I’ll make no bones about it, the Mangla is not a Delia Meets Delhi kind of place.
If you like your curry dished up in a posh pot and everything carefully adorned with sprigs of this and that; if you want fancy surroundings, a bit of lilting sitar and a good wine list, you’d never venture to the Spital Hill Pakistani curry house.
But that’s not us and we’re eagerly following in the footsteps of curry connoisseurs who have been raving about this place for close-on two decades.
We arrive with bottles of beer and cider because, although there’s no alcohol sold on the premises, diners are welcome to bring their own. You’re not charged corkage, either.
It’s a Friday night and we haven’t booked, but within minutes we’re being led to a table past the open kitchen, where chefs and their assistants are bustling and chopping, boiling and frying and mopping their brows with big white tea-towels.
We sit down. We take in our surroundings. Since its opening in 1993 the Mangla has glammed up. It’s quite a smart place now; two interconnecting rooms; cool beige walls and pale laminate floors provide a neutral backdrop to bright modern art prints, dark wood tables and brown leather chairs.
Big picture windows face on Spital Hill; the occasional bus flashes past.
And then... nothing. A good ten minutes pass and none of the black-clad waiters, attending to a large party of women and several tables of families and couples ,look like bringing us a menu.
We start to feel a bit ignored. My husband summons the chap in the pink top who seems to be the boss.
“Could we have some menus?” There’s a bit of an edge to my voice. The manager blinks, then manages to smile politely as he turns over our plastic table mats with a magician’s flourish.
Oops. We’d never thought to look beneath our elbows; we’ve had menus all along.
The next surprise is the prices: starters start at 80p. You can barely buy a bag of crisps for that these days. Vegetable main courses are £4.30, chapatis a mere 50p and chicken and “meat” curries (it’s always lamb) are from £4.80. The most expensive dishes on the menu are still only £7.90. Mangla owner Shah Hussein and his son Hanif pride themselves on offering what they believe is the best value food in town.
Surprise No 3 comes from Jeremy, our dining partner. He’s a Mangla regular (though even he didn’t realise the mat was under the menu). He tells us we’re supposed to have been given free poppadoms and a pickle tray. It’s a Mangla feature.
The Man In Pink is summoned again and is both amazed and apologetic. He brings them over in a trice and very nice they are too; fresh and crisp, they come with three sauces, each with a twist on the norm.
Our starters come promptly, too. Though, once again, my eyebrows are raising. My tandoori chicken (£2.50) looks like no tandoori chicken I’ve seen before. A long, bent leg is lying next to a little side salad. It looks like a sunburned Brit in Malaga; bright pink and not very pretty.
But I tuck in and it does taste good; the tandoori spice is subtle and doesn’t drown the meaty flavour, which is enhanced by the fact that the chicken has been cooked on the bone.
The shammi kebab looks more like a chunky beef burger and could have been a bit warmer, but it was nicely infused with aromatic ground coriander and cumin and had a fair old chilli heat. And it was only £1.
Far more attractive in presentation is the prawn puree (£2.90). Often the pureed prawn arrives inside a light, crisp puff of Eastern bread. At the Mangla, the creamy, lightly-spiced prawn mixture comes atop a large, wholewheat paratha with a wedge of lemon. It’s a big and good value.
Our mains prove what everyone says about the Mangla; the curries really are good. You don’t get fancy presentation - each comes in a white bowl like you’d have your cereal in - but you get dense, melded flavours and lots of tender meat.
The Meat Rogan Josh, with plenty of fried tomatoes and meltingly soft onions, and the coriander-sprinkled, sweet pepper-laden Chicken Bhuna, both £4.80, were spot-on. OK, there was a good bit of ghee in there, but this is home-style Pakistani food; it adds richness and a hint of sweetness and it’s supposed to be there.
We ate our curries with pilau rice, chapatis and a nan studded with oodles of garlic and coriander. And still the bill only came to £28.60 for three - less than £10 a head.
This is not expensive Eastern-themed fine dining; it’s real-deal, Asian fast-food in cheery curry house surroundings. And definitely not to be sniffed at.