It’s Bonfire Night; a blaze of fireworks illuminates the inky skies over Kimberworth.
Inside Akbar’s, the Indian restaurant that draws curry fans from far and wide to the less fashionable side of Tinsley Viaduct, there’s a cracking little display going on too.
The darkened interior lights up again and again as a cheerful troop of waiters descend on yet another unsuspecting birthday boy or girl bearing a celebration cake topped with a fizzing indoor firework.
Don’t fret if you’re the quiet type, though. The restaurant is big enough and well designed enough to accommodate a host of Asian and British family parties without the fun infringing on couples enjoying a quiet dinner for two.
What was a big, tired old pub on Meadowbank Road became an exotic Eastern palace five years ago and it’s always busy.
The atmosphere has a lot to do with it. Dark and stylish, under a twinkling ceiling, objects gathered from throughout the East – intricate wooden carvings, giant silvered candle holders, statues of Indian gods – draw the eye hither and thither.
The waiter swiftly sprinkles our table with a flurry of fresh red rose petals; a lovely touch.
Then, realising that in the dim light we are struggling to see the menu, even with our reading gasses, he passes some battery-operated tealights from a wall display.
Clearly, he’s had to do that before.
We can see there’s a big choice, ranging from ‘Old School Favourites’ – korma, madras, vindaloo, rogan josh, etcetera – to baltis, traditional desi apna home-style dishes and speciality dishes from Lahore.
We came here a few weeks ago with Asian friends who are regulars and tried a curry made from sheep’s feet.
It was packed with flavour and the sauce was sweet and gelatinous, but funnily enough we’re not bothered about having it again.
While we peruse we nibble on popadoms, 75p each. They are crisp and warm but I do begrudge paying £1.20 for a pickle tray.
I hope Shabir Hussain, who set up the Akbar’s chain from an industrial estate in Bradford and this year won the English Curry Awards’ Curry King of the Year crown for the second year running, takes note.
Many an Indian restaurant provides those little pots of sauces for free; why not here?
We couldn’t fault much else on our visit, though. The waiters, some dressed in black, others in chefs’ whites, are attentive, polite and chatty. And the food is dynamite.
From the list of starters we went for the unusual rather than the familiar. Lamb chops marinated in spices and cooked over charcoal grill (£3.75) were sticky and delicious. When the kernels of soft, lean meat had gone, you couldn’t resist picking up the bones to nibble every last morsel.
King Prawn Tikka at £6.75 was pretty expensive but sensational. Fat prawns marinated in yoghurt, herbs and ginger, garlic and coriander arrived sizzling on an iron skillet, with slivers of fried onion.
It was intensely spicy with a great hit of chilli that even a gulp of Cobra (£3 a bottle) couldn’t quench.
The starters were probably the best Indian first courses I’ve ever had. Could the mains be a match?
Akbar’s curries start at £7.55 for a dopiaza but we opted for pricier dishes from the Chef’s Specials and the list of Special Baltis.
Karahi Fish and Potato, £9.95, promised white fish with crushed onions, tomatoes, baby potatoes and peppers in a special mix of delicate spices cooked to a secret family recipe.
A subtly flavoured, aromatic dish with a hint of lemon, the potatoes were by no means baby; they had fallen into the sauce, as had the flaked fish, but the result was a beautifully textured winner.
A portion of aromatic pilau rice (£2.45) and one of Akbar’s show-stopping nan breads – they are huge, hot and soft and arrive hanging on what I can only describe a ‘nan tree’ – provided the all-essential, sauce-mopping carbs, especially for our second main, Chicken Tikka and Garlic Balti, £9.45.
Curiously small cubes of lean chicken, previously marinated in yoghurt, herbs and spices and cooked over charcoal, had been roasted in a balti pan in a rich, deep red sauce with a large helping of mild, sweet garlic. It was a cracker.
While the obliging waiter packed up what was left of our savoury dishes in a doggy bag (don’t you just love Indian food for that very reason?) we cooled down with a couple of traditional Asian desserts.
Ras Malai £2.60, a chilled, creamy liquid tasting of condensed milk, contained sunken balls of soaked paneer cheese. The home-made kulfi ice cream, £2.60, was fun; it came on a stick, a long, conical lollipop garnished with a squiggle of squirty cream.
Our bill came to £48.70 – yet another reason to love Indian food.