Reputation can be a curse. Once a restaurant has created a buzz with an exciting new style or concept, keeping its eye on the ball becomes all the more perilous as people turn out in droves expecting something unforgettable.
Indeed this Michelin Guide-recommended Keralan restaurant scooped the Best Indian accolade in our last Oliver Awards.
And anecdotally, from all the great things friends had told me about Tharavadu, it seemed as though it had really marked itself out as a high quality restaurant with a difference.
It had been on my to-do list for far too long, but I did my utmost to set aside any cosy pre-conceptions and approach the dinner-time service with a stern critical glare.
How it made me fail.
The smell is what hits you as soon as you walk in – a strong scent of powerful, exciting spices sets you up for something remarkable.
And with good first impressions comes high expectations.
We were seen to quickly by one of the many staff members, who ushered us to a central table which was ideal for taking in the eye-catching interior.
Unlike the intimate layout common to many Indian restaurants, Tharavadu offers a very open style which has the benefit of creating a bustling, chatty atmosphere at home with its neighbouring Mill Hill establishments.
The walls are clad with portraits and features steeped in its region’s history, as well as quirky decorative inclusions such as small bird homes.
And the wooden bar has a sloped roof which gives it a beach shack feel.
Extensive menus which provide lots of information about each dish can be daunting and often feel like a burden to choose from when you’re eager to order.
But the vast majority of options sounded so different and inviting that it had the reverse effect – I found myself secretly starting to plan my next trip before even taking a bite.
And many of the descriptions provide details about each dish’s origins, which are both intriguing and helpful.
Aside from the ample fish, poultry and red meat dishes, Kerala cuisine apparently has plenty of vegetarian options.
This is handy for my meat-free friend, who too often is disappointed to find one or two afterthought options plonked on restaurant menus.
For a starter I chose Cochin beach snack Cherayl Koonthal – deep fried squid rings marinated with spices and served with lemon chutney (£5.49).
Unlike the usual distinct pieces of squid, what came were golden brown rings entangled and meshed together, with a small side salad.
They had a good combination of moisture and crunch, and the chutney added a needed freshness to the dish.
It could have been easy to tire of the single flavour on what was a generous portion, but there was a lightness to it that prevented me holding off for later courses.
My friend’s Mix Veg Bonda (£3.99) – battered balls combining beans, lentils, carrot, peas and potatoes – was reportedly well up to scratch.
For the main, I tried the Kerala Kozhi Curry (£8.99).
The menu informed me that “there are more than hundred varieties of chicken curry in Kerala. This is the most loved one.”
Unadventurous perhaps, but by no means an expert of this region’s cookery, it seemed the perfect place for me to start.
This dish contained large chicken cubes with roasted coconut and Kerala spices in a brown-orange gravy.
And the result was an absolute joy.
Super-succulent chicken with an intensely flavourful gravy – which is not overpowered or made too sweet by the coconut.
My friend ordered a Kadala Masala (£5.89) – chickpeas in a light tomato masala sauce – for her main.
She was massively impressed by how well the dish combined sweet, salty and tangy flavours, and said the consistency of the chickpeas was perfect.
It was good to see that a member of the waiting staff could confidently advise us that rice (£2.89) would go best with my option and the Bathura (£1.00) – a gorgeous fluffy fried bread – was well-suited to my partner’s.
After two heavy and plentiful courses, the prospect of dessert seemed like a test of endurance.
We powered through valiantly, of course.
Vattayapam Fudge Cake (£4.29) is a steamed rice cake stuffed with toffee, which is then topped with chocolate sauce and a glacier cherry and served with vanilla ice cream.
This is everything a pudding should be – intensely sweet, rich, stodgy and totally waist-expanding. It had to be finished.
The more advisable mango-flavoured Kulfi, a kind of Indian ice-cream (£3.99), was chosen and very much enjoyed by my companion.
We found the service was mostly excellent. At one point I turned round just to have a look at the room, and was promptly asked by a staff member who saw me if I was ready to order. There was a slight tendency among some of the staff to briefly shadow us while we ate or enjoyed our conversation, but this seemed more out of an eagerness to help than to rush us.
This was despite demand not being at all lacking on a Monday evening. From the start of our meal to the finish, the restaurant’s many tables were filled with happy faces.
At just below £50, the two of us left immensely pleased with the food and overall experience – it seems the reputation Tharavadu has made for itself is entirely justified.
Address: 7-8 Mill Hill, Leeds LS1 5DQ
Tel: 0113 244 0500
Opening times: Mon-Thurs noon–2pm and 6–10pm, Fri & Sat 12–2pm and 6–10pm