FOOD REVIEW: A taste of India for 45 years

ASHOKA RESTAURANT  Head chef Kadir Ali in the kitchen at the Ashoka Restaurant, Ecclesall Road.   10 November  2009
ASHOKA RESTAURANT Head chef Kadir Ali in the kitchen at the Ashoka Restaurant, Ecclesall Road. 10 November 2009
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FORTY-FIVE years ago Sheffield’s culinary landscape was very different from today’s wide and varied cuisine, where diners can sample foods from across the globe.

So when Ashoka opened on Ecclesall Road as the city’s first Indian restaurant, it was a huge novelty for diners, who had their first chance to sample spicy curries and meats cooked in a tandoor oven.

Under the stewardship of its founder, Kamal Ahmed, Ashoka also attempted to introduce a bit of class to Indian food, offering attentive service, plush upholstered booths and tables laid out with Sheffield-made cutlery.

Four and a half decades later, the fact it’s still around is something of a triumph, although not a surprise, judging by the quality of the food on our visit.

Stepping into Ashoka today it seems little has altered inside. There’s a well-worn carpet bearing the restaurant’s name, a small bar by the entrance and rows of tables lining the narrow room.

When we arrived there were just two tables left, one near the front door and the other at the back next to the kitchen.

Neither was massively appealing, but rather than brave the draught at the front we decided to pick the table in the depths of the restaurant, before moving when one of the booths became vacant around 10 minutes later.

This proved to be a good decision as the tables for two are so small it’s virtually impossible to fit all the plates and bowls on them.

Before the starters we were brought poppadums and a very good pickle tray, which included an excellent, chunky, sharp lime pickle.

Ashoka boast that their poppadums are ‘roasted at the eleventh second’, and you can tell, as they bore an orange, toasted hue and crisp texture.

Our mixed appetisers were equally successful, a selection of a soft aloo chop, lightly seasoned with onions and coriander, samosa, vegetable pakora and a shami kebab, made with finely-ground lamb.

Then came the mains in an impressive procession. We shared a Kashmiri chicken bhuna - proclaimed on the menu as Ashoka’s ‘raisin d’être’ - and a hot Bangalore pal lamb.

The chicken came in large chunks, stir-fried in spices and served in a rich sauce with caramelised onions.

Each piece of chicken was thick and tender - no cheating with minute slivers of meat swimming in an ocean of sauce here.

The lamb also delivered. It wasn’t overly spicy and the lamb was succulent, mixed with chunks of tomato.

However be warned - portions may appear modest but before long we were flagging, with plenty of our sides to spare.

The sag panneer, firm chunks of Indian cheese with fresh spinach leaves, came nicely presented in a small dish, while the egg rice was garnished with caramelised onion, a nice touch.

Our garlic naan, meanwhile, was one of the thinnest I’d ever seen, made with hand-kneaded bread on site.

As well as the still water, refilled frequently by the waiters at table, we ordered a standard pint of Cobra as well as a slightly more pricey bottle of Thornbridge Jaipur, which went down a treat.

The bill came in at just over £50, reasonable for food of this standard.

Apparently the menu has changed little since 1967, and Rahul Amin - who took over from Kamal eight years ago - has wisely chosen to stick with traditions so far.

But renovations are afoot - signs in the restaurant promise new decor soon to mark the 45th anniversary, and a raft of new dishes are set to be introduced, including fresh desserts.

How anyone could fit in a pudding after starters and mains at Ashoka is anyone’s guess, but the decor will certainly be an improvement - although as we were bade farewell with friendly handshakes from the waiters, the thought occurred that some things should never change.