We all know I’m no stranger to Indian food and a fair few Indian restaurants have featured on this blog, from my local Omar’s which is still doing us proud, to the marvellous fine dining banquet at Five Rivers in Walsall and our recent trip to Lasan. So when I was invited to rub shoulders with some of Birmingham’s blogging fraternity while trying one of the city’s well-established Indian restaurants Itihaas, I grabbed the chance with both hands.
One of the earlier Indian fine dining restaurants in the Midlands, I’d heard about Itihaas but never quite made it on the short walk slightly out of the city centre to the corner of Newhall Street and Fleet Street to try it. The restaurant claims to offer an ‘authentic Royal Indian dining experience’ and ‘a culinary journey through the North of India with a couple of stops through Kenya and vibrant Mumbai’.
Enough to whet our appetites, especially with the promise of a new menu that they launched at the start of August and an assurance that they were keen for some honest feedback from bloggers, whether it be positive or negative.
It’s certainly an impressive venue. Itihaas’ website proudly claims that no expense has been spared in its £2million restaurant and though it may not be to everyone’s taste, there’s no denying that if opulence was what they’re aiming for then that’s what they’ve achieved. Packed with 18th and 19th century Indian artefacts, the colonial feel is definitely there in all its glory.
We were ushered downstairs to the ‘Maharaja Suite’, described as luxurious with “opulent mood lighting”. Unfortunately, while mood lighting is perfect for cosying up to your other half it’s not quite so fabulous for blog pictures, so you may think some of these pictures are even crapper than usual. Apologies.
Before we sat down, we were treated to a seemingly endless offering of canapes. My favourite was the tempura cod in a spiced paprika batter served with a tomato chilli relish (bottom right in these pics). Light batter with a lovely warmth that felt like someone was slowly turning the heat up, and tender fish inside.
Spiced minced lamb meatballs were another ‘yes’, reminding me of somewhere between kofta and sheekh kebab, and a chicken tikka wrap (top) was nice, though I don’t think it probably did justice to the level of food that’s on offer at Itihaas.
I wasn’t a massive fan of what was basically a smoked salmon and goats cheese samosa – it just didn’t quite work for me. Mini potato cakes described on the menu as ‘deconstructed’ and served with curried chickpeas, yoghurt & mint tamarind chutneys (bottom left) were beautiful to look at, and tasty, but again didn’t top the list for me.
After we’d mingled we sat down for the main event – a showcase of some of Itihaas’ main courses along with rice and naan. First, we got a bit of background from the executive chef, who reminded us that Birmingham hasn’t always been quite as open to the kind of Indian fine dining food it offers along with other big names like Lasan and Asha’s.
In his words, Brum was a bit “unforgiving” of somewhere that was trying to offer food other than your average madras or vindaloo. Fortunately (for us, and for Itihaas), that’s changed, but he was still keen to point out that while the food might be more than a basic balti on a Friday night, it is still a “labour of love – no fancy ingredients, no clever potions, no Heston science, just real.”
First up was the Lobster Panchporan – a whole lobster simmered with five spices in a creamed mustard paste. It certainly looked the part, laid open on the dish in that telltale lobster shape, yet packed with a rich sauce as well as the lobster meat. I love lobster, but I’ve always been a bit of a fan of letting it speak for itself, so I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t a tiny bit wasted on a dish packed with spices and mustard. That, and the £29 price tag, might put me off ordering it on a return visit, but it was certainly a showy start to the meal.
My favourite dish of the night was Butter chicken on the bone. I never choose this kind of thing and usually opt for something a bit spicier – and less calorie laden. But once I’d tried one mouthful I don’t think many other people got a look in. Tender chicken in a smoked tomato sauce swirled with cream. The chicken was cooked on the bone which, for me, is always a winner and I think makes it much more tender. The sauce was mild but full of flavour and naughty creaminess, with the addition of some fresh coriander to add that bit of slightly citrus freshness.
While this picture doesn’t do it justice AT ALL, the roasted salmon in a banana leaf was another winner. Once unwrapped, it revealed a simple salmon fillet that had been beautifully marinaded then roasted. I’m quite a fan of tandoori-style dishes when I eat Indian food, but so often you get a tasty layer of spices on the outside yet beyond that it’s just plain.
Not so here, the marinade had made sure that the spices ran throughout the salmon and each mouthful was a delight, tender and moist and beautifully spiced.
We were also treated to a scallop and prawn masala which, I have to say, didn’t blow me away. It was nice, but didn’t have the same wow factor I’d found with the salmon or butter chicken.
The same went for the Nalli Ghost – lamb off the bone stewed in a hot masala gravy. I love lamb in a curry, I think it not only stands up to some of the more spice-laden dishes, but adds its own deep flavour to them. I enjoyed the Nalli Ghost but again it just didn’t have that something special that some of the other dishes boasted.
Naan is another thing I try to avoid when I go out for Indian food. Not because I don’t like it (I LOVE it) but purely because of its carbaholic nature. I let that slip at Itihaas though because I just couldn’t resist the baskets of warm, buttery garlic and coriander naans that seemed, like the canapes, neverending. They were slightly thinner and crispier than some naan I’ve had before, which suited me as there was less of that doughy-ness that sits in your stomach.
We also tried vegetable Pakistani pulao rice and some pomegranate raita which both made for nice accompaniments to the main events on the table.
Dessert is something I rarely order in Indian restaurants, mainly because I’m often too full to squeeze any more in. Our night at Itihaas was a good opportunity to try some authentic desserts that I’ve either never, or only rarely, tried. A chai masala mousse was fluffy and airy and full of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg though I’m not sure I could have eaten a whole one – a few mouthfuls were enough for me.
Pomegranate and pistachio Rasmalai was a completely new experience for me. Rasmalai is definitely an authentic dish – it was described on our menu as creamed sponge pudding in rich milk pistachio base sprinkled with pomegranate.
A bit of research under my belt (Google basically), and I can tell you it’s traditionally made of balls of chenna, or Indian cottage cheese, soaked in cream then cooked in sugar syrup and milk. Apparently if you make it at home you use powdered milk and flour to knead into balls then simmer them in milk cream.
Either way, what you end up with is a kind of spongey, cheesy pudding soaked in sweet milk. A few of my fellow bloggers didn’t like it, finding the texture too much like cottage cheese, but I found it grew on me after a few mouthfuls. There was something rather comforting about the milky, sweet taste, while the addition of the pistachios and pomegranate seeds added a bit of different texture.
Despite getting on okay with the Rasmalai, it was the sambuca-flamed Gulab Jamun that were the winning dessert for me. I’ve had gulab jamun before – fried dumplings usually soaked in rose-water – and I love the syrupy sickly sweetness but I was a bit concerned about the addition of sambuca. It’s not my favourite spirit and conjures up memories of messy nights and too many shots, so I was a bit worried it would ruin a dessert I usually enjoy.
Not so. It added a slightly liquorice hint to the rose-water but since the alcohol had all been burned off, there was none of the boozy nastiness that I had feared.
Apple & Cinnamon Samosas were nice enough, though nothing I would rush to order again, but all of us bloggers enjoyed a selection of Kulfi that we were given to try.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at Itihaas – partly because it was a great chance to catch up with some fellow bloggers but also because some of the dishes were some of the best Indian food I’ve had. Others were very good, but I felt they didn’t quite hit the high bar set by treats like the salmon or the butter chicken and wonderful naan.
Itihaas is not your average curry house, so don’t go there expecting a cheap and cheerful meal. The price tags are more in line with somewhere like Lasan than they are with other Indian restaurants in Birmingham. For the dishes that really hit the spot for me, I have to confess I wouldn’t mind paying the £15-plus price tag – they were that good – though I might have been slightly disappointed by the ones that didn’t blow me away and didn’t quite hit the mark.
I’ve been confidently told that a way of trying Itihaas without getting yourself a big dinner bill is to go for one of their lunchtime Thalis, which range from £10.50 to £14.50 and give you a chance to try a few different dishes.
It might not be to everyone’s taste – decor and food-wise – or budget, but I think for the right occasion I’d definitely go back to Itihaas, maybe for a special occasion. There was just something a bit different about it, and some of the dishes really were great. I liked that it has stuck to some classic dishes without modernising them beyond recognition. There are a few more dishes on the menu I definitely need to try and of course, I’ll need more of that butter chicken.
I was invited to Itihaas by East Village PR as part of the bloggers’ showcase evening. All the food and drink was complimentary, but we weren’t asked for positive reviews.
If you want to check out some of my fellow bloggers’ thoughts on Itihaas, try these:-
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