Back in the day, Café Naz on Castle Hill represented Cambridge's first encounter with Curry 2.0 - i.e. the understandably popular trend of serving the pan-Indian-subcontinental menu familiar to Britons everywhere in a jazzy, modernized dining room. And for years, it was the only place in town one would trust to offer quality dishes on a really grand scale to everyone from first-daters to conference delegates to the kid's birthday
The biryanis, now filed under 'Bukhara cuisine', were a strength of the former menu and continue to shine here.
The big room and solid acoustics helped, as did the accessible menus and memorably charming service. But the kitchen was also special, sending out curries that were reliably a few notches fresher, larger and more assertive than the average. Eating there was a treat. In some ways, it still is.
Having been shuttered for refurbishment through the better part of 2009, the restaurant re-opened in September, announcing its return with generous discount offers on set menus, take-out orders, student meals, and (confusingly) 'dining in'. Returning visitors will strain to detect much change. The décor is just the same, though its original design innovations -reflecting pool, tiled floor, heavy-yey-unmoveable chairs - now seem somewhat muted.
The menu has changed, but not significantly: anyone who has navigated a primarily Northern Indian menu will find much that is familiar. Among the only noticeable additions are two dosas, the increasingly visible Southern Indian staple- one with meat, one without. The menu has also been re-organized, somewhat haphazardly, so that some items are categorized by protein (chicken, seafood &c.), others by region of origin. Prices shade towards the higher end of the curry-house spectrum but are unlikely to raise eyebrows. The wine markups, on the other hand, make beer the far more attractive option for this kind of food.
The food itself is solid, though some flaws emerged. Bhel puri, a puffed-rice snack in an arrestingly weird sour sauce, arrived somewhat soggy, though a round of poppadums were crisp and delicious (and festively oversized). The biryanis, now filed under 'Bukhara cuisine', were a strength of the former menu and continue to shine here.
A lamb biryani was robustly spiced with cinnamon and cumin, the juices from the meat making the rice super-moist and each forkful unearthed something interesting. And the Chingri Palak (abundant small prawns in a rich robe of spinach and pungent chopped garlic) was impossible to stop eating.
But an order of Karahi Lamb looked drab, the lamb slightly chewy and tough. An order of tandoori-baked Butter Chicken tasted greasy on the tongue and had no discernable chicken flavour. And the rice and plain naan were unremarkable - the naan dull and cloyingly puffy, the rice dry. This reviewer would appreciate more consistency from the kitchen.
Service was reserved and efficient on the whole. The few small errors (our main dishes were cleared too quickly; our bill took far too long to arrive) will likely be corrected with time and training.
Café Naz remains a good option for banquets and gatherings of all sorts- it's got the space, the experience, and the all-pleasing menu. And diners who can live with heartiness over delicacy, and comfort over novelty, will be perfectly happy.