Two decades ago, a run-in with a typically British curry spurned chef-owner Romy Gill's passion to bring true Indian flavours to the West Country. Lee Williams reports
When Romy Gill first came to the UK from India, she craved the taste of home. So, naturally, she went to an Indian restaurant. But instead of comfort, she had what she describes as: "The biggest shock of my life. Everything was so sweet and everything tasted the same."
That was when the dream of opening her own restaurant, selling healthy, traditional Indian food with her own twist, was born.
Twenty years later and the dream has finally arrived. Romy's Kitchen is a comfortable, homely-feeling Indian restaurant in the market town of Thornbury outside Bristol. Despite the pedestrian setting, the restaurant buzzes with energy when Gill is inside. She strides between the tables, checking things and talking in a non-stop allegro. Most chef-owners have energy and passion, but Gill is brimming over with the stuff.
Spices come from Bristol, fish from Devon, milk and dairy from the Cotswolds, even the meat for the kosha mongnsho, a Bengali-style goat dish (£14.50), comes from Devon, where it is reared by specialist producer Cabrito. Gill also has a garden where she grows everything from squashes to spinach and mooli to mogris (both kinds of radish, if you were wondering).
All in the name of freshness, which to Gill also means healthiness, and here we're onto another one of her passions - cooking Indian food that isn't completely terrible for you. She uses rapeseed oil instead of ghee, waters down full-fat cream and buys her lamb trimmed of fat. She even uses red onions instead of white, because they hold less water, apparently. She further ramps up the healthiness with some smart cooking techniques, like making sure the pan is always hot before adding oil - thus using less oil because it expands immediately.
These healthy techniques and ingredients inform some of her most popular dishes, such as the lamb rogan josh, Kashmiri-style (£13) - not the kind of rogan josh you're used to from a 'traditional' Indian, Gill insists; the chicken in pomegranate paste (£10), one of Gill's own creations; and the paneer starter (£5.50) prepared with soy sauce, honey and ginger, a kind of Chinese take on the classic Indian paneer. This last dish sums up how Gill's multicultural upbringing in East India has informed her food, allowing her to take different influences and combine them in interesting ways. "A lot of Chinese people settled in the part of India where I grew up - the street food, especially from Calcutta, is just amazing."
The same mix-and-match sensibility led Gill to create her own spice mixes, which she prepares in batches every two days. She also makes her own chutneys, which she sells separately in pots - everything from the traditional onion or mango to the more locally influenced crab apple, beetroot, strawberry and cranberry.
As a local Indian restaurant, Romy's Kitchen is as much defined by what you won't find as what you'd expect to. No baltis, bhunas or tikkas - all modern creations which spark Gill's passions, in a bad way. There's also, according to Gill, a special circle of hell reserved for the poppadom.
We've come back to her original motivation: that first visit to a curry house 20 years ago. Her desire to create something better has seen her travel the length and breadth of the country doing countless pop-ups, demos and food festivals. It has motivated her to keep contacting food publications to promote her restaurant despite being mostly ignored. It has spurred her to negotiate her own book deal, and it still keeps her relentlessly pushing forwards.
"You've got to always keep at it," she says, still talking in that non-stop pace, an hour later. "This was my dream and I want it to survive. Hopefully, 2016 is going to be my year." If I were 2016, I wouldn't get in her way.
From the menu
- Paneer marinated in ginger, garlic, cream, dried fenugreek leaves and five spice mix, served with dips £5.50
- Aloo tikki - mashed potatoes, fresh coriander, ginger, green chillies and seasonal vegetables, served with chickpeas and salad £6
- Tandoori poussin - poussin marinated in ginger, garlic, yogurt and tandoori masala £7
- Mung bean dal - mung beans cooked with onions, ginger and garlic, tomatoes, green chillies. Garnished with fresh coriander and spices £7
- Achari gosht - mutton cooked with ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes and five spice mix £12.50
- Haryali murg - chicken cooked with fresh spinach and fresh fenugreek leaves £10.50
Romy's Kitchen, 2 Castle Street, Thornbury, Bristol BS35 1HBwww.romyskitchen.co.uk
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