A Londoner’s healthy scepticism and a doleful warning from our trusty well-thumbed Timeout London Eating and Drinking Guide (2004 Edition) stating that ‘there’s very little now that’s pukka to be found in “Banglatown”, and the general standard of food is pretty low’ has kept me away from the majority of curry houses on Brick lane.
We did have a favourite; a lovely little Pakistani and Bangladeshi workingman’s cafe called Sweet and Spicy: a bit dingy, but the curry plates were generous and packed a punch (I always wept at Sweet and Spicy. Very emotional experience) and the atmosphere exuded a casual friendly air. Sadly, they seemed to go upmarket about four years ago, gave the floors and countertops and sparkly, polished look and drained the food of all its flavour in what I guess to be an attempt to satisfy more westernised palates. Lamenting the loss, I had forsworn Brick Lane’s various Asian eateries.
Until last night.
It is not that Sheba’s outward appearance distinguishes it from the plethora of restaurants lining E1’s most famous thoroughfare. The layout is sparse and simple with deep vibrant ochre seats and booths against a background of clean white and the requisite television hanging above the bar broadcasting the busiest and most garish that Bollywood has to offer, interspersed – inexplicably at seven o’clock at night – with Adventureland-style cartoons that kept my son’s attention rapt for the duration of our meal. Not vastly dissimilar to Le Taj, Aladin, Gram Bangla or anywhere else with fast-talking employees standing outside offering all sorts of promotional deals to hustle in the punters.
What distinguishes Sheba, oddly enough, is the product.
Starters were an elation-inducing delight. Again, the presentation is clearly an issue (iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato, hello old friends!). However, I had been expecting the kind of stodgy, somewhat comforting micro-reheated texture you’d expect from your local takeaway. The veg samosa that I ordered was light, crispy, flavourful and has reset my gastronomic standards for the savoury standby. The minced lamb in my wife’s starter was well-cooked, subtly spiced and utterly enjoyable, despite an ever so greasy pastry enveloping the meat.
Mains were equally impressive. Sheba’s menu is designed intelligently by award-winning chef Gulab Miah; he includes the standard biryanis and kormas framing the specially boxed ‘chef’s creations’ such as Lobster Bengal Special and specially spiced Chicken roasted in a clay oven. A highlight though was the Karahi section of the menu, dryly spiced meat, fish, veg or paneer. I do like food that knows how to make an entrance and the Karahi Paneer did just that, steaming and sizzling its way in, announcing itself to the rest of the dining area, plopped down on the table in an iron bowl. The taste is sufficiently strong to satisfy curry-lovers and gourmands alike, while the portions were more than generous (we had trouble getting through our mains).
Service was excellent. Our hosts were welcoming, but free of any of that pushiness we sometimes associate with a stroll down Brick Lane. Extra kudos are deserved for handling a very picky five year old with patience and aplomb, promptly bringing my son’s ice cream after plates had been cleared away and promptly producing an alternative flavoured dessert after seeing him weep at the thought of having to eat mango (Alas, my son has issues with fruit).
Sadly, the desserts are standard pre-packaged fare, but let’s face it, you can purchase a high quality kulfi or milksweet at any shop within 15 seconds walk of Sheba’s front entrance. For service, price and gastronomic pleasure, this place is worth returning to Brick Lane.