A decent burger and fries can cost £13 at a mediocre gastro pub, mains at half-decent restaurants come in at £25 – or more. So it’s refreshing to know there are still fabulous neighbourhood restaurants that punch above their weight and deliver big flavours for tiny prices.
Standard Tandoori, in Bearwood, is a family-run restaurant where people are allowed to take their own booze and where a varied menu is available at an absurdly low price.
My friend and I dined on a Thursday, taking advantage of a poppadom-starter-main-coffee deal for £10 each. Yes, £10.
That’s what you’d pay for a starter in one of Birmingham or Wolverhampton’s better Asian restaurants. We ate like kings, enjoyed exceptional service from two experienced and skilled front of house staff and left with full bellies. Bliss.
The Black Country and its hinterland might not be able to compete with Shropshire and Birmingham when it comes to gourmand dining. But there are diamonds in the rough and bargains to be found. Price conscious customers can enjoy the best of both worlds: feasting on exceptional cuisine without breaking into the overdraft.
Authentic flavours are available from experienced chefs who, in the case of Standard, have particular expertise in Bangladeshi and South Indian food.
Curry houses operate on the slenderest of margins. Those who deal with online takeaways find themselves shelling out a high percentage of their profits, while also paying delivery companies more – on many occasions, they make a small loss, rather than a profit, but feel the need to offer their food to keep up the competition.
And on cold midweek winter evenings, when there are fewer than 10 people in a dining room, the money spent on food would barely cover staff wages, the cost of ingredients, bills for gas and electricity and more besides. Yet staff at Standard are engaged and attentive, polite and welcoming. They provide service with a smile, showing efficiency and good humour from start to cheery end.
That’s not to say Standard is perfect. While service and food are excellent, the interior could do with a little attention. Dated wallpaper and old-fashioned furnishings leave it off the pace – though, in an age where money is tight and profits are even tighter, that’s perhaps not surprising. And, in truth, my friend and I warmed to the ‘homely’ feel of Standard. It was avowedly unpretentious and trading on decent food, high quality service and the best prices this side of cooking it yourself at home.
While we perused the evening’s selections, we ate two poppadoms each with a decent, thick and sweet mango chutney, a pleasant, herby onion salad and a mild and creamy minty yoghurt dip. The poppadoms were decent and the dips also good, particularly the mango.
We could have eaten our way around the menu – the choice was excellent, the prices highly competitive and the specials full of exotic promise and excitement. After much deliberation, we selected our starters.
He ate a chicken tikka shashlik, which featured tender marinated chunks of chicken cooked on skewers with pepper, onion and tomato. The flavours were subtle, a hint of fire rather than a burning inferno, and the delivery good. A small, simple salad accompanied the dish – I often think shredded lettuce, out of season tomatoes and lemon wedges are placed with dishes out of politeness, rather than necessity – and it made for pleasant eating. The chicken had been cooked with no little skill and was deliciously moist when brought to the table.
My starter was equally enjoyable. A chicken chat featured tender pieces of marinated chicken in a mildly spiced tomato-based sauce. It was enclosed in a small, fresh flat bread and served with a similar simple salad. The chat was fabulous. Too often restaurants kill a dish with too much oil, leaving a small slick on the plate when the dish is delivered. This was the opposite. Delicate and flavoursome, it ticked all of the flavour boxes and was a well-constructed starter.
We were in no rush for our mains; our starters had been served in generous portions and we were happy to take a short break. The two front of house staff made frequent visits to the table, making sure we were happy with what had gone before and topping up our drinks.
And then came the main event. I ate a brilliant sweet-hot-sour shatkora chicken, featuring lightly spiced tandoori chicken with sweet and sour Bangladeshi fruit. The chicken was masterful, the sauce terrific with hints of citrus and an almost-tamarind-like twang. It was served with light, fluffy pillau rice and I worked my way through it slowly, savouring each bite.
My friend was similarly impressed by his South Indian Garlic Chilli Lamb dish. The tender, curried stew had within it small pieces of green chilli that added a little heat while the lamb broke away under the fork. The sauce was deep, rich and satisfying while a side order of garlic naan was light, fluffy and provided the perfect tool with which to mop up the sauce.
We talked as we ate, enjoying the unhurried nature of the venue and taking our time to enjoy the food and welcoming ambience. The bill was next to nothing – a tenner each plus a little extra for drinks – and we called it a night.
Perhaps we don’t visit decent neighbourhood restaurants often enough, for Standard shows there is exceptionalism in the unlikeliest of surrounds. Though it is an unprepossessing venue with little to make it stand out from the crowd, within the unspectacular exterior there are great delights. The restaurant sticks to the basics and does those things really, really well. It makes its customers feel welcome and at ease, then dazzles with decent curries that typically cost £7. Bargain.
The only thing I couldn’t understand was the name. There’s nothing ‘standard’ about Standard Tandoori. It ought to be renamed Exceptional.