One of my favourite meals, lunch. Such a blank page, so few rules. As it's almost the start of the Holy Month of Ramadan, there won't be any mid-day restaurant trips for a while. That means we'll have no Cafe Malaysia; no chicken kabsa from Taza at MGM's food court. Other lunch mainstays Begum's and Kiwi Cafe can be shifted to dinner, I suppose, but mostly we'll be eating at home. I like that; it's where my sofa is. But we're making one last effort today, visiting new Indian restaurant Jashn. Jashn's tagline is A Celebration Called India - that's setting the bar pretty high for our final lunch outing of the season.
Jashn could have been designed especially for me. I'm not a megalomaniac and realise it wasn't, but Jashn ticks my boxes, baby. First off, it's a homegrown concept - no chain! No franchise! Someone's actual idea, here! Any independent restaurant automatically gets itself 4 out of 10 before I even sit down. Next, the decor. Now, I know this street (the slip road behind the Great Kebab Factory) very well. It's just next to the alley where my tailor is, and once I picked up a poisoned cat there. Another time, collecting jeans from alteration, we saw a dozen plain-clothes officers - I think they were officers - bundling some guy into an unmarked car. It's not a glamorous road. But you go inside Jashn and it's just lovely. Not overdone, not gaudy, but attractively and uniquely decorated. Nice simple seating plan and just enough colour and graphics to make you feel welcome and relaxed without under- or overwhelming you.
And you can tell that the thought behind the decor is informing the food. This is progressive Indian cuisine, beautifully presented. Ah wait, first the menu itself. My knowledge of Indian food is pitiful. Regular meals from Mumtaz in the old days, and lately Begum's, and the odd takeout from other places around town. I have my favourites, don't deviate much, and know even less. In any new place, I'll just ask for whatever's good, or order the butter chicken. Of course I feel a flush of shame every time I do this. It's so English. I'm flushing just writing it. But if you're either wary of menus full of items you don't recognise, or you've found your comfort dish and stick to it, you should go to Jashn. You'll open the menu and run your eye down the list, and then you'll say, woh! Pomelo...parmesan...beetroot...walnuts...guacamole shot! Then you'll say wha?! Because you'll remember this is an Indian restaurant. Clearly there's something interesting going on here.
Just as you're processing this highly surprising menu, your waiter (ours was Anthony Raj, and he was attentive, polite, friendly and can-I-adopt-you adorable) will bring over pani-puri-without-the-puri. This will confuse you more if you don't know what pani puri, pani, or puri are. (I do know that they are the favourite street food of the fictional Indian PI Vish Puri. I'm so cultured.) In Jashn, it's a little amuse bouche in which a ridiculously delicate casing holds a powerful punchy collection of pickles and chutney. It's gone in one bite and does the job of waking up your palate perfectly. That was when the appreciative murmurs started around the table.
We got more on the same theme in the form of a set of six shot glasses, each with a different filling - orange, tamarind, yoghurt, watermelon were some . You fill the pani (see, I'm learning) up with the shot of flavour beneath it, then down in one. I do like food with a bit of theatre, as long as the taste holds up, and this did. Same with the daal shorba: silky smooth and poured at the table onto pickled ginger chips in the bowl. Gorgeous flavour too. I had to try the smoked butter chicken - yes a safe choice, but the smokiness adds a twist so I felt justified, and it's peppery and moreish, definitely the best I've had. And that, I've had a lot of, and so can speak with authority. The pomelo and coconut salad sounded super refreshing and was, but it lacked something...still trying to think what. Maybe a bit of bitterness? And the basil, walnut and olive pulao came to life with the addition of the raita our waiter recommended.
Dessert! I don't normally have this in Indian restaurants (cringing again). The house rule is apparently that you are not allowed to leave without trying one, though, and I'm a law-abiding type, so we went for the gulab jamun (because I had heard of it), and the manager sent over a selection of halwa too. The gulab jamun were tiny balls of exploding sweetness and reminded me - listen, I am English, and I can't keep apologising for it, even though that is also a very English thing to do - of my mother's syrupy puddings that I loved as a child. They sat on a perfect pastry base with a slick of cream inside it that kept the flavours coming. And the halwa was another revelation. Beetroot, carrot and bitter gourd varieties - I rarely have root vegetables for dessert but these were perfectly balanced and delicious. We ended our lunch with the complimentary paan-flavoured cotton candy - I couldn't place the flavours but Google tells me they would have been fennel seed and rose petal, which sounds about right. Try eating cotton candy as a adult and leaving a place not feeling happy. It's impossible. If I had a bad restaurant, I'd just hand this stuff out at the end and not bother with any further effort. Luckily Jashn makes you happy from start to finish.
This is one of my favourite new places in Oman, and it's woken me up to modern Indian food. I'm reading about it now. I'm excited. There was so much on the menu I'd be back for. I feel a bit like I did after first eating at Semsom - oh look, there's a whole new and clever and tasty way this cuisine can be interpreted and enjoyed! I just wish I'd discovered the place a bit earlier, but come late July I'll be doing lunch again at Jashn.