I can’t work out if I’m more loyal to my favourite places as I grow older, or if discovering new stuff just seems more exhausting. Take Indian food, for example. After diligently trying pretty much all the restaurants in town, I’ve finally decided when it comes to South Indian/Sri Lankan, my favourite remains Dosa Special (now into its third incarnation since I started visiting, but still with the same chef and the same peerless food). While for North Indian/Pakistani it’s Chutney, where I take all Antipodean exiles when they come to visit. They may have significantly better weather, but they still have significantly worse curry.
So it was with some trepidation I saw a new restaurant was opening on High Wycombe’s high street, offering Keralan coastal cuisine. Part of me was excited that the number of places in town offering thalis could now fill the fingers of one hand (if you’re in the Simpsons), but part of me felt that slight lurch of irrational irritation that my curiosity meant I’d feel obliged to at least try it out (probably several times), especially as I walk past twice daily. Even if it was only to discover it wasn’t up to the good old tried and tested. Yeah, I know, it’s a tough life.
My first visit was for lunch with work colleagues just before Christmas. All of us imbued by the heady charm of the festive lead-up where you take any excuse to trade the curled up sandwich at your desk for something a little more joyous - maybe involving a festive half…. Although this time I chose the strawberry juice over a bottle of Cobra, despite the latter already having a proved effect of increased joy. The juice was pretty cheery, though, and certainly made the afternoon a little easier.
At lunch, alongside the al la carte menu, they also offer a special curry of the day (meat or veg) or the Kaapad lunch, a platter with a variety of different curries, chutneys, rice and a dosa. For seven quid it would be pretty churlish to complain, even less so when everything was excellent - especially the coconut chicken curry and the fluffy basmati rice - if a little delicately spiced for a masochist like me.
My second visit was a post-Christmas lunch with the Ewing and Stealth. Normally a time for parsimony and restraint, we were soon ordering rounds of large bottles of Cobra. January looks so much better from the bottom of a glass. Especially if it’s had a cold beer in it.
Unsurprisingly our drinks also went very well with our selection of beer snacks – a variety of fried bits and pieces including plantain and ornate curls of spiced rice batter, served with a selection of chutneys and sauces. A step up from standing in your dressing gown, scooping lime pickle straight from the jar onto some slightly stale poppadums, which I may or may not have been known to do.
The prawn masala was good; decent prawns, served in a decent number (although there’s never really enough prawns in a prawn curry) with a decent, coconut garlic and ginger-flecked sauce. Hard to get too excited over; would happily eat again. Maybe not a ringing endorsement given I would happily eat most things again, as long as they hadn’t made an unfavourable future appearance or contain boiled eggs. Or both.
On ordering the ‘chicken stew’- chicken cooked in a creamy coconut sauce with carrot, beans, spiced with black pepper, ginger, cloves and curry leaves - the waiter asked if we wanted any chillies in it. Now I realise some people like their food without tears, but it also seemed slightly odd to have something, even with the extra chillies, so toothless on the menu.
It wasn’t that it was bad by any means, just that it was so delicate it seemed to lack any spice at all. Perhaps it's my jaded taste buds but it resembled the creamy filling of a pot pie, the kind of thing created on Food Network by a farmer’s wife from the mid-west, assisted by her brood of children while her ruddy-cheeked husband is out ploughing the fields. (pioneer woman! - TE).
Whatever appeal the kappayum meenum - fish curry with boiled tapioca - lacked on paper (an odd-sounding combination, with the latter addition bringing to mind lumpy school dinners), it made up for by being the dish of the day. The sauce was similar to the prawn curry, but worked even better with the chunks of white fish, while the tapioca was less like frogspawn and more like a root veg mash that had been infused with turmeric and mixed with grated coconut.
Alongside we ate appams, the spongy lentil pancake with a slightly sour taste which is good, but not as good as a paratha or a peshwari naan. And side dishes of okra (officially now my favourite veg to be served in an Indian style - sorry saag - and rice tossed with lemon , curry leaves and chilli which was fragrant and fluffy in a way that my rice has never been, and probably never will. Still, a good excuse to keep getting takeout to avoid the inevitable disappointment.
While everybody knows that Indian deserts both simultaneously make your teeth ache and smell like the dish full of bits of dead flowers on your Nan’s sideboard, of course the Ewing still wanted to try one.
In fairness the pineapple kesari - a syrup-soaked cake made of semolina, blended with fresh pineapple, cashew nuts and raisins served warm with vanilla ice cream - was really pretty tasty. Although Stealth was happy to stick with a liquid pudding.
While I'm not sure it quite scales the dizzy heights of my favourite spot, many may want to disagree with me and it already seems to have a fervent fan base of locals. Which is handy, as my fave only has four tables, and I want to make sure I can still get served. Kappad is certainly the slicker choice, if you're looking to impress, and also boasts both an alcohol licence and a loo. Quite useful if you've drunk as many beers as we did.