The first thing that hit me walking into the Keralan restaurant, a spit away from the station in Leeds, is just how crazy busy it was; the energy of the place slapped me in the face, and I will admit, for a moment it fazed me. It took some wriggling to get past the queue anxiously hoping to bag the next empty table to confirm our reservation. Here, they advise when booking for a weekend to call several weeks in advance but this was a Thursday, and there wasn’t a seat in the house.
Kerala is a slender coastal strip of south-western India and boasts a cuisine built on rice, fish and all things good. The food of this beautiful part of the subcontinent was also subject of a Rick Stein series which no doubt has ramped up tourism and a fondness for their food. Is this why this place is so rammed, I wondered.
We were a bit disappointed when they palmed us off with what was clearly the last chance table, close to the washing-up area and the bathrooms. But, to give them their due (and they had no idea I was reviewing) after a quick word we moved as soon as a table became available and they couldn’t have been nicer about it.
For me, negotiating an unfamiliar menu is great fun as I love to figure out what’s what. This one was well written, and though the names of dishes are long and complicated, the descriptions are charmingly written with enough explanation yet leaving a little guesswork as well. There are snacks and nibbles with delightful names like pappada vada and pakkavada. A supremely healthy, spicy prawn soup of chemmeen rasam, so good a soup it features in ayurvedic medicine; I could go on, but we finally settled, after relentless mind changing, for three separate dishes, knowing full well we would be ordering too much food.
A chilli paneer was so good I am desperate to get hold of the recipe. Dahi battata poori was a pretty dish of pieces of unleavened bread stuffed with potato and soaked in yoghurt which we all but fought over. And a Karnavar Masala Dosa (pancake) the length of my forearm came filled with aromatic chutney and a masala filling of vegetables and potatoes.
There is an abundant array of fish mains, only to be expected given the location of Kerala, and vegetarian choices are plenty too. Poultry ranks high, but red meat offers only two picks here. I was beyond thrilled with my Meen Pollichathu which boasted being a toddy shop favourite – these stores are apparently, hugely popular in Kerala where a mildly alcoholic drink made from the sap of palm trees is served along with food. A Tilapia fish came bathed in a spicy sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. Slicing open the leaves reveals a chunky piece of fish which, what it lacked in texture (I am assuming it was once frozen), was more than made up for in the flavours. Stunning.
Across the table, he tucked into an incredibly exciting Wayanadan kozhi curry which, effectively, was boneless chicken cubes cooked in a black pepper sauce, a range of spices and served with pillows of Paratha bread.
Between these dishes, I believe we got about as good an idea of the food of Kerala as we could. But is not just the cuisine here which amazes; without the smiles and supreme efforts of the staff flying around this place would not work. Nothing, and I mean nothing, seems to be too much trouble for them and comes with dazzling smiles. It is staggering to see and our waiter, Kirijen, was so lovely he could teach many a lesson in great service.
Tharavadu is noisy, overly busy, and there is barely room to move so by my accounts, I shouldn’t like it, yet this unstuffy place rates as one of my favourites in a long time. And I have already checked out holidays in Kerala. Bring it on.
• Dinner for two with three glasses of wine and Kulfi dessert, £73.75. Tharavadu, 7-8, Mill Hill, Leeds , LS 15DQ. 0113 244 0500, tharavadurestaurants.com. Open: Monday to Thursday, 12-2pm & 6-10pm, Friday to Saturday, 12–2pm & 5-10.30pm. Closed Sunday.