TO GET an idea of Raval in Gateshead, it’s probably best to start with what it’s not.
It’s not a place where you go after 10 pints to slur that you want “the hottest thing on the menu”.
There are no metal dishes filled with your choice of meat and accompanying gloop, no giant poppadoms to karate chop, no naff flock wallpaper and no crackly recordings of sitar music.
Indian cuisine in the North East is not traditionally associated with fine dining, but Raval aims to change that.
On entering, it was clear from the heavy solid oak doors and plush reception/bar area, that a lot of money had been spent fitting out the restaurant. Add some calming background music and the beautiful aroma of fresh orchids, and it felt like we were waiting for luxury spa treatments rather than an Indian meal.
The contemporary decor (a warm palette with splashes of red) features plush Champagne-coloured upholstered chairs, chrome balustrading and clever designer lighting – particularly around the bar.
Artwork featuring local landmarks reflects the restaurant’s position right by the Tyne Bridge.
There’s also a semi-open kitchen – semi in that you can see the chefs’ heads through the clear glass on top while the opaque glass below keeps their skills hidden from view.
As the three of us perused the a la carte menu while sipping on a French martini and margaritas (in addition to the aperitif cocktails, there’s also a post-dinner section with more chocolatey flavours), it was clear from the descriptions, and indeed the prices, that this was going to be a cut above.
Most starters are priced around £6 to £7, main courses around £14 and vegetarian side dishes at £5.95. But once cocktails at £6.50, naan bread at £3.95 and house pilau rice at £4.95 are added, the price soon mounts up.
My two friends and I decided to share all our dishes, but needed a few tips on what to choose.
Manager Avi was the perfect host and patiently offered up recommendations for us to try, while we munched on individual poppadoms which were more like tortillas than the round ‘karate chop’ pile you come to expect. They came with freshly prepared and incredibly more-ish apple, yoghurt and spiced carrot dips. Avi also explained how real Indian food is much healthier than we Brits imagine and no Indian meal is complete without plenty of vegetables. In fact, they even have an entire separate vegetarian menu too.
As for the Geordie predilection for all things hot and spicy, Avi merely raised an eyebrow and said he would never serve a dish that was so hot it obscured the flavour.
Of the three starters, I felt the Kakori kabab wasn’t too dissimilar to other lamb kebabs I’d sampled in run-of-the-mill Indian restaurants.
However, the tulsi tikka (a delicately spiced, tandoori roasted chicken breast) and the Mangalore jhinga (king prawns sauteed with mustard seeds, coconut, chilli and curry leaves) were far superior.
The latter was the most expensive starter on the menu at £12.95, but the combination of flavours was so perfectly balanced and the huge juicy prawns clearly of a high calibre that it was worth paying top dollar for.
As the rest of our meal arrived in chic white bowls (square for mains and round for sides), it just got better and better.
The melt-in-the-mouth salmon Tellicherry (pan-seared with chilli, ginger and curry leaves) was beautifully cooked while the maskai komdo (marinated chicken in tomato fenugreek sauce and honey) was unusual with it’s sweet and aromatic flavours.
My favourite, though, was the jardaloo boti, a Farsi lamb dish cooked with apricot and wine vinegar, which really hit the spot.
The three side dishes were a revelation too and almost as large as the main courses. I’d particularly recommend the Muttar paneer (one of Avi’s suggestions), which is made from cottage cheese, peas and ground spices.
It sounds so simple but was one of the tastiest dishes of all, which just goes to show you don’t need meat for flavour. I also loved the aubergine dish – melagu kathirikkai – which was combined with onions, ginger, cumin, tomatoes and coriander. In most Indian restaurants there’s an inexplicably long list of rice and naan varieties. At Raval it’s much more simple with a choice of just plain or pilau rice and four naans.
We opted for a garlic, a peshawari and a coriander naan – all of which came neatly cut into triangles. The thinner texture was also a welcome change from the usual heavy, doughey varieties that can leave you over-stuffed.
As the night came to a close and the second bottle of fruity French Merlot at £14.95 was polished off, Avi entertained us with his many business ideas including an ‘I Love Gateshead’ campaign even though he lives in Newcastle. We felt like guests in someone’s home rather than at a restaurant.
The meal lasted a good three hours – nobody rushes you here – and is an event in itself rather than a boozy afterthought to a night out.
We even managed a couple of desserts plus a gorgeous Tia Maria liqueur coffee and an Amaretto nightcap. I’d recommend the jamun (Indian sweet caramelized dumplings with vanilla ice cream), which had a sticky toffee pudding flavour, over the saffron malai (Indian cottage cheese dumplings cooked in sugar syrup with thickened milk and pistachio), which had the consistency of tofu and was a little bland.
Without drinks, the meal came to £114.25, so admittedly it was pricey. Choosing the banquet from the group dining menu at £34.95 each would have been slightly better value. However for special occasions it’s worth pushing the boat out.
Raval has set the bar high for Indian fine dining and I’m proud to say it’s on my side of the river.
Address: Raval, Church Street, near the Tyne Bridge, Gateshead, NE8 2AT. Tel 0191 477 1700.
Open: Monday-Saturday 6pm-11pm. Closed Sunday.
First impressions: More like a luxury spa than a restaurant, and in a prominent position next to the bridge.
Welcome: Warm and convivial with recommendations aplenty.
Style: A warm palette with splashes of red, plush carpets, clever designer lighting, chrome details and artwork featuring many local landmarks.
Cuisine: Indian fine dining.
Service: Impeccable with a home-from-home welcoming feel.
Value: Pricey at around £14 for main courses and £34.95 per person for a banquet, but this is quality fare.
Disabled facilities: Accessible.