EARLIER this year there was a death notice on the Sheffield-based Currylovers website. It was short and to the point.
“We are sorry to report that the Saffron Club in Sheffield has closed. One of the best there was. RIP.”
Indeed, they’d made it their restaurant of the year in 2006.
I went only once (it’s another week, another restaurant for the likes of me) but I knew how they felt. The Saffron Club with its gourmet menu did something a little bit new in the city. It was upmarket, used Indian spicing in Western-style dishes and didn’t come cheap, which might have been the trouble.
You could say the same of Café Guru nearby on Westfield Terrace and of the ill-fated Aroma on London Road, also going for a more sophisticated customer.
And all failing.
Which poses the question: Can an Indian be too posh for Sheffield? Or too adventurous?
Saffron Club’s ex-owner Naz Islam thinks the latter. “Sheffield likes Indian cuisine simple and standard,” he sighed after selling up.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, provided it is done well. The premises are now another Indian restaurant called Tamarind, the latest in a chain which includes Bawtry’s Dower House, winner of last year’s British Curry Awards, Almas and the Samad Cottage in Dronfield, among others, which suggests a good pedigree.
It has made its reputation with sound, traditional cooking for the British market.
Tamarind’s décor is pretty much the same as it was for the Saffron Club – all spicy browns and red – and there’s nothing to suggest that this is an Indian restaurant apart from the black-clad waiters and the menus.
It’s not that busy and a personable young fellow offers us a table for two. We reject it because it’s going to be a squash with the number of dishes we order. He tries again with the next couple but it turns out they’ve mistaken Tamarind for Hui Wei, the Chinese place with which it shares an entrance, so they get up and leave.
It’s not his night because he also offers us blank menu covers with nothing inside them. After that, he inspects each menu carefully. We were not yet to know it will not be our night either.
We dub the waiter’s colleague The Man In A Hurry. “Are you ready for your mains?” he asks after our pops are cleared away. Hang on, we haven’t had our starters yet.
Pops and pickles (£3.70) are average. The chutneys seem weaker and less well flavoured than usual but I have a hit with my babori mix starter (£4.50), particularly the lemony pieces of tandoori chicken. There’s also a gutsy sausage-like sheikh kebab and an onion bhaji.
My wife is less happy with her prawn puree. Its shell is flabby rather than crisp although the contents in their coconutty sauce are fine.
“Are you ready for your mains?” asks The Man In A Hurry, almost hurling new cutlery at the table. We are. But then we really start to nose dive.
We’d ordered karahi keema and matter (£7.50), a traditional ‘desi’ special, Mughlai chicken mussallam (£7.30), tarka daal (£3.40), as well as Peshwari naan (£2.80) and pullao rice (£2.50).
The keema is lamb mince with vegetables but the spicing is bland. It tastes like it would at home if you mixed a little bit of leftover mince with some half-cooked onions and peppers and a tiny pinch of Sharwoods’ curry powder.
My wife picks at her chicken dish. “It tastes like a supermarket’s two for £5 special,” she says. I dip in and she’s right. Bland again. Mussallam sauce – made with yoghurt, coconut or almonds, sometimes all three, depending on the recipe, should be a lustrous blanket for the meat. This is so dull you can almost hear it yawn.
The tarka daal is watery and under-spiced, the rice a little clumpy and so it comes as a relief when we discover the naan is warm, chewy and sweet. But that doesn’t make a meal.
According to the menu, the Tamarind has three specialist chefs, for Mughlai, balti and biryani, and tandoori dishes but you’d never have guessed it.
At this point I should reintroduce the nice young chap with blank menus who couldn’t sell a table. If there was anything right about Tamarind, it was him.
I’d asked for a lassi to drink but they only did mango. Now many asian restaurants buy this in ready made which is why I usually ask for a salty one. He said he’d give it a try. Nice one, but it was made with milk and not quite the pukka job. Still, he was willing.
And when he asked if we had enjoyed the meal I broke my golden rule when I’m unhappy, which is to keep schtum.
My time comes later.
But, picking a dish at random, the keema, I said it had been bland.
He said the kitchen would make me another, spicier, one to take away. I demurred. He insisted.
So we left with a free takeaway (which is now biding its time in the freezer).
Our bill (still on a Saffron Club receipts), with that lassi and a coke (£3.20) came to £38.40, for the poorest Indian meal we’ve eaten for years.
If Britain’s first Indian restaurant had been like this, they would never have taken off.
The Dawes Verdict
223 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2GW.
Tel: 0114 276 6150.
Lunch Mon -Thurs noon - 2.30pm, evenings all week 6-11.30pm. Credit cards. Vegetarian dishes. Ethnic music. Street parking. Takeaway.