THE last time I was in India I recall sitting at dawn in a deckchair outside our Raj era timber lodging, reading some appropriate rambling novel.
Water lapped against the verandah edge. Across the lake inlet wafted the sounds and scents of our breakfast cooking. In the southern sub-continent it was never going to be a fry-up.
In our previous port of call, spice capital Cochin, we’d encountered Kerala’s only Simon and Garfunkel tribute act. Like an Indian pizza at the posh hotel, it didn’t quite work.
The spices sizzling in the brekkie wallahs’ woks certainly did. I watched the herons flapping over the trees.
Suddenly my lakeside reverie was snapped by a thud to my left. A four foot long snake slapped itself onto the bank just feet away with its own breakfast in its jaws – a tasty rat. I was off like a shot to ring room service for reassurance.
Cut to autumnal Ramsbottom and a discreet, stone lodge. On my plate is an idli. No, it’s not snake, just a steamed rice cake with for me the evocative charge (and almost the same spongey texture) of Proust’s madeleine.
It summoned up that breakfast in Kerala. I’ve tried to recapture the experience since. I even bought an idli steamer from a hardware shop in Rusholme. All I made were buns like those you brought home to show Mum from primary school domestic science.
Now swathed in a lentil gravy called sambar, curry (kari) leaves peeking through the granular jus, it was easily the equal of my breakfast treat in faraway Kerala.
But the roots of this idli is in Tamil Nadu, further south east in India. Think Madras, the state capital, not the stereotypical hot curry of that name.
It’s from Padmini Sankhar’s tiffin carte. She and her husband Dev hail from Tamil Nadu. She’s a doctor at a Bolton hospital, he’s an anaesthetist at Rochdale and Sanmini’s, derived from their names, is their restaurant dream.
With the help of their sons and daughter-in-laws, they are running it after their day jobs while they await the arrival of a professional chef from the ‘old country’.
They are cooking to order and, even in a sparsely occupied 34-cover restaurant, it felt more like a very leisurely dinner party.
But that didn’t matter a jot. This is the most enticing new place to eat I’ve discovered in 2008. The idlis are only the tip of the spiceberg!
This is uncompromisingly authentic and all the better for it in a balti-centric world of Asian cuisine where young Asians eat quite bland food in glitzy Bollywoodish modern eateries, while in what remains of the flock wallpaper heritage Brit curry freaks go for chilli heat over flavour.
Tiny sacred elephants
Sanmini’s is overlit, which reveals the raw newness of it all. White sofas and a bright bar, plain white walls with very little ornament, apart from some cute, tiny sacred elephants forming an arch to the loos, leaded windows, which seem vaguely Raj. I never made it upstairs, but imagine it is more of the same.
The warmth comes from the welcome of the Sankhars, a rare sophisticated enthusiasm front of house that immediately put us at our ease immediately, so we succumbed to the charms of one of the Indian wines on the list. Perhaps a mistake.
Chateau Indage has scooped Wine Challenge plaudits for its ambitious attempts to create a wine culture in India. Tiger Hill Chardonnay Semillon comes from the Sahyadri Valley, a tiger habitat in Maharastra.
Its peachy, spicy fruit was slightly thick and unrefreshing. Not really worth £15.95. Beer is probably a better bet, while champagne here is very affordable.
My companion, the Bandit Queen, craves meat on the bone. Hence our first starter of Mutton Chukka Varuval (£5.75) – essentially chunks of mutton shin on a bed of salad. With mustard seed and fennel to the fore in the marinade, it was described as moist on the menu. I found it rather dry and coarse, but BQ wolfed it.
Fish Vadai (£5.75) were crisp tuna and lentil cakes, with a chilli kick, but we were tempted by virtually everything on the starters and tiffin menus, particularly the vegetarian pancakes.
it would be easy to construct an entire meal at Sanmini’s from such an assortment.
Pick of the entire meal was the best dosai I have ever eaten (in London try Diwala on Drummond Street next to Euston Station). A green chutney and more sambar accompanied Mini’s Masala Dosai, a filigree-delicate rice pancake stuffed with a moist spicy potato mix that was marvellous for £5.50.
Lemon rice (£5.75), partnering the mains, reminded us of the authentic bent of this cuisine.
The Tamils use urad dal, a pulse, as a spice, which can startle as it cracks against your teeth. Dev told me it was Bengal gram that almost took out my filling.. but what the hell, this was almost a meal in itself.
The rice was perfumed with lemon zest, turmeric, mustard seed, ginger, chilli and curry leaves and smeared with cooling raita.
Garlic and fennel flavours
The Bandit Queen’s chicken dish was a mouthful – Nadar Khozhi Kozhambu (£8.75), garlic and fennel flavours to the fore and a nuttiness we were told came from cashews and white poppy seed.
I took hardly more than a taste, so entranced was I by the firm, fresh prawns in my Sivakasi Eral Masala. Eral is an inland town in the Chidambaranar coastal region of Tamil Nadu (Bandit Queen, surprisingly knowledgeable), but has given its name to this mild tomato/chilli-based dish (£11.95).
It would be great if the arriving chef could expand the fish options, because they are among Southern India’s greatest glories.
For the moment I’ll be happy to revisit every corner of this good value menu. There is nothing like it for 100 miles.
Reviewed: Mon, 06 October, 2008