Indian restaurants are evidently like buses. No sooner do you find a good one than several more arrive in rapid succession. Having had an excellent culinary adventure at EastZEast in Manchester, a friend took me to the Spicy Swan at Bradwell, a former pub and steakhouse beside the busy A120 between Colchester and Braintree. This is a relatively recent incarnation to the old Swan, and also delayed following neglect from BT in installing the lines required to run the credit card machine, a story that made it to the local press (see here and here.)
It was however worth the wait. The Bangladeshi owners retained the period features, notably the beams, but have, much like EastZEast, installed quality self-consciously modern fixtures and fittings, the latter including plush light fittings, a decent sound system and zircon. There is also an interesting collection of modern art on the walls, showing just how far we have travelled since the clichéd days of flock wallpaper, vaguely Indian pictures, wall hangings and artefacts, and sitar music (ie. to make subcontinent restaurants seem “exotic” – no longer a requirement given their familiarity and the fact that we all travel long haul these days.)
For all that, good to see the restaurant basics done right, including first class table linen – one of those costs punters never see, but would miss if it weren’t there. This speaks of good attention to detail, and is mirrored by the kitchen disciplines, of which more shortly.
Sensibly the owners have also included a lounge and bar area, useful for seating in comfort those collecting takeaways and also making customers welcome on busy nights pending table availability – though at around 40 covers there is probably capacity for peak time on Friday and Saturday evenings. It also has a beer garden and offers entertainments and private event hire, demonstrating a keen eye for exploiting the potential of the site, something the previous owners failed to achieve.
The benefit of going on an otherwise deserted Thursday lunchtime was the opportunity to chat with the owner’s son, an enthusiastic chap with plenty of refreshing and ambitious ideas for developing the trade. On this occasion he was dressed in black jeans and check shirt, though as per the photo above evening attire includes red bow tie and cummerbund.
Like that of EZE, the menu (mercifully low on spelling mistakes and flowery adjectives), contains several non-standard items designed to appeal to adventurous diners willing to experiment, while also catering for the more familiar tastes of those who stick to the familiar turf of korma/ madras/ vindaloo/ rogan/ biriani etc. Full marks for catering for veggie tendencies with Quorn offered as a meat substitute in most dishes. I hear they also cater for individual tastes both in spicing and in dish preparation, not true of all kitchens.
After the complimentary popadoms, sauces and chutneys (most now charge several quid for the nibbles while choosing from the menu) plus draught Cobra and a Coke, we chose fairly straightforward and traditional starters: sheek kebab and chicken tikka. Nothing exceptional there except that both tasted fresh and moist, which is most certainly not always the case. In fact, they also both looked appetising – a big plus given that some sheek kebabs remind you of things you’d rather not think about while dining.
For mains we plunged into the house specialties, of which there are a number, all well-garnished and evidently tasty. My friend went for a Loknai Murghi (described as a “fairly hot dish” containing tomatoes and onions, but neglecting to reveal the spicing secrets of loknai sauce) and I a Duck Zafrani (“onions, tomatoes, capsicum, fresh herbs and spices with white mustard seeds and a fresh hot sauce.”) The herbs certainly included fresh coriander, though it’s not clear what others.
What I can tell you is that both displayed a depth and subtlety of spicing. Done right, this means you “get” different flavours at different times during the eating process, as the spices come into contact with various taste buds, but it only works with fresh aromatic spices, all of which lose their essence very rapidly after grinding. This is an excellent way to tell the difference between a kitchen that cares about its spicy food and those that churn out identikit dishes like a factory – and to the weary diner it can be a revelation. Nothing in the Spicy Swan tasted as though it had been hanging around, for which due credit is deserved.
A word too for the accompanying dishes: the ubiquitous naan (here the onion kulcha was selected) and both mushroom and coconut rices were perfectly decent – but maybe they missed a trick that EZE pulled off – the “family naan” on a rack would be a splendid addition to the menu.
All told, the best compliment I can pay to the Spicy Swan is that I want to return there and sample more on the menu. This is not to say that it could not be improved, but clearly the aspiration of providing a Bangladeshi fine dining experience while also catering for everyday tastes is working – there is good word of mouth and clearly local diners are beating a path to the door. The key to success is whether they continue to come and make this their curry house of choice, particularly since prices are notably higher than in nearby Braintree.
I wish the management team every success in their ambition, and hope that they stick around much longer than the rare breed steakhouse that preceded them on the site. If so, this could be a good place to come for years hence.