All my life I’ve hated Indian food. This probably has something to do with my sadistic and violent step-father devouring the stuff almost ceaselessly; I had to hate everything loved by the person who abused me so horribly. A trip to The Bengal Sage demonstrated that not only that I’m not scared of that loathsome shit anymore, but also that Indian food can transcend the tired and dreary rubbish pumped out by most English restaurants.
You’ll note I say ‘English restaurants’ rather than ‘Indian restaurants in England’. This is because the food at the Bengal Sage sits two meta-levels above Indian restaurants in England. The food is more inventive and interesting than that at Indian restaurants and far more skilfully prepared from vastly higher quality ingredients than at most restaurants of any type in England.
Miff, of Bangkok Brasserie fame, had been pushing us to visit his sister restaurant for a while but it was not until we walked past the Bengal Sage and looked at the menu we realised his magic touch had been expertly applied to Indian food as well as Thai.
The menu was completely unrecognisable from most Indian restaurants my fellow Oxford scientists dragged me to when they wanted a ‘cuzza’ after Lab Drinks. It was not a list of every possible permutation of seven different ways of preparing five different meats, but rather a selection of ingredient-focused dishes that sounded as if they had been designed by someone who enjoyed cooking rather than just doing it for a job. The menu was attractive reading – I didn’t have flashbacks of getting beaten up as a child as I read it.
When we booked we asked to have whatever the chef recommended and this is what I would recommend you do. The embarrassment of riches on the menu makes it hard to choose so why not go for what they feel they do best. As ever, Miff was generous with the amount served; I’ll tell you some of the highlights.
The starter that really blew my socks off was a little-known Punjabi speciality: Malai chicken tikka. No, not that those chicken tikkas. This chicken was tender and deeply flavourful, delicately spiced and coated with little pieces of fresh herbs that had a delightfully crunchy texture as you bit into the chicken. The fresh, high-quality characters of the ingredients really stood out.
The potato parcels, Aloo tikki, were amazing in that they had a flavour that was vaguely reminiscent of the generic ‘Indian’ flavour one encounters in limp supermarket samosas and the like, but this variant of the flavour was salivatingly good. The flavours were fresh and lively, charged with complexity and real interest. It opened my mind to be reminded of the lacklustre flavour of ubiquity and then be shown that it could be done with skill and style. Lovely.
Our other three starters were also excellent and I felt we had already done better than I could have hoped for.
Three main courses shone out as coruscating entities that one should seek out. A Broughton water buffalo bhoona was packed with delicious water buffalo meat of the most melting texture. The meat was of the very highest quality and, like all the dishes, the sauce it had been cooked it was fresh and lively – a vigorous and exciting dish to eat.
The Sage goat was goat cooked in a blend of Indian and English spices. Again the freshness of the flavours really kept me captivated; no rotten vegetables and rancid oil here. Again the meat was tender and cooked with extreme skill to show at its very best. As such, this was the best goat I’ve ever eaten – makes me question my absolute dismissal of the animal as being unworthy of cooking.
A Thai influence showed in the chicken anjali. Vibrant lemongrass flavours packed this energetic dish and made it throb with life. Miff takes great care in sourcing his ingredients and the chicken was a world away from the dry, flavourless broiler fowl that most restaurants contemptibly serve to guests they clearly don’t care a fig for. These last two dishes showed that intelligent experimentation is possible with Indian food and, if you care, it’ll work a treat.
The food was a marvel. They’ve got a reasonably priced wine list and, whilst I would normally say ‘Don’t’, the food was so subtle, sophisticated and fresh wine might just work. Skip the Indian wine, though, unless you want to vex some insufferable wine bore by giving it to them blind and telling them to identify it. We had beer and that was great.
As one who never wanted to step in an Indian restaurant it is a bit of a surprise to find myself recommending one so whole-heartedly, but I most certainly wish to point you in the direction of the Bengal Sage. As I have shown, even if the thought of Indian food turns your stomach (or makes you curl up into a ball so you are a smaller target) you are going to have a great time here. It’s better than an English Indian restaurant, and it’s better than most restaurants in England: it’s the Bengal Sage and Miff will pleasure you immensely there.