Knife & Fork: Shabab

I went with a couple of friends to Shabab on the Ladypool Road, Sparkbrook, two weeks ago and had a very enjoyable evening. The premises sit opposite Al Frash, reviewed recently, and this restaurant is thought of by many dedicated Balti aficionados as the second of the “Big Two” Balti houses in the Triangle. Like most of the others in the area Shabab is very much a family affair, presided over by Zaf the owner/chef.

The staff offered a warm welcome and looked after us politely while tables were rearranged and tidied up from a previous large party which had just left on what turned out to be a pretty busy Friday evening. As with Al Frash, the rule here is BYO and we had prepared ourselves with several bottles of beer and two bottles of wine to cover all eventualities. The beer was Marston’s Pedigree at £1.57 per bottle (from Tesco) and our wine selection Serena Sauvignon Blanc (from Majestic Wine Warehouse) at £9.99 and Piper’s River Vineyard Tasmania Chardonnay (from Aldi) at the same price. Each of these did the job very satisfactorily, the beer refreshed, the Serena was fruity, dry, and cut through the spicier dishes very well while the softer, creamier Chardonnay went well with the milder dishes and desserts.

Zee, our waiter, and one of the family, was charming, knowledgeable, and entertaining. He told us quite a bit about the restaurant’s individual approach to making a good curry paste while managing not to give away any trade secrets.

We opted for a combination of starters for sharing, settling for Fish Pakora, Onion Bahjee, Chicken Pakora, Mixed Grill and the Tandoori Fish. This turned out to be a well-balanced combination of flavours, spices, and textures. They were perfectly cooked, not greasy, not too dry, and tickled out palates in anticipation of the treats to come.

For our main courses we selected the Balti Chicken, Chicken Bhuna, and Chicken and Meat Balti, with a side dish of Mushroom and Spinach, individual helpings of Pilau Rice, and a Table Naan. We probably did not need the Naan bread but were so intrigued by the idea of one described as being big enough for a whole table full of people that we just had to see it and try it.

The Balti Chicken was very tender, the spice mix seemed just on the right balance.  The Chicken Bhuna had a good balance of spiciness and texture which did not so much attack the palate as tickle and caress it; not too greasy not too dry. The meat in the Chicken and Meat Balti turned out to be lamb (in a way, how could it not have been?), the chicken very tender, more or less melting in the mouth, the combination of herbs and spices providing an almost perfect piquancy. This was a strong enough curry but not one to leave the lips numb.  As elsewhere, the lamb was not uniformly tender but nevertheless generally pretty good. I certainly finished it all.

We nearly finished the Table Naan too. This lived up to its name.  We had been curious to know just how well it would fit its description. Well, when it was delivered to our table, we understood perfectly: it could easily have covered the surface of our table for four. It was enormous, was thinner and crispier than expected and certainly not doughy in any way, nor was it oily or greasy as we have experienced elsewhere. This was certainly a Prince of Naans.

Having something of a sweet tooth, I found it hard to resist dessert, as did my friends. The menu listed some intriguing titles such as Chocolate Concrete with Custard, Pingu described by our waiter as “Penguin”  - but we could not fathom that one out and opted for the Chocolate Concrete and Coconut Kulfi to be shared around once more.

The Chocolate Concrete was initially just as intriguing in reality as it was on the menu list. It turned out to be rather like a Ginger Chocolate Cake with proper custard.  My friends thought that perhaps it would have been better described as Chocolate Cement since it was softer and slightly fluid, more like a cement fondue. The Kulfi was definitely coconutty and extremely refreshing.

So, a delightful evening catching up with friends who enjoy a Balti as much as I do in decent, comfortable, clean, relatively unglitzy  surroundings, eating good honest food which was clearly prepared with care and skill. Definitely another one to recommend.

The bill for dinner for three came to £54, give or take a few pennies.

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

@BrumFaves

Shabab, Ladypool Road, Birmingham 01214402893

Knife & Fork: Al Frash

The first recommendation from Andy Munro’s “Going for a Balti” is Al Frash on the Ladypool Road, smack in the centre of the Balti Triangle. This is one of the longest standing of Birmingham’s balti houses with a good reputation built up over the years.

Overseen by owner Mohammed Ahmed, the restaurant is open, clean, simply but comfortably furnished, designed with contemporary clean lines.  I went along with a colleague on a Tuesday evening, thus ensuring a relatively quiet night without too many customers making too many demands.

The menu is simple, relatively short (always a good sign in my view), offering straightforward traditional Balti favourites and others with a bit of a contemporary twist. The young waiter was pleasant, well-mannered, and suitably attentive without overdoing it. Is there anything more irritating than having your waiter constantly appearing at your table asking “Is everything all right?” If it wasn’t, the restaurant would surely have been told....

Anyway, none of that at Al Frash, just good old fashioned service, and damned good food.

A couple of lightly spicy dips, one of them a mint/sugar/masala infused yoghurt accompanied our starters, vegetable pakoras and tandoori chicken nibblets: both cooked just “to the point”, so to speak, neither greasy nor too dry.

My friend had the Lazeeza Balti Fish and I the Archar Gosht (Lamb Balti) for mains, with Sag Aloo (Spinach and Potato), Roti, Plain Boiled Rice. The fish was delightfully fresh, on a base of tomatoes and onions, with undertones of garlic and coriander. It was tender both in taste and texture, light and delicate in spite of the fish’s natural chunkiness.

My lamb was not quite uniformly tender but overall still good. There was a strong, but nevertheless subtle, flavour of Cinnamon, Coriander, and most definitely powerful Green Chillies. This was spicy but not tongue-numbingly so. Subtlety is more important than overt power at Al Fraish, it seems. The rice was fragrant, with the slightest hint of Cardamom, firm enough and not too soft or chewy as is often the case. The Roti bread was firm, soft, flexible and tasty, just right for gathering up the curry.

It’s BYO when it comes to drinks at Al Frash and we elected to accompany this dinner with Banks’s Best Bitter. That worked pretty well, cutting through the spices without fighting with them or neutralising them. A not too fruity New World Sauvignon Blanc would have accompanied the fish very well and perhaps something like a Sangiovese from Puglia  would have been ideal with the Lamb.

This was a spicy, fruity, and entirely tasty dinner experience. Our waiter was happy enough to chat to us about ingredients and cooking and later Mohammed Azad, the chef, came to our table to talk about his cooking, the spices and herbs involved, the methodology. He was utterly charming, engaging, and open about the ingredients. 

As someone who has recently been on a mission to make the perfect curry paste, I appreciated his informal advice. Each chef in the Balti Triangle has his own variation of these ingredients but the one thing which remains a deeply held secret is the basic Masala around which everything else is based. Azad’s Masala? Ah, that will remain a secret, I am sorry to say. Quite right too, as long as he continues to delight and tease out palates with his recipes.

Al Frash, 186 Ladypool Rd, Birmingham.

Dinner for two £30 approximately plus drinks.

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

@BrumFaves

Thanks to Al Fraish for the photos.