Both spicy, perhaps, but a good combination? The new owners of Sandown’s latest restaurant, SWAD Indian Tapas, seem to think so. Matt and Cat, initially sceptical about this cross-cultural culinary collision, decided on reflection that actually, the idea of Indian tapas sounded pretty good. After all, who hasn’t looked at some bizarre item on the bottom of the menu and wondered if they’d like it. With tapas one can speculate a modest amount of money on a small dish and try new food experiences. M and C skipped to the seaside town one evening to find out what SWAD was all about…
SWAD occupies a very ornate building on the corner of Sandown’s High Street and the exotically-named Guadeloupe Road. Its filigree-framed fenestration oozes purple light, inviting the passer-by to enter the clean interior. The restaurant conforms to the now ubiquitous style of Indian restaurants as documented more than once on this website. And, to save you the trouble of browsing reviews of Monsoon, Cinnamon, Purple Mango, etc, let’s recap – coloured lighting, leather chairs, restaurant’s name etched in the window – all present and correct. So far, so nice. In fact, Matt was moved to remark on the way in which the design of Indian restaurants and dentists’ waiting rooms was converging: it’s getting to the stage where one might almost yearn for the simple comfort of heavy red flock wallpaper and fretwork screens.
In keeping with the contemporary livery, SWAD also has big TVs set high up the walls. As Matt and Cat entered the venue, the warbling tellies were beaming huge images and frantic commentary of some weeping child being pulled from the bloody wreckage of what looked like the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. M & C strongly dislike television in restaurants at the best of times, but this was particularly off-putting.
Matt and Cat positioned themselves at a table where they could see as little television as possible and settled down with the menus. The menu was rather cryptic and confusing in parts. Furthermore, the prices did not suggest a tapas-style meal. Enquiries with the waitress revealed an unexpected development: there is no tapas at SWAD. In India the term ‘tapas’ simply means ‘selection’ and so was chosen as a good name for a restaurant, rather than as a description of the food. Similarly, the rather clunky ‘SWAD’ is not an acronym, but an Indian term for ‘tasty’. Not surprisingly, your reviewers were far from the first to have made this enquiry as they discovered when the waitress offered her well-rehearsed definitions. Once the tapas issue was cleared up, M & C were able to order food without confusion. But they couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment: actually, an Indian tapas restaurant is a really good idea. Surely SWAD could take advantage of this inadvertent confusion and have a small tapas selection to encourage diners to try new dishes? Given the unusual and interesting menu – more of which shortly – that could be a real winner.
At first glance, the menu at SWAD seemed like regular Indian fare; chicken tikka masala, lamb jalfrezi and vegetable biryani can all be found. However, amongst the expected dishes were a few surprises. Salmon curry, chilli squid and ‘chicken loly pop’ were all new to Matt and Cat. Helpfully, some of the dishes had an explanatory text, as one might expect. But others did not, and some were opaque to the point of head-scratching mystery. Even Google can’t offer definitions for ‘patra chat‘, ‘mogo pancer‘ and ‘reshmi parantha‘. The waitress was well-informed and happy to explain when asked, but it didn’t seem reasonable to ask her to talk through the entire range so Matt and Cat chose dishes that they figured they might like.
Cat was tempted by the chicken palak bahar (£6.50), described as succulent pieces of boneless chicken simmered in a tomato-rich spinach gravy with a touch of fenugreek. She was offered the option of how strong the spices should be – a nice touch. Matthew requested swad saag meat (£7.50) – lamb pieces mixed with spinach and methi, garnished to perfection. It was Matt’s turn to choose one of side dishes, which curiously are labelled ‘main course – vegetables‘ on the menu. The waitress encouragingly tried to promote ‘shani paneer‘ which turned out to be cottage cheese. Matt rejected her enthusiastic sales patter and lumped for the rather safe saag bhajee (£5.50).
The poppadums arrived with three unusual chutneys: raw onion in some sort of red paste, a very spicy yoghurt, and garlicky mango. They were perhaps a preview of the main course – kind of the same yet distinctly different to the usual Indian experience.
Despite the burbling TVs, Matt and Cat couldn’t avoid listening in on a conversation between a member of staff and some other chap who was lounging at the bar. A rather indiscreet discussion was being had about wages and, frankly, it did not seem appropriate to have the debate in such an open forum. There was a certain casualness about the place that was a bit slack. Usually, one is overwhelmed by smart handsome waiters in a venue like SWAD. In this case, there was the one waitress and a man in jeans wearing a jumper that Giles Brandreth may have discarded. Again, like an Indian restaurant, yet not…
When the food arrived in beautiful beaten-silver bowls, Matt and Cat were impressed. But they soon realised that they hadn’t thought it through! Three dishes of lumpy green stuff were presented to them. Why, oh why had they ordered a spinach side dish to go with two spinachy main courses? Doh! However, despite the similarity in appearance, the dishes each had their own flavour. The chicken saag, although not overwhelmed with the promised ‘tomato-rich sauce’ was extremely tasty and, as Cat had requested, nice and mild. The meat itself was chunky and soft and there was a drizzle of cream on the top to relieve the monotony of its appearance.
SWAD saag meat £7.50
Chicken palak bahar £6.50
Saag bhajee £5.50
2 x pillau rice £5.00
2 x papadums £1.00
Cobra beer (660ml) £4.50
Matt’s lamb saag did not seem to be garnished to perfection, as the menu boasted – in fact it wasn’t garnished at all. However, it tasted excellent; rich with plenty of big bits of lamb. Fresh coriander and a chilli kick lurked within, making it quite different to the gentler chicken saag. Both dishes were like nothing your reviewers had eaten before. The pillau rice was also different from the norm, being soft and much less dry than usual. Matt wasn’t even sure it was basmati rice – perhaps it was round-grain rice? It had an enjoyable, slightly sweet taste and none of the usual lurid red and green grains one would expect prettying up the dish.
All three spinach dishes were a bit textureless (apart from the meat) and would have benefited from food of another colour, eg tomato. But this may just have been poor and unimaginative choice on Matt and Cat’s part.
So what to make of SWAD? It’s early days for the new establishment, but it’s a bit like experiencing Indian cuisine in a parallel universe. The food is very good, and the menu is innovative if confusingly-presented. The décor is typical and the intrusive TVs show Bollywood-style dancing (when not broadcasting disaster news). However, SWAD needs to think carefully about presenting a more professional image to diners. Staff discussing personal matters in public cannot ever be a good thing. And tapas? Well, the name is lost in translation which is a wasted opportunity. Tapas is an established ‘brand’ in Europe and Matt and Cat were expecting lots of small dishes of a variety of Indian food. English people know where they are with ‘Taste of the East’ and ‘Taj Mahal’ and, sorry to say, are not particularly adventurous diners so it’s probably going to be easier to spell this sort of thing out very clearly.
It’s a great idea to try to encourage Island diners to try a slightly different Indian experience, and SWAD provides a very welcome bit of diversity in an increasingly homogeneous curry market. Matt and Cat really want to see SWAD succeed: it certainly deserves to prevail and with a few tweaks it surely will.