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The other weekend was a planned curry spectacular. In honour of my other half's birthday I had organised a surprise weekend in Leeds, the central part of which was a "Taste of Spice" cookery session (to be reviewed separately). To up the spice level we took ourselves to Hansa's Gujarati restaurant for our evening meal. We had both visited the (now sadly defunct) Bradford restaurant on separate occasions but this was our first visit to the Leeds restaurant.
The restaurant is situated on North Street and is a five minute walk from Vicar Lane and the Headrow in the heart of Leeds main shopping area. There are a couple of very good bars in the area if you fancy a drink before or after your meal.
We hadn't booked but arrived early enough for this not to matter. The restaurant was just starting to get busy but a table for two was procured easily. One of the things you notice straight away is that the restaurant isn't crammed with tables; they could easily fit more in but it's to their credit that they haven't done that.
The interior is quite simple but very stylish and comfortable. The high ceiling is canopied and the carpet is a very colourful symphony of stripes. The walls are plan but are adorned with really lovely black and white photographs of Indian scenes and people.
We were pleased to see that Hansa herself was in the restaurant that evening. It's very much a female affair at Hansa's: the waiting staff are all women and the cooking staff are too. The cooks actually bring the food up to the restaurant rather than it being brought up by the waiting staff.
All the dishes on the menu are vegetarian or vegan and come from the Gujurat region of India which is where Hansa is originally from. We aren't vegetarians ourselves but will often choose vegetarian options in Indian restaurants when the dishes are exciting and authentic. I hate it when British style "curry houses" just use the same sauce but throw in vegetables instead of meat or prawns. The dishes here are certainly authentic and use a variety of ingredients that you wouldn't see in your average high street Indian restaurant.
The menu is attractively laid out and easy to navigate. I like the way that some dishes are described as "larger starters or side dishes" - it's very much a case of the customer being right: you can choose what you want without there being some expectation that you'll choose a starter, a main and a rice dish. There was a dish a devilishly hot spicy sticks (I think made from gram flour) to nibble on while we looked over the menu.
I started with the "kachori" (£3.95)while my partner opted for the "tirangi dokhra" (£3.95). My dish comprised of crispy little balls of spicy mashed potato and peas. They were bursting with flavour and were delicious with a fiery heat but the tamarind sauce they were served with was either too bland or was simply overpowered by the kachori.
My partner's starter looked like a fluffy jam sandwich. It comprised two "slices" of a fluffy rice mixture formed into a kind of bread. Between one layer was a spicy green chutney while the other layer has a spreading of a red chutney. He thought that the overall dish was tasty although the two different chutneys weren't really distinct individually.
For my main course I chose "ful cobi" (£5.75) a really light but highly flavoured dry curry of cauliflower, carrot, potato and peas. It may sound close to my starter but it really wasn't at all. The pieces of potato were only just cooked with gave a good texture to the dish while the cauliflower melted in the mouth. This was another really spicy dish but it wasn't hot, just really well spiced.
Himself ate the "mattar ringan" (£6.50) a dish of aubergine and peas and it was another success. This was a tomato based curry and was not as dry as my dish. The peas were nicely cooked but hadn't been overcooked so they were still pea-like and not too soft. The chunks of aubergine were tender and the black skin was glossy in the sauce. It was quite a hot dish although it wasn't described as such on the menu (only the very hottest dishes are specifically highlighted as hot so it's best to check with the waiting staff when you order if this is an issue for you).
We shared a portion of coriander rice (£2.95) and one of "batura" (£1.50 for two breads). Batura are fried breads flavoured with fenugreek seeds: when they come straight to the table they are piping hot and slightly puffed up. They are absolutely delicious and not at all greasy. I imaging they would be very good with a small portion of dhal for a simple snack. The rice was lovely and sticky and we were able to give a decent appraisal of the rice because we'd learned how to cook it Gujurati style at our Indian food session that morning.
Portion-wise everything was just right. Although I could have eaten another potato ball for my starter, that would just have been greedy. We didn't feel hungry afterwards and although we could have managed more, we wouldn't have felt inclined to do anything else for the rest of our evening than collapse on the bed at the hotel and it was too early for that.
Himself ordered a large bottle of King Cobra priced at £5.95 (it was a very large bottle) and I drank sweet lassi (£1.95) which had wonderfully fragranced fennel seeds sprinkled over the top. The lassi was served in a decorative metal beaker which kept the drink cool.
The menu had a note saying that every dish was cooked to order so diners should understand that it might take longer than usual for dishes to arrive. However, we were delighted with the speed at which the food arrived, with a nice (but not too long) gap between courses and although the food came quickly it was beautifully presented and we didn't feel rushed.
I was tempted by several of the desserts (especially because there are a couple of colour photographs in the menu which are tantalising) and was delighted to see that a good number of them didn't contain nuts. In spite of fierce competition from the "gulab jambu" (those very sweet and sticky balls of milk powder drenched in syrup - one of my favourite Indian desserts), I chose the "jeera ananas" (£4.25), two slices of pineapple sprinkled with tasty toasted cumin seeds and presented with two scoops of creamy vanilla ice cream: it was a really simple but light dessert and a good palate cleanser after a spicy meal. It's something I would replicate easily and cheaply at home too which would be good because I thought it was a little overpriced in the restaurant.
A 10% service charge was added to the total (which I don't like) but we would have tipped generously anyway as the service was very good; it was easy enough to catch someone's eye when you needed to and the staff didn't hang around when not required. The bill was brought with a dish of fragrant candied fennel seeds which we love and always take full advantage of. As a nut allergy sufferer I had to make sure all the dishes I requested were nut free and I felt confident about the responses I got.
Our meal was a great success but there are a couple of points that are worth making about the restaurant. The entrance is wheelchair accessible but the toilets are in the basement and therefore not accessible (it may however, be possible to use those in the bar next door). We were given a table on the mezzanine level, but you may need to book in advance to get a table on the wheelchair accessible ground floor.
Even if you are a confirmed carnivore, I would urge you to visit Hansa's if you like good Indian food. Hansa has proven that vegetarian food can be exciting and interesting and it's also great value for money. Although I do like to try new places, I know I'll be drawn back to Hansa's next time I'm in Leeds.
72/74 North Street,
Leeds, LS2 7PN