Curry Corner, Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013
As Katie Jarvis recalls the Vesta curries of her childhood, she reflects on how far food has come.
SOMEONE told me the other day (you know who you are) that I should avoid clichs.
"But I avoid them like the plague," I said, mortally offended. Besides, I pointed out, most clichs (a tower of strength; cruel to be kind; with bated breath, etc) originate from Shakespeare. And if even he can use them, then surely it's OK for me so to do?
Anyway, what I want to say - and it's become a truism if not a clich - is this: Hasn't food changed since we were children? I was a child of the '60s, who missed out on free love but managed to catch Vesta curries. In those days, packet meals weren't a sign of decadence but of lower middle class sophistication. At least, they were Up North, where I came from. We had them as a treat one Saturday night a month, uncaring that the promise 'Meal for two' actually meant 'two mouthfuls'. This was living.
Those were the days of the men who shouted 'Rag Bone', trundling their horses and carts up the street (and who, I might add, seem to be making a come-back); the days when you called your neighbours Aunty Margaret and Uncle Len; when streets were full of people who actually knew each other. In fact, when our neighbours went out - even to pop to the shops - we'd frequently stand on our doorstep and wave them a fond goodbye. I can see now how irritating this must have been.
Curry Corner in Cheltenham: that's where we dined this month. In the time of my childhood, that sort of name might have signified a dodgy back-street caff-equivalent where you wouldn't so much have to book a table beforehand as a week off work afterwards. Names are important: they give you a clue as to what to expect. (May I digress for a moment and reveal that my brother's long-term ambition is to start a plumbing business, just so he can call it U-Benders?)
What I wasn't expecting was what I got: an oasis in an odd part of Cheltenham. Even from the outside, you can tell it's a place of quality: it almost shimmers through the gloom. However, let's start with a couple of 'howevers'...The first triumph is managing to park in one of the backstreets; you can certainly work up an appetite just getting there. The second is tripping your way through the gaggle of diners (considering how relatively out of the way it is, it gets exceptionally busy which, in itself, says something). The third was the rather vague service at the start of the meal (waiters were present in body, but oddly absent in spirit) - though the strangely inverse fact was, the busier it became, the more the service improved.
And now the (exceptionally) good points. On the website, this restaurant describes itself as stylish and glamorous - and I'd go with them on that. There's an exceptionally nice feel to the interior; it's light and bright (upstairs, anyway). Unlike many similar establishments, it wouldn't look out of place in India, which is unusual.
Next: how utterly fab to see a restaurant such as this - offering Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine - making such a point of using local food. And, so I've been told, that's been the case over the whole 30 years they've been in business - it's just not something they've shouted about. What's more, their menu resounds with chef/owner Shamsul Krori's own superb and unique recipes. Considering this care and attention, it's certainly not over-costly, though the pricing policy is beyond me. (Some dishes reflect the high quality of the food; but others seem ridiculously good value.)
They use rare-breed meats in their curries, supplied by local farms: Freeman's free-range chicken from a family farm in Newent; rabbit from Cheltenham; trout from Bibury. They make their own bread ('Shipton Mill chapatti'), chutney and ice cream. There are liqueurs from Arlingham; wines from Newent and goats' cheese from North Cerney (how about: 'three local cheeses and Bangladeshi spiced fruit platter' for a blend of cultures?).
The food is exceptional. The Ashiar Gharer Morich Murghi - a curry made with (of course) Gloucestershire chicken, simmered in cardamom and chilli masala - was probably my dish of the day, though we enjoyed plenty of others, including a platter of tandoori 'delicacies' to start with, garlic naans and a cucumber raitha. What we didn't try was the chef's signature 16 spice masala - an oversight I intend to correct.
Halfway through the meal, Ed turned up. He'd been hanging out with school friends in Cheltenham, and one of the parents - a doctor no less - had given him a lift to the restaurant. "Didn't need to tell her where it was; she knew," he told us. When a doctor knows where a restaurant is, that's either an exceptionally good thing (they spend leisure time there) or bad (they've been there in a professional capacity). Quite obviously, this was the former.
To overcome moroseness - he'd just done a science GCSE where he'd unscientifically managed to answer the wrong set of questions - he ordered a dessert. The wait was extremely long - so long I had to make sure they hadn't forgotten us - but the puddings, when they arrived, were superb both in terms of presentation and taste: galub jamun - hot Bengali curd cheese dumplings with saffron cardamom caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream; and a homemade mango and coconut sorbet.
The bill 98.45 - with a fair few extras - was pretty much what you'd expect for a meal of excellent quality. I'll definitely be making a return trip. As clich-ridden old Shakespeare would have said, you can't have too much of a good thing.
Value for money 8
Curry Corner is at 133 Fairview Road, Cheltenham GL52 2EX; 01242 528449; www.thecurrycorner.co.uk