Desi Old India Cafe, Elm Grove, Southsea | Restaurant Review

The Dish Detective has been called a travel banker in the past.

Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 2:41 pm
Updated Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 2:43 pm
Sev puri and a vegan biryani

At least that’s what we think they said – we assumed it was a reference to our hilarious bank of stories of going on an extended holiday – but maybe the initial consonant of the second word was different, come to think about it. Oh well.

Anyway, we’ve been abroad, and are not afraid to show it. Admittedly, not as much as a girl with whom we were once in a curry house in the midlands, who insisted on eating her meal with her hands as ‘that’s how they do it in India’. That was an uncomfortable night out. The DD stuck with a knife and fork.

But back to the job in hand. The DD has been intrigued by the Desi Old India Cafe in Elm Grove, Southsea, for a while. It often looks busy, and is beautifully done out inside. We were keen to know what an Indian cafe would entail – how close would it be to what has become the standard model of ‘British’ curry house? Or would it be a whole different avenue of Indian restaurant?

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Cafe Desi, Elm Grove

The night the DD goes is a cold Monday and yet we are lucky to get in as only one table is left. This is a very good sign. Another good sign is the menu – while there are many recognisable curry dishes, with loving descriptions promising liberal amounts of coriander, chilli, garam masala and other spices, our attention is grabbed by the list of small plates, which promises many treats. Encouraged by the menu, which talks about snacking during meals – a tremendous concept, and one to be encouraged – we decide to share several of these and a vegan biryani.

This turns out to be an excellent choice, as rarely has the Dish Detective had so much fun from the food during a meal out. Every dish had something interesting to taste, to try and explore. If this sounds like a gushing review, well that’s because it is. We were blown away.

To start off with there’s paneer and pineapple tikka (£7.95), small blocks of grilled cheese and fruit with a lovely herby and spicy coating. The cheese is soft, the pineapple has a little crunch to it, it smells incredible and there’s an intriguing dish of sauce that is delicious but flavour-wise hard to pinpoint (more on this later). All in all this is great cooking, done by people who know how to work with flavour and texture. It’s a wonderful beginning.

And the others do not disappoint either. A plate of sev puri (£5.95) brings crunchy puri filled with chick peas, pomegranate seeds, potato, and some yoghurt. There’s almost too much going on, but it works, and Punjabi pyramids (£5.95) sees two samosas. This is where the DD’s travelbanking comes in, as these samosas are just as they are served in India – a crunchy, thick pasty-like pastry, not the flaky greasy triangular version most often seen here. They are a hard-wearing food for eating on the move, although here we are happy to simply sit back and enjoy the spice that lifts the potato inside. There’s more of that sauce - it tastes slightly of mango but is still proving elusive, although perhaps there’s some cumin knocking about in there as well. We ask the waitress – who is lovely and friendly, by the way – and she asks the kitchen. They won’t say as the recipe is a secret, but confirm that the main ingredient is ketchup. The DD loves everything about this.

Desi Old INdia Cafe Elm Grove

The biryani is no let down either – it’s been cooked perfectly and is neither too wet nor dry, although can’t compete with the small plates for excitement. Desi doesn’t serve alcohol and while there are lassi milk drinks on offer, we opt for refillable soft drinks from a machine on the bar.

There’s a lovely feel to the cafe as well. The staff are all smiley, it’s the kind of place where everyone will join in singing happy birthday when a cake comes out for one table, and will also join in with a round of applause. And it's applause that is warranted for Desi. This place is a gem.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron.

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