Norwich: Spice Paradise
The owners here are from Kerala in southern India, and while the menu features some of the curries we all know and love, there are also southern Indian specialities like idli (steamed patties made from lentil batter), and sambar, a thin lentil and vegetable stew.
It was on a visit to Spice Paradise's predecessor that we were served the least edible thing I have ever seen in a restaurant. And when I say least edible, I am not talking about a curry that didn't taste that great. This was a cube of something unidentifiable that was impervious to any knife. It came in a vegetarian mixed grill, and did a passable imitation of a small concrete brick. “Perhaps it's Lego,” someone suggested, but Lego would have crumbled under the very glance of this off-white cube. In reality it was probably paneer cheese that had been forgotten, or perhaps overheated on the grill until it underwent a transformation like lava into rock. Not that we complained, of course - and this despite being armed with the world's first effective cheese-based weapon.
So the Spice Paradise experience was already going well when all the food could be cut with a knife and fork. The place will be better known to some as the old Jewel of India, one of Magdalen Street's numerous curry houses, and you can still just make out the traces of the old name on the windows.
Between then and now it has also been Aubergine, a place that started out as a vegetarian Indian but soon thought better of it. Whether or not because of the hard cheese, it never seemed to catch on. Spice Paradise has the same tall white chairs and neutral décor, though the modern abstract paintings are new.
On our visit it was quiet, though to be fair it was a Tuesday in January and so was everywhere else on Norwich. It deserves to catch on, not least because it is offering curry-lovers something different from the rest of the city's Indian restaurants (which are mostly run by Bangladeshis).
The owners here are from Kerala in southern India, and while the menu features some of the curries we all know and love, there are also southern Indian specialities like idli (steamed patties made from lentil batter), and sambar, a thin lentil and vegetable stew. Coconut milk, black pepper and curry leaves are the key flavourings, while fans of blow-your-head off chilli heat would probably be happier somewhere else.
Curiously, there are also a few dishes that were on the old Aubergine menu, including no less than three aubergine curries. The vegetarian mixed grill was still there, too, but we gave it a wide berth, just in case. There was so much we wanted to try that we ordered virtually everything on the menu, praying that it would be nice. Our prayers were answered, from the starters to the last grains of rice and crumbs of naan bread.
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After the obligatory poppadoms we kicked off properly with Mysore bonda, deep-fried balls of lentil flour with potato and spices, and spinach vada, which were like small savoury doughnuts of spinach and lentil flour.
Main courses followed quicker than you can say peshwari naan, though it took a few minutes to fit everything on our table.
The Real Ale Drinker tucked into a green mutton curry - not to be confused with a Thai green curry - which came in a thick sauce of pureed spinach with onion and spices.
My baby aubergine curry, from an impressive vegetarian selection, was not baby aubergines at all, though it did have the advertised pickled vegetables to add a tantalizing sourness. It was only marred by too much oil. But the scene-stealer was a mere side dish, a tomato curry flecked with black mustard seeds and with an indefinable and quite addictive smokiness.
Another side dish, a mango and green banana curry, is a classic dish from Kerala, where there are 250 types of bananas. Those that have eaten plantain in Caribbean restaurants will know to expect starchiness, not sweetness from green bananas: this dish was slightly salty, rich with coconut, and altogether the oddest curry I have ever eaten.
The Real Ale Drinker was thrilled with the presence of bottled Adnam's bitter on the menu, but less thrilled by the fact that they didn't have any. Carling, too, was unavailable, which left only pricey Cobra and Kingfisher for beer drinkers, though there is also a wine list.
As we drained the last of our lager, we chatted to one of the owners, who told us she was working as a nurse during a quiet couple of months for the restaurant.
When more people discover Spice Paradise, the NHS's loss will be a food-lover's gain.
t Spice Paradise, 41 Magdalen Street, Norwich; 01603 666601
t Parking? Usual city centre rules apply; you could try Anglia Square.
t Do I need to book? Probably not, but you can call.
t Is there disabled access? There are no steps but the toilets are not adapted.