Food review: Panacea, Shrewsbury – 3.5/5 stars
For a bit of spice and fire, a good curry is the answer. But with so many places to choose from where should you go? Andy Richardson knows. . .
The waiter had the sort of hands that a bare-knuckle boxer would kill for.
Covered in tattoos and the size of small hams; he wore them well, like the rock’n’roll plate carrier that he was. I almost wanted to ask whether he could sing a song by Elvis when he visited our table with menus. But looks can be deceptive and he had the grace of a ballet dancer and charm of a diplomat.
A colleague was equally good. Engaging in conversation with other guests, offering drinks-on-the-house to one table to make up for slow food, he was as organised as a Eurocrat at a Brit-bashing Brexit showdown.
Service is important and both men were exceptional ambassadors for Panacea, Shrewsbury’s best curry house. Their service was spot on. Tattoo man and restaurant manager were as polite as the Editor of Debrett’s and as welcome as a winning Lottery ticket. They were the best part of an enjoyable evening not far from Shrewsbury’s River Severn.
Shrewsbury has 57,891 curry houses. That was at the latest count. In the time it takes to edit, design, proof, lay out and print this review, the total will probably have increased to 62,245. There are days when the town centre seems to have more curry houses than the town has houses. Every corner seems to offer up a tribute to food from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the like.
In truth, there is little to separate most. They range from mediocre to pretty good, though none offer the sort of culinary thrills that you might find in downtown Dhaka, or, more presciently, just along the M54 and M6 at Aktar Islam’s new restaurant, Opheem. For my money, Shrewsbury doesn’t compete with its near-neighbour Ludlow, which has the county’s best curry house – Golden Moments – by far.
Panacea frequently seems to be just ahead of the game, however. Since opening around 10 years ago, it’s consistently served inventive food that is big on flavour and is presented with panache. It’s been the stand-out on Shrewsbury’s dining scene for some time, offering a dining experience that’s just ahead of the rest.
The restaurant is located at the foot of Claremont Bank, near to a collection of pubs, clubs, restaurants and car parks. The dining area is on the first floor of a modern building and is unremarkably designed. The staff are good, providing a warm greeting for arrivals and working efficiently between tables.
My partner and I called in for a dinner for two during a relatively quiet midweek service.
We started with a stack of poppadums; the waiter bringing five rather than the requested four. Bless that man and his poppadum-giving generosity. The dips were decent. Rather than the usual wan onion salad and watery yoghurt and mint dip, there was a veritable smorgasbord from which to choose.
Mango, mint, lime, onion and more were lined up – I think there were eight or nine – and we soon whittled it down to our favourite three or four, polishing them off while the chef got busy with our mains.
The food arrived a little slowly and lacked the wow factor that previous visits have provided. The cooking was still decent but the flavours were in black-and-white, rather than full-blown technicolour. Somehow, the chef failed to add the pyrotechnic taste that a visit to Panacea usually brings and we found ourselves enjoying decent but unspectacular dinners.
A mango chicken was fruity and sweet with a gentle heat; chicken chaat featured the hot-and-cold combo of warm chicken and crunchy iceberg lettuce. But though both were pleasant, they weren’t the cause of fanfare.
Our mains were similarly so-so. Both were presented well, with swishes of this and dots of that making the plates look pretty and adding a touch of spicy and flavour. But both were a little underwhelming, truth be told, and failed to deliver the knock-out punch that we’d anticipated.
My Tommy chicken promised tanginess but was little more than a decent, tomato-rich curry. There weren’t the hot-sour-tangy flavours that are so easily achieved through use of decent spices and seasonings. It was so-so, pleasant, but it lacked the sort of dazzling presence that I’ve enjoyed on other occasions at Panacea.
My partner’s Goan king prawn curry was similarly reasonable. Oh dear – reasonable – a word that damns with faint praise. The prawns were gargantuan. We assumed they’ve been feeding goan prawn with protein pellets or growth hormones – they were fantastically big. The crustaceans were also deftly cooked so they had a plump and moist condition and were gently sweet-and-salty.
The sauce, however, wasn’t much to write home about. Creamy and mild, it was perilously close to bland.
Pillau rice and naan bread provided vehicles with which we could scoop up the respective sauces; the naan was a little flat though we tore and share, as you do.
And that was pretty much that. It had been an uneventful and mildly disappointing evening at a restaurant that has previously delivered big flavours but offered less spectacular ones on this occasion. The service had been the best part of the evening and the dishes hadn’t captivated us as they might have done.
And therein lies the rub. Shrewsbury is so well catered for by local curry houses that each have to perform brilliantly to win and secure trade. In order to differentiate themselves from the pack, they have to offer something that’s better than their rivals. And on this occasion, good though the presentation and service were, Panacea didn’t, if I’m being truthful.
I like to think it was just an indifferent night in the kitchen for the chefs. For they’ve out-gunned the competition on numerous occasions before and the menu still offers a selection of innovative dishes that make for better reading than those elsewhere.
Service and precise cooking means it still merits a solid three and a half out of five.
But like Golden Moments, it’s a restaurant that offers reason for higher expectation and on this occasion those were sadly unfulfilled.