“The home of Punjabi cooking” proudly proclaims the website of EastZEast, a small chain of plush restaurants centred largely around the North West, though also venturing down to the curry heartlands of Birmingham. Self-evidently from a quick browse of their site, the ownership of EZE has focused on marketing promotions (see offers here), loyalty cards and image, aiming to create a series of zinging hotspots and cocktail bars to appeal particularly to the younger market of curry addicts.
In Manchester they have not followed the crowd to Curry Mile but have two haunts: in the new riverside area on the banks of the Irwell, and, for this visit, in a nondescript part of Princess Street just out of the City Centre in the direction of the University. Our pre-theatre booking was for 5pm, but the rate at which the restaurant filled was testament to the fact that EZE is doing something right. My contention is that it’s not the marketing or the modern ambience with whizzy lighting and bold neon colours that sells to the punters, but the Punjabi cuisine.
You might expect the approach to be reflected in Indian fine dining – nouvelle portions adorned with streaks and blobs of sauces with a high price tag, but appearances can be deceptive. In fact much of the menu is what you might call “standard UK Indian” keenly priced to compete with a burgeoning array of excellent upmarket ethnic restaurants in Manchester centre (mains in the £10-13 bracket, uppish by high street curry house standards.)
Portions are generous, and the inclusion of a few Punjabi specialties adds just enough differentiation to appeal to diners who want to push the boundaries and not merely eat the same chicken korma they have every Friday night. The choice of having meat served on the bone is welcome, though I can’t imagine they get too many takers for this dish, even in the home of tripe and cow heel:
PAYA (LAMB TROTTERS) Cooked in a low heat overnight in a rich sauce & EastzEast massala paste
At our dinner we began with a jug of mango lassi, which I’d have to say was head and shoulders above any other mango lassi I’ve had in recent years by virtue of being thicker and tastier. Time was when it was always churned fresh to order by the kitchen, though in recent years they have tended to buy in ready-made – also available at your local Indian supermarket. This tasted fresh, and if so it deserves a commendation.
The popadoms were as you would expect, but the accompanying tray of sauces, pickles and chutneys shows a restaurant going that extra mile. Identifying the content of each of the 8 dishes amused us until the starters came. They were uniformly excellent.
For simplicity we chose mixed starters for three, which demonstrated the versatility of the kitchen in providing fresh street snacks dishes. This is a subject close to my heart, given that I ate the most sublime samosas and pakoras with green chilli sauce for a few rupees in India – all of which were light years ahead of those served in British kitchens. So it is with pleasure that I can report these were as good as I can recall in the UK, and best of the bunch was a superb freshly made fish tikka – moist, flavoursome and perfectly cooked. The tandoori lamb chops were good but possibly not as good as those served at the Lahore Kebab House, which is scarcely an insult. All in all, a fine collection of starters to demonstrate that the chef knows his onion bhajias.
For mains my mother selected a chicken biriani, primarily because she couldn’t make up her mind. It defeated her by a long chalk, though she refused to do the American thing by asking for a doggie bag – possibly because we were destined for the theatre. What a shame!
Son and I both chose from the collection of “Punjabi Desi” dishes: “Lamb Sookha Bunah” for me and “Chicken Masala Desi” for him – essentially lamb tikka bhuna and chicken tikka masala as they would be known in other restaurants. Both were of high quality with fresh spicing, though not quite the wow factor of the starters.
Star of the show was however the family-size naan bread, attached to its own rack and standing vertically like the sail on a yacht. This was one impressive hunk of bread at a mere £3.75, perfect for mopping up your curry from the dish.
At that point we beat a hasty retreat in order to wander across town for our theatre engagement. The bill at £66 was not unreasonable, though had we not ordered on the assumption of smaller portions then we might have saved £10 or more.
Nevertheless, a fine opening shot at the menu and definitely grounds for returning – and maybe even delving into the cocktail menu. Millward’s Indian restaurant of the year, to date.