Kalpna, Edinburgh - Restaurants in Edinburgh | s1play.com

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2-3 Saint Patrick Square,

0131 667 9890

Price Rating: 2

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Happy returns

Review published on 10/05/2010 © Sunday Herald

I’m a lucky sod. I get to eat all around Scotland at the Sunday Herald’s expense. There are tougher gigs, that’s true although, believe me, there’s a lot of dross out there, so it isn’t all lip-smacking meals, honest. But I won’t labour that point – you’re probably not feeling too sorry for me.

The thing is, restaurant reviewing has made me really stingy about parting with my own money for a meal, and when I do, I have to be totally convinced that it’s going to be worth it, or I’d rather eat at home. Potentially jaded from too many familiar and derivative menus, I need my appetite stimulated. I’m looking for food that bombards all the pleasure centres of the brain. It needs to be utterly satisfying but easily digestible and something I can’t knock up at home. So there’s one place that I just keep going back to time after time, a restaurant that never bores me or lets me down: the Kalpna in Edinburgh.

The Kalpna has been a strand in my life for 25 years, ever since it opened. While I lived in France, it was the thing that I most missed from home, so when my mother came to visit, she would freeze some Kalpna dishes and bring them over as a treat. Thank heavens for the EU and the free movement of food – and mothers, of course.

The Kalpna is a genuine Indian restaurant, not to be confused with a British curry house. It is family-run and vegetarian but, with cooking this exciting, you won’t miss meat. Chef-proprietor Ajay Bhartdwaj hails from Uttar Pradesh. One of the most intuitive chefs I know, Bhartdwaj’s mastery of flavour and his ability to balance and harmonise the complex orchestra of spices that make up his often innovative dishes, is luminous. His wife Neera, who is Gujerati, is no mean cook either. What’s more she has an eye for style. You see it in the traditional, artisan “Lipan” glass, mirror and plasterwork that now adorns the restaurant. Visit at night when the candles are lit and watch the walls twinkling. Their son Parag, who now manages front of house, has inherited his parents’ engaging affability, warmth and brightness. The Kalpna is always a comforting place to be.

You could make a meal of the Kalpna’s starters – I often do, throwing in one of their addictive crisp-sour masala dosas for good measure. Kalpna food wakes up the appetite rather than mugs it. It’s the one place where I can overeat without suffering the next day.

You would never believe a little ball of anything could be quite as tasty as the hara bara kebab, vivid green pan-fried spinach patties filled with homemade paneer cheese spiked with one of Bhartdwaj’s freshly roasted, secret recipe spice blends. Mind you, there’s tough competition from the ragra rissoles, perfection in a bashed-up potato as far as I’m concerned, especially when dipped in its sharp-sweet sauce and fragrant gravy of mealy green peas. That said, the bateta vada are show-stoppers. Spuds again, this time sharp and sweet, seasoned with coriander, mustard seeds, green chilli and ginger, then – and – this is the inspired bit – coated and deep fried in a gram (chickpea) flour batter and served with two contrasting sauces and sprinkles of some wonderful crunchy Indian thing.

Among the main courses, I am particularly devoted to the Mughal kofta, a glorious assemblage of paneer, nuts and dried fruits served in an earthily hot, yogurty creamy sauce. But then I find it hard to say no to the two sauces – fresh tomato, honey and ginger and almond and saffron – that accompany the stuffed potato barrels known as dum aloo Kashmeri. Kalpna’s pulao rice arrives trailing that characteristic basmati aroma. Parathas dotted with thyme-like ajwain seeds caress the soft palate.

The proper Indian ice cream, kulfi, is a must. The Alfonso mango one never disappoints but I’m hooked on the pistachio version with its foxy cardamom flavour. And when the kulfi scented with fragrant khus (vetivert) is on offer, snap it up. You won’t regret it, or anything here. I promise.