“ Address: 4-7 St Thomas Street, Sunderland SR11NW, England „
The 'backwaters' is a network of inland waterways in the southern Indian region of Kerala. It's an extremely beautiful place and one of National Geographic's Top 50 places to see in the world.
Some Geordies (and others) reading this review may consider Sunderland to be something of a 'backwater' but with a slightly different definition, and there's no denying that anyone visiting Sunderland for the purpose of visiting 'Backwaters' restaurant would find it ironic that a restaurant that is named after such a beautiful place could be located in such a dump.
Actually Sunderland does have (as a Geordie it pains me to say) some very handsome civic buildings, including the old post office which is a couple of footsteps from the restaurant; however, these streets are not the nicest in Sunderland and those arriving at Backwaters may do so with a certain degree of trepidation.
We hadn't heard about Backwaters before we bought a Groupon but we did know the previous restaurant, Naz, that occupied these premises. There aren't many places in the region serving only southern Indian food so we were very keen to try it.
The restaurant is situated in the basement of the building which is accessed by staircase only. Superficially the restaurant looks very nice with a welcoming seating area by the bar and the walls decorated with lovely colourful scenes from Kerala. However, if you look a bit closer there are signs of shabbiness and when the leave the dining room to go to the toilets, the room the toilets lead off is really grotty with sticky vinyl flooring on top of sagging floor boards. The toilets are clean but really don't look very nice.
We had printed out our Groupon but hadn't printed or jotted down the details of the booking which we'd had to make online. Groupon are in trouble with regulatory office at the moment because (among other issues) they've been accused of not allowing a realistic time for offers to be redeemed. When we tried to book a table to use our Groupon we weren't able to get a table any weekend for a period of 6 weeks (this is Sunderland remember). The only booking the staff would offer was a 9.30pm booking on a couple of evenings when we weren't free, and one when we were. We pressed for an earlier booking and finally were offered a 6.30pm slot on a Tuesday evening. This suited us because our journey home by public transport would take about 50 minutes. However, we arrived early in Sunderland and went along to the restaurant at opening time on the off chance we could be served earlier. Apart from ourselves, the first diners turned up at 6.40pm for a 6.30pm booking. Then a table of two arrived without a booking, and subsequently another two people with a booking some time after 7.00pm. It was hardly packed and didn't look like it might be any time soon which made me wonder why Backwaters staff are so precious with their reservation slots.
It may be that they do this because service is incredibly slow. I can't see how they would cope if the restaurant were any busier. It seems to me, from the variety of dishes on the menu that this food is cooked to order. In a typical 'curry house' big vats of sauce are made in the morning and a few ladles are taken for each dish with the key ingredients being added when an order comes through (extra chillies for a jalfrezi, for example). The dishes at Backwaters are quite distinct from one another and I can't see how they could adapt one or two sauces to create different versions.
Since we had a time limited offer through Groupon I won't comment on the quality of the offer other than to say that it comprised two starters and main courses, and a bottle of beer each. Although Kingfisher beer is available, the beer available for the offer was San Miguel. Overall the drinks here are expensive with 'juice of the day' for £3.20 and tea at the same price.
The starters and mains both cover vegetarian, fish and meat options. I thought that the vegetarian choices were quite exciting and some thought had gone into them so that the dish would not only be appealing to those who eat no meat or fish, but different enough to tempt those who eat meat but are open-minded enough to eat some meat free dishes. I'd expected something more interesting in the way of fish and seafood options as Kerala and Goa are well known for fish dishes but the choices here were a little disappointing.
To start I chose a favourite of mine masala dosa, a rice and lentil pancake rolled and filled with spicy potatoes. It did not disappoint. The pancake was quite large but beautifully light and crisp and the filling was fresh and flavoursome, nicely spiced but not over-powering or heavy. It was served in the traditional way with three chutneys or dips - a coconut one that had a hint of heat behind the coolness, a lentil one (called 'sambar' which is a common accompaniment to southern Indian dishes) which was very fiery and got my taste-buds really tingling, and a tomato one which was mild but tangy.
Himself eventually chose (like him I could have picked any of the starters or mains) 'Cutty Idli and Sambar'. This looked like a soup and really should have been served with a spoon but Himself managed valiantly to eat all of it without one. The dish comprised a couple of steamed mini rice and lentil cakes which had been soaked in the sambar. This is a really hot dish which posed no problem for Himself but this amount of sambar may be too much for those who can't handle really hot spice.
'Appetiser' rather than 'starter' is the best way to describe what we had for our first courses because the dishes really got our tastebuds tingling and we were dying to see what would follow. We were not disappointed by the food though the presentation was perhaps a bit of a let down.
I had ordered the 'Meen moilee', a fish stew 'cooked in country style creamy coconut gravy, infused in scented flavours of garlic, ginger and green chillies'. It was served in a deep bowl and I was tempted to decant it onto the massive plate but this would have made the stew cool down too quickly and would have completely saturated the two appam that the dish was accompanied by. In the end I end I decanted a little at a time. The stew had a glorious aroma, slightly perfumed, with hints of citrus, cardamom, ginger and other delicate spices. The gravy was not as sweet as I had feared and had a fantastic quick from the green chillies which came as a surprise after the mildness of the coconut and fish. Appam are flat breads made from rice flour, slightly soft and spongy in the middle and crisp around the edges. They were very tasty and as they are not too heavy I felt satisfied but not uncomfortable after finishing the meal even though it was a generous portion that contained plenty of chunky pieces of meaty white fish.
Himself chose the 'Panni mulligattadhu,' a pork dish in which the meat was served in a thick red sauce which was made from red chillies, peppercorns, fennel seeds and curry leaves. In spite of its appearance, the end result was slightly hot but not overpoweringly so and the expert sitting opposite me declared that on balance, mine was the hotter dish in spite of the use of coconut which usually makes dishes milder. The pork dish was a very aromatic one with layers of flavour in which the individual ingredients were distinct. The fennel seeds imparted a lovely aniseed flavour which was echoed in the aroma. This dish was served with a bowl of steamed basmati rice which was nicely prepared and cooked to perfection.
The menu offers only three desserts. I made the mistake of ordering one. I say 'mistake' because we had already waited ages to be approached even though we had clearly finished eating some time ago and I had a nagging feeling it would take as long to get my dessert. I was no wrong but it was (almost) worth waiting for. I chose the 'Thenga Ada' described on the menu as 'Crepes filled with sweetened grated coconut, flavoured with cardamom. Served with maple syrup, fresh fruits and ice cream'.
It looked delicious with the fruit making a colourful contrast to the pancake parcel and vanilla ice cream. The pancake was just the right thickness and when I cut into it the wonderfully perfumed coconut spilled out. This was very sweet but the sweetness was tempered by eating the coconut was the fruit. The cardamom came through well and the ice cream gave a nice balance of textures and flavours. It was a dessert I'd happily eat on a daily basis: I loved it.
Our Groupon offer had allowed us to buy food up to the value of £30.70, the extra had to be paid in situ. Altogether we'd have paid around £53 for two starters, two mains, two bottles of San Miguel, a pint of Kingfisher and one dessert.
I'd say that the prices justify the quality of the food. It really is something very special, it's just a shame that the surroundings and the service don't match up. This is a restaurant to visit when you have a whole evening to spend dining in a leisurely way, not one for a flying visit. The service was certainly friendly, but it was painfully and agonisingly slow. It's a shame because I would certainly consider returning to try some of the other dishes on the menu if I knew I wasn't going to be traipsing back to Tyneside so late.
If you have several hours to spare you can find Backwaters at
4-7 St. Thomas Street
Tel: 0191 565 1100