LAST week we were at an Indian restaurant with 433 main courses. Another week, another Indian, but this time we’ve only got seven mains to choose from.
Yes you read that right, just seven.
Ali Khan, irrepressible owner of the new Kashmiri Kitchen on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, believes there are big advantages to his mini menu. “If you have 100 dishes and excel in three, 97 are going to suffer. This is the way to go.”
We last met Ali at the Jeroka in Conisbrough and liked him and his food.
A distinctive figure who wears earrings, a sort of animated human onion bhaji, he’s a sparky presence front of house and can talk the hind leg off an elephant.
But first a few facts. The Kashmiri Kitchen is in the premises of what used to be Mish Mash and has been empty for over a year. It seats 30 downstairs, a pleasant space with white walls hung with bright commissioned paintings, maroon tablecloths and a wooden floor. Upstairs there is seating for another 36.
On our visit, in its first week, drinks were BYO but this will cease if a licence is granted.
The menu is as it is because he wanted to serve the kind of food eaten at home, instead of invented Westernised dishes with the one-pot-sauce-fits-all style of cooking.
“I live in Sheffield and have to go to Manchester or Bradford to eat. Everything here is one-pot sauces and I’m sick of it,” he adds.
At the Kashmiri Kitchen there is a ban on chicken tikka masalla and the sauces are made from scratch.
“I did my research in the community about what to serve,” he says. What he means is that he did what any good Kashmiri boy would do, he asked his mum.
Mrs K, apparently, suggested choosa (chicken) handi, gosht (lamb) handi, keema mutter (mince), chicken pulao, a biryani, as well as aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato), tarka daal and okra. That’s it. At home, for starters, the Khans eat onion pakora, samosas and seekh kebab. He’d be mad to ditch these old favourites so he doesn’t.
And he promises that his mum, who showed his chefs the way she wanted the food cooked, will regularly visit to make sure it’s up to scratch.
Ali, aged 44, is pretty good at marketing. Italians have long realised it helps the image to have a nonna, or grandma, in their gastronomic background. He’s got his mum.
Prices are keen. All starters are under £3. No main is over £5.95. Desserts are under £2. Years ago we set ourselves the Ten Pound Challenge, the price per head of a meal. We could still do it here, eating veggie, and fit in some pops.
“The poppadoms are complimentary,” beams Ali, who has recognised me from Conisbrough. We assume it is an opening offer but, oddly, he charges us.
You get three and a pickle tray for a bargain £1.25. They are pleasant enough. With all that time on their hands I wonder if the kitchen has made the chutneys. Ali is as honest as the day is long, they haven’t, but I think that they should.
Onion pakora (£1.95), a sort of loosely assembled bhaji, is equally appealing while the meat samosas are large crisply pastried triangles (£1.95) with generous fillings, delicately spiced with a chilli kick.
Both starters are advertised as coming with yoghurt or chutney but don’t. However, they’re already there with the pickle tray.
Ali makes a big deal of saying his ingredients will be locally sourced but I’m unsure how that’s going to work out. He speaks of asking allotment holders in Darnall for produce but there’s not going to be much this time of year.
Nor is there any local halal chicken or lamb. He’s in talks on that one but he’d have to charge a lot more for his food if he did. Indian restaurants make their money by buying the cheapest meat: otherwise they couldn’t make the profit margins to survive.
Ali memorises the orders but might profitably invest in a notebook. We ordered a lamb curry and got chicken and a garlic naan and got plain.
No matter. The choosa handi (£4.95) has plenty of good chicken in a rich sauce, featuring ginger, served, like the keema (£4.95) in the plain white bowls which are the latest fashion in Indian restaurants.
Not surprisingly, the keema was reminiscent of the samosa filling. The spicing is subtle but we felt it could do with more of a kick so Ali took it back to the kitchen for some added chilli.
He’s keen to check on the spicing. All dishes are served ‘medium’ but heat can be adjusted.
Our third dish, tarka daal (£4.25) had the moong daal still intact as toothsome little lentils rather than as ‘porridge.’ I like this Indian comfort food either way, as long as it is decently spiced, which it was.
Pulao rice (£1.50) comes without any food colourings and the naan (£1.50) was decent enough although obviously it lacked our requested garlic.
It was a pleasant meal although given the small menu and the amount of time for preparation which that releases it didn’t strike us that the food gained very much.
Ali, who speaks of having daily ‘specials’ when he gets fully into gear, is obviously trying to Westernise his restaurant. In that case he will have to source quality local meats and ease customers through that psychological barrier of not paying much for an Indian meal.
We didn’t pay very much either, £22.30 for food and £8.40 for drinks, including a couple of lassis and Pakistani tea.
Despite getting the wrong dishes, Ali’s worth four stars for service.
The Dawes Verdict
617 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PT.
Tel: 2682511 or 07870 495 874. Open: Open Mon-Fri 4-11pm, Sat-Sun 12-11pm.
Cash only on our visit, cards promised. Disabled toilet (check for access as steps to restaurant). Ethnic music. Street parking.