Back around the turn of the millennium, Altrincham centre wasn’t looking too clever. Tucked away between the South Manchester suburbs and the Cheshire set sprawl, it was reeling from the emergence of the Trafford Centre, the impact of online shopping, and the subsequent economic downturn. Shoppers were staying away in their droves. The main drag itself started to feel a bit abandoned.
Now, happily, it’s starting to get its groove back. The shops are open, the relaunched market is snazzy and impressive, and the new public transport interchange has got people talking like never before about public transport interchanges. Seriously, it’s all go. But according to TripAdvisor, the true jewel in Altrincham’s crown is an unassuming-looking Indian restaurant right outside the town centre.
Seriously, you wouldn’t look twice at Essence. Northern Soul can vouch for the fact that it’s easy to drive straight past, even if, um, you’re looking for it. But there it is, on a row of shops right by the Broadheath retail park. And once you’re inside, it’s something else entirely. If you live anywhere nearby, there’s really no need to be driving to Rusholme for top-notch curry.
The décor is simple, minimal and stylish, with subdued lighting and a neat black and orange colour scheme which encompasses everything from the napkins to the waiters’ outfits. The staff are friendly and attentive, and appear to be actually enjoying themselves in a fashion not generally common to their trade. To the starters, then: the dinky tandoori lamb chops were quite deliciously appetising. On the veggie side of the table, my partner chose a beautifully presented vegetable samosa, full of crisp, light, clean flavours.
For mains, Essence’s proprietor Amir recommended the tandoori chicken dhal – and a good call it was, too: a devilishly enjoyable, mild-side-of-spicy dish, with a pleasing subtlety to boot. My partner opted for a number of vegetarian side dishes in place of a main course, taking in a delicious cauliflower bhaji and a generous portion of tarka dhal with a lovely, firm consistency. A rare off moment, though, was the okra-based bindi bhaji. She couldn’t quite put her (lady’s) finger on the reason, but thought it was altogether crunchier than you’d expect. Take it from me, though, she’s not that easily pleased.
All the usual trappings – garlic and keema nans (both soft and delicious), proper poppadoms, sweet, creamy mango lassi, and light, aromatic mushroom pilau rice – hit the spot with expert precision. Without fail everything was appealingly presented, and tasted fresh, healthy and clean – no cloying greasiness here, no unpleasant postprandial bloatedness. OK, admittedly so we ended up outfacing ourselves, and sheepishly requesting a doggy bag. But in a good way. You wouldn’t want food this fine going to waste.
It’s not as though this represents some kind of radical reinvention of Indian cuisine. Essence is, at heart, an unpretentious curry house. But it would be wrong to say that it’s nothing special. It’s plain to see why it’s developed such a devoted local fanbase over the years: basically, Amir and his team really know what they’re doing. They’re serving up very decent fare in a warm, friendly manner and in pleasant surroundings. OK, so the A56 is right outside, but the food’s good enough to make you forget that entirely. The whole place feels like a labour of love, and it pretty much excels at what it does. If Altrincham is on the ascendant, then, Essence can lay some claim to being its hidden gem.
By Andy Murray
Rating out of five:
Where: Manchester Road, Altrincham, Cheshire
When: Open Mon – Sat 17:30 – 23:00, Sun 16:00 – 23:00
More info: https://www.facebook.com/essencecheshire or https://twitter.com/essencecheshire