“ Address: 69-75 High Bridge / Newcastle Upon Tyne / NE1 6BX „
I find most British tapas bars quite funny. The majority of them make tapas a meal which it is not; tapas are small snacks which are served with drinks and the Spanish have them standing at the bar, often on the way home from work to stave off hunger pangs because they eat dinner late. The British, on the other hand, order a mountain of food and sit down to eat it like a meal.
In the same way Newcastle's 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. (People familiar with Newcastle may remember that this used to be the Flatbread Café.) 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 pre-theatre menu is priced at £12 for two courses, chosen from a curtailed version of the evening menu, and while there appears to be enough variety to suit most diners, it is a bit irritating that supplements are levied for some choices (an additional £1 for lamb dishes, for example).
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. A couple at the next table came in for wraps and I overheard them saying how much they had enjoyed their lunch.
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.
Five stars for food, three for environment and service, so an overall four stars overall. Recommended with minor reservations: check very carefully if any of your party have food allergies.