A B11 Food Renaissance!

Salaams and greetings from the halal blogosphere, once again I write with no intention of reviewing food which is a contradiction in terms but the more I think about the Halal Food Review the more I think it has a wider role to play rather than just inform people of how good or bad the food was!

Having recently visited the stunning Mughal E Azam on the Stratford Road its been great to sit back and just read the comments of our readers who have been sending in their opinions on the decor, food and service. The purpose of the HFR was always to create a community where no one voice is more important than the other so I really appreciate the time people take to submit comments and I hope our readers can continue to submit their views on a regular basis.

The stunning renovation of the old church for Mughal E Azam has got me thinking about some of my past HFR entries and one theme in particular which was the decline of the traditional balti triangle in Sparkbrook.

With the opening of the Mughal E Azam, the continued success of Hajee’s Spices and the current work taking place to relocate Ismail’s Grill to Sparkbrook, the redevelopment (again) of the old President and the imminent opening of Yaqubs is the balti triangle ready for a new renaissance in halal food that is beginning to offer a new dimension to compliment the strength of the historic balti offer.

Steak houses, Halal Chinese, Traditional Desi, Somali and Middle Eastern cafes, Kurdish Bakeries and dessert parlours are now part of the new dining experience. Even old favourites like the Codfather are opening up bigger premises along the Stratford Road corridor which for so long has played second fiddle to the rapid emergence of Small Heath as a hub for new halal activity across the Coventry Road and the traditional strength and familiarity of the Ladypool Road Offer.

Over the years the Stratford Road has lost Sher Khan, the Royal Naim and the Grand Tandoori to name just three long term victims. Slowly but surely with the arrival of Ismails, Yaqubs, Mughal E Azam to compliment the existing offer is creating a slow but gradual renaissance and I for one couldn’t be happier! Despite the progress there is still much to be done to bring Sparkbrook back to its balti glory days but for that to be achieved the balti can no longer be the driver for that growth. The food offer in Sparkbrook needs to reflect a new diversity and the changing face of a vibrant community that for so long has been a starting destination for new migrant communities making the long journeys to the UK and Birmingham to create a new and better future for their families. There is still much room for growth and development and it would be wonderful to see some of Birmingham’s halal food entrepreneurs explore even more diverse food offers to add to the ecclectic mix that is Sparkbrook life.

What would readers like to see in Sparkbrook or for that matter any part of Birmingham! Until the next time happy eating and may I take this opportunity to wish all our readers a blessed Eid and hope you have an opportunity to experience some of the culinary delights of home and restuarant cooking over the coming days as you celebrate with loved ones.

Stay blessed!

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Poplar Balti House – Birmingham

Salaams everyone I hope you’re all in good health and ready to tickle your tastebuds. After many requests from our fantastic “foodies” we decided to review Poplar Balti House on Ladypool Road. Many of you have said that Poplar Balti House is an unsung hero and their Balti’s where second to none. All this information made the HFR team’s mouth water!

As we walked into the restaurant it gave us a classic balti house feel as if we were back in the 1980’s. For me it gave the place a good character however the seating space was awful, it was almost as though we were sitting with the table next to us at one point. The restaurant is narrow and they have tried to fit in as many covers as possible. For entertainment we were treated to the delights of Eastenders on a small tv above the counter!

As for the menu (which was bright purple) it was typical for any Balti house, over 30-40 different combinations of balti’s which was slightly overwhelming when it came to choosing one. At this point I asked the waiter which one he would recommend to which his answer was “Whichever one you like”. It was almost if he could not be bothered, shame but true. Here at the Halal Food Review its not just about food its about the quality of experience and that includes good customer service!

We decided to order but before we did we were presented with a tray of chutneys and pickles (no mango chutney) and then asked if we wanted some popadoms which were not bad however the missing mango chutney did not help matters. The mint sauce was more chilli and less mint and the smallest mouthful was enough to set fire to your tastebuds!

The service was nowhere near brilliant so we decided to order quickly and let the food do all the talking. We ordered something simple and quick for our starters which was a portion of chicken pakoras and a katlama. At no point were we asked if we would like any drinks which meant no Ginger beer for me. The starters took over 20 minutes to arrive at our table, so much for quick and simple. The chicken pakoras were hugely disappointing, whilst it was evident they were freshly made the batter lacked any depth of flavour and the portion size was paltry maybe reflecting the chicken they came from! The katlama was actually pleasant and meaty as opposed to your thick pastry and ‘blade of a knife’ thin keema filling which is so common. At this point my emotions were mixed and my experience of Poplar Balti House was not how I expected however the mains were on their way….

We ordered 3 main balti’s, Chicken Rogan Josh, Keema and Mushroom Balti and Prawns with Spinach, we requested medium chilli factor for the first two and a mild chilli factor for the latter. Thankfully I had ordered a peshwari naan bread, which was very nice and went well with the very spicy balti’s that were more hot than medium or mild! My dining companions however did not have this luxury as they were forcing themselves to eat the “medium” spiced curry with their tandoori roti’s and working up a sweat without having to step foot on a treadmill! The pilau rice was disappointing, we ended up helping ourselves to drinks and constantly struggled to get the attention of the waiting staff.

Poplar Balti was fairly busy for the Friday night but our discerning diners left feeling like we wanted more, the food was ok, not great and the restuarant could definitely improve its customer service. For a group of 4 our bill came to just under £40 which is reasonable for a balti experience in the triangle!

Quality of food – 7 (not quite Balti of the year)
Quality of service – 5 (seen better at a fast food joint)
Quality of space – 5 (more space in a fast food joint)
Prices – 7

Overall – 6

Adil Riyaz
Halal Food Review Team

Al Faisals Food Review – Birmingham

Salaams and welcome to the latest edition of the Halal Food Review.

This week’s review takes me back to the Balti Belt and the Al Faisals restuarant on Stoney Lane in Sparkbrook. For regular readers of the blog you’re fully up to speed with my view that the Balti belt has seen better days but even in demise there are some stand out crown jewels and for as long as I care to remember one of those has been Al Faisals. So it is with trepidation that I decided to review Al Faisals for the blog. I want it to do well but for it to get a good review it really needs to deliver. This blog doesn’t do favours just flavours!

Al Faisals has firmly placed itself at the premium end of the balti market, for those looking for halal food in a tee total environment there is not a better dining destination in terms of décor and ambiance.  From the street view you are greeted by a chic black exterior with large windows that provides a full view of the interior. Parking is available for customers across the road and Al Faisals stands out as a lone beacon of Balti goodness on the Stoney Lane, whilst the remains of the old Adil’s Balti House lay in ruin awaiting reconstruction.

Walking into the restuarant you are enthusiastically greeted by the waiting staff, if you arrive early for your meal there is a sofa area with LCD screen to keep you entertained whilst your guests arrive. The Al Faisals management share my passion for sport so its a great place to chill out whilst waiting for friends and family.

The restuarant has a significant amount of covers and there is also a space upstairs that can be hired for conferences, parties, product launches. The layout of the restuarant lends itself to offering a range of seating choices for both smaller and larger dining parties. At the back of the restuarant there is an open plan kitchen which diners have full view of which again adds to the dining experience.

Our party of four included one toddler and a newborn and Al Faisals is one of the city’s better restaurants when it comes to accommodating family diners in the best of Kashmiri traditions and this was reflected in the number of diners who had brought children and babies with them.

I feel its important I flag up a couple of points in reference to the toilets which sounds odd for a food review but Al Faisals have excellent toilet facilities and most importantly they also have toilet facilities for disabled diners and a nappy changing facility within the disabled toilet. Little things like this go a long way to making a restuarant welcoming long before you try anything on their food menu.

Food I hear you cry! 😉

Every meal at Al Faisals begins with a tray of poppadoms and pickles and sauces which keep you going as you look through the menu. The pickle and sauce selection is fantastic including traditional pickles, mango chutney, chilli sauces and mint and yoghurt based sauces. A tip to any diner is to keep a selection of your favourite sauces off the tray for when your starters and mains arrive.

For starters we ordered the chicken boti and lamb boti. Our mains selection included chicken tikka masala, karahi ghost, pilau rice and a traditional naan. We also ordered a jug of the famous Mango lassi.

Our starters arrived promptly and were a generous portion. Both starters come with a generous accompaniment of a side salad which is inventive, colourful and places most balti restuarant side salads to shame.  The chicken was beautifully cooked as was the lamb which comes a generous coating of masalas  that add a fusion of flavour to the tender taste of the lamb. Al Faisals remains one of the only balti restaurants that serve their food on warm plates which goes a long way to keeping the food warm throughout your meal.

Maryam the most demanding eater at the table happily ate from both the lamb and chicken starters. At this point its also worth pointing out the excellent level of customer service at Al Faisals. Drinks were promptly served, water was provided, a smaller glass and a straw was provided for Maryam and they were attentive to any requests we had.

The Mango lassi at Al Faisals in my humble opinion is the best I’ve tasted anywhere, its thick, creamy and an absolute delight! I would recommend that an Al Faisals dining experience would not be complete without trying the Mango lassi. Prices by the glass are a bit steep so if you are in a larger dining party I would definitely recommend ordering a jug, believe me when I say it will be finished! Speaking of Mango lassi, Maryam had an accident with her glass when she decided to go all greek and smash her glass to the floor! Again the customer service at Al Faisals comes to the fore, they were prompt in clearing up the mess and the glass and didn’t make you feel like you’ve just committed murder!

The mains of Karahi Ghost and Chicken Tikka Masala were equally satisfying. The Karahi ghost was rich in flavour and texture and the ghost was served in small bite sized pieces that makes it easier to consume especially for younger diners. The chicken tikka masala was equally well flavoured, mild and the chicken was cooked to perfect. Both dishes went really well with the naan and rice accompaniments.

I have yet to come away from eating at Al Faisals feeling disappointed, its become one of the rarities of the balti dining circuit in Birmingham a virtual banker for quality of service and food. The dining space is first rate, the customer service is excellent and the food is of the highest standard and attention is paid to the finer details of extras that add that premium value to the experience which is reflected in the prices which are higher than anywhere in the balti triangle.

I would definitely recommend Al Faisals to any readers particularly parents, large dining parties and those entertaining guests from out of town.

Quality of Food 9 – The starters were fantastic and the Mango Lassi is out of this world

Quality of Service 9

Quality of Space 9 – Great dining space, excellent rest room facilities, and a lounge space for waiting for your late guests

Price – 8 – Definitely the most expensive option in the balti triangle but you definitely get a premium experience.

Overall rating 9

Kafe Karachi Review – Birmingham

This week’s review takes me back to the Balti Triangle and Kafe Karachi which has gone through more brand makeovers than any your average restuarant on the Ladypool Road.

This is the first blog where I have managed to remember to take photos with my Nokia E71 which in my humble opinion is one of the best Nokia phones ever produced. Its the Nokia take on a Blackberry albeit on the much slimmer side with a full qwerty keyboard. If I have one criticism of my beloved E71 its the camera so I hope the photos come out well!

On a side note, we’ve had a great response from readers wanting to contribute reviews to the website, inshallah over the next few months we fully expect reviews to go live in London, Manchester, Cardiff, Bradford and other cities.

Back to Kafe Karachi which is supporting a brand new look both on the outside and the inside, gone is the tacky yellow sign and the diner style seating and tables both of which have been replaced with a sleek black and yellow branding that definitely is more welcoming than before.

Customers can use the Kafe Karachi car park at the back of the restuarant which is a significant advantage to some of the other restaurants in the area where car parking is at a premium and road rage is a way of life!

Entering into Kafe Karachi and the first thing that hits you is the new furniture, I have a feeling they got a bulk discount on their purchase of tables and chairs. Failing that they must be going for a world record bid of trying to fit in as many covers in to their dining space as possible.  I wouldn’t want to be eating in Kafe Karachi on a busy night!

Kafe Karachi falls into the same category as Lahore Kebab House in the sense both serve the purpose of providing you with a fast food balti and kebab dining experience. You have the opportunity to relax and eat your meal in your own time but don’t expect any fancy extra. On the other hand I have to say I was surprised by the coordinated yellow napkins that were on each table maybe they are going for that Michelin dining experience after all!

With a full window frontage there is plenty of light coming into Kafe Karachi with two flatscreen tv screens at each end of the restaurant providing an entertainment option. Last week at Krahi King we were subjected to the Pakistani equivalent of X Factor with a religious twist, the WWE wrestling at Kafe Karachi was much more to my liking!

To balance out the WWE effect which coincidentally has gone PG ( wrestling geek coming out! ) Kafe Karachi has adorned its wall with religious imagery of various mosques from the Muslim World.

Food  I hear you cry 🙂

Our trip to Kafe Karachi coincided with a late lunch so we  didn’t indulge in the same manner we did at the boys night out at Kafe Karahi which by the way was a riot! For starters we stuck to a portion of chicken pakora which seems to be my starter of choice. I think I need to diversify my selections for future reviews!  The chicken pakora was not up to the standard of my Mushtaq chicken pakora benchmark but it was ok. I’m still waiting for a chicken pakora to blow me away I don’t think its going to happen just yet.

For our mains we had a mix of a Patera balti with rotis and nan, grilled chicken, masala fish, sheesh kebabs and fries. One of my reservations about places like Kafe Karachi and Lahore Kebab House is the pre prepared baltis. I understand the rationale for this from a fast food and convenience perspective but it flags up a red alert to my stomach which refuses to order a balti that has been sittting in the counter for any number of hours or god forbid days! Luckily one of my fellow diners was a lot braver than me but he has spent time in the roughest terrains and localities in the world in his role as relief worker!

The Patera balti which is a popular alternative to chicken can be described in one word SALTY! The Patera itself was well cooked, the meat tender and coming off the bone but the balti itself was spoiled by too much salt. The full grilled chicken received a much more favourable response, it was well cooked and well seasoned. Judging by the pile of bones at the end of the meal I can only assume my fellow diners had no complaints though both felt the portion of fries was far too dry.

Birmingham is the home of the Masala fish and when we have hosted Artists, Imams and Film Makers from around the world we always make sure they try the Masala fish. I’ve reviewed the humble Masala fish in a number of my reviews to date and I am pleased to say Kafe Karachi delivers a great Masala fish and matching the standards experienced at Desi Express and Krahi King.  The sheesh kebabs were ok but not on a par with the delightful sheesh kebabs we had last week at Krahi King.

To finish off the meal we had some desi tea and Jalebi. Kafe Karachi succeeded where Krahi King failed and served their tea in cups with no stains or spills, though I have to say the sugar pot and spoon have seen better days! The Jalebi was ok it was served warm but I fear that was more courtesy of a dose of radiation in the microwave than it coming fresh from the cooker. Microwaved Jalebi doesn’t do it for me but I have to confess I prefer my Jalebi cold and crispy and not warm and oozy.

In terms of service and price Karachi King delivers, prices are competitive and the service was quick. The restuarant has a relaxed atmosphere and it was evident that a lot of the diners were regulars as there was lots of good natured banter between the staff and customers.

To sum Karachi King up its very similar to the offer at Lahore Kebab House down the road. The menu options are very similar as are prices. What scares me about the similarity is the lack of diversity in the food offer surely Karachi and Lahori cuisine can’t be so similar.

Quality of Food: 6 ( Masala fish would score higher )

Quality of Service: 7

Quality of Space: 6 ( A bit overcrowded for my liking in terms of number of tables, but covers = cash )

Price: 8

Overall rating: 6.5