Restaurant review: Indus Valley
4 Riverside Park East, Coleraine BT51 3NA Tel: 028 7035 4242
One of Belfast's top curry restaurant owners, Ali Askir also happens to be the founder of the Irish Curry Awards, the only food awards on the island of Ireland to have received international Asian broadcast attention thanks to the TV station ATM Bangla and its global audience. (As head judge of these awards, my co-judges and I are unexpectedly big in Bangladesh.)
Ali is the kind of restaurateur who places community before profit and craic before formality. He rules himself out of the curry awards competition in case anyone would think he had some kind of advantage. For Ali, the awards are there to highlight the central role of the Asian community in Ireland, to help integrate the Bengali, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and other sub-continent associated nations and cultures into Irish life by highlighting their massive social and economic impact on the agri-food, hospitality and catering sectors.
Ali owned the popular Belfast restaurant, Safa, which was forced to close due to a series of complex property agreements. But the good news is that Safa has popped up again - only this time it's on the north coast.
Indus Valley by Safa is a Cinderella story where a much-loved restaurant finally met its prince charming (Ali, just before Christmas) and has sprung back to life as a bejewelled and renewed operation. I don't review restaurants on opening nights, nor do I tend to write up the experience of a one-off, specially arranged food writers' event. But I judged that this particular PR event was different. Also, Ali has done much for the restaurant sector, so who am I to snub his kind invitation?
A coach-load of food bloggers who publish their forensic findings online on cutely named blog sites (check out irishfeast.com, downthehatchni.com and eatingideas.com) and a handful of surly, cynical and sour-baked restaurant and food writers from the Irish News, Sunday Life and Belfast Telegraph made the journey up there last week.
The bloggers behaved impeccably. Not the same can be said about the writers who commanded the back of the bus and in an age-old tradition defended their position with bottles of Blanquette de Limoux. (Prosecco is so 2017, folks. Make way for Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Loire: both are superior French fizzes without the inflated Champagne price tag.)
Suitably fortified and ready for action after the one-hour journey through wind and rainstorms (on the surprisingly comfortable Translink coach), we were dropped off in the middle of an out-of-town retail development which has all the charm of a disused shunting yard. As the bus moved off and just before panic set in, our eyes adjusted to the blustery darkness and driving rain, and there before us, like a mirage, appeared Indus Valley, the welcoming inn of old, the shelter from a winter's night, the harbour in the storm.
This was a moment to celebrate and once we had stumbled through the front door, pints of medicinal Tanqueray and tonic were handed to us by kind, smiling staff. All was well. And then it got even better.
The grand little dining room is elegant and comfortable, softly lit and with just the right dose of formality to provide a sense of occasion. Head waiter Shane Loughlin is one of the best in the business and is a key factor in making Indus Valley work so successfully.
And then there's the food: classic, recognisable, conventional and nothing to frighten anyone away, there is a lightness of touch in the kitchen. Naan bread is super bantamweight, fluffy and gently crisp, poppadums are barely-there, brittle and dry and provide the crunchy texture so beloved of a lager drinker. Tonight there is vegetable pakora, chicken karahi, chicken tikka masala and vegetable bhuna, all at varying degrees of heat and spice, all healthily fresh and gorgeously textured. There is nothing gloopy, greasy or heavy here. Spices and herbs, chilli and garlic are in balance and the chicken is good quality. For the more experienced, starters of goat tikka, tandoori lamb chops, aloo nazakat (Indian style potato skins stuffed with lamb mince) are among the dishes which will offer a degree of adventure. Look out for jaljal and its ginger-dominated flavours and the lentils dhansak.
I'd like to see the bus service to Indus Valley from Belfast instated as a regular, weekly Translink run. Failing that, just make your way there any way you can. It's worth the trip.
Goat tikka £6.50
Tandoori lamb chops £5.95
Jaljal lamb tikka £13.95
Dhansak vegetarian £9.95