Eating out with Bertie — Rajasthan Restaurant
Rajasthan Restaurant 127 Penn Hill Avenue Penn Hill Poole BH14 9LY 01202 718966
Published in July ’08
‘What has happened to Freddie and Mrs Freddie?’ – I can imagine the distressed phone calls to the Dorset Life office. But fear not; they are simply having a well-earned vacation in warmer climes, so I, together with Mrs Bertie, stood in for the truants and had the pleasure of dining at the Rajasthan Restaurant in Parkstone. This worried us slightly, as Mrs Bertie and I are rural folk from a quiet market town. Would we cope with the noise and bustle of the Big City of Poole?
The restaurant is indeed on a busy main road and there are no views of rolling acres of parkland from the plate glass window front. Once inside, however, we were transported into a different world, and this was not merely because it is an ‘Indian restaurant’. From the moment we entered (unheralded and anonymous), we were given instant but not overbearing attention. I know that Mrs Bertie cannot bear ‘gush’ and I always dread this moment in any restaurant, but here the balance was well-struck.
The room is spacious but intimate, and I was surprised when I later found out that it can seat as many as seventy customers. The décor is modern but inoffensively so – none of the contemporary kitsch which yells ‘We are trendy’ at you. Already we were very close to our comfort zone.
The menu is a dozen or so laminated ring-bound pages, with every dish clearly described. And what dishes! Shah Aziz, the proprietor of the Rajasthan, prides himself on offering more than the usual Indian restaurant. There are some which boast tikka korai as a speciality; here it scrapes onto the menu as a footnote (‘Many of the established traditional Indian restaurant dishes are also available – just ask your waiter.’). As Shah put it, ‘There’s more to Indian cuisine than dhansaks and vindaloos!’
For a starter, Mrs Bertie chose papri chaat, a sweet and sour potato salad with chickpeas and papri (little round wafers made from flour) flavoured with tamarind chutney and sweetened yogurt, topped with pomegranate seeds – this last being described by Mrs Bertie as ‘a stroke of genius’. Noticing that she had more than Proserpina’s ration, I decided to pinch one of them; the flavour is indeed out of this world. I chose the asparagus prawn thoran, never having tried the combination of my two most favourite things. I was concerned by the description ‘in the Keralan style’, though. Kerala is South India, and I had assumed from bitter experience that anything from that region will make clouds of steam emerge from the top of my head. Shah was on hand to reassure me that this was yet another misconception; not every Indian chef wants to blow your head off, and the best of them seek after delicacy and subtlety. The flavours in my starter were indeed both delicate and subtle, set off by coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves. There was no steam from my head.
The Rajasthan was the first Indian restaurant in the Poole area to offer fish dishes, so we decided to stay with seafood for our main courses. Mrs Bertie went for the Goan prawn curry as she liked the idea of tiger prawns sautéed in garlic, seeped in tamarind and coconut milk and tempered with chilli, mustard seed, curry and lime leaves. ‘Tempered’ is a word Shah uses often, and it is significant in that it shows his love of delicate flavours. He persuaded me to opt for machli moliee, one of their signature dishes. Thank goodness he did – I would never have dreamed of finding halibut in an Indian restaurant, but that was what it was: pan-fried fillets of halibut cooked in coconut milk, flavoured with sesame, mustard and coriander, the perfect tastes to complement the delicate mildness of the fish. We shared our accompanying dishes of avial (butternut squash, aubergine and root vegetables in cumin and yogurt), basmati rice with cashew nuts and lemon and lime juice, and kachumber raitha. So often, raitha is presented as a tub of yogurt laced with sliced cucumber, but Shah is insistent that the yogurt is actually a dressing for the salad (kachumber being tomatoes, onion, cucmber and cumin).
We were enraptured by the wealth and subtlety of the flavours we had encountered. The ideal conclusion was mango kulfi, Indian ice cream of a texture almost crisp enough to be a sorbet but without the wateriness.
What to drink is always a vexed question when dining at an Indian establishment. Many claim that beer is the only accompaniment for this cuisine and that the taste of a good wine is overpowered by the spices, but I have always thought that good cooking does not overpower anything. We opted for an Australian Pinot Grigio Chardonnay, partly because of its name (‘Promised Earth’) and partly because of the unusual combination.
Shah has run the Rajasthan for twelve years now, having learned his skills from his parents’ restaurant in Surrey, and he is an enthusiast. He oversees all that happens in the kitchen every day, and his wife Julie runs the front of house with him – a splendid combination, like everything that they set before their customers.