Tasty secret: We check out Belfast restaurant Safa Indian
Hidden above a city centre pub, Safa is well worth seeking out for the fresh, flavoursome dishes that have won the restaurant accolades.
Safa Indian, the little restaurant in Bank Square, in the heart of Belfast, is like a heavenly cloud perched above the stone flag floored, low-ceilinged Lucifer's lair, Kelly's Cellars. The meeting of two cultures is so dramatic it seems to make no sense at all. Downstairs, the bar is a thumping good model of Oirishness, Belfast-style.
Well-run, exciting, populated with musicians, old gougers, young, socially aware tourists and those looking for a drink before nipping next door to Mourne Seafood Bar or upstairs for a curry, Kelly's Cellars is an important asset to the city's offer, and particularly in the regenerational ambitions of this area.
Bank Square seems to be in permanent flux with building works, bollards, poor parking and terrible access. You need to know the city to find it. Which is a shame because within a few yards of each other are some of the most attractive feeding and drinking centres in the city.
Ali Askir took the lease upstairs above Kelly's four years ago and while he says it's been a bit of a struggle, Safa lifted the title of most popular Indian restaurant in Belfast earlier this month.
This prompted a return visit. What is striking about Ali is his commitment to local produce and good wines. The food is a step beyond what you normally expect in even the best of Belfast's curry houses. This particular Sunday he has been tweeting about a goat curry hotpot which sounds irresistible.
Most curry house chefs prepare a meal for the staff which you will not find on the menu. A few of them have shared these with me and each time I've been staggered by the depth of flavours and puzzled as to why they won't add them to the menu. Hotpots made from meat on the bone and vegetarian dishes of aubergine and okra are wholesome and fresh, but, according to the owners, too plain, dull-looking or unmarketable.
The goat hotpot at Safa was a similarly home-made, unselfconscious affair featuring a broken down goat shank in a brown liquor. It didn't look like much but the flavours were deep and savoury and exactly the job for a miserable and chilly Sunday night.
Goat is not as interesting as lamb. It is mutton-like and tough but it does have a good flavour. Safa's hotpot is one to look out for if it's a hair-on-your-chest experience you're after.
But Safa also does the conventional, western stuff very well too. The jalfrezi is hot, hot, hot and only to be tackled with a side bowl of cooling raita. The naan is light and fluffy, and the old favourites like tikka massala, shashlik, saag and others are all excellent. Three of us went through a few starters including a mix of tandoori chicken wings, lamb kebabs and some meat samosas.
The chicken chaat, a staple street offering, is served, 1960s jungle resort-style, in a shaped poppadom. It has everything you wanted when you came out for a curry in the first place: slightly sloppy, saucy warmth, gentle spiciness, texture and bite.
The dishes of chicken saag, Bombay potatoes and shashlik kebabs are all top class and provide plenty of variety for all to dip in and out of. The shashlik chunks of onions and peppers, seared, blackened and smoked on the grill provide crunch and freshness to go alongside the tender, salty tandoori chicken pieces. You can pick whatever sauce you want with the shashlik and in this case the fiery but painless chilli massala was recommended. A good choice too.
The chicken saag, a spinach-based dry curry, is voted the favourite but only because it's not challenging. It's predictable and safe, majoring on reassurance and calming the nerves the night before going back to work.
The dining room could do with a makeover. Nothing more than a lick of paint and a few pictures would brighten it up. The service is friendly, aiming to please and while it's not the fastest on this busy night, you know it's because everything is made from scratch rather than reheated. Safa still has a hidden secret charm about it. You'll impress your friends if you take them there. Especially with the promise of pints agus ceol downstairs.
Safa platter for 2£9.95
Boiled rice x 2£5
Glass wine x 3£11.85
Cobra x 2£7.20