Sue's has long been a fixture of Vilnius, if you can call something a fixture that has had several different locations and vanished altogether at times. Better to say that it has long been the only Indian restaurant. When we arrived in 1998, there was another one, almost on our doorstep, but it soon closed, much to our disappointment.
In its earliest location in Jogailos, Sue's had premises in a semi-basement, no special decor that I remember, (not even red flock wallpaper) and a largish menu. The basement was then expanded with a corner to provide Thai food. The Indian food was not bad, but considered too spicy and too expensive by the Lithuanians, so it was not popular except with expats. I remember it chiefly for my ritual meetings on Wednesdays with my friend Charlie. He worked like me advising government organisations, but he was based in Latvia. On Wednesdays he came to Vilnius for another bit of advising.
So we would meet on Wednesdays in Sue's for our regular consolation about our thankless tasks, or so it seemed in those days. (Now we can see that people were listening when it suited them, and some things have been done, though everything takes longer than you think.) We became regulars and got good service from Raj, the owner. Then Charlie didn't come to Vilnius any more and our meetings tended to be less frequent and involve a fish supper in Zagreb, though if we have good news soon, we hope to be working together in Sarajevo.
A quirk of the menus at Sue's were the dishes which were named after recognisable characters in the expat community. Some of these have been retained in the current menu. I was unpleasantly surprised to see that the MAJOR RANDY’S CHICKEN “TIKKA” is still there. I have my own reasons to dislike the gentleman (he evicted me from the house I was renting, because I complained that for the rent, I expected a working TV, in a row of houses owned by his company). However, he also led the notorious US Williams company who, in a dubious deal, bought the majority share of Mazeikiu Nafta, the Lithuanian oil refinery. This was much to the chagrin of Lukoil, who thought they were a shoe-in. This deal did nothing much for MN (except for a happy anniversary, which I shall relate in another post) as there was little investment, so it was a relief when they pulled out of Europe (Enron was an ill wind) and sold to Yukos. In those days that was considered a good deal, as Yukos had its own supply of oil and the likes of Lukoil could not turn off the crude tap as they had been wont to do in the past. Recent Russian gas and oil tactics were used 10 years ago in Lithuania. The story eventually has a happy ending as PK Orlen, the Polish oil company has now bought the refinery.
But back to the restaurant. Lo and behold this gentleman appears again:
RANDY’S CHICKEN “RESHMI KABAB”
peaces (sic) of chicken fillet marinated in indian herbs and cooked in tandoor. named after the great randy of williams.
Now I would not think it tactful to keep on reminding Lithuanians about Williams, even if he was a good customer. Are there no current customers who will recommend the place these days?
I was with two Lithuanian friends who like Sue's but don't like hot curries. One of them is a veggie. You would have thought that there would be plenty of choice in an Indian restaurant but there isn't in Sue's. In the end she had fish curry, which she enjoyed. I'm not used to Indian restaurants that serve just "curry". Surely it has to have a proper recipe: vindaloo, korma, do piaza? It makes me suspicious. I suspect it is related to the offerings for British and Norwegian stag nights mentioned specially on the menu, which made me uneasy as to whom I should meet later in the evening.
Our other friend had chicken korma which was fine for him. I had Balti chicken, especially as I got offered Balti from Birmingham, the home in Britain of authentic balti recipes (one hopes). I quote from the restaurant's website, and menu.
„balti“ is indian dishes representative of a style of cooking which some say is native to baltistan, it‘s a kind of curry. it‘s ingredients usually assembled and cooked quickly in a manner reminiscent of a stir-fried dish. the heart of this style of cooking is a cast-iron pot, originally also called „balti“. „balti“ evolved into half-hemispherical pot likely to be made of steel or iron, and usually called „karahi“ and „balti“. „balti“ is usually both cooked in the „balti“ and „karahi“, and served at the table in it.
This is not so different from the "genuine" article, described here in the Birmingham balti guide. "Balti" as a British food concept (perhaps one should even say as a marketing concept) grew up in the late 70s and early 80s in the Indian "quarter" of Birmingham, around Stoney Lane and Ladypool Road, or the Balti Triangle as it became known. We were told it was a spicy Kashmiri dish, fit for fierce mountain people on the border between Pakistan and India.
At that time, it was possible to eat takeaway as a student for less than £1 and if you sat down for a meal, to expect to pay less than £5. The three or four restaurants were popular with students and lefties like myself. Before the birth of my second child, I made sure I got sufficient iron by eating Balti chicken sag, figuring that either the spinach or the iron pot would supply it.
Gradually balti became "gentrified", popular with the bourgeoisie and even tourists and prices rose. Now there are hundreds of Balti restaurants all over Birmingham which has its own Balti Guide. My last visit (December 2005) showed that prices are still low and the food is still copious and authentically Birmingham Balti. So you can imagine I was excited when I saw on the menu:
BIRMINGHAM‘S „BALTI“ CHICKEN
fresh cubes of chicken served in „balti“ bowl, which gives an exotic indian taste. very popular in Birmingham
Balti is typically served in a wok with the chosen meat and vegetable in a thick sauce, which is eaten with naan, scooping the food up in the naan, rather than eating with a knife and fork.
Alas, it was a fraud. I was served tandoori chicken pieces (the tandoori instantly recognisable at the edges of the cubes) in some sort dry sauce, and it came in a copper "jug" like everyone else's meal. Failure on all counts. We questioned the waitress in case it was a mistake. We asked her to pass our complaint to the chef. He did not deign to meet us but sent his explanation that this was "European Balti", as if this was somehow better. Clearly he has never been to Birmingham, despite the fact that lots of Lithuanians have, and presumably will not now be deceived by expensive substitutes instead of this:
Or this, which comes from a cooking blog, with instructions for cooking balti chicken with tomatoes:
The naans too were a disappointment. You can see the real thing lurking in the back of the first photo. We ordered two and some thin flat objects appeared which were more like thin flat lavash. I have nothing against lavash. In a Georgian or Armenian restaurant they are excellent. Alas,the Georgian restaurant in Vilnius, where we enjoyed massive portions of fantastic food, including lavash, is no more. But they were not Balti-style naan from Birmingham, where some restaurants offer naan the size of your table. They were not even the size of the plate. And there was none of the golden, yeasty look you see here:
In fact they might have passed as small chapattis. But they were too brittle to function as scoops for food, and they were gone in a twinkling of an eye. We looked at each other wondering where they had vanished. You definitely know when you have eaten two whole naans. They were also not garlic naan as we ordered. I was glad I had not ordered Peshawar naan. On the menu this was described as "introduced by Christopher" (a former British Ambassador) and I would have been forced to send him an email saying his name was being used in vain.
As for the prices, with Lithuanian wages in the bottom five countries of the EU is there any excuse for prices like Sue's when you can get still get the real thing for less in Adils, Stoney Lane, Birmingham, price list here? Compare Sue's Balti chicken 22 Lt with Adil's Balti chicken £4.95, (£3.80 for some vegetarian baltis). I agree that Adil's has a view of an Indian sweet shop (also incredible food at bargain prices) in a rather squalid area, rather than the Cathedral in Vilnius. The decor in Sue's, (with elephants and silver framed chair and tables, plus Lithuanian waitresses in saris) is infinitely superior to the battered tables and chairs of typical Balti restaurants (I remember the only attempt at decor was to add pictures of strange wrestlers). The waiters (no waitresses) were in typical Birmingham Indian national dress, jeans and sweaters. It was wise never to visit the toilets. All part of Birmingham's charm for visitors!
Isn't it time a real Balti restaurant moved to Vilnius for all those "visitors" coming back home? British Chamber of Commerce please note a business opportunity for Lithuanians moving back home.
Lest anyone thinks I am totally biassed against Sue's these days, the salt lassi (a new addition as far as I recall) was excellent.