Star rating: *** In recent weeks, the number of customers at Jaipur, in Church Stretton, appears to have dwindled. The big question facing locals is, should they spend their money in the town's long-standing curry house?
Star rating: *** In recent weeks, the number of customers at Jaipur, in Church Stretton, appears to have dwindled. There's a perfectly good reason for that - more of which later. The big question facing locals is, should they spend their money in the town's long-standing curry house?
The simple answer is yes. Jaipur was cataclysmically silly in briefly letting its standards fall below the required minimum. It's paying the price for its lapse, with reduced takings. Customers are hitting them where it hurts most, in the pocket.
But it would be a great loss if the restaurant were to suffer to such an extent that it had to close. Jaipur has been part of the fabric of Church Stretton for 12 years and few would want to lose it. The restaurant is, effectively, having to start from scratch. It needs to rewin the confidence and trust of its customers. If it does, it will sail back into the calm waters that it used to know and enjoy.
I visited, unannounced, on a midweek evening. There were eight other diners in the huge Jaipur dining room, though as the evening wore on that number rose to around 20. Slowly, it seems, people are learning to give it another chance.
So, why should people visit? Well, Jaipur is a homely, traditional curry house with piped Bollywood-style music and a pleasingly diverse menu. There are plenty of clay oven dishes, including shashlick, tandoori and tikka, as well as a number of appealing house specialities.
Additionally, it has a huge list of chef's specialities. Those are supplemented by a vast list of traditional dishes, like dopiaza, pathia, dansak, sagwalla, korma, rogan josh, bhuna, balti and assorted curry and madras dishes.
I started with a couple of popadoms and selection of chutneys. The popadoms were pleasingly hot - why is that so few curry houses serve them hot? It's not asking too much, surely, to expect food to be bought straight from the kitchen to the table. The chutneys, equally, were pleasing without standing out.
A selection of curries arrived at the table, to provide the perfect opportunity to test and taste. One culinary fault was apparent in them all, the chef uses too much oil. Admittedly, these weren't the sort of curry slicks that some restaurants offer. However, a lighter touch would improve the food by 10 per cent.
The chicken tikka akbari was served in a hot and spicy sauce and was the finest on the table. A bengal chicken was nice and fiery, though the chicken itself was a little too sinewy and should have been trimmed to a higher standard.
The chicken passanda was suitably rich and creamy while the chicken pathia had a winning combination of hot and sour flavours. While the chef was clumsy with his use of oil, he proved adept at mixing and matching spices. There was also a refreshingly high proportion of fresh ingredients, with plenty of coriander garnishing dishes.
Desserts didn't appeal but the overall impression was of good food served well by skilled waiters. Staff were polite, welcoming and attentive throughout. The food was also fair to middling. It was better than that available at most curry houses, though not as good as Shropshire's best.
The reason that Jaipur is working hard to recover is because it had to close earlier this year because of rat infestation. Despite Jaipur's protestations that the rats were only in a kitchen storage area, locals and visitors have not been quick to chance it. The comments of Steve Price, south Shropshire's senior environmental health officer, served as a warning. Mr Price said he could only recall two incidents in the past ten years when restaurants had been closed because of rat infestation.
Prior to the "r" incident, two respected colleagues who live in Church Stretton had both been effusive in their praise of Jaipur. Both had enjoyed many happy nights at the Sandford Avenue eaterie and espoused its virtues.
Tellingly, neither has eaten their since the "r" incident. And that is Jaipur's big problem. It may well have the cleanest kitchen in the world at the moment - it had to undergo a deep cleanse before being reopened - but the whiff of suspicion lingers like a 10-day-old jalfrezi.
It really is a shame. Half of new restaurants go bust within the first year. Any restaurateur who makes it past 12 months can reasonably expect to remain in gainful employment for many years - unless they make catastrophic errors.
Restaurateurs can get away with many things. They can serve poor quality food, microwaved dinners brought in from specialist companies or meat imported from south America instead of that reared on their own doorstep. They can employ staff for peanuts, overcharge customers and even add prohibitive service charges, to reduce their overheads.
What they can't do, however, is breach diners' trust. To do so leaves them in the same corner as the philandering husband, the sticky-fingered accountant or the partisan sports referee. Jaipur let its customers down by failing to keep a clean kitchen. Now it has to prove its contrition and hope that people return.
No doubt the restaurant's owners and staff are kicking themselves for jeopardising what was a perfectly good business. Hopefully, Jaipur will recover. Its staff are friendly, its food is pretty good and low prices mean it represents pretty good value.
If you're still not convinced, you could ask them for an inspection of the kitchen. Though, rest assured, the environmental health department has been scrupulous in doing that for you. And, to the two colleagues - and many other locals - who've avoided it in recent times, the message is simple. Go back. Eat, drink and make merry.
Jaipur, Sandford Avenue, Church Stretton.
Tel 01694 724667
Prawn puree (£3.95); Sheek kebab (£2.95)
Tandoori mix grill (£9.95); Lamb biryani (£8.95); Bengal chicken (£6.95)
Peshwari naan r(£1.80); Onion kulcha (£1.80); Boiled rice (£1.60)
Quiet. The Jaipur has seen a downturn in recent weeks, though weekends are busy.
Very good indeed. Deferential waiters are polite and attentive.
Staff provide assistance to customers who need help.
By Andy Richardson