Rating: **** Walsall isn’t known as a fine dining hotspot, but that could all be about to change if a visit to Five Rivers is anything to go by, writes Elizabeth Joyc.
Let’s be honest, the backstreets of Walsall are not the prettiest of places.
It’s a town we’ve all got a soft spot for but picturesque it ain’t, think boarded-up shops, a few sad-looking car parks and a whole lot of grey.
In fact it’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an uber-sleek restaurant, all curved walls, exposed brick and subdued lighting.
And yet there, opposite the biker bar and derelict office in Vicarage Place, is the streamlined sophistication of Five Rivers À La Carte.
The restaurant is the result of a £1.1 million transformation of a former leather warehouse and as soon as you glide through its heavy iron gates and up to its floodlit entrance, music playing all the time, you can see that it was money well spent.
We were greeted by an impeccably turned out host and ushered into the stylish lounge area, where a gin and tonic and Peroni were swiftly ordered. They came from the amazing library bar, where the finest champagnes, wines and spirits stretch to the ceiling and are retrieved by ladder. It’s a pretty impressive focal point and had me considering the practicalities of having one installed in my tiny two-bedroom flat.
As we enjoyed our drinks and complimentary nibbles (always a nice touch), we perused the menu.
There was just the right amount of choice, enough to be varied and exciting but not so much that you’re overwhelmed and left staring at the menu perplexed for 15 minutes.
I was tempted by the chilli paneer, a mix of diced cottage cheese, piaz mixed peppers and green chillies in a dark soya sauce, but in the end opted for the tandoori jingha, jumbo prawns marinated in special spices and cooked over the charcoal flames. He went for the murgh tikka, tender pieces of chicken in classic spices.
Orders made, the host took us to our table on the ground floor of the split-level dining room, a sweeping glass staircase separating the two areas.
We sunk into the rounded seats and admired the pristine table setting before a bowl of poppadoms and four fresh dips arrived. We duly got stuck in, loading up the crispy discs with heaving piles of onion salsa, mango chutney, cooling raita and spicy lime pickle.
Our tastebuds started singing and we were ready for our starters.
The vivid orange spicing of his murgh tikka was bouncing off the white plate like a sunbeam when it arrived. And, accompanied by a little fresh salad and more raita, it looked more than a little appetising. The taste got the thumbs up too, the chicken was plump and juicy and the tikka deliciously warming and moreish.
I’ve got to say though, my starter was the star of the show. The prawns were jumbo to say the least, succulent and mouthwateringly tangy. They were sitting on a bed of onions and salad and I could have eaten the whole thing 20 times over. If you’re a fan of seafood, the tandoori jingha is a must on any visit to Five Rivers.
After they prised the bowl out of my hands – “wait, there still may be a drop of sauce left!” – we had just the right wait until the main courses were brought out. It’s never fun when they arrive just a few seconds after your starters and you’ve barely had time to savour the taste and prepare yourself for the main event but the staff on this occasion timed it to perfection.
From the main menu, I’d selected the goan fish curry, fillets of cod simmered in a traditional Goan masala of piaz, coriander seeds, green chillies and coconut cream for £11.50.
He went for the dhaba murgh, which is billed on the menu as “exquisite Punjabi country fayre of tender pieces of chicken cooked with ginger, onions, coriander, fresh herbs and native spices”. It came in at £8.50.
We also ordered a garlic and coriander naan bread and some pilau rice to complete our feast.
As well as chicken and seafood, there’s also duck and lamb on the mains menu, as well as no fewer than 10 vegetarian options. Impressive by any standards.
Veggie choices included aloo methi – baby potatoes braised in fengreek gravy; bhindi dopiaza – fresh okra sauteed with dry spices, and Punjabi saag.
All the vegetarian options can be enjoyed as side dishes too, if you’re feeling really hungry.
The boyfriend’s main course was a thing of beauty and was packed full of well-balanced flavours and a good punch of taste. It was super fresh and the whole lot was polished off in next to no time.
My curry had a real kick to it. It looked completely unassuming and safe but resulted in me drinking the entire bottle of water at our table. That’s not to say it wasn’t gorgeous, far from it. The sauce was rich and thick, perfect for mopping up with the naan, and the cod was soft, flaky and a brilliant white inside.
It came perched on potatoes and the only thing that remained when I finally admitted defeat was a bit of sauce, which by this point might as well have been molten lava as far as I was concerned.
Dessert beckoned next but we were well and truly stuffed by this point, which is a shame as the menu included dishes with names as brilliant as Tropical Romance, Champagne Casanova and Baileys Bombe.
If you’re a real pudding fan however, you’ll definitely be tempted, especially by the Assiette de Chocolat, which is a trio of chocolate and orange mousse, a pistachio dome and a mini brownie. Damn it. I wish I’d had it now. How good does that sound?
Anyway, we asked for the bill and then very nearly suffered a social faux pas when we thought the little white things brought to us on a plate were after-dinner mints when they were in fact, after a quick splash of water, refreshing towels. Quite how I would have worked that into the review is beyond me: “The towels in particular were delicious, although a little spongy”. Hmm, maybe not.
We rolled back into the bar and relaxed for a while before paying up our grand total of £60.45.
So who was responsible for our evening of top-notch food?
Well that would be head chef Rashpal Sunner.
Born in the Northern state of Punjab, India, Rashpal has a string of achievements behind him including the Ethnic Chef of the Year title and several listings in various prestigious food guides.
He was inspired and taught by his mother’s kitchen and passions for gardening and travel shape his dishes to this day.
However, perhaps his biggest claim to fame is cooking for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Boris Yeltsin and other world leaders during the G8 summit held in Birmingham a few years back.
And the items that he served on that day form The Presidential Platter at Five Rivers. If you’re after something special, this is the one to try. The platter comprises murgh tikka, tandoori lamb chop, fish amritsari, raunaq-e-sheekh and ocean pepper lobster.
Perhaps we’ll give it a go on our return visit because one is definitely on the cards.
The winning combination of striking décor, good service and unbeatable food is all you can ask from any restaurant. And the word is clearly out – we visited early on a Thursday night and the place was full, with a lively and exciting atmosphere.
After all, if it’s good enough for the leader of the free world, it’s good enough for us.
Five Rivers À La Carte, Vicarage Place, Walsall WS1 3NA
Tel: 01922 646164