Masala Kraft, Mumbai

We’d had a long day; an early flight, travelling and the onset of a cold had all taken it’s toll so upon reaching the luxury of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel we couldn’t bear to leave again. Downstairs it was then, to Masala Kraft (one of the hotel’s numerous restaurants) for some ‘North Indian cuisine’.

The service throughout our meal was impeccable – polite down to the last detail – and the room, all dark wood and burnt oranges, is undeniably handsome. But there’s one big problem; there is absolutely no vibe whatsoever here. Zero. Nada. Nil. And that’s important. A restaurant shouldn’t feel clinical or unmemorable. If it does, then – even if the food is incredible – I’m unlikely to want to return. And the food wasn’t even incredible.

To begin comes a platter of poppadom shards, mixed with what look like prawn crackers, without any of the prawn flavour. It’s a bizarre plate, probably containing no more than one or two poppadoms if pieced together, and about seven of the prawn-crackers-that-aren’t-prawn-crackers. It’s a total over complication. Just give me a bloody poppadom please, with some decent chutney and pickles. I’ll be much happier.

We skip starters, though I note they are priced at almost the same cost (if not more) than some of the mains. Our first choice of main is a chicken pulao. a Biriyani-esque dish of rice layered with chicken curry, priced at 1750 rupees (excluding tax). Once you factor in that tax, it works out to be around £26. FOR SOME RICE AND CHICKEN. It’s good, and fairly plentiful, but in no way special enough to warrant that price tag; a few days later, a biriyani at least as good costs just 150 rupees.

Back at Masala Kraft I fancy dhal makhani, but can’t quite stomach paying near to £15 for it; I reckon if you gave me fifteen quid I could make enough dhal to feed every guest in the Taj. Instead I opt for Baigan Bharta; tandoor cooked aubergine cooked down with onions and tomatoes to a thick sauce. It’s £17, doesn’t come with rice (that’s an extra £7.50, thanks), and a huge disappointment, gaining the dubious award of being the only dish during our whole trip with no depth of flavour at all. It’s flat and thoroughly, thoroughly boring. I douse it with the £5 raita to try and give it some personality.

We drink two glasses each of Sula, an Indian wine that we become extremely familiar with over the two weeks; my Mum bloody loves a wine. By the glass it’s a little more that we’ve paid elsewhere for the same wine, but considering the location that’s to be expected. It’s better than the alternate option of foreign wine; I understand mark-up is necessary (as well as customs charges) but it seems crazy that a bottle of wine which you can pick up in Tesco for under a tenner appears on the menu at around £75.

We knew that the bill would be a lot, but £110 to me seems extortionate for the amount we had (two mains, rice, naan, raita and four glasses of wine). Especially when you compare it to the full tasting menu we had at Indian Accent a few days prior, which came to just under £170 including a bottle of the same wine we drunk this evening.

I’m not going to slate Masala Kraft for being so eye-wateringly expensive; it’s in the Taj, so of course it’s pricy. I don’t mind paying a lot for a meal (being able to eat out is what gets me through the day job) but it HAS to be worth the money, and this is where Masala Kraft fails miserably; I didn’t walk away excited about the food or the experience in any way.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone dine here when, for a fraction of the price, you can eat as well – or better – at any number of places in the city. Be adventurous, and leave Masala Kraft to those dining on expenses.

Masala Kraft is located inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba, Mumbai.

Masala Kraft - The Taj Mahal Palace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Lord of the Pies, Macclesfield

One thing in life I’ve learnt recently is not to criticise where people decide to eat. I know that not everyone has the same taste as me and, honestly, that’s fine. Feel free to tell me how Miller & Carter is best for steak and I will look you in the eye and smile whilst my brain contorts and the backs of my eyes flicker uncontrollably. You love Rub Smokehouse? That’s great, I demand you tell me about it first thing Monday morning. And, what, you’re a massive fan of Wetherspoons, I hear you say? Good, me too. I’m not making that mistake; I’ve seen what they did to Marina O’Loughlin.

See, The Sunday Times’ latest food critic made the error of criticising JD Wetherspoons a few weeks back, an action that caused a reaction far greater than Newton’s third law could ever have imagined. The people spoke – no, shouted – via the medium of social media. It was pretty grim reading and totally uncalled for. It turns out the mixed grill is not named for the emotions it invokes, and paying customers really do eat for reasons other than necessity. Ms O’Loughlin rightly defended herself and made it clear it was not snobbery, pointing out that you could eat well for the same price elsewhere. In a stand of girl power not seen since I learnt the moves to ‘Spice Up Your Life’, I am agreeing with her. And I have proof thanks to a rather wonderful find in my home town of Macclesfield.

Thirty two pounds sterling, that’s what I spent in Lord of The Pies. For that, the bf and I had four pies; two we ate, the others we took home. We had two sides, and to wash it down he had a local beer, me my favourite Forest gin and tonic. According to her piece Ms O’Loughlin spent £42 purely on food. Now, price is where the comparison with Wetherspoons ends. The pies here are unbelievably good; the way you always imagine pies will be but so rarely are. They have burnished buttery pastry cases and fillings that have been cooked with love and patience. It’s easy to see why my beef and ale has won awards; the sauce is deep and heavenly, the large chunks of meat spoonable in texture. He who I am with has one with chicken curry. He doesn’t talk whilst eating it. This is why we leave with extra pies in hand; I need this weapon in my artillery.

The sides are almost as special. Mash with black pudding speaks to my Northern soul in the dirtiest of tongues. Likewise potato wedges that are really proper chips, crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre. We dunk these with gusto into the last of the gravy jug. The lovely lady behind the till questions if we are local – the chip dunking should have answered that by itself. I love it here and it sits somewhere in-between seeing my mum and my dad in reasons why I should come home more often. A cheap meal doesn’t have to be a bad one; Ms O’Loughlin you really should give it a try.

Lord of the Pies is at 19 Chestergate, Macclesfield, SK11 6BX.

Sticky Walnut, Hoole

My grandmother used to live in Hoole. It wasn’t very cool then; as kids our dining highlight was lunch in the Morrison’s cafe. We haven’t changed much – my sister and I still bicker incessantly after a few hours in each other’s company, and my dad still thinks it’s hilarious to wind everyone up – but luckily Hoole has. It’s now got some decent drinking holes, a hip barbershop doing a roaring beard trade, and the place we are here for – Sticky Walnut.

It’s charmingly bijou for a place with such a big Twitter presence. I like it a lot; the cookbooks lining the walls, the striped aprons hanging by the door, the relaxed, friendly service. It’s warm and unfussy, exactly the sort of neighbourhood bistro that everybody should have nearby.

Whilst browsing the menu, we drink a cherry bellini and a fantastic negroni that makes me want to go home and hone my cocktail making skills. The lunch deal is obscenely cheap – 1 course is £12, rising to £19 for 3 courses – with a quality far beyond it’s price point.

We start with fat Gordal olives and rosemary and thyme focaccia. My sister moans that it’s too salty; she is wrong. My boyfriend and I fight over her last piece.

My first course is a chicken liver pate that a previous guest claimed (via the always informative Trip Advisor) gave him instant food poisoning. Luckily I escaped this medical miracle and thought my generous slab of pate, served with red onion marmalade and more of that focaccia, was a brilliant rendition of a bistro classic. Butternut squash soup with chestnuts, miso butter and a milk roll had beautiful depth of flavour and umami tang, whilst the mackerel fillet with burnt apple, labneh, za’atar and cucumber was probably delightful, but unfortunately my dad fails to share. Typical.

Hours of my life have been spent drooling over photos of Sticky’s signature braised featherblade, so I was never going to order anything else. I’m not sure what deal Sticky have struck with the devil to produce a dish this fucking delicious but it was definitely worth it. The meat is braised into a tender, rich, sticky heap of bovine goodness that is every bit what I imagined and more. An onion purée and curly kale accompany it, as do moreish truffle and Parmesan chips. We order more bowls for the table and all swiftly disappear. A pork chop with Romesco sauce is simple and effective, although one of three is cooked slightly rarer than we’d usually take it, and pan fried sea bream is stunning; perfectly crisp skin, Jerusalem artichoke purée and a salted lemon tapenade that has me frantically searching the internet for a dupe recipe.

It’s my birthday when we visit – organised by my boyfriend as a surprise – and with every birthday must come cake. My boyfriend has a habit of writing things on plates and so appears a chocolate mousse cake, topped with strawberries and honeycomb, to wish me happy birthday. It’s probably the nicest birthday cake anyone’s ever got me, but it’s testament to Sticky’s menu that I am still insistent on trying the almond and fig frangipane tart that I picked out days in advance. Fuck it, it’s my birthday and I can have two desserts if I want to.

I don’t need to shout about how Sticky seem to just get get it – they’ve got four restaurants and Gary Usher to do that – but they really, really do. Please Gary, can we have an Elite Bistro in Birmingham?!

You can find Sticky Walnut at 11 Charles Street, Chester, CH2 3AZ.

Sticky Walnut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Grana Padano Lunch at San Carlo, Birmingham

I bloody love cheese. Hard, soft, stinky, mild, cow or goat – I don’t discriminate. And now that winter has officially rolled in, I have no shame calling out for cheese in every meal. Luckily San Carlo have my back, rolling out a special menu dedicated to cheese – Grana Padano in particular – which will run throughout the whole of November.

The new menu kicked off with an afternoon of cheese and wine, where we were joined by a Grana Padano expert (how can I get this job, please?) to sample the cheese and dishes that San Carlo have created to showcase it.

First order of the day – after prosecco, of course – is a tasting of the cheese in it’s pure, unadulterated form. Three hearty chunks of Grana Padano, ranging from a spritely 11 month old vintage with a mild, creamy flavour, through the nuttier 16 month vintage, to the robust 20 month ‘Reserva’ vintage which smacks of umami and has a lovely crystalline texture. It’s a versatile cheese, the various vintages able to suit different dishes and palates.

Good stuff, but there’s one surefire way to make any cheese taste better; add carbs. And San Carlo are on it. Our first dish is Gnocco Croccante; essentially large gnocchi with a crisp coating, atop a smooth Grana Padano sauce and accompanied by fresh truffle. It’s rich, cheesy and all kinds of delicious, with the crunch of the coating giving texture to a dish which would otherwise be soft enough for my great grandma to enjoy. A crisp Pinot Grigio does a great job of cutting through the richness of the dish.

Next up is a mushroom risotto, served in (wait for it) a WHEEL OF CHEESE. This is the stuff of dreams, people. It’s a good risotto, hearty and warming with lots of mushroom, but the rice could have done with a fraction longer in the pan and a touch more salt. It’s paired with a glass of rosé. Yes, I thought they were crazy too, but it really worked. San Carlo know their wines; I should never have doubted them.

Finally there is more gnocchi, this time in a Grana Padano basket with a Gorgonzola sauce. A glass of red is essential here, standing up to the big, cheesy flavours on the plate.

We leave, taking with us a distinct odour of cheese. Perhaps three in a row is a bit too much, but as standalone specials these dishes are a perfect way to get your cheese fix. They’re available at San Carlo until the end of November, which by my calculations means you have exactly 506.5 hours to get your hands on them. Godspeed!

I was invited to the press event, but was not asked to write about it. Find San Carlo at 4 Temple Street, Birmingham, B2 5BN

San Carlo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lasan, Jewellery Quarter

I used to live almost directly above Lasan. It was the ultimate temptation; my arrival home from work each day coincided perfectly with the start of dinner service. Exotic scents wafted out of the restaurant as I lugged my bag upstairs, causing numerous tantrums as I peered into the fridge and realised dinner would be nowhere near that enjoyed by those seated downstairs.

I’ve moved on since then, and so has Lasan; although you’ll still find it tucked just off Saint Paul’s Square, inside it’s been transformed. Gone is the dark, serious interior, replaced by a light and airy space full of quirky features and ripe for filling with a buzzy crowd. There is a newly formed bar area which gives much more versatility; it’s now as much a place for after work cocktails as for a special meal.

The menu has been revamped too. Some of the old favourites are there, but they’ve been joined by dishes with a bit more heart and a little less fuss. The meal still begins with delicious mouthfuls of pani puri, brimming with chickpea and tamarind, followed by three faultless starters. First, soft shell crab arrives, enveloped by a light chilli batter; it’s accompanied by tomato chutney, sour mango and Devonshire crab which appears via Kerala in delicate crab cakes. Samosas filled with venison are rich and tender, whilst chicken comes in a trio of paté, kebab and drumstick that is beautifully presented and tastes just as good.

Lasan really know how to treat their meat; the mains are proof of this. Slow-roasted lamb shank has a charred coating of spice which gives way to reveal a soft interior which slips away from the bone effortlessly. On the side there is a silky dhal makhani and raita to cut through the richness. Hyderabadi Biriyani is even better, with tender chunks of deftly spiced goat meat hidden under soft rice. It’s as good a biriyani as I’ve ever tried and alone is enough reason for a return visit. The portions are generous, so the side of additional dhal makhani is not at all necessary, but is delicious scooped up with garlic and coriander naans and paper thin Roomali Roti.

Even gluttons like us cannot contemplate dessert, so we finish our wine and depart reluctantly. I’ve always been a fan of Lasan, but I like this new direction; it’s more relaxed, more authentic, with the service and food consistently brilliant. It makes me excited to return.

I dined as a guest of Lasan.

Find Lasan at 3-4 Dakota Buildings, James Street, St Paul’s Square, Birmingham, B3 1SD

Lasan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato