02 March 2005 by

Indian restaurant Dilli, named after India's original capital, is the latest venture from the Mela Group, the force behind London restaurants Mela and Chowki. This time, however, the location isn't the capital, but affluent Altrincham in Cheshire - a northwards move that has been a long-standing ambition of Kuldeep Singh, formerly head chef of Soho Spice in London and now the group's director of cuisine.

For Dilli's head chef, Mohammed Nayeem, the setting has both advantages and obstacles. "In one sense it works because there's nobody else out there doing what we're doing," he explains. "But the menu is a culture shock for some. People expect an Indian restaurant to serve chicken tikka masala, not roasted monkfish."

Nayeem is forthright about his aspirations: "Perceptions of Indian food can be misguided," he muses. "But we're aiming to change people's tastes. It's not just about chilli and hot curries. In fact, it's much more about using spices to create depth and flavour," he adds.

Guided by Singh, who is based in London but pops up regularly to visit Nayeem and his six-strong brigade, the menu loosely follows the standards set by Mela and Chowki, both well received for their reasonably priced and authentic country-style Indian food. The seasonally-changing menu is steered firmly away from typical Brit-Indian cuisine (a main course of rogan josh for £8.95 is probably the closest it gets to traditional curry-house fare). Instead, the menu emphasises fragrant spices, sweet fruit flavours, traditional cooking techniques and mainly North Indian recipes.

Presentation is colourful, with dishes such as vegetarian tandoori fruit chaat (meaning snack) arriving as a tangy kebab of pineapple, apple, guava, pear, sweet potato and star fruit, served with baked banana crisps (£7.95) - all very vibrant on the plate. A main course of murgh (chicken) handi lazeez (£9.95) is a big seller - the meat's marinade of ginger, pepper, crushed green chillies and garlic is pepped up with a powder of ground green cardamom and mace ("a magical combination, very aromatic" says Nayeem, who advises a ratio of three parts cardamom to one part mace), and finished off in a creamy saffron-infused milk and yogurt blend.

One distinctly southern Indian-influenced speciality is the Allepey seafood curry (£11.95), which uses the tanginess of thinly sliced mango to counterbalance the sweet creaminess of its coconut milk base. Depending on availability, the seafood might include mussels, prawns and monkfish, kingfish, squid and scallops, which are lightly pan-fried before being added to the liquid. "I just marinate the fish in ginger, garlic and salt," Nayeem says, "and sear it quickly with curry leaves before adding the liquid."

Instrumental in many of the dishes is the traditional "dum" method, meaning to steam or mature a dish by allowing it to cool before reheating. It's particularly suited to curries, and the time delay means the spices are drawn back into the meat or fish. "Indian food should always be allowed to cool before serving, otherwise the flavours lose their potency," Nayeem explains. Another traditional technique for stove or oven dishes involves the sealing of the cooking pot with a thin roll of non-fermented, uncooked dough. The expansion of the dough as it cooks prevents any steam escaping, reducing the cooking time and the risk of losing precious flavour.

Puddings (£3.50) include steamed raw banana packed with coconut, dates, nuts and raisins, wrapped in a thin dough and fried, and a yogurt cheese and semolina sweetmeat with yogurt, served with a raspberry coulis.

Unusually, perhaps, for an Indian restaurant, there's an extensive wine list, helpfully labelled under such headings as "robust", "elegant" and "adventurous". A good range is available by the glass, from £2.95.

Having worked in London since first arriving in the UK from India in 1997 - he was second chef to Kuldeep Singh at Soho Spice, before moving to Mela and later Chowki - Nayeem admits the move northwards has involved supply difficulties. "Not many of my old suppliers come to this part of the world," he explains. Vegetables are sourced locally. Game, though, is brought up from Smithfield market in London. While the restaurant doesn't serve pork or beef, the lamb used is halal, bought from a specialist halal supplier in Birmingham. "Halal duck is still difficult to find, though, " Nayeem says.

Seating 60 downstairs in the main restaurant, and an additional 45 upstairs, Dilli is clearly building up support with the local crowd. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights the restaurant averages between 110 and 130 covers. Average spend is £25 for dinner. Lunchtime trade has been harder to capture but is picking up, though Nayeem is happy to take things slowly. "We're ambassadors for Indian cuisine," he says. "It's important to do it right."

60 Stamford New Road
WA14 1EE

0161-929 7484

What's on the menu - Whitebait marinated in crushed garlic and whole red chillies, thinly battered with gram flour and fried, £3.95

  • Tender breast of guinea fowl kebab seasoned with spices, brown onion and chillies, with pepper, tomatoes and mushrooms, £12.95
  • Breast of duck, pot-roasted with coriander, cumin and garlic, finished with a pepper powered chettinad gravy, £12.95
  • Baby aubergine cooked with red chillies in a peanut, sesame seed and coconut gravy, soured with tamarind, £4.95
  • Bread pudding soaked in honey and saffron milk and garnished with nuts, chopped apples and strawberries, £3.50
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