During the Troubles, the road from Belfast to Aldergrove would have reminded you of the corridor in East Germany linking the west to Berlin. It was punctuated with army checkpoints, you weren’t allowed to stop and it was always winter.
One Northern Ireland Office senior official was so scared of his regular chauffered trip to Aldergrove from Belfast that when he went past Ballyrobin House, at the time a very spooky derelict farm house, he would duck to the floor of the car to avoid sniper fire.
Thank God it’s not like that any more. Ballyrobin House is ablaze with olde Oirish country décor, looks like the place where leprechauns live and has become a successful guesthouse. But down the road a bit, almost hidden by trees, is a charming old school house which used to be known as, er, the Old School House restaurant. It has since been turned into Spice, a curry house which for 10 years has proved as irresistible to locals as it has to hungry Belfastards with a designated driver or taxi account.
As you enter the gravelled car park through the tall pillars and huge marine pines there is an odd feel of the Texan ranch about it. There are wooden sheltered booths outside, although owner Naz Din’s optimism may outgun the local climate (apparently there isn’t a month in the year that there isn’t at least one night of frost here).
Naz Din is the brains behind Nu Delhi, one of the new generation of Indian restaurants in Belfast with good cocktails and music. It’s an “urban concept” as opposed to Spice which is distinctly rural.
The restaurant itself is pleasant enough although a good interior designer could shake things up a bit to take some of the dullness out of it. But never mind that (and each week, hundreds don’t) because the food is the star.
For those curry aficionados out there, this is a very good Indian restaurant. There are no spectaculars but there are some very well considered and well executed dishes, some of which have the subtlety of top French cooking.
The chicken khurchan is like no other: smokey, rich, dark and with enough chilli bite to lighten everything up. The soft cooked capsicum are a welcome departure from the norm where these are usually chopped in at the last minute and make no contribution other than colour. The tandoori chicken within has all its flavours and I spent a happy 20 minutes dipping the lightest, crispiest naan bread into its warmth.
Lamb roghani is an entirely different experience with the soft, slow cooked meat bearing all the signs of deep marination. This is a slightly more bitter, drier-tasting dish which contrasts well with the khurchan to provide variety and entertainment.
A few other bits and pieces include the biggest prawns you’ve ever seen, marinated and barbecued and still full of flavour. I am deeply sceptical of these frozen prawns which come all the way from the Indian Ocean but I hold my hands up, these are quality. The aloo chaat, a kind of Indian patatas bravas, is sweet but others will love it more than me.
There is a distinct sense of pride in what is being put on the dish. The pilau rice has none of that cartoon colouring and instead has been delicately spiced up with just the right amount of cardamom and cumin. The poppadoms are fresh and brittle and the choices of naans: garlic, coconut, plain, are invariably light, fluffy and crispy. They all share the tiniest hint of vanilla flavour and this breath of sweetness enhances the bread in whatever form it comes.
Spice is a short-haul destination restaurant. If I lived around Crumlin, Glenavy or Antrim, or even the north western fringes of Belfast, I would be here once a week. But Naz needs to perk the place up and do what he did with Nu Delhi to inject some style and good lighting into the place.
The front of house staff are top class, friendly and helpful and the kitchen is spotless.
For those of you who remember that anxious drive to Aldergrove in the bad old days, you should take another run and stop in at Spice. It’s hard to think it was ever any different.
Tandoori platter x 3 £23.85
Chilli garlic chicken £9.95
Lamb roghani £11.95
Pilau rice £1.95
Fried rice £2.20
Naan plain £1.95
Garlic naan £2.60
Cobra x 6 £30
Glass sauvignon blanc £4.95