If you caught any of the wonderful BBC series The Incredible Spice Men, you will surely not have failed to be impressed by the passion, knowledge and sense of fun by the two Indian chefs that presented it; Tony Singh and Cyrus Todiwala. Their mission was to travel the UK and try and encourage people with a more traditional view of British food, to take a look at spices and not be afraid of them. Central to this message was that spice doesn’t have to just mean pungency in food; it should primarily be used to enhance and augment the flavours in top-quality ingredients. As someone with Indian heritage myself, I have long subscribed to this mentality.
To this end, I was very much looking forward to visiting Mr Todiwala’s restaurant in Tower Hill last Saturday – Café Spice Namaste. I visited with a group of friends, having persuaded them that rather than going for a bland curry on Brick Lane, we should give Café Spice a go.
We started the meal with a softly spiced and warming shot of turnip soup as an amuse-bouche. This was followed by a selection of Mr Todiwala’s famous pickles and a variety of poppadoms, which were certainly a departure from the traditional mango chutney and mint yoghurt. These pickles were much more intensely flavoured, with a real depth of heat to some of them.
For my starter, I plumped for a South Indian favourite of mine, a Dosa; which is a crispy pancake (made from rice and lentils), containing a filling of your choice, along with a Saambaar (a spiced lentil sauce) and chutney. Normally I have vegetarian Dosas (featuring a potato filling), which is appropriate given that in southern India not a lot of meat is eaten; however for this meal I tried Café Spice’s Frankie Lamb Dosa, which had a Bombay-style diced lamb in a Masala sauce. As hoped, the Dosa itself was nice and light with the punchy Saambaar and the cooling coconut chutney, marrying nicely with the spiced lamb. It was also a very good size, given that I was having it as a starter; any bigger and I would have struggled later on!
For the main course, I chose their Vindalho de Carne de Porco. This was their take on the infamous Vindaloo; which in Goan cooking is not the full-frontal heat assault that you can often find in a lot of neighbourhood curry houses. This Vindaloo focussed on providing a gravy that was both sweet and sour with the curry, which matched fantastically with the two cuts of fatty pork meat in this curry (pork belly and shoulder). I would certainly not have described this as a particularly pungent curry, but the flavours were definitely memorable.
I wasn’t initially planning on having a pudding, but as my friends were all having one I felt that I couldn’t miss out. We all went for the a Cardamom spiced Crème Brulee, which was a perfect example of the ethos mentioned above; taking a traditional dish and using a spice to augment or transform it. The cardamom flavour in this dish really gave it a distinct and interesting flavour, with a slightly perfumed element. My one regret is that I didn’t get a nice dessert wine to match this with, as it was crying out for one…
During the meal we thought it would only be appropriate if we drunk some Indian Pale Ales to satiate our thirst. The beer on offer was the rather lovely Curious Brew IPA, which I must say slipped down rather nicely.
A special mention needs to be made of the top-level service provided by the excellent Front of House team led by Mrs Todiwala. She was very helpful at guiding us through the menu and making suggestions of what people may like where they were a little unsure; all of her suggestions were spot on, too!
It was also a real pleasure to meet the great man after our meal – I’ll admit to feeling a little star-struck! I can assure you that his infectious charisma on television is replicated in real life.
There was no doubt that Café Spice’s food was of a far superior quality to that of a regular curry house. Their mission to promote the best of British cuisine and showcasing it with the dazzling array of spices and flavours of Indian cooking is something that I think we can all embrace. After all, the forte of modern British food culture is that it embraces elements from all over the world and is all the stronger for it.