Delhi House Cafe, Unit 10, Corn Exchange, Manchester M4 3TR (0161 834 3333). Small plates £4.95-£9.50, large plates £6.95-£15.95, desserts £3.95-£5.50, wines from £18.75
On one wall at the newly opened Delhi House Cafe, inside Manchester’s Corn Exchange, is a set of portraits: a man in a red turban with a magnificent moustache of a sort songbirds could perch upon; a more humble chap in a vest pushing a tray of oven-inflated breads towards the lens; a young woman in chefs’ whites, grinning; an older woman in a more domestic kitchen getting the job done.
These pictures surround a framed declaration of intent, headed “A Wall To Remember”. These people, it says, have inspired the Lamba family, who are behind this new venture. As the name implies, it draws upon the cooking of the Indian capital. “Some of the most loved dishes around the world today have been created by some very ordinary men and women in their very ordinary kitchens,” it says. “People who have raised the bar and left legacies for the future to follow.” All that the Delhi House Cafe team wants is to be “remembered as part of that list of creators.”
Modest ambitions, then. I’ll leave posterity to do its capricious thing. Nevertheless, those images are a useful reminder. Very few dishes are truly original, and those that genuinely deserve to be described as such are often terrifying. Original is not the same as good. Any culinary tradition worth its salt, and various other seasonings, is an accretion of ideas and techniques shaped by the moment in which they were first pressed into service. Someone always went before. Here then, is the Delhi House Cafe, attempting to pick up the flame.
Early on, a manager tells us that they are trying to offer something a little different from the standard high-street Indian restaurant. The shimmering white-on-white flock paper on one wall feels like a knowing wink in that direction. Other walls are of white painted brick or slapped with big tropical prints. Wicker lampshades dangle at different heights from the ducted ceiling, over a space filled with boldly garish banquettes.
In truth, this bit of the proposition isn’t that radical for a city which already has outposts of Dishoom, Mowgli and Bundobust. All of them, as here, pull on domestic cooking traditions. What Delhi House Cafe does have is a real verve and enthusiasm. The restaurant has just turned eight days old as I lollop through the door, but it feels like a mature business well into its stride. It also boasts some of the best trained, and most cheery staff I have come across in a long while.
A little worryingly, they mention that they want to introduce their own twist on all the dishes. The thought of twists makes my palms sweaty. Proudly, they also announce they don’t serve poppadoms, and it almost sounds like a provocation. There is no need to fret. Bar a couple of the dishes we tried, which I’ll come back to, there is a lot to enjoy here.
From a section headed Mister Chaat come dahi poori, those tiny, crisp globes made from wheat flour, puffed in the fryer and filled with a mixture of chopped potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and mint. You can try eating them daintily but you’ll get the contents down your shirt. It’s far better to slip the whole thing in your gob in one go. There’s the crunch and then the burst of tamarind sweetness across the satisfying mess of vegetables. The much-missed Kastoori in Tooting, south London, refused to do their puri for takeaway because they would never survive the journey. These are a jolly reminder of those.
Other menu headings – Turfing the Streets, For the Occasion – are less revealing than perhaps they intended them to be. Just read the dish descriptions. A Goan prawn curry, in a deep-spiced tomato-based sauce, has an inbuilt culinary timer. You get the sweetness of the sauce and the fresh squeak of the seafood first, before the sudden punch of the chilli heat. Chicken ghee roast is a ripely sauced, butter-rich curry plump with thigh. Tandoori lamb chops are on as a special, and while they’ve trimmed off a little too much fat for my liking, they are still a glorious, spice-crusted exercise in bone nibblage. Alongside these come reassuringly well-executed basics: flaky parathas, heat-blistered naans and fluffy white rice.
My doubts are over two deep-fried offerings. Both feel like a failure of nerve. The Amritsari fish fry brings crisp, golden battered pieces of fish and prawns, with barely any thumb print of the Indian tradition within which they are being served. They could come from anywhere. It’s the same with the JFC, which stands for Jama Masjid Fried Chicken. In an age when you can’t move for deep-fried bird, a plate of distinctively Indian-spiced drumsticks would be marvellous. These carry just a whisper of something strident. Both come with those chips that look like they might have been found in the freezer cabinet. Both dishes have a place on the menu. They are child friendly. I’m just sorry I ordered them.
Still, there is the compensation of a dessert menu that’s more expansive than those found at most Indians. There’s a boldly sweet shortcrust pastry tart layered with gajar halwa, that mess of carrots cooked down in milk and sugar. It’s topped with Nutella and sits in a puddle of spiced custard. Be kind to your blood sugar levels and share it with a friend. There’s also a more mellow cheesecake with a thick base made with gooey Mysore pak. Think of it as an Indian equivalent of fudge which is trying to reduce its sugar content so it doesn’t get banned by the department of health.
There’s a long cocktail list, a short wine list and a cheery selection of ales including White Rhino, one of India’s first craft beers. Mostly there’s the sense of a shared endeavour which is all heading in the right direction. It’s a welcome addition to the less than impressive offering at the Corn Exchange. Will the Delhi House Cafe earn its place on that wall to remember? There are a few great newspaper columnist clichés and finally I get to use one: only time will tell.