Despite the evidence of the rather grainy photograph above this blog is not turning into another Winner’s Dinners. The late Michael Winner, the Sunday Times restaurant reviewer, invariably used a picture of himself gurning with head chefs and Maitre Ds, regardless as to whether he was going to give them a roasting in print if they had failed to fawn enough.
This picture of me with Shahbaz Choudry and his head chef, the wonderfully named Anamul Hoque, was taken at their request at the end of my meal at Shahbaz’s Zara’s Indian restaurant in Crookes.
Winner’s pictures were snapped by the long-suffering Geraldine. This was taken by my dinner companion Colin Drury, who followed me onto the Diary page at The Star, Sheffield, and reported so entertainingly from the food front for the paper’s Saturday review spot. Like the Diary (and Michael Winner) it, too, has passed away.
Although we have never worked together (save for a trip to the trenches of World War One) we meet up every now and again for a curry and a chinwag. That’s nice but I suspect the real reason is for Colin to have an excuse to sample once again the sag aloo (spinach and potato curry) to which I first introduced him at Zara’s. He’s just back from reporting in The Gulf.
Our latest meeting coincides, quite by chance, with the restaurant winning The Star’s Indian restaurant of year award, for the second time. Announced the previous day, the story remarked that I had given Zara’s five stars on my last visit.
I won’t pretend we weren’t noticed almost from the start for as soon as I rejected the offer of an island table we got allocated a wall-side one then, before bottoms had touched seats, instantly promoted to a plumply upholstered booth.
You can’t beat the food here, nor the service, pitched just right. I have been addressed with a “here you are love” previously with the arrival of the pickle tray and they smile as if you have just returned from popping out to the corner shop for a paper. In fact, they are so chummy they introduce themselves on the website so you know the waiters are Milad, Yasser and Salim.
Of course, it might be the Winner-effect but it was good of them to let me have a glass of salt lassi (normally only available by the jug). And when Colin found sag aloo wasn’t on the menu (it had dropped off unnoticed after a recent revamp) disaster was averted by promising the kitchen would include it in the vegetable thali (we also had a meat one). Phew! He’d have come all that way from Dubai for nothing.
Outside, Zara’s looks ordinary. Inside it is as seductive as a begum’s boudoir, dimly, deeply, spicily and exotically red, seating 64.
First comes the Mahatma Gandhi of all pickle trays, featuring eight different items, the largest selection in Sheffield: sultry tamarind, grainy coconut, apricot and mango and a fresh-tasting apple with coriander, as well as the usual quartet, partnered with the driest, crispest poppadoms you’ll ever eat.
This should give you a clue that the kitchen has an enchanting way with flavours. I had the Kakra Chop, crabmeat with mashed potato, thinking it would be rather like a potato chop. Instead, it was a soft, aromatic swirl inside a puri, a sphere of crisp, deep-fried dough. I scribbled the word ‘sophisticated’ in my notebook and that about sums it up. Colin had a gutsy, fenugreek and cumin-flavoured Sheek Kebab (both £3.50).
Ever said “Surprise me” when someone offers you a chocolate? That’s what they promise to do here when you order the meat thali (£13.90). You’ll get whatever the chef has handy although you can specify lamb or chicken. When it arrived there was a lamb balti, lamb sag and what sounded like (and I asked them three times) chicken Duncan.
Now I’m not going to take you through every mouthful and every dish but the spicing was glorious, dancing and resonating around the mouth. And that was just the meat. Colin, who had spent the last year dreaming of English country lanes and sag aloo, was quietly content with the latter. There was a dish of steamed vegetables and a sensational pumpkin and lentil dish, Khodu Dal, with wicked chill heat. Both thalis come with rice and nan.
I liked it that both thalis came in metal dishes on metal trays, just as it is in India and Pakistan. I’m a stickler for doing things properly.
If I was writing for The Star today I would again give Zara’s five stars. Mr Hoque is still working his Anamul Magic with a palette of spices.
Zara’s is at 216a Crookes, Sheffield S10 1TH. Tel: 0114 266 0097. Web: http://www.zarasrestaurant.com