Restaurant Review: Le Spice Merchant, Ware
There's a lot more to Indian food than meets the eye, as Richard Cawthorne found out over lunch with Imran Chowdhury at Le Spice Merchant
JUST when you think you know all you need to know about Indian food, along comes someone like Imran Chowdhury to show you how wrong you are. He is concerned that the English have the wrong perception, and is out to correct it. He explains that we are talking about a complex and diverse subject in which all of India's history and its many facets and influences are brought to bear. One clue is in the name of his restaurant - Le Spice Merchant in Ware. The 'Le' is there to remind people that the French do not have a monopoly on fine food.
He runs the place with military precision, which is not surprising given that his CV includes more than five years in the Bangladeshi Army. His basic job as a quartermaster was to make sure 700 people were fed properly and on time in peace and in war but beyond that, because the army was a highly ceremonial one, he also had to cope with 'massive' gala and dinner nights.
The experience gave him the discipline to run a highly efficient operation such as Le Spice Merchant has become, plus a desire to educate people on the traditions of the sub-continent, especially how that translates into the cuisine. Thus, you will find on his menu dishes that he claims no other Indian restaurant offers such as chicken chettinad, which originates in the coastal belt of Chennai and features a sauce of crushed peppercorns, stained yogurt and diced tomato.
During a leisurely lunch during which he and his staff produce a variety of expertly-presented food that looks familiar but tastes quite different, he is also at pains to point out that somebody else's vindaloo, say, is not the one you will get at Le Spice Merchant. The menu describes each item in some detail, in this case explaining that beef vindaloo is a classic Goan-Portuguese dish, with the meat cooked in red massala garlic and palm vinegar. Similarly, the beef tikka is based on a Nepalese recipe, and it is typical of Imran that to ensure authenticity he employs a Nepalese chef to prepare it and similar regional delicacies.
Another signature dish is baby lamb shank, which again is different from what is expected; it is marinated with extracts of ginger, garlic, cumin and fresh green chilli, producing a medium-spiced dish with what the menu justifiably describes as a mouth-watering gravy. And then there's dosa, a crisp pancake made from batter of fermented rice and white lentils. It is a staple snack of south India, but, says Imran, finding it done properly in the UK is rare. 'It is a delicacy and not everyone can do it,' he explains. 'You have to know how to make the mix and to watch the temperature - cook it one minute too long and it will taste quite differently from the way it should.'
His belief in what he is trying to do is fundamental. 'All the dishes we serve are unadulterated in terms of the name, origin and the recipe. We serve customers the sort of food my mother would have given me. Our aspirations and perspectives are different from those of other Indian restaurants and we try to offer something new, but we are 7% to 8% cheaper than most of the others. We have targets, but I am not looking for a hefty profit margin.'
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He is pleased that his efforts in the three years since Le Spice Merchant opened have resulted in a 'very solid' customer base, which he says has been very loyal and to which he is 'very grateful'. Comment cards introduced last year have produced an 87% plus satisfaction rating and there are regular special menus for occasions such as Mother's Day and Easter. The proactive approach will continue, he says, adding with a grin, 'Once a soldier, always a soldier.'
Le Spice Merchant14 High Street, Ware SG12 9BX01920 468383http://www.lespicemerchant.co.uk/