THIS time we didn’t ask Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty to suggest our meal at Sheffield’s Aagrah restaurant.
On our first visit, shortly after it opened four years ago, we were faced with a menu of sub-continental proportions but where were we to start?
The Aagrah, laden down with accolades and awards, as its menu is not slow to tell you, offers Hyderabadi, Achar, Tikka Massala, Balti Chilli, Tikka Balti, Makhani, Kashmiri, Biryani, Tawas, Kormas, Bhunas, Dansak, Madras, Dahi, Dopiazi and Vindaloo dishes, and that’s not counting the grills, English dishes and vegetarian options, the special pre-orders and the set menus. And don’t forget the sundries.
Or the spiced and grilled fish, the fish curries and the blackboard specials...
Then I saw some dishes marked with an asterisk – those cooked by Aagrah at a British Bollywood bash – and we said: “We’ll have what Shilpa had.”
She didn’t let us down.
I got quite excited by the food. The spicing was keen, the flavours bright, the rice a feast in itself. So when the Sheffield Aagrah later won an award for Best Newcomer 2008 (still emblazoned across its windows), I wasn’t one to disagree.
So, four years on, how is it doing? We went back to find out.
The Aagrah is subterranean, based appropriately enough in what had been the dining room for Sheffield Central Tech and Grammar Schools, from which Leopold Square has been created.
Despite the lack of windows it doesn’t feel in the least claustrophobic. It has as many seats as menu items, around 170.
There have been some subtle changes. The waiters’ white tunics with gold monogrammed A’s are now black but the service is still all-embracingly full-on.
Waiters fix you with 1,000 watt smiles, inquire after the quality of almost every mouthful and even check whether you’re enjoying the coffee as you make your way to the loo – at least they did with my wife.
“What, you’re not having any wine?” asked one waiter almost disconsolately as I sipped my disappointingly dull lassi.
They make you feel as if your meal is the most important thing in the world them. Of course, you don’t really believe it. You can either find it irritating or go with the flow. This is all part of the customer service which has enabled Aagrah founder Mohammed Sabir MBE to build up a chain of 15 restaurants which, collectively and individually, have clocked up over 40 awards since he opened the first in 1977.
Tables are decently large, napkins are cotton, not paper, and a selection of pickles and chutneys are already waiting. They’re complimentary, along with poppadoms.
We licked our lips, hoping for a repeat performance of our 2008 meal here. In fact my wife ordered the same starter, prawn paratha, up only 20p to £3.95 in four years, a big stack of plumptious, juicy garlic and ginger spiced prawns in a creamy sauce as the sandwich filling of a flaky paratha.
My charcoal grilled lamb chops (£3.95) had been marinated superbly and cooked almost to the point of carbonisation, so that they smelt aromatic and had a pleasing earthy barbecued flavour.
The main course I chose was chicken Hyderabadi (£8.50) which you won’t be at all surprised to know is one of Aagrah’s “award winning specialities.”
But while the menu promises tangy spices, cardamom and cloves and distinctive flavours I found it all a little muted, the strips of chicken overwhelmed by the cream, yoghurt and tomato sauce. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t have the exuberance of spicing I’d experienced recently at Jewel on Attercliffe Common.
The fish menu offers spiced grilled fish (lobster tails £21.95) or fish curries and my wife had the monkfish, malai machli at £11.95.
It was OK if a bit bland, certainly not a Keralan or Sri Lankan fish curry, alive with flavour, but tasted as if fish and sauce (onion, butter and cream) had made a last minute assignation before arriving at the table. “A good amount of monkfish, though,” said my wife.
Curiously, the best spiced dish was the cheapest, tarka dal (£3.50), made with lentils, which had the right amount of gutsy earthiness and gritty texture which transforms this humble soul food. And we hadn’t liked it in 2008.
Back then the pulao ice (£2.50) had been a revelation, this time it was decidedly average. So, too, was the plain naan (£2.50).
Something wasn’t sparkling in this starry firmament.
Was it us? The kitchen? Or a case of that well-known ‘I was dying for a curry but it hasn’t lived up to expectations’ syndrome?
Don’t get me wrong. It was by no means poor, just run of the mill with those exceptions.
We paid £36.85 for food and two lassis, one J20 and two coffees whacked the bill up another £14.40.
The Dawes verdict
Unit 1 Leopold Square, Leopold Street, Sheffield, S1 2JG,
Tel: 0114 279 5577.
Open: Mon-Thur 5.30- 11.30pm (last orders), Fri & Sat 5.30pm-midnight, Sun 4.30-10.30pm. Vegetarian, gluten-free and nut-free dishes. Disabled access and toilets. Credit cards. Music. On-street parking.