I’m inclined to reserve all judgements about restaurants, a habit that has opened up many curious eateries to me and also made me the victim of not a few total disasters. The reason for this is exemplified by Shezan, a small Carfax-based Indian place with the humblest of signs, alone in betraying the presence of a restaurant within. Down the seedy/charming (delete as appropriate) High Street alley towards Carfax chippy then up a flight of absurdly crooked stairs – the first clue to it having been there since the 17th Century – and you’ve reached Shezan, unexpectedly luxurious considering the unassuming façade. It’s plush, I’ll give them that: beautiful warm reds, intricate Eastern designs, and cushy seating areas whisk you away from the drab High Street without (unless, of course, you sit by the window, in which case the effect is amazing and ridiculous in equal measure), whilst the architecture, slightly askew, brings grandeur with its age. Indeed, the name itself means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic (so I’m told), and there are no arguments here. It has served as a dining room for nigh 100 years, with such skilled neighbours as Raymond Blanc and the beloved Michel (of Bookbinders fame) having graced the area with their impressive presence.
Though it advertises itself as an Indian restaurant, the owner keenly insists upon the more niche culinary influences – namely Goan and Mughlai – which set it apart from countless other indistinguishable curry houses. Perhaps this was something of a mistake: at the mention of such exoticism, the loosening of the shackles of homogeneity, my mind was instantly cast back to one especially delectable rendition of a Goan curry previously experienced at The Standard, raising my expectations considerably. What followed dashed them again, though it would be unfair to write off Shezan entirely, as it did have its ups as well as its downs.
Our appetiser was inexplicable: a stack of poppadoms – some crisp, some a little chewy (why?) – came with four condiments, of which the most impressive was a homemade lime pickle with a lot of kick, like a midget with a black belt, and of which the least impressive was the mango chutney, suspiciously syrupy for a restaurant that puts such an emphasis on everything being made from scratch. Thankfully the starter was much better, the ‘trio of Shezan specials’ not rocking the boat whilst still adding a little flair; a samosa, crisp and hot and pleasingly oily, was well-seasoned and full of fresh vegetables, its tamarind dipping sauce accompaniment tangy and intriguing; a vivid green half seekh kebab, the lamb tasty and tender, was better seasoned than usual, though disappointingly half-absent; what appeared to be a chicken pakora was competent enough, overriding my bias against chicken; lastly, chana chat, which served as a base for the others, may well have been delicious: sadly, though, the chick peas were unpalatably firm.
Though I would not usually devote an entire paragraph to a single gripe, on this occasion I feel I must. The speed of the service was atrocious. We must have waited at least 45 minutes for our main course, being told by each of the three waiters we asked that it was “just coming”. In a restaurant with only four or five tables occupied, this kind of waiting time – which, in total, caused the whole meal to drag out to nearly three hours – is unacceptable.
Anyway, the mains eventually turned up. One Goa chicken and one prawn masala Goa style, accompanied by lemon rice, Indian sweet rice, and a paneer naan. Strikingly presented, the prawn masala came in a traditional copper pot (as do all their curries) with a majestic and delicious king prawn garnish, tail still attached. Unfortunately, the curry itself came not with a bang, but a whimper, as the explosions of bold chilli, nutty coconut, and zingy lime to which I was so looking forward were instead dulled, barely perceptible, the reduction of what could have been a great curry evident too in the use of the sort of tiny prawnlets you would use as bait rather than the great juicy things for which there is no real substitute. Goan chicken was tender and more coconutty but ultimately more of the same, a boring curry for the boringest of meats. The rice dishes were more or less indistinguishable, save for the crunch of the odd cashew in the lemon one, and the paneer naan looked like it had cheese on, but I’ll be damned if I could taste it. Shezan had better have a bloody good trick up its sleeve for dessert.
Shezan did not have a bloody good trick up its sleeve for dessert at all. I ordered gulab jamun with ice cream, but due to communication problems (the Indian analogue of Manuel being one of the waiters) I only received the first bit. Resembling a pair of testicles to an uncomfortable extent, the gulab jamun did not taste much better than it looked, the unpleasantly sickly, perfumed rosewater syrup rendering the balls soggy and cloying. Meanwhile, the promising-sounding pistachio and mango kulfi (kulfi? kulfis? I don’t know.) turned out to be two scoops of vaguely greenish pistachioless ice cream and two of orangeish ice cream which tasted passably of mango.
The lassi was nice, though.