RESTAURANT REVIEW: Not quite fit for a Mughul emperor yet, but getting there

Expectations are tricky things, but important. Fast food establishments can't be judged at the same mark as fine dining, for instance.

Thursday, 15th March 2018, 2:36 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th March 2018, 3:40 pm
Darbar, North Street, Emsworth
Darbar, North Street, Emsworth

But when you promise 'The Mughal emperors' cuisine' you have to be prepared to live and die by your biriyani.

Darbar, which opened in Emsworth some four months ago, arguably got off to a contentious start after safety fears prompted plans to demolish the former Spencers building and a whole lot of anger from locals. Credit has to be given to it then for coming out fighting. There's no indication of wanting to just arrive quietly, from the bright décor and gold peacock print wallpaper to the menu dotted with dishes labelled '˜must try'. In fact, the intentions are so clear you can almost see the whole place displaying its fan of feathers. I am not saying it set itself up to fail, but it did fall just short of the '˜exceptional dining experience' and '˜fragrant, heady and flavoursome, fit for royalty' cuisine promised. However, that isn't to say I don't think it could get there with time. When it was good, it was brilliant, like my first and favourite dish of the night, the chilli paneer (£5.90). Served with bell peppers, green chillies and onions it was one of the many '˜must try' items and you could see why. The perfectly cooked cheese contrasted brilliantly with the light crisp coating which gave the fiery sauce something to cling to. I didn't get much of a description from across the table of the chargrilled chicken tikka salad with lemon, garlic and black pepper dressing (aka murg tikka kachumbar £6.50) however the soon-clean dish implied it was tasty but unremarkable. The coconut chutney which accompanied the masala dosa (£4.95) is completely to blame for us ordering a third starter. Best described as a crispy pancake filled with spiced potatoes, it was a nice take on the traditional South Indian street food while the chutney met split reviews.

For my husband it didn't pack enough punch, while I liked the cooling almost-guacamole-like part it played. Main course also caused a clear divide between the impressive parde wali biriyani and the overly-greasy boatman's fish curry. The first was listed as a slow cooked biriyani with a choice of chicken, vegetable or lamb, served in a handi vessel and topped with dough. As well as a whole lot of flavour, and lamb, it also had a sense of theatre as the waiter carved the lid '“ which resembled both a top hat and a Yorkshire pudding '“ at the table. Which at £15.90 is just as well. When a dish makes you feel sorry for the ingredients you know there is an issue. A glug, or four, too many of oil in the fish curry (£12.90) left me mourning the seabass swimming in it. And I have to say I was disappointed for the chef as, that aside, the balance of coconut and depth of spice had clearly been crafted with care. The dessert menu was another testament to Darbar doing things differently. With no frozen fruit filled with sorbets, penguin novelties or bombs in sight, it made for a refreshing finale.

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Delicious desserts at Darbar

We opted for the qubani ka meetha (£6.25), overnight soaked apricot served with pistachios and ice-cream. The menu said it was a favourite of Nizam of Hyperabad '“  an eccentric ruler which Google later revealed was known for having a hundred illegitimate sons, being the world's richest man and knitting his own socks '“ I can't say much about his life choices but he was spot on about pudding.

Ratings (out of five)

Food: 4

Value: 4 

Delicious desserts at Darbar

Ambience: 3

Child-friendly: 3