WHEN it comes to curry, Aagrah has been, for a long time, one of the major players in the Leeds and Yorkshire dining scene.
With 16 restaurants scattered across the county - and a string of awards to its name - reputation certainly preceded our visit.
But success and good reputation can breed complacency, and Oliver thought it was time to revisit Aagrah to ensure the team is still on its culinary toes.
We had chosen the St Peter’s Square restaurant in the city centre on a Sunday evening. The dining area was about a third full. I can imagine that on a busier night, the atmosphere could become quite overwhelming, so I was glad we’d picked the day we did.
The decor was plush but not pretentious. I thought the flocked wallpaper was fun, a cheeky nod to those 1970s curry houses perhaps, but with a classy 21st century twist. The colour scheme was dark, dominated by blacks and browns, and the lighting muted.
The seating was a mixture of big booths and tables of varying sizes, with some rather large fake foliage in the middle of the room which was interesting, though not off-putting.
My dining companion and I were shown to our table by a warm, friendly waiter. En route to our table - in the very furthest corner of a huge dining area which comfortably seats more than 150 - we spotted a display cabinet showing off some tempting looking pieces of sea bass and massive prawns. Aagrah’s Fruits of the Sea offer - allowing customers to select their favourite fish from the display and then have it personally cooked and served at the table - is among several unique touches which set it apart from its rivals. Another is the opportunity to order a whole stuffed lamb in advance. It serves 15 and with the £270 price-tag, it’s an eye-watering - and mouth-watering - offer.
Soft drinks ordered, we perused the menu, opting to dine a la carte rather than dive into the Sunday buffet. It did sound tempting though, with at least a dozen choices and priced at just £12.95.
As a seasoned curry diner, I was really hoping for something different to call out to me, and I was not disappointed.
Cooking styles like Balochi, Makrani, Hydrebadi, Kashmiri, Rajasthani and Goan are not standard fare on the typical curry house menu in the UK, and this filled me with hope immediately.
Of course there are plenty of traditional crowd pleasers to choose from too.
For my starter, I chose the Balochi Machli (Balochi-style fish) priced £4.25. Balochistan is a southwestern province of Pakistan which is bordered by Afghanistan, and it shares many Afghan cooking traditions such as a focus on skewered lamb and hearty meat/rice combos. However the Baloch people also love their fish and this dish intrigued me.
It consisted of a tilapia fillet marinaded with garlic, crushed red chillies, black pepper and asafoetida, and was served with salad and came with a tamarind sauce on the side.
The first thing that struck me was the powerful, pungent aroma of asafoetida - a flavour-enhancing spice - which I could smell before the waiter even arrived at our table. This worried me slightly. But the actual flavour of the fish, and the spice, was a lot more delicate. The tilapia fish, firm and meaty in texture, was well cooked and flaky. However the tamarind sauce was a disappointment, with none of the intense sourness I was expecting. The salad was non-descript and the dish would have worked better without it, or perhaps with a tangy salsa instead.
My companion had selected the chicken livers (£3.20) which were marinaded in selected herbs and spices and cooked over charcoal. He said the livers were cooked beautifully and the marinade was powerful without being overwhelming.
For the main, regal sounding names of dishes likes Shah Jahan and Rajasthani lamb were certainly tempting. But I was drawn to the Goan style Chicken Mangalore (£8.50) and my partner selected the Bhindi Gosht (£8.20), lamb with okra. This Kashmiri-inspired dry bhuna curry features on the House Specialities menu. We ordered a plain naan and a portion of pilau rice with our mains.
My chicken was beautifully tender, the breast meat just falling away as I tucked in with a hunk of naan. Goan cuisine is defined by a freshness of flavours. The intense, chunky sauce was a mix of spicy and sour, although I did find the dish a little too salty. The fresh coriander garnish gave it that final hit of freshness. The only thing missing, for me, was the sweet element, which is vital to much Goan cuisine. The promised coconut did not come through at all. Also a warning to those of a delicate palate: avoid the pieces of dry red chilli!
My companion’s dry lamb and okra (lady finger) curry was also beautifully cooked. The lamb was just melt in the mouth tender, and the okra - which can be slimy if not cooked with care - was a winning combination. The naan bread was light, crispy and delicious. However the rice was disappointing, slightly undercooked and greasy.
We were so full we didn’t even contemplate looking at the dessert menu. Our bill, with soft drinks, came to a very reasonable £35.
Aagrah definitely sets itself apart from its rivals, and the attempt to represent different flavours of the many varying regions of the subcontinent is a winner, The food tastes authentic, and there is nothing run-of-the-mill about the offer.
The service was immaculate. Our starters had arrived within 10 minutes, and our mains were equally efficiently served. I actually wrote this review while eating the leftovers from my doggy bag, and I have to say they tasted even better a day on!
Aagrah might borrow its name from the town housing the legendary Taj Mahal, but the restaurant itself remains no less of an icon in the region’s culinary canon.
Address: St Peter’s Square, Quarry Hill, Leeds
Opening times: Mon-Sat: 5.30pm - midnight Sun: 4.30pm – 10.30pm
tel: 0113 2455 667
Star ratings: (out of 5)