* Prices may differ from that shown
With only days to spare before our Groupon was due to expire, we made a reservation for a Tuesday evening at Last Days of the Raj. We had hoped to go on Sunday evening but the place was completely booked, such is the popularity of this suburban restaurant.
Not to be confused with the nearby "Last Days of the Mogul Raj" (or indeed the Last Days of the Raj across the water in Newcastle), the restaurant is on a mainly residential street in Gateshead's well-heeled suburb, Low Fell. There's an alright-ish pub next door if you fancy a pre-dinner drink, but the restaurant does have a very comfortable bar/lounge where you'll invariably be seated with the menu before going to your table. There's private car parking space at the rear of the restaurant though it may be necessary to park on a side street at the busiest times.
The exterior of the restaurant is a little odd; it looks to me like it could once have been an old peoples' home because it is an extensive one story building, a bit like an overgrown bungalow. At the side and front there are well kept gardens and the flowers were in full bloom when we visited.
There's no denying the interior is comfortable but it is also a little over the top. What I do like about the décor is that rather than the frequently used rich red that appears so often in Indian restaurants, here they've chosen blue. An elephant motif is ubiquitous with ceramic or brass elephants occupying any free floor space or ledge, and a good number appearing in the soft furnishings. In the dining room they've gone for a Raj meets comfortable English sitting room look which is comfortably old fashioned without looking horribly dated, perhaps because everything is in such good condition. There's a feeling of "olde worlde" formality, partly from the ambience, partly from the behaviour of the staff which perhaps explains why people regard the Last Days of the Raj as a good choice for special occasions.
There was nobody to greet us when we arrived and we weren't sure whether to remain in the bar or go through to the restaurant. After two minutes someone appeared, judging by the photos on the wall (they included one of him fawning before David Cameron and another with the awful Chris Tarrant) , he was the restaurant owner. We weren't impressed by his gruff manner and impatient attitude; I'd go so far to say that Himself took against the man immediately, something almost unheard of. We were instructed to take a seat and given menus, and asked if we would like to order some drinks. It took an age for the drinks to come - what's so difficult about a pint of lager and a gin and tonic?. While we were deliberating over the menu, Himself turned to the back of the menu to look at the special set meal offers: it's something he always does, he just likes to know what's what. The manager saw him doing this and advised him in rather a rude way that he should be looking at the main menu: how did this man know that we hadn't already decided and were just looking at the menu while we waited, and couldn't he have found a more reasonable way to let us know this if we actually were looking in the wrong place? Our orders were taken and we had a few minutes with out drinks before they were silently taken from us, transferred to a tray and we were directed to the dining room; how nice it would have been if the waiter had said "Let me take your drinks through to the dining room" instead of wordlessly removing them from us.
The dining room is ostentatious in a cluttered rather than an opulent way but it is, admittedly, a couple of steps up from your average "curry house". Heavy swagged drapes, a grand piano and a grandfather clock all feature in the decor. I find they way they keep the door to the dining room firmly closed very amusing, as if it's some kind of inner sanctum that only a privileged few are permitted to see. As you silently process from the bar to the dining room, there's an aura of great solemnity and I couldn't help giggling as we were led to our table.
Our starters arrived within a couple of minutes of our being seated but we were left with our original drinks and, in spite of the fussinness with which they seemed to be around just when you didn't want them to, they weren't there to ask the more obvious stuff. The service is a little odd; somewhat obsequious at times, yet the obvious things like being offered more drinks, a jug of water or even coffees at the end of the meal are forgotten. Our Groupon covered food only, we had to pay for all drinks so wouldn't you think they'd try to get you to buy more drinks?
My twin samosas (£4.75) tasted OK though the filling could have been a little spicier for me and the colour of the exterior was not quite golden enough. Himself had chosen the 'kori kebab' (£4.95), something I hadn't heard of before; it was little chunks of lamb nicely spiced, still tender and in a light sauce. The presentation of both of these was uninspiring with sad dry slices of cucumber and wedges of pale tomato.
We had both chosen lamb for our main courses, lamb balti (£11.95) for me and lamb Sri Lanka (a slightly more modest £9.50). A plate warmer was brought to the table but the waiter brought our food in ceramic dishes on an unnecessarily huge trolley, on top of which sat a little gas burner. He preceded to re-heat our main courses one at a time on the gas burner so they were presented to us piping hot. I thought that this was unnecessary affectation; I'm pretty sure the kitchen can't be so far from the dining room that they need to re-cook your food, just bring it straight to the table.
My dish was the hotter of the two and was finished with a sprinkling of sliced green chillies which gave an additional fiery kick. I hadn't expected that from a balti and I was a little concerned but the heat proved to be manageable. Both dishes contained plenty of moist, tender lamb but the balti was considerably tastier. The Sri Lanka lacked the coconut flavour it should usually have and the sauce was lifeless and boring. A portion of plain pillau rice was easily enough for two to share and we ordered a couple of very good chapattis too. Even given that my dish was the better of the two and very good, it wasn't so good that it deserved it's rather inflated price tag. Usually a balti would appear with the kormas, jalfrezis and other dishes commonly found on the menu of standard Indian restaurants but here it appeared separately and was priced nearer to more unusual dishes such as those using venison or duck. On the other hand, all of the special veggie dishes were priced at a reasonable £8.55 which I found quite impressive.
Full as frogs after two courses we decided to call it a day and have coffee at home - the only way to ensure you get your coffee just as strong as you want. However, we did make good inroads into the "sweetie tray" which contained not just the candied seeds and mint imperials but also piles of betel nut and jelly teddies (I'm still finding those in the pocket of my handbag).
I really don't think that Last Days of the Raj justifies its higher prices, the food is mixed and the service lacks friendliness. It's roomy, comfortable and has pretentions to grandeur but the food ought to be much better. Maybe I'm too critical, this place does, after all, have a legion of loyal fans. I suspect they need to get around a bit more.
168 Kells Lane, Low Fell