Food review: Avatar, Shrewsbury
It ought to be relatively simple. Smile and behave politely when guests arrive, make sure the dining room is clean and welcoming for customers then ensure the chef cooks flavoursome food that shows invention and is consistently good.
Oh, and if there’s the opportunity to use local, peak-season produce, do that rather than shipping in ingredients of dubious merit.
That, in essence, is what’s required of independent restaurateurs.
But with so little to get right: service, environment, food – it’s surprising how many don’t master those basics.
Of course, we’re over-simplifying things and the details invariably get in the way.
There are staff to manage, egos to massage, a 20 per cent loss to VAT and the nightmare of administering any small business with the attendant mountain of paperwork.
And then there’s the customers and their expectations of excellence, their willingness to damage a business on TripAdvisor and other platforms and their insistence on getting more than they’re paying for.
There are times when it’s reasonable to assume you’d have to be a nutjob to get into the restaurant game.
The long hours, the low rates of pay, the anti-social conditions, the windowless, airless kitchens and the unrelenting heat. There are easier ways to make a living – and ones that are far less stressful.
And yet most restaurateurs aren’t in it for the money.
They’re in it for the love of it.
They want to be creative, to communicate their vision of great food and hospitality, to have some autonomy over their work and to put a smile on punters’ faces.
Putting a smile on customer’s faces is something that Avatar does really, really well.
And that’s the work of owner/chef Susant Khatri, whose objective was to bring Nepalese and Indian food to Shrewsbury.
Having earned a recommendation from The Guardian, Avatar aims to present refined Nepalese and Indian food from disparate regions.
Authenticity is key and service is friendly and highly efficient.
Susant trained as a chef at the Taj and Oberoi, which has hotels across many locations in India and Nepal, before working at some of London’s most prestigious Indian restaurants, including Cinnamon Club, in Westminster. The emphasis is on refined yet creative Nepalese and Indian cuisine and the menu incorporates both traditional classic favourites and original new dishes that apply eastern flavours with a western twist.
They utilise India and Nepal’s aromatic herbs, spices and other ingredients, to give dishes plenty of character.
It would have been churlish, therefore, not to eat something modern and something traditional when I called in for an unbooked midweek supper.
But first: poppadoms.
Avatar’s offering was better than average, though not exceptional.
Poppadoms were served in halves, rather than whole, with the normal array of dips and the smallest spoon this side of Lilliput.
They were decent; the mango a little sweet and with too few chunks of fruit; the raita creamy and smooth; the onion finely sliced.
My starter provided a concession to modernity and Nepal.
Momo, a Himalayan dish, featured steamed dumplings filled with minced chicken that had been flavoured with onion, coriander and garam masala.
It was served with a house special tomato and sesame seed chutney and provided a novel twist on one of the most popular street foods of Nepal.
The dumpling was well-judged and balanced, with the filling a well-seasoned mix of complementary ingredients.
Four was one too many, in truth, and they might have been a little lighter than they were. But it provided for a more interesting way to start a dinner than the usual bhaji or chaat.
The main provided the flipside; a dish that resonated through the ages.
An old-style chicken curry with a side of rice was fabulous.
Sweet, gently spiced with tender pieces of protein, it was flavoured with orange and honey and was a first class dish.
Chefs stand or fall by their specials – let’s face it, if they can’t cook a decent bhuna, balti and madras, they ought not to be in the game.
Susant’s showpiece dish provided an exceptional showcase of skills.
The flavours were a delight, the cooking precise and the presentation easy on the eye.
In a town filled with curry houses, Avatar is ahead of the crowd – for my money, it’s in the top two. It doesn’t dazzle in the way that Ludlow’s Golden Moments does – that remains the county’s number one, in the view of this critic – but it provides consistently good food at affordable prices with innovation and originality free with each dish.
It stands out from the crowd, an important characteristic when there’s so many others from which to choose.
The flavours are more clearly defined, the standards of cooking higher, the service better and the environment a little more pleasing and not so down-at-heel as some others.
Service was fabulous.
Two waiters in elegant Nepalese costumes managed the front of house with skill and efficiency.
Both were polite and helpful, providing details about dishes willingly and providing engaged service that avoided intrusion or needless fuss.
They couldn’t have done much more and were a credit to the owner.
The bill was as cheap as chips.
A total of £18 for poppadoms, a filling starter and a wonderful main – including drink – represents good value any day of the week.
When you factor in the obligatory VAT bill, knocking it down to around £15, it’s difficult to work out how the restaurant stays in business.
Yet assuredly it does and Avatar has become one of the county town’s go-to restaurants in recent years.
Settled, stable and well-established, its owners have done an exceptional job of putting their stamp on the town’s food scene.
And they’ve done it by focusing on the basics: good service, consistent food and a pleasing dining environment.
There are many who could take a leaf from that book.