Restaurant review: We take a bite from curry house Safa
30 Bank Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 3519
Ali Askir is the chef patron of one of the north's best curry houses, Safa. Perched precariously above Kelly's Cellars, one of the north's best pubs, the restaurant is renowned among the curry cognoscenti of Belfast. Ali knows what they want and delivers a traditional, non-controversial menu of classic dishes which have become known and loved. In many ways, the Safa secret is predictability. There are some surprises, like the goat tikka, which is a marvel, but by and large, what we have here is your go-to, classic Indian.
Yet when you meet Ali, you sense that here is a man who wants to break out, grow wings and fly. One of Ali's big ideas is the Irish Curry Awards, an inaugural scheme which at long last acknowledges the welcome contribution made to our lives by curry houses across the entire island. A judging panel of top foodies has been assembled and soon we'll be hearing a lot more about this.
But Ali has also ventured into a new zone, well outside his comfort. An Indian wine list. Four years ago, I first went to Safa to try out the first ever wine pairing evening in a curry house. Direct Wine Shipments were convincing in their argument that the days of curry and lager were numbered: what you really wanted to look at was a cheeky little French rosé to go with a hot jalfrezi, or a dry sparkling wine matched to that goat tikka.
It was a revelation and both wine and food benefited from the unlikely coupling. Now Ali, has taken a leaf from the book of Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink and applied the very same rules to his own culinary outlook. He is serving a choice of Indian wines.
Cobra dominates the Indian food scene and nobody I know would argue that there are few such perfect matches as a chilled glass of the stuff with a curry. There is a spectacularly good King Cobra beer which has a dry, deeper, hoppy flavour (it beats just about any other lager bar the Yardsman in terms of balance, strength and flavour). I've only seen it in Safa, but, if anything, it's a measure of Ali's attention to quality that this very rare beer appears here.
But back to those wines. Can India revise a classic combination of lager and curry perfected over the last 40 years in Ireland and GB and replace it with curry and wine?
Possibly, but maybe not immediately. That's because when you're up against something of such quality as King Cobra, the wine has to be utterly compelling.
A series of Indian wines from the Nashik Valley north of Mumbai has surfaced through importers and distributors, Harlands Wines. All from the same outfit, Soul Tree, the wines range from exotic to puzzling. For instance, the sparkling Aikya is technically a Dry which means it's pretty sweet. The Babycham vibe may not be for everyone, but a strange thing happens when you match it to something like goat tikka or even a modest onion baji. The balance in your mouth is instantly clear and appetising. This means you want more and therefore it must qualify as the Indian restaurant owner's secret weapon. The more you eat the more you drink.
But then the other wines do the same thing. You can't drink them alone because they are just too different to what we are used to. It must be a flavour thing which only wizards and magicians like Heston Blumenthal understand. When Blumenthal was invited by British Airways to prepare food for the first class cabin of a long-haul flight, he completely revised the balances of spices and condiments to the point where, if tasted on the ground his dishes were almost inedible, but at 30,000ft, tasted incredibly good.
The same thing is happening here with the Indian wines - the best among which is a special reserve shiraz cabernet sauvignon that tastes like nothing you've ever put in your mouth. There are flavours which taste like the smell of wooden decking warmed by the sun, something a bit like cinnamon and hot metal. It's not for drinking as the back of the bottle suggests: in solitude with your favourite book in front of the fireplace. No, this wine is perfect with a chicken korai or a spiced up biryani. It is sensational with Indian food.
Safa is an amazing little restaurant and if you can make it for lunch times (two courses for £8.95) in the weather we had over the last two weeks, there are a couple of tables right beside windows overlooking Bank Square.
If you close your eyes tightly, the hubbub below, the warm breeze coming in through the small window by your shoulder, the long narrow dining room: you could be in the restaurant car waiting for the jolt of departure from Mumbai Railway Station itself. Or maybe that's just the Indian wine talking.
Two-course lunch £8.95
Glass Soul Tree Reserve £5.95