Food review: Mowgli, Grand Central, Birmingham
Swing by Grand Central’s Indian street food restaurant, Mowgli, and you’re in for a treat. Emily Bridgewater takes the family for a spicy feast. . .
For anyone who’s watched Tom Kerridge’s latest programme, Top of the Shops, the name Nisha Katona might ring a bell.
The 46-year-old was one of the judges on the BBC Two eight-part show, which pitted Britain’s best artisan producers against one another with the reward being a leg-up in an increasingly competitve industry.
Lancashire lass Nisha knows a bit about turning a culinary dream into a reality. She was a barrister for 20 years before deciding to become a restaurateur, food writer and self-styled ‘curry evangelist’.
Four years later, Nisha’s published three cookery books and has a chain of restaurants. That’s pretty good going.
With branches of her restaurant, Mowgli, in Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford, Birmingham has now been added to the portfolio, with Leeds ‘opening in autumn 2018’, according to the company’s website.
Nisha’s concept is to serve food Indians eat in their homes and on the street. It’s not an entirely new idea with purveyors of Indian street food popping up everywhere. London, of course, set the precedence with outlets such as the delightful Dishoom now boasting five branches across the city.
Brum followed suit with the Indian Brewery and The Indian Streatery, Tamatanga, Zidinya and – my personal favourite – Raja Monkey. Even Wolverhampton is in on the act with Zuri Coffee and The Hooded Ram offering tasty morsels of subcontinent street food.
Mowgli’s joined the fold fairly recently, its dangling rope swings, illuminated bird cages and exposed bulbs making for a unusual and eye-catching interior.
But how does it fair when it comes to serving Indian street food? It is Top of the Shops? Is Mowgli king of the swingers?
We visited after a disastrous theatre trip with our toddler in which we had to make a sharp exit from Sarah & Duck’s Big Top Birthday following a rather catastrophic meltdown over a lack of Cadbury Buttons (Note to self: Always carry emergency Cadbury’s Buttons. Don’t eat the ones you’re carrying; you may never know when they will be required). We dipped out of the Old Rep and into Grand Central looking for somewhere to improve parent-child relations and sate our growling tummies.
And so with rope swings, sunny service, the promise of speedy street food, and some crayons and a colour-in sheet for the little ‘un, we opted for dinner at Mowgli.
The menu’s divided into ‘street’ foods and more main course dishes such as curries, although our waitress explained that most of them were fairly small so we’d need two or three per person. The price reflects the size of the dishes too, with many of them about £5/6 each.
Fortunately, she didn’t use the phrase ‘like Indian tapas’, which now appears in the book of most-overused phrases in restaurants of all time. I’ve had cicchetti which is ‘like Italian tapas’, Mexican street food, which is ‘like Mexican tapas’ plus pretty much every other cuisine that can be blitzed by the Honey, I Shrunk the Food machine. It’s basically a restaurant’s way of telling you you need to order a raft of dishes if you don’t want to have to visit the chippy on the way home. And that it’ll probably cost you a bit more than ordering one main course each.
There are also complete meal tiffin boxes comprising a chef’s selection of curries and carbs. ‘Food roulette, total pot luck’ says the menu. Nice.
Anyway we settled on six dishes plus a trio of sides. There’s a children’s menu but our little girl was too busy scribbling over the selection with a blue crayon so we agreed she’d just have a bit of everything we were having. Sadly, the Fenugreek Kissed Fries or Treacle Tamarind Fries were off the menu. Still, it’s an excuse for a return visit and I’d rather things be cooked fresh and run out than be frozen and in unlimited supply.
First to arrive was the bhel puri, an army mess-style steel tin packs with puff rice with crisp gram threads, peanuts, coriander and a spicy dressing. What I actually meant to order was the signature yoghurt chat bombs comprising little pillows of crispy puffs filled with chickpeas, spiced yoghurt, tamarind and coriander. I was clearly still suffering trauma from the Cadbury’s Buttons debacle. However, what did arrive was heavenly. Crunchy, nutty, zingy, sour, I could have eaten it by the bucket load and we fought over who had the last spoonful.
Next arrived the rest of the order (‘it comes from the kitchen when it’s ready’; the second most over-used restaurant phrase of all time). We covered all bases choosing the butter chicken, the house keema, a portion of dhal and the Mowgli paneer. Of the sides dishes we opted for a couple of puris, the basmati rice and the Mowgli slaw.
The paneer dish was exquisite, the cubes of cheese were silky, the sauce rich, while the Temple Dhal was soupy and satisfying – Indian soul food in its finest form.
Our little girl loved the tender, mildly-spiced butter chicken and lapped it up with the perfectly cooked rice. We couldn’t quite convince her to try the delicious lamb keema, the presence of something green (peas) in it being the deciding factor. Her loss as it was packed with flavour.
The discs of fried bread – puri – mopped up the spicy sauces nicely and were tastier (read: naughtier) than plain roti. And I couldn’t get enough of the slaw, which seemed to be more than a sum of its parts – shredded red cabbage, plump raisins and a popped mustard seed dressing. It was light, flavoursome and cut through the richness of the all curry sauces perfectly.
Full to the brim, we considered the dessert menu which includes a Mowgli chocolate brownie and ice cream, and traditional gulab jamun. Instead we enjoyed two handmade ice cones, one filled with the very on-trend Pink Himalayan salted caramel flavour ice cream (oo-er), the other with mango (even though we’d actually ordered the watermelon sorbet). Both were sublime, a creamy, dreamy delight. My other half claimed the salted caramel cone, while our daughter made a beeline for the mango cone. I just ended up with the bill. Something’s not right here. Punishment, I guess, for forgetting those Buttons.
We settled up, paying £56, which included a large sparkling water and a can of Old Jamaica ginger beer and a tip. Service was friendly and helpful without being intrusive.
Will we be returning? Absolutely. Is Nisha Top of the (Indian street food) Shops? Absolutely.