After a late-night Ruby Murray? Then this isn’t the place for you, says MARK TAYLOR. But for fine-dining Indian cuisine in the heart of Cheltenham, it rocks
Apart from those passers-by fluent in Sanskrit, there aren’t too many clues that Prithvi (it means ‘mother earth’ in that ancient language) is an Indian restaurant at all. The modest roadside frontage certainly doesn’t give anything away, and there is certainly no mention of the type of cuisine served inside the intimate, 28-cover restaurant.
And then there’s the question of the utterly respectable opening times. Last orders are taken at 9.30pm, which seems rather ironic for an Indian restaurant located opposite a branch of Wetherspoons. Closing the kitchen before Huw Edwards has even made an appearance on BBC News At Ten certainly reduces the chances of a post-pub Ruby after a bellyful of beer, but then Prithvi is no ordinary high-street curry house and it’s all the better for it.
Run by Jay Rahman, who previously worked at the Michelin-starred Purnell’s in Birmingham, this is a world away from the ubiquitous Indian restaurant where chicken tikka masalas are swilled down with gallons of Kingfisher. Okay, there are a few old favourites on the menu – among them jalfrezi and biryani – but the short menu is devoid of number prefixes and sections for ‘chef’s specialties’ and ‘from the tandoor oven’. It even offers a five-course ‘tour of Prithvi’ tasting menu. You wouldn’t get that down your local balti house.
Opened just over a year ago on the site of a traditional Indian restaurant of more than two decades, Prithvi has quietly gained a formidable reputation with in-the know locals. With its soft lighting, buttermilk walls, tiled floor and white linen-covered tables, it looks like the sort of stylish and serene fine-dining restaurant where the chef is trying to attract Michelin inspectors rather than groups of inebriated students ordering colonscorching curries.
Owner Jay is one of the new wave of Indian restaurateurs. Young, slim, sharp-suited, he works the floor with the sort of discreet professionalism that comes from experience in top-end places like Purnell’s. He’s cut from a different cloth.
The menu is packed with interesting dishes all jostling for attention, putting hands up high and shouting ‘Me! Me! Choose me!’. These innovative and enticing dishes include the Aamla lamb (lamb seared in chilli-infused olive oil, braised in pickled mango jus and served with sautéed fine beans) and the Nargil duck (braised breast of duck in a cumin and honey crust in coconut jus). You wouldn’t see them on those neon takeaway menus pushed through your door every week.
And then there’s the presentation of the food. Most dishes are served on black slates, in white china bowls or dinky little Le Creuset dishes – there isn’t a candlelit hotplate or plastic poppadom basket in sight. I kicked off with Machli (£7.90) – a piece of succulent, precisely cooked salmon that had been roasted in the tandoori oven and served with honey mustard and a sweet, jammy chilli mango purée with quite a kick to it.
This was followed by a second starter-size dish of Dutara lamb (£6.90) – an outrageously tender piece of smoked fillet with a portion of delicately spiced mince lamb and a seriously moreish mint coriander chutney.
Unusually for an Indian restaurant, Prithvi offers a fish of the day (£14.90), which was monkfish on this occasion and cooked with turmeric, ‘spice battered’ aubergine and a mustard seed and coconut jus served in a separate white jug, poured by the waiter, to add a touch of theatre. And what a fabulously fragrant, light dish it was – almost Keralan in style, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the chef is from southern India.
To finish, a delicate, cinnamon-spiced apple and toffee macaron (£5.90) topped with finely crushed pistachios. This was one of those rare meals that presented more twists, turns and surprises than an Indian spin bowler in full flight. The cooking at Prithvi has a lightness to it and the spicing is delicate and measured, which allows the main ingredients to breathe.
It may not advertise itself as an Indian restaurant from the outside, but there is no doubt that this is Indian cooking of a very high order. But then Prithvi is more than just another Indian restaurant – it’s a very good restaurant that just happens to cook Indian food, and therein lies its real point of difference.
Prithvi, 37 Bath Road, Cheltenham, GL53 7HG; 01242 226229; www.prithvirestaurant.com