Black magic in Brighton

THE BLACK CHAPATI; 12 Circus Parade, New England Road, Brighton BN1 4GW. Tel: 01273 699011. Open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday from 7pm, last orders 10.30pm. Average price per person pounds 20. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
I don't know what it is about Brighton. Generally agreed to be sleazier and more down-at-heel than it was in the great old days of Brighton Rock, when the eminent went there for dirty weekends and race gangs razored each other in the street, it still has some indefinable metropolitan crackle. Sitting in The Black Chapati you could just about be in a poorer part of Paris or New York.

The Black Chapati lies back from the main road in one of the roughest parts of town, at the bottom of a vast modern block of flats with "To Let" signs pasted across the twelfth-storey windows and has, amazingly, built up a reputation far beyond Brighton.

The "Black" element is heavily emphasised. The outside of the restaurant is painted black. Inside the tables and chairs are black, there is a black bar with blackboards chalked with special wine offers, the hanging lamps are black, the overworked waitress is dressed in black slacks and a black sweater, and the proprietor who strolls in from time to time from the kitchen also wears black. As visual relief the walls and part of the ceiling are painted off-white, and there are what look like small watercolours showing various kinds of red fruit. The effect is late-Seventies Bohemian.

This was underscored on the night we went by the clientele, which was what put me in mind of Brighton's surviving larkiness. Almost all the men under the bright circular lamps had shiny bald heads, most were wearing polo-necked sweaters and metal-rimmed spectacles, the women looked interesting and artistic. One couple were out of a Toulouse- Lautrec: a voluptuous brunette fondling the clasped hands of her fat and bearded tweedy companion in a way that seemed to trumpet illicit lust. It is favoured by University of Sussex and my wife thought it was charming.

The overworked waitress could not have been more welcoming and brought us the menus, each one attached to a black clipboard and printed up the side with "The Black Chapati" in bold black letters at 90 degrees to the typed text. The wine list was brief: a house red or white at pounds 9.50 and six others - South African, Spanish, French and Italian - costing up to pounds 15.25. There was also Breton Cider, Dunkerton's Original Cider and Draught, as well as Beck's Budvar and a French bottled beer advertised as Biere de Garde. My wife ordered three-quarters of a litre of the French beer and I had a litre bottle of Dunkerton's.

There were five starters, five main courses and four puddings. The "Chapati" element now became clear; according to the overworked waitress, still managing to smile and charm over armfuls of plates, the restaurant began Indian and branched out. My wife bagged the bhel poori, puffed rice, nuts and coriander tossed in tamarind chutney. I considered steamed mussels, lemon grass and basil with rice noodles, baked-lamb samosas with fresh mint chutney, or potted duck with Chinese spices, but in the end decided on salad of preserved chicken and roasted peanuts.

The bottles of beer and cider arrived, the beer called Biere des Sans Culottes, with a label showing romanticised revolutionaries dancing in red white and blue striped culottes, and the Dunkerton's looking very grave and impressive in a dark-green label. Both were shaped like wine bottles, were of very high quality and a million miles from beer-cans and even conventional pub cider.

The first course was impressive. Under serious analysis, perhaps my wife's puffed rice might have been a bit primitive in its ingredients. It contained pieces of potato and pineapple - she even thought she detected breakfast cereal - but the nuts, coriander and chutney gave it a delicious texture and flavour. My chicken salad was similarly interesting, with delicate noodles and tender shreds of lettuce.

The Black Chapati is a small restaurant, with not more than a dozen tables and the conversation from the other side of the main door got a bit more dominant at that point with a local social philosopher drifting in and holding forth on life, but that could happen anywhere. The bald heads and metal-framed glasses under the round lamps continued to twinkle, the overworked waitress carried and cleared, the black-clad proprietor came and went assuring himself that everyone was happy.

The choice for the main course was between baked haddock Kerala-style with coconut milk; stir-fried pork with lemon grass and chilli and Thai salad; roast rack of lamb with Chinese greens and fried rice; Malaysian braised mutton with cucumber sambal; braised chicken south-Indian-style and Keralan vegetarian thali - three vegetable dishes, dall, rice, roti and chutneys. I had the lamb, and my wife, intrigued by the word "mutton", asked for that. You never, she said, seem to get mutton anywhere nowadays.

She got it, and it was not good. It was what she called "very Indian, very Indian indeed." This was a reference as I understood it to the old- fashioned style of cooking in Indian restaurants, rather than any distinction in Malaysian food. There was a small bowl of dark cubes of toughish meat, heavily disguised in a thick curry sauce, served on a larger plate with a mound of boiled rice and a saucer of sliced but unpeeled cucumber topped with some very hot chutney. My rack of lamb, by contrast was very pure, pink and excellent.

The pudding was good, too. Home-made pecan caramel ice-cream - the alternative was blackberry ice-cream - was fine and crunchy; baked plums, almond polenta cake and creme fraiche was excellent. They don't do cappuccino or herb teas, and they don't take cheques. Steer clear of the mutton and you'll have an agreeable evening. The bill for two, including the 10 per cent service charge, was pounds 53.62. !