There’s something comforting about a franchise restaurant. There’s a reason McDonald’s is popular; the home of the hamburger sells unchallenging food at affordable prices in a familiar, family-friendly environment. When on the mainland, Cat likes to eat in Wagamama; the Japanese-inspired restaurant has consistent quality fresh ingredients with the same menu throughout the land, so she can have her favourite dish in Brighton or Pompey (and has done).
But what’s this got to do with independent restaurant Cowes Tandoori? We ruminated on this as we walked back to the car after our dinner in this unsurprising venue. Everything was present and correct; the place was neat and tidy. The service was extremely swift, but then we were the only customers. The menu didn’t throw us any curveballs. And, with only one or two exceptions, this is what it seems to be like to eat in any Indian restaurant. Decent lighting? Yup. Table linen? Usually. Attentive but slightly detached service? Yes. Pretty much every time.
Where other restaurants try their darndest to distinguish themselves from the crowd, with locally-provenanced food, personality chefs or touches of character in the decor, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Wagamama, and most of the Indian restaurants we have eaten in, cultivate that generic feel. That night we could have been in Cowes, Shanklin or even Leicester.
It frankly mystifies us. Curry houses don’t seem to be links in a national chain. Maybe we are not particularly in tune to the nuances of Indian cuisine; to us, one chicken tikka masala seems practically indistinguishable from the next. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule; Ventnor’s Masala Bay surprised us with its enjoyable garlic and chickpea chicken dipala, which is something we haven’t seen on any other menu. And this doesn’t meant that our visit to Cowes Tandoori was bad. It wasn’t at all. Here’s the low down.
Warm and crispy poppadoms hoved up almost as soon as our order had been taken; served with a carousel of five relishes – although two seemed to be raw onion. The lime pickle was notable for not being palate-destroyingly intense. It had good limey notes with a salty umami finish – better than average.
Poppadoms and chutney: £3
Mixed biryani £13.95
Chicken tikka masala £9.20
Mushroom bhaji £4.75
Pilau rice £3.20
Plain naan £2.90
Cat often thinks she should be more adventurous when choosing in an Indian restaurant but an experience with an unexpectedly pokey cauliflower bhaji elsewhere has led her to be over-cautious. So chicken tikka masala it was. This richly-coloured curry was nicely-presented with a sprinkling of flaked almonds, chopped coriander and a twirl of cream. Those chunks of chicken we all know and love were present and correct and, despite tea-light plate warmers no longer being de rigeur, it was plenty hot enough temperature-wise. She enhanced it with a spoonful of mushroom bhaji and mopped the juices with floppy warm naan bread. A standard hearty curry; welcome on a wet autumn evening.
The Cowes mixed biryani was Matt’s attempt at finding something unusual, and to be fair, there was a slight murmur of surprise from Cat as the dish arrived with a curious little omelette hat on top of it. As promised, the biryani came with a mixture of prawn, lamb and chicken, and was a warming, enjoyable dish. The omelette was possibly more of a garnish than an ingredient in itself, but it was a conversation piece if nothing else. Perhaps the best bit of the biryani was the accompanying vegetable curry, which was packed with root veg and rich spicy taste, the perfect complement to the main dish.
So, Cowes Tandoori. Clean, tidy, reasonably priced and as expected. The food was perfectly acceptable, if not particularly memorable, but that’s where we spin back to the beginning of this article. We don’t know how a curry can seem so samey from one restaurant to another. Maybe there is something comforting about knowing your favourite dish will just as good as it always is, wherever you go. Can so many High Street Indian restaurants be wrong? We don’t think so. The good old British Indian meal is an institution to be treasured, and if you want an epitomic example of this style, Cowes Tandoori will not let you down.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.