Restaurant: Hot spots

Gujerati, Punjabi, Bangladeshi - true curry is never just Indian
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The Independent Culture
It's becoming to easy to say that Indian food is not what it was. Ubiquity has had a gravitational effect-dragging it down into a mire of cook-in sauces and packet mixes which weren't available when it first appeared in selected high streets. In or near London, the richest sources of good Indian food are the Middlesex suburbs of Wembley and Southall, with populations of respectively Gujerati and Punjabi origin, rather than the Bangladeshis who operate the vast majority of curry houses. Southall's population was first established by Sikhs recruited to work in a local factory before and after the War; they were followed by Punjabis from East Africa and Pakistan who set up most of the restaurants. Pat Chapman, founder of the Curry Club, c laims you can't find a duff one among them. On the long, slow route there on a Sunday, we passed churches and temples of various denominations before we reached The Broadway where Mammon rules in haphazardly gaudy glory. Every shop has appropriated the pavement to sell jeans and sweaters, bags of basmati rice, filigree gold jewellery, swathes of sari silk, cassettes and suitcases. But when I walked in to Lahore Karahi & Tandoori the first person I saw was someone I recognised. 'Where do I know you from?' I asked, mindful of my mother's friend who accosted Judith Chalmers in Harrod's with the same question. Holland Park Autos, he said, quick as a spark plug, and I placed him as the man who knows my Nova inside out. To a manic bhangra beat, reverberating off the marble floors, the plastic tabletops, around the golden chandeliers, the Lahore Karahi & Tandoori pulsed with mainly Asian family life. Set up in 1994 by Asif Rahman who is still only 24, this restaurant see ms to be on a roll. Like his other business Gifto Cash & Carry over the road, LK&H piles it high and sells it cheap, yet the quality is evident. In one corner is a paan stall selling betel nuts and leaves and other sweet snacks: there are freshiy-fried puri (puffed wheat br ead) a heap of oranges ready for squeezing; bottles of gloriously synthetic-coloured rose syrup . Once we'd fetched a Cobra beer from over the road, and ordered a salty lassi, we'd made the first of several minor solecisms that identified us as tourists. Everyone else was drinking mango fizz. After poppadoms dipped in mint yogurt, we began with South Indian pani puri - not listed as starters, but as chat-pata, meaning snacks. They were the lightest, hollow bread discs, which you fill chickpeas and dribble with tamarind sauce. Of the specials, takka tak magaz (lamb's brains) were off, though some less sentient organs such as liver, kidney etc (their etc not mine) were still available. We more cautiously ordered a Lahore dish each: nihari, a lamb leg in spicy gravy, and batera curry (quailin a sweet tomato and onion sauce).- the urge to have a Sunday roast, with gravy albeit curried, is hard to resist. In the short time it took for these orders to arrive, we noticed that nobody else had gone the gravy/curry route; kebabs and huge platters of mixed tandoori grills were whizzing from the glass-screened kitchen to tables all round us. Gravy requires accessories, in a way that a plate of grilled meat doesn't, and these were impressive. The pilau rice was basmati and wasn't spattered with the red and yellow dye that often afflicts it'; okra, combined with green pepper and tomato had jus t the right ratio of bite to slipperiness and a chilli and garlic naan had a glazed and golden surface. Pudding was kulfi with faluda, the Indian equivalent of knickerbocker glory-meets-brown-cow:a tall glass of rose syrup, milk and vermicelli with a log of ice cream flooting in it. More garish than moreish. We paid pounds 19 for two, and resisted the temptation to load up at Gifto with sacks of nuts and pulses, green raisins, basmati rice, and drums of ghee. After all we'd eaten, that would have been a challenge for the Nova's suspension. But I trust my me chanic, and now I trust his taste in restaurants too. Lahore Karahi & Tandoori, 162-164 The Broadway, Southall, Middlesex UB2 INN (0181-813 8669) Lunch and dinner daily. Average pounds 10. All major credit cards accepted.

Other authentic Indian restaurants Royal Naim, 417-419 Stratford Road, Sparkhill, Birmingham, Bl1 (0121-766 7849) Sun-Thur noon-1 am, Fri, Sat noon-3am. This is the Pat Chapman of the Curry Club's choice as Birmingham's best. The menu lists more than 100 baltis plus the usual tandoori dishes. The sweets are made there. It's not licensed but you can bring alcohol in. Friends Tandoori, 41-45 Belgrave Road, Leicester (0116-266 8809) Open lunch Mon-Sat, dinner daily. The clientele here is overwhelmingly European, as the local Asian population is mainly Gujerati vegetarians who go to the cheaper meat-free Sharmilee or Bobby's. About pounds 15 a head without drink. Sanam Sweet House, 145-151 Wilmslow Road, Manchester, M14 (0161-224 8824) Open noon-midnight daily. Stands out for its Punjabi cooking and popularity with Asian diners. They come for the sweets,the karahis(around pounds 5) and its alcohol-free policy. Mumtaz Paan House, 390 Great Horton Rd, Bradford, W Yorks (01274 571 861) Open daily 11am-lam, Bradford's best by some way as the queues testify. Strictly no alcohol, serves sensational karahi dishes, all cooked from scratch and scattered with fresh coriander. Order by weight.