I hadn’t seen Grandmaster M for three years. We worked together on a newspaper for the best part of a decade. During one protracted stint, we saw more of each other than we did of our wives.
Then new millennium corporate rationalisation took place and both of us were rationalised off the pay roll. Maybe it was for the best. After all those days, and nights, together, we needed a break.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Grandmaster M, one of the finest newspapermen I have worked with, no longer works in newspapers. Such is the logic of today’s industry. Why pay an experienced professional, schooled in the law, ethics, story construction, grammar and editorial balance and responsibility when you can rely on “citizen journalists” to provide content for nothing?
But as good as he was with a dropped intro and as deft as he was with turning round a front-page lead on deadline, there is one thing that surpassed Grandmaster M’s old-school hack skills – and that was his wife’s dexterity with Pakistani cuisine.
During Ramadan, Mrs Grandmaster M would pack off her hubby with foil packages of pakora and spiced meat patties so he could eat once the sun had set during his night shifts on the news desk. Being a decent sort of chap, Grandmaster M asked his wife to make a few extra goodies for the troops. How our 99 per cent white-majority, Christian, agnostic and atheist newsroom came to love Ramadan.
This was many years ago but I can still picture, and evoke the smells, of the freshly prepared foods being unwrapped, the crispness of the lightly fried pakora, the sweetness of the onion, the fortifying gentle spice of the mince patties.
The company’s old in-house catering had been axed many moons before in a pre-millennium, pre-rationalisation rationalization. This was bite-sized nirvana, delivered in tin foil.
For this reason, I have come to associate Grandmaster M, by proxy, with delicious Asian food. So when he said we should meet for dinner, I thought; “Yeh! Curry! We can go for a balti!”
Then I was overcome with Anglo-Saxon politically-correct angst and thought: “Is it patronising to think a Brit of Pakistani heritage will want to go out for a curry? Doesn’t he eat a lot of curry at home? And won’t suggesting going for a balti be a bit daft – like taking naan breads to Sparkbrook?”
I needn’t have worried. Grandmaster M said we should meet at La Favorita in Sparkbrook. That’s funny, it sounds Italian, I thought. I’d never heard of an Italian restaurant in the city district hailed as the epicentre of Baltidom.
“It is Italian,” said Grandmaster. “Only with curry as well.”
Here’s the thing. British Asian families, according to Grandmaster M, do eat a lot of Asian food at home.
However: “Our ethnic minority communities are as diverse in their tastes and desire to try different things as any others,” says Grandmaster M.
“With their rich culinary heritage they are keen to explore and enjoy different tastes and find a comforting fusion of Asian and Mediterranean dishes works well, especially as the cuisines share many of the basic ingredients and tastes, albeit Mediterranean food is perhaps not as spicy.
“Asian people are just as fond of food as anyone else and that’s especially so in Birmingham because of the cultural mix.”
Therefore, a restaurant serving both dopiaza and gamberetti all agio is potentially on to a winner, particularly when you consider the local audience here in Sparkbrook. Asians comprise 65 per cent of the local population and Pakistanis are by far the biggest ethnic group, making up 44 per cent of the total population. (Source: 2001 Census.)
Of course, this is cultural demographic is only of relevance from a restaurateur’s perspective if the food is good enough. The proof is in the pesce and the paneer – hence our decision to give the kitchen a whirl at La Favorita in Alfred Street.
This is a place that defies expectations and does so with a big heart and a smile. The locale, it must be said, is in need of some TLC.
In some measures, three-quarters of the Sparkbrook population are classified as being among the top 5 per cent most economically deprived in England. (Source: Index of Deprivation 2010/Economic Strategy). Poverty brings a host of social problems including unemployment and ill health. A fifth of the population suffers from a “limiting long-term illness.”
Alfred Street is off Ladypool Road, home to majority of the area’s genuine balti houses, such as Al Frash and Shabab. La Favorita, unusually, proudly declares its Pakistani and Kashmiri cooking roots without opting for the catch-all, and frequently misleading, balti nomenclature. They have even thrown in some Indian influences for good measure.
But La Favorita’s kebabs, karahis and pot-cooked handi dishes are only the half of it. In fact, a look at the menu suggests the curries are less than the half of it. The greater part of the menu is given over to pizzas, pastas (spaghetti alla puttanesca, tortellini quattro formaggi, gnocchi di patate all’arrabbiata etc), risottos and various Italian steak dishes, from 16oz plain T-bones to Mediterranean-style sauce-covered meats. All the meat is halal.
The restaurant is run by Mourad, one of the friendliest Algerian-born, Italian-trained Brummie food bosses you will come across. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the multi-cultural spirit of this city’s dining scene and here is another example of the cultural melting pot.
The open kitchen, at the back of the large, informal dining room, is split down the middle – Italian food specialists on one side; Asian chefs on the other. There are five or six different nationalities of chefs. The same is true out front where the waitresses, dressed in hijabs, come from Pakistan, Somalia and Greece, to name but three nations. The service is among the warmest and friendliest I have come across.
“It’s like a United Nations in here,” said Grandmaster M, who is one of life’s great cynics. He actually meant it.
Mourad was keen for us to try the Italian food and said he had fresh hake, sea bass and, I am sure he said, turbot. Turbot in Sparkbrook? Who-da-thought-it? The kitchen could cook the fish any way we liked. But we had our hearts set on curry.
Grandmaster M rarely eats Asian food when he goes out because he says it is generally over-spiced, to please Western palates, and lacks subtlety.
So when he says we will split chicken tikka and sheesh kebabs, he is going out on a limb.
The quality for the price is faultless.
The kebabs, just £2.99 for two chunky fingers of well-spiced meat, with slow cooked, melty onions and a good dipping sauce, are among the best you will find around here.
The same goes for the clean, smoky, marinated chicken breast (£4.59).
It’s a nightmare choosing main courses because it always is when it comes to curry. I am intrigued by the tawa specialties, in which chicken, lamb and fish fillets are cooked on a flat, metal plate with capsicums, tomatoes, garlic and chili, the meat garnished with ginger and saffron.
Ditto the handi, in which lamb on the bone is cooked in a rich, dry sauce with garlic. It is a style of cooking favoured at home by Mrs Grandmaster M, although her preparation, I am told, is more soupy.
In the end, we split a Hyderabadi ghosht (£8.99) and a chicken bhindi karahi (£9.99), both of which are delicious.
The tender lamb for the ghosht has been slowed cooked and the dish has that lovely homespun character. There is a good base of tomatoes and the garlic, ginger and lemon are all discernible. A sprinkling of nuts adds sweetness and texture.
The bhindi karahi is no less impressive, no less moreish.
We also try a portion of creamy makhani dall, with black lentils and kidney beans, because frankly I will sulk if we don’t. There are rice and biryanis but we go for the breads – two beautifully light naans (£1.59 each) and a couple of tandoori rotis.
Dessert is usually an ice cream or a pineapple ring in this part of town but La Favorita has another trick up its sleeve – a French-style patisserie.
Mourad explains that there isn’t a desserts menu because the cakes are made fresh every day and the selection constantly changes.
There are thick cream slices and gateaux and chocolate fudgey creations. It may not be the finest Parisian patisserie but the desserts are fine and I admire the pluck.
The cakes are also made for the restaurant’s twin sisters in Stone and Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. It is something I have never come across before – a Brummie take on French patisserie in a Pakistani-Italian restaurant. Vive la difference!
Throughout the evening, La Favorita is busy serving predominantly Asian families and cool couples, again not something I have encountered in the balti district. At the end of the evening, Grandmaster M comments, jokingly, to Mourad that I am disappointed when another white man comes into the restaurant, with his children, just before we leave.
“Anyone can come in here,” says Mourad. “I am your friend and you are my friend. Otherwise we cannot help each other.”
It’s not a PR stunt. He has no idea I am a reviewer. That is just the way it is here.
I cannot speak for the Italian food at La Favorita because we didn’t try it on this occasion. I can, however, report that the biggest smile I have seen this year came when a lad of about 12 was presented with his meal – a whopping great calzone the size of his grinning head. He was so chuffed he insisted on getting his picture taken with it.
The restaurant has an upstairs function room where an Islamic charity auction is in full, good-humoured flow throughout our meal. I cannot make out what the auctioneer is saying.
As we leave, I ask Grandmaster M what language they are speaking upstairs. Is it Urdu, or some regional Pakistani dialect?
“It’s English,” he says.
La Favorita, 72 Alfred Street, Sparkbrook, Birmingham, B12 8JP.
Tel: 0121 771 4112.
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