Mughal E Azam, Stratford Road, B11 4DA. Tel 0121 777 9348. www.mughaleazam.co.uk
Having spent 15 years recovering from a Catholic education, it would take nothing short of a miracle to tempt me into a church on a Friday night.
Happily, somewhere between Sparkhill and Hall Green that miracle dawned. I even managed to cross the threshold without bursting into flames.
Two years ago the Sparkhill United Reform Church, at the corner of Stratford Road and College Road, was completely refitted and re-opened as a restaurant, serving traditional Pakistani/north Indian cuisine.
Housed in a striking building set back from the street, with an imposing red brick facade and tall white columns, the interior of Mughal E Azam is even more impressive.
A serving station runs down the centre of the nave with an eight-pointed star hanging overhead. There are tables to either side with more tucked into cosy annexes in the flanks, and gloriously high ceilings that after a long week, give you the room to breathe.
The entire dining area is overlooked by a quieter mezzanine, which was full of couples when we were there.
With a unifying colour of deep red, there are ornate brass decorations, giant vases, brick arches and marble floors, and while all this would be grand enough, there’s another huge function room at the back.
Whether you find the idea of dining in a church sacrilegious or appreciate the sociable use of an empty building, Mughal E Azam is just one in a growing assembly of church-restaurants including Nottingham’s Pitcher and Piano, Cheltenham’s Zizzi, Bristol’s River Cottage Canteen and Liverpool’s Alma de Cuba.
Sparkhill’s divine diner is focused on Mughlai cuisine, a style developed in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal Empire, and it’s the kind of place where anyone wanting to expand their curry repertoire can stray from the middle of the road and try something new.
Arriving as a group of six on a busy Friday night we were seated to the side of the nave.
A couple of us were tempted by the tandoori sizzler mix platter (£13.95) which sounds like it could comfortably feed three, but divine intervention finally drew me to the maachli tikka (£3.95).
Three large chunks of perfectly cooked salmon, marinated in Lahori spices, delivered the perfect kick-start to the meal.
First you get the full flavour of the fish, and next comes the hot hit as the spices surprise your tongue.
It’s the sort of dish you want everyone else at your table to try at the same time as wishing you could keep it all for yourself.
Surprising then, that a restaurant with this kind of magic up its sleeve can get a samosa so wrong.
The samosa chaat (£2.95) was soft and stodgy, with none of that moreish, crisp, filo pastry crunch.
But there was praise for the paneer tikka and prawn buri.
Ordering our mains we asked for guidance from the waiter who refused, insisting: “We don’t offer opinions – everyone’s taste is different”. (Fair enough, but sometimes in a new restaurant you just want to be sold a dish by someone who’s tried it before.)
But a bit of further probing over the maghaz masala (lamb’s brains simmered in garlic and turmeric with tomatoes, ginger, garlic and chillies, at £7.45) elicited the response that “ALL the chef’s specials are EXCELLENT”, which was enough to inspire confidence.
I got over my fear of offal many moons ago and now find it hard to pass by on a menu, even though chicken ginger, tarkha daal and lamb haleem were all vying for attention.
Served in a small bowl, the maghaz masala looks like a keema curry.
The finely diced brain is creamy and rich but freshened by stacks of thinly-sliced tomatoes and dappled with chunks of chilli that gave the whole dish a dose of zing.
I ate it wrapped in little parcels of tandoori roti (£1), sharing a jug of soothing mango lassi (£7.45).
Around our table the palak gosht (£7.95) also got a good review, but the chicken haandi (£6.45) was our dish of the day with its generous ghee and heat, and bold flavours of coriander and cardomom.
Like most curry houses, Mughal takes the standard route of listing Britain’s favourite desserts, with ice cream, tiramisu, strawberry cheesecake and meringue all making an appearance, but there’s also a good selection of South Asian puddings, like kulfi, gulab jaman and that creamy favourite rasmalai.
We took on the gajar halwa (£3.45), a bowl of grated carrots that tastes like a syrupy carrot marmalade with that unmistakable sweet, milky taste of khoya that sets South Asian puddings apart.
Topped with crushed pistachios and almonds, it comes with a dollop of ice cream on the side that melts into the warm carrot mix.
Honestly, it’s the best £3.45 you’ll spend all week and I haven’t, for even a nanosecond, stopped thinking about it since.
What sets Mughal apart are these little gems hidden in the menu, the decadent decor and the attention given to the service.
There’s someone on hand whenever you need them. From the attendant in the car park to the man on the door and the attentive (but not over-attentive) table service, there’s a feeling that everything is being made easy for you – exactly how a restaurant should be.
The food, decor and service are complemented by a feeling of inclusivity, with a diverse dining crowd in terms of race and age, and a happy mix of couples, groups and families.
It’s a contented congregation and, with generous portions and a bill that came to £120 for six, we waddled out happy and resolving to return.
* Food 7.5/10
* Service 8/10
* Atmosphere 8/10