“ Cuisine: Indian / Location: 357-359 Wellingborough Road, Northampton, NN1 4EU / Tel: 01604 630214 „
It's easy to get into a bit of a rut when it comes to eating out locally. We don't do it too often - partly because I eat out a lot for work and don't therefore value a restaurant meal as highly as most people, and partly because there aren't so many good places nearby. If we don't want to drive one of our village's three pubs does pretty good food but for special occasions we usually end up at the Thai restaurant by Northampton's racecourse park. I've had a few good Thai meals in the last month and didn't want Thai again but I had a real urge for good Indian food which hadn't happened much recently at all. For some reason I'd lost my curry-drive since our last trip to India, probably because I'd been cooking a lot of Indian food but on this occasion my urge was back and since we were going out to celebrate my birthday I got to choose. A friend had recommended Mem-Saab a couple of years ago and I checked the menu online. It certainly looked a bit different from the conventional low lighting and flock wall paper place we usually go to so I called to book a table.
I wouldn't expect most Indian restaurants to be too busy at 7 pm on a Saturday. Traditionally they tend to liven up later in the evening, typically with beered-up yobs who are a bit the worse for wear and want to fill up on vindaloo and be rude to the waiters. Mem-Saab is not a post-pub curry house at all and consequently it's popular earlier than many Indian restaurants. I was late ringing for a table after missing the lunchtime opening hours. It was already 6.15 when I called asking for a seven o'clock table and I was asked if we could be there at 6.30 instead. We live 15 minutes away, my husband was still in the shower and I hadn't even thought about getting changed so I had to say that we couldn't get there that quickly. The man on the phone relented and said that he could serve us at 7pm but they would need to table back at 8.30pm. We happily agreed - after all, it's then down to the restaurant to serve you within the time limit and I could be sure of being home in time for Casualty (yes, I do know that's a bit sad). We were also told that if we wanted a bit longer for coffees, we could move to the bar area.
I was given a booking reference number which was short and easy to remember. Having been caught out 3 years ago on my birthday when my husband booked a nice local restaurant only to find that they swore blind we had no booking, I appreciate when the restaurant gives us the reassurance of a confirmation number.
~First Find Your Restaurant~
Mem-Saab is located in a lovely old red brick building on Northampton's Wellingborough Road. It looks like an old school from the outside but when we asked the waitress, she wasn't sure about the history of the place. We hadn't been before and I was a bit nervous about parking near the restaurant as it's a very busy area. Worries were uncalled-for because the restaurant has a large gated car park at the rear which solves both the problem of where to park and the fear or whether your car will be safe. Initially we made the mistake of going into the Corkers Bar which shares the building with the Mem-Saab but isn't connected internally. At the second attempt we found the restaurant.
The restaurant is split into two areas. The larger is the dining area and the smaller area is set up as a bar or coffee area with sofas and small tables. Once they'd confirmed our booking, we were given a table in the bar area, allocated a number and given menus so we could choose our food whilst we waited. We ordered a pint of Cobra and a diet coke to sip on whilst we investigated the menus although the waitress was a bit taken about that I got the beer and my husband got the coke. Well this was my birthday treat so he was driving. The waitress laughed and asked me for advice on how to get a man who'd let her drink and then take her home.
~A Menu Full of Mem-Saabs~
The menu at Mem-Saab is a bit different from most Indian restaurants. It's themed to fit with the restaurant name. Mem-saabs (or more typically Memsahibs) were the wives of the white men who ran India in the days of the Raj. Each section of the menu takes its inspiration from a notable Mem-Saab and gives a brief introduction to the life of that woman. The starters are dedicated to one of the early settlers, Emily Eden, who was the sister of Lord Auckland, who became Governor of India. The vegetarian section is under the name of Clara Bemister, who wrote a recipe book for the Theosophical Society of India which espoused the moral benefits of not eating meat. Edith Brown has the Tandoori section and was famed for setting up a medical school that combined local and western treatments. The Chef's specials were under Lady Dufferine, the Vicereine who liked her meals in the grandest of style whilst the rest of the mains were under Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister and not exactly someone who'd probably have appreciated being called a Mem-Saab. For those who don't like it hot, there's a selection of English style dishes dedicated to Flora Annie Steel with an explanation that many of the British who went to India preferred to avoid the native food.
The menu is not overly long which I consider a good thing. Too many times you will find small restaurants with overly long menus that suggest they can't possibly be making everything fresh. By contrast Mem-Saab is a big restaurant with a moderate length menu. It's also a rather classy menu with less reliance on the poppadom-samosa-bhaji routine so common in most Indian restaurants. The starters were all very tempting and we opted for a portion of tandoori salmon and a 'special' of scallops with a ginger and chilli dressing.
For main courses we chose a dish off Lady Dufferin's specials called Machli Masala which sounded like it might be a bit too mild and consisted of cod flaked in a tomato based sauce with onion, ginger, garlic, and an allegedly 'gentle' sprinkle of spice. Our other dish a Prawn Daalcha and was inspired by my current obsession for lentils and was a prawn dish in a sauce of lentils and chick peas. Working on the theory that we usually stuff ourselves silly with cheap poppadoms and then have no space left for the main courses, we decided to skip the nibbly bits and save ourselves for pudding.
About ten minutes after placing our orders the waitress came to lead us over to our table. The dining area is big and can seat around a hundred people when it's full and Isuspect it usually is full. We had a table for two in a corner and when we first sat down the restaurant was about a quarter full. By the time we left just over an hour later it was absolutely packed. The clientèle included quite a few large groups - a 40th birthday party, a hen night and a large Indian family group. The dress code is smart casual and some people had really gone to a lot of effort to dress up. The lighting is bright, the walls are rather bleak white or cream and the only thing I really would want to criticise was the noise level. There music was quite loud which meant that people had to talk louder to be heard and the overall noise level was not too far off painful.
Once we were seated my husband started the embarrassing business of interrogating the waitress about where the chefs and owners were from. He's got an uncanny knack for picking up the subtle signals and once the waitress had established that her father was one of the owners, Tony asked were they Sikhs and were they from the Punjab. He's not a mind-reader but I think it freaked her out a little. In the UK relatively few Indian restaurants are run by Sikhs and she was happy to talk about the family and how they came to set up their restaurant and didn't seem to be in any hurry to rush off to another table.
The starters were really quite spectacular. I'm glad it was a special occasion and we hadn't gone mean and ordered samosas and onion bhajis as our two dishes were excellent. As soon as the waiter realised we were planning to share the dishes, he headed straight back to the kitchen to get some extra plates for us. The scallops were small but really well cooked with the outsides nicely browned and seared without the insides being over cooked. The chilli-ginger dressing was light and they were served with lambs lettuce. The salmon was a good sized steak, blackened in the tandoor, cooked through perfectly and served with a salad garnish and a yoghurt dressing.
Main courses were much tastier than I'd expected from the descriptions. The cod dish was spicier than the menu had suggested which was a relief and the portion was a good size. The prawn and chick peas in lentils was stunning and had a lot of clove in it. I loathe clove almost as much as I hate celery but somehow the chef had come up with some genius way of using the clove that gave a lot of heat without tasting like mouthwash. I don't know how they did it and I'd certainly never risk it at home but I loved the dish. Using lentil 'mush' as a base was very clever and meant that the dish wasn't at all oily.
Luckily by skipping the poppadoms we'd kept space for pudding but first we ordered lassis because the clove and lentil dish had quite a lingering burn. Despite specifying sweet lassi and telling the waiter that I really can't 'do' salt lassi at all, that's what they bought. We sent them back and waited for sweet ones to come back along with our puddings. Hubby had a very rich strawberry cheesecake and I ordered hot Gulab Jamun (mega-sweet little dough balls) with ice-cream. We were both happy with our choices, me all the more so because the Gulab Jamun didn't come swimming in syrup.
We were heading towards our table deadline by the time we'd polished off three courses and were more than happy with the bill of just under £50 for the two of us. It's more than we'd have paid in a standard Indian but for the quality of the food we felt the prices were more than fair and we'd certainly plan to go back again next time we don't fancy Thai food but want to celebrate something.