Thom Archer recommends you Goan
You can see why the locals of Headingley are buzzing over the service in De Baga. Almost every single one of its (unanimously 5-star) Tripadvisor review have mentioned the friendly staff and warm service - but it’s been a while since they’ve experienced any hospitality from 9 Otley Road.
Sitting down with the former owner of the all-day neighbourhood deli that previously inhabited the venue a few years ago, I asked the usual questions; what inspired this kind of community hub? A passion passion for produce? The desire to welcome, and feed, and nourish? Nope.
You could dislocate your jaw trying to get the gobstopper-sized Sev Puri into your mouth
She owned a market research firm upstairs, and, observing that her staff had the nerve to go out to get coffees and lunch from other local businesses, she decided to start a business selling coffees and lunches downstairs, keeping them - and their wages - firmly in her grasp.
Presumably, the bungee cord tethering them to their desk would stretch juuust as far as the card machine before abruptly hurtling them around the counter, and back to work.
Credit to the actual staff of the deli, who tried to make it a nice place to visit, but it’s difficult to mask cynicism with a shroud of hospitality when it’s rooted so deeply.
The deli’s gone now. The owner’s business acumen is wasted in hospitality anyway; more suited to Dickensian workhouses, or maybe charging the staff at Amazon Fulfillment Centres to use the bathroom. In its place is De Baga - and they’ve clearly done some market research of their own.
Though a self-proclaimed Goan restaurant, the menu reads like a dissertation on what it is to be a Modern Indian, intersecting regional borders to showcase dishes and flavours unknown to the mainstream as little as ten years ago. Before the likes of Dishoom or Brigadiers or Bundobust or Mowgli busted the myth of 'a curry' wide open and introduced us to daals and dosas and chaats and puris.
Some peers are referenced directly: 'Cornetto Bites' (£2.50) of flakey mathri pastry, filled with smoked aubergine and crowned with goats curd, have more than just a hint of Indian Accent’s bharta cornet about them. As the only Indian restaurant in the World’s Top 100, it seems like as good a place as any to borrow ideas from. Another pre-starter drinking snack of Popcorn Chaat (£2.50) laced with green chutney and masala is an excellent idea all of their own.
We drink custom-brewed craft IPA (a reasonable £4.50) and smart, modern cocktails in coupes (£8.50) with our snacks. It all feels like a far cry from tikka-and-Tiger curry houses like Aagrah, the award-winning institution which almost all of the De Baga team have come from. On both sides of the pass you can sense the fire in their bellies, excited to shake off the conventions of the 'English curry house'.
Tablecloths are left in the 1970s, with bare wood and turquoise tiling giving an authentic Goan beach feel. Service is as relaxed and friendly as those Tripadvisor reviews claim - effortlessly going from presuming a level of knowledge in guests without feeling alienating, to offering advice and guidance without being patronising.
You could dislocate your jaw trying to get the gobstopper-sized Sev Puri into your mouth, but taking on the brittle, deep-fried shell with more than one bite would mean losing some of the spiced potato and chutney filling, or worse, the respect of the owner, who instructs us to eat them whole. So we open wide. Five of these jaw workouts cost just £3.50.
Anybody who’s even thought about buying patterned harem pants will be able to tell you how lush Goa’s beaches are, so it’s no surprise that seafood is well represented here. Konkani sea food curry (£10.50) is a tranquil pool of ghee and young coconut, warm with toasted curry leaf and szechuan. Its unassuming surface rippling with perky, plump prawns and white fish. A suitably great rendition of what most people probably know as the dish of Goa.
Rings of calamari, cooked al dente and in a yielding deep-fried coating spiced with chaat massala (£5.95) are served with a Parmesan-herb mayo. Unlikely to be authentic, but highly demolishable. As is the Gajar Halwa (£3.95) - a pudding of carrot and sweet spices, cooked with enough butter and sugar to negate the nutritional value in not only these carrots, but every carrot you’ll ever eat. It’s topped with a scoop of ice cream, just in case.
The kitchen is more than capable of being refined as well. A perfectly balanced crab salad comes neatly piled up next to a whole soft-shell crab (A bargain at £6.50) that’s been paddling in red chilli sambal. The inside of a metal dish is pockmarked with Parsi-spiced lamb keema (£8.95); all cumin-hefty and hot and sweet, which we scoop up in torn handfuls of peshwari-style naan, slicked with more ghee.
While it’s a thoroughly Modern Indian, De Baga hasn’t lost that feeling of a shared, convivial experience and sense of discovery, or, yep, that boundary-defying service that’s made traditional Indian restaurants so popular for the past fifty years. That combination of new and old is what’ll keep people Goan back - no bungee cord required.
De Baga, 9 Otley Road, Leeds LS6 3AA
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All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Popcorn Chaat 8, Cornetto Bites 7.5, Squid 8, Sev Puri 8, Crab 9, Momo 7, Fish Curry 8.5, Keema 7,Gajar Halwa 7
Hats off to Tripadvisor. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day
You can almost feel the sand between your toes