Carol Emmas speaks to Niz Islam who brought The Spice City back from the brink to become one of Liverpool's most established restaurants
At face value, you couldn’t meet a calmer, more level-headed individual than Niz Islam, owner of The Spice City. Instead, you might expect a more jittery person considering his restaurant was burned down 14 years ago in a deliberate arson attack. Just to compound the abject horror, at the time he was also living in the flat above, which also went up in smoke.
“I ended up coming out of it with literally nothing, apart from the shirt and the pants I had on,” says Niz. “Before the fire, the business was thriving. I was insured for two years, but I didn’t end up getting the restaurant back for three years. It was tough.”
You won’t get our signature dishes anywhere else, and we are keeping up-to-date with new trends as well as keeping to traditional, classic Indian food.
People might have read the story in the news. A well-known local serial arsonist was caught after he was identified by police at the scene. It made it a lot easier for Niz in terms of his insurance claim. But it takes time to get properly re-established again. Then fast forward to BREXIT, COVID and a cost of living crisis, it’s a full-time juggling job.
Yet, Niz remains optimistic, and considering he’s been operating since 2006, with many restaurants having come and gone in that space of time, he reckons he’s doing OK. “We’re still selling the authenticity of our people, of my generation, and the generation before us. You won’t get our signature dishes anywhere else, and we are keeping up-to-date with new trends as well as keeping to traditional, classic Indian food.”
The Spice City is a traditional and authentic Bangladeshi Indian restaurant situated on Stanley Street and has a comprehensive menu. “Our signature starters and signature main dishes are so many that it's quite a large offering. Over the years, I've trimmed and trimmed it to what works and what doesn’t, and the menu remains large. That’s also because we’re trying to keep up-to -date culturally as well as keep the traditional classic Indian food.”
Niz adds: “We also now have craft beer from Love Lane Brewery, which works really well with our food. Plus, we offer cocktails; not many Indian restaurants do that.”
It’s no small feat to have such an enormous menu.
Particularly when it has been in the news of late how Indian restaurants are impacted due to the number of spices and ingredients the curries contain. Trying to cover those costs can be tricky.
“Onions, spices, and cooking oil have risen at a ridiculous price they’ve doubled or tripled,” says Niz. “For whatever reason, over the years Indian restaurants have always struggled to put up prices. There is this mentality that Indian food is cheap,” he adds. “So, you don’t want to upset your customers by putting prices up too much. I'm selling my signature dishes at £12 and my normal dishes at £8/ £9. People from towns like Bradford might come in and think I'm expensive. But I’ve put my prices up no more than £1.50/£2."
"Here's hoping that inflationary prices of ingredients will drop soon."
The lists of dishes on offer at The Spice City are more than enough to get a person salivating in anticipation, much like myself upon first glancing at the menu.
For the meat eaters, the grill offerings are all cooked in a charcoal clay oven, whilst signature dishes such as Murghi Haseena (strips of marinated tandoori chicken cooked with cooked with peppers, onion and fresh coriander in fresh herbs and spices then sauteed in chicken mince), cannot fail to tempt.
There’s no shortage in variety of ingredients in any of the dishes and if you’re talking inflationary prices, in comparative terms The Spice City is not off-putting to those wanting to still affordably eat out.
It also has a comprehensive and reasonably priced take-away menu. “We began doing a take-away service in the pandemic and that really kicked off when we offered up to a four-mile radius,” he says. So he’s kept that up and running.
One change Niz says he has come across is the onset of Indian street food which presents new challenges to the older, established restaurants. He thinks the food looks good on a plate but is not necessarily authentic. His theory here is that before people go into the restaurant, psychologically they have already sat at the table and tasted the food through the level of social media and marketing the business has posted online.
“It has been so promoted that people think this is the place to be. I’ve tasted the food, and thought, hmmm.”
Niz feels strongly that sticking to the authenticity of Indian food is what counts for him and he has the business longevity to keep to his principles. He also keeps his eye on current trends and new culinary movements to keep his offering contemporary.
Niz adds, “When I took over the business, it was dying. Before the fire, I was doing really well and had a lot of regular customers. We were forgotten for a bit after the fire, and it took a while. Now we get a lot of holidaymakers as we’re surrounded by hotels and apartments. But it’s still the local people and regulars that are my bread and butter. I’ve made lots of friends through this place, and I’m keeping up with changes, plus still doing work on the building.”
He adds, “ To be fair, with all the problems we've had, I think we’re doing great.”
I ask him, whether, after the fire and losing everything he had apart from the clothes he stood up in, did it make him rethink life.
“Funny you should ask that,” he laughs. “It did make me think about my life. Mum and Dad had been harassing me for years to get married in a culturally arranged marriage. So, I thought, yeah, now I have that time. A lot of time, I’ll go ahead and do it. So I ended up getting married. He adds, “Now. I have three beautiful daughters.”
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