I’m going to pull back the curtain for a second here, and give you a bit of insight into this whole “reviewing restaurants” lark.
As much as we’d like to picture ourselves going on excursions to the suburbs, eating our way around Brasseries, discovering diamonds in the rough and bringing them to the attention of the masses, that really doesn’t happen all too often.
In fact, the closest I’ve come to achieving that recently is declaring a new takeaway to have the best chicken wings in Leeds; sending out a 4am text to any friends I thought might be interested in the news, and publishing a tweet that I was warned “might ruin any credibility I might have accidentally accumulated”. A return visit revealed that the wings weren’t actually that good. Or perhaps my first, revelatory portion was a beautiful fluke. Not to worry, I didn’t have that much credibility anyway.
No, more often than not we find out about restaurants through Press Releases. Bullet-pointed documents that land in our inboxes to tell us what we need to know about new launches or revamps, in a digestible format. Sometimes we’ll have heard of the restaurant already via word of mouth, but it’s usually our first encounter with new openings, and intentionally or not, it helps us form preconceptions of the restaurant before they’ve even finished grouting those ubiquitous white tiles to their walls, or deciding the precise diameter of their small plates.
When Khana introduced itself as a restaurant that “blows all stereotypes of Indian restaurants right out of the Tandoor with its quirky, stripped back vintage decor, casual all day-dining and cosmopolitan vibe.”, I suspected that the Manchester company (also behind restaurants Rosso and Don Giovanni) might not have done their market research, as Leeds is blessed with its fair share of restaurants that do that already.
It got the point across though: much in the style of Hansas, Theravadu, Prashad, Manjit’s Kitchen and Bundobust, Khana Bombay Cafe is a modern-Indian restaurant – modern Indian eschews all that is familiar about the Westernised version of Indian culture and dining. Golden elephant statues, velour curtains and other such relics from tikka masala & carbonated lager Mahals are a definite no-no; references to Indian culture should be made tastefully, with film posters and vintage adverts.
You’ve seen the intro to that episode of Master of None that cycles through all of the outdated representations of Indian people on TV? That’s what traditional curry houses feel like in comparison, the culinary equivalent of Goodness Gracious Me and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Khana itself succeeds in being comfortable yet minimal; its high ceilings and mezzanine, and use of bare wood furnishings and and rope decorations conjure the image of a 19th century Merchant Navy vessel on course for India (the same ones responsible for the invention of strong, bitter IPA beers, history buffs. The extra hops added to these India Pale Ales helped to preserve them on the long voyages).
The starboard of this ship is a freestanding bar where bartenders mix strong signature cocktails with an emphasis on gin, tea, fruit and spices (created by The Hedonist Project), and to the port side is the open kitchen. On my visit I observed four or five very active chefs working in perfect synchronization while making and serving individual curries and small plates from scratch, or cooking meat and seafood over the charcoal grill.
Stripping away the cream and the tinned tomatoes and the deep-fried pakora, Khana’s brand of Indian cooking focuses on dishes full of freshness and heat and warmth and kick, to make you sit up in your seat rather than slip into a Chicken Coma; less pilau talk, more group chaat.
Small plates are inspired by Indian wallahs (vendors that operate from roadside carts) and are mostly dishes you’ll be familiar with by now; Samosa Chaat features great gnarls of thick, fried samosa pastry and chick peas come lashed with a tangy, spicy dressing, Dahi Bhalla dumplings are livened with yoghurt and tamarind, Pakora Chillis are jalapeno poppers made by people with taste buds, for people with taste buds (although you might not be able to feel them temporarily afterwards).
London’s Dishoom has enjoyed plenty of praise for reinventing the bacon butty in their Bacon Naan Wrap, so you have to imagine this might have been Khana’s aspiration when they decided to put Chilli Cheese Toast on the menu – a supposedly Indian take on another humble British classic, and a total misfire of a dish.
Untoasted bread topped with melted cheese, and chillis cooked to the point of impotence is probably considered a delicacy in some of Headingley’s nearby student accommodations, but it’s desperately out of place here on a menu brimming with good quality naan bread, chillis, spices and paneer that could have been utilised.
That naan bread – hot and elastic and beautifully blistered – meant that our table’s cutlery never got a look-in. It was used to scoop up thick fistfulls of lentils in a very satisfying Tarka Dal, wrap around fat King Prawns, and make Kitchen Porters fear for their job-security as we wiped every last trace of a formidable, but not overpowering, Desi Karahi from the bowl (which my dining partner credits with helping cure her case of the sniffles).
Lamb Chops from the grill could have done with more attitude – at £6.50 for a decent sized pile nobody can complain about their value for money, but I want to taste the different stages of caramelisation that the flames have subjected the marinade to, I’d happily pay another quid if it mean slathering on a few more layers of the stuff.
A syntax misunderstanding on the menu brought one final, unexpected treat. Chikandar Halwa, a traditional beetroot dessert, with vanilla ice cream (rather than “a traditional dessert with beetroot and vanilla ice cream”) came to the table with the most underwhelming appearance – like a slice of red velvet cake had received a rushed autopsy from a drunk pathologist in mittens – after the first mouthful though, I selfishly retracted the table’s “let’s just share desserts” policy. Finely grated beetroot, cooked in clarified butter and spices, it tasted like a cross between treacle tart, and Christmas pudding without the puckering richness.
It was an indulgent ending to a meal notable for the lack of “indulgence” usually associated with going out for an Indian – and one that made it even more surprising when the bill came just shy of £50 (not including drinks or service).
“Modern Indian” is still a relatively new concept, and the fact people are drawing irrelevant and boring comparisons to other restaurants suggests that stereotypes haven’t yet been “blown straight out of the tandoor” after all. True to their word though, Khana Bombay Cafe are giving it their best shot. If this is the new normal for Indian restaurants, then we’re in for a treat.
Photos: Justin Gardner