Akbars573-581 Sauchiehall Street,
0141 222 2258
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
No new Leeds found
Review published on 10/04/2012 © Sunday Herald
So the famous English curry chain Akbars has come to Scotland, with a glitzy restaurant in Glasgow. In Yorkshire, Akbars is something of a legend. Always busy and massively popular, this chain started out with a 25-seater restaurant in Bradford in 1995. Since 2003 it has opened another 10, extending its reach south to Birmingham and west to Manchester. Akbar translates as greatness or great, and these words seem to sum up this chains ambitions.
I first ate in Akbars in Leeds Eastgate last year and we had a fun time. It had the noisy party atmosphere of places that are choc-a-block with diners. The waiters do a good line in patter too. One friend hasnt quite got over being greeted at Akbars Leeds branch with the phrase: Youre beautiful like the sun coming up, which in a Leeds accent sounds more like: Yor beautiful like the soon coomun oop. Flattery apart, who doesnt like large quantities at small prices? I certainly remembered fondly the trademark Akbar nan breads, served on hooked cast iron stands, the spice-soaked char-grilled chops, and a reasonable meal with a modest bill.
Perhaps I was just intoxicated by the atmosphere in this thriving Leeds branch, or maybe the Glasgow restaurant has yet to match that standard, but the best I can say for our meal is that it was ordinary, to the point that I would not go back unless someone convinced me that the cooking level had been cranked up considerably.
The best thing about the starters was the masala fish, a fine, fresh fillet (haddock, Id say), heartily spiced and served with a smoky strawberry chutney flavoured with black cardamom and star anise, but it was let down by its shiny, greasy batter. Special vegetable pakora was exceptionally dull. The onion ones at least had some whole spices in the batter, but the others were plain to a fault. A mushroom fried in batter really isnt exciting, especially when the batter is heavy and oily.
Since I dont eat chicken unless Im convinced its free-range, we chose the rabbit tikka rather than the chicken equivalent on the assumption that the rabbit would be wild. Not a good idea, since it was dry and leathery. It most certainly didnt make the case for eating bunny. Those stalwart char-grilled lamb chops were up to scratch though and a bargain at £3.95 for five.
I am lucky to live with someone who cooks Indian food from scratch, diligently following recipes from impeccably authentic sources. These require long lists of distinctive spice blends that must be ground to order and roasted, and call for all sorts of labour-intensive preparation, everything from toasting a freshly grated coconut (even cracking into one is tricky ), to pounding fresh turmeric into a paste, and soaking tamarind for fabulous pickles. So home often smells exotic with tantalising spice aromas and I have come to recognise what laboriously prepared Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi food tastes like. All I know is that there was nothing about our main course curries at Akbar that came anywhere close to evoking the 3D character of a curry made this way.
Of course, the menu at Akbars is so long, you wonder if they cut corners in the preparation to make such variety possible. Certainly the chefs speciality lamb paneer was a sorry dish with arid bits of lamb in a one-dimensionally hot but not in the least aromatic gravy, with no sign of whole spices. The bindi (okra) and tomato balti description mentioned ginger, spices and herbs, but it managed to taste more like a load of tomato paste mixed with oil and ground chilli, with rather a lot of added sugar, or some other ingredient that has a very sweet effect.
Talking of sweet things, in Leeds I remember having a very respectable homemade kulfi, that captivating sub-continental ice cream. In Glasgow, although listed, it wasnt available. Instead there were several sculptural, occidental desserts in a display cabinet, looking incongruous and not at all tempting.
So far in Glasgow weve yet to taste that fabled Akbar magic.
Review published on 26/03/2012 © Sunday Herald
Yes, there was some grumbling; even some mumping and moaning along the lines of: A curry? Tonight? Are you serious? For mothers day? Frankly, I blame my kids. They shouldnt have left it up to me to pick the restaurant. I mean, what do I know? Anyway, in the whole stushie, as we piled into the car and drove to town, I cunningly forgot to mention to their mother Debbie, who is also my missus, that I hadnt, ahem, booked a table.
I got away with that. Right up to the point where we drew up outside Akbars and there was the longest queue in the western world I counted 23 people as I sat in the car and sweated. How did we get past the hustling, bustling crowd and into this tiny corner table by the window? Entirely, almost unbelievably, down to the fact the queueing Asian families were all waiting for large tables to clear. Woo-hoo, as they say.
Now, you may be wondering what its like inside this restaurant tonight. Busy. Very, very busy totally jumping, in fact. From our table to the bar is a sea of bobbing, chatting heads, women in saris, men in suits, children all scrubbed up for dinner. Between them waiters duck and dive, and guys in whites manoeuvre trays of food through ridiculously tiny gaps between tables.
Our drinks order? It had to be brought again after one waiter backing between tables met another waiter backing between tables, sending bottles of soft drinks with straws stylishly bent double in them a-tumbling. Amazingly, a waiter fights his way through to take our order. Call me Tom Cruise, he says, in a thick Bradford accent. Er, why? I almost reply looking at all 6ft 2in of him.
After we work out Akbars doesnt do plain boiled rice, doesnt do mixed grills and even the small nan breads require to be served hanging from a metal frame because theyre so unfeasibly large, we cut to the chase. A jug of mango lassi, a duck tikka, a rabbit tikka, a masala fish and a portion of chicken are ordered.
The mains? Well come to them right now. Lamb nehari for me. Lamb shank on the bone with a dark soupy gravy and a big, fat green chilli floating in it. It doesnt fill me with joy until I taste it. Then its hot and spiced, and the lamb is fabulously moist.
There are fat chillies in the Akbar e-balti as well, along with chicken, lamb, potatoes, coriander and a delicious rich and respectably hot curry sauce. Theyre big on baltis at Akbars and good at them, though everything comes with a fair dollop of ghee, including the pilau rice which unusually in Glasgow is not a dry, multicoloured concoction but simply lightly browned and not bad if you dont mind a sheen of oil. I dont. Theres ginger in spades in the chicken and spinach balti, along with oodles of flavour. And more heat. All round the main courses are superb, but what about those starters?
Akbars, I probably should have mentioned, is something of a phenomenon in England. And judging by tonights packed tables it is about to be the same in Glasgow. Sadly, the starters were the weakest point. The duck tikka was OK, being reasonably moist but a bit gristly and I wouldnt want it again. The rabbit was so bland it could have been anything. Both were served with identical garnishes consisting largely of chunks of raw onion. The chicken wings? Poor. The masala fish? A good, crisp outer and a heavily spiced interior, flakes of fresh white fish falling away under the knife.
Do we enjoy? Yes, to be honest, we do. An Indian restaurant may not be de rigeur on mothers day but theres such a buzz and pizzazz to Akbars that the whole meal has a fabulous sense of theatre and occasion. OK, the starters were rubbish, but the mains were so good they almost cancelled them out.