In the glory days of Oxford the Cowley Road was rammed with Indian restaurants. Indian restaurant, Indian restaurant, pub, Indian restaurant, that’s how it went. Which was perfect for us.
I should explain. The glory days were the late 1980s when we were students in this fine scholarly city. Us is four friends who used to live together in those glory days who have met for a reunion. It’s 30 years on.
We meet in the New Inn, at least that’s still there. Blimey, the prices have gone up Roger. The Indians have been invaded by Mesopotamian skewers and forced from their land. And then, as if to plant a warning flag to any counter invasion the Mesopotamians have inserted huge chunks of lamb and chicken in the windows, continuously dripping fat and spice from their bulky masses.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a kebab as much as the next half-drunk person who is wildly hungry at 11.30pm. Don’t diss a kebab, it does the trick. But Turkish food, eaten with friends as you stumble along the pavement dribbling into the pita as you search for another bit of sliced meat while dodging people looking at their phones, doesn’t do much for a shared dining experience.
Indian food does, however. It’s all sharey is Indian food. The saddest Indian casualty along the Cowley Road, says Jon, is the Jomuna. He’s right. The Jomuna was our second home in the late 1980s. We must have eaten there three times a week at least. Ralph was the wonderful manager. We once turned up with a (very small) handful of change as the pubs were shutting and asked, “what can we get for this?” He picked up the change without counting it and replied: “whatever you want boys.” He worked for Oxford council in the day and in the restaurant at night and, if my memory serves me right, was studying part-time as well. For someone who thought getting up for an afternoon lecture was commendable I was in awe of the man. That night, out of respect for Ralph and being well brought up young men we opted for a basic curry and rice despite him repeating the all-in-offer.
But what we really wanted was a Chicken Tikka Masala. This glorious dish had just been invented (although we didn’t know that at the time) and the Jomuna had it on its menu. My goodness it was wonderful. But as it was a couple of quid more than the other dishes it was most certainly only ordered on special occasions, such as birthdays or when we’d found a pound note (yes, it was that long ago) on the pavement.
The only other time we had a Chicken Tikka Masala was when Rob (you’ve met all of Us now) returned home from a weekend triumphantly waving a £50 that his grandad had given him above his head. “Beers and a Jomuna?” he asked.
We eked out a couple of games of pool at the Bricklayer’s Arms and Britannia and squeezed in a pint at the White Horse, but frankly there was nothing else on our minds other than visiting Ralph.
Chicken Tikka Masala was better in those days. And I know it is not my memory playing nostalgic tricks with me because I still make it using a recipe from Pat Chapman’s iconic book, Favourite Restaurant Curries, which was first published in 1988. It was before the phrase British Indian Restaurant (BIR) curries had taken hold, but this book was exactly that: curries how the Brits liked them. The recipe in the book is an amalgam from the Oakham Tandoori in Leicester, Dilruba in Rugby, and Koh-i-noor, in Newport. This is how Ralph’s Chicken Tikka Masala tasted and if you want to know what this and other 1980s curries were like then this is the book for you.
But Jomuna is gone so we head across Magdalen Bridge and up the High Street to the Shezan. They look somewhat surprised to see us, even though it has just passed 10.30pm. That’s another thing that has changed: Indian restaurants are much more respectable now and a lot don’t even bother with the after-pub crowd. Leave that to the Mesopotamians.
But we are just in time to order says the young waiter, who is friendly enough but wasn’t even born when they were inventing Chicken Tikka Masala. The decor is all contemporary Mogul style and the snappily dressed owner Salim has the story of the place. This superbly located restaurant has been a dining room since 1915 and he has been here since 1978, when he started out as a pot washer and general this-that-and-the-other type helper. He’s a nice guy and advises me to have Lemon rice (£3.95) with my main, which is a winning recommendation.
Tonight we are also ordering Paneer Tikka (£5.95) starters, Goan Chicken (£10.95) mains, Peshwari nans (£3.95). But, I am delighted to say, there is still one Chicken Tikka Masala (£9.95) on the table.
It’s lovely to know that not everything has changed.
Goan Chicken Curry (very good with Lemon rice) and Paneer Tikka.
Shezan, Ist Floor, 135 High Street, Oxford, OX4 1DN. Tel: 01865 251600. Open: Mon–Thurs noon–2.30pm and 5.30pm–late. Fri–Sun noon–3pm and 5.30pm–late.
Scores on the tandoors
Food 8 Decor 8 Service and friendliness 7.5 Vibe (late Friday night) 5 Value 7.5