If you’re after an Indian where a few surprises – stir-fried calamari, crab bhuna, black cherry sorbet – lurk amid the usual kormas, biryanis and kulfis, look no further. At Safa, dishes both classic and modern are assuredly cooked and sensibly priced. This is a neighbourhood restaurant worth trekking to even if Camberwell isn’t your neighbourhood.
Safa is situated amid fast food outlets and convenience stores on an unlovely stretch just off Camberwell Green. The rectangular room of approximately 50 covers has been done out in that ubiquitous, modern style of dark woods, brown leather and beige walls. Chefs can be seen bustling away thanks to that Noughties must-have, the open hatch to the kitchen. Lighting is subdued, and music is modern, Indian fusion, nodding perhaps to the ambitions of the menu.
Eat-in trade is fairly slow on a weeknight, although plenty of takeaways are taken away. The buzz of Safa’s sister restaurant, Simply Indian, is missing but then, the latter has the good fortune to benefit from Borough’s bustling and fashionable dining scene whereas Safa sits somewhat marooned amid its downmarket neighbours. This is a shame as what’s on offer is just as good. Staff are competent and friendly, and look most comely, their standard black trousers and shirts enlivened by wide, canary yellow ties.
Poppadoms (50p each) arrive impeccably crisp and grease-free, whilst their accompanying sauce and pickle selection (50p per person) is well above average, thanks particularly to the inclusion of an intriguing tamarind sauce. Fourteen starters range from classic onion bhajis and meat or vegetable samosas to the seldom seen uttapam (a South Indian version of pizza) and paneer and lamb sikampuri kebab (lamb kebab with a melted filling of cheddar, of all cheeses, with mint and onions).
It’s also unusual to see calamari stir-fry (£3.25), which arrives prettily arranged on a white, rectangular plate. It is flavoursome and agreeably chewy with delightful, complex spicing with a hot chilli finish. The only minor let-down is the batter which is not crisp and does not adhere terribly well to the squid. There’s a nice tangle of salad leaves and stir-fried veg, and a good squeeze of lime brings the whole dish alive. Even better, because this time the batter is crisp, are mixed pakoras (£4.10) including courgette, cauliflower, aubergine, potato and onion. A very green and intensely coriander-flavoured dip helps things along a treat, as does a great little salad of carrot, beetroot and onion.
More than 50 mains include items from the tandoor, biryanis, and an impressively long vegetarian selection, all of which can double as side dishes. Crab bhuna, very modestly priced at £5.75, is an unusual treat. The meat has been mixed with garlic, onion and tomatoes, cooked and piled back into its shell. Gorgeous crab and sweet tomato flavours dominate whilst the spicing is subtle and complex. Paneer tikka (£5.55) is artfully arranged cubes of charred cheese from the tandoor with chunks of pepper and onion, plus a bowl of the same coriander dip that accompanied the pakoras. The promised marinade of yoghurt, ginger and garlic fails to register. It’s a pleasant enough dish but lacks the wow factor of the crab.
Lemon rice (£2.95) is not only lemony but also features crisply fried onion, cashews and mustard seeds. A plain naan (£1.50), puffed and charred, is exemplary. Mixed vegetable jhalfrezi (like all the vegetarian dishes, £3.10 as a side, £5.10 as a main) is a world away from the frozen, diced veg horrors of Indian restaurants of yesteryear. This one features fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, carrots, potatoes and French beans in a delicious, sweetish sauce that delivers a good thwack of chilli heat.
The pudding selection continues the theme of old favourites interspersed with items more modern and less usual. So, as well as Indian rice pudding and uber-sweet fudge, there’s coconut and pineapple parfait or mixed berry ice cream. Even the pair of sorbets – lemon and black cherry (£3.10) – appears designed to satisfy both traditional and more adventurous diners. The latter has bags of cherry flavour and a silky texture. Its decoration of mango sauce looks beautiful but tastes alarmingly fizzy, a rare slip-up on a night of accomplished cooking.
The short wine list comprises three sparklers, six whites, a single rose, and eight reds. Disappointingly for these days, only one from each section is available by the 175ml glass. The still wines cost from £10.90 to £29 (for a Chateau de Gironville, 2002, Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux) whilst top-of-the-shop bubbles, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut, is £48.
A glass of the cheapest white (Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin, Vista Flores 2008 from Argentina) at £3.10, arrives correctly chilled, and is a perfectly decent, citrussy, slightly spicy quaffer. A glass of Tempranillo, Candidato 2007 from Spain has a hint of caramel and spice and, at the same price, is, again, more than fair. Why, though, does it arrive in a small glass that precludes swirling and sniffing when proper-sized red wine glasses adorn every table?
There are seven bottled beers from around the world, although nothing on draught, plus spirits, liqueurs, sherries, ports, cognacs and vermouths. Still or sparkling water is £3.25 for 800ml. Juices (all £1.50) include the intriguing combo of orange, carrot and lemon. Lassis at £2.75 come sweet, salty, or flavoured with mango or vanilla. After-dinner tea (English, camomile, peppermint or milky, spicy masala chai) or coffee (the choice limited to caffeinated or decaf) costs £1.80.
The Last Word
If you thrive on new culinary experiences but your dining companion is frightened to stray from their korma and tikka masala comfort zone, Safa is the place to go. The kitchen is equally assured whether turning out familiar crowd pleasers or something more avant-garde. Either way, you can eat yourself to a standstill and drink half a bottle of modest wine for under £30 a head; great value for quality cooking in a pleasant setting with attentive service.