Atithi – a promising new curry house for Mill Rd

Have you ever read a review so bad you just had to visit the restaurant?

Chettinad Chicken Curry

After seeing this trickle of journalistic bin juice I felt that good or bad (it’s good) Atithi deserves better than a glib summary of their menu by someone who reads like they haven’t walked down Mill Road in a decade.

Happily, the food had significantly more depth than the puff piece.

Atithi offers thoughtful updates to curry house classics, with modern presentation and some interesting tasting and sharing menu options.

I visited with a friend, and between us we tried the tandoori broccoli, pappdi chaat, Chettinad chicken curry, railway canteen curry, baigan bartha, and some naan and rice. Like much of the menu these were a blend of spritzed-up curry house classics and modern favourites.

Tandoori broccoli

Our core curries were tasty but perhaps unremarkable. The lamb Railway Canteen Curry was a creamy mid-heat affair with a beautiful bright colour, plenty of cumin, and a big finish of curry leaves. The Chettinad chicken was a good solid one of those, well made, and lightened with plenty of cardamom. I’m skipping over these not because they were bad (they very much were not), but because the real stars were the starters and sides.

The tandoori broccoli did what it said on the tin – a big spiced hit of umami and smoke. It’s rich and savoury and pairs well with the cream cheese dressing. The pappdi chaat though, that was excellent.

Pappdi chaat

At least as good as the chaat at Bundobust, and powerfully substantial, if you’ve not tried pappdi chaat before I’d suggest doing it here. Originally street food (I think) it’s a layered heap of fried pastry shards with chickpeas, yoghurt, spices, and chutney. Think loaded nachos, but with dignity. It’s great, and I will shovel the stuff into my face on an industrial scale.

Atithi’s chaat has plenty of crunch, and a slowly building heat. There’s some curry leaf and fenugreek through it, and the chickpeas are mixed with adzuki beans, giving a little earthy depth. The tamarind sauce is exactly as zingy as it needs to be, and then through it all were these little juicy burts from a handful of pomegranate seeds. It’s that kind of little touch I enjoyed about Atithi – most dishes had some considered little gesture to them that brought them above the ordinary.

Baigan bartha

The baigan bartha for instance (a dish I love and make myself) had this round sour edge, I think from amchoor. Not something it would have occurred to me to add, but alongside a big hit of smokiness and plenty of garlic, it made this the best baigan bartha I’ve eaten.

You should definitely order it when you go, and you should definitely go.

Sadly, we didn’t get to the kale aloo (peak Cambridge?) or the dal makhani – another personal favourite. But everything I had was considered and interesting.

Atithi isn’t trying to break the curry house mould. It’s not, say, doing Gymkhana’s tongue-in-cheek retro, it isn’t yet another place trying to be Dishoom, and yes, I’d trade it and probably four other Mill Road restaurants in a heartbeat for a Cambridge branch of Bundobust. But what it is doing is serving up really, really good curry house curry, and then finessing it slightly into something more exciting.

Railway canteen curry

Non-cliche curry houses have had a ropey old time on Mill Road over the last few years. The Calcutta Club bit off more square footage than it could fill, and Prana opened interesting, closed for a refurb, and emerged as, well, I don’t know what you’d call a deeply conventional and occasionally bland butterfly that insists on ironing its napkins in front of its diners? Hmm. I’ve lost my metaphor even more than they’ve lost their differentiating flourishes.

It’s fine now – just a bit pricey.

So unless I’ve miscounted, your only other sit-in curry on Mill Road is The Curry Queen.

The. Curry. Queen.

Consider that next time someone calls Mill Road “Cambridge’s answer to Brick Lane”. You can get an overpriced-but-pleasant meal at Prana, have a nice time at Atithi as of January, grab a takeaway, or subject yourself to some of the very worst food in town.

Thinking about it, that whole article makes more sense if the author just really, really hates Brick Lane.

Look, breathless uncritical boosterism is kind of the Cambridge food scene’s thing. The town was starved of edible non-chain cuisine for years, then we got some food vans, and now it’s doing so very much better. If the price for that is a massive frothing circle-jerk every time someone opens anything less corporate than a Nando’s, well, I’m a big boy and I’ll deal. It’s just frustrating: signal to noise and all that. Sure, we’d all like Cambridge’s food scene to flourish, but wetting ourselves ‘because local’ makes for bland, unhelpful reviews.

Atithi – happily – with its small approachable menu, well-balanced wine list, and thoughtful approach is a welcome addition, and I really hope it does well.

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