street. Well, it's still going. Like many long-established purveyors of food and drink, it has acquired a nickname, and is thus known to many as 'The Back Passage', a term, I think, of the affectionate kind rather than one reflecting any stool-related repercussions from the king prawn vindaloo.

Inside, the place looks like it's had the decorators in: light, clean, spic and span with polished blond boards, all the better to accentuate the battered wooden tea trolley which has clearly been overlooked by every redecoration since it was first used to wheel extra large G&Ts to the occupying forces of the Raj. Nowadays, it delivers tikka masala to the masses.

Here and there are other small signs of qualitative decay – like the missing letters from the illuminated signage out front. The menus are a similar vintage to the tea trolley, bearing marks that make us wonder if they are taking full advantage of the wipeable quality of laminated products.

They were nevertheless reluctant to part with even a single menu, having evidently formed a sentimental attachment that goes beyond the normal waiter/price list relationship. When I asked for one (the bill, which they had been planning to keep, did not list prices individually) they gave me a takeaway version which is just not the same thing at all. There followed a great song and dance during which my firm, but polite, insistence on us taking the sit-down version of the menu was met with a laugh of derision and a firm, but polite, “no, no”.

Perhaps these menus have some sort of extra special laminated finish that is not apparent to our uncultivated eyes, or perhaps they are prized for the rarity value lent by the stains of meat dopiazas past. Luckily it was all online (shame they didn't mention that - it would have saved a lot of standing around arguing over an A4-sized bit of plastic in the same way one might tussle over ownership of the Kohinoor Diamond).

Welcome, says the website, to Liverpool's finest restaurant. Confidence is one thing, delusion quite another.

There was only one brand of Indian beer, Cobra, and only one size. Two large ones it is, then. With a small pile of crisp, bone dry poppadums and a tray-laden array of chutneys and other accompaniments which were absolutely fine if absolutely predictable.

Stuffed mushrooms (£3.55) were stuffed with minced meat as billed and encased in breadcrumbs with that weird hard texture that fresh breadcrumbs don't have. The Passage To India insists everything is made with fresh ingredients so I must assume these crumbs were merely extremely similar to those processed ones that come in a big cardboard tube. Onion pakora was dense and heavy with a slightly odd, indefinable tang; chicken chat (£3.55) so bland as to be beyond description.

To follow, prawn sagwala (£7) and lamb sondhia (£8.25) which provided a similar test for our powers of elucidation. The prawn sagwala contained prawns and spinach, all right, and the lamb sondhia had lamb in it. Oh, all right, the prawns were small, though plentiful but just a little ho hum, ditto the spinach, while the lamb was really pretty okay and certainly not tough. Beyond that, the sauces were such that picking out defineable influences is well nigh impossible except to say that there were definitely more chillies in the sondhia.

I called on my friend for help. “Real food isn't this colour,” he suggested.Pilau rice (£1.75) was well cooked but a plain nan (£1.75) was chewy and dry, while a vegetable side dish was a poor argument for showing the door to the carnivore in you.

If it has managed to trade uninterrupted since 1987, the place must have some things going for it. One may be the prices: the whole meal for two came in at £50, including the tip, which I suppose you can't really argue with if fifty quid for a wholly average curry can be considered good value. There was nothing awful about it, nothing that couldn't be improved by the addition of a couple more large Cobras. And there, perhaps,we have it, in which case I leave the final word to a punter on the trustedplaces website who concluded that it is “not as good as it used to be but still a good crashing place after a few beers”.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: Fine dining against the best fine dining, cafés against the best cafés etc... Following on from this, the scores represent: 1-5: Saw off your leg and eat that; 6-9: Get a DVD; 10-11: Only in an emergency; 12-13: If you’re passing; 14-15 Worth a trip; 16-17 Exceptional; 18-19: Verging on greatness; 20: Does it get any better? No.

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