When I walked past the Unicorn on Upholland Road just over a year ago and saw it was becoming a curry house I was more than a little excited.
I have no memories of the pub in its heyday, but I knew it when there was little more than an uneven pool table, a wall dented by off-target darts and Foster’s or nothing on the bar.
Then we had a pizza restaurant which was okay, and a carvery which wasn’t.
But the Unicorn is a beautiful building and it deserved a break. And Billinge deserved a curry house. A good one.
With The Holts Arms and Hare and Hounds, both wonderful for different reasons, only a walk away, there was really no need for the Unicorn to rise like a phoenix as another pub, but we’ve got something better in Billinge now – something to complement those pubs.
I have to confess to being a regular since Babar Elephant’s opening night in March 2016.
My colleague Phil Wilkinson recently wrote people are territorial when it comes to curry houses and this might well be true.
But I will state early on in all honesty I think we have the best here in Billinge. And I’ve lived within walking distance of three other well-loved Wigan curry houses. It’s not really fair on other areas since we already have the best pubs and scenery but we’re lucky up here apart from a lack of phone signal.
So acknowledging I may be a touch biased, when The Boss’ dad last came to stay I decided to put Babar Elephant under the scrutiny of an outsider, and one from near Leicester, a regular contender in Britain’s ‘Curry Capital of the year.’
The usual opening act of papadums and a pint of Cobra provides cup final-esque anticipation for the main event (it always has to be Cobra doesn’t it? Though these guys also offer craft beer, in this case Sharp’s Wolf Rock Red).
Here is no different as the smells from the kitchen signal ‘Friday treat’ like nothing else, though I had a quibble this time as The Boss’ dad also enjoys lime pickle, and I usually get the pot to myself. A must-mention point on Babar Elephant is the service. Always friendly, efficient but not hurriedly quick, you get the ‘can’t do enough for you’ feeling without it being awkward.
On this particular evening I swayed away from my usual of chicken Saagwala, a herby medium dish which I go for on account of the fact it’s tasty and doesn’t get me a ticket to a night on the sofa, for a zesty Gourmet Assam Murghi, a chicken dish cooked with hot spices, cinnamon and orange zest. It was just about hot enough for me – a person who goes silly when eating curry without The Boss – and the zest was a different and nice touch.
Rice can get lost when curry is this nice but Pilau rice and a chunk of chicken goes well when wrapped in a tear-off of Peshwari naan, and I’m told the plain naan is also a perfect vessel for stray sauces. The discerning taste buds of The Boss’ dad went for the hotter South Indian Garlic, with green chillies and tomatoes, and I must have been in good books as I got a sample and was struck with a little food envy thanks to the tingling but fresh spicy sensation it left me with.
And over the table, The Boss stuck with her favourite, the Himalayan Ghost – chicken cooked in ginger, mint, peppercorn and whole red chillies, with an unusually sweet but lovely sauce.
As well as these wonderful chef’s recommendations, the usual suspects appear on the menu under ‘Timeless Classics’ – though you really should go off the beaten track when there’s so much good stuff on offer, and there is also a barbeque range I am desperate to try.
As plates are cleared and final strains of pints are finished, the staff provide a nice touch each time by handing a rose to The Boss, and if you’re so inclined, this is a good time to sample a whisky or a cocktail.
On a visit to Babar Elephant, you will leave having one of the best curries you’ll have had. If you’re loyal to your local, a top two at least. The Boss’ dad? He’s already arranged a second visit.
And in Billinge, we hope the Unicorn’s new business is here to stay.
The Bill Beer – £4.50 a pint
South Indian Garlic –£8.90
Pilau rice – £1.90
Peshwari naan – £3.20
Chicken Madras – £7.20
Glass of red wine (175 ml) – £4.25
Negroni cocktail – £6.90