Above the door inside Ayo Gurkali is a banner cheerleading the Royal Gurka Rifles, this being the predominant theme of this fine Nepalese restaurant in a somewhat unlikely location just off Bank Square in my home town of Wilmslow, Cheshire. Featured on the poster is the motto of this august battalion, bravest of the brave: “better to die than to be a coward.”
Opening any new restaurant is the act of a very brave, possibly, some would argue, a foolhardy man or woman, given that up to 85% of new ventures fail in their first year. But get the basics right, appeal to the populace, get good word of mouth and before you know it you could possibly have a roaring success on your hands. That some are popular because they are cool places to hang out depresses me. I may be unorthodox here but I judge any restaurant primarily on the quality of their food, then ambience, service, prices, efficiency and a range of other factors. Luckily some get popular because they get that right, where others get it right but still fail. Such is the fickle nature of the restaurant biz.
But if you do simply things well and have a decent location location location, chances are that you will be popular. That would appear to be the case here, Ayo Gurkhali being all but packed on a Saturday early evening prior to Mother’s Day, largely with mothers and their assorted families (indeed the reason I was there with my mother.)
There was a buzz about the place: the ambience rich with days of the British Raj and Gurkha nostalgia, atmospheric but not too intrusive music, definitely a tad above your average curry house. One feature the restaurant has undoubtedly got right is service. From beginning to end, the service was charming if not endearing in an innocent way, the sort where smiles are genuine and never faux. It was also fairly unobtrusive but always around when help was required. Whether or not you consider the mock Gurkha uniforms worn to be over the top, the impression given was that the staff cared for their customers, not something you can say too often these days.
The staff helped us along with the usual popadoms (or papadum here) with a tray of chutneys, plus drinks: a jug of mango lassi and a big bottle of Nepali beer (usual lager style, but an interesting label featuring a Gurka soldier.) The chutneys are generally thrown in with the popadoms without extra charge, though here they cost £1.65. You anticipate the onions in tomato paste, yogurty mint sauce and sweet mango chutney, but a difference came in the inclusion of a cool but subtly spiced cucumber relish of a type I had not previously tried – different to most raitas.
My mother had been perusing the menu for some days and had long decided which Nepalese specialties to try, though the restaurant also does the usual assortment of tandoori and north Indian dishes familiar to most of its clientele. I’d have loved to review her chosen starter of Chhwela Wochha, lamb with lentils on a pancake, though she polished it off before I had the chance to taste any. It looked rather like devilled lamb kidneys served on a large round crouton of toast, but that description is probably not doing the dish any justice!
My memories of eating in Nepal were somewhat different to the dishes listed, notably the rather splendid “boiled buff” (ie. buffalo) included on on menu in Kathmandu, but it was pleasing to see as both starter and main course options a national dish of sorts, momo, or, as spelled here, “Mo:Mo“. The last time I ate authentic momo was at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Durbar Square in Patan, adjacent to Kathmandu as Salford borders Manchester. Put simply, they are small steamed dumplings akin to Japanese gyoza and several Chinese dim sum. These were filled with minced lamb and served with a lip-smackingly fruity tamarind sauce, and went down a treat.
Our main courses were Daa:Kula curry (“slowly cooked tender lamb in a thick lamb stock and tomatoes with Nepalese spices, garnished with coriander and fresh ginger”) and Saslik Karahi Chicken (“marinated chicken , green peppers, onions and tomatoes grilled together in a tandoor, then transferred to a pan to cook with chef’s special sauce, garnished with fresh coriander and ginger.”) You tend to take the descriptions of dishes in an Indian, or any restaurant come to that, with the proverbial pinch of salt, especially since most actually mean identikit meat in indentikit sauce made with identikit spices.
Granted there is the ubiquitous coriander and ginger present in both dishes, but there the similarity ended. What struck me was the skilled spicing that enabled each and every multi-layered flavour to come to the fore and create a dish at once unique, resonant and mouth-tinglingly delicious. If you think all curries taste alike, think again – these certainly would make you sit up and take notice.
The lamb dish came with several large chunks of mouthwateringly tender meat that fell apart at the judicious prod of a fork, the chicken was equally sumptuous; I left with a desire to explore the menu yet further to find out what other zingingly vibrant flavours were there to be savoured. Accompanying pilau rice and garlic nan were fine if not exceptional, and we were not sufficiently hungry to venture forth into the world of veg side dishes or desserts.
This is not an establishment pushing for Michelin stars, but what it does it does startlingly well, and a revelation to those who think that all restaurants whose cuisine originates in the Indian subcontinent are cooked in the same factory somewhere. Good fresh food well-cooked and served with charm and panache make the difference, though Nepali dishes varying from the usual range of curries also help.
For a bill amounting to £40 for two excluding service (and service undoubtedly deserved all the small change we could find, since the credit card slip was correctly closed), I felt we had excellent value for money. The reward for the Ayo Gurkhali is that it can unquestionably look forward to further Millward custom – and if you’re running a restaurant, that’s all you can ever ask for – customer loyalty.