[Disclosure: I was given a £100 voucher to dine at Lasan as part of celebrations for its 20th anniversary. I paid the rest of the bill]
Restaurants come and go, but it’s fair to say that Lasan in Birmingham can be considered among the stalwarts of the city’s dining scene. Whether you’re a fan or not, this year marks its 20th anniversary. What that in mind, it must be doing something right to still be around in a city where restaurants open more frequently than the Love Islanders swap partners and old faithfuls are endlessly overshadows by the next big opening or ‘experience’.
Lasan boasts a fair few highlights in its 20-year life, from awards to celebrity praise and plenty of positive reviews. Its latest milestone comes with the strapline, ’20 Years True to India’ and a new menu of ‘timeless classics’ that I’m sure they hope will mark the start of another 20-year chapter for the restaurant.
I’ve always thought the restaurant itself is a good-looking venue. Even more so after a bit of a revamp since I was last there. We went for an early dinner on a week night in the hope it would be quiet, but we hadn’t banked on the very large table of people taking full advantage of whatever company credit card they were slapping their drinks on to at a vast rate of knots.
Not Lasan’s fault, but it meant we weren’t the only table who chose to evacuate the dining room and enjoy dessert in the bar area thanks to the Friday night curry house feel this gang managed to create. Anyway, more on that later.
In between the raucous laughter and verbal swagger from the city types we managed to order some drinks from the menu – wine from the nice selection for mum and a mocktail for me – as we decided between Lasan’s tasting menu or the a la carte options.
The latter won, and as we munched on Pani Puri and poppadoms, we carefully choreographed our choices of starters around our chosen main courses to ensure between us we would get the full spectrum of the flavours offered up by Lasan.
Bihari Beef Kabab was a chunk of marinated beef that looked ominously tough yet was welcomingly tender, the spice penetrating the meat and providing bags of flavour and a well-judged heat.
Bijnori Quail, delicate and pretty on the plate, had a decent char from the tandoor. The accompaniments for each starter may have sounded slightly different in the menu, but on the plate they appeared to be the same chopped salad that you couldn’t help feel was a pimped-up version of those little plastic bags of salad you get with your Indian takeaway. Minus the glace cherry, random olives and chunk of lemon, thank goodness, but reminiscent nonetheless.
Salads aside, our choices had the desired effect of getting us excited for our main courses – two slightly different choices of Goat Biryani and Monkfish Johl. Yet apparently, at this point we were told that actually, there was no goat biryani… First world problems I know, but anyone who does what we had done and organises your choices like a Rubik’s Cube of textures, flavours, meats and styles, will know the disappointment of finding out at the very last minute that the dish you built your other choices around isn’t actually coming.
For anyone who doesn’t get it, the issue isn’t that a dish isn’t available. That happens. There are a whole slew of reasons that mean even the best restaurants sometimes have to take a dish off the menu. But on 99% of these occasions, this would be known well ahead of service, and guests would be told before they order.
It’s not the end of the world, I know. But if you plan your choices a bit obsessively, mixing and matching starters and mains not just individually, but between diners, so you can enjoy an array of meats, flavours, textures, and styles, when the rug is suddenly pulled out from under you it upsets the moment slightly.
It was down to a mistake, we found out. Someone didn’t check the notes on what was available and what wasn’t. These things happen, and I’m the last person to criticise someone for human error. But I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that the sudden realisation that a main course we had ordered and were looking forward to wouldn’t be coming after all.
Cue a mad scramble for an alternative. We didn’t want the nihari beef cheek because we’d already ordered the beef starter (which we wouldn’t have done if we’d known there was no goat and we’d be having beef for main). We didn’t want seafood because we’d already ordered monkfish. So we settled on Clay-Oven Murgh.
A colourful, impressive plate of chicken. Piled high on top of more of that same chopped salad we’d had with our starters. I’m not averse to a bit of salad, but in a restaurant like this I think we hoped for a bit more variation and innovation than the same standard accompaniment to three dishes.
That said, the chicken itself was tender and moist, with more of that tasty char. A pot of dhal that came with it was enjoyable, though I found myself telling mum about the glorious black dhal at Dishoom which maybe is a bit telling.
I’m not saying it wasn’t an enjoyable dish. It was. But my local curry house in Rugby also does a really lovely Tandoori chicken with side salad that isn’t that dissimilar to this and costs half the price. Maybe we chose wrong, but we just couldn’t help but feel this wasn’t quite the superlative kind of dish we’d come for.
Monkfish Johl was more like it. The fish itself cooked simply, making sure its delicate flavour wasn’t overpowered by too much spice, while a bed of garlic-infused leeks and broad beans were a welcome addition (and an enjoyable break from ‘that’ salad).
If the mains were a bit pedestrian and didn’t wow us as much as we’d hoped, the sides were a complete contrast. An okra curry was rich and creamy – too sweet for some maybe, but for me just delightfully, indulgently moreish.
Even better was a mushroom curry full of meaty chunks of mushroom whose earthy flavour were balanced with deep spice. Another show-stealer from the sidelines, along with a tandoori roti that may have lured me away from naan for the foreseeable future.
Our prayers for the ‘big table’s’ company credit card to reach its limit having gone unanswered, we copied the table next to us and evacuated the dining room to enjoy dessert in a slightly more peaceful bar area.
There we shared Lasan’s chocolate fondant, served with chocolate puffed rice, pistachio crumb, pistachio kulfi and butterscotch tuille. A nice dessert, and again possibly a bit pedestrian, but I’ll take that one on the chin given we could have chosen a Beetroot Halva or Sticky Date Pudding but instead opted for something that was always going to be a bit standard.
In fairness, the fondant was well made, and the Pistachio Kulfi enjoyable and different to the norm thanks to a hit of rose water that could easily not have worked, yet somehow did.
We finished with coffee and left for some quiet as the big group finally ran out of energy and dispersed at the front door. As we left, the restaurant was full of people enjoying themselves. It’s safe to say, Lasan isn’t sure of fans, and I can understand why. The food is good, it’s a cut above an average Indian restaurant, and the location and decor makes you feel like you’re having a proper restaurant experience, making it perfect for a whole range of occasions.
My only reservation is that while its accessible and inclusive, it can feel a bit confused in what it wants to be. Is this about luxurious fine dining and ‘knock your socks off’ cooking, or is it just about creating a space where people can enjoy a slightly more refined version of the dishes you get in Indian restaurants all over the country, with the added bonus of a swanky interior and more attentive service?
If it’s the latter, Lasan does it brilliantly, serving up dishes that are for the most part a cut above your local curry house, in lovely surroundings, with decent service. If it’s the former, while certain elements are pretty much there, others might need a bit of a tweak to create the wow experience Lasan promises to offer and the prices to match. I’d love to see it do this, and ensure its journey lasts another 20 years.