Thursday 23 February 2012

Kayal Restaurant, Leicester: Keralan cuisine

I'm not a huge fan of the majority of Indian restaurants and takeaways in Britain: it always seems to be one base sauce for everything and pretty heavy food. So, when I saw on one of the Hairy Bikers programmes about an authentic Keralan restaurant in Leicester, my interest was piqued. Then, finding myself in Leicester overnight, Kayal was the obvious choice, and fortunately just down the road from my hotel, the excellent Mercure Grand Hotel.

This is a very different Indian restaurant, if indeed you can call it an Indian restaurant at all. It looks quite different: there are no flock wallpapers, and if anything it looks more like a vegetarian, wholefood restaurant like Cranks used to be, with lots of wood on the walls. Oh, and a Royal Enfield motorcycle propping up the bar.

The menu is quite different too: there was virtually nothing I recognised.  As expected, there was a lot more fish and seafood than usually found in British Indian restaurants, though I veered towards some of the more street food style dishes, as they seemed to me the most unusual, and broke away from the meat or fish with sauce norm.

It wasn't easy to choose just a few dishes: I had to forego battered potato, aubergine and banana dishes, for example, which made me wish I was here as part of a larger group that could order everything to share.
Uzhunnu Vada
My first dish were some Uzhunnu Vada: delicately spiced doughnuts, made with gram flour.  These were great: freshly fried, with a nice crunch on the outside and light and fluffy inside.  Light, delicate, fragrant spicy flavours in a doughnut: sounds a winner, and it won me over. Very light and the best way I can think of describing them is as a dahl favoured doughnut with a bit of the Russian roulette of padron peppers. The vada came with a lentil sambar and two coconut chutneys: one made with red chillis, the other with green chillies.  I thought the sambar was a little too close in flavour to the vada to thrill me much, but the two coconut chutneys were remarkably moreish.

Chicken puffs
An odd feature of the menu was that some dishes are called by their Keralan names, while others have English names.  This was described simply as Chicken Puffs. I wonder why there's this linguistic dichotomy? It can't be that this is their own Leicester invention, as the menu described it as "one of the most attracting [sic] snacks from the village bakeries."  They are small puff pastry rolls filled with chicken.  Unfortunately, in complete contrast to the vada, this was seriously let down by not being cooked to order: the pasty was soggy, which did absolutely nothing for it in my view. The chicken filling was good, again with beautiful, delicate spicing, but it was never going to overcome the soggy pastry.  This came with the same two coconut chutneys, and a small salad, based around red cabbage.

Masala Dosa
The Masala Dosa, a sort of paper-thin rice and lentil crepe, defeated my attempts to photograph it in its entirety - it was just too big! The dosa itself was very light, with a gentle crispness, but with enough texture that it didn't just shatter and dissolve.  The dosa was filled with crushed potato, onions and peas: once again, beautifully spiced.  The same sambar appeared on the side, as had previously appeared with the vada: it worked better this time.

The 1960s style glacé cherry on top of a scoop of unexceptional ice cream marks Unnakai out as a dessert. In fact they are small dumplings made from mashed plantain, coconut, raisins and cashew, and then deep fried. Did I detect a hint of cardamon? Maybe not the lightest of desserts, but very interesting and not too sweet, although the ice cream with its cherry seemed a bit out of place.

A word too for my drink: ganga jamuna, a blend of strawberry and lime juice, which was really rather nice, if an alarming pink colour, its childishness enhanced with a curly straw!

Service was very good, informative and helpful.

This really opened my eyes to Keralan cuisine. It was much more delicate, fragrant and fresh than the UK curry house norm, and - for me - all the better for it.

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