“ Address: 27 Queen's Street / Newcastle-upon-Tyne / NE1 3UG „
Newcastle's Queen Street is a haven of gentility and good food in the rough seas that are Newcastle's Quayside area. Architecturally and historically this is an interesting part of the city but culturally it leaves a lot to be desired these days. Depending on what time you go you may have to endure gangs of drunken hens and stags screaming and puking in the gutters, but I can safely say that the food at Rasa is worth facing the sight of an overweight Welshman in a mankini.
Rasa serves what Newcastle has needed for years - really good southern Indian food, from Kerala in particular. I'd heard the name but not given it much thought and it wasn't until we were cutting across Queen Street when I saw the decals of traditional Keralan costumes in the window and put two and two together. We were desperate go dine there but couldn't think of any Newcastle friends who'd appreciate the menu which is rather different to your typical English 'curry-house' so when a fellow review writer and her husband, a couple of India veterans, came to town, we knew just the place to take them.
Queen Street is know for its smart restaurants but I did feel that feel that the formality of Rasa is a little excessive given the type of cuisine the restaurant serves; there just seems to me to be something laidback and relaxed in the colours and flavours of Keralan cuisine that doesn't require stiffness and starch. This was reflected not just in the quite formal table settings and décor but also the charisma free waiting staff who were always efficient but never really friendly or helpful. One thing I did like, though, was the colour of the baby pink walls.
I had booked a couple of days in advance to get an early evening table on a Friday and was glad to have done so as the restaurant quickly started to fill. It's not huge but there are two dining rooms and groups can be catered for without too much fuss. The first thing that struck me when we sat down was how big the table was; it's nice to have plenty of room but I did feel like I was a long way from my dining companions.
Keralan is by far my favourite type of Indian food; we eat a lot of Indian food and there aren't many restaurants in this part of the country that serve food from southern India so it's always welcome when a new one appears on the scene. In general the food is lighter and the flavours more vibrant and, when done well, the dishes are quite distinct from one another whereas many run of the mill curry houses tend to bring out dishes that are very similar so a balti, a bhuna or a rogan josh are almost identical.
A recommendation of specials is always interesting: are they using food up or are they simply pushing the most exciting dishes? A suggestion of side dishes is also often welcome as it's not always obvious whether a dish can stand alone or needs something on the side. However, the suggestion of an alternative dish to the one that has been requested, for no obvious reason, was not welcome and was rather odd, in my opinion. It wasn't that the dish was not available for Himself insisted on having what he had first requested so I'm not sure why the waiter took it upon himself to suggest an alternative.
We did agree to some snacks to munch on while we waited, two baskets of pappadavadai and other delicious, but naughty, fried snacks made from different types of flour and formed into all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes with were perfect for scooping up some of the six tasty dips and chutneys that accompanied them; my favourite of these was the lemon chutney which was very tangy and zesty and proved to be a good contrast to the spicy snacks.
To my delight the menu included several different types of dosa; I am incapable of refusing a dosa so I chose the Nair Dosa one. A dosa is a bit like a crisp pancake, sometimes the batter is fermented before cooking, which is folded into a parcel around a vegetarian filling. The one I chose apparently is one that's eaten at big celebrations: the filling was a mixture of potatoes, beetroot, carrot, onion and fresh ginger. Inside was an explosion of colour and flavours. It was spicy but not crazily hot and the individual flavours of the ingredients could still be discerned. I had taken up the suggestion of a side dish of cabbage which was delicious: the shredded cabbage was studded with whole seeds which perfumed and flavoured it beautifully and the cabbage itself was just cooked so it retained some bite. My dosa was served with a little dish of coconut chutney which was aromatic but cooling against the other accompaniment, a bowl of sambar, an almost soup like hot dish containing slices of vegetable.
Our visitors has chosen a prawn curry and a fish curry and as both dishes were cleared pretty quickly I can only assume they hit the mark, or else our companions were starving. I spotted a few meaty looking prawns among the vibrant red sauce, which the colour of the fish curry was bright and appealing: certainly the visual impact of the dishes here is good with a variety of bright colours in contrast to the sludgy browns of many restaurants' offerings.
Himself went for lamb, namely 'Adipoli Erachi Mulagu' the description of which I've lifted straight from the menu for ease: "An essential item from the Toddy shop and the bar menus of Kerala . Boneless cubes of lamb and dry cooked in turmeric water, then stir-fried in an open kadai with an abundance of black pepper, curry leaves, and finely sliced fresh coconut slivers. A spicy dish. Great with a combination of paratha bread or chapattis." This was a not inconsiderable heap of tender lamb chunks and it was quite complex in its flavours with the black pepper and not the chilli contributing to the kick.
The desserts were tempting but, other than a mango sorbet, no good for me with a nut allergy. If you don't fancy any of the traditional Indian desserts, flavoured with cardamom and strewn with nuts and dried fruits, there's always ice cream. We skipped desserts and, speaking for myself, I can't say I left hungry after what was a substantial main without being heavy.
With lassis for three of our number and a large bottle of Cobra for the fourth, the bill came in around £77 which seems fair for the quality of the food and the location, which does add a premium. I do think the formality is a little over the top and I would much prefer to see Rasa do something a bit more laidback, more cafe-style. The food, however, is fresh and zingy with layers of flavour and fragrance.
I liked Rasa a lot and saw a lot more dishes I'd like to try so there's a good chance I'll go back. The surroundings say special occasion but the prices aren't steep and the food is to be recommended.
If you like the sound of Rasa but are in the southern part of England, there are branches in London in Stoke Newington, two restaurants in the West End on Rathbone Street (a Rasa Express) and Dering Street (both W1) , a Rasa Express on the Euston Road, and one in the Holiday Inn at Kings Cross; a second restaurant on Dering Street - Rasa Samudra - specialises in seafood while the restaurant in Stoke Newington is entirely vegetarian. The restaurant in Newcastle is the brand's first outside the capital.