Restaurant Review: An authentic taste of India on Belfast's Ravenhill Road
Bites of India 97 Ravenhill Road. Belfast. Tel: 028 9045 3456
Award-winning neighbourhood restaurant may be small in size, but it's big on flavour, friendliness and service
The recently celebrated fourth annual Irish Curry Awards were remarkable in that they revealed a buoyant and healthy restaurant sector going from strength to strength. Despite the lamented crackdown by the Border Force on foreign chefs and restaurant workers - ask any Indian restaurant owner what his or her priority challenge is - the popularity of curry keeps growing.
Restaurants from the four corners of the island competed in the awards, which, more than anything, were a reminder of how the restaurant-scape across Ireland has changed for the better.
From Cahirciveen to Carnlough, Indian restaurants (and by that I mean anything south Asian, including Bangladeshi, Bengali, Pakistani, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and Indian) have become as much part of the furniture as pubs and churches.
In the Ulster category, the best restaurant award went to Nu Delhi in Belfast, and the best takeaway to a bijou restaurant you may not have heard of called Bites of India.
Nestled among the shops of the lower Ravenhill Road, close to the junction with the Albertbridge Road, Bites of India is in fact south Indian.
The half dozen little tables sit in a brightly lit room facing the street and encouragingly seem to be filled with south Asians.
Each time I have visited, it has been busy cheerful and atmospheric, in an urban neighbourhood sense.
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Service is welcoming and attentive and front of house manager Vic knowledgeable.
I had been advised to go for a dosa, a crispy thin pancake into which would be rolled a variety of savoury and spicy gorgeousness.
But as I was getting a takeaway, Vic put his foot down and warned me that the dosa would not survive even a short journey. I ordered something more conventional, but so curious was I about the fragile dosa that I went back three nights later, sat down at a table and ordered it.
Nothing had prepared me for this visually exciting sensation. Over a foot long, the paper-thin pancake made from rice flour batter jutted over the plate like a hydrogen ship docking in a blimp port.
Golden and brittle from having been baked under a grill, the shell cracked open to reveal a steaming mass of shredded spiced chicken within. Accompanying this was an authentic sambar, a lentil-based chowder cooked with dahl and tamarind broth, featuring dried red chillies.
The flavours were distinctly southern, with a rich and musky smokiness from the tamarind and dried chilli.
While I had the fancy dosa with chicken, the more traditional among you will want to go for the truer version with rice or potato and black gram, not unlike its more famous cousin the mung bean.
There are a few to choose from including plain, masala, Mysore and the Idli Sambar.
Being a popular little neighbourhood place, there are more conventional and recognisable old favourites, including masala dishes, tandooris and the foot soldiers of the Indian culinary lexicon: madras, vindaloo, bhuna, dopiaza, rogan, methi, Balti and pathia dishes. Lesser spotted kadhai and northern Indian spinach dishes are here too.
Bites of India is unlicensed, which is even better news.
Over the years I've come to realise that lager is not the answer to the curry question of what to drink. While there will always be room in my heart for a sergeant of Cobra, I veer towards some fresh white wines, which seem perfect for rich south Asian foods.
My top recommendations for a Bites of India night out are the Portuguese Esporao 2 Castas and Cretan Assyrtiko, both available from Direct Wine Shipments. These are two affordable sensations, bright and fresh with plenty of clout and character. You're welcome.
Chicken dosa: £9.95
Idli sambar: £6.95