Knife & Fork: Jojolapa

This Nepalese styled restaurant has been in Newhall Street for nine years now and seems to have survived longer than any of the other enterprises which have occupied the site over the seventeen or so years I have been here. Jojolapa means not just the word welcome in Nepalese, but encompasses all the feelings and connotations of a visitor being made welcome and being part of something.

Very much a family affair, the dining area is presided over by Sanju Shrestra and his wife while father Ganesh, a veteran of Shimla Pink and Rajdoot and now officially retired, oversees what’s happening in the kitchen. The philosophy is very much about offering good quality Nepalese/Indian cuisine rather than a pure Nepalese experience on the basis that any previous efforts in Birmingham to provide pure Nepalese cooking had been unsuccessful. While I had hoped to have a totally authentic Nepalese meal, I appreciate the desire to play safe and attract as wide a clientele as the place needs to be financially viable. There certainly seems to be a loyal clientele for the restaurant so they must be doing something right. It is certainly decent, honest cooking which strikes a good balance.

My colleague and I opted to share a portion of Chillie Chicken as a starter, after the almost obligatory Pappadums and dips. These latter were perhaps a bit crisper than the norm but the mango chutney, raita, and chopped onions were fairly standard.  So, no surprises there.

The Chillie Chicken, on the other hand, was delightful.  Tender, and cooked in a curious sort of sweet and sour sauce which was not like, say, your normal sickly British Chinese restaurant sweet and sour, there were hints of coriander, cumin, cardamom, and tomatoes. Indeed, according to Sanju, it was the tomato sauce which imparted the sweetness: I don’t know if this is something bought in or prepared from scratch but it certainly had a high sugar content. Nevertheless, the balance between both extremes was very satisfactory and we certainly finished it off quickly enough.

Our main courses were a bit more mixed. My Hassh Ko Masu – sautéed duck breast - was tender and full of flavour. Again coriander and cardamom were much in evidence but other spices were harder to identify. Sanju told us that his father has some spices imported from Nepal as they are simply not available here, even in Sparkbrook or Handsworth.  This surprised me as I had always thought that pretty well any herbs and spices could be bought in the local ethnic supermarkets. It seems that there is a particular kind of Nepalese peppercorn which is not normally exported and is preferred for some of the dishes. At any rate, my duck was a great success, and was well accompanied by a pleasant and dry portion of Pilau rice and a naan bread which was dry, even slightly on the crispy side, and sweetish, almost reminiscent of the taste of Peshwari Naan.

My colleague’s Keema Muttar however was a bit less interesting.  This is very much an Indian dish, certainly not Nepalese food as such, so it was probably unreasonable to expect any surprises.  Basically a minced lamb with peas in some spices, it was pleasant enough and did display some lovely subtleties of flavour but it did not match the duck for flavour, texture, or taste. That is not to say that it was in any way bad cooking, just that the Duck was really good.

We received a complimentary dessert of Khulfi which cleansed the palate and I think completed the meal satisfactorily. The pistacchio and cardamom tastes were well balanced, the level of sweetness just about right.

To drink we selected a bottle of Akau Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand which did the job very nicely without quite setting the world on fire. However, given some of the heavenly top end Australian and New Zealand wines I had been tasting during the previous two-week sojourn in Western Australia, it would be unreasonable to expect more. It was a perfectly decent bottle, probably more subtle than the £20 price tag might have suggested, displaying the qualities you would expect of a Kiwi wine: good acidity, a dryness balanced with reasonably powerful fruit, hints of pineapple, elderflower, even nettles, just about right to cut through the heavier of the spices but not to overpower the delicacy and subtleties of the food, either.

The cost for two and a half courses plus wine came to a very reasonable £68 including service: not bad at all. While Jojolapa might not yet be on my list of all-time great Birmingham restaurants, it is clearly a good place to eat Asian food which is a little different to the normal on offer in the city centre and well worth trying out next time you want something more than just “an Indian”.

I would love at some point in future to ask them to prepare me what they think of as a meal genuinely representative of Nepalese cuisine. On the basis of what I sampled, I am sure that it could be a really interesting culinary experience. I also rather suspect that others might feel the same way. Maybe the time is right to concentrate more on that part of the menu.

Jojolapa 55-59 Newhall St, Birmingham B3 3RB 0121 212 2511

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman