A guide to Newcastle's and Gateshead's Indian restaurants and the areas to find the best Indian restaurants in the city
by fizzytom on April 6, 2013
I love old buildings and except for a few really brilliant modern landmarks designs have no interest in the newly built. I can appreciate, however, why many old buildings sit empty while soulless new developments spring up in and around our cities. The most important old buildings are often protected which means that the space can't be altered to make it more appropriate for the needs of today's businesses and refurbishment rules often means that new windows and the like are prohibitively expensive. Newcastle's Rani Indian Restaurant strikes me as a business that's housed in such a building. Just off the city's famous quayside and situated directly under the Tyne Bridge, this handsome late nineteenth century building is certainly visually impressive but I can't help thinking that the problems that come with such a property may be responsible for a frequent turnover of businesses that have occupied it. In the last ten years or so this property has been home to a Thai restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Japanese restaurant and now Rani. As handsome as the tall windows are, they no doubt cancel out the benefits of the heating. While we were in the restaurant I couldn't feel comfortable because it was just too chilly. Doors have been removed between the rooms to open the place up and make it feel more spacious but every time the front door opened there was another blast of arctic chill. Access is via a handful of steps on the corner of the building and there doesn't appear to be any wheelchair access. Even if there was, the tables are crammed in and there wouldn't be much room to manoeuvre. We remembered just in time that we had a voucher to use at Rani and phoned to book; perhaps it was because we were making a booking for a Tuesday evening but Himself came off the'phone feeling that whoever he had spoken to was not really interested in the request. No name or number was requested and when the voucher offer was mentioned the response was a weary 'Yes, yes'. Fortunately there was a table for us when we arrived twenty minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to eat early and get back home to watch the football; naturally it wasn't a table with our name on it. There's a comfortable seating area just inside the doors but on this particularly cold evening I was more than happy to be shown straight to a table away from the entrance. The offer we'd purchased entitled us to two starters, two mains and rice to share; as I didn't personally buy this voucher I don't know how much was paid for it but I have given the menu price of the items we ate as these time limited offers change frequently. A £1 surcharge for lamb or chicken tikka, king prawns and other seafood applied not only to our offer but to mains from the menu too. There was a decent selection of starters but nothing really unusual except maybe mussels which appear only occasionally as a starter in Indian restaurants in this neck of the woods. The starters were just a little pricier than average for Newcastle restaurants of this standard with my choice Sheek Kebab Roll priced at £3.50 and my companion's Desi Tikka at £5.90. From the description of my starter choice I knew just what to expect: minced lamb that had been formed into a sausage shape and cooked on the skewer before being wrapped inside a rolled chapatti. The meat was super spicy but a little on the dry side and need copious amounts of mint sauce to make it more palatable. The 'Desi Tikka' on the other hand came with no description but my curry obsessed dining companion knew what to expect; however, I feel that this erratic approach to describing the dishes is worth pointing out. While some dishes were described in fine detail, others were described in such a way as to mean nothing to the average diner, or else to be such a minor variation as to be almost pointless: examples of this would be "Chana: bhuna dish cooked Apna style" and "Roshun: bhuna style plenty of garlic". Anyway, Himself really enjoyed the desi tikka which was as hot as promised and got him prepared for his next course. The chicken was thoroughly cooked but moist and flavoursome and it was notable in that those good flavours were not lost in the chilli heat of the sauce. My main course was 'podina jhall' (£7.90) which was offered as a lamb or a chicken dish: I chose lamb. This was described as a hot dish in which the meat was marinated in chilli, mint and garlic and then cooked in home ground spices. It was initially the fresh mint that came through as the dominant flavour but the chilli soon took over and I felt that this was a dish that could have been more enjoyable with just a little less chilli because the other flavours were strong enough without it. As a result I picked out the pieces of lamb which were tender and not at all fatty and made a point of eating them before trying again with the sauce, mixing it with the pillau rice to try to make it not such an ordeal. Himself chose the 'lanka masalla' (£7.90) which he had with lamb. This one was described as a hot dish with fried onions, chilli, garlic and fresh coriander. It was less hot than the podina jhall but still pretty lively. Fortunately Himself has a better heat tolerance than I do and he made light work of this dish before helping with mine. As with the podina jhall the meat fell apart easily but was still juicy. While this was a tasty dish Himself commented that there was nothing about it that was really distinctive and I wonder if that might be the case with several of the vaguely defined dishes on the menu. At £1.50 each the chapattis seemed overpriced and were a little cold and therefore dry when they arrived but the pilau rice was fine and served two people easily. Overall we found the food to be good but not great. In terms of value it's mostly fair: the most expensive dishes on the menu are the seafood dishes from the Rani specials section, the most expensive of which come in at £12.90. Dishes such as bhunas and vindaloos from the Classic Curries section are priced at £6.90 or £7.90. All vegetable side dishes cost £3.90 but can be served as a main course for £5.90. Rani offers an 'early bird special' (available between 5.30 - 8.00pm) for £12.95; this comprises a starter from a small selection, a choice from a fairly extensive list of main courses (chicken or lamb only however, or any vegetable dish), rice or nan bread and finally ice cream or coffee. I wouldn't rush back to Rani (certainly not during cold weather); the food wasn't bad but it wasn't exciting or noteworthy. The service was rather detached and unfriendly with no attempt to engage with any customers that I noticed. Given the choice I'd splash out on a trip to Rasa, a southern Indian restaurant just round the corner but if you can't stretch to that Rani is just OK.
by fizzytom on March 17, 2013
Although it is often cited as one of Newcastle's best Indian restaurants, Sachins does 'enjoy' a less than salubrious location which means that many people are often totally unaware of its existence. Situated behind the Central Station, the area is semi-industrial though it is slowly being developed and when the new hotels actually open, the restaurant will no doubt reap some of the benefits of the gentrification. Not that Sachins is in dire need of customers; while many restaurants are struggling to fill their tables, Sachins doesn't seem to have suffered as much as many. This was our second visit to Sachins; having had a very positive experience a couple of years back I had secretly made reservations to celebrate my partner's birthday and when he realised where we were heading he was pleased. I should stress that the comments I've made about the location apply only to the appearance of some of the disused, semi-derelict buildings; there is on site parking which is perfectly safe and there is no risk to diners arriving on foot. The downside to the location is that other than The Telegraph which attracts an rather 'alternative' crowd, there aren't any pubs nearby where you might have a drink before or after your meal; this means that customers tend to make a night of it at Sachins and it's practically impossible to get a table without a reservation as there's not really a turnover of tables as the evening goes on.When we first visited we were invited to sit and have a drink while we looked at the menu, before we were taken to our table. On the most recent occasion we were taken straight to our table on the upper floor, as far as you could possibly go, even though there were plenty of free tables on the lower floor and not so far along the restaurant. The table where we were seated had two conventional dining chairs and upholstered 'built in' seating on the side along the wall. It seemed odd to take the dining chairs so we took the 'comfortable' side which in restrospect turned out not to be so comfortable for a lady with not so long legs. The other issue was that the bulb had gone in the light over our table and it was a struggle to read the menu. As it was a special occasion I decided to push the boat out and start with a cocktail which ended up being the drink that accompanied my meal (along with some water) partly because it was a rather large cocktail and partly because the waiting staff proved rather reluctant to be aware of the needs of diners. Himself drank Cobra with his meal. My Lychee Fizz was refreshing and at around £5 it was a fair price. My lamb tikka (£5.95) starter certainly sizzled when it was brought to the table and I couldn't decide whether it was black because the lamb had been over cooked in the tandoor and forgotten about, or because it had been sitting on the hot plate for too long instead of being brought straight to the table. There was a whiff of charcoal and blackened onions. The problem was that it was by now so dark in our little corner that I couldn't tell if my instincts - that the dish was horribly burnt - were right. I dug out the camera and took a snap, the flash would illuminate the plate and tell me if my suspicions were correct: they were. Of course, true to form it took some time to attract the attention of a waiter who, when told that the food was burned simply apologised. I asked him to fetch the manager who offered to fetch a new one but by this time Himself was almost finished his starter so I declined, expecting not to be charged for the abandoned dish. Himself had the paneer pakora (£4.95) which was a really good choice. The gram flour batter was pleasantly spiced and the crusty coating of the creamy cheese was very good. While we had the attention of the manager I asked for the light bulb to be replaced but was told that this wasn't possible; the light was broken. I asked to be moved to another table but was told that wasn't possible either. I stood my ground and insisted on being moved: wouldn't you know it - they found another table. Still partly in the dark because of Sachins fondness for dim lighting even when it does work, but slightly better than our previous position (not least because we were no longer sitting beside what was a draughty window) we settled down to wait for our main courses.Sachins is billed as specilaising in food from the Punjab but the menu includes a section called the 'Spice Trail' which includes dishes from other regions of India. Spice Trail dishes range in price from a modest £8.95 to £13.95. The main menu includes an extensive selection of vegetarian main courses (in addition to plenty of meat free starters) all priced at £7.50. My Goan king prawn dish (£13.95) was a tasty enough dish with plenty of juicy prawns and lots of well flavoured sauce that was made more vibrant with a good squeeze of lime juice but it didn't really thrill me. Hot plates aren't used at Sachins and I'm not the world's fastest eater so the use of a simple ceramic bowl to bring the curry to the table was less than practical. I opted for a 'saffron pullao' (£3.50) to go with my main; this was rather good, there was only a hint of safron but the rice was nicely spiced with mustard seeds and curry leaves though I would suggest that the tempered spices were added at the end rather than the rice having been fried. Himself enjoyed his 'lal goshat' (£9.95) a hot lamb dish in which the meat had been slow cooked having been first marinated in yoghurt and hot red chillies. The marinating and slow cooking had taken some of the fire out of the chillies without losing any of the distinctive flavour and the meat fell apart beautifully. Himself enjoyed this dish very much. He ordered roti with his main course though, as we did with the rice, we shared them. The roti (£1.80 each) were excellent and made a good change from the ubiquitous nan breads which tend to be on the stodgy side when made in the north east, I feel. We skipped dessert preferring to head home and have coffee in the comfort of our own home. Truthfully we didn't feel inclined to linger and while some of the food was very good, we were disappointed by the experience. Having been to Sachins previously and had such a good experience I feel I can't be too harsh about this visit. Sachins is one of the most popular and well regarded restaurants in Newcastle and I rarely hear any criticisms.The three stars I have awarded could have been four if the service had been better; if I had reviewed based on my first experience then four would certainly be a better reflection. On its day Sachins is a great restaurant; this evening it let itself down.
by fizzytom on February 15, 2013
The Raval stands at the Gateshead end of the famous Tyne Bridge; there is parking nearby and it's a ten minute walk to Gateshead Metro Station and Bus Station. You can walk to the Raval in about fifteen minutes from the centre of Newcastle. The exterior is very simple but it looks smart and that impression is confirmed when you walk in. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful aroma of lilies and there, at either end of the bar, were two magnificent arrangements of lilies. Even when we'd been seated in the dining area, their lovely fragrance permeated through the restaurant. We were first invited to take a seat in the lounge area. This looks comfortable and smart but when we took seats around a small table, we realised that the table was a totally impractical height for the chairs, being too high. Another group of diners had been seated at a larger table which looked like a dining table and were sitting on high backed chairs. When the waiter came to move them to the dining area, they were clearly confused as they were under the impression they were already seated at their table. As we waited to order I had an Orange Cosmopolitan which took some time to come but was worth the wait, while Himself splashed out on a large bottle of Cobra which was eye wateringly priced. The Early Bird menu was a single sheet which explained, in a rather convoluted way, what the meal comprises. There are five choices - fish (sea bass), king prawn, lamb, chicken or vegetable (though actually it's main feature is 'cottage cheese' which I assumed to mean paneer) - each cooked slightly differently. You choose one of them and this is served with the standard accompaniments of rice, the vegetable side dish of the day, a lentil dish and naan bread. They are described as "platters" which makes them sound rather grand but when they are presented, they look more like tapas. They are all priced at £15.95 each. I chose the King Prawn platter while Himself picked the lamb. The dhal, vegetable dish and the prawn dish were served in little dishes lined up on one side of the plate. An up-turned cup was removed to reveal a little hillock of rice though Himself was at the loo when the plates arrived and I didn't know where he'd put the camera so by the time he got back my rice sculpture was starting to collapse. Also on the plate was what looked like a battered deep fried onion ring; when I cut into it the texture was not unlike tofu; the waiter did explain what it was but I promptly forgot, not tofu anyway. My king prawn dish contained only one massive butterflied prawn; it was enormous but I'd rather have had a couple of smaller ones. However, the flesh was very tender, cooked to perfection in fact. The vibrant red sauce was subtly spiced, more aromatic than hot; what was notable was that the individual spices weren't so obvious, this was a sauce that worked together as a whole with nothing standing out more than anything else. The vegetable side dish was 'aloo gobi' (potatoes and cauliflower), hardly an inspiring choice as I'd been expecting something a bit more exotic, perhaps okra or aubergine based. As it happens it was a very delicious example of aloo gobi with the textures of the two vegetables just right; the cauliflower was cooked through but still had a bit of bite, while the potato was very soft and absorbed the evenly spiced sauce. I'd happily eat lentils every day for the rest of my life so I had high hopes for the dhal and I was not disappointed. Although the choice of tarka dhal was hardly exciting the lentils were beautifully cooked and retaining just the right texture. My favourite thing about the dhal was the flavour of toasted cumin that was coming through most prominently. On the other side of the table the lamb was going down well but the verdict was that it could easily have been a bit hotter in terms of spiciness. The meat was in fair sized chunks and it was very tender; although my king prawn was good it was impossible to eat without removing it from the dish and cutting it on the plate but the lamb was more practical to manage and therefore retained its heat longer. The sauce, though, was quite flat with no real complexity of flavours and it was a slightly disappointing element of the meal. One thing I did like was that we weren't given the same naan breads, with mine being dotted with fresh coriander and the other being studded with cumin seeds. the breads were not like those served in a typical curryhouse where they are the size of a small country, but much thinner and slightly crispy so completely free of stodginess. Overall the main courses were good but not brilliant and definitely not as good as I hoped from a restaurant that bills itself as "luxury" and wastes no time in listing on its website, the names of the celebrities, local and otherwise that have dined at the restaurant (I was excited to see that my hero Cyrus Todiwala among them). I thought that the presentation was somewhat affected and not very practical to eat unless you tipped everything out onto the plate, which in turn seemed a bit uncouth in this environment. I had just enough space to squeeze in a dessert though it was at this point that the service became horribly slow and I was almost at the point of wishing I hadn't bothered. I'd have liked one of the Indian desserts but all of those contained nuts of some kind so in the end I chose pineapple with black pepper and vanilla ice cream. There was one slice of pineapple which was just warm from the syrup that had been poured over it; it was the syrup that had been infused with black pepper, not the pineapple as I had anticipated. The syrup was cloying sweet and while it was nice to start with it quickly became too sweet for me. The ice cream was nice enough but I think something a bit more interesting like a coconut ice cream would have been a better accompaniment for this dish. The Raval is a good restaurant and if I come into some money sometime soon I will probably splash out on another visit to explore the a la carte menu; however, I foudn the easrly bird menu rather unimaginative and not really a good showcase for the rest of what's on offer. The food is competently cooked and flavoured but just doesn't have the wow factor that they claim to have. The service was erratic; sometimes it was too slow and it was sometimes impossible to catch someone's eye, yet at other times I felt like the young waiters were loitering too close to the tables. Drinks had to be requested and there was no attempt on the part of the waiting to pre-empt this - I was surprised at this as I would have thought the staff would be encouraged to get customers to spend more. While we had taken advantage of a special offer our final bill for one main course, one cocktail, a large bottle of Cobra, an orange juice, a small bottle of water and one dessert came in at £42. This included a ten per cent service charge which had been calculated for the bill before the second main course had been removed from the bill (I can see why they do that). I can't rave about Raval but i'm willing to try again and i'm happy enough to recommend it as a special treat, perhaps if you're attending an event at the Sage and want to dine before the show. I can't help thinking, though, that just across the water there are better restaurants where you can get a great indian meal for less money.
by fizzytom on February 14, 2013
Dabbawal Street Food Kitchen serves 'Indian street food' which is brought to your table and served up so that fussy Brits can enjoy the conventional restaurant experience. While I can't really fault the food and find the surroundings perfectly fine, I do think that there's something missing from the whole experience. To me, street food should be just that: cooked, served and enjoyed on the street - or at least some open air place, even if there are tables to sit at while you eat. Dabbawal does have an events catering section and can often be found at local food events and other festivals and I've enjoyed some of their tasty chicken wraps on a couple of occasions, but most recently we visited the static restaurant on the eastern side of Newcastle's High Bridge. This little street links Grey Street and Pilgrim Street and you'll see brightly painted vintage bicycles promoting the restaurant at the turnings for High Bridge on both of the main streets. Dabbawal is simultaneously bright and cheerful, and cosy and atmospheric. The restaurant is divided into smaller areas of seating that makes it more intimate, as the premises are quite large. Closer inspection reveals that the paint work has been knocked about a bit and the surface of our table was quite badly scratched, little details that are at odds with the fairly slick image I think that the Dabbawal team is trying to portray. The toilets were cold and rather uninviting (I know, who needs the loos to be 'inviting'?) possibly because of the very bold, dark colours the walls were painted. The toilets I thought were in rather bad condition - not dirty as such, but there were lots of maintenance jobs that needed attention. We were the only customers when we arrived though it was well into the lunch period, however, it was snowing heavily that day and this may have kept office staff at their desks or dashing out to pick up a sandwich at best. Although the staff member who served us seemed to be new, she was very friendly and asked someone more senior whenever she didn't know the answer to something. We were asked if we wanted to order drinks while we looked at the menu and as it was something of a special occasion (we were about to have a notary witness our signatures on a document that would help us purchase our soon to be permanent home overseas) we both decided to have a cocktail. It was good that when the cocktails arrived they were excellent, because we waited so long for them that we had perused the menu and ordered our food and still had to wait fifteen minutes before they were presented to us: a Lemongrass Collins (lemongrass infused vodka, fresh lemon juice and ginger beer) for Himself and a Dabbawal Martini (raspberry vodka, fresh lime juice, raspberry puree and crème de framboise) for me, both priced at £6.50. I've never know a cocktail take so long to make (especially ones that came with no accoutrements), at least not in an empty restaurant, so it's just as well that they were good. Although Dabbawal promotes itself as serving Indian street food, the menu is actually quite vast and covers everything from tapas type dishes and simple roti wraps and salads, to 'curry plates' and biryani dishes. There are lunch, evening and pre-theatre menus with some items available on all of them. There are more curry plate options available on the evening menu; presumably they offer a smaller section at lunchtime as they can be prepared more quickly when people have less time to wait. The 'curry plates' section ranges in price from £6.95 (for meat free dishes) to £11.50 (for seafood) and it includes a few of the well known classics like jalfrezi and . The Dabbawal specials (evenings only) section includes such temptations as 'sea bass makalia' (£13.50), 'masala dosa' (an all time favourite of mine - spiced potatoes wrapped in a rice pancake, £9.95) and 'Railway lamb with saffron rice' (£12.95).Biryanis range from £7.50 to £12.50. The roti wraps come with a choice of filling and are priced from £4.95 to £5.50. We were visiting over a lunch time and had come with the intention of trying some of the street food dishes. These can be ordered tapas style at lunch time (or in the evening) but they are promoted as starters on the evening menu. The choice of dishes is really excellent: there are salads, meat dishes from the tandoor, and lots of vegetarian options. It's easy to go mad and order too much but the dishes are quite filling so I would strongly suggest pacing yourself and only order more if you are still hungry. Having recently enjoyed some excellent 'bel puri' at a street food festival I was keen to compare that with the version served up by Dabbawal (£3.25). Fortunately I spotted the peanuts in this mix of puffed rice and pomegranate seeds just before I tucked in. We had asked whether the dishes we'd ordered contained nuts so this was a major disappointment. The menu said that this came with a 'tangy tamarind sauce': alas there was not nearly enough of it for the amount of rice. Himself was forced to eat the bel puri on his own and said reported that it was 'OK' though it did not really need the peanuts anyway. I got along much better with the masala chips (£2.50), potato chips coated with a spiced batter before frying. These were really good; the spices were not hot but they were warm and rich and these chips had a very satisfying crunch. The kukuri lentil battered okra (£3.95) was also great; coated in well-seasoned lentil flour and deep fried, these would make a great beer snack. Three juicy butterflied king prawns (£4.95) had been marinated in citrus juices and chilli before being grilled. The flesh was succulent and worth the fiddling to get the things peeled. I was less keen on the presentation of this dish which I thought was bit naff with its squiggle of tamarind (I think) reduction but that was easily overlooked because the shellfish was so good. The 'vado pao' (£3.95) was described as an Indian burger. A patty of spicy deep fried potatoes was the filling for a soft bread bap, along with a fresh and tangy homemade relish. It was certainly the best veggie burger I've had in a long time. I really fancied a dessert but the only option that did not contain nuts was the ice cream. I was ready to refuse but a friendly waiter succeeded in changing my mind and I was delighted by the wonderfully sweet little ice cream rabbit that was put before me. I had chosen banana flavour and I had chosen well because it was fresh enough to be palate cleansing, but creamy enough to feel like I'd had a 'proper' pudding. We made do with our cocktails but would have rounded off with coffee or tea had we had the luxury of more time. Dabbawal has a decent wine list with the cheapest bottles priced at just £13.95 (I had expected higher), as well as a small choice of beers and ciders (Cobra is £4.95), freshly pressed juices, lassis, and soft drinks, including non-alcoholic cocktails. Finding out that Dabbawal serves as much in the way of conventional 'main courses' as it does snacks street food, I felt more inclined to have a positive view of the restaurant, though I do still have that niggling feeling that the place is a little too formal for 'street food' and that a 'canteen' environment might be a better means of presentation. Passing by in the evenings, the low lighting and boutique bar appearance might well have some people thinking that this is a cool drinking spot, rather than a place for eating. For a quiet lunchtime the length of time it took to be served even our drinks was worrying; one can only imagine how the staff cope at busy times. The food, though, was very good and is quite a departure from most other Indian restaurants in the city. I would be quite happy to come back and sample more of the street food dishes, as well as try the curry plates and, indeed, those delicious looking wraps. While obviously more expensive than your typical Newcastle 'curry house' the prices here are pretty typical of the bunch of contemporary ethnic restaurants that have sprung up recently. Dabbawal has a very sociable feel to it but seems more suited to an evening out with friends than a romantic dinner for two. The table arrangements mean that you're quite close to your neighbours and there are no cosy corners.
by fizzytom on January 8, 2013
One good thing to come out of the recession is the number and variety of new food related businesses. Consumers seem to be going back to old fashioned values, liking to treat themselves with the odd homemade mini luxury like a beautifully decorated cupcake or a posh pickle or chutney, rather than splashing out on a major purchase. ‘Local’ seems to be having a revival too with neighbourhood restaurants springing up in cheap to rent premises. The Chill Out Café in Newcastle’s Heaton district is one example of a new venture that is very ‘of the moment’. Originally called the ‘Indian Chill Out Café’, this is a small restaurant that serves a limited (but good) selection of Gujarati dishes but is also open as a café just for drinks: during our visit customers included a young couple who had come in for coffee, a council workman who had come in to collect a takeaway meal and other diners ranging from a rather trendy pair of twenty-somethings to an elderly couple (not us!). This is a homely place, that is smart without being stuffy, and relaxed without being too casual – a happy medium you might say. It occupies a corner site with huge picture windows which allow you to watch the world go by. Heaton is an area where lots of students and young renters live and the streets are bustling at all hours. The tables and chairs are a nice mix’n’match affair which contributes to the cosy ambience. A bold statement wallpaper of a brown background with black and white flowers covers the main wall and there are loads of colourful framed photographs of people and landscapes from India. It’s quirky and modern and works really well. Finally there are plants, loads of them: lovely, well tended cheese plants, and the like, that add to the idea of homeliness. Gujarat is a province in the western part of India and its cuisine is largely (but not exclusively) meat free. The menu at the Chill Out Cafe is a single sheet and while the choices are limited, they do include a couple of meat curries, fish options and vegetarian dishes so, provided you’re not a really fussy eater, you’ll find something to choose. You’ll also be asked when you order how hot you want your dish and the chef is quite happy to make things hotter or milder depending on your preference. If you like hot, ask for very hot; we asked for one hot and one medium and felt that both could have been comfortably spicier.There are only four starters to choose from but we’d have happily picked any of them. I had the potato vada (£4.50), balls of mashed potato covered in a spiced gram flour batter and deep fried. They were fantastic: the outside was crisp and crunchy while the moist potato inside was fluffy and light. They were served with a tangy coriander chutney that had a really fierce kick. Himself chose something he’d never tried (or heard of before though only days later we saw it featured first in a magazine, then on a TV show), ‘pav bhaji’ (£4.50) which is a mixture of spiced cauliflower, cabbage and peas in a tomato sauce on top of a toasted bread roll, topped with mild cheese, in this case Gouda. If I hadn’t seen it later in the magazine and on TV I might have believed this strange dish made up but while it was quite unusual, it was also very good. The cabbage, cauliflower and pea mixture would have been good on its own, perhaps formed into patties and fried like bubble and squeak, but it was made even better with the addition of the melted cheese. Although I liked what I tried of this, I was glad I hadn’t chosen it myself as it is quite filling for a starter; it would be a good lunchtime plate if you wanted a bit more than a snack, but not a full main course.The Gujarati main courses on the menu at the Chill Out Café are all meat free and from these I chose the channa masala – chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce (£4.50): it was a generous portion but speaking as someone that isn’t a vegetarian I did feel that the dish was a bit dull and more like an overgrown starter than a main course. I’m happy to eat meatless dishes but this one needed something extra to make it a bit more exciting. Having said that, I can’t deny that it was tasty; the sauce was rich and full of flavour and it was carefully spiced, even if it was not as hot as I’d have liked. The chickpeas were just right for me: I hate them to be too hard but these had just the right amount of bite. Himself enjoyed his lamb curry (£7.50), which contained both chop and leg meat. There was plenty of meat in it and it was tender and full of rich flavour though, like mine, it could have been hotter in terms of spice. While it was described only as a ‘lamb curry’ this was no ordinary dish, the balance of flavours was excellent and this was a warmly aromatic dish. Side dishes of rice and chappatis were well executed and fairly priced. In fact all the dishes at the Chill Out Café are very reasonably priced and make a good advert for staying local (not that local to me geographically, admittedly but I really mean outside of the city centre). The restaurant doesn’t have a booze licence but you can bring your own or buy from the nearby off licence; a word of warning, however, the corkage charge of £1.50 (I think) is per bottle so bring wine, or larger bottles of beer otherwise you are going to be paying quite a bit extra. We didn’t know about the lack of alcohol but we were happy with soft drinks having spent the afternoon in several real ale establishments; the mango lassi I had was really good and was so thick I could have done with a long handled spoon to make sure none was left in the glass.The Chill Out Cafe is open from 8 in the morning until about 10pm. In the morning you can get breakfast and hot drinks but only cooked English style breakfasts are available and I would love to see some Indian breakfasts on the menu. At lunch time there are various wraps (paneer, chicken, etc) and the delicious sounding keema on a bun topped with Gouda, all priced at less than £4 each.With friendly service, a comfortable environment, great food and fair prices, it's easy to see why so many people are raving about the Chill Out Cafe. Although it's not in the centre, it's only a fifteen minute walk from the Haymarket, or a five minute bus ride from the centre (take a 38 heading to the Freeman Hospital, or buses heading for the coast) ; there's parking just outside the restaurant too so there's no excuse for not heading over to this part of the city. Highly recommended.
by fizzytom on November 15, 2012
When we go out for dinner with friends the responsibility for choosing the restaurant usually falls to our side; Himself and I are regarded as being 'in the know' about what's new and what's good but with some friends that praise can feel like a burden. When we choose somewhere we've never been to before I feel a particular dread that if everything isn't just right, it'll all be my fault, and there are two friends in particular that make me feel this way. Obviously I'm not going to name them here, that would be mean, suffice to say that Jack and Vera (as they'll be referred to) are the sort of dinner companions that put me on edge and who make me feel like personally apologising every time something isn't quite to their liking. It was, then, with a considerable degree of trepidation that we booked Madrasi in the Gateshead suburb of Low Fell. There were a number of reasons for our choice: we didn't want to dine in the city centre and needed somewhere with parking space, we wanted something not too expensive and - at least for me and the Curry Monster, we wanted to go somewhere with a menu that would be a bit different from your run of the mill curry house. Madrasi specialises in dishes from southern India (more specifically the province of Tamil Nadu) and having eaten out a couple of times in recent days, we wanted something lighter which you generally get from southern Indian cooking. Fish features heavily on the menu at Madrasi; there are several lobster dishes and plenty of shell fish options as well as sea bass and cod. Madrasi is housed in a tiny stone building just behind Low Fell's main street. There's a small car parking area beside the restaurant but when we visited it was rather muddy from the previous day's deluge. We had parked in a small municipal car park just off the main street and there was no charge for parking in the evening. There's a very small seating area just inside the door but we had booked in advance and our table was ready. There are about a dozen tables and the restaurant was busy all the time we were there. The interior is very striking with deep red walls decorated with black and red art work. Personally I found the colour a bit oppressive in such a small space but one of our party loved it. We had been seated at the back of the restaurant close to where a partition wall hides the kitchen door. Just outside the door there was an overflowing bin for food waste where presumably the staff were scraping the plates before taking them back to the kitchen; it is a shame they can't hide this from view as it looked horrible, especially all the bits of food on the floor that had missed the bin. Drinks were offered the second we sat down but took a good while to come. As the restaurant is meant to focus on dishes from southern India I was surprised by the lack of lassi of any variety though I was perhaps thinking more of Goa or Kerala, rather than Tamil Nadu. The four of us hadn't caught up for ages so we were full of chatter when the waiter came to take the order; we asked for five minutes but it took a lot of effort to catch a waiter when we were finally ready to order. Usually we'd share a plate of poppadoms but I was ravenous having skipped lunch and when Jack asked are we having starters, I pronounced a decisive yes, lest the deliberations take too long. Part of my reasoning was sheer greed; I wanted to try the duck starter even though I knew I'd probably be fit to pop later. Orders made, so began the long wait. Jack's main course was unavailable we were informed though this news came only just before the rest of the food was brought to the table. From ordering the starters to them coming to the table took about thirty minutes. Jack and Vera were sharing a starter, onion bhaji, and were wishing by this point they'd ordered one each as they were so hungry. I had chosen the 'masaledar badak 'which comprised spicy shredded duck presented as a parcel in which a chapatti was the wrapping; it really was excellent and had just the right level of spiciness for a starter in that it got me warmed up for the main course. Himself had the shahi machli in which white fish had been lightly dusted with spiced flour and nicely fried. On the menu there were certainly some dishes that were unfamiliar to me though I was disappointed to see that they still offer the traditional staples of the British curry-house such as dopiaza, etc. My chicken with lemon grass (a very reasonable £7.95 for something from the 'specials' selection) was not nearly as coconut-y or as creamy as I'd expected which I was rather pleased about; I'm not a fan of really creamy curries but I was intrigued by the mention of lemon grass, hence I ordered it anyway. The lemon grass was really distinctive and imparted a good flavour without overpowering the sauce. The pieces of chicken were small but the quality seemed good. Vera also had a tomato-based chicken dish which she left a fair bit of, not because she didn't like it but because she and Jack have a tendency always to over order and can never be persuaded to share side dishes. The portions here don't look massive but the food is filling and I'd have been full up with just the main course, to be honest. For his main course Jack had plumped for fish - sea bass moilee (a creamy dish containing coconut milk) which, when it eventually arrived, he enjoyed immensely. To my mind the fish was swamped in sauce but he said the sauce was very tasty without being too hot; Himself later reported that he had tried the sauce and had found it a bit flat. On the bright side, the sea bass was meaty and nicely cooked and they certainly hadn't skimped on it. My own curry monster had ordered lamb and had gone for what promised to be a hot dish which, when it arrived, did not disappoint. The lamb, he said was tender and the pieces were a decent size so hadn't cooked away to nothing, as often happens when restaurants skimp on the meat. Although he appreciated the heat factor, he also praised the dish for the range of flavours which were discernible and which made for a dish that was a well above standard curry house fare. We clocked up a bill of over not much over £80 for three starters, four mains and accompaniments (the rice was so plentiful and the naan breads so hefty that Jack and Vera left more food than I consider decent, but Himself and I were happy with our light but well cooked chapattis), and drinks. Had the service been better I'd be less inclined to feel short-changed by this experience because I did enjoy my food but felt we'd really waited far too long for it. I'd like to think we just hit the place on a bad day; perhaps they were short in the kitchen. I do feel like being generous because the restaurant does have a pleasant ambience and the menu is just a bit different from the norm and although you can pay quite a bit for things such as lobster here, there are plenty of dishes that cost a lot less. I'd certainly recommend the cooking but hope you don't wait as long as we had to.
by fizzytom on September 2, 2012
Newcastle’s Queen Street is a haven of gentility and good food in the rough seas that are Newcastle’s Quayside area. Architecturally and historically this is an interesting part of the city but culturally it leaves a lot to be desired these days. Depending on what time you go you may have to endure gangs of drunken hens and stags screaming and puking in the gutters, but I can safely say that the food at Rasa is worth facing the sight of an overweight Welshman in a mankini. Rasa serves what Newcastle has needed for years – really good southern Indian food, from Kerala in particular. I’d heard the name but not given it much thought and it wasn’t until we were cutting across Queen Street when I saw the decals of traditional Keralan costumes in the window and put two and two together. We were desperate go dine there but couldn’t think of any Newcastle friends who’d appreciate the menu which is rather different to your typical English ‘curry-house’ so we knew just the place for dinner when a fellow IgoUgo writer and her husband, a couple of India veterans, came to town, we knew just the place to take them. Queen Street is know for its smart restaurants but I did feel that feel that the formality of Rasa is a little excessive given the type of cuisine the restaurant serves; there just seems to me to be something laidback and relaxed in the colours and flavours of Keralan cuisine that doesn’t require stiffness and starch. This was reflected not just in the quite formal table settings and décor but the charisma free waiting staff who were always efficient but never really friendly or helpful. One thing I did like, though, was the colour of the baby pink walls. I had booked a couple of days in advance to get an early evening table on a Friday and was glad to have done so as the restaurant quickly started to fill. It’s not huge but there are two dining rooms and groups can be catered for without too much fuss. The first thing that struck me when we sat down was how big the table was; it’s nice to have plenty of room but I did feel like I was a long way from my dining companions. Keralan is by far my favourite type of Indian food; we eat a lot of Indian food and there aren’t many restaurants in this part of the country that serve food from southern India so it’s always welcome when a new one appears on the scene. In general the food is lighter and the flavours more vibrant and, when done well, the dishes are quite distinct from one another whereas many run of the mill curry houses tend to bring out dishes that are very similar so a balti, a bhuna or a rogan josh are almost identical. A recommendation of specials is always interesting: are they using food up or are they simply pushing the most exciting dishes? A suggestion of side dishes is also often welcome as it’s not always obvious whether a dish can stand alone or needs something on the side. However, the suggestion of an alternative dish to the one that has been requested, for no obvious reason, was not welcome and was rather odd, in my opinion. It wasn’t that the dish was not available for Himself insisted on having what he had first requested so I’m not sure why the waiter took it upon himself to suggest an alternative. We did agree to some snacks to munch on while we waited, two baskets of pappadavadai and other delicious, but naughty, fried snacks made from different types of flour and formed into all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes with were perfect for scooping up some of the six tasty dips and chutneys that accompanied them; my favourite of these was the lemon chutney which was very tangy and zesty and proved to be a good contrast to the spicy snacks. To my delight the menu included several different types of dosa; I am incapable of refusing a dosa so I chose the Nair Dosa one. A dosa is a bit like a crisp pancake, sometimes the batter is fermented before cooking, which is folded into a parcel around a vegetarian filling. The one I chose apparently is one that's eaten at big celebrations: the filling was a mixture of potatoes, beetroot, carrot, onion and fresh ginger. Inside was an explosion of colour and flavours. It was spicy but not crazily hot and the individual flavours of the ingredients could still be discerned. I had taken up the suggestion of a side dish of cabbage which was delicious: the shredded cabbage was studded with whole seeds which perfumed and flavoured it beautifully and the cabbage itself was just cooked so it retained some bite. My dosa was served with a little dish of coconut chutney which was aromatic but cooling against the other accompaniment, a bowl of sambar, an almost soup like hot dish containing slices of vegetable. Our visitors has chosen a prawn curry and a fish curry and as both dishes were cleared pretty quickly I can only assume they hit the mark, or else our companions were starving. I spotted a few meaty looking prawns among the vibrant red sauce, which the colour of the fish curry was bright and appealing: certainly the visual impact of the dishes here is good with a variety of bright colours in contrast to the sludgy browns of many restaurants' offerings.Himself went for lamb, namely 'Adipoli Erachi Mulagu' the description of which I've lifted straight from the menu for ease: "An essential item from the Toddy shop and the bar menus of Kerala . Boneless cubes of lamb and dry cooked in turmeric water, then stir-fried in an open kadai with an abundance of black pepper, curry leaves, and finely sliced fresh coconut slivers. A spicy dish. Great with a combination of paratha bread or chapattis." This was a not inconsiderable heap of tender lamb chunks and it was quite complex in its flavours with the black pepper and not the chilli contributing to the kick.The desserts were tempting but, other than a mango sorbet, no good for me with a nut allergy. If you don't fancy any of the traditional Indian desserts, flavoured with cardamom and strewn with nuts and dried fruits, there's always ice cream. We skipped desserts and, speaking for myself, I can't say I left hungry after what was a substantial main without being heavy.With lassis for three of our number and a large bottle of Cobra for the fourth, the bill came in around £77 which seems fair for the quality of the food and the location, which does add a premium. I do think the formality is a little over the top and I would much prefer to see Rasa do something a bit more laidback, more cafe-style. The food, however, is fresh and zingy with layers of flavour and fragrance. I liked Rasa a lot and saw a lot more dishes I'd like to try so there's a good chance I'll go back. The surroundings say special occasion but the prices aren't steep and the food is to be recommended.If you like the sound of Rasa but are in the southern part of England, there are branches in London in Stoke Newington, two restaurants in the West End on Rathbone Street (a Rasa Express) and Dering Street (both W1) , a Rasa Express on the Euston Road, and one in the Holiday Inn at Kings Cross; a second restaurant on Dering Street - Rasa Samudra - specialises in seafood while the restaurant in Stoke Newington is entirely vegetarian. The restaurant in Newcastle is the brand's first outside the capital.
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