East India Cafe in One Paragraph:
Ambitious, well-presented Indian food, interesting drinks (beer excepted) – and staff with bags of charm. Amuse-bouches, palate cleansers and some of the other trappings of fine dining.
The Longer Read:
East India Cafe made us wonder what is it with Cheltenham and good Indian food at the moment. The town is definitely on an Indian Food high (especially if you include Bangladesh and Pakistan’s contributions). And Ceylon’s at Coconut Tree.
Curry Corner led the way, Prithvi is currently packing them in and East India Cafe’s good word-of-mouth reputation inspired us to check it out. The restaurant is on The Prom, in yet another Cheltenham semi-basement. It’s an attractive room, tables nicely spaced.
The menu reads well, too although drinks are called ‘libations’ which is rarely forgivable (for this sort of nonsense, see also The Find). In fact, the drinks are a bit of a mixed bag. Cocktails are good and there are some well-chosen gins on the list. On the other hand, beers are generic and dull (Cobra etc). There’s an opportunity missed to bring in some interesting IPAs, to match the quality of the food.
East India Cafe has a fixed price structure, with tasting menus at £49.95, including a vegetarian 7 course. A two course dinner is £29.95 / 3 course £33.95. Bear in mind you’re in for various amuse bouches and other treats, so two courses actually means more than that.
East India Cafe
On sitting down we were immediately distracted by the arrival of four other diners. Specifically, I was distracted by the fact that one of them had left an enormous price tag hanging down the back of a crochet/knitted overdress thingy. And this is where Ms Critical and I disagreed. My approach would be that the woman would rather know about the price label, but I was assured in no uncertain terms that she would not. So I left well alone, although I couldn’t get that Jessie J track out of my head.
Anyway, we were distracted back to dinner by a complimentary drink – rose water, basil seeds and rosehip syrup. Essentially, it was Turkish Delight in a glass. This was followed by an amuse bouche (lentil chaat) and an appetiser of a small pot of masala, pomegranate, peanut and puffed rice – a kind of VIP trail mix, but very tasty.
Tiffin at East India Cafe
A Spring Vegetable Tiffin included a nice nod to the local, with a chilli and Double Gloucester tikki (basically a croquette), onion bhaji, aubergine vorta (spiced chutney) and a beetroot chutney. Tiffin basically means ‘snack’ and this, despite the long list of ingredients, was a sensibly snack-sized starter. Good to look at, and with a beautiful chilli heat that built in the mouth. It did what you want a starter to do – it made you look forward to what’s next.
Another starter of prawn, served three ways was delicious. Prawns came with kusandi (basically a spiced ketchup), malai (cream) and green spices and, I think, a mustard sauce. There were a couple of watermelon balls on the side.
Next up, a mango sorbet as a refresher – and a refresher was pretty much needed since, at this stage, I’d racked up a high number of spice and flavour combinations, especially since my gin cocktail (a ‘Viceroy Thirsty’ (£8.95)) was a heady mix of juniper and citrus with pomegranate, lemon, mint and rosemary.
Mains at East India Cafe
So there we were, waiting for main course. We’d already had four courses out of two (eh?) and were extremely happy. Whether by design or accident there was a welcome longish pause before main courses. In fact, I thought that service was very well paced-all evening. It’s a calm, relaxing place this.
Guinea Fowl Jalfrezi came with paratha (flatbread).
Jalfrezi has its origins as a dish of fried leftovers (‘Jal’ referring to the fact that is heavily spiced and ‘frezi’ means stir-fried). Jalfrezi covers a multitude of sins in run of the mill curry houses. Here this dish was a winner – probably the best use of a Guinea fowl breast that I’ve encountered. It came with Romano peppers and an olive pickle – on a bed of pureed spinach. I’d guess that the spicing included garlic and ginger, chilli, coriander, cinnamon and cumin.
Meen Mappas (fish curry) is a Kerala coconut curry dish. This one was made with a substantial quantity of sea bass fillet. Again, beautifully cooked – with cabbage, asparagus, samphire, rockfish roe. Side dish was a (rather small) pot of tamarind flavoured rice.
Only filter coffee is available at East India Cafe. Ours was a little bitter.
Would I Go Back to East India Cafe?
I’d like to go back to try some of the other menu options.
Elsewhere on the menu we liked the look of ‘Memsahib’s Beef Triumph’. This is basically a beef rezala (beef curry and gravy). You don’t often see rezala on menus – traditionally it has a sweeter taste. It is cooked with yoghurt and sugar.
Railway Lamb Curry also appealed, made with Cotswold lamb. If the name sounds a bit twee, it really is a thing. Originally, it was a colonial-era dish of mutton curry preserved with tamarind and served on long distance trains on the sub-continent.
In summary, East India Cafe is a welcoming and pleasant restaurant with an exciting menu. Cooking is very strong, especially on the main courses which are really special. The amuse bouches and various other bits and pieces added interest and a bit of theatre to dining here, making it good value too. So don’t worry about the price tag, as Jessie J and the lady sat nearby, would say – at least when she got home.
Always book ahead – East India Cafe is a smallish venue – and it’s popular.