Indian Tiffin Room, Manchester, 2 Isabella Banks Street, First Street, Manchester, M15 4RL – Visit Now
The hype surrounding Indian Tiffin Room has been deafening. Just months after opening its Manchester city centre branch it has already been nominated for the British Curry Awards Outstanding Restaurant of the Year. However, there’s strong competition. Spinningfields’ Scene has a dazzlingly inventive menu along with a charming relaxed atmosphere, and long-term favourite Akbar’s has a trophy cabinet full of awards. Can this new kid on the block match up?
First impressions aren’t great. The glass front has a smashed panel, which feels jarring in this largely genteel area, just yards from the HOME arts centre. The staff quickly usher us through and sit us opposite the open-plan kitchen. In most circumstances this would be a treat, a rare chance to watch cooks at work. Not today, however. It’s hard to have a conversation over the vigorous bell-ringing and yells for service. For a late Tuesday evening it’s decidedly hectic with waiting staff rushing around looking harried while dealing with groups of students and families with excitable children. It’s certainly not high tea at the Savoy. But of course it isn’t meant to be. The food is inspired by the bustling streets of India, and, so it appears, the atmosphere.
The menu has an almost bewildering layout. Other than small sections for classic curries, starters and sides, the menu is dominated by a large section in the middle, enticingly offering up authentic South Indian tiffin dishes. Navigating the menu above the general hubbub proves impossible so we give up and ask a friendly but clearly pressed for time waiter to recommend some of the stand-out items.
Service is speedy, to a fault. The table is tiny and dishes turn up at an alarming rate, meaning we have to relinquish some of them before they’re finished. First up, a plate of samosas. They’re fine but unremarkable. Thick stodgy dough packed with uninspiringly spiced vegetables, they’re little more than old-fashioned dumplings stuffed with potatoes, peas and cumin. It’s a mild disappointment, but then again it’s only a samosa. It’d be unfair to judge Simon Rogan on a bowl of bread.
Next up the paneer pakoda. It’s difficult to get paneer wrong. Prepared well, with the right spices it can be transcendent. But again, it’s a dud. Both cheese and batter are bland and flavourless, on a par with cheap supermarket fritters. The limp salad wouldn’t look out of place at low-rent takeaway, while a listless mint chutney tries, and fails, to add some much-needed zing.
At this point, a waitress brings over a plate intended for someone else. Hot crispy chunks of chicken in a sizzling sauce, it looks fantastic. Reluctantly, we point out her mistake and lament as they’re taken away. A bowl of whitebait takes its place. It doesn’t come close. A half-full cup of lightly-battered tiny fish stare out, unblinking and unappetising. The batter tastes of hot dust and it’s one pungent little salty fish after another. There aren’t many in the bowl but there’s no desire to finish them.
The chicken lollipops tell a different story. The meat is tender and cleverly sliced to scrunch the meat into a succulent fiery ball on the end of a bone. We realise, all too late, that Indian Tiffin Room excels when serving up meat.
This is confirmed by the rava dosa, as featured on the central, focal part of the menu so we’re expecting great things. Instead what turns up is a huge lentil-based crisp, so brittle it shatters at the merest touch, resting on a metal school dinner tray with four dollops of differently-coloured but depressingly bland sauces. One of these dips not only looks like school dinner gravy, it even tastes like it. It’s a dull dish and overpriced at £5.
For the finale, butter chicken curry. A dish created in Delhi in the late 1940s, our hopes aren’t high considering Indian Tiffin Room’s focus on South Indian cuisine. Surprisingly it’s great. Silky smooth, packed with cream and wickedly calorific, it pairs perfectly with the hot bubbly garlic naan bread.
As for drinks, the cocktail menu has a fascinating array of spice-infused cocktails. I choose the intriguing All Spice In a Jar, fascinated by the idea of a drink based on Indian spices. Curiosity soon turns to buyer’s remorse. There’s a reason coriander and allspice aren’t common ingredients in a cocktail and that reason is simple. It tastes awful. Fiery hot rum battles with the overwhelming aroma of ground coriander and after a few sips it remains untouched. Though I do pick off the pineapple garnish in a bid to cleanse my palate. My companion’s lychee cocktail is much better. Light, fruity and with no unnecessary extras, it’s the perfect drink to subdue the heat from the chicken lollipops.
Indian Tiffin Room talk a good talk, with evocative imagery of roadside eateries deftly serving up fresh hot vibrant food, but all too often the dishes fall short, lacking in flavour, and pairing flavours that fail to inspire. However, some dishes were excellent, and the time spent enviously eyeing the more appetising dishes dashed out of the kitchen suggests a series of poor choices on our part. But the biggest letdown of all was the atmosphere. If you like your meals rowdy and cramped, and your partner inaudible, this is the place for you. Otherwise, there are plenty more relaxed Indian restaurants in the city, with markedly more impressive menus.