The Michelin Star Guide is published every March, and this year over fifty London restaurants were awarded at least one Michelin star. Among these were four Michelin star Indian restaurants in the City of Westminster itself, which should declare London as the capital for Indian food.
However, Birmingham has long carried the title of ‘curry capital of the nation’, with many residents, visitors, and Birmingham City Council claiming that there is a ‘better selection of Asian and Indian restaurants in Birmingham than anywhere else in the UK’. Yet no Indian restaurant from this city has been awarded the coveted Michelin star. This points to a clear mismatch in opinions; why is it that although the seventy honed and trained professional Michelin star inspectors prefer London, regular diners favour the Indian cuisine in Birmingham?
Focusing on the higher end restaurants competing for a Michelin star, it is evident that dining in Indian restaurants within the centre of Birmingham is certainly a very dissimilar experience to those in central London. A significant difference between the two cities is that the majority of Indian restaurants in central Birmingham are exactly that, Indian. Their food is authentic and traditional, whereas many of the restaurants in London adopt a fusion or a very distinct specialisation. Out of the five Michelin star winners in the capital, only Tamarind and Rasoi deliver a broad, traditional Indian menu. Amaya in London’s Kensington serves up ‘Indian grill’, Benares has added an anglicised twist to many of its dishes, and Quilon focuses on coastal cuisine.
In this way, what is served up in high-end restaurants in London is not genuinely inspired food from homes in India; instead they are aiming for a more varied and continental menu which seems to draw in the Michelin stars. This may also be because as a capital city and a tourist hub, it is inevitable that a target market would be international visitors with international taste buds who have the money to spend on such culinary experiences.
This is in contrast to the food on offer in Birmingham. Jaimon George, General Manager at Asha’s Indian Bar and Restaurant states, ‘The food in Birmingham has to be locale specific and cannot aim to the international palate. Here, people like spicier, more taste-oriented food, whereas Londoners prefer food with wow presentation and more focus on flavour than taste.’ He went onto say that Asha’s serves ‘North Indian food from Lucknow origin, but (…) in strong connection with Delhi and Punjabi taste’; this trait towards traditionalism can be found similarly across Birmingham. The menus at restaurants such as Shimla Pinks and Rajdoot hark back to the South Asian sub-continent, serving up the traditional rather than the eccentric.
Another visible difference between the two metropolises is the attention paid to service. Waiters in London are trained and follow a code, but the service level in Birmingham is much more personalised, with many regular diners having an acknowledged relationship with local restaurants. As is a tradition among South Asian hosts, the owners of restaurants in Birmingham come and ask diners how their meal is, something which is usually done by the waiters in London. Michelin star inspectors may not think much of this personalised level of service, but diners clearly do.
From Jaimon’s experience, ‘clients dining out in Birmingham restaurants are 80% residents’ and so his restaurant ‘cannot afford to serve a bad meal to anyone as the word would spread like wild fire and have an instant effect on the business level and reputation, whereas in London a restaurant will probably get away with complaints due to the resident/visitors ratio.’ As a result, in Birmingham ‘people are very quality and value conscious and choose their restaurants from trustworthy recommendations before dining out’; thus a good reputation with the locals who provide the business is more important than impressing a judging panel.
However, this local audience has a downside for Birmingham, as they mostly dine out on the weekend, resulting in a huge disparity in demand during the week. Restaurants in Birmingham are absolutely buzzing on a Saturday, with no chance of getting a table without a booking. However on Sundays or weekdays, you can simply waltz in and be seated instantly. In contrast, London restaurants experience a steady flow of diners all week, with an upsurge on Friday nights and weekends. It seems they have adapted to this constant demand, as many of them leave a few tables unallocated for those who arrive without a booking. This means they are turning away fewer customers as well as offering the option to wait for a table, something which isn’t the case in Birmingham on a Saturday night.
When it comes to service, ambience, and definitely décor, restaurants in Birmingham serve it up in large portions. Asha’s prides itself on the fact that they offer ‘a dining experience’, rather than ‘just a meal that includes nice music, wow ambiance and personalised service’. The Michelin inspectors seem to appreciate this and have included Asha’s in the Michelin guide, though it hasn’t been awarded a star. It therefore seems that the orientation of the food is the key factor in keeping Birmingham’s Indian restaurants out of the Michelin star running.
There does, however, seem to be a flaw in the Michelin star awarding system itself. Surely, it should measure restaurants within their own context and that of their regular diners. Otherwise restaurants that are not “geographically correct” have to choose between generating business by catering to the locals or designing a menu that is in search of the coveted star, regardless of what the demand in their area dictates.
When it comes to Indian dining, perhaps extra value should be given to more specific awards, such as the Asian Awards or the British Curry Awards, rather than focusing on long established French guidelines.
However the question still stands; does Birmingham take the crown away from the capital city, when it comes to Indian food? In the case of true, rather than manufactured authenticity, I think it does.
Photo credits: Jaimon George / Asha’s Indian Bar and Restaurant
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