The Den at Dining In1347 Argyle Street,
0141 334 3815
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
A fresh flavour of India
Review published on 02/09/2013 © Sunday Herald
Im quite glad that Rick Steins India series on BBC Two has finished. Wednesday nights were beginning to settle into a frustrating pattern: eat, sit down to watch Rick investigating the food of the sub-continent, start feeling hungry all over again. His series was the most informative and appetite-whetting TV food offering since Ottolenghis Mediterranean Feast, a change from the homogenised daily diet of lame-brained gladiatorial, cup-caked foodie game shows for slow learners who need everything repeated slowly, loudly, and often.
Rick opened up a map of Indias diverse regional cuisines, and uncovered some of the layers within; everything from street food, through Anglo-Indian institutional catering, to grand celebratory dishes. It was the Persian-influenced Rajasthani chicken and rosewater biryani that finally propelled my housemate to buy the book of the series, and ever since, the house has been particularly fragrant. The aroma of dry roasted and ground garam masala, blended with top notes of cinnamon and recently fried fresh curry leaves, is usurping burnt toast as the smell of home, and I have become an expert on removing turmeric stains from work surfaces: lemon juice is the answer.
All geared up with Ricks book and shopping list of ingredients, the thought of eating out in a typical Scottish Indian restaurant isnt as appealing; if you can follow recipes competently, youll generally eat better at home. But one exception, though, is the Den, the dining in option at Mother India in Glasgow, essentially a takeaway, with just a few tables where you can eat on the spot. The cooking here is refreshingly homespun. It tastes as if youd made it yourself, or as if Rick had cooked it for you, or better still, as if the person who showed Rick how to make the dish, made it for you.
Of course, they have a bit of kit that few home cooks possess, a tandoor (clay oven). Lots of Indian restaurants have tandoors, and most make pretty good breads in them, but the Den is the first to serve me cauliflower cooked in one a brilliant way to rescue the much-abused cauli from the customary watery grave. The florets had been marinated in a thick spice paste, with yogurt, Id hazard, and then plunged into the tandoors furnace-like belly, so charring their extremities, and concentrating their brassica flavour within. They came with a dip that was the opposite of lazy: predominantly tomato, but full of tongue-pleasing texture from sweated vegetables, spices and aromatics.
The menu at the Den is short, and bears little resemblance to the standard curry house roll call. It is, for instance, the first Indian restaurant in Scotland that I am aware that serves a free-range chicken curry, a sign of a progressive mindset. The Den stands out for its originality too. Even if I got round to finding karela, the bitter Indian vegetable, I doubt I would get round to smoking my own lamb mince to cook it with. What an unusual and brilliantly successful combination.
Fish overshadows meat at the Den, and charitably underpriced it is too. For £6.95, we had enough monkfish to feed one generously, or two as a side dish; plump, white nuggets of fresher-than-fresh fillet with its elastic membrane all neatly trimmed off, partially submerged in mealy, almost creamy Puy lentils spiked with lime and ginger. For £7.99, we were looking at a similarly proportioned hefty serving of succulent king prawns, cooked in a south Indian style, with mustard seeds, chilli and fresh green curry leaves popped and sizzled in hot oil. A vegetable dish of courgette, carrots and peas was anything but pedestrian, thanks in part to its spicing with earthy fenugreek.
Id ignore the ice cream (not up to par with the savoury dishes) and pass on the crude onion pickle and deeply average poppadoms. But I wouldnt miss the paratha stuffed with soft-cooked, grated white radish (mooli).
Small, bright, conspiratorial and comfortable, the Den offers tantalising glimpses into a busy kitchen with both male and female chefs working full tilt. The whole place smells great the moment you walk in.
Review published on 02/12/2013 © Sunday Herald
And so it comes to pass that we finally get a Friday night table at The Den, after only three whole weeks of trying. Though to be frank Im such a whizz at organisation that I never once manage to phone any earlier than Friday lunchtime. No, there arent many tables in here anyway, and it does look a bit like a tiny corner-shop squeezed amid the glitzy restaurants spreading and sprawling their way down fashionable Argyle Street towards Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
Dont let that put you off. Indeed dont let the fact this is an offshoot of the venerable Mother India just along the road put you off or even that this is a smaller, shyer, less showy sidekick to Mother Indias Cafe right next door.
But lets cut to the chase. First of all we have to shimmy our way in past the folk waiting at the door for takeaways. And as we pick our way through the menus one of which is the posh takeaway menu theres a constant run of folks almost standing over us as they pay for their takeaway food.
Then as we pass the west end witching hour of 7.15pm the tables around us which were curiously empty moments ago start to fill up. Suddenly we are in a busy, thrumming, thriving restaurant eating an unusual chicken tikka and potato pakora, which is all chunks of spiced meat and floury spud. A dish of cabbage, potatoes and peas arrives roasting hot and wafting the aroma of freshly cut curry leaves into the chill November air. Those curry leaves, incidentally, and their addictive pungent flavour will feature heavily in almost every dish we have tonight. It seems as though whole bushes worth are felled and torn and tossed into the sauces along with black onions seeds, cumin, garlic and other spices creating a heady bouquet as dishes arrive. Great. If you like their flavour. I certainly do.
A malabari fish curry contains huge chunks of moist, sweet monkfish. Pan-fried lamb with baby turnips isnt as dry as it sounds but is spiced and seasoned and then underlined by those tiny super-sweet turnips. Perhaps the lamb could have been a bit more tender, but thats a minor criticism compared to how high the general standard is tonight.
Lets pause to consider something as unprepossessing as a radish paratha. Straight from the oven, stuffed with hot, buttery and salty radishes, it is delicious. As is that plain Jane dish of cabbage, potatoes and peas. It sounds simple, yet the mix of spices and the richness of the sauce makes it taste fabulous.
Such is the confidence in here that they dont need to rely on extravagant menu descriptions or elaborate titles, though very little comes across as traditional Glasgow Indian restaurant food. There is fenugreek mixed vegetables on the menu, hake, scallops, haddock or monkfish that can be had with spiced mixed greens, crushed cauliflower and diced potatoes, even ginger and lime puy lentils.
A word of warning, though. Many of the dishes we had tonight are full fat and full-flavoured curries. Theres ghee aplenty on the plate and that couldnt be further from the fashion for super-light curries but for a night out where flavour is the point whats wrong with that? Diet the rest of the week.
True, occasionally we have to stop and pick out some of the curry leaves, and sometimes theres a crunch from a toasted spice but is that a problem? Nope.
And, to be honest, we havent scratched the surface of the menu options. Whole chicken stuffed with smoked aubergine can be pre-ordered, or Hajra Bibis special salmon. For that, though, youd need to be organised.
For the rest of us mere mortals theres such a fresh take on Indian cuisine on the daily menu that it should revive even the most jaded palates.