Food review: Spice is still reyt after half a century

Rahul Amin at Ashoka on Ecclesall Road
Rahul Amin at Ashoka on Ecclesall Road

When it comes to the lifespan of a restaurant - most venues are lucky to stay open longer than a couple of years.

But one Sheffield Indian is on the brink of notching up an incredible half a century - longer than many lives, and most marriages - last.

Ashoka, on Ecclesall Road, was opened in the very same spot by Kamal Ahmed in 1967.

The Bangladeshi entrepreneur ran the restaurant, and two more on Division Street and in Dore, before passing the mantle on to Rahul Amin in 2004 when he retired.

But what is the secret to keeping a restaurant going for generations - through major changes to the world, Sheffield and food culture?

“We just try to be consistent in putting a great plate of food down and the service”, said Rahul.

Nostalgia does play a part in it – groups have been coming for years

Rahul Amin

“Great food, great service and I do honestly think that’s the cornerstone of why we have been going for 50 years.

“Nostalgia does play a part as well, we’ve got groups who have been coming regularly for 3o or 40 years.”

Economics graduate Rahul spotted the restaurant for sale and, without any experience in the industry, persuaded his parents and a bank to help him get started.

He was 22.

Rahul Amin at Ashoka on Ecclesall Road

Rahul Amin at Ashoka on Ecclesall Road

“I’d just got out of university and I didn’t want to get a proper job”, he laughed.

“In the last year of university we had to do a module on entrepreneurship and I interviewed one of my family friends and thought, I want to work for myself. And the fact it was on Ecclesall Road stood out, so I said to my brother ‘let’s go down.’

“But we couldn’t get in because we weren’t dressed correctly - my brother was 17 and I was 22, both dressed in T shirts and jeans, they took one look at us at that time of night and said no.”

Obviously, he did go back and get in.

Soon the menu was trimmed back and modernised, as was the restaurant itself in 2015.

Today its known as much for its cool decor - tiled walls, kitsch Indian products and a style somewhat akin to an old fashioned railway carriage - as it is for quirkily named main courses, the use of Henderson’s Relish and its eye-catching adverts on street signs hailing their ‘reyt good curreh.’

Rahul says they were inspired by the work of the Designer Republic agency, echoing their pride in the Steel City.

“It’s about the pride in Sheffield but also that’s me”, he said of the advert.

“My parents are Indian and I was born here.”

We booked in the modern way - online - with just a few 90 minute spots left for a busy Friday night.

The staff welcome was a warm one, and we sat down to the obligatory poppodoms and four dips, along with a decent bottle of red and some ‘Yorkshire’ water - offered, not requested.

The poppodoms had a toasted taste to them and dips were excellent, particularly a super tongue-warping sour lime pickle.

For starters it had to be that combination of India and Sheffield, the Henderson’s house puri.

A paper thin crispy bubble of the fried bread encased cubes of golden, crispy potatoes, packed with layers of spices and the distinctive Hendo’s tang.

Proof - if ever it was needed - that there is nothing to not benefit from a dash of the black sauce.

The puri itself was ideal for dipping in leftover pickles, and not at all greasy.

His cricket pakora - a family recipe of Rahul’s and the first he made for himself as a student - were light rather than stodgy, packed with flavours.

His main was the taxi driver curry, so named after the driver Mr Hussain who first asked for the dish before becoming a regular, encouraging in other cabbies and finally getting it on the menu so everyone could partake.

It’s a tantalising mix of spicy, garlic-soaked mince lamb, contrasting cubes of chicken tikka and plenty of oomph from the green chillies to boot.

My Keralan coconut curry from the south of Indian - there’s no regional focus here - was a bit of a tease.

Heat would slowly build from the juicy, pink inside chunks of lamb.

But then a whoosh of coconut milk hidden in the golden sauce would wash away the flames from your tongue.

Mushroom rice was what you hope for, but rarely get, hot, properly cooked rice with slender slices of the vegetables, chillies and sweet, dark brown caramelized onions scattered on top.

The same slow cooked onions also feature in the most popular dish on the menu, Rahul said making them was something of an ‘art form.’

Portion sizes here are well thought out, especially for an Indian. But even so we had to take some home.

With wine, our bill came to £61 - and they threw in some Indian biscuits, as well as a kitsch pamphlet on securing a happy marriage at the end (one thinks staff may have overheard our conversation at the table)

And why shouldn’t they dish out some advice?

Faultless, cheery service, a satisfying proper curry and a modern approach: Ashoka really is a reyt good union that has stood the true test of time.

Ashoka, 307 Ecclesall Road

Tel: 01142 683029