Norwich: Merchants of Spice

The latest pub to be transformed into an Indian restaurant, SIMON PARKIN experiences The Merchants of Spice, which aims to make the curry fine dining.

Norwich seems to be going through a spate of disused buildings, particularly former pubs, being turned into Indian restaurants.

After the former Duke of Norfolk in Mousehold Lane which reopened as Rishi, and the former Bottoms Up building in Hellesdon becoming Zin Zeera, the latest is the former Merchants of Colegate, now reopened as The Merchants of Spice.

It's the latest incarnation of a building, which dates back to 1760, and that started life as a coaching inn before in its time been a refuge for women and children during the Second World War, was once known as the Black Boys pub and latterly became a restaurant.

It perhaps says much for the culinary tastes of the city that while the Merchants of Colegate restaurant couldn't make a go of it, the new owners, cousins Affsor Ali and Juned Ali, are willing to invest �80,000 in refurbishing the building.

All of these new Indian restaurants also have something else in common — they are very much of the 21st century. They haven't rolled out the flock wallpaper or dusted off the sitars. Indian dining these days is very much a modern experience.

While some go for the sleek, glitzy nightclub style, here the cousins Ali are very much appealing to the upper end fine dining customer. The d�cor is understated with low lighting, minimal decoration, golden and brown colour scheme and waiters in their finest starched whites.

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Affsor Ali, 28, who is an IT graduate, but who has the restaurant trade in his blood, said: 'This place is going to be completely different. We're targeting an upmarket customer base for people who want to go to a nice curry house with a nice decor. It's going to Michelin star style service with doubled cutlery and good presentation.'

Having visited I'd say, just eight weeks after opening, they're off to a pretty good start, though the Michelin star is unlikely to arrive just yet.

We enjoyed the ambience and the very attentive service — perhaps a little too attentive, though that may have just been because they were mid-week quiet. And we especially liked the fact that the menu included information on the regional nature of the dishes and wasn't just a bog standard curry house selection. Yes many options were familiar — your Jalfrezi, Madras and Vindaloos were all present and correct — but there were s different things to ponder too.

How about Indian Ocean King Fish cooked in a clay oven, Honey Roasted Duck, Crab Curry or — here's a particularly unusual one — Rabbit Bhuna?

After the obligatory pappadums, we began with starters of Chicken Kathi Rolls, pieces of tikka, onion, tomatoes and herb chutney wrapped in a chipati, and Dall Puri, deep fried Indian bread topped with chick peas and lentils and billed as 'a real taste of India'.

The rolls were flavoursome appetisers, if slightly unmemorable, while the puri delivered a different compination of flavours and textures, greasy but in a finger-licking good way.

For main courses were opted for a Rogan Josh Lamb Shank, which was a real show-stopping whopping beast of drop-off-the-bone meat that delivered ample kicks of both garlic and ginger. Meanwhile a Chicken Rezala, a Bangladeshi dish of butter ghee and finely chopped green chilli, was billed as medium but was mouth-tingling hot and richly creamy.

The pilau rice and nann bread we had as accompaniments were a cut above, both being fragrant with spice and herby flavours.

All in all we came away impressed and with a proper wine list to add to the usual Cobra and Kingfisher lagers it is, while not quite fine dining, a cut above the usual Indian.




01603 660128

Open: Sun-Thurs 5.30pm-11pm, Fri-Sat 5.30pm-12am

Prices: Starters from �2.95, mains from �7.95, side dishes from �2.95

Vegetarian options: Plenty

Wheelchair access: Yes