Q: What do muggings, graffiti, air pollution and Indian restaurants have in common? A: They are all largely urban, if not urbane, phenomena. Certainly curry has always been particularly associated with big cities.
From London’s Brick Lane, through the Midlands balti belt to Manchester’s curry mile and on to Bradford (chicken tyke masala?), Indian cuisine has always been chiefly the passion of townies.
But is that still true?
Maybe not. One of North Wales’ best kept secrets has been quietly nestling in the rural hinterland between Mold and Wrexham for some years now – and in peculiar surroundings at that.
Hope’s Country Spice restaurant – and you can’t get much less urban than that for a name – has long been a favourite of aficionados, despite its unpromising situation.
The views are fine, tucked as it is in the shadow of Hope Mountain.
It’s just the building! Even the most avid fans would have to admit it doesn’t LOOK very welcoming. An old council depot, it presents an uncompromising view of its none-too-handsome backside to the main road and reserves its front-of-house views for its own hidden car park. Hardly the most effective come-on.
But appearances, as they say, can be deceptive – the Country Spice has always had a name for serving good food and recently underwent a makeover that saw it closed for a couple of months. Although, from outside appearances at least, things didn’t appear to have changed that much, it was time to investigate.
Three of us arrived early-ish, around 7pm, and judging by the number of carry-out bags waiting to be collected, the number of takeaway customers had not been affected by the closure.
Skipping past the queues, we were shown directly to our table and, like children on Christmas morning we kept our eyes studiously examining the carpet, putting off the big moment.
Seated, we stole a look around. Wow!
One glance and it was obvious why the work had taken so long – the Country Spice was unrecognisable.
Lovers of the restaurant will remember it,no doubt fondly, as loveable but slightly frayed around the edges, trapped, decor-wise at least, somewhere in the early 1990s.
Not any more. Gone are the fussy trimmings and the dim lighting. The Country Spice has suddenly discovered the 21st century.
The decor is bright and minimalistic, with only modern but tasteful art breaking up the clean lines.
The overall effect was to somehow make the restaurant look smaller and cosier.
All three of us had loved the old Spice – no pun intended – despite its surroundings. We had been worried about the makeover. We needn’t have been – we loved it.
But what about the food?
The poppadoms were fine, but I have only ever once tasted a dodgy poppadom and that was when I was stupid enough to insist, despite Beverley’s protests (and they are still going on to this day), on going for an Indian meal in Lanzarote.
On that occasion I was served what appeared to be a genetically modified compact disk that had developed warts and then been left out in the rain until it started to turn green. Come to think of it, that’s how it tasted too.
No such problems here. The poppadoms, complete with lime pickle, mango chutney, onions and that ubiquitous but mysterious red sauce, were excellent.
But poppadums are hardly a serious test. Roll on the proper starters.
I went for chicken birann, lighly spiced breast fillets, stir fried with onions and served in a masala sauce. Slightly dry but good, and accompanied by an excellent fresh salad.
Oliver’s ‘delicious’ lamb chops -– he described them as lightly spiced – disappeared very quickly indeed, without the need for dirtying the knife and fork.
So far so good. Now for the mains.
Because this was a special occasion, a reintroduction to an old friend, all three of us decided to indulge ourselves and go for the dish that is traditionally among most expensive on any Indian restaurant menu – king prawns.
Oliver chose tandoori king prawn with pilau, the same rice choice as I went for with my jal frezi. Beverley decided on sagwalla with mushroom rice and a portion of faal sauce in case it needed pepping up.
We also ordered a portion of chips and a plain nan.
I’m pleased to report we could detect no change in the quality of the food.
I polished off my excellent jal frezi despite that substantial starter, successfully negotiating the crafty chilli pepper taste bombs that make the dish such an interesting experience.
My companions faltered slightly towards the end of their mains but that’s no problem when the Country Spice is so accommodating with doggy bags.
I was delighted and relieved – Beverley likewise reported no deterioration in her ‘very nice’ dish and Oliver – he has discovered dictionaries since moving up to secondary school – described his meal as exquisite.
That was despite the presence of cauliflower, one of his few pet hates. He even ate one large piece of the dreaded veg, lurking undetected in the sauce, much to his disgust and our amusement, when he thought Beverley was stealing a prawn and he grabbed and swallowed before realising his mistake. Ha!
Beverley and I enjoyed slices of orange as we sipped our coffee and watched in amazement as Oliver polished off chocolate fudge cake with cream. I tried a mouthful and I have to say it was not to my taste – one of those brick-like bought-in frozen jobbies that are advertised on a separate menu, each with its own little portrait , as per the costas.
But who goes to an Indian restaurant – the Country Spice actually describes its cuisine as Indian and Bangladeshi – to eat cake, except Oliver, that is?
We were also plied with mints and offered a complimentary drink that we had to decline for reasons of driving.
The total bill came to £73.30 and although the Spice is probably slightly dearer than most restaurants of its kind, we thought it was worth it – and all that king prawn had pushed the price up somewhat.
The night had allayed a lot of fears.
Knowing the Country Spice was having a makeover was like hearing Trinnie and Susannah had got hold of your dad. What a relief!
Location: The Country Spice, Asha House, Hawarden Road, Hope (01978 762330).
Price: £73.30: For three, including a soft drink, three pints of Kingfisher and coffees.
Would suit: Worried regulars, curry fans who may have been put off by the building.
Best thing: That ugly exterior means that we Country Spice fans have the place to ourselves.
Worst thing: That ugly exterior.