So he’s gone.
Guneet Singh Bindra, the self-effacing chef responsible for turning one of Birmingham’s very average Indian restaurant into one of the best has decamped for a new challenge.
Guneet has left Asha’s in Birmingham for Manchester where he will head up the kitchen operation for an ambitious catering company. I am sorry to see him go. Guneet is one of the few chefs I haven’t fallen out with at one time or another in the city, even when I have been critical.
He took charge of Asha’s around the time I wrote my first review of the place when I worked for the Birmingham Post. I said what I thought: that it wasn’t very good. Some sauces were bland, ubiquitous. I recall a lamb dish being particularly “meaty,” almost high.
Guneet, who I hadn’t met at this point, didn’t do what some egotist chefs have done and blank me. He might have thought there was some truth in what I wrote, or he might have thought I was a twit. But what he didn’t do was act like a twit – and I always respect a chef who refuses to come down to my level.
Instead, Guneet set about improving the food, declared that he valued every customer’s opinion, and extended the hand of friendship. Despite what you might think, or hear, Birmingham’s restaurant community is not an “all-singing, all dancing, we’re all in this together so let’s help each other out” team. It’s a shame because with greater co-ordination, and some lip-biting, the critical mass of the city’s dining scene could really start to punch its weight.
Birmingham still doesn’t have a food or restaurant festival worthy of the name with the honourable exception of the annual Colmore Business District (CBD) knees-up in July (http://colmorebusinessdistrict.com/events/event/cbd-food-festival-2014/). Last year’s event attracted 23,000, a sterling effort for a localised festival arranged by a tiny part of the city’s food and hospitality community. But come on. Should we have to rely on the goodwill of a comparatively small number of hard-working restaurateurs and the leadership of a business improvement district?
This year’s Flavours of Herefordshire Festival (http://flavoursofherefordshire.co.uk), held over the August bank holiday on the Castle Green, Hereford, is expected to attracted 35,000 people.
As I have pointed out to anyone who cares to listen, if Hereford (population 59,000) can put on a food festival and out-gun the best effort by Birmingham (population 1,085,400) by more than 10,000 visitors it tells you something quite clearly: England’s second largest city is a bit rubbish at shouting about its rich food scene.
Birmingham has picked up plaudits for its restaurants, and rightly so. It would be disastrous – socially, culturally and economically – if this good work was undermined by institutional apathy and short-sightedness. Does Birmingham City Council understand the value of the food asset it is sitting on? I don’t think so.
I digress, but only slightly. Here’s the link: Asha’s falls within the CBD, whose most high-profile resident, certainly in terms of national exposure, is Glynn Purnell, who is as passionate a Birmingham advocate as you could wish to meet. Then there are other less well-known personalities, like Opus’s David Colcombe, whose commitment to making the wheels of the restaurant industry run smoothly is equally significant. To the list of unsung stars, I would add the name of Guneet, whose maturity, respectful outlook, dedication to hospitality and stupendously good cooking have been a source of personal inspiration.
It was typical of the man to send me a private message about his departure from Birmingham – and then invite me for lunch at his home. He knows I am a sucker for his lamb biriyani, so that is what he prepared.
Guneet, who is 37, has recently become a dad and four-week-old Hardit snoozed and wriggled in a cot by the table as we sat down to eat with the chef’s wife, Gunjan. I had never eaten curry with my fingers before but followed Guneet’s lead as we enjoyed a starter of fritter-style tiger prawn bhajjias.
The shellfish is combined with red onion, fennel seed, roasted coriander seeds, green chilli, coriander, a bit of broccoli, ginger and carom seed. Served on top of grated mooli, they are dressed with “chutney.” But this isn’t chutney as I know it.
This sublime smooth paste is freshly made with coriander, including the stem (“Never throw away the stems, except with mint, which is bitter”), chilli, roast tomato, ginger, red onion, mustard oil, lemon juice, mint and a splash of water to blend. It’s got lovely heat, but a cooling heat thanks to the green chilli.
The chutney was also served with the main event: that biriyani. This is a masterpiece of Indian home cooking. The quality of the rice is crucial: basmati, three years old. After being briefly cooked, the rice is placed on top of the lamb chops and a cloth is placed on top as the pot is returned to the heat.
The chops have been marinated overnight in yoghurt, fried onion, ginger garlic paste, green chilli, mint, coriander, whole green cardamoms, cloves, royal cumin seed and a special biriyani garam masala (comprising cinnamon, mace, black cardamom, cloves and bay leaf).
To the rice and lamb is added a light sauce made from cream, milk, green cardamom powder, fennel powder, ghee and saffron, which gives the dish its distinctive burnished yellow hue. Mint leaves are shredded on top.
It is a beautiful dish, the best you will find of its type in Birmingham, and I expect, the country. I make a hash of eating it with my fingers but Guneet and Gunjan are far too kind to say anything about their clumsy guest.
The dish is accompanied with a salad dressed with mustard oil, for a “bit of punch,” and raita.
Over lunch, we talk about Guneet’s plans. He would love to win the lottery so he could travel the world with his family and eat every food possible. He doesn’t want a lot of cash left over, he just wants the experience.
The chef is clearly smitten with his baby son and Gunjan appears unflappable. They’ve got a baby, they are moving in a few days and they’ve got me round for lunch. I’d be a wreck.
Gunjan makes her lovely Indian tea to finish the meal, made with Tata tea, fresh ginger and cardamom. The rain is lashing down in Hockley and it’s time to say goodbye. And as happy as I am for Guneet and his family in their new adventure, I am genuinely sad to be seeing him go.
Because as much as I will miss Guneet’s unbeatable lamb biriyani, I will miss Guneet. I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-appears in Birmingham one day, maybe with Hardit learning at his side. I will be first in the queue for whatever he cooks.