Black and white chequerboard floor, bistrot chairs, retro lights and a wall of vintage-style white tiles...
Are we in the right place? This could be a cafe in France. Or, having noted the red Hindu text on the walls, a colonial railway station. Certainly not Eccy Road’s long-loved Ashoka, Sheffield’s oldest Indian.
Its had many facelifts since launching in 1967, but the latest must be its most revolutionary.
Owner Rahul Amin, who took over in 2004 from founder Kamal Ahmed, city pioneer whose chilled food company gave spice to Waitrose, Tesco and Harrods, has adopted the style of the old Irani cafes that once numbered some 300 across India.
Set up by Persian immigrants in the 1800s, they filled the gap in India’s food scene which consisted only of street food and expensive hotel cuisine - and became a melting pot of class and culture. Rahul adored visiting them while holidaying with relatives in Mumbai as a child.
With French and Colonial influences, it’s a clean, fresh look with a heritage twist - and it absolutely works. My, so do the Ashoka staff. Led by urbane boss Rahul, it is slick, speedy, attentive and charming.
As for the food, we knew we were onto a winner at the first snap of a poppadom. Ever so gently charred in a wood-fired oven, they were the best I’ve ever eaten. And how clever was the Hendersons House Puri (£4.95), a lighter than air puri ‘bubble’ containing spiced and diced sauteed potato and onion, Sheffield’s relish providing a subtly sweet, garlicky finish?
Chilli paneer (£6) contained home-made cheese of perfect texture. Subtle Oriental notes of ginger and soy counterbalanced powerful hunks of fresh chilli.
The menu looks as fresh as the decor. Rahul has dispensed with the theory an Indian’s must contain a hundred dishes railroading through the entire Indian subcontinent and shedded 70 per cent of his main courses to offer a personally-tailored, whistlestop tour of Colonial India - nine curry sauces priced according to your choice of protein, three biryanis and four specials. There’s not a korma, dhansak or dopiaza in sight.
Newcomers have enticing names; Hill Station Hot, Rajastani Railway Lamb and Taxi Driver Curry (a longstanding Ashoka special perfected to suit the very particular palate of a city cab driver called Mr Hussein).
Rahul kept the Caramelised Kashmiri, though, a house speciality beloved by customers. I tasted it once - must have been 15 years ago - and I’ve never forgotten how good it tasted. Second time around, it was just as good; dense with onions cooked to sweet, sticky caramelisation and meltingly soft, falling hunks of slow-cooked lamb and well worth £11. The Husband’s Keralan coconut curry (£10) had butter-soft chicken leg meat and plenty of grated coconut in its fiery, semi sweet creamed sauce.
There is no dessert menu, which in an Indian I see as a good thing. But if you’re fancying something sweet at the end, don’t dive on the mints that arrive on a little white dish. They are not what they seem. Pour hot water on them from the accompanying jug instead. They fluff up and open out into hand-towels. Ingenious! Rahul spotted them while dining in New York.
With charcoal-baked garlic butter nan at £2.50 and £2.50 steamed rice, the bill was £53.40 for a six-star journey from start to finish.