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Labongo

The latest reincarnation of the corner restaurant in the 60s shopping precinct at Chad Square in Edgbaston is the jauntily-named Labongo.
There seems to have been something of a rash of new Indian restaurants with ever-wackier names recently. an attempt presumably. to set themselves apart from the rather large crowd.
Labongo (they drink it in the Congo) certainly seems determined to present itself as something far more upmarket and different from the rest.
The place (the old Bay Tree) is swankily done out. its large. airy space dotted with tables topped with starched. pristine white cloths. fresh flowers and smart. brown leather chairs. Not a great deal of character perhaps but certainly comfortable.
The menu is also designed to impress. It's a weighty tome with two of its pages devoted to “chef's exclusive dishes" " but as these include chicken tikka masalla and tandoori chicken masalla. I think we can conclude Labongo isn't doing a great deal different from the norm for all its big talk.
I was there midweek with two friends and with all the preceding hype. I had expected something. if not ground-breaking. at least offering something a little surprising and out of the ordinary.
It's a shame to start a meal with crashed expectations " especially here. as Labongo is definitely a place you can warm to and its friendly staff are trying desperately hard to please.
It's difficult to get a good atmosphere in a dining room this size but with four or five other tables occupied. it managed a decent buzz.
We ordered a few poppadoms to keep us going and were solemnly talked in some detail through the accompaniments which arrived with them. As these were the usual mint raita. tamarind sauce and onion salad. this wasn't strictly necessary.
It was difficult to depart from the norm with the starters either. The 16 options had all the usual suspects from pakora to sheek kebab " although prawn cocktail did pop up as something of a curiosity.
With no alternative but to go for the tried and tested. we chose aloo chat. onion bhaji and vegetable samosa.
All were pretty good. especially the aloo chat with nice chunks of potato which kept their flavour in a good. clean-tasting sauce which had just the right amount of kick to it.
My two bijou veg samosas had little hearts drawn on them with chilli sauce which seemed quite bizarre. More window-dressing perhaps. or maybe the chef was bored. Still. they were first rate. very fresh and full of well-balanced. spicy taste.
My friend with the onion bhajees got the best deal. portionwise. with three chunky bhajis and more surprising care spent on the presentation " in her case. a cherry tomato carved into a flower.
The flavour. unfortunately. didn't quite match up to the artistic endeavours. They were a little under-powered but pleasant enough.
Main courses do provide more variety alongside the old favourites although many dishes seem to offer fairly minor variations on chicken tikka. Be prepared to do some forward planning if you're after tandoori lobster though " the menu warns that it requires 24 hours' notice.
Chital kufta sounded interesting " “tropical Indian fish spiced and minced into meatballs".  A nice trick if you can do it. There are some great names here too. from " chicken joypuree' to " aroma delight'.
One friend decided on chicken shorisha. in which the meat is marinaded with mustard seeds “giving a unique taste for all to enjoy".
It was actually too heavy on the mustard seed. she felt. but it was fine otherwise. with tender. well-cooked and flavoursome chunks of meat. She particularly liked the excellent. deeply-savoury rice that came with it.
The other friend decided that that any Indian restaurant worth its salt should be able to do the classic dishes standing on its head. so she had ordered chicken tikka balti as a useful yardstick.
But while the aspirations of the place would suggest that any balti here should be a belter. this was sadly not the case. Hers was pleasant enough. admittedly. the right side of hot. with generous chicken and plenty of sauce. whose fruity edge balanced out the general spiciness " but nothing exceptional.
The sauce was also identical to that with the shorisha but without the mustard seed. they decided.
There were no designated veggie main courses so I chose a couple of vegetable dishes from the " accompaniments' list " mixed vegetable bhajee and sag paneer - along with some plain rice.
The vegetable bhajee was good. gently spiced and full of flavour. but the sag paneer. almost a puree. was very creamy and a little sickly. lacking the depth of flavour you would expect.
We were presented with a dessert menu but as this was the laminated type with vivid technicolour pictures. we declined. 
Two coffees. with the inevitable waffer-theen mints. seemed the better choice but not as it turned out. It was vile. stewed. undrinkable stuff.
Our other friend had the waiter a bit flummoxed by asking for a cup of tea. wild child that she is. Tea is not. it turns out. on the menu but they managed to rustle up a cup from somewhere and it was fine.
The bill totted up to £52.95 so at least the prices weren't as aspirational as the florid tones of the menu might lead you to expect. It's a decent enough Indian restaurant. Labongo. but don't expect your timbers to be shivered.


Food: Asian


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27 Chad Square
Birmingham
West-Midlands


Telephone: 0121 454 4335

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