If you’ll forgive a moment’s smugness it is some years since I wrote that the way for Indian restaurants to go was regional.
The sub-continent is a big place with more exciting dishes than chicken jalfrezi or Made in England chicken tikka masala
How about South Indian food, from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka?
It seems someone was listening.
First we had the tiny East & West, for several years a lonely outpost on Abbeydale Road, then came Dhanistha’s (now Arusavai), Urban Choola, Maveli and just recently, in Crookes, Rama’s Bridge.
The other day I met a chap on London Road who told me he was planning to open a South Indian restaurant because it was “the coming thing”.
“But you’re Bangladeshi,” I said. “Doesn’t matter, I can get the chefs.”
Seems to me that any chef who can flip a dosa is hot property these days.
You can hardly accuse Rama’s Bridge of jumping on the bandwagon because it’s owned by the same people who trailblazed with East & West.
The restaurant is in what you may remember best as Spinroc’s, a diner named by a Dutchman who reversed his own surname.
Opened a couple of months ago it still has a half-finished look to the décor. Walls are painted blue and white with a couple of posters and pictures tacked up. Overhead is exposed metal ducting which whirrs too loudly. Improvements are promised.
From the bar there’s ethnic music which changes in volume throughout the night and behind it is the smiling figure of Dr Shiva Baum, the founder of East & West, who has spent at least a year looking for the right property.
Rama’s Bridge is the name of the 30-mile long chain of limestone shoals between Pamban Island off the coast of Tamil Nadu in India and the Sri Lankan Mannar Island.
The name is apt. “We want to bridge the cultures,” said Dr Baum, who in his day job is principal scientist at Sheffield’s Tata Steel.
The place is much bigger than East & West, seats 60 compared with eight tables at a pinch on Abbeydale Road.
It’s also a bigger menu but for me, the whole essence of South India is summed up in that crisp rolled-up pancake which is the masala dosa.
Some people say the bigger the dosa the bigger the bang as far as taste is concerned and I’ve seen a whopper that was easily over two foot long. But size is not all that important, just for show really, as the filling is only in the middle bit.
You can get mini dosas at Rama’s Bridge but the maxi version, at least 18 inches is well worth having for £4.50.
I’ve never worked out the best way to eat a big ’un – two hands don’t seem enough – and remember being impressed watching an Indian girl eat hers with one hand while talking on her mobile in the other.
The dosa itself was good and crisp and the potato filling mildly spicy but I was a bit disappointed with the slightly less than zingy accompanying chutneys and sambal.
Idli (£4), a sort of Indian version of Chinese dim sum steamed buns, are made of rice and ground dal. They looked like three little flying saucers on my wife’s plate, their texture springy and pleasant to eat with chutney or dipped in the sambal.
We liked the sauces of our main courses rather more than the main ingredients. A north Keralan dish, mutton malabar, cost £9.50 (although it’s on the menu for a pound less), too much for the quality of the chewy meat but the rich, thick gingery sauce was quite glorious.
Fish mollie is another Keralan classic (although the bill thinks we had another dish) where the flavour of the coconut milk takes precedence over mild spices. It should be £8 although we were charged £7.75.
The sauce deserved to be eaten all up so we ordered another portion of boiled rice (£2.50) and didn’t get charged.
Our meal turned out to be low on vegetables. We’d asked our waiter if we should order a side dish but he steered us onto the bread basket (£4.50): a poor, dry chapatti, good poori and lovely flaky paratha.
You tend to get more interesting puddings in South Indian restaurants. Semiya payasam (£3.50), which we shared, is made with vermicelli, cardamom and cashews but was less exciting than some we’ve had.
South Indian tastes fresher and zingier than your average Indian and while we enjoyed our meal felt the cooking missed a note at times.
The bill for food was £36.25. Drinks – a lacklustre salt lassi for £3.50, glass of wine, Ceylon tea and a nicely spicy masala tea – added £10.80.
Our waiter was interested to know if this was our first acquaintance with South Indian food. No, we said, and listed the other places we’d eaten.
“You know more than me,” he said. Where was he from, then? “I’m from Nepal.”
Rama’s Bridge, 190 Crookes, Sheffield S10 1TG. Tel: 0114 2670534. Closed Tues. Open Mon and Wed-Fri 11am-2pm and 5-11pm, Sat 10am-midnight, Sun 10am-11pm. Credit cards. Vegetarian dishes. Disabled access and toilet. Takeaways. Street parking. Web: www.ramasbridge.co.uk