What the team at Tribe have managed to create in the space of three months is unique in absolutely every sense. Amongst the countless Indian restaurants that dominate Oxford and Cowley in particular, they have managed to differentiate themselves in every way. The unique Keralan spin and fine dining touch on every dish combines with reasonable pricing and carefully crafted flavours to create an atmosphere worth returning to time and time again.
When speaking to owner Rohit Shet, the first thing that he is keen to stress is that this is not your standard curry house and that much is noticeable from the moment you walk through the door. The walls of the restaurant were hand-painted by Rohit himself in the traditional style of the Warli tribe, from which the restaurant also takes its name. Straight after being seated every guest is greeted with a refreshing apple juice and rose water drink and a glass of ice water, an Indian tradition of hospitality that Shet wanted to bring across to the English market.
The menu is a carefully crafted affair. It is wide-ranging enough to offer significant choice but concise since absolutely every dish is prepared fresh to order. This is the thinking behind the pre-starter too, intended to bridge the gap between ordering and the time it takes to prepare the food. The potato dumpling we had resembled a croquette and was delicately spiced to contrast perfectly its mint raita accompaniment.
To start we were able to try the fan-favourite chicken lollypop and the Kali Jingalala. The latter consisted of king prawns stir-fried with black pepper and deep aromas of cumin that paired perfectly with spring onions. It also wasn’t hard to see why the lollipop is so popular. Served with a mild chilli sauce and coated in a uniquely blended red dusting of flour it was an interesting take on fried chicken that will certainly appeal to the English consumer.
Before being presented with our mains came another surprise treat – a mini palette cleanser of a light lentil soup. Flavoured with coriander, mustard seeds, and cumin it was a welcome reset for the tastebuds.
The main courses certainly didn’t disappoint. The fish curry was the star here – a south Indian speciality, the cod arrives in a simple coconut milk sauce that is punctuated by the flavour of white tamarind, a truly unique spice that is almost impossible to find in the UK and is brought over especially by chef Gils from his home in Kerala. The coriander on top only adds to the subtlety of flavour and it is almost impossible to not go back for more. Alongside it, we sampled a Chettinad with green beans and broccoli. The mix of roasted spices here was much simpler and more standard but provided a very approachable option for anyone looking for a more traditional south Indian curry, or for a vegetarian or vegan option (although Rohit does stress that any of the dishes can be adapted to fit different dietary requirements). The Paneer Makhani jumps out as another adventurous choice, served with a lovely mix of stir-fried vegetables – the only drawback of ours was that it was potentially slightly overpowered by the sauce it came with.
To accompany the main courses, Tribe maintains its Keralan tradition by not serving naan breads or samosas. Instead, they opt to offer simple steamed rice and a much lighter traditional south Indian bread dish, Parotta. The flour is a special blend and the resulting bread is a very light, layered, and crispy flatbread that has just enough flavour to be tasty in its own right but also pair perfectly with any of the curries without dominating. The Saag Aloo fits into this mould too. Different from what you might find in most Indian takeaways, Tribe’s version is dominated by the spinach, with just enough potatoes to round the dish and create the perfect combination.
Desert is another lesson in light and flavourful Indian cuisine. Preceded by a homemade raspberry sorbet pre-dessert (delightfully topped with popping candy for another surprising twist), the Kheer is a North Indian style vermicelli rice pudding. Made by the owner, it consists of just three ingredients, milk, sugar, and rice before dry dates and saffron are added for texture and flavour.
There is no doubt then that Tribe is a more than welcome addition to Cowley Road, as a unique reinvention of Indian cuisine that looks to add class to a tried and tested formula. This is not fine dining though, main courses all come in at around £10 and the starters at £6 or under. As I leave Shet puts the emphasis on this: he wants to democratise the dining experience and make it accessible to all. He concedes that students won’t be popping in for lunch every day but hopes that the price, delicious food, and outstanding service will see customers return time and again for their weekly treat.
Image credit: Oliver Hall.