DINING under the watchful gaze of Chris Tarrant is a slightly disconcerting experience.
A photograph of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire presenter overlooks the tables at Sheesh Mahal in Kirkstall.
Having placed our order, Oliver half expected him to jump out from behind the bar to ask if that was my final answer, which would have made a difficult decision even more vexing given the extensive menu.
Tarrant’s picture hangs alongside one of Joanna Lumley above the bar.
“I want what she had,” my dining partner said, trusting the plummy actress-come-model-come-campaigner to be a woman of impeccable taste.
We were therefore slightly disappointed to find out that neither she nor Tarrant had ever eaten at the Kirkstall Road restaurant.
Their only connection to the place was the charitable interests they shared with the restaurant’s owner, Azram Choudhry.
However, if the size of the crowd on the Thursday night we went was a marker, Mr Choudhry certainly isn’t in desperate need of their business.
After a quiet start, the restaurant filled up rapidly. By the time we left there was barely an empty seat in the house and two large parties gave the place a real buzz.
It’s heartening to see that, even in the current economic climate, customers will continue to return to a favourite haunt given enough of an incentive.
In the 21 years that he’s run the place, Mr Choudhry has certainly developed a loyal following.
Ask them why they continued to go back and the regulars would probably give you a list of reasons.
But I doubt an appreciation for the restaurant’s aesthetic appeal would be among them.
Stuck right on the side of one of Leeds’s busiest commuter routes, and illuminated by neon signs, the restaurant looks like a typical, slightly ageing Indian restaurant.
Dimly – the boss might say ‘romantically’ – lit inside, Sheesh Mahal’s tired colour scheme is a burgundy-brown and cream throwback to curry houses of yore.
In addition to those of Tarrant and Lumley, an incongruous selection of pictures – a photograph of a junior football team on one side, the inside of what looks like a palace the other – adorns the walls.
‘Sheesh mahal’ in Urdu literally means ‘crystal palace’ and the monument of the same name in Lahore, Pakistan, is known as the palace of mirrors.
No surprise, then, that, alongside the assorted photographs there are lots of mirrors embossed with the Sheesh Mahal name inside the restaurant.
The gents’ toilet cubicle – there is only one – would be a comfortable size for a hobbit.
Taking all this into account, Sheesh Mahal certainly isn’t going to win any beauty pageants.
But, in a strange way, that’s reassuring. It suggests the hordes keep coming back because of the quality of the food.
They certainly don’t lack options. The menus themselves, yellowing in places, look like they’ve been in situ for decades – my dining partner commented that hers was actually greasy to the touch.
With more than 20 starters and well over 100 main dishes to contend with, the Sheesh Mahal chefs must be proficient plate-spinners. It’s a daunting selection to choose from, let alone serve up.
Nevertheless, the service is prompt and friendly, and after a couple of complimentary poppadoms (a minor gripe – our solitary dip was a small pot of raita), I ordered the onion bhaji to start.
The two portions were nicely spicy, but the batter was soft and chewy rather than crisp and crunchy as I prefer.
Given their primary ingredient, I also found the decision to serve my bhajis on a sizeable bed of raw onions a strange one. Presumably the chips at Sheesh Mahal come on a bed of uncooked potato.
Perhaps the chefs were looking to get rid of a surplus as my dining partner’s paneer pakora – Indian cheese in spicy batter – also came with an unnecessary helping of onion.
She enjoyed the kick of the spice in the batter of her starter, but said the soldier-shaped portions would have benefited from a selection of dips to take the edge off the heat.
My main course – the mixed chicken karahi special – was full of flavour. The dish apparently contained both marinated and non-marinated chicken pieces, though I couldn’t tell the difference.
The meat was cooked with a medium-spiced sauce containing green peppers, garlic, fresh tomatoes and coriander.
It had a pleasant degree of heat and punch, though if I had one criticism it was that the generous chunks of chicken were a little on the dry side.
My dining partner’s chicken sizzler, a dry dish cooked with onions, peppers, tomatoes and lemon, did exactly what it promised. Served on a sizzling hot metal plate, it was a balanced offering – a pleasingly spicy mix with a zingy kick.
Her dish came with a side salad, dominated by large slices of the ubiquitous onions.
We also ordered a pilau rice and a keema naan, which was a beautifully soft, sweet and doughy accompaniment to the mains.
Neither of us finished our food, such was the generosity of the portions, and there was certainly no room for dessert.
With a couple of beers, the bill came to a little over £30, more than reasonable for what we got.
Sheesh Mahal might lack kerb appeal – it certainly isn’t the most glamorous kid on the block, would probably benefit from a bit of a spruce-up and the only famous faces you’re likely to spot are those hanging in picture frames above the bar – but if good curries at reasonable prices served by friendly staff in a bustling environment is your thing, you won’t go far wrong.
Sheesh Mahal, 346-348 Kirkstall Road, Leeds, LS4 2DS
Opening hours: 5pm to midnight daily
Tel. 0113 230 4161
SERVICE ....................... ****
***** EXCELLENT **** VERY GOOD *** GOOD ** AVERAGE * POOR