ANYONE who doubted the economic impact of the Commonwealth Games should have been in Glasgow on the afternoon we went looking for a late lunch in the Merchant City.
109 Candleriggs, Glasgow G1 1NP
We’d already come past George Square, which was stuffed with so many people it was impossible to move, let alone celebrate yet another Scottish medal. But the Merchant City was even more packed: there were throngs of people in the streets, with the bars and restaurants so full of people of all nationalities that everywhere you looked the staff appeared to be in serious danger of a meltdown.
We’d already decided to go to KoolBa, but with the mid-afternoon sun lashing down and half the city going taps-aff, we took one look at the smart and contemporary but forlornly empty and dark interior, and decided some al fresco munching was in order – even if it meant we had to wait for a table. In the end, we only had to hang around for 15 minutes until we were seated on benches at a chunky, rustic wooden table and able to watch the world go by.
Fifteen years ago, I used to work within a stone’s throw of the Merchant City, and returning once again it’s difficult not to marvel at the change that’s come over the place. Back then it was like a big smelly butterfly struggling to emerge; an up-and-coming area that had great promise, but was still undeniably rough around the edges. These days, like an easterly Ashton Lane, it is the finished article, a shiny, bohemian enclave rich in history but jam-packed with pubs and excellent restaurants; the sort of place that acts as a magnet for visitors and locals alike.
KoolBa is one of several Indian restaurants in the Merchant City, but is generally reckoned to be the best of the lot. It has been recommended to me by countless friends and with a curry-loving better half my visit here has been a long time in the planning.
That said, the first thing we found was that KoolBa – which means oasis, or somewhere to relax – is not simply an Indian, but also a Persian restaurant thanks to the fact that its two owners are Iraqi brothers, one of whom does the cooking. Persian cooking is more of a rapier than the Indian bludgeon, less heavy and with a far more liberal use of aromatic spices, something which was hinted at in a menu that promised a spice route journey. That said, for all the Persian options, the majority of the menu consisted of a surprisingly mundane list of Indian dishes largely of the same-old, same-old curry-house staples. Still, thanks to Bea’s penchant for the hot stuff, I’ve eaten at enough Indian restaurants to know that you never judge the tandoori book by its cover.
We started with some old favourites to get the measure of the place. My prawn purée was instructive: spicier than usual, and with an unusual sweet and sour edge, it was definitely out of the ordinary, but rammed full of prawns and good enough for Bea to keep leaning over and filching pieces when she thought I wasn’t watching. Her piping hot chicken pakora with huge chunks of moist chicken surrounded by a crisp batter and served with a minty yoghurt dipping sauce couldn’t talk, but Bea’s grinning delivered a silent but positive verdict. Lochie started off with a plate of hummus with warm unleavened bread. Clearly recently made, it had a nice coarse consistency, but suffered from a surfeit of oil and a lack of lemon juice. Still, it was at worst workmanlike.
Both Bea and I plumped for the two specials for our main courses, Bea opting for the king prawn punjabi while I went for the Goan sea bass. Lochie, by contrast, chose the royal chicken kebab from the menu and was impressed: tandoori-cooked chunks of marinated chicken were skewered with roasted peppers, and served with a salad.
My sea bass was of an altogether different order, however, and turned out to be an enormously enjoyable dish. Cooked in the Goan style, it consisted of three fillets of pearly-white and beautifully moist sea bass in a sea of mild, creamy, green coconut sauce. Served with thin naan bread, it was as enjoyable a main Indian-themed dish as I’ve had in a long time. Bea was only a tiny bit more circumspect in passing a verdict on her spicy prawns: well above average and commendably punchy was her verdict.
Pudding was surprisingly good. The kulfi was decent, rich and creamy with a velvety texture, while the accompanying baklava – the honey-soaked, pistachio-heavy cake that is sold throughout the Middle East – once again proved the sense of adding in a Persian aspect to the menu. Having spent quite a bit of time in the Middle East, I’m very partial to baklava and have tried endless varieties: it can be stodgy or disgustingly, sickly sweet, but this was sticky and moist without being overbearingly saccharine, in other words absolutely perfect, and complemented by a small cup of spicy Arabic coffee.
Also worth mentioning is the excellent selection of world beers, which includes the usual curry specials plus a handful which have been chosen because they go well with curry’s formidably forceful flavours. We tried a beer from Argentina called Quilmes and a Polish beer, Zywiec, the latter going down much better.
Clearly our experience of eating out in the blazing sun on a Tuesday afternoon won’t be available to most people, but the inside of KoolBa is decked out in contemporary, top-end décor without being particularly intimidating. Not that it will set you back a ridiculous amount – the average meal here comes in at considerably less than £50, which isn’t bad for eating good food at the centre of Glasgow’s toastiest culinary hotspot.
• KoolBa 109 Candleriggs, Glasgow G1 1NP, 0141-552 2777, www.koolba.com; Starters £3-£8, Main courses £6.50-£22, Puddings £3.50-£4.50, Arabic coffee £1.95