REVIEW: Wake Up And Smell The Cafe

Café Serena, Maxwell Road

The Time: August 25, 8.30pm

Booking Name: None required ...

The Place Aforehand: The Tramp’s hoose.

In Attendance: Trampy, The Tramp, The Gheezer, Ravi Peshwari, Onion Bha-G, Rumpole Of The Balti, Chasni Hawkes, Sir Spicy Lover, Rogan Josh Homme, Rabbie Shankar and our roving Foreign Curryspondent and guest photographer for this report: Tikka MaBaws!

Decor: With its spiffy modern signage suitable for an F1 racing team, Café Serena hardly harks back to the curryhouses of old. But inside, there’s a surprisingly spacious sit-in area and it’s clean, clean, clean as a whistle.

Expectations: The Tramp had already been pounding Café Serena for tandoori takeaways since moving to the Southside, while Trampy and Rogan Josh Homme had once ordered a ridiculous amount of food from the same establishment. Hopes were therefore high for the sit-in experience.
The Experience:

Poor Mumbai Me A Pony! Did she realise that when she married The Tramp, by extension she was also marrying the massed ranks of the Curry Club? These thoughts must have passed through her mind as she watched 11 sturdy men swigging beer in her living room, gabbing and cavorting like recently released primates blessed with a sudden surge of unnatural intelligence: Rise Of The Planet Of The Japes. But, typically, Mumbai Me A Pony took it all in her stride, like a true saffrongette. And it would only be for half an hour or so. Before long, this manly Hurricane Wire-In would surely spin off down the road in pursuit of curry?

Still, a fine turnout for the first official Curry Club outing since both The Tramp and Rogan Josh Homme got hitched, with 10 regulars in attendance, plus a very special guest: TATTGOC’s own Uncle Travelling Matt, the weatherbeaten and wise Foreign Curryspondent Tikka MaBaws (also proprietor of the excellent blog I Done A Holiday). For the past two years, Tikka MaBaws had been filing far-flung dispatches of spicy reportage, from destinations like Dubai, Sri Lanka, Bolivia and more. In all that time, there had never been an opportunity for him to attend a proper TATTGOC meet-up, so this was to be a truly historic occasion. Even then, the Tramps put their diligent curryspondent to work, tasking Tikka MaBaws with documenting the outing with his expensive-looking camera. One less thing to worry about ...

The Tramp’s house had, of course, been chosen as TATTGOC’s launchpad since there aren’t that many pubs near target curryhouse Café Serena (the nearest, as the crow flies, is the legendary Star Bar, home of probably the least-expensive, quality three-course lunch in the world). Having recently moved to the area, The Tramp had begun a spicy reconnaissance of nearby curryhouses, but Café Serena came with an extra-special recommendation from Lime Pickle’s bidie-in, who knows her curry. It has even previously featured on the blog, providing the food when the Tramps sampled Waitrose’s hot and fiery salad. The sit-in area is compact but with the usual TATTGOC turnout of eight or so, it looked like it would be fine. Of course, the group had subsequently swelled to 11, so would the Café be able to cope? There was only way to find out, so the assembled crew set off in search of their tea, spinning their used bottle caps into The Tramp’s ice bucket as they trooped out the door like a curry-obsessed conga line.

Rocking up at Café Serena to a warm welcome, it immediately became clear that there wasn’t a table big enough for the entire Curry Club. After an initial experiment of sitting two groups at two different tables, the manager Ali proposed a minor furniture reshuffle, creating one long table in the style of a medieval banquet. With the minimum of fuss, all 11 currynauts were cosily seated and scanning the menu. The drinks order was easy: with no booze on offer, The Tramp signaled for three jugs of creamy lassi. The days of TATTGOC foolishly overindulging on the creamy ambrosia, filling themselves up before the main courses, were long ago: the team supped carefully.

The Tramps had vowed to try and shake things up a bit, so attempted something a little different when it came to ordering starters for the group. As well as the usual brace of mixed pakora (and an additional veg pakora for TATTGOC’s resident grumblebox vegetarian Onion Bha-G), they asked for a couple of portions of chicken tikka and also a couple of Dahi Bade, lentil balls chopped up and served in a raita-esque sauce. When this fleet of starters arrived, it made for one of the more yoghurty starter sessions in TATTGOC history, with the surfeit of lassi and raita. In retrospect, the Tramps should perhaps have leaned more toward the tikka than lentil balls but as the dishes were passed up and down the table and eagerly devoured, it all seemed to go down well.

As for the mains, there were multiple orders of chicken on the bone karahi and lamb on the bone karahi, a brace of chicken tikka nantaris, a chicken chilli tikka masala, an aloo dish for Onion Bha-G, a chicken tikka supreme for Sir Spicy Lover and, for Trampy, a goan curry with chicken and prawns, something definitely outside his usual curry zone. Having not stretched their rice/naan equations for a while, the Tramps initially went for “four and four”. For a change, they went for two plain naans, a peshwari naan and, for the first time ever, a mince naan. Trampy spent much of the evening trying to convince vegetarian Onion Bha-G that the mince naan was actually a “quince naan” and therefore suitable for consumption but he was too canny for that.

Foreign Curryspondent Tikka MaBaws
While waiting for the mains to arrive, the Tramps switched up to water jugs to reduce the potentiality of lassi bloating, and the convivial, collegiate chat veered from recent weddings, future weddings, T in the Park, world travel and, for one strangely extended sequence, a comparing of hairlines at the far end of the table. This TATTGOC outing took place during Ramadan and, as the sun set, a steady stream of customers poured into Café Serena to pick up their dinner. With 11 dishes to cook from scratch, there was a reasonable wait for the feast to arrive but soon the karahi bowls were descending, accompanied by significant bowls of rice (a fifth had been added just in case) and pillowy naans. Ravi Peshwari’s dish had cooled slightly as the food was served but the manager was happy to heat it up again. Conversation was suspended as the team tucked in, the spicy spell only occasionally broken by a murmur of approval.

Though he had taken it easy on the lassi, Trampy still struggled to finish his goan curry which had a pleasant spicy kick, and while he might not rush out to order a chicken and prawn curry again, he was glad of the experience. Those Clubbers who had ordered their curries on the bone were particularly full of praise, with Rabbie Shankar – another Southsider living within Café Serena’s catchment area – declaring that his chicken karahi was the best curry he’d ever had on a TATTGOC outing. Looks like Café Serena will have another regular customer.

As the Tramps settled the very reasonable bill, Tikka MaBaws assembled the squad outside for the necessary group shot. Usually, either Trampy or The Tramp is the shutterman for this particular pic, which means that often one of them is missing from the portrait. A well-seasoned world traveler, Tikka MaBaws set up his expensive-looking camera on his manbag so he too could be in the picture – and so, for the first time in three years, the group shot features every single TATTGOCer in attendance: another historic first in an evening stuffed with ’em.

As the group prepared to disperse, the manager – a Mr Ali – popped out to say cheerio. There followed a highly entertaining and enlightening discussion about the night's meal, the history of the restaurant, Ramadan and the curry trade in general. Mr Ali was happy to answer any questions about his business, and wished that those who had experienced Café Serena for the first time would return for future visits. “All new faces, except him,” he exclaimed, pointing at The Tramp. “He I have seen many times before!” 

Range Of Drinks: Softs on the menu, but lassis were the order of the day.

Highlights: Fantastic curries, friendly service, competitively priced.

Lowlights: It took a wee while for all the dishes to arrive but with all 11 made from scratch that’s to be expected.

The Verdict: A serene experience!

The Damage: £144.50 (tip: £15.50)

Punjabi Charing Cross