Young first-time restaurateur Jo Nessa is out to revolutionise the way the North East indulges its love of Indian food with the region’s first and only Indian street food kitchen. KATHARINE CAPOCCI finds out more
WHEN was the last time you heard someone say, “Hey, let’s have an Indian for lunch“?
Admit it, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it might, due mainly to an impression (often erroneous) that Indian restaurant food is too heavy for lunchtimes.
But a revolution is now under way in Newcastle, where Dabbawal Street Food Kitchen is taking premium quality street-inspired dishes and serving them tapas-style in a relaxed urban environment.
Still not a year old and shortlisted for Best Newcomer in the British Curry Awards, Dabbawal is a genuine pioneer and a fresh concept in Indian street-style food, and it’s all the idea of 24-year-old first-time restaurateur Jo Nessa from Newcastle.
A hip, open-kitchen venue with a buzzing street vibe during the day and a more intimate atmosphere in the evening is nothing like any Indian restaurant in the north of England.
Its grazing and sharing dishes, roomalis rolls and chaats are made to order by chefs who insist on premium produce, freshly prepared in the open kitchen and the food is fresh, fast and rooted in the streets of Mumbai.
With a range of tapas-sized grill options, street classics and traditional meals, Dabbawal on High Bridge, has created a genuinely original means of serving superb Indian food in a relaxed atmosphere.
Dabbawal, a genuine breath of fresh air in a city packed with quality competition, is the brainchild of Jo, who says simply: “We set out to make Indian food the answer to the question, ‘what’s for lunch?’ and that’s what we’ve done. We’re pleasing the early evening and dinner crowd too and we’re delighted by how readily the foodies of Newcastle have embraced this unique concept.
“We’re serving a unique tapas-style sharing menu that lets our diners taste a variety of dishes in one sitting. It wows the lunchtime and pre-theatre crowd equally, while our more sophisticated evening menu appeals to the foodie crowd who demand superb produce but still want a relaxed vibe.”
The fresh approach to Indian dining provided by Jo and the team at Dabbawal extends to its contemporary interior design and funky bright pink and lime branding. Everything about the brand Jo and the team have created is fresh and refreshing, and it’s an ethos which has certainly caught the imagination of North East foodies.
“We’re delighted with how people have taken to it,” says Jo. “People here are well-served by some superb restaurants and the love of Indian food here is as ingrained as it is anywhere in Britain. The nice thing about people in Newcastle is that they really enjoy exploring new things, and they have genuinely taken to this concept.”
Jo opted to follow her passion for food after graduating less than three years ago with a degree in law.
“I came out of university and searched around for something that suited me, and just kept coming back to the fact that I wanted to enter the restaurant business,” she says. “My father had owned one of the first Indian restaurants in Newcastle and other family members are in the business, so it was an obvious route.”
Her brother Jalf Ali owns modern, contemporary eaterie The Spice Cube in The Gate complex in Newcastle.
Jo’s market research told her that casual dining was the way forward, and she knew there was no better inspiration for her concept than her travels in Bangladesh, where she was smitten by the street food.
“I wanted to take the concept of the fast, fresh food of the street and use it for the basis for a uniquely new experience in Newcastle,” she says.
“So, we have taken traditional street food dishes and refined them, taking the quality of ingredients and presentation to a much higher level. Our customers love the fresh simplicity of our food and the beauty of the presentation and they’ve completely grasped the concept of grazing and sharing plates in an Indian kitchen.”
Named for Mumbai’s dabbawallas, Dabbawal has quickly gained a reputation for fresh, healthy food and a relaxed, urban kitchen vibe.
The tapas-sized grills include Jaffrani salmon – succulent cubes of fish marinated in honey, dill and saffron – and Punjabi chilli chicken tikka in a chilli, cumin, garlic and ginger marinade.
The mixed vegetable grill is among the best on the menu, while the citrus king prawns with chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime shines a warm glow on a light lunch which might be accompanied by a salad with greens, vegetables, chicken or salmon.
Dabbawal is unique in the city in serving homemade roomali rolls filled with such delights as spicy potato, seekh kebab and spicy chicken.
The tapas-style servings and roomalis are priced around £5 and are very sustaining.
Classic bites such as lamb samosa parcels and lentil-battered okra are a welcome taste of tradition, while chaats served with yoghurt and tamarind sauce are works of art and filling with it. The vegetable samosa chaat is, in fact, the restaurant’s most popular lunchtime dish.
At night, the informal, buzzing lunchtime and early evening atmosphere is replaced by a more intimate, sophisticated ambience. The unique Dabbawal ethos prevails, however, with another tapas-size grill menu and a range of more indulgent main dishes.
Any time of the day or night the chefs also indulge a love of sweets, and the popular dessert menu includes such gems as gulab jam and rich Indian ice-cream, kulfi.
Less than a year after opening, Jo and her talented team are well into a business development strategy which is gradually educating an appreciative public about their street food ethos.
Tiffin boxes are now available to local office workers and brand development plans include Dabbawal Kitchen deli and kitchenware ranges.
A big hand for Jo Nessa; her baby has already found its feet.
Dabbawal, High Bridge, Newcastle, NE1 6BX, tel 0191 232 5133. www.dabbawal.com