If there is one place in the UK that has been harder hit by the Covid-19 pandemic than most other British towns and cities, it’s Cambridge, which until this fateful year attracted more than eight million annual visitors to its ancient streets and alleyways.
What has exacerbated the problem for the university city – just as it has for Oxford – is the ‘double whammy’ effect which has seen a slump in custom from both students and tourists, not to mention visiting attendees at the many conferences and exhibitions held throughout the year here, now cancelled or no longer held in person.
But green shoots of recovery are now sprouting around the city, as lockdown has started to ease and pubs and restaurants begin to reopen their doors to a gradually returning public. One such venue sits in the most ethnically diverse quarter of Cambridge: the mile-long stretch of independent cafes and global restaurants that is Mill Road, serving as a more cosmopolitan antidote to the historical grandeur of the city centre.
It’s here that the city’s best Asian restaurants reside, and, in the more upscale Prana, arguably its finest outlet for Indian cuisine on tonight’s evidence. When I and my partner arrive on a Wednesday evening there are visibly fewer tables than usual, as well as fewer diners, but in this case it sets the scene for a much more serene and intimate meal in the circumstances.
With hands sanitised and window table selected we are welcomed by the affable owner of Prana – Kobir Ahmed – who tells me more about the venue’s history, from its origins as a small takeaway to becoming a proper restaurant but spatially limited to basement seating, before the decision was made to close its doors and extend and refurbish the place into the impressive space it is today, with seating now on the ground floor and an atmospheric décor of classy reds and blacks and ornamental wall displays – designed by Kobir’s wife, he is pleased to point out.
With its spotless white tablecloths and twinkling wine glasses, Prana certainly differentiates itself from local competition as being the higher-end option in town, but without being stuffy in any way. As ever, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the starters and main courses, to confirm hopefully that there is substance to match the style.
Thankfully Prana didn’t disappoint on this front. It was a pleasure to peruse the uncluttered menu, which is based on family dishes and unique takes on classics, evolving over three decades with the help of Kobir’s uncle: owner of the lauded Malik’s in Cookham, the favourite Indian restaurant of Heston Blumenthal, no less.
It comes as no surprise that Prana has won some prestigious awards of its own along the way, including Best Indian Establishment for South of England at the 2018 England Food Awards, and has its own celebrity admirer in the form of DJ and presenter Chris Evans, who once extolled the restaurant’s virtues in a national radio broadcast that saw Prana’s bookings skyrocket.
To try something a bit different I go for the green chicken curry, cooked (interestingly) with broccoli and aubergine in a spicy coconut-based sauce, while my partner chooses the Kobir-recommended King Prawn Moglai, which is more of a classic medium curry, with cashew nuts in the mix.
What distinguishes Prana from its more conventional local rivals is that the mains are served directly on white plates, rather than in karai dishes placed on a tealight-heated warmer tray – it’s certainly a classier touch, although may not go down well with purists!
As delicious as the mains were, served with classic pilau rice and a buttery garlic naan, we struggled to get more than halfway through them after our shared vegetarian selection starter encompassing a crispy sabzi pancake, vegetable samosa, pakora and aloo chat, which we made the mistake of eating every bit of – carbing up too early!
By the time we had been given our requested doggy bags there was no more room in the inn save for a soothing masala tea, served in china teacups, and sharing the lightest dessert option: a hot rice pudding (called ‘Firni’), flavoured with saffron, cardamom and fresh coconut.
Delightful as it was, it elicited my only complaint of the evening, that it could have been enhanced presentationally by a sprinkle of ground nutmeg or any kind of red berry to offset its milky colour merging with the white bowl.
But this was the mildest of late complaints against what was an exceptional Indian meal from start to finish, enjoyed in atypically elegant surroundings, and only a few minutes’ walk from Cambridge station or, in the other direction, into the city centre if you’d like to keep your night going.
For us, though, it was straight onto the train home with fully sated bellies and tomorrow’s lunch sorted, knowing exactly where to return the next time we’re in town, hopefully when the world is closer to normality and Prana is again enjoying the level of custom it deserves.
Address: 97 Mill Road, Cambridge CB1 2AW.
Phone: 01223 229988