This is a tale of surprises and sizzling spices. I’ll start with the punchline. Rugby’s got its own desi pub. And it’s pretty blimin good.
For those who don’t know, a Desi pub is basically a pub owned or managed by someone of Indian origin.
If you want to delve into history and culture, they started life in the 1950s at a time when non-white Brits weren’t welcome in pubs, serving up curries and Tandoori grill food alongside a pint of lager or beer. You’ll find plenty across the West Midlands, Leicester and London, and no doubt Coventry has some, even if I’m late to the party.
I had my first experience thanks to an invite from Observer food critic Jay Rayner to join him for lunch at The Sportsman in West Bromwich, which he later gave a great review. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and I was absolutely there for it. A few old guys in the corner with pints of Carling, slightly cracked melamine tables, mismatched cutlery and the seductive smell of spice from the kitchen.
We roared our way through a massive mixed grill, adding curries and bread into the mix and taking all our leftovers home before I got us lost on the M6 en route to New Street station, possibly leaving him concerned that he was about to be kidnapped by a mad woman in a mini.
Fast forward a few months and I find myself in the Paddox Pub in Rugby, lecturing my husband on how this is, in fact, a Desi pub – even if they’re not describing it as that. And – whisper it quietly – I think it might be better than the one Jay Rayner took me to.
To anyone driving past, or even walking in, the recently-reopened Paddox Pub in Hillmorton is the same old boozer it’s always been. A stacked bar with everything from Carling to Campari, big screens showing the sport, a pool table in the corner, and a fairly bright look thanks to various recent refurbs.
Over the past couple of years it’s been open then closed, it reopened announcing it was doing an Indian grill, closed again, and now has quietly opened yet again without a great deal of fanfare.
We first popped in on a Wednesday for a drink en route home from a walk and it was as you’d expect. A few people sat at the bar, the quiet hum of the TV. A few paper menus littered around and I could see the Indian grill stuff was still going on.
I didn’t think much of it. Until the kitchen door opened and a platter of sizzling meat swept into the room (carried by someone obvs), assaulting our ears with a spit and a pop and our nostrils with the fragrant waft of spice and char.
Within minutes we were asking what the story was. It seems the owner reopened The Paddox, then had to travel to India so left it in someone else’s hands when things didn’t quite go according to plan. Now he’s back, with a chef brought over from Birmingham, and planning to actually make a go of things properly.
We’d already eaten but couldn’t resist an offer to try some of their chicken wings and chicken tikka. They were great. Freshly grilled and full of favour – the kind of great that sees your eyeballs bulge slightly out of their sockets in surprise as you slather a load of homemade mint yoghurt dip over piece after piece until it’s all gone.
A week later and we’re back for a proper effort. A mixed grill – because I need to do a direct comparison with my experience at The Sportsman. The sheekh kebab is easily the best I’ve ever had, the chicken tikka as moist and perfectly-spiced as I remember from the week before. Fish pakoras are the most delicate thing on the lava-hot cast iron platter, coated in a lightly-spiced batter, and a subtle addition to a big-flavour platter of food.
In contrast, the lamb chops tucked within the pile of cooked meat are charred to within an inch of their life, blackened into slight chewiness. But it’s okay because the spice is strong enough to balance it out and this is a place where it’s fine to wrestle with a lamb chop, caveman-style, and then do the same with a wing or two.
I’m not the only one led astray by the tantalising smell of tandoori food. Halfway through, a lady comes over to ask what we’ve got because she and her friends – who just came in for a bottle of wine – want to order the same.
Welcome to the joys of a desi pub, my friends, where a few drinks can turn into dinner in the blink of an eye, and you never have to worry about getting a curry on the way home.
Speaking of curry, we try them too. A lamb madras for Jamie that is rich in colour, aroma and flavour and full of tender chunks of meat. The sauce delivers a wave of warmth that comes, keeps coming, but never burns unpleasantly, instead sending the subconscious instruction to keep on scooping it up with the light, crispy roti that we’ve been instructed to try.
Saag paneer is refreshingly lacking in any grease, instead allowing you to focus on the earthy spinach and the squeaky, squidgy chunks of cheese hidden within. I’m full but it’s just as great the next day when I reheat it at home for another go at my Paddox experience.
The cutlery is mismatched but clean, the paper napkins cheap but plentiful. A few older men at the bar don’t seem to bat an eyelid at the sizzle and smoke that zooms past them to our table, nor do the guys playing pool. For them it’s their local – just with some different people behind the bar and the chance for a curry if they fancy tea or a takeaway.
The grill at The Sportsman was good. But I’ll stick my neck out and say this is better. Full of flavour and the distinctive taste of char and fire. The curries are a delight. The bread addictive. And the rest of the joy is provided by the fact we’re in a proper pub, where airs and graces are left at the door and you can enjoy a pint rather than a wine pairing.
It’s a surprise find, and a good’un at that. Let’s just hope this new chapter for the Paddox continues, and we get to keep our slice of 21st century British boozer culture.
[Disclosure: We paid in full at the Paddox. They didn’t know I was a blogger]