Our Food and Drink editor discovers an understated and overlooked purveyor of the best in Persian cuisine on Rusholme's curry mile
Anyone who has spent enough time in Rusholme knows that The Curry Mile is something of a misnomer. You're more likely to find a chicken burger meal deal, bargain shawarma or pimped-up milkshake these days than you are a good curry.
And among all the drag's myriad offerings, it's the Middle Eastern restaurants that really shine. Steaming Kabuli pulao, studded with raisins, the glossy grains of rice hiding tender chunks of bone-on lamb. Plump Kobeda kebabs, oozing rendered fat coloured yellow from turmeric. Flashes of colour from mixed mezze, piled high with fattoush and tomato-y potato salad. But the likes of Afghan Cuisine and Al Jazeera, while excellent, have limited menus.
Specialising in Persian and Afghan cuisine, Ariana offers a little bit more. By which I mean they have a dedicated starters section and three vegetarian mains (don't fret, there's hummus and baba ghanoush, albeit under different names). All this in an environment that positively screams traditional and family-run; homely, dated decor that fits snugly in between the formica drudgery of Chicken Cottage and the moodily-lit modernity of Mughli.
Anyway, never mind the pros and cons of interior design; you only really care about the food, right? Anticipating a rich meal to come we order a portion of house pickles. It's a diversion tactic, too, that gives us a few minutes to get our head around a menu full of items we vaguely recognise and can barely pronounce. We stall further, ordering a couple of cans of Rubicon. One thing to be aware of: you can't order or bring booze here. But that shouldn't really be too much of an ordeal if you're a Rusholme regular.
The pickles arrive – cauliflower, carrot and cucumber – in a pickling liquor heavy on herbal caraway. They're the salt-fermented kind whose kick comes more from lactic acid than vinegar. The kind you can pick at throughout a meal. Our other starter, a flatbread topped with radish, walnuts, parsley, mint and feta, speaks of a kitchen that cares about what it sends out. Not a limp leaf or a broken kernel in sight; all freshly washed, glistening on a blistered naan. No artifice, no radical preparation methods, just well-selected ingredients. My kind of place.
It all bodes well for mains: Gourmeh Bamieh, a stew of lamb and okra, and Shirin Palaw, one of four speciality rice dishes, this particular version with carrots and candied orange peel – though the barberry or morello cherry versions sounded equally appetising. The rice is almost impossibly tender, fragrant with saffron, practically eclipsing the grilled chicken it sits next to. The stew has all the richness of a lamb curry you'd find elsewhere on the Mile, only without the aromatic spices, depending rather on the deep savouriness of tomato-based sauce and the earthy, vegetal tang of okra for its flavour. Hearty stuff, which leaves us struggling for breath.
When the bill comes, I'm reminded of how much I miss living in Rusholme. What amounts to four dishes, plus drinks, with enough leftovers to cobble together another meal, for just shy of £25. Or enough change from £30 for a tip and a dessert stop-off at Moonlight. They're giving Chortlon's Jasmine a run for their money; if someone asked me which one to save in some weird restaurant version of Sophie's Choice, I wouldn't know what to do.
Ariana's Facebook is a digital treasure trove of Middle Eastern recipes and meal-prep photos. If you think you can recreate them and improve on Ariana, be my guest. Literally.
If you liked Ariana, try:
Afghan Cuisine, Manchester