THE seductive heart of Asha’s Manchester has always been its basement Bolli Bar, where you can can almost imagine yourself rubbing shoulders with Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai or Shahrukh Khan over a fragrantly spiced cocktail. Even these fellow movie luminaries would bow the knee before Asha Bhosle, octogenarian singing legend, who gives her name to the eponymous global restaurant chain.
On a day when Manchester temperatures vied with Mumbai’s (and the upstairs air-con faltered) it was no hardship to be guided by assiduous staff down to the BB. The plan was to sample the new small tasting menu, offered at four for £20; a bargain as it turned out.
As it happens we couldn’t resist a couple of favourites off the main menu, too – everyone was very relaxed about the mix and match.
We recognised and swiftly ordered an irresistible old stager, on the menu since day one in 2015. Venison cocktail samosas are a hybrid creation, somehow redolent of the Raj and minced pies. They gave us five, so we could squabble about the final fried parcel of spicy venison mince, peas, raisins and cashews. The deep green dip had already been wolfed by then; an advantage Asha’s has over its rivals is the quality of its home-made chutneys and pickles. The green apple chutney deserves World Heritage Status. Its event canapes are delicate marvels, also.
The bar menu’s paneer tikka was no stranger either, the mustardy grilled cheese still soft but not crumbling off the skewer; surprise packages, though, included cardamom scented chicken malai skewers and another cheesy dish, tandoori broccoli florets. None of these dishes was powerful enough fight with a couple of large glasses of Argentine Chardonnay at £7 a go.
My large prawns in a creamy coconut curry sauce (£16.95, it seemed a summery kind of main) was quite bland despite our server promising they would add some extra chill heat, but Guinea Fowl Hariyali Tikka (£14.95) had oomph.
The Goosnargh-raised bird had been marinated in ginger, garlic, fresh coriander spices and cheese before its turn on the tandoor. Not subtle but very ample and satisfying. Cheesy maybe, but only because that un-Indian staple features often in the dishes, which are grounded in Asha’s native Maharashtra, the hinterland of Mumbai, alongside ‘Indian classics’ customers expect. Puddings, a blood orange kulfi apart, veer towards Western tastes. I finished with a pretty New York style cheesecake for £6.50.
So Asha’s is not peddling any notion of street food or stern authenticity. That would be absurd, given the £2m refit and deluxe trappings. The prices reflect this. Not terrifyingly. And there is a feeling of value and comfort with superb, discreet service. Perhaps best savoured in that penumbral basement bar.
Bartender, make mine a King of Bollywood – a cocktail of Johnnie Walker Black Label, peaty Laphroaig and lemon, sweetened with caramel and homemade malt syrup – and Queens of Bollywood for Asha and Aishwarya. What’s in that one? You’ll have to get down to the Bolli Bar to find out. Goes well with the venison samosas.
Asha’s, 47 Peter Street, Manchester, M2 3NG. 0161 832 5309.