In the beginning was the Balti Belt but now Birmingham is fast developing a new culinary quarter. Anyone for dinner in the Delhi District?
A new generation of upmarket Indian restaurants has become established in the city’s business core, based around Colmore Row, offering an upmarket alternative to cut-priced bhuna baltis.
Their menus promise dining sophistication and the interiors speak of a designer lifestyle rather than a stripped back student chic.
However, the trend has prompted one leading restaurateur to warn aspiring chefs they need to ensure they have the skills to compete at this level and steer clear of “vanity projects” serving “bastardised Indian food.”
The latest opening is Saffron, the third in a small group of restaurants with ambitions to make a mark in Birmingham’s quality dining sector.
Situated in Colmore Row, in the former Caffè Uno site by Victoria Square, Saffron is a two-minute stroll from Asha’s, which has made huge strides in the past 18 months.
The area is also home to the multi award-winning Lasan in St Paul’s Square and Itihaas in Fleet Street, which has built up a reputation for upmarket Indian dining. City stalwart Rajdoot is not a million miles away, in George Street.
The concentration of restaurants, using authentic Indian cooking techniques, spices and eye-catching presentation is in stark contrast to the bargain balti houses of Sparkhill and Sparkbrook, where Pakistani-inspired food, developed by immigrant communities during the 1970s, rules the roost.
An average two-course meal in the Balti Belt, which nudges into Moseley, might be £10-£15. In the Delhi District, the cost per head is £20-£40 and upwards.
Although the price difference is partly explained by the provision of alcohol (for cultural reasons, balti restaurant often operate a bring-your-own policy) it also reflects the style of cuisine, the quality of produce and comfort levels.
Saffron, which has restaurants in Oldbury and Worcester, has had a Birmingham city centre location in its sights for some time and hopes to woo customers with head chef Sudha Shankar Saha’s modern twist on Indian cooking, which incorporates influences from China, Malaysia and Thailand.
Menus might include meats such as Scottish beef and venison, Welsh lamb and rabbit and seafoods like scallops and lobster.
The 60-cover restaurant, which opened without fanfare at the end of November, has pledged to change its menu every quarter in order to highlight the best of seasonal ingredients.
Saffron managing director Aklasul Momin said: “We already have two successful neighbourhood restaurants in Worcester and Oldbury and felt that the time is right to expand to the heart of Birmingham with our style of Indian fine dining.
“We’ll be in great company with Asha’s and Lasan close by, especially as there is a growing appetite for exceptionally high quality Indian cuisine by local businesses and visitors to the city.”
Mr Momin said Saffron’s food used modern Western-style presentation and insisted it was not “just another curry house.”
Chef-patron Sudha Saha said: “My aim is to create a journey of taste and texture, by fusing seasonal produce with global influences to give diners the most sensational food they have ever tasted.”
Jabbar Khan, group director of Lasan, said the wave of “fine dining” Indian restaurants opening in Birmingham had been sparked by saturation of a mid-market sector serving poor quality food “little better than basic chilled food from supermarkets.”
Mr Khan said: “Instead of improving the quality of honest, authentic dishes to appeal more strongly to mid-market customers, some dreamers who have failed here are now looking for a fine-dining solution to their problems. This is often a vanity exercise and, sadly, many of these are not up to the task.
“Their food suggests that they often have bad palates and poor ingredients knowledge, that they rarely eat out to test their performance against the wider market, and that they haven’t even been to India to inspire their cooking.”
Lasan’s chef-director Aktar Islam has previously criticised bog-standard Indian restaurants for serving formulaic, poorly prepared curry and Mr Khan accused Lasan’s imitators of having inadequate education or practical experience to run a high-end restaurant.
He said: “There is no demand for bastardised Indian food with the desperate addition of ingredients that offend the taste buds and fail to contribute to an authentic eating experience.
"Our experience at Lasan has been based on a real passion for food, an in-depth understanding of ingredients and authentic Indian cuisine, and great cooking skills.
"There is no substitute for this if fine dining restaurants are to succeed.”