Food review: Five Rivers showcases modern cuisine in vibrant setting
Food writer and curry connoisseur Andy Richardson takes a trip to an enormously impressive restaurant that raises the bar in Asian cooking.
The region is awash with curry houses.
Walk through most towns and villages and you’ll find outlets serving food from India and Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
While the Black Country doesn’t have the notoriety of Birmingham’s Balti Belt it has just as many restaurants – and many are equally good.
Indeed, curry aficionados say the best place to go for a curry if you’re not in Southern Asia is the West Midlands.
And who can argue with that?
Lucky us that our nation had an open-minded immigration policy and encouraged exceptional chefs to make a home right here.
Lucky us that they operate efficiently, economically and provide mostly authentic cuisine for the price of a weekly bus ticket.
And lucky us that there is such competition in that market that we could theoretically enjoy a curry a week for the rest of the year without ever returning to the same joint.
Ha, who cares about new year resolutions and going on diets.
Many of the region's curry houses occupy a similar space and compete for a similar demograph.
They are mostly cheap and cheerful, offering good value budget food where the chickens are low cost rather than fed on a diet of corn served by their own personal butler.
There’s an abundance of talent and skill on display from those who blend spices, who cook with precision and who follow recipes that we’d otherwise not enjoy.
A small number of restaurants sit outside that space and have standards that are up a notch or ten. Lasan was the stand-out example for many years.
Its then-chef, Aktar Islam was the force behind the restaurant in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and came to prominence when he was crowned champion by Gordon Ramsay on Channel 4’s F Word.
More recently, the chef who went on to win a course on BBC 2’s Great British Menu brought a fifth Michelin star to Birmingham for his brilliant recently-opened restaurant, Opheem, which is the region’s best.
In the Black Country, there are a few others that vie for regional supremacy. The Bilash, in Wolverhampton, has won a hatful of awards during a long and glorious era of trading.
The family-owned restaurant has been established for 35 years and is renowned for its modern and innovative Bangladeshi and Indian food.
Saffron Restaurant, at Oldbury, is another destination eaterie that pushes the envelope by providing high quality dishes that show flair, imagination and sound cooking technique.
But arguably the best of the lot is Five Rivers, in Walsall. It serves modern Asian cuisine in a vibrant restaurant that has the feel of a nightclub with high ceilings, an expansive, showpiece bar and a menu that screams excitement.
The chef Rashpal Sunner founded the restaurant after moving from his native Punjab to settle in the Midlands.
He worked hard, climbed the ladder and accepted executive positions in some of the UK’s finest Indian restaurants.
Five Rivers is enormously impressive; both in concept and execution.
It looks good, the service is exemplary – a global team of chefs were efficient, engaged, polished and professional – while the food is magnificent.
A chicken dish that I ate was the best in five years; cooked so that the required internal temperature had just been reached.
It was the sort of pinpoint precision that Liverpool FC teenager Curtis Jones displayed when he screamed a stunning goal to knock Everton out of the FA Cup, the sort of dazzling dexterity that a prima ballerina shows when she pirouettes beneath spotlight.
We booked an early table, having ample room in the square-shaped dining area to relax. I made the mistake of asking for two poppadoms each when the waiter asked.
For Rashpal doesn’t ‘do’ regular, disc-shaped poppadoms. His are small, frilly and cute; like wafer-thin ice cream cones. The pickles and chutneys are exceptional too. There’s none of the usual mango syrup chutney that’s bought in from the cash and carry in containers bigger than an HGV’s petrol tank. Instead, there’s beautifully seasoned tomato and chilli, a deliciously cream and smooth raita, a sweet-but-not-sickly mango chuntey and a fresh, vibrant onion salad.
Starters were breathtakingly good. I enjoyed an exceptional murgh assiette, comprising tender cuts of chicken breast marinated in signature spices before being slow roasted in the tandoor.
Malai, hariyali and the classic murgh tikka were subtle, sophisticated and beautifully cooked. Tender and featuring a remarkably delicate spice blend, they were served with an interesting salad and dazzled.
My partner’s scallops of Sutlej were also subtle. The salty sweetness of the seared scallops was perfectly married to an intoxicating chutney made with handpicked cilantro and mint from Rashpal’s home grown herbs. Cooking doesn’t get much better.
By the time we made it to our mains, we were already feeling the strain. For though Five Rivers is a cut above the competition, unlike Opheem it also serves voluminous portions – and perhaps they’re a little bigger than is necessary.
We shared two breads, a buttery and indulgent lacha paratha and a roti that was a thing and delicate as gossamer, in addition to a light, fragrant mushroom rice.
She ate a chatpata gosht, featuring lamb fillet accompanied by fine mince that had been slow cooked with spice.
The flavours were alive like a box of fireworks beside a lit flame. The cooking was precise, the spices beautiful, the dish damn-near perfect.
My karahi chicken was loaded with tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic and ginger and featured a rich sauce and slow roasted pieces of tender chicken. Marvellous.
We both fancied desserts and had we not eaten our weekly calorie intake during the preceding hour or so would have indulged. An interesting list featured out-of-the-ordinary selections. There’s always another time.
Great service, a stand-out interior design and a chef who is the best outside of Birmingham make dining at Five Rivers a uniquely pleasurable experience. We’re already planning our next visit.
Star rating: 4.5/5