Indian restaurants turning away drunks and vindaloo in favour of fine dining

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The food is too spicy and the diners only turn up when the pubs have closed at many of the Indian restaurants on Rusholme's "curry mile", which serves 10,000 people a week and has been at the heart of Manchester's dining scene for more than 50 years.

So the decision of an establishment in the south of the city to take no bookings after 10.30pm and send the chef out to explain why he won't serve food which is too hot to taste represents a significant cultural shift.

The Saffron Lounge, in the well-heeled village of Hale, has based its investment on evidence from London that Britain is ready to taste real Indian cuisine - not the kind accompanied by dubious background music and fading wallpaper.

Some Indian restaurateurs have started to feel concerned about their down-market image and their continued absence from the Michelin Guide.

The result has been restaurants like Tamarind, in Mayfair, and Zaika, in Kensington, which set about re-educating Britain about Indian food, and duly became the first sub-continental restaurants to earn Michelin stars.

The Saffron Lounge will test whether diners outside of the capital are also ready for "Indian fine-dining", as the concept is being called.

At its helm is Neeraj Pathak, a third generation member of the Lancashire-based Pathak dynasty, which has made its fortune tapping into the very British obsession with tikka masala, and is now working to introduce consumers to more exotic flavours. Pathak concedes he will still be adapting Indian food to British traditions. For example, it is all served on plates, continental style, rather than arriving on trays which are placed in the middle of the table, as food does in India.

"We also need to understand the difference between the Indian palate, in India, and the palate here," he said. His pandering to the local clientele even stretches to a desert menu that includes "soft-centred warm chocolate pudding".

But he has followed the London script by hiring a chef who was born and trained in India by the Taj and Oberoi hotel groups. Rajesh Variyath, 32, who worked at the Bombay Oberoi for eight years, brings with him the dishes of his native Kerala, in coastal southern India - so diners are as likely to see lobster kurumelagu and meen pollichatu (a seabass dish) on the menu as masala and jalfrezi. "It's an education process, to tell people what Indian food is all about," said Mr Variyath. "It's spicy but not hot - and that's an important distinction. Once you go to the heat level that people associate with vindaloo, you cannot taste anything."

An easing of visa restrictions has helped an elite corps of young chefs come to Britain, provided they are sponsored by an employer. Ahead of Mr Variyath came Atul Kochhar, another Oberoi trainee, who was head chef at the Tamarind and left to set up his own restaurant, Benares, which opened in Mayfair last year.

Vineet Bhatia also came from the Oberoi to help establish London's Cinnamon Club - the restaurant whose name Pathak seems to draw on, which is beloved of MPs and union leaders.

The reviews the new establishments have earned are having an effect on retail products, too. Kamal Basran, co-founder of The Authentic Food Company, which markets a broad range of ethnic foods, says most British restaurants have focused on recipes from northern India, and 70 per cent of chefs have been Bangladeshis.

"There has been a swing from the jalfrezis and madras to the xacutis and piri piris, as well as greater interest in Indian vegetarian dishes," he said, listing dachao from Goa, meen molly from Kerala and a Hyderabad biryani.

In the name of Indian cuisine, Rajesh Variyath is to be found working the tables most nights after he has served up. "That's spiced with black pepper. It's not going to burn you," he said, after spotting a diner peering at his lobster.

FIVE OF THE BEST

Tamarind, Queen St, London W1

One of two subcontinental restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star in 2001 and winner of Indian Restaurant of The Year (again) this year

Zaika, Kensington High St, London W8

Another Michelin star winner, its popularity springs from the talents of Vineet Bhatia's innovative approach to modern Indian cuisine

Chutney Mary, 535 King's Road, London SW10

Best Indian Restaurant at this year's Carlton Restaurant Awards and twice named Best Indian Restaurant by the Good Curry Guide

Dil Se, Dundee

The 150-seat Dil Se claims to be Scotland's largest Bangladeshi restaurant. Named the best curry restaurant in Scotland in the 2004 Cobra Good Curry Guide Awards

Café Lazeez, Birmingham

Aims to serve the best traditional Indian cuisine in a modern context with an emphasis on tandoor cooking

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