REVIEW: One Giant Leap For Naankind

Akbar's, Charing Cross

The Time: October 18, 8.30pm

The Pub Aforehand: The Avalon, Kent Road

In Attendance: Trampy, The Tramp, Ravi Peshwari, Bobo Balti, Rabbie Shankar, Rumpole Of The Balti and a glorious return from The Birmingham Wan, who might need a new handle.

Decor: Opening on the site of Balbir's Tiffin Rooms, Akbar's initiated a pretty major refit, and from what our heroes could glimpse through the windows, there were a lot of lights and dark wood. Looked promising though.

Expectations: Since opening in Glasgow in March this year, Akbars has been well-reviewed in various newspapers – and has also been running roadside billboards with the pretty confident claim "Probably The Best Indian Restaurant In Scotland". So fair to say expectations were pretty high.

The Experience:

Okay, first things first. Like Alex Salmond attempting to wrangle the wording of the independence question, the Tramps had to perform some constitutional contortions to greenlight a trip to Akbar's. As a long-standing operator of curry restaurants in the north of England, Akbar's is technically a chain – and one of the few tenets of the TATTGOC charter is that the Curry Club does not review chain restaurants. However, since Akbar's Glasgow is the first of the franchise to open in Scotland, it stands alone in many ways. And after characterising themselves for so long as romantic spicy outlaws, the Tramps could not help but admire the gallusness of Akbar's riding into Glasgow, setting up shop and making claims to be the best in the city we still think of as "the people's Curry Capital". How could TATTGOC not check it out?

If the visit to Akbar's was going to be constitutionally strange, it seemed important that the pub aforehand be familiar, so for something like the third time, TATTGOC assembled in the Avalon, the watering hole named for King Arthur's paradisiacal island in the lee of the Mitchell Library. And by the way the rain was chucking down, the Avalon could have soon gone from being a metaphorical island to a literal one. Inside, supping Tennent's, an appropriately magnificent seven had turned out for this notable outing. As well as the Tramps, Ravi Peshwari, Bobo Balti, Rabbie Shankar, Rumpole Of The Balti and The Birmingham Wan had weighed up in their minds the attraction of visiting one of the most talked-about curryhouses in Glasgow against the near-certainty that the night would be full of Return Of The Jedi references and "it's a trap!" jokes. Undeterred, they sploshed into the night.

If memory serves, Balbir's Tiffin Rooms – the last restaurant to inhabit the 573-581 Sauchiehall Street site – was a nicely turned out place. But rather than build on the past, Akbar's has gone for a fairly comprehensive overhaul, filling the dining area with larger, family-friendly dining tables, putting up striking red wallpaper, installing crystal chandeliers with drooping crystal tentacles like jellyfish, and dozens of single lights embedded in the walls. From these multiple lighting sources, the overall ambience is quite purple, casting something of the (upmarket) gentlemen's club about the place. When our currynauts arrived, their table wasn't quite ready so they were ushered toward the bar – in lieu of anything on draught, there was a choice of Cobra or Kingfisher in bottles, and with the TATTGOC constitution already on shaky ground, another schism opened up, with a 4-3 split in favour of Kingfisher.

Still, nothing wrong with the odd bit of personal choice so long as it doesn't interfere too much with the TATTGOC dictatorship. The bottles were opened and clinked in celebration. Then payment was requested. Would it not be possible to add it to our bill? No, was the short answer. But, surely since these seven hardy souls were about to sit down and feast on curry while spinning tales of bravery and bacchanals, it would easy enough for this – the first of presumably many rounds, since the combination of storytelling and curry often unlocks a terrible thirst in TATTGOCers – to be added to a single running total, settled later in good faith? Nope, apparently not: £21 please. As the Clubbers good-naturedly fished in their pockets to raise the required sum – all keen to maintain the all-for-one, we-split-things-equally ethos of TATTGOC, the barperson suggested maybe one person just paid the whole thing to speed things up. In truth, this pointed request rather stuck a pin in the mood of bonhomie. The bill was paid.

By now, the table was ready and the crew arranged themselves around it, blinking at each other under the soothing purplish light and scanning the menus. Among the usual expected starters, there were also some eye-catching additions such as rabbit tikka and duck tikka. Rumpole Of The Balti grabbed the initiative by the scruff of the neck by declaring, early doors, that he wanted to try the liver tikka. Quite how this would fit in with the shared starter order was unclear, and since the evening seemed to be all about throwing rulebooks through windows at every opportunity, the Tramps made the executive order that, flying in the face of years of Curry Club tradition, everyone could just order their own starter.

No fools they, the Tramp and Rabbie Shankar stuck with the lamb chops that have become a TATTGOC mainstay and delicious meaty yardstick. Undeterred, Rumpole stuck with his liver tikka while the slightly more traditional chicken tikka was another popular choice. The Birmingham Wan pushed the boat out by choosing some fish goujons. And when he realised he was wearing his beloved Chas and Dave T-shirt, Trampy realised that destiny was calling him: he would obviously have to try the rabbit. Unfortunately, when it came to actually ordering, it was revealed that rabbit (and duck) was off for the moment. Searching the menu for something equally unusual, the better to spin this very tale about it, Trampy happened on a calamari option, and opted for it instead. (Sadly there were no gertcha samosas.)

With main courses ordered too, it fell to the Tramps to work out the rice/naan equation, which – while always tricky – was even further complicated by the fact that there was no way on God's green Earth that TATTGOC was not going to sample Akbar's infamous "family naans". According to legend, these breads were effectively the same size and shape as a tea-towel illustrating the continent of Africa. So vast and pillowy, they came served vertically, stretched out on a metal rack like the mainmast of a Napoleonic frigate. So with two family naans ordered – a plain and a garlic – the Tramps took counsel from their waiter and opted for three portions of rice as well. Perhaps some more drinks were ordered too.

Liver tikka pictured, sizzling, on the left

The atmosphere in Akbar's was fairly lively, with genuine families at the family tables and a good buzz about the place, aided by waiting staff who were always on the move, threading between tables to attend to matters or ferrying karahis and plates to the correct destination. There had been rumours that the various curry bosses of Glasgow had visited in the first few weeks to check out this new opposition from south of the border; we can only hope that they had a good time. Incredibly, no-one at the TATTGOC table had cracked an Admiral Akbar joke. Not that the debates were serious, per se: just hard-working dudes, catching up on the important stuff. (Like the possible demise of the Now! compilation series and Glasgow's chances in the Curry Capital 2012 competition, announced Monday.)

When the starters arrived, there was obviously much sniffing at Rumpole's liver tikka – could it really be tasty? – and a lot of jokes along the lines of "ooh, you are offal ... but I like you". The Tramp, a stone-cold expert, gave his chops the thumbs-up, and even passed one on to Trampy, who was staring at his frankly pretty disappointing calamari with the contorted, emotionally unpredictable face of a kid after you've stamped on his favourite Skylander toy. Chicken tikka got a thumbs-up, while the fish goujons received an almost imperceptible shake of the head. The real surprise, though, was that for those brave enough, a taste of the liver tikka was a revelation: as rich and metallic as liver, but with enough spice in the tikka cooking to give it another face of flavour. In the case of the TATTGOC versus liver tikka, this court surprisingly found in liver tikka's favour.

"That's no moon ..."

When the mains arrived, there was really only one thing on everyone's mind – how would these naans look? And it wasn't disappointing. Strung up on what almost looked like metal Xmas trees, the two enormobreads sat at each end of TATTGOC's table, large enough to resemble billowing sails. This was, indeed, Master And Comnaander and the Clubbers were ready to beat to quarters. After going heavy on the meat, Ravi Peshwari had ordered a veg karahi to which he gave a tentative thumbs-up, although the way he gazed at the nearby lamb and ginger and lamb and potato baltis suggested that if he had the chance to do it all over again, he might choose differently.

The Tramp's ongoing keema obsession continued with Karahi Keema and Matter – minced lamb cooked with onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and chillies – while the karahi gosht, billed as having a few bones, was appreciated too. Decent curry then, but really, no-one could keep their hands off the naan, and having i presented vertically made tearing bits off all the more satisfying. While they looked big – and did double duty as excellent viewblockers, like the equivalent of a privacy screen from the Old West – it was genuinely fun to see them shrink in size as more bits were torn off. The Tramps declared the naans the success of the night, even if things got a little weird when two unnamed Clubbers fought over one last chunk as if they were dooking for apples. Not cool, guys.

In his head, Trampy is Deadshot

And that was that. A lot of purple light, a good value bill (with added lollipops) and the feeling that Akbar's could probably holds its own among the Glasgow restaurant scene. The Birmingham Wan had been to one of the other outlets down south but couldn't recall the situation clearly enough to truly compare whether anything had been tweaked to appeal to the Glasgow character or if it was the equivalent of strolling into an Akbar's anywhere. One thing he did point out, though, was that there were often queues out the door, and the combination of decent grub, ginormous naans and good value suggests it might attract a regular clientele. But as for being "probably the best Indian restaurant in Scotland"? It will probably take a few more visits to clarify that one ...

Range of Drinks: No draught, but that bar looked pretty well-stocked with beers, cider and spirits.

Highlights: Those family naans genuinely something pretty special, the liver tikka a surprise knockout, generally well-received tucker, good value.

Lowlights: Initial bar faff was avoidable, calamari was very skippable, some mains a bit lacking in temperature.

The Verdict: "It's a Tramp!" (Had to fit in in somewhere.)

The Damage: £123.60 (tip: £16.40) – plus that £21 for drinks

Authentic(?) Curryhouse, Partick
Assam's Cafe, Edinburgh
Shezan, Cathcart Road
Charcoals, City Centre
Cafe Darna, St George's Road
Kama Sutra, Sauchiehall Street
Yadgar, Govanhill
Killermont Polo Club, Maryhill Road
Nakodar, Annfield Place


The Tramp said...

The lamb chops and the naan were the highlight of the meal for me. I'd say the chops are of a pretty high standard - still not as good as the benchmark setting hasina lamb chops at the Shish though. The keema was fine but nothing special, it did have a good chilli kick to it however.

The decor in there is a bit much for my liking and the service was often awkwardly intrusive. That faff with the drinks when we arrived really got the meal off to pretty rocky start too - and it's not easy to rile up the TATTGOC team.

Interestingly I was chatting to one of the Glasgow "big bosses" just after Akbar's opened and he told me about bumping into one of the other bosses whilst in there on a mission to scope out the new competition. He said that neither of them were worried based on their experience. The place is always pretty busy though so it must be doing something right (my guess being the low prices and muckle naan).

Ravi said...

I'll not be rushing back. I don't think the established quality curry outlets in Glasgow have anything to worry about with the arrival of Akbar's.

John Slack said...

As an fellow avid curry muncher I like to keep up with your blog. We are a group of 5,6,7,8 depending on the football fixtures who meet every month for curry and ale. While our favourite outlets tend to be repeated ( Cafe Salma, Mother India) we also like to ring the changes. Akbar's was chosen last month and we too were treated as Glasgow " Runners" .Despite the fact 3 of our group have their bus passes, we were asked to pay for drinks before sitting down which were only bought as our table was apparently " being readied"
Grub was average and service was overbearing - to say the least.
Safe to say we will not be back in a hurry.
Keep up the good work

Trampy said...

Hi John, thanks for your comments, and glad you enjoy the blog. I think I will have to go back to Akbar's someday, if only to properly try the rabbit tikka ...

MattiusJ said...

Went two Saturdays ago, my naan tasted over powered by salt. It detracted from the rest of my meal which included a very decent lamb and ginger dish