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Balti #4 – Saleem’s, 256 Ladypool Road

May 3, 2010

I know I know, I’m worse than the number 11 bus –  no blog posts for a month, and then two come along at once. Last night I took some family members down to the Balti triangle on the promise of an especially good naan bread, and hopefully a decent curry too. We headed to Saleem’s, which had been recommended for the breads, a laid-back cafe style Balti house half way down the Ladypool road. Apparently it’s been a fixture of the Balti triangle for forty years, it’s got to be in with a shout then. I liked the informal setting, with a well stocked takeaway and sweet counter at the front, and encouragement from the waiter to sit where we liked and pull some tables together to seat our five-strong party. The menu looked a bargain, no frills and not too extensive. On to the meal…

The Balti

Cabbage? In a Balti? Are you serious? Obviously they were, as there was lots of it! It was accompanied, in the spotlessly clean silver serving dish, by carrots, peas, onions, and potatoes – this was soggy sunday roast leftovers in a Balti. To be fair they did put some green pepper in there to make it a bit more exotic, and actually, despite there being very little of it, the sauce tasted pretty good with lots of chilli, ginger, and loads of fresh coriander. The cabbage did dominate though as it was in virtually every mouthful, the overcooked sulfur flavour overpowering the other vegetables, and most importantly the sauce. My table-mates had better experiences though – I looked jealously at a matthak paneer, kindney bean curry and tarka dhal – hmm, damn those rules.

The Naan

I was expecting great things from this naan bread, so I enquired straight off with the waiter whether they used self-raising flour in the breads. Sadly, he confirmed they did. To be fair though, if he hadn’t told me it would have been hard to tell, it didn’t have the chemical smell that I’ve been getting used to. I’m almost tempted to think that they use half and half with plain white flour, and perhaps even, say it quietly,  some yeast in the dough. It was large, perfectly cooked, super soft, and a pleasing sourness from the diary product used in the dough – I think it was yoghurt. It was probably the best naan bread of the lot so far, and I wish I’d done a bit more digging into its origins.

So the food wasn’t amazing, but this place had a charm about it, a laid-back, no-rush, lahore-cafe feel. A place I could see myself returning to for a quick lunchtime bite perhaps. I won’t be ordering a vegetable Balti though…

Balti #3 – Kababish, 29 Woodbridge Road

May 3, 2010

I headed to that Pat Kav for a drink on Tuesday night only to find my buddies were still eating across the road, in fact hadn’t even been served yet. So I headed across the road to the glam-looking Kababish, and sat down with them just as they were being served. Fortunately the waiter said they’d do me something quick. I actually didn’t think that this place was even in the Balti triangle (so I wasn’t considering reviewing it), but I ordered a vegetable Balti and plain naan anyway, it’s obviously becoming habit now. Hence I also have no photos of it, but anyway, here’s what I remember about it…

The Balti

The meal arrived in a spotless silver ‘balti’ dish, meaning it probably wasn’t an authentic balti experience. It was however, a pleasing balance of flavours, with quite a good hit of fresh chillies. There wasn’t a huge amount of sauce, but it was packed full of vegetables, majoring on okra (lady fingers, bhindi), which fortunately, I adore. The flavours were well balanced, with no one flavour shouting above another, but for my tastes, there wasn’t enough fresh coriander in there. Overall, a pretty good meal, I just wish I knew I was going to be reviewing it when I ate it, I would have paid more attention!

The Naan

As I’m getting used to now, the first rip of the naan bread revealed the disappointing whiff of chemical rasing agents – this bread was another inauthentic self-raising flour jobby. Please can I change the rules and have chapatti instead?!? It was a light fluffy bread though, searingly hot from the tandoor, and not too big for one as they sometimes can be.

Next time, I promise I’ll pay more attention! T.

Grameen Khana Win Birmingham’s Best Balti Accolade

April 9, 2010

This is a video from last years competition to find Birmingham’s best Balti. As I’ve just been to Grameen Khana and thoroughly enjoyed it, I thought I’d post the video that showed them winning the competition. The competition was organised by Birmingham City Council to raise the profile of the heritage of the now world-famous dish, and they had Luke Tipping of Simpsons restaurant as a judge. Worth a watch:

Balti #2 – Grameen Khana, 310 Ladypool Road

April 8, 2010

Well for my second meal in the quest for the perfect Balti, I decided to go somewhere that I’d wanted to go for a while – Grameen Khana. This restaurant has had rave reviews since it opened two years ago, winning the Birmingham’s Best Balti 2009 award, and put forward as a Birmingham representative to the British Curry Awards, where they were pipped to the regional award by Lasan. I had a hunch that this place was going to give us a totally different experience to Punjab Paradise and I wasn’t wrong. From 50 yards down the road you’re hit by the neon sign, bright lights and double height glass facade, giving you a hint of the modern decor awaiting us inside – it’s all curvy walls, bright colours and waterfalls, not what we’ve come to expect from a traditional south Asian restaurant. It’s a bit in-yer-face and not to everyone’s taste, but I quite liked it. The menu is impressive – although much too large like most South Asian restaurants, it had lots of hints to its Sylheti roots, and nods to modern fine dining with ingredients such as sea bass, monkfish, and even quail in some of the dishes. Although sorely tempted to go for a whole roasted quail, I stuck to the rules and ordered myself a vegetable Balti and plain naan:

The Balti – Wow, this couldn’t have been more different from my benchmark Balti at Punjab Paradise. It looked totally different for a start – not as brown in colour, bigger chunks of vegetables, garnished with a generous sprinkling of fresh coriander, and a much higher vegetable to sauce ratio, which I like. In fact if you put the two Balti’s side by side, I would never say they were the same dish. The Balti tasted great, again, not at all similar to the benchmark Balti. This one wasn’t as balanced you could say, perhaps lacking the depth of flavour that the Punjab Paradise Balti had, but it did shout louder with fresh chilli, coriander, mustard, cardamon and cinammon all taking their turn to come out and whack you around the chops. This was a fragant, zingy Balti,  like the cheeky loudmouthed younger brother trying desperately to get your attention. And that it did, I was hooked – the vegetables were not just carrying this sauce either, the perfectly cooked and marinated new potatoes (skin on), broad beans, french beans, peas, tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, onion and marrow were all delicious. The only downside was that I was given a clean plate and a spoon with which I was supposed to spoon the Balti out of it’s dish and onto my plate – surely this misses the point of ‘the Balti’?! I discarded the plate, not wanting to deny myself the primal pleasure of eating straight out of the cooking dish.

The Naan – This was better than Punjab Paradise, but still not great. It was well cooked, fluffy, and with a hint of cardamon, but it still had the giveaway smell and flavour of a chemically leavened bread – Mossiwar Hussain the owner confirmed they use self raising flour along with milk, eggs, and water. I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll find a decent yeast-leavened naan bread at all on this quest.

Overall I was mightily impressed with my experience at Grameen Khana, I can see why it’s had a high profile in it’s relatively short lifetime. It’s certainly not what we’ve come to expect from a Balti house, but for me it forces us to ask some deeper questions about the Balti. I can see why it’s not on Andy Munro’s list of ‘authentic Balti’s’ as it bore very little resemblance to the Balti that Punjab Paradise served up, and they’ve been at it since the 80’s at least. Can we even call this dish a Balti? Is it a different dish altogether, or is it simply a natural evolution of the Balti that has had to catch up with modern palates? After all the traditional Balti was once an ‘exotic’ dish, but now us brits know our cumin from our coriander, perhaps this daring, adventurous Balti is the future?  These questions, I fear, need more research. What a shame I’ll have to visit a few more restaurants just to check…

Balti #1 – Punjab Paradise, 377 Ladypool Road

April 2, 2010

A huge responsibility was on the shoulders of the chefs and  staff in Punjab Paradise last night, not that they knew it as the cheery doorman (doorman?! amazing.) bounded up to us when we approached the door, and the slightly grumpy waiter barked us a welcome. I was looking at this place to provide the benchmark for my quest for the perfect Balti. It needed to give me something to compare all other Balti’s to.

The restaurant is actually lovely, the double height lobby with surrounding first floor gallery is very grand, we were ushered to our seats right away, and fresh popadoms were on our table before I’d even sat down, seriously. I ordered a vegetable Balti and a plain naan (as per rule #3), and it was about 7 minutes until it was out of the kitchen and on our table. This was fast food.

The Balti. Now this is what I was here for, an authentic Balti. It looked OK, honest, nothing fancy. Identifiable chunks of vegetable in a thick red-brown sauce with a garnish of fresh coriander, served in its traditional Balti bowl of course. It tasted good too, very flavourful but no single flavour shouting above another, a well balanced dish. The freshness of the tomato sauce hits the tastebuds first followed quickly by the depth of the spices – paprika’s definitely in there, cumin & coriander too, a well rounded garam masala mix for sure, and perfectly salted. There’s no discernible fresh chilli in the dish, but there’s definitely chilli in there, it hits you last and warms the back of your throat. This is perfect for me, I like heat, but not when it stops you tasting the other flavours. The token garnish of fresh coriander is not quite enough to balance the depth of the spices, I would have liked more. Carrying the sauce are a range of vegetables – carrots, peas, cauliflower, green pepper, onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, and thin strips of aubergine (the star of the show!). Overall, a well balanced and pleasing Balti, a good honest square meal. Razi the Balti chef should be proud.

The naan. A big dissappointment. It was too thin and slightly over-done in the tandoor, making it more crispy than fluffy, and it had the giveaway alkali soda flavour of a bread made in a hurry with self raising flour. I asked the waiter to confirm this – he consulted the tandoor chef, and I was right. On the plus side it’s large for a ‘small’ naan, and brushed with a good amount of ghee.

Overall though this was a good start. The Balti was great, the restaurant was lovely, the waiter cheered up when I told him about ‘The Quest’. It’s quick though isn’t it? We arrived at 7.20pm and by 7.55pm we were scraping our bowls clean with the last scraps of naan. It felt a little too quick, but maybe that’s half the point…


Setting the benchmark

April 1, 2010

Tonight the quest begins with my first Balti of this 4 month challenge, but where to start? Well for me, it’s got to be the Ladypool Road for several reasons. Number one my Mum is visiting and has never been there. Number two, we recently bought a print called ‘Ladypool Road’ by local artist Jan Bowman and it’s fresh in our minds. Number three, that’s where they went on that video below. I also want it to be on Andy Munro’s list of authentic Balti’s, and probably one of the 5 star rated one’s here. That narrows it down to four, and I’ve been to Al Frash before. So here’s my choices, where should I go? vote below!


A square meal in the Balti Triangle

April 1, 2010

Thanks to James Gillies for making me aware of this recent video. The Guardian’s Simon Majumdar revisted Birmingham’s Balti Triangle with expert Andy Munro, and took a peek inside the Punjab Paradise kitchen to see how an authentic Balti is made. Click the screengrab below to go to the video.

A good introduction to the Balti I feel, but PAPRIKA?! Who’d have thought…