“ Address: Church Street, On the Tyne Bridge, Gateshead, NE8 2AT, United Kingdom „
Cliff Richard: he lives the life of Reilly. Or so says a woman who takes the same bus as me in the mornings. I don't as a rule eavesdrop on the conversations of other passengers but this woman is priceless. She and another passenger were talking about Cliff Richard's recent concert at the Newcastle Arena. "Oh yes, I saw something about it in the free paper. He went to that new restaurant in Gateshead as well." "Which one's that?" "That posh new Indian Restaurant. The Raval or something. By the bridge." "Oh, right! Indian Restaurant ...(sigh) ...He lives the life of Reilly, that Cliff Richard."
We had wanted to visit the Raval since it opened a couple of years ago but a combination of travelling frequently, and the relatively expensive menu put us off. They did offer an early bird menu but the limited choices were uninspiring and the majority of dishes were unsuitable for me due to a nut allergy. We were pleased to learn, then, that the early bird menu has been revamped and we were lucky enough to be among a limited number of diners able to take advantage of a two for one offer to launch the menu.
When the Raval first opened many people were surprised that a restaurant that billed itself a "luxury" would open in that particular location. First it's in Gateshead and not Newcastle, and it was rather isolated in that there was very little else of a similar standard nearby. Now, though, there's a Hilton Hotel just across the road, the Sage Centre for Music and Baltic, the Centre for Contemporary Art, are just down the hill and just behind the Hilton there's the Central Bar (also known locally as the 'coffin bar' due to its unusual shape) which has been brilliantly restored and is well worth a visit.
The Raval stands at the Gateshead end of the famous Tyne Bridge; there is parking nearby and it's a ten minute walk to Gateshead Metro Station and Bus Station. You can walk to the Raval in about fifteen minutes from the centre of Newcastle.
The exterior is very simple but it looks smart and that impression is confirmed when you walk in. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful aroma of lilies and there, at either end of the bar, were two magnificent arrangements of lilies. Even when we'd been seated in the dining area, their lovely fragrance permeated through the restaurant.
We were first invited to take a seat in the lounge area. This looks comfortable and smart but when we took seats around a small table, we realised that the table was a totally impractical height for the chairs, being too high. Another group of diners had been seated at a larger table which looked like a dining table and were sitting on high backed chairs. When the waiter came to move them to the dining area, they were clearly confused as they were under the impression they were already seated at their table.
As we waited to order I had an Orange Cosmopolitan which took some time to come but was worth the wait, while Himself splashed out on a large bottle of Cobra which was eye wateringly priced.
The Early Bird menu was a single sheet which explained, in a rather convoluted way, what the meal comprises. There are five choices - fish (sea bass), king prawn, lamb, chicken or vegetable (though actually it's main feature is 'cottage cheese' which I assumed to mean paneer) - each cooked slightly differently. You choose one of them and this is served with the standard accompaniments of rice, the vegetable side dish of the day, a lentil dish and naan bread. They are described as "platters" which makes them sound rather grand but when they are presented, they look more like tapas. They are all priced at £15.95 each.
I chose the King Prawn platter while Himself picked the lamb. The dhal, vegetable dish and the prawn dish were served in little dishes lined up on one side of the plate. An up-turned cup was removed to reveal a little hillock of rice though Himself was at the loo when the plates arrived and I didn't know where he'd put the camera so by the time he got back my rice sculpture was starting to collapse. Also on the plate was what looked like a battered deep fried onion ring; when I cut into it the texture was not unlike tofu; the waiter did explain what it was but I promptly forgot, not tofu anyway.
My king prawn dish contained only one massive butterflied prawn; it was enormous but I'd rather have had a couple of smaller ones. However, the flesh was very tender, cooked to perfection in fact. The vibrant red sauce was subtly spiced, more aromatic than hot; what was notable was that the individual spices weren't so obvious, this was a sauce that worked together as a whole with nothing standing out more than anything else.
The vegetable side dish was 'aloo gobi' (potatoes and cauliflower), hardly an inspiring choice as I'd been expecting something a bit more exotic, perhaps okra or aubergine based. As it happens it was a very delicious example of aloo gobi with the textures of the two vegetables just right; the cauliflower was cooked through but still had a bit of bite, while the potato was very soft and absorbed the evenly spiced sauce.
I'd happily eat lentils every day for the rest of my life so I had high hopes for the dhal and I was not disappointed. Although the choice of tarka dhal was hardly exciting the lentils were beautifully cooked and retaining just the right texture. My favourite thing about the dhal was the flavour of toasted cumin that was coming through most prominently.
On the other side of the table the lamb was going down well but the verdict was that it could easily have been a bit hotter in terms of spiciness. The meat was in fair sized chunks and it was very tender; although my king prawn was good it was impossible to eat without removing it from the dish and cutting it on the plate but the lamb was more practical to manage and therefore retained its heat longer. The sauce, though, was quite flat with no real complexity of flavours and it was a slightly disappointing element of the meal.
One thing I did like was that we weren't given the same naan breads, with mine being dotted with fresh coriander and the other being studded with cumin seeds. the breads were not like those served in a typical curryhouse where they are the size of a small country, but much thinner and slightly crispy so completely free of stodginess.
Overall the main courses were good but not brilliant and definitely not as good as I hoped from a restaurant that bills itself as "luxury" and wastes no time in listing on its website, the names of the celebrities, local and otherwise that have dined at the restaurant (I was excited to see that my hero Cyrus Todiwala among them). I thought that the presentation was somewhat affected and not very practical to eat unless you tipped everything out onto the plate, which in turn seemed a bit uncouth in this environment.
I had just enough space to squeeze in a dessert though it was at this point that the service became horribly slow and I was almost at the point of wishing I hadn't bothered. I'd have liked one of the Indian desserts but all of those contained nuts of some kind so in the end I chose pineapple with black pepper and vanilla ice cream. There was one slice of pineapple which was just warm from the syrup that had been poured over it; it was the syrup that had been infused with black pepper, not the pineapple as I had anticipated. The syrup was cloying sweet and while it was nice to start with it quickly became too sweet for me. The ice cream was nice enough but I think something a bit more interesting like a coconut ice cream would have been a better accompaniment for this dish.
The Raval is a good restaurant and if I come into some money sometime soon I will probably splash out on another visit to explore the a la carte menu; however, I foudn the easrly bird menu rather unimaginative and not really a good showcase for the rest of what's on offer. The food is competently cooked and flavoured but just doesn't have the wow factor that they claim to have.
The service was erratic; sometimes it was too slow and it was sometimes impossible to catch someone's eye, yet at other times I felt like the young waiters were loitering too close to the tables. Drinks had to be requested and there was no attempt on the part of the waiting to pre-empt this - I was surprised at this as I would have thought the staff would be encouraged to get customers to spend more.
While we had taken advantage of a special offer our final bill for one main course, one cocktail, a large bottle of Cobra, an orange juice, a small bottle of water and one dessert came in at £42. This included a ten per cent service charge which had been calculated for the bill before the second main course had been removed from the bill (I can see why they do that).
I can't rave about Raval but i'm willing to try again and i'm happy enough to recommend it as a special treat, perhaps if you're attending an event at the Sage and want to dine before the show. I can't help thinking, though, that just across the water there are better restaurants where you can get a great indian meal for less money.