“ Address: Front Street / Chester Moor / Chester le Street DH2 3RJ / Durham „
Le Raaj is an Indian restaurant which sits beside the A167 dual carriageway not far from Chester Le Street in County Durham. The restaurant is based in a converted chapel building - or possibly it might have been a vicarage. It's hard to tell but there's a distinctly 'churchy' look about the place. We weren't actually looking for a restaurant when we drove past back in June but it was sufficiently eye-catching that we not only spotted it but also remembered the name as we sped past on our way to Lumley Castle where we were staying for the night. We checked in at the hotel and then took a look at the hotel menu and decided we'd much rather go out for a curry so I searched for the restaurant's website and had a look at the menu. It took only one word on the starters menu to hook me and that word was 'momo'. I'd go a long way for a good momo so a couple of miles up the road seemed ideal.
We headed to the restaurant at about 8 pm, parked up in the car park at the rear and headed in. The door had barely swung behind us and the man at the bar which is located just inside the door was already tempting my husband with beer and condemning me to the status of designated driver. We were led down a corridor into the main restaurant room, up a small set of stairs to a raised platform, and given a room by the windows over-looking the road.
~No Flock Wallpaper~
The restaurant is decorated with rather a heavy and unsubtle hand. I couldn't help thinking the colour scheme was the sort of thing much loved by the programme 'Changing Rooms' at the height of its popularity. The walls were painted in deep purple, the curtains were gold, the carpets more deep purple and the chairs also in purple. The tables had white table cloths and oddly bright pink napkins.
We visited on a Monday evening which is rarely a busy evening for restaurants and only a few tables were occupied although the staff seemed to be trying to make things look busier by putting most of the people in the same area of the room. Or possibly perhaps they were saving themselves from having to walk all over the room to serve the customers.
We ordered a couple of popadoms to nibble on whilst we chose what to have for starters and main courses. I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet during our holiday about the prices charged by different restaurants for popadoms and chutneys (in one place we were particularly fleeced) but I was impressed that Le Raaj charges just a pound per head for them. I was even more impressed that the chutneys offered were not your bog-standard lime pickle and mango chutney, but some rather different ones, in unusual textures and with varying degrees of kick.
~One Momo-ment in Time~
To start I ordered just one portion of fish momo (£4.95) for us to share. This was the dish that had made me determined to go to this restaurant when I'd spotted it on their on-line menu because I have never seen momos on an Indian restaurant menu in the UK before. To be fair, you only find them in Himalayan areas of India with a lot of Nepali immigrants so it's not unusual that they shouldn't make it onto the every day menus of curry restaurant. Momos are a type of Nepali steamed dumpling, usually half moon in shape with crimped edges. You can get meat or vegetarian ones and they're often served with hot chilli sauce - or at least in the Himalaya that's what they are. In a restaurant on the outskirts of Chester-le-Street, they are something rather different.
I was disappointed - I'd go so far as to say DEEPLY disappointed by what we got instead. The so-called momos were rolled up chapatis with a minced filling that wasn't even recognisably fishy. I guess if the menu had said 'rolled up chapati with 'stuff' inside' I'd not have been so miffed but I'd go a long way for momos but not clearly not to Chester-le-Street. To be fair, when I looked again at the menu, what we received was exactly what was described - it just wasn't what it should have been (if you see what I mean).
Main courses were less disappointing and we really enjoyed them. One thing I appreciated was that the waiter came to take our starter plates and asked if we'd like the main courses now or did we need a break. This doesn't happen very often but there have been many times when I've felt service came too quickly and if I've overdone the starters, a break would be useful. However, on this occasion we'd just shared the one starter and we were rareing to go with the next course.
Strangely for an Indian restaurant we didn't get a hot plate, which was fine with me as I am not a fan of such things. Instead each of the dishes came directly to the table in bowls. The portions were generous to say the least.
We ordered a vegetable biryani (£9.25), a tarka dall (£3.75) and a Chingri Sagwala (prawn with spinach - £8.95). The first thing I would say is that it's generally a bit of a cop out to order a vegetable biryani though our standard safe 'can't decide' default choice when we're in India is veggie biryani and tarka dall. The problem at Le Raaj was that the menu is quite exciting and offers mountains of choice UNLESS you want vegetarian dishes. There are no less than 36 options for chicken-based main courses, 18 lamb dishes, 5 duck dishes, and 19 fish or sea-food and that's without counting the full page of balti dishes. There are just two vegetarian main courses - the biryani and a vegetable thail - although of course there are some rather unexciting vegetable side dishes too. As a fishi-tarian married to someone kind enough to not pick meat dishes when we go to Indian restaurants, I tend to go for one seafood and one veggie dish but I was shocked that there wasn't more choice for non meat eaters and I would have to recommend that strict vegetarians think very carefully about eating at Le Raaj.
The biryani rice was very good and arrived decorated with cucumber slices, tomato pieces and lemon pieces perched on top. There were plenty of 'bits' in the biryani, including lots of dried fruit and nuts but the biryani sauce was disappointingly bland and brown. The dall by contrast was very smooth ane really tasty. The prawn dish was rather mild and the amount of oil it was swimming in was off-putting. We ate until we were stuffed but we couldn't manage to polish off everything as the portions were just too big.
The cost of our meal with two pints of bitter, one J2O and a half pint of Cobra came to £40 which I felt was pretty much what I'd expected, considering the lack of local competition. I enjoyed my dinner, liked the building and found the staff to be efficient without being too 'in your face' but it will be a while before I get over my momo disappointment.
Chester le Street,
Durham, DH2 3RJ
0191 389 0561