Some UK cities have deep associations with particular culinary traditions. Birmingham is known as the home of the Indian Balti, Manchester for Chinese noodles and London’s Brick Lane for Bangladeshi curries. Even Glasgow is known for its Italian restaurants.
Belfast may lack a clear culinary definition — it doesn’t have a huge portfolio of any of the above ethnic restaurants — but of late, it has started making a name for itself as a bistro and brasserie capital.
That’s good for those of us who enjoy good food in informal settings at keen prices. Fine dining and Michelin stars are one thing, but the Belfast market has settled itself comfortably on the informal, tasty and more economical slopes of the restaurant range.
Fine diner Shu, with all its linen, excellence in service and posh food, still maintains a vast amount of goodwill and customer loyalty because it is not up itself and has plenty of early bird offers. Nor are Deanes, James St South or Cayenne too snobby or pretentious to put together attractively priced two- and three-course lunches and dinners. They know that they are popular because they are comfortable and non-threatening on the one hand, but also brilliant on the food and service on the other.
The curry sector, never one associated with high cost, has being keeping an eye on these developments and some places have started making moves towards modernisation. One or two Indian restaurants have abandoned the flock wallpaper, single Harp pump and Bollywood film scores, opting instead for a more X-generation approach to the massala and tandoori.
Nu Delhi is one such place, with its tapas approach. The Ganges in Holywood is another, although you could never tell by looking at the place. It’s the food at the Ganges that cuts the difference. But these are restaurants who are reacting to the changing times and spending habits. The casual diner, who once favoured a Chinese or an Indian, is nowadays just as likely to choose a bistro or brasserie. If you run an Asian restaurant, your competition is now much more diverse.
Take Mumbai 27, a new curry house in Belfast at 27 Talbot Street, home of the former top brasserie of the same name. It looks modern, it has a bar with a single Peroni draught pump and serves cocktails.
Six of us from three generations piled into one of the black and beige booths earlier this week and while the place was almost empty, we created plenty of buzz and craic among ourselves.
The floor staff are friendly, attentive and quick. Once drinks had been organised, the menu had to be deciphered and interpreted for those who would struggle to tell you the difference between a shashlik and a chilli massala. The advisor spent some time explaining to her mum (who is not familiar with curry) what was what and how spicy or not did she want her lamb/prawn/chicken?
Once we had accomplished all this, the server began to take our order and then introduced the not-that-dish game. I’d order chicken on the bone, he’d say, “You’d be better going for the lamb shank.” The mother-in-law asked for buttered chicken and he replied with a smiling shake of the head, “madam, you really should have the chicken makhani”. The teen wants prawns? “She really ought to have the seabass.” This happened a few times until we reached an amicable compromise and took some of what he said and stood our ground on the other. He meant well.
Starters soon appeared and were by and large very good. The prawns in tempura were more like pakoras in a brittle, spicy and thick batter. While the prawn to batter ratio was not the best, they were still entertaining. The excellent chicken skewers (Murghi Ka Palok) with spinach were moist, tender and packed with tangy iron flavours.
The shank, which arrived under a blanket of thick sauce, turned out to be a winner. Lamb has such an intense flavour it can carry lots of spiciness. In this case, it was an outstanding combination of tender, juicy, rich lamb matching up to chilli and garlic, coriander and cumin.
The accompanying naan was wonderfully light and crispy underneath. Others (the advisor asked for the shashlik and was not deterred from it) fared very well. The buttered chicken and makhani were sweet and creamy, but not overpoweringly so. The jalfrezi and shawria sauces were also well balanced with much spice and no painful heat.
Mumbai 27 is a contemporary-looking restaurant, but the content is compellingly traditional and conventional. This is a good thing because what draws us to curries is just that. They are predictably hot and tasty.
But one modern concession has proved a step too far. Mumbai 27 doesn’t serve poppadoms. This is a crime against curry lovers.
Chicken skwers £4.10
Prawns x 2 £8.50
Aloo gadbad £3.50
Deshi bhaji £2.95
Chicken shashlik £9.95
Butter chicken £10.95
Lamb shank £11.95
Chicken makhani £10.50
Chicken jalfrezi £9.95
Basmati rice for 6 £13.20
Naan x 3 £6.45
Bottle wine £21.95
27 Talbot Street, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast BT1 2LD T
tel: 028 9023 3926.