Up to Birmingham for a visit to the refurbished Shimla Pinks, one of a chain of restaurants that, since the first branch opened in Glasgow in 1988, has spread like soft marg throughout the Midlands. You can’t miss it, said the receptionist in the Crossroads-like blandahotel nearby; it’s pink. And indeed it was; pinker than Lady Penelope’s Cadillac; all circular lipstick pink banquettes, glass chandeliers like cough sweets, undulating ceilings with fairy lights and statuesque, faceless dummies dressed in shirwal kameez. It was like being on the set of a kid’s adventure film; you half expect scimitars and jewelled turbans, or Austin powers and talking dogs. Instead, you get the great brummie male, herded together in large numbers of celebratory groups, arriving sans sensible outerwear such as sweaters and coats despite the subzero winter temperatures; presumably to show how macho they are in the Midlands.
The blokes sported shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows and nipples showing through their Ben Shermans; while girls voices you could clean ovens with, braved the frigid night air with bare legs, tank tops, hoodies and ankle bracelets; and everyone drank Bacardi breezers straight from the bottle. Not supper at Nigella’s then.
‘Is it usually this busy?’ I asked the waiter. ‘Ah dunno, mate,’ he shrugged. ‘What’s good on the menu?’ I tried again, faced with several pages of closely typed selections. The food is supposedly based on the Dum Pukht method of slow cooking in earthernware pots but features some of the usual suspects like Lamb Saag – spinach and lamb, and the post pub trial by fire Chicken Vindaloo. However, the waiter recommended the fish, which isn’t what most of our home grown Indian restaurants are known for, but nevertheless we took his advice and chose the grilled seabass; purportedly ‘infused with a blend of turmeric, ginger and lemon juice’, then grilled over charcoal. The poor thing appeared almost incinerated, resembling a mangled piece of shoe leather – add a red bikini and a bit of silicone and you’ve got a Baywatch babe at sixty. After hacking mercilessly mercilessly through the blackened exterior, eventually you could exhume sparse flakes of admittedly flavourful flesh, but it was a struggle.
There’s an eclectic mixture of dishes on offer – Tandoori quail, spiced squid fried in batter, Bangla Brill curry with mustard and tamarind, and Tikhey Jhinghey which sounds like the Indian version of slap and tickle but is in fact only king prawns in a tomato and onion sauce. Plates are triangular stoneware that fit together quite nicely on the table if you order, as we did, far too much food. We could see the brummie chaps at the next table with pints and plates of curry, looking at the prestigious amounts of food we were packing away with respect.
Good dishes were the tender lamb chop masala, asparagus and snow peas stir fried with spices, and the chicken in a creamy sauce with ground cashew nuts, while not the Red Fort ‘delicacy’ the menu promised was, however, an acceptable stab at it. The Mangalorean king scallops in a fiery sauce were also fairly assertive. Dull dishes were the paneer ka tikka – grilled Indian cheese which tasted like soggy tissues that have been through the washing machine, some supremely average mushrooms with the flavour of grilled ping pong balls and the disappointing aloo matar ki tikke – Indian potato cakes served with chutnies, which not even the unusual asafoetida filling could enliven. No Indian sweets, instead there’s a deli glass fronted case with chocolate gateaux, cheesecake and carrot cake, none of which appealed after the spicy food.
There are 10 champagnes on the menu, and though I can see the point of a bottle of Bolly with fish and chips, it’s hard to understand who would splash out £135 quid for Roederer Cristal in an Indian restaurant where your taste buds are singed off one by one with delicious heat.
We were seated on the hard, normal punter chairs, underneath stills from Indian film posters cut out in aemoba-shaped jigsaw sized pieces with the open kitchen behind us. There’s a small private room at the back with a DJ booth for those who want to party seriously. Aye well, all I could think about was that I was missing ER and a night on the sofa with Gorgeous Goran. Sad isn’t it? It wasn’t until we went back to the blandahotel that I realised my friend was equally anxious. We missed ER, she said heaving a desultory sigh, as we stepped over the homeless person in the restaurant doorway and took a cab the three feet distance to the hotel lobby (darling, it was/italics/ raining. Ah speak for yerself, chuck, I made a quick phone call from the loo and got my son to record it. That’s why some of us have children.