Saturday, 10 September 2016

Wycombe Bites: Big Yellow Taxi

For a long time the only curries you could reliably get around my neck of the woods were the familiar North Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi itinerations. Your common garden tikkas and kormas and bhunas, served with bread baked in the tandoor and a side order of seekh kebabs and lamb chops. All very tasty stuff – my favourite curry house would always find room to squish you in, even once memorably on a busy Friday night, on a table that was halfway in the broom cupboard. Don’t worry, even with the complimentary fruity shots at the end of the meal there were still no Boris Becker-esque shenanigans.

While I would never turn down a lamb dhansak with a peshwari naan, I always missed having a Sri Lankan/South Indian nearby. The kind of place that swapped the flock wall paper and sitar music for Formica and the smell of frazzled curry leaves. Even if one particularly hot kingfish curry I had in Bournemouth made me go deaf for the evening.

Which is why I was so excited to find Wycombe had its own little café, tucked away on the wrong side of the tracks, where they served English breakfasts until lunchtime and then a selection of homemade fluffy idli, crisp dosa and uttapam, string hoppers and puttu, served in metal trays accompanied by fragrant mutton, prawn and chicken curries, coconut chutney and fiery sambal.

The first time I visited was early on a Sunday lunchtime in the depths of winter, where we ate mutton rolls and perfect masala dosa washed down with fluorescent bottles of Nelli Crush, the famous Sri Lankan gooseberry flavoured soft drink that's sweeter than Shirley Temple, covered in honey, aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

I became obsessed. I couldn’t believe that there was somewhere so close and so cheap - more food than we could comfortably finish for little more than a fiver a head – that served such authentic, and delicious, food. Yes, it had it’s down sides, erratic opening hours, erratic availability of dishes, no loos, no license (we’d get around the last two by going to the pub first and stopping by the pub on the way back)  forgetting your order, giving you things you hadn’t ordered (spontaneity and the element of surprise is key here - TE) making the bill up as they had lost your order (thankfully, always to the customer’s advantage).

From the 'short eats' section of the menu, the Sri Lankan version of snacks and starters, the yoghurt vadai  - home made 'doughnuts' made with urad lentils, served with yogurt and herbs - were recommended. You could also have your vadai with sambal - a kind of vegetable curry, or just on their own. Confusingly they also served masala vadai, which are made with toor lentils and are shaped more like a flying saucer.

The chciken 65, a Sri Lankan classic, was also good, the deep-fried chunks of chicken, strewn with curry leaves and onion and served with lime wedges; as was the veggie version, made with cauliflower. And the chilli paneer, and the pepper mutton...(let's be frank, everything is good, better than good, it's delicious - TE)

In fact, it was all great, from the peerless mutton biryani, the paneer with spinach, the delicate rava dosa - made from semolina - and the outstanding kingfish curry, served with puttu - cylinders of steamed coconut rice, or string hoppers - steamed nests of fine rice noodles. 

It was also good to see some more unfamiliar items such as the Kotthu, whose name translates as 'chopped', the name deriving from the sound the large knives that are used to mix it make against the metal hotplate. It's a dish that's normally prepared at the roadside from leftover roti bread, eggs, vegetables and meat. Maybe not the best looking dish on the menu but delicious after a few beers. (EVERYTHING IS DELICIOUS AFTER A FEW BEERS - TE)

Of course, after a while the glitter wore off a little. My waistline started to rebel (even though I had to schlep across town for my fix), my wallet started to rebel (even at these prices, I was getting a pretty expensive habit) my digestion started to rebel (I even began to crave mashed potato over mutton biryani).

Weekly (or bi-weekly) visits became less frequent as complacency took hold. Although I still liked the feeling it was always there to satiate the need whenever the urge for insanely hot curries, washed down with insanely sweet drinks, took hold.

That was until one Friday evening in front of the TV, when I remarked to the Ewing that I quite fancied a dosa for brunch the following day. On opening a well-known online food delivery app, so I could plan my choice in anticipation of our visit (yes, I do frequently do this), I experienced a moment of blind panic as 'closed down' in foreboding red writing appeared next to their name.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone (very Joni Mitchell - TE)... I was immediately bereft. After a dark few minutes, where I thought about all the times I'd blown them out for a takeaway pizza or sweet and sour ribs washed down with a big bag of prawn crackers, I calmed down enough to think rationally and Google the address. They hadn't gone, just changed ownership and had a menu revamp and name change. Lentils, served in a multitude of different ways, were back on the menu. It was all going to be ok.

Well, better than ok, actually as the new menu features the rocket dosa, which is pretty much identical to the ordinary dosa, but just looks a lot more dramatic. It's an item that's often found on children's menus and makes a far better choice than Bernard Matthews turkey Jetters when it comes to aeronautical-shaped foodstuffs.

I was also pleased to see the kingfish curry with rice hoppers is still on the set menu, although the rice noodles are now pink, coming from being made from roasted red rice. On this occasion it was also served with a wonderful sweet and sour beetroot curry, that I've sadly never seen since. Maybe one to try at home with our allotment beetroots, that seem to spiral out of control each year.

I've never, yet managed to sample the squid, but the prawn curry, served above with spinach and coconut and cashew nut rice, is commendably generous with the crustacean and yours for six quid. I find the spinach (and sag paneer) here a little thin but the rice - not usually my favourite accompaniment - is always buttery and fluffy, which is far more than can be said for my efforts.

They also now do appams, which according to the menu are served on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but I wouldn't bet on it.... We managed to get lucky on an early dinner visit and enjoyed the plain appams served with a sambal  made with dried fish and chilles and the coconut hoppers, spread with a sweet coconut milk jam, that made a soothing pudding after all the salt and spice.

They also serve what I think has become my favourite weekend (read hangover) breakfast. Forget bacon sarnies (WHAAAT??? - TE) and McMuffins, the choly bhatura - with a can of Rubicon - is where it's at. The choly part is a chickpea curry while the bhatura is a puffy fried brad to soak it (and the alcohol) up with. The steamed idlis - shaped like little flying saucers - are also a great, but not as good as the chilli idlis which are chopped up and stir fried with lots of spices.

As usual when eating my dinner, I've saved the best for last. This is maybe not the best picture of a dish I have eaten almost every time I've been here, but the mutton curry with freshly made Keralan bread is my favourite dish that they serve. 

Here it's with the veechu roti, or handkerchief bread, so named because it's rolled very thin before being fried on a hot griddle. The normal parotta is slightly thicker, but still breaks apart in flaky buttery layers that soak up the fragrant gravy that is rich with the flavours of black pepper and fennel seeds. A must try dish.

So what's the moral of this story. Don't take things for granted?  Support local businesses? Eat more curry? Well, all of the above, really. And when it leads to night's like the one's above, it's a place I hope we don't lose.

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