Khyber Tandoorin, Belfast: Indulge your nostalgia for naff curry house decor
520 Saintfield Road, BT8 8EU. Tel: 028 9081 3099
The Khyber Tandoori on the Saintfield Road shares a site with a petrol station, convenience store, post office, car wash and off-licence. If a social anthropologist needed to study the perfect hunting grounds of a 21st century consumer, Brackenvale, the name given to this hub of commerce, is your man. You can even buy plants and turf briquettes here, for God's sake.
Crowning all this is the Khyber Tandoori on the first floor, a restaurant which, thanks to the design efforts of proud owner Tariq Nabi, looks like the bit at the back of Anderson and McAuley's where they kept rolls of upholstery off-cuts for repair purposes.
But nobody minds this because if Tariq is happy then we are, too. But movements are afoot as the new Nabi generation, his three sons Johnny, Stephen and Nikki, start to gain a teeny bit more say in the business. There are plans to transform the restaurant whose business relies less and less on sit-down diners and much more on a thriving takeaway turnover.
Therefore, in case the transformation happens before we know it, now may be the time to pay a visit to the much-loved Khyber in order to reacquaint ourselves with the kind of curry house those of us in the second and third ages grew up with.
Belfast's curry scene has vastly improved in the last 10 years. Competition is stiff and the arrival of new Nepalese owners at the Lisburn Road Raj, the ongoing success of Mumbai 27, Indian Ocean and Archana and a good few more in Belfast, along with the Ganges in Holywood, are all strong indicators of rising and sustained interest in quality curries.
But while the Khyber could do with a good interior designer, it should leave its kitchen well alone. That tandoor oven gets plenty of exercise and the naan and chapatti breads alone mark the level of this restaurant.
It's the freshness of the dishes that make the difference here. The pakoras and bhajis, the dahl and saag are all rich and intense in flavour. Same goes for the main courses, for which each sauce is made from scratch and from pastes made on the spot, not bought in. All mains include rice in the price.
The chicken tikka chilli massala is a spiced hotty with as many or few chopped green chillies as you want (tell them when you order). Loads of tomatoes and onions are packed into the chilli curry and the small slices of chopped chicken tikka are smoky and firm, not cooked for too long and providing velvety smoothness alongside the tangy heat of the chillies.
A buttered chicken is never too sweet. Sometimes, curry houses offer a sort of cross-over dish which is neither a korma or a buttered chicken. This one is distinctive, its sweetness counterbalanced by the salty butteriness of the sauce. There is some coconut in there, but it's definitely not a korma.
Possibly the most exciting dish here, however, is the shashlik. Made with lamb, chicken, or butterflied king prawns, the dark, jus-like sauce has echoes of a classic French red-wine base. There are mushrooms and a heft of garlic and it's a case of savouriness over spiciness.
It's accompanied by an intense and rich vegetable curry and pilaf rice, which means you're going to have to take time over this and possibly not order it for lunch. Unless you're on holidays, or retired.
The Nabi approach to food and hospitality is robust and top-notch. There is a lot of pride and passion here. Consistent quality over the years has given the Khyber the kind of reputation which draws people repeatedly and loyally from a wide area.
I've seen wedding parties, groups of up to 65 and parties, but over the years the Khyber diner profile has changed. This may be for two reasons: people love the food (so they'll get a takeaway), but they don't like the dining room (despite the charm of all the Nabi brothers and the waiting staff, that dining room is not as attractive as it was 500 years ago).
The Nabi brothers may tackle this challenge very soon. Before they do, indulge your nostalgia for naff curry house decor.
You'll also surprise yourself at the standards of food and service this decor hides.
Chicken tikka chilli massala £11.95
Buttered chicken £11.95
Lamb shashlik £12.95
(Rice included in all mains)
Plain naan £2.25
Sparkling water (x3) £5.85