Veggie heaven at Jyoti in Sparkhill
569-571 Stratford Road, Sparkhill, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 766 7199
So there I am with the missus, knockin’ together a bootiful risotto, with truffles and all that malarkey, and the phone goes and who’s on the end of it but my old mucker Jamie Oliver.
And I says: “Awright, Jamie, old cock!”
And Jamie says to me: “Cushtie!”
And then he says: “Oi, Big Boy. You been to this veggie curry place in Birmingham? F***in’ fantastic. Sweet.”
And I says: “No, I ain’t Jamie. I’ve been makin’ your poxy risotto for the past five years.”
And he says: “I bet your hand don’t half hurt! You plonker!”
And then he says: “F*** that risotto s**t. Get your fat arse up to Jyoti. It’s bleedin’ magic. Sarf of the river.”
And I says: “Wot? The River Rea?”
And he say: “Nah! The bleedin’ Ganges, you dipstick!”
And so it goes on.
The point being that during the course of an interview with Jamie Oliver the chef veritably raves about Jyoti. He started going to the Sparkhill restaurant in the days when he was naked and now he makes a bee-line for 569-571 Stratford Road whenever he’s in town.
And this, honestly, is what he tells me: “I always take the whole crew up there. It’s an incredible south Indian vegetarian extravaganza and everyone loves it.
“We do it every year. Clockwork. We only tell a lucky few about it so we don’t get ambushed by cling-ons.”
Not being a vegetafarian, and having never gone to Jyoti, I reckon it’s worth a bash.
It may not be the prettiest dining space in the city, both externally and internally. But soft furnishings aren’t what Jyoti is about.
The entrance is in fact ultra-modern in that it doesn’t look anything like a restaurant entrance. It’s just a front door in an urban Nowhere Ville, for Mr and Mrs Anonymous. Expect this style to be copied by top city restaurants by 2010, vaunted as the new post-terrace-house-Sparkhill chic.
Of course, you’ve got to get to the place first. Sparkbrook/Sparkhill at 6.30 on a Friday night is a cross between the Wacky Races and Mad Max. We successfully dodged a runaway ghost car that shot out of a side street and watched in horror as an early 1990s Honda bombed past our line of stationary cars, all stopped at a red light, in a manoeuvre that would have left Lewis Hamilton with a wet jumpsuit. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted, but that’s part of the buzz, or at least that’s what I told the kids, who had turned pale.
Our table was at the bottom of a staircase, by a shabby, half-warm radiator. It was like sitting in an extended front room, except there are photos of Jamie Oliver, like everywhere.
There is absolutely no pretence at Jyoti: the food is the thing, and it is a thing of wonder.
Similarly, any lack of heating is compensated for by the warmth of Raj, the owner, who is more than happy to talk through the menu and offer tips to the novice.
And with 15 starters and 70 main courses to choose from his help is very much appreciated. The experience is akin to being a stranger in a brilliantly foreign place.
Jyoti is a family-run business where the service and the food is shot through with love and pride. (Note to big chain, venture capitalist-backed restaurants: you can’t manufacture love, anymore than you can buy it. You’ve either got it or you haven’t; and I am head-over-heels for Jyoti.)
For starters, we had magical pani puri, little crispy bread puffs stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas and onion. On Raj’s advice, we dropped a couple of teaspoons of tamarind sauce into the top of them before devouring in a mouthful.
We also had a spicy whole potato, which is stuffed with hot garlic masala, and smooth, spicy onion bhajiya.
In truth, I would have loved to have tried every single starter. There are fried cassava chips, curried colocassia leaves, black eyed bean bhajiya and, rather incredulously, “potato chips and tomato ketchup.”
The main courses are simply delightful. The unfailingly accomplished cooking is a world away from the bog standard high street curry house. There’s just no comparison. No fat-oozing slosh, no suspect, stale veg. Where once there was an oil slick, there is fragrance.
Take the tarka daal. Everyone does tarka daal, don’t they? It’s only a lentil curry.
Only a lentil curry? This was life-affirming, spoonfuls of comfort curry, with a brilliant sunny, yellow hue that can’t help but make you smile.
Aubergine stuffed with paneer cheese, ginger, garlic and chillies is rich, gooey and the spiciest of the bunch, a great contrast to the milder masala dhosa (a rice pancake filled with potato and onion and served with coconut chutney and lentil sauce).
If I have a favourite it is the malai kofta. Boy, oh boy, what a sauce. Balls of paneer, potatoes and cashews with chilli and raisins in a tomato and onion curry sauce.
A plate of chapatis is essential because you will want to mop up every single trace of lovingly prepared, beautifully executed, flavour-infused, lord-love-a-duck sauce. You just know it’s doing you good.
It seems almost irrelevant to talk about prices when food is this great, but that too is stunning. Jyoti is unlicensed so we drank water (basically because I was too scared to get back in the car and drive to an off-licence). So there was no booze bill.
Even so, £40 for this home-cooked south Indian feast – enough for two adults and two children – is the eating-out steal of the year.
Jyoti, which is next to its own sweet centre, may be off to Hall Green in the New Year, not far from the greyhound stadium. Imagine that? A night at the dogs and curry this good. Welcome to Nirvana.