I’ve never been much of a cook. It takes skill and patience and neither of those skills are innate to me. As a result, my meals at home are relatively uncomplicated. I won’t lie to you, it’s basically just omelettes and sandwiches in the Stocker kitchen. So when I was offered a chance to enjoy quality Indian cuisine from Asha’s, a new restaurant on Manchester’s Peter Street, you can understand why I jumped at the chance.
The best word to describe the place is ‘plush’. Well, that and ‘expansive’. The Middle East chain which, in the UK, also has an outlet in Birmingham, invested a lot of money refurbishing a Grade II listed building with an appropriate amount of decorum. The historic brickwork has been respectfully draped with bead curtains, and the velvet seating is spacious and plentiful. The entire environment appears to be laid out with a meticulousness that’s careful to emphasise comfortable dining. It’s a refreshing change to see money being spent with a clear goal in mind throughout, rather than thrown about carelessly as an unambiguous statement of wealth to diners. It’s less alienating, and fits neatly with Asha’s core aim of being respected but accessible.
I selected a drink from the proffered tray, taking a moment to survey the mint leaf and raisins sprinkled on top of the ice. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s a Raisin Hell,” the server told me proudly. I must have looked blank. “It’s a pun,” he explained gently. “Because of the raisins.”
I had plenty of time to appreciate its exquisite sweetness as my food arrived. As a meal of this sort always should, it kicked off with poppadums and sauces. The wonderful green apple chutney dominated my palate, with the spicy tomato a close second. What followed next was a dizzying array of fish, beef, chicken and vegetables, all in wonderfully hot or reassuringly savoury sauces. For all the tenderness of the chicken, I was won over entirely by the spicy prawns and, later, the fish kebabs, having never eaten the latter before.
As we ate, the restaurant manager filled us in on some of the history and culture behind the food. It was rare to learn so much about the food you’re eating. And, as was becoming increasingly clear, this was not a generic menu churned out on a whim. Every dish had been vouched for personally by Asha, and almost all of them held some sort of special significance to her. In case you’re wondering, Asha is the 82-year-old Indian singer Asha Bhosle, a Bollywood legend who was name-checked in the mid-90s Cornershop song, Brimful of Asha.
“We’ve tested literally everything on the menu,” says the manager, Giordana. “Peter [the owner] and I went out to Dubai and ate a meal of everything over the course of a few weeks.”
She went on to tell me about the dishes inspired from classic Indian street food, whereas others were smaller versions of huge dishes intended for large family gatherings. I was impressed by the immense variety on the menu. Indian food is traditionally associated with a supremely hot taste, and while Asha’s food certainly isn’t wanting in that regard, they have also gone to great pains to create original dishes for those less inclined towards intense spiciness. Fortunately I don’t belong to the latter crowd, so I’m able to endorse the particularly magnificent beef and potato curry.
The desserts were tiny, sweet and divine. Presented as a miniature bite-sized trio on a single long plate, they were as pleasing to the eye as they were to the mouth. The chilli chocolate was my favourite, topped with a honeycomb that melted in your mouth. It was closely followed by the classic tangy lemon tart, topped with berries for that extra burst of flavour.
The attitude and outlook of Asha’s staff, meanwhile, is exemplified by their manager – not only are they excellent at cooking and serving, they really care about their food. They know every bit about the history and the culture behind it, and they’ve thought long and hard about how to integrate it into Manchester’s culinary scene. Manchester has no shortage of Italian, Chinese and even Greek restaurants, but it’s comparatively difficult to find an Indian one in quite the same league. Asha’s has expertly cornered a mostly untapped section of the market, and they’ll no doubt continue to dominate it with their culinary and cultural expertise. I certainly felt sufficiently richer (and fuller) for the experience.
By Jack Stocker
Where: Peter Street, Manchester
More info: www.ashasuk.co.uk