I THINK I’ve found the best Indian restaurant in town. Open just three months and still under the radar despite generating a local Didsbury buzz. Best start with what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t hang rapidly cooling giant naan breads from hooks tableside or serve up an extensive roster of familiar oily brown/orange dishes all based on the same proprietary curry paste, varied by the addition of chilli powder or sugar. It has no Bollywood stardust to sprinkle over its shop parade location, nor do its aims for authenticity include spurious claims for street food cred.
So what is it that justifies Indique’s chutzpah (or whatever the subcontinent equivalent is) in yoking together India and Unique in its name? Why, the food, of course, which is exceptional. There are dishes here that would stand the test in those posh, Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in Belgravia and Kensington – Gymkhana, Benares, Tamarind, Amaya, Cinnamon Club and, a personal favourite, Quilon.
There is the same refined spice palette, with precise combinations enhancing the flavour of meat, fish or veg rather then smothering it. Attention to detail is everything and at Indique it starts with the complimentary tray of chutneys and poppadoms sent out by head chef Mamrej Khan.
Circumstances don’t allow the luxury ingredients given to metropolitan Michelin men Atul Kochar or Sriram Aylur, but there’s a wow factor to a dense relish based on in-house roasted tomatoes and the mango chutney puts the regulation gloop with indefinable chunks from a big can to shame. The poppadoms themselves come broken into small swirls as if to play down this very un-Indian pre-prandial nibble.
It was a habit Mamrej developed at a previous billet, the Mint Lounge in Bath, where his cooking won a crazily loyal following and a Michelin mention. To hire him is quite a scoop for Indique’s owner, architect Dinesh Maheshwari. Born in Rajasthan, he came over to study 15 years ago and, to make ends meet, skivvied in kitchens. His love of food more recently translated into supper clubs and the like until he jumped at the chance to take over the former Saffron Lounge, across the Metrolink tracks from the Burton Road main drag.
Saffron Lounge was good (and secure) enough to host David and Sam Cameron, taking time off from last October’s Tory Party Conference. With lots more time on his hands these days ‘Dodgy Dave’ (credit Dennis Skinner MP) would be advised to come back and see the transformation. In the food on offer; physically, a few murals aside, it looks much the same.
To test the ‘uniqueness’ of the menu we asked Dinesh to choose for us. Thanks to his generosity there are bulges to battle but it was worth it for a series of revelations:
1. Lamb chops presented from a smoke-filled cloche is no gimmick; 2. After resisting ordering the Chicken Biryani (yawn) the one that appeared on the table was the best I have ever eaten; 3. It’s worth ordering pudding at an Indian – we just wish we had room for more!
Starters all had clearly defined spice/herb profiles. So the Ajwaini Salmon Tikka (£5.95) from the tandoor offered the earthiness of fenugreek and caraway-like ajwain, tempered by a smooth fresh mint sauce – which also accompanied a slice of halloumi-like Paneer Tikka – while Tawa scallops (a generous trio for £5.95) sang of the fennel and star anise of their marinade.
The tandoor again came into play for juicy Peshwari Lamb Chops (£6.50 as an appetiser/£11.50 as a main). There were understandably overshadowed by some baby lamb chops off the bone that arrived under a dome.
Lifted, this unleashed an explosion of savoury smoke revealing Smoky Lal Maas Pitika (£11.95). This Rajasthani delicacy featuring a spicy tomato sauce and mashed potato was as delightful as it sounds.
A pot-roasted Masala Roast Lamb Shank (£12.95) in a sesame seed sauce, was heavier and more conventional. That couldn’t be said of Lagan Ki Bathak (£10.95), where slices of Barbary Duck Breast had been simmered in a caramelized onion, tomato, yoghurt and cashew nut sauce. I’d have preferred the duck slightly rarer, but it’s a small quibble in this homage to the Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh.
Dinesh tells me his chef has repertoire of 800 dishes ranging across India’s wildly differing regions. As with Chinese, there is no such thing as Indian cooking per se.
Of course, there is a danger, in roaming too freely. Take South India, a world away from Mughal-inspired Awadhi in the north and all that meat. Indique’s take? The fragrant, light Malabar Sea Bass (£10.95, above), pan-fried in mustard seed and curry-leaf infused coconut milk.
Lovely, but the one indispensable dish to try here is the Hyderabadi-style (naturally) Chicken Biryani (£9.95, lamb is a quid more), an aromatic spice garden of a rice dish. Biting into a whole cardamom pod is no hardship.
Puddings were equally surprising. Alongside trad sweets such as gulab jamun, halwa and rasmalai there’s a Swiss Felchlin dark and white chocolate mousse – with a backdrop of cinnamon – that’s gorgeous accompanied by a pistachio kulfi (both £4.95).
So Indique on our visit was impressive. Food of great finesse but nothing that’s going to scare the locals; good pricing and, as you’d expect, plenty for vegetarians. The wine and beer offering is dull, house Pinot Grigio and Merlot £4.95 for a large glass, Cobra £3.75 a pint. Stick to the mango lassi.
It’s a restaurant finding its feet tentatively. A personal project without the megabucks behind, say, city centre glam Asha’s, it focus has to be on the food. With the confidence that comes from success I suspect the menu is going to become even more interesting.
Indique, 110-112 Burton Rd, Manchester M20 1LP. 0161 438 0241.