THE 50 BEST: HOW TO ADD SOME SPICE TO YOUR LIFE

This Friday is St George's Day - but where to eat what some might argue has become our national dish? Pat Chapman, cookery writer, founder of The Curry Club and editor of `The Good Curry Guide', has the answer. So whether you fancy a balti in Birmingham, a chicken tikka in Chelsea or a raita in Rusholme, look no further...

THE GOOD CURRY GUIDE

Pat Chapman chose his favourite restaurants from The Good Curry Guide's "Top 100" list. To be included on this list, a restaurant must have received several detailed, excellent reports from Guide readers, and at least one from one of the Guide's "elite" of 60-odd regular reporters, who make anonymous visits, and whose opinions are occasionally quoted here. To give a sense of how much each restaurant costs, we have quoted, where possible, the average price per head for a three-course meal excluding drinks. Alternatively, on occasion we have also followed the Guide's practice of quoting prices for a papadum and a chicken tikka masala (CTM). The Good Curry Guide is published by Coronet (pounds 6.99).

NB: opening hours, prices etc were correct at time of going to press; however, readers are advised to check details before setting out

NEXT WEEK IN `THE INFORMATION': XTREME! - 50 GREAT ADVENTURES

1

CHUTNEY MARY, SW10

Chutney Mary is packed full of aficionados, mostly regulars, who delight in its real Indian food. On the menu (a brief document) is a trio of Anglo- Indian dishes - kedgeree, country captain and masala roast lamb shank - but it is the Indian regional specialities to go for. Patronage by the Indian community proves that the food is as close to Indian home cooking as you could find in any restaurant. Go for the set meals for good value, or for the food festivals that are staged from time to time.

Where & when: 535 Kings Road, SW10 (0171-351 3113); daily 12.30pm-2.30pm & 7pm-11.30pm (till 10.30pm on Sun). How much: pounds 25-30.

2

JAIPUR, MILTON KEYNES

Few restaurateurs care more about their restaurant and customers than Abdul Ahad of Jaipur. Here, everything from the decor to presentation is first class. Despite an imminent move to grand new premises, the interior has been redecorated in pink (reflecting its namesake city, Jaipur in Rajasthan). Reporters' favourite dishes include gosht garlic masala, twice- marinated trout, lamb with shatkora (Indian lime) and carrot halva.

Where & when: 502 Elder Gate, Central Milton Keynes (01908 669796); daily 12noon-3pm, 6pm-11.30pm (Sun buffet 12noon-5pm). How much: pounds 18.

3

SIGIRI, W13

Sigiri is a gem in the unlikely setting of Northfields, serving delightful, authentic Sri Lankan food. Find the corner site with its smoked glass windows, enter to the understated, elegant decor of slate floor and green walls, and enjoy the sensible service. The food's good, too. Try banana chips, with pol sambol or Maldives fish, followed by squid or pork ("devilled", they say, but the devil is quite a mild chappie at the Sigiri). Leave room for wattalappam, a very sweet Sigiri signature pudding.

Where & when: 161 Northfields Ave, W13 (0181-579 8000); daily 6.30pm-11pm.

How much: pounds 12.

4

ADIL, BIRMINGHAM

Not the first balti house (that was a 1973 cafe called the Paris, long since closed), but certainly the longest-surviving - it opened in 1977. There's been a sparkling enlargement recently, but I'm pleased to see the menu hasn't changed: it still offers 72 different baltis, including their much-copied signature dish: meat "chicken" mince with veg-dall-spi- chana. Prices are also much the same. Not licensed, but there is an off- licence next door.

Where & when: 148-150 Stoney Lane, Sparkbrook, Birmingham (0121-449 0335); Sun-Wed 12noon-12m't, Thur-Sat till 1am.

How much: pounds 7.

5

DIWANA BHEL POORI, NW1

Established in 1971 by Kris Patel, this functional, cafe-style, 100- seat restaurant serves "authentic Gujarati, Bombay and south-Indian food", with an all-vegetarian menu featuring many vegan dishes. The much-copied pioneer of Bombay pavement-kiosk snack food in the UK, Diwana is undoubtedly still the best of its kind, offering a wonderful selection of bhel puri: batata puri, dahi batata puri, chat aloo papri and batata pava. Probably the best value in London; and don't forget to BYO.

Where & when: 121 Drummond St, NW1 (0171-380 0730); daily 12noon-11.30pm.

How much: pounds 8-pounds 9.

6

TAMARIND, W1

Chef Atul Kochhar's individual dishes and home-made chutneys continue to draw praise. Chicken liver masala is a spicy melt-in-the-mouth appetizer, as is shami kebab. The small selection of eight curries is as minimalist as the decor, but this allows the kitchen to create each dish as its own entity and not from a central stock-pot. The result is a delicacy of touch found in the best Indian homes.

Where & when: 20 Queen St, W1 (0171-629 3561); Mon-Fri 12noon-3pm & 6pm- 11.30pm, Sat evening only, Sun till 10.30pm. How much: pounds 26.

7

MAHARAJA, BIRMINGHAM

I recall this restaurant serving biriani topped with edible silver leaf (vark) when it opened in the 1970s. It was the first time I'd seen it used in Britain, though traditionalists in India would not contemplate the dish without it. Since the EU ban on vark, the Maharajah no longer serves it, sadly. The rest of the menu (all Indian) seems ordinary, but the food is outstanding.

Where & when: 23 Hurst St, Birmingham (0121-622 2641); Mon-Sat 12noon-2pm & 6pm-11pm. How much: pounds 12.75.

8

THE INDIA CLUB, WC2

The cheap, cafe-style India Club has been here since 1950, and I swear nothing has changed since it opened, including, I do believe, the barmaid. The flaking plaster, lack of tablecloths and pictures hung askew are all part of the charm, along with the fabulous, uncompromisingly Indian food. South Indian fare is the speciality: rasam (served in a teacup, and hot as hell), sambar, masala dosa and coconut chutney. Don't over- order - portions are generous.

Where & when: 143 The Strand, WC2 (0171-836 0650); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm, 6pm-10pm. How much: pounds 8.

9

SWEET CENTRE, BRADFORD

At the counter you order savouries and sweets by the pound. I know because, way back, I purchased 120 samosas here for a Curry Club function, and the measuring process proved a wee bit complex. Eventually the owners settled for 15p each, and the sams were worth the sum! The sit-down's fun, too, as our reporters confirmed: "Unlicensed all-hours cafe, cutlery on request. Asian clientele. Food cheap", and "Excellent. The service is good and the food very tasty."

Where & when: 110-114 Lumb Lane, Bradford (01274 731735); cafe daily 12noon-1.30am. How much: pounds 6.50.

10

SHARMILEE VEGETARIAN, LEICESTER

A two-part venue: a sweet mart and an upmarket restaurant decorated with marble pillars and high-backed black chairs. Tasty starters of pani puri (crispy puris served with spicy sauce, chickpeas and onion), chanabateta (chickpeas and potatoes in a tamarind sauce) are followed by south-Indian specialities like masala dosa or idli sambhar (flat pulse balls with coconut chutney).

Where & when: 71-73 Belgrave Rd, Leicester (0116-261 0503); Tue-Thur 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-9.30pm, Fri-Sun 12noon-9.30pm.

How much: pounds 15.

11

TABAQ, SW12

Pale walls give a spacious feel, enhanced by richly embroidered tapestries of rural Lahore, and tables with pink cloths. There are only 50 seats, so booking is necessary. Don't expect quick food from head chef Manoor Ahmed: he cooks everything freshly, and a 30-minute wait is not uncommon. The menu is pure Lahori cuisine. Specials include Lahori steam-roast chicken, masala machli Lahori, (robustly spiced white fish), quail masala, and baby chicken tabaq. One devotee reported: "In my top four. Superb lunchtime special; great value. Included best-ever peshwari nan."

Where & when: 47 Balham Hill, SW12 (0181-673 7820); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.45pm & 6pm-11.45pm. How much: papadam 60p, CTM pounds 6.50.

12

GULSHAN, LIVERPOOL

One look at Gulshan is enough to tell you that it is likely to be good. Along its three-shop frontage is a white facia, supported by 12 pillars. Tinted, partially curtained windows reveal an inviting restaurant scene with impressive leather-backed chairs, crisp linen-dressed tables and decent cutlery. There's imaginative use of wine in the cuisine (as in mustard balti chicken, cooked with wine), which gives the largely traditional dishes an unexpected and subtle lift. A caring restaurant, which gives a nuts warning where relevant, and the staff are great with children.

Where & when: 544-546 Aigburth Rd, Liverpool (0151-427 2273); daily 5pm- 11pm.

How much: set meals from pounds 15.95.

13

SREE KRISHNA, SW17

This unpretentious south-Indian restaurant shows exactly how Keralan cuisine should be done - and at totally affordable prices. The slightly tacky decor will transport you straight to Kerala, and the food is heaven- sent. It's a no-frills place: paper tablecloths, methodical but sure service, bizarre toilet location, and plenty of regulars, Indian and non-Indian. Does the best masala dosa in town - accompany it with rasam (pepper soup) and sambar (thin lentil curry).

Where & when: 192-194 Tooting High St, SW17 (0181-672 6903); daily 12noon- 3pm, 6pm-11pm (Fri & Sat till 12m't).

How much: less than pounds 10.

14

NEW TABAK, GREATER MANCHESTER

Now with "New" in its name, Mohammed Nawaz's simply decorated restaurant seats a massive 350 diners, on two floors. Pakistani curries and accompaniments feature on a menu cooked by chefs Gopal Mohan Dangol, Anwar Javaid and Sajid Ali. Balti is very popular with diners, who rave: "Another little gem. Karahi nawabi bataire (quails) and Afghani bashyan (tender, juicy lamb chop marinated in cream, spices and barbecued) are not to be missed."

Where & when: 199-201 Wilmslow Rd, Rusholme, Manchester (0161-257 3890); daily 12pm-1am.

How much: pounds 7; Sun buffet pounds 4.95.

15

KASTOORI, SW17

This African-Asian family-run venue specialises in both Gujarati and Kenyan vegetarian dishes. The former include dahi vadas and kadhi (yoghurt and besan sauce with dumplings), katia wahd (a tomato-based curry), and karela bharah (stuffed bitter gourd). The latter selection features cassava chips, kasodi (sweetcorn in a peanut and yoghurt-based sauce), and matoki (plantain curry). The bhel poori is a snip at pounds 2.10, and this is one of the few places where you can experience bhatura - giant puri bread, which puffs up to balloon-size when deep-fried (it's all the rage in New York's curry houses at the moment).

Where & when: 188 Upper Tooting Rd, SW17 (0181-767 7027); 12.30pm-2pm Wed-Sun, & 6pm-10.30pm daily. How much: pounds 12-pounds 14.

16

BOMBAY BRASSERIE, SW7

Despite being larger than ever (it's new conservatory has virtually doubled capacity), the Bombay Brasserie operates very smoothly, with a highly experienced team. Who else could have survived a chef change and a major rebuild and still be full every night? If you want to sample Indian regional cooking that's as near to authentic as you can get outside of the Indian home, choose specialities such as patrani macchli (fish embalmed in green chutney and baked in a banana leaf), or parsee jardaloo salti boti (lamb cooked with apricot and garnished with potato straws). Expensive, and booking ahead is still essential.

Where & when: Courtfield Close, Courtfield Rd, SW7 (0171-370 4040); daily 12.30pm-3pm, 7.30pm-12m't. How much: pounds 30.

17

AAGRAH, WEST YORKS

One of seven outlets in the very popular family-run chain of Aagrahs. The food is Pakistani, which self-taught cook Mohammed Aslam has insisted that all family members learn, so that the food in all Aagrah restaurants is of equal standard. There is ample choice in the identical menus. Starters include yahknee (spicy chicken soup) and panir pakora (Indian curd-cheese fritter). Aslam's current specials are murgh hydrabady (spring chicken, tangy spices, coriander, yoghurt, tomatoes and ginger), and balti bhindi aloo paneer (curd cheese, bhindi and potato, with onions, ginger, garlic and coriander).

Where & when: Aberford Rd, Garforth, W Yorks (0113-287 6606); daily 6pm- 11.30pm (Fri & Sat from 5.30pm). How much: pounds 14.

18

MA GOA, SW15

Goan food is a cuisine apart, having a Portuguese influence. Try the vindaloo: this one's the real thing, based on the Portuguese dish vinho d'alhos (wine vinegar and garlic). In the Goan version, pork is marinated with the above and plenty of chillies. It is then slow-cooked and served in traditional earthenware handis. The other Goan delights are too numerous to list. But please be patient. This is not your wham-bam, multi-dish, rapid-fire curry house. Relax with a chilled Portuguese vinho verde while you wait for your order.

Where & when: 244 Upper Richmond Rd, Putney, SW15 (0181-780 1767); Tue- Sat 6.30pm-11pm, Sun 12.30pm-2.30pm only.

How much: pounds 16.

19

THORNBURY HALL RASOI, STAFFORDSHIRE

This unusual restaurant in a renovated Grade II-listed building has three dining rooms: one leading from the bar; one (the Shalimar room, named after gardens in Pakistan) opening onto the gardens; and one richly decorated with a Georgian plaster ceiling and swagged curtains. Pakistani delicacies are on the menu. "Kumbi pullao arasta rice cooked with mushrooms was out of this world," says one reporter. "Karahi mogulai - pieces of lamb cooked with cream, egg, ground nuts, garnished with almonds - was superb. Karahi murgh jalfrezi was the best my husband has ever tasted."

Where & when: Lockwood Road, Kingsley Holt, Staffs (01538 750831); daily 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-11pm (Fri & Sat till 11.30pm). How much: pounds 17-20.

20

RANI, N3

It's the vegetarian menu, with its mainly Gujarati specials (cooked by the wife and mother of owner Jyoti Pattni, above), that makes Rani different. One reporter comments: "The food has always been superb here, but I found that the relatively small menu became rather monotonous, so I welcomed the new menu. It has some cold starters which are `to die for'. Rashia vall, great. Rice and breads as good as usual."

Where & when: 3 Long Lane, N3 (0181-349 2636) Mon-Sat 6pm-10.30pm, Sun 12noon-10.30pm.

How much: pounds 12-15.

21

LA PORTE DES INDES, W1

It cost pounds 2.5m to convert an enormous Mayfair ballroom into this extraordinary restaurant. The interior features a sandstone arch, a 40ft waterfall, a sweeping marble staircase with pink-sandstone balustrades (imported from India's pink city, Jaipur), and airy, domed skylights. La Porte purports to present cuisine from "French India" (though, according to Indians who live in the main ex-French area, Pondicherry, there is no such thing as Pondicherry cuisine) alongside classic dishes from all over India. The French connection may be tenuous, but the ambience, decor, service and food are all as good as it gets.

Where & when: 32 Bryanston St, W1 (0171-224 0055); Mon-Fri 12noon-2.30pm & 7-11.30pm, Sat 7pm-11.30pm, Sun 6pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 30-40.

22

THE LAST DAYS OF THE RAJ, GATESHEAD

Here you'll find stylish decor - pure 1930s Art Deco, complete with grand piano - combined with one of the biggest and most comprehensive menus in the country. Regular "formula" curries sit alongside regional and authentic dishes, including recipes from the British Raj, such as country captain, (a dry dish cooked with chicken breast, onion, ghee, chillies, ginger garlic, turmeric and salt) and Raj lamb and cabbage. These join a few oriental dishes, such as dim sum or king prawn rolls.

Where & when: 168 Kells Lane, Low Fell, Gateshead (0191-482 6494); Mon- Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-11.30pm, Sun evening only.

How much: pounds 20.

23

ANNE-MARIE AT THE TASTE OF THE RAJ, NW10

Relax in the cosy red decor, admire the many tiger pictures on the walls, then avail yourself of the personalised service and advice that Anne-Marie (above) has been delighting her regulars with for over 30 years. The memsahib's personal touches turn an ordinary looking menu into stimulating cuisine. "Fabulous fresh chicken dopiaza cooked original-style with crispy fried onion, a mean dhansak, and succulent tandoori dishes served with fluffy nans - basically curries with attitude!" enthuses one reporter.

Where & when: 4 Norbreck Parade, off Hanger Lane, Ealing, NW10 (0181- 991 5366); Mon-Thur 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-11.30pm, Fri 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm- 12m't, Sat & Sun evenings only. How much: pounds 10.

24

EASTERN EYE, STAFFS

The decorative theme is Agra's Red Fort -- probably India's best example of a Moghul residence. The food is formula, done well. Specials include murgh with apricot (marinated chicken with apricot yoghurt sauce, cream and fresh coriander) and Rajasthani paro breast (pigeon). "Remains my favourite," says one reporter. "Our party of eight was extremely impressed with a banquet of whole marinated leg of lamb, a huge steamed fish and eight other main dishes. The wine list still consists of an armful of bottles placed on your table to take your pick from - a tradition I hope will remain."

Where & when: 19b Bird St, Lichfield, Staffs (01543 254399); 12noon-2.30pm (Sat only), daily 5pm-12m't. How much: papadam 40p, CTM pounds 6.95.

25

CHETNA'S BHEL POORI, MIDDX

A vegetarian restaurant with vegan dishes. "You often have to queue here. We waited on the pavement until they called out our number, but it is well worth it," notes a reporter. "They do deluxe masal dosas, and a great vegetarian thali main course. Their bhel puri (above) is gorgeous, with its crispy, crunchy textures, and its tart, hot and savoury tastes, and there is a variant called alloo papdi chaat." The menu features Indian pizzas alongside curries from south India, reflecting a current craze that extends beyond Wembley Asians to Delhi and Bombay!

Where & when: 420 High Road, Wembley, Middlesex (0181-903 5989); Tue- Fri 12noon-3pm & 6-10.30pm, Sat & Sun 1pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 6.

26

SALLOOS, SW1

Probably the most expensive Pakistani restaurant in the UK, if not the world, and with a menu that features meat, meat and more meat. There is a comprehensive tandoori section providing succulent, natural-coloured, divinely flavoured offerings. The chicken shashlik is superb; lamb chops and shami kebabs are both lean and melt-in-the-mouth; and the chicken jalfrezi is fresh and poignant. Despite the expense, this institution merits at least one visit, though booking is essential.

Where & when: 62-64 Kinnerton St, Knightsbridge, SW1 (0171-235 4444/6845): Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 7pm-11.45pm.

How much: pounds 30.

27

GURKHA KITCHEN, SURREY

A very elegant restaurant with floorboards, beautiful hand-forged black steel chairs, white-linen tablecloths and large, fragile wine glasses. The food is first-class Nepalese; though more evolved and modern than earthy village cuisine. Specialities include vegetable khaja (vegetable filo rolls with mint and mustard dressing), bhutuwa (stir-fried chicken liver cooked with traditional Nepalese spices), pokhareli lamb (rich spiced lamb), and hariyo macha (steamed fish wrapped in spinach prepared in a mild, dry, fruit sauce).

Where & when: 111 Station Rd, Oxted, Surrey (01883 722621); Mon-Thur 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-11pm, Fri & Sat till 11.30pm, Sun 1pm-10pm.

How much: pounds 12.

28

BENGAL LANCER, NW5

This brasserie pioneered a wave of Raj reminiscence-theme restaurants when it opened 10 years ago, and has maintained consistently high standards. "Always a pleasure to visit," notes one devotee. "The service is efficient but not obtrusive, and the quality of food very high." "A genuine classy restaurant with an excellent menu range," comments another. "Liver hazra (liver cooked and tossed in spices) was rich and almost a meal in itself. Tiger wings are chicken drumsticks tandoori-style. Food is up among the best for quality, at value-for-money prices."

Where & when: 253 Kentish Town Rd, NW5 (0171-485 6688); Mon-Fri 12noon- 3pm & 6pm-m't, Sat & Sun evenings only.

How much: pounds 12.

29

SHARJU, LANCS

Now owned by Mithu Dhar, this ex-church was converted to its current use in 1984. Reached by an imposing staircase, the plum seats are on the balcony, which overlooks downstairs diners. "It has bags of atmosphere, with its oak beams and strategically placed Indian artefacts. We often go on Thursday evenings for the pounds 12.95 per person Candlelight Dinner," says one reporter. Others rave about chef Faruk Ah's signature dishes - chicken shagorika (tikka pieces twice-cooked in a spicy sauce with peas) and lashuni chicken flambe (a tandooried fillet of chicken breast in a creamy garlicky sauce flambeed in brandy at your table).

Where & when: Church Street, Adlington, Lancashire (01257 481894); daily 12-2pm, 6-11pm.

How much: from pounds 9.25.

30

SHREE GANESHA VEGETARIAN, MIDDX

This superb vegetarian restaurant was opened in 1990 by Pamchandra Tiwari, whose wife, Hemantika, supervises the kitchen staff to ensure first-class cooking. Bombay street food, such as bhel poori with tamarind chutney, features on the menu along with south Indian delights. Try the delicious masala dosa (wafer-thin pancake wrapped around potato curry made from lightly spiced curry leaves, sauteed onions, mustard seeds and turmeric) served with home-made coconut chutney. Unusual and tasty curries such as pumpkin are also a delight.

Where & when: 4 The Promenade, Edgwarebury Lane, Edgware; daily 6pm-10.30pm. Open for Sunday lunch. x

31

TANDOORI OF CHELSEA, SW3

This elegant, 70-seat basement restaurant quietly goes about its business without fanfare or hype. It is, and always has been since it opened in 1965, a leader in style, from its carefully selected small number of dishes, to its decor and exemplary wine list. The food is subtly spiced, but chefs will step up both spice levels and chilli heat if required. Tandoori lamb chops are a house speciality. "Every dish we had was marvellous, service was good, and prices fair for the quality and area," comments one reporter. "We were very impressed."

Where & when: 153 Fulham Rd, SW3 (0171-589 7617); Mon-Sat 12.30pm-2.30pm & 6.30pm-12m't; Sun 6.30pm-11.30pm.

How much: pounds 20.

32

RAJDOOT, BIRMINGHAM

This 84-seat branch of Rajdoot - the others are in Bristol (see No 37), Dublin, Manchester and Fuengirola, Spain - was opened in 1972. Like all the Rajdoots, it is tastefully and authentically decorated. Chefs here are Nepalese, and their cooking is as delicate as any you'll find. "Absolutely superb, we find this establishment to be extremely reliable," enthuses a reporter. "Fish tikka starter exquisite as usual. Lamb punjabi masala was a good choice: meat extremely well-spiced, served in a dark onion- and-tomato gravy finished with balsamic vinegar and red wine."

Where & when: 12 Albert St, Birmingham (0121-643 8749); Mon-Sat 12noon- 2.30pm & 6.30-11.30pm, Sun evening only. How much: pounds 13-15.50.

33

GREAT NEPALESE, NW1

Established in 1982, this small 48-seater is the best of London's few Nepalese restaurants - it actually has a Nepalese chef and owner, and, more particularly, a decent number of Nepalese specialities, including masco bara (black-lentil pancakes with curry sauce), dumba (mutton), pork bhutwa (the Nepalese have no proscriptions on either pork or alcohol) and hach ko (duck) curries. There is also a range of 11 Nepalese vegetable dishes, plus all the standard curries and tandooris - though why you'd go for these here is beyond me. Always book, especially in the summer.

Where & when: 48 Eversholt St, Euston, NW1 (0171-388 6737); daily 12noon- 2.30pm & 6pm-11.30pm.

How much: pounds 14.

34

ROYAL NAIM, BIRMINGHAM

The Nazir brothers make balti into an art form. Their restaurant is huge - 175 seats on two floors, yet does not feel oversized. It's open all hours, is BYO, and is very reasonably priced: fill up for pounds 5 or blow out for pounds 10. Big portions of great food are served in voluminous, sizzling bowls on glass-topped tables. Try the marvellously tasty balti chicken with fresh fenugreek or mint. The Naim used to have one weakness: precooked starters. But its pakora has now been sent packing for a freshly prepared version that could batter any opposition. Where & when: 417-419 Stratford Rd, Sparkhill, Birmingham (0121-766 7849); daily 12noon-1am. How much: pounds 6-7.

35

WOODLANDS, SW1

This long-established (1985), licensed, vegetarian restaurant, just off Haymarket, is the tiniest of three Woodlands. Run-of-the-mill decor, rocky tables and "nasty music" are compensated for by food praised as "orgasmic" by one reporter. "I adore southern Indian food, and find the menu so appealing it makes choice difficult. The set thali (pounds 6.50) was exceptionally good value, and the paper dosa, upma, lhassi and channa are as good as ever. Also glad to have a choice of Indian desserts. Good value."

Where & when: 37 Panton St, SW1 (0171-839 7258); Sun-Wed 12noon-2.45pm & 5.30pm-11pm, Thur, Fri & Sat till m't. How much: pounds 9-10.

36

VEERASWAMY, W1

When Namita Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani of Chutney Mary (see No 1) bought Britain's oldest Indian restaurant (founded 1926), its reputation had been at rock-bottom for a decade. Now redecorated and relaunched, with floors of polished hardwood, modern lighting and walls painted in vibrant, glowing earth colours, this is, says one reporter, a "wonderful, talented and stunningly modern transformation". Starters include oysters and mussels. Roghan josh - lamb shanks slow-cooked in an intense broth for 5 to 6 hours till the meat is falling off the bone - is the most popular dish.

Where & when: 99-101 Regent St, W1 (0171-734 1401); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 5.30-11.30pm, Sun 12noon-3pm & 6pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 23.

37

RAJDOOT, BRISTOL

Established in 1970 by Indian architect Des Sarda, who owns and established the whole chain (see also No 32). As most "Indian" restaurants are Bangladeshi- run, Rajdoot's food may come as a surprise to some: it is much truer to the authentic food you'll find in homes in northern India. It is this very fact that leads to the disappointment expressed to us by some first- time visitors to Rajdoot, who find the food doesn't match their expectations. I have to say that I find it excellent on all counts.

Where & when: 83 Park St, Bristol (0117-926 8033); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 6.30pm-11.30pm, Sun evening only.

How much: CTM pounds 7.20, pullao rice pounds 1.80.

38

LAHORE KEBAB HOUSE, E1

Despite Birmingham's claim to be the inventor of the balti, this gaff has been doing it under what some say is its true name, "karahi", since it opened over 20 years ago. Cutlery is for wimps: eat the correct way, please, using a piece of roti to scoop up your curry. Halal mutton, chicken and quail are the dish of the day, whether in the karahi, from the tandoor, or as a steam roast (choosa). Real veterans show their spurs by enjoying the celebrated paya (lamb's trotters) laced with hot chilli raita. Don't expect pampering.

Where & when: 2 Umberton St, E1 (0171-481 9737); daily 12noon-12m't.

How much: pounds 8 (cash only).

39

ROYAL BENGAL, SUFFOLK

The venue is spotlessly, the welcome warm, and the service efficient and friendly - customer-care is uppermost here. There is nothing over-remarkable about the items on the attractive menu, but everything is well cooked and above average. A curryhouse should be as the pub is in the local area. It should be a place where locals can be comfortable, unwind, enjoy and not feel overcharged. This restaurant is all of these things.

Where & when: 6 Quay Street, Woodbridge, Suffolk (01394 387983); daily 12noon-2pm & 6pm-11pm. How much: papadam 45p, CTM pounds 6.95.

40

STAR OF INDIA, SW5

The redecorated Star, now some years old, still has everyone talking about the murals, stars, lighting, flora and, above all, the prices. And co-owner Reza Mahammad is one of their loudest exponents. "Such luxury doesn't come cheap," he says. "What do you expect for the Sistine Chapel directed by Zeffirelli?" Who's to argue - his 94-seater is always packed with tourists and regular fans. Specials include patrani maachli (pomfret with coriander wrapped in banana leaf) and the smoky-tasting baigan-e- bahar (aubergine stuffed with paneer, spiced with curry leaf, mustard and sesame).

Where & when: 154 Old Brompton Rd, SW5 (0171-373 2901); daily 12noon- 2.45pm & 6pm-11.45pm (Sun 7pm-11.15pm). How much: pounds 25.

41

SANGAM, GREATER MANCHESTER

Mohammad Salim's establishment in the heart of Rusholme, Manchester's main Indian area, is so vast it has to employ two managers - Faisal and Tanveer. The 340 seats are spread amoung four dining rooms on two floors, decorated in pink and blue. Bangladeshi and Pakistani formula curries are on the menu, cooked by head chef Shahid. "Up-market, bright and clean," notes a reporter. "Lamb chop tikka, one of the best and most filling starters I have had. Will visit again."

Where & when: 9-19 Wilmslow Rd, Rusholme, Manchester (0161-257 3922); daily 12noon-12m't.

How much: pounds 10.

42

SAAGAR, NOTTINGHAM

Saagar excels at what it does, a smart restaurant with 98 seats split between two floors, with food cooked to perfection. Reporters are enthusiastic: "Everything it is cracked up to be. Vegetarian thali for two is not just a tray but a seemingly endless train of small bowls." Another remarks: "Chicken kaallan was very sweet yet very sour too; tender pieces cooked in a south- Indian style with mango, coconut and yoghurt." Little things like fresh flowers, proper lemon squeezers and spotless toilets are greatly appreciated by Saagar's diners, and give it the edge over competitors.

Where & when: 473 Mansfield Rd, Sherwood, Nottingham (0115 962 2014); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.15pm & 5.30pm-12.30am. How much: pounds 9.50.

43

SARKHEL'S, SW18

Sarkhel's is tiny, smart and simple, with white walls, terracotta-tiled floor, and wooden chairs at intimate tables draped in white linen. A good menu, with all the Indian favourites, is complemented by a daily specials board. The chef's piece de resistance is Hyderabadi lamb biriani garnished with an onion tarka, served in a beaten copper handi whose matching lid is sealed traditionally with dough. This comes with a tandoor-cooked laccha paratha that's light and buttery. Bombay Brasserie food at south London prices, earning this accolade from one reporter: "Wonderful service. Very good food."

Where & when: 199 Replingham Rd, SW18 (0181-870 1483); Mon-Thur 6pm-10.30pm, Fri & Sat till 11pm, Sun 12noon-2.30pm only. How much: pounds 15.

44

TAGORE, KENT

Decorated with swathes of silk on the ceiling and pleated saris on the walls, Tagore boasts Bombay-trained chef Rajendra Balmiki, who cooks northern- Indian curries and specials from the Pathan tribal people of Afghanistan. Afghan food involves kebab-skewer cooking and slow-cooking in pots, which translates here into a select menu: kebab ke karishma, a selection of kebabs, is popular; patrani mahi, pomfret coated in herbal chutney, leaf- wrapped and baked, is a rarity to be savoured. "On all occasions I have found their food to be a world apart from the traditional curry houses," notes one diner. "Excellent value." Where & when: 3 High St, Welling, Kent (0181-304 0433); daily 6.30pm-11pm. How much: pounds 18.

45

MADHU'S BRILLIANT, SOUTHALL

Seats 104 on two floors. The Good Curry Guide was the first to recognize this restaurant back in 1984 when its clientele was mostly Asian. Today, and dozens of awards later, there are as many non-Asians as Asians enjoying the food and ambience here. The food is typical Punjabi and far removed from the Bangladeshi curry-house formula. The signature dishes, butter methis and jeera chicken, are an absolute must, while house specials such as mniahma chommah (spring lamb ribs seasoned, marinated and cooked in tandoor) are highly recommended.

Where & when: 39 South Rd, Southall, Middx (0181-574 1897); Mon & Wed- Fri 12.30pm-3pm & 6pm-11.30pm, Sat & Sun evenings only. How much: pounds 12.

46

CAFE BLUE COBRA, BERKSHIRE

Here's a place with a real difference. The venue opens at noon and operates, cafe-style, until midnight. Lunch a la carte is served until 2.30pm; then the snacks menu operates in the adjoining bar until 6pm. From 6pm the full menu comes into play, and an interesting document it is. Naturally, there is a wide range of Bangladeshi and Bengali dishes, but there are so many other dishes and ingredients that it takes several visits to explore. And that's only half the story: the other half of the menu features Thai food, cooked by a Thai chef.

Where & when: 20 High St, Theale, Berks (0118-930 4040), daily 12noon-12m't.

How much: pounds 30

47

BRILLIANT, SOUTHALL

Always full to bursting, Brilliant is especially popular with Asian families. The restaurant has many large tables laid out banquet style, with white-linen cloths and paper napkins; chandeliers and padded velvet chairs add the finishing touch. On busy nights you may be seated next to strangers, but conversation soon flows, as does the Punjabi cuisine, which is spicy though not necessarily hot. "Carrot and mint home-made pickles are on the table, and masala papadams, either fried or roasted, are served while you peruse the not-overly-large menu," notes a diner.

Where & when: 72-76 Western Rd, Southall, Middx (0181-574 1928); Tue- Thur 12noon-3pm & 6pm-11.30pm, Fri-Sun 6pm-12m't. How much: pounds 15.

48

TAMASHA, KENT

Tamasha means "something worth seeing". And this is! You enter past a smartly saluting geezer, via an awning flanked by tub plants. The dining room, in two parts, is superbly decorated like a British Raj club. The food is from north and south India, Goa and Kashmir, and curry-house formula it certainly is not. Chicken nilgiri tikka (boneless chicken marinated in spices, fresh coriander and mint) and sev pappri (gram flour threads, chick peas and potatoes with coriander leaves, mint and a tart tamarind sauce on a bed of crispy puri) are both treasures.

Where & when: 131 Widmore Rd, Bromley, Kent (0181-460 3240); daily 12noon- 2.30pm & 6pm-11.30pm. How much: pounds 19 a la carte.

49

MAHANN, E SUSSEX

Owner Abdul Monnan is a qualified chef, and though he is to be found out front these days, he's very much respected in his kitchen. One diner finds Monnan and his energetic manager, Abdul Kadir, "most polite and friendly, greeting regular customers like old friends. An outstanding feature is the generosity of the portions, piping hot and very nicely presented." Specials include chicken or lamb rezala, slightly hot and sweet, in a tangy sauce; and beef jagannath - well-spiced fillets with capsicum, green chillies and coriander. A formula-curry house doing the job as well as it can be done. Where & when: 177/181 Montague St, Worthing, E Sussex (01903 205449): daily 12noon-2.30pm & 5.30pm-11.30pm. How much: pounds 15.

50

AZIZ, OXFORD

Smart and sophisticated, this restaurant is regarded as one of Oxford's best. The owner, Aziz Rahman, is a keen promoter of Bangladeshi cuisine, and his restaurant does the Bangladeshi curry-house formula in style. "Excellent quality, charming service; a very comfortable and relaxing atmosphere," says one diner. Another notes: "Decoration immediately impressed. Tables are simply but elegantly set with crisp white linen. Good vegetarian selection on menu. Generous quantities and delicately flavoured. Emphasis on subtlety. A splendid meal." Where & when: 230 Cowley Rd, Oxford (01865 794945); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.15pm & 6pm-11.30pm; Sun 12noon-11.30pm. How much: pounds 12.

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