When someone raves about their local curry house, you’re always going to be slightly sceptical. But when two different people rave about the same place, your ears prick up.
The Shimla Palace in Wolseley Bridge, near Stafford, is probably the least obvious place for a Bangladeshi and Indian restaurant. Its home is the historic Cromwell House, which dates back to the 16th Century, and apparently hosted Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Now, it’s been converted into a restaurant but still oozes history from the very fabric of the building. The dining areas are split into different rooms, lending an air of intimacy and privacy. I can imagine it’s great if you’re having a quiet meal for two, and proved to be equally useful for our noisy gaggle of girls. The current management took over in August 2010 and it’s clear they’re doing something right, judging by the rave reviews from their loyal clientele who urged me to go.
From the off, the service was brilliant. Yeah, so maybe it helped that I was with one of their regulars, but the staff were friendly, polite and full of humour. The menu has most of the traditional dishes you’d expect, but some unusual dishes I’ve never seen, and I’m definitely no stranger to Indian restaurants. The first of these was Benghi Poppadoms ( think this is how you spell it!), which I had been told I absolutely MUST try, with the words: “Once you have those, you’ll never go back to traditional”. And this would probably be the case, if it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t seen these on any other menu and am unlikely to get the chance to have them until I return to the Shimla. They certainly stand out from ordinary poppadoms with their charred black appearance. If they hadn’t come so highly recommended I would have assumed they’d just been burnt, but this is by design. What it yields is a smokey flavour that transforms what is usually a just a vehicle for mango chutney and yoghurt and mint dip into a star in its own right.
After scoffing on poppadoms and chutneys, we skipped starters and headed straight for the mains. The lengthy list of chef’s recommendations had me tempted, with the South Indian Chilli Chicken coming highly recommended from one person, along with the Naga Morichi, cooked with scary naga chilli. But I couldn’t ignore the dedicated list of ‘exotic fish dishes’. I’ve recently become quite taken with fish-based Indian dishes (like this seafood biryani) and most Indian restaurants feature a few now, but it’s unusual to see such an interesting fish menu, using different varieties as well as different styles. I had the pick of sea bass, prawns, salmon, trout, and more unusual fish like Fangash, Rupchanda, and Ayer.
Being indecisive sometimes has its uses, as it often gives you a cheeky opportunity to test the service at a restaurant. My night at the Shimla wasn’t the first – and certainly won’t be the last – time that I’ve had to enlist the help of the waiter or waitress to decide which dish to pick. It’s probably their worst nightmare, but far less of a chore for those who really know their menu, and their produce, inside out. It certainly didn’t phase our friendly waiter Mo at all, who got to the bottom of what kind of fish dish I was after, how spicy I’d like it, and recommended Ayer Shatkora.
According to the menu, Ayer is a fish that is mainly found in the fresh water of the River Padma – the Padma being the name given to the River Ganges as it flows through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. Again, according to the menu, Shatkora is a fruit that grows in the Himalayan mountains and a few regions of India and Bangladesh. The dish uses the zest, which is blended and added to selected spices to make its own unique taste. In what I have learned to be a great trait of the Shimla’s, great effort was taken to tailor the dish to my own liking, with Mo checking whether I wanted any extra chilli or other additions and swapping the boiled rice listed as accompanying it for lemon and coriander rice. This is a great touch, and I’m assured that everybody gets a similar chance to vary the dish to their own particular taste.
The presentation is fairly traditional here, but care is still taken to make sure it looks good. The fish was delicate, similar to seabass, and was fragrant with the right level of spice that enhanced, rather than overpowered, its taste. The fillets were laid on top of a richly-spiced sauce that stood out from the crowd thanks to the citrusy Shatkora pieces, which was unlike anything I’ve had before, in both texture and taste. Like I say, citrusy, but not that kind of lip-puckering citrus from a lemon, and perfect for cutting through the sauce. The rice was fluffy and delicate, and the right accompaniment for the dish. I’m increasingly wondering whether the reason I’m turning to fish for my curry choices is because it’s fairly light so means I can eat more, because I cleared the plate on this one.
I didn’t try everyone else’s, but grabbed a mouthful of one friend’s, the Chutney Murgh Shashlik – barbecued chicken off the bone, garnished with roasted tomatoes, onions and green peppers with herbs and spices, cooked with masala sauce. The chicken was tender with the hint of smokey barbecuey-ness, the sauce was rich and full of flavour and the right heat. She also let me try some of her vegetable stuffed paratha – not something I would usually have, but packed with veg and flavour and great for scooping up her masala sauce.
Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed with the Shimla Palace. I can see why people fall in love with it. A diverse menu mixing firm favourites with dishes you might struggle to find elsewhere, all in cosy, unique surroundings, and with great service as the icing on the cake.
It might be a bit of a hike from my house, but I’m already planning a return visit. They do a couple of special meals, dubbed Dishes of the Kings and Queens, which need 24 hours notice but sound well worth it. Such as the Kursi Lamb – a whole lamb leg, spiced, marinated, dipped in chef’s special sauce for at least eight hours, roasted and garnished with a minced lamb sauce. It’s not everyday you see something like that on a menu! It’s no wonder it’s got such a loyal following.
We paid in full for our meals at the Shimla.