Joris Minne: Safa
If you thought you could only have beer or soft drinks with Indian food, a wine and dine night at Safa might put you straight.
The network of restaurants and takeaways in the greater Belfast area stretches to just under 450.
This roughly works out at one restaurant for every 1,111 of us. I’ve no idea if that is the right kind of ratio or volume to assure commercial success, but if your average restaurant can seat 60 people it would take just over two weeks of complete bookings to achieve the 1,111 mark.
But who would invest in a business whose reliance on the ever-changing moods of 1,111 diners is its biggest weakness? Ali Askir, that’s who.
Ali recently opened the doors to Belfast’s newest curry house, Safa. As a measure of his confidence in the restaurant, he recently arranged a joint venture wine-tasting dinner evening with the McAlindon brothers, Peter and Neal, who own Direct Wine Shipments.
Surely curry could only be accompanied by ice-cold lager, Coke or Fanta, I protested. A chicken tikka masala can only be properly respected by accompanying it with a bottle of near-frozen Tiger beer? Well no, actually, explained Peter McAlindon, for whom this was the first curry/wine tasting. With a bit of imagination, you’ll find that some wines match some Indian meals rather well, he said.
And what unfolded during the following two hours was a bit of a revelation.
An unusually smooth Cava kicked off the night. I was concerned that the chilled bubbly (Mas Fi Brut) was there to cool down our innards in anticipation of some spicy action. But when the tandoori chicken wings were presented partnered to a South African Gewurtstraminer (Bon Courage) it was plain to see and taste that there was more subtlety and good judgement involved. There was no sign of the throat-grabbing, high-octane spiciness (which is so helpful to restaurateurs in terms of selling more beer). This was almost Lebanese in its gentleness. I might have preferred the wings to be cooked longer and to be a bit more roughly handled, charred perhaps, but these were very good nonetheless.
A seekh kebab, again presented starkly enough without chutney, followed and the red end of the spice rack had been raided a bit more this time. Lamb is a heavy meat; its flavours too powerful for some, including the advisor, and the additional carefully judged spice adds higher, sharper tones that work beautifully with it. The kebab was exceptional and again, the wine, this time a Loron Beau Beaujolais, did its job beautifully of cutting through without overwhelming.
One of the pleasures in Indian restaurants is to order dishes you have come to know in other places. The jalfrezi will nearly always feature on the menu. This chicken-based jalfrezi was a light, sharp, tip-of-the-tongue pleasure with the spark of green chillies and peppers. The McAlindons had been in two minds about the wine to put out with it and did the sensible thing by offering a choice of two: a Naked Grape riesling from Pfalz in Germany and a Menard cabernet sauvignon rosé from Gascony in France.
There were those who much preferred one over the other, but should you make the trip to Safa, I urge you to have this jalfrezi with the rosé. It’s a match that should become a classic like port and Stilton or stout and oysters, it’s that good.
The final dish, a rogan josh (lamb), sought to continue the theme of reassuring familiarity. Matched with a Masi Chianti, the lamb was tender, retained lighter flavours in its dark red and sharp sauce. Alongside came plain naan bread, the best I’ve ever had — crispy, soft, textured and very freshly made.
The menu was a wise choice. If you’re embarking on your first ever curry-and-wine night you’ve got to give the people some certainty that it’s the right path to follow.
Safa is one of the those curry houses that
will reassure the regular Indian-goer. But there are items on the regular menu that are less common: the chettinad is described as fiery and from southern India, which is unusual for us in Belfast more used to the Bengal, Kashmiri and Pakistani dishes. Mango wala and saag wala feature fenugreek and mint, allowing for excitement without high-degree heat.
The unlikely location for this classy little Indian, upstairs above Kelly’s Cellars, has been a welcome addition to Bank Square, which now houses the Mourne Seafood Bar and its expanding little empire stretching out to Castle Street.
If you love your cold lager and curry, give Safa a shot and try a bottle of rosé with that jalfrezi. You’ll thank me for it.
Joris Minne was a guest of Direct Wine Shipments
Tandoori spicy wings £3.95
Seekh kebab £3.95
Chicken jalfrezi £10.95
Rogan josh £9.95
Total (excluding wine) £28.80
30-32 Bank Street Belfast BT1 1HL
Tel: 028 9023 3519