One of the most regular downsides is the belief, which seems to be shared by half the nation’s vindaloo-munchers, that their street/area/town/village is home to the best curry house in Scotland, possibly even the world.
Nine times out of ten they are simply wrong. Being close enough to home to allow the grateful locals to stagger back after a biryani and a couple of pints of Kingfisher may make it handy, but not necessarily a temple to Asian gastronomy. This delusion is particularly prevalent out in the sticks, where proximity to their home has a rabbit-in-the-headlights effect on people whose recommendations are otherwise pretty sensible. While I have come across the odd exception to that rule – Radhuni in Loanhead, Itihaas in Dalkeith, Balbir’s in Symington and the Taj Mahal in Gourock all spring to mind as purveyors of exemplary small-town Indian grub – it’s also true that some of the most rotten meals I’ve endured have been in rural curryhouses.
Which is why I treated dispatches-lauding Chatni, a little curry house in the Perthshire village of Methven, with undisguised suspicion. Over the past two years, reports have come in thick and fast from friends and family in the area, all displaying an almost evangelical zeal for the place. One pal, who’s notoriously fussy, even reckons she ate there one day and then had lunch the next day at Glasgow’s venerable old institution, Mother India, and that it was the Perthshire restaurant that came out on top. With such glowing recommendations, it was only a matter of time before I had to get around to investigating.
But if I was sceptical, I had good reason: getting on for three years ago, I headed up to Crieff at the behest of my brother-in-law, who reckoned his town contained the best Indian restaurant outside Bradford and Brick Lane. What followed was a meal that could charitably be called ordinary, accompanied by profuse apologies, lots of guff about the old chef/owners having obviously just left, and a getaway that would have been quick had the food not lain like a curling stone in a crow’s gullet, forcing us to waddle away at slow speed.
Chatni is named after one of Indian cooking’s most popular chutneys (as opposed to a chasni, which is an increasingly popular and uniquely Scottish sweet-and-sour variation on chicken tikka massala that is flavoured with – wait for it – tomato ketchup). It’s not difficult to find on the rather drab high street (well, only street) of Methven, especially as the building it now occupies used to be home to Hamish’s, a traditional little Francophile restaurant that for many years had a cult following in the area.
Stepping inside Chatni wasn’t like entering a room decked out in the usual curryhouse kitsch, the space could have been home to cuisine of any nationality. There was one immediate surprise, though: a lack of people. Arriving pretty early on a Friday evening, we had expected the place to be stowed out, but only three of the dozen or so tables were occupied, two by families who looked to be settling in for the duration.
We started off with a mountain of popadoms that were perfectly cooked, but which came with only half the usual number of chutneys, and with two of the four identical.
That was one each for the debit and deficit columns, but at least our plate of mixed starters was routinely good, with the selection of pieces of chicken tikka, vegetable pakora, onion bhajee and deep-fried field mushroom getting proceedings off to a decent start.
When it came to the main courses, Bea and I were relieved we had come with Mike and Rosanna, two friends who live locally and, being Chatni regulars, could guide us through a seven-page menu that has a baffling large selection of well over 100 options. The upshot was that we chose a couple of dishes off the main menu (including a chicken pasanda, in order to get an easy ready-reckoner against the average Indian restaurant), two from chefs Edris and Omar’s specials and a couple of side dishes. It was, we were assured by our guides, a feast fit for the gods.
If so, the celestial beings must have a highly developed taste for the hot stuff. The pasanda, which turned out to be superior high-street fare, may have been mild, but the other three dishes had a hefty kick, especially for a lily-livered, butter-chicken-loving interloper like me.
First up was a chicken rezala, a classic Calcutta dish that usually has a large chunk of chicken and a biryani-like consistency, but here seemed to consist of rather small shards of chicken, as if it had been braised. This lent the chicken an uncharacteristically deep flavour, while the gravy, which was thicker than usual, was considerably hotter than expected. All in all, though, it made for an interesting and nuanced dish.
I’m not sure I felt the same way about the fiery king prawn garlic chilli, which was the vindaloo-loving Bea’s dish of choice, but the mas bangle fish curry was far more appealing. Moderately spiced and based around a fillet of tilapia – a white, fleshy fish that tastes rather like coley – this delicately spiced Goan-style curry was a hit with everyone, even if the waves of mustard oil were unmistakeable. It went well with the two side orders of sag bhajee (spinach and onion) and aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato), plus the special fried rice and a particularly coconutty peshwari nan.
By the end of the meal, I was, it’s fair to say, a little bit hot but not overly bothered. Bits of our meal were really decent, but in places it was a little too feisty (and unexpectedly so), while some of the dishes were ferociously expensive, with the king prawn peri weighing in at £16.
The service was excellent, but then that tends to be a given at most Indian restaurants. As I suspected, it was good but still not worth the cigar my friends keep trying to award it.
Mains £6.95-£15.95 Rice £2.50-£3.25 Side dishes £3.50
15 Main Street, Methven, Perthshire (01738 840505 www.chatni.info