I’ve eaten my fair share of curries. I’ve had baltis in Birmingham and lassi in Lahore. I’ve eaten on the street in Multan and egg hoppers in a jungle lodge in Sri Lanka. That said, I’m no curry fiend.
You won’t find me arguing the virtues of Bengali over Kashmiri or comparing this Aagrah with that Raja’s.
My takeaways are closer to one a year than one a week. But I liked the sound of the Cat’s Pyjamas’ street food.
In case you are not up with the zeitgeist, Indian street food is ever so à la mode just now.
In Leeds alone, Trinity Kitchen has a rotating pattern of street food vendors, their vans winched up to the top floor where Manjit’s Kitchen has become a regular, doling out veggie snacks and curries from her sweet little No 1 Chaat Station.
In 2014 Bundobust, son of Bradford’s Prashad, swept noisily into Mill Hill, with formica-topped tables, wood chip benches and distinctive Indian vegetarian snacks served in polystyrene cups and real ale on draught.
Now the Cat’s Pyjamas has arrived in Headingley with another street food/craft beer pitch, modestly promising “the best street food this side of Delhi” but with proper plates, real knives and forks and a menu designed by Alfred Prasad, a former Michelin-starred chef at Tamarind (with its very un-street food address in Mayfair).
Still, on Otley Road, PJs has been styled with those de rigueur exposed light bulbs, rough wood and a blank wall of grey bare plaster. Some artful graffiti on the loo doors; ripped Bollywood posters for wallpaper beyond. Hardly a street cafe in Mumbai, but you didn’t really expect that.
Nor are the prices that cheap for those who yearn for the days of £2 curries, no menu and no cutlery at Bradford’s Karachi, but they’re reasonable, averaging £4.50 for starters and £8.50 for mains. The menu thankfully has just a dozen choices of each – a welcome relief from page after laminated page with every curry combination under the sun.
The list is a mix of familiar and fresh. Onion bhaji, rogan josh, chicken tikka masala and tandoori mixed grill are all here, but so is Nariyal Jhinga, a coconut prawn curry, Railway potato curry and Amritsari fish made with tilapia and flavoured with ginger, paprika and ajwain seeds.
If the Keralan beef fry, a dry-style curry, lacked the deep complexity of spice and flavour of the best Indian food or if the crisp coating on the fried “Chicken 65” didn’t do much for the bland chicken inside, other starters were excellent.
Like aloo chaat: a spiced potato cake served on savoury chickpea and topped with pomegranate, mint, yoghurt and tamarind chutney. Overheard at the next table: “That’s the best chaat I’ve ever had.” No argument from our table either.
Pani puri was another eye-opener, so good it had us dribbling, quite literally. Half a dozen deep-fried, crisp little shells stuffed with potato, onion, chickpeas and tamarind chutney and served with a spiced liquid to pour in the opening – impossible to eat without juices rolling down your chin but who cares, it was a treat with spice and crunch together in one bite.
Almost as impossible to handle was the masala poppadum, tastily topped with onions, tomatoes, green chillis, diced beetroot and peanuts. Great if the topping hadn’t fallen off all over the shop at the first crack of the crisp. And pushing it at £2.75 for a single poppadom.
Then there was Punjabi chole, “the most popular vegetarian dish in India,” our menu assured us. And I imagine a homely bowl of chickpeas might well be. It came in a spiced tomatoey broth and with it pilau rice and a terrific soft and puffy cushion of freshly baked onion and coriander naan.
For drinks we were confronted by a fulsome menu of 20 bottled beers with helpful notes and a scrawled blackboard of eight draught beers without said helpful notes. Knowing this week’s crop of craft beer from around the world is a whole new field of scholarship and our waiter didn’t seem to know his brown ale from his bitter, we plucked one at random: Fort Smith, an American pale ale, not brewed in Kansas, as we later learnt, but in Knaresborough with American hops. Good strong stuff.
Cat’s Pyjamas is the brainchild not of a clan of Indian chefs but of Alison White, a 30-year-old Scot in a hurry. Her market research company that she set up while still at university has a £1m turnover. Last year she opened White’s cafe/bar a few yards up Otley Road, and now this. On the midweek night we ate it was chock full, upstairs and down, turning tables fast. Was this real street food? Maybe not but it was fun. Credit her market research with a winning formula.
If this success weren’t enough she’s already scouting out her next PJs site. The long-term plan is for five more branches within five years. Cat’s Pyjamas? Perhaps then next one should be called The Cat that got the Cream.
The Cat’s Pyjamas, 53 Otley Road, Headingley, Leeds LS6 3AB, 0113 274 2618, thecatspjs.co.uk; open: Tuesday-Thursday, 5pm-10pm; Friday & Saturday, 5pm-10.30pm; price: dinner for two inc. bottle wine and service approx. £50.