It all seems so long ago, yet in the same year Nirmal Gupta opened her Sheffield restaurant – and it’s still going strong.
Back in 1981, Sheffield was a very different place: the centre of a thriving steel industry, where the only real choice for dining out was a handful of Italian bistros or the local curry house.
Enter Mrs Gupta, daughter of a Delhi stockbroker, who arrived in the city when husband Parshotam signed up to take a PhD at Sheffield University.
She ran cookery classes for a while, including some at the university, where her food was a big hit.
“The students encouraged me to open a restaurant,” she recalls. “The first night the whole place was booked up by the psychology department!”
Since then, the Glossop Road restaurant has become something of a Sheffield institution – along with its owner.
“We’ve got no intention of retiring; we still love it. And there’s always room to improve,” declares the matriarch of the city’s Indian restaurant scene, who plans to celebrate her 30th anniversary properly with a charity event once she’s back on her feet after a knee operation.
Mrs Gupta (for I wouldn’t dare address her by any more familiar term) has a way about her that appeals to foodies of all ages.
We arrive just as she is settling a party of three business students at the next table: “Tell me about marketing a business,” she urges.
But it’s clear there’s not much they can teach their hostess. By the end of the meal she has not only talked them into ordering two desserts they hadn’t realised they wanted, but also persuaded them that her upstairs room would be the very place for a graduation party!
A visit to Nirmal’s is a homely affair. We’re greeted by the sari-clad owner and encouraged to make ourselves comfortable at a window table.
The colour scheme is a muted purple with traditional cloth-covered tables and upholstered chairs.
The menu is a manageable size, with house specials painted on a small blackboard. But both are superfluous because Mrs Gupta is happy to make the selection for us.
We’ve already been warned that this will be the case, by not one, but two colleagues. And since both went on to proclaim it the best Indian meal they’d ever had, we were happy to go along with her suggestion.
The menu hasn’t changed much over the years but that’s not surprising because the chef has been there since day one. Now that is surprising in an industry that’s renowned for its quick turnover.
How many pappadoms would we like? I usually turn down this so-called appetiser on the grounds that it’s like eating crisp cardboard, usually accompanied by quantities of raw onion that you can still taste two days later.
However, trays of yummy-looking pickles are already on the table and the smell alone is too good to miss.
We devour one each with liberal helpings of pickled carrot, spiced apple purée, a deliciously sweet plum and tomato chutney and a tangy green coconut and lemon dip.
It’s washed down with sparkling water in my case, a glass of Kingfisher beer in his.
Then it’s straight on to the main event: lamb masallam and chicken jalfrezi, which we’re encouraged to share, along with a side order of curried parsnips.
Mrs Gupta’s lamb is legendary and it’s the restaurant’s signature dish, although she is vegetarian. (Vegetable dishes are another speciality.)
Originally available only as a whole leg, the lamb proved so popular that single portions became a permanent fixture on the specials board.
It’s beautifully tender: big chunks of meat, pleasantly spiced without being too hot. Chicken jalfrezi is a lighter contrast, scented with coriander, mushrooms and green peppers.
Firm curried parsnips are the hostess’ own invention: “When the kids were young we used to go out and eat and they loved roast parsnips. I decided to try currying them with ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin, and everybody loves them.”
There’s also a dish of nutty pilau rice and a moist paratha, stuffed with cauliflower, which Mrs Gupta makes herself at home.
This is delicious food. Not your average curry, but wholesome ingredients, cleverly spiced in the traditional Indian manner.
We polish off the lot and, surprisingly, still have room to share a juicy Mumbai mango, served hedgehog fashion, and a dish of home-made kulfi: sweet, creamy and aromatic, rolled in silver leaf.
“Cliff Richard said it was the best ice cream he’d ever had,” Mrs Gupta name-drops unashamedly to her young admirers at the next table.
Well, they’d told her word of mouth was the best way to promote a restaurant and she’s proving their point.
Other celebrated guests over the 30 years have included Donald Sinden, Hugh Laurie, Joanna Lumley and Jamie Lee Curtis.
We finish our meal with fudgy patissa, a pot of fragrant masala chai – and a tip from our hostess: “Put cloves, cardamoms and cinnamon sticks in a jar with the tea and that’s just enough to scent it. It’s very subtle.”
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £40.80.
lVerdict: Traditional home-cooked North Indian food that’s still pulling in new custom 30 years on.
lOpen: Mon-Sat 12-2.30pm; Sun-Thurs 6-12pm; Fri-Sat until 1am
lNirmal’s, 189-193 Glossop Road, Sheffield (0114) 272 4054.