“ Cuisine: Indian / Address: 39 Bridge Street, Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland / Tel: (01289) 302736/306229 „
Is there a UK town without an Indian restaurant? There surely can't be many. Me and the Curry Monster are making it our mission to visit as many towns in the UK as possible and eat Indian food there. Towards the end of last year we booked a cheap weekend in Berwick upon Tweed with the intention of doing a bit of walking, sampling some hostelries and finishing off Saturday evening with a curry. It hadn't crossed our minds that we might get heavy snowfall before November was out, but when that happened we just shrugged our shoulders, wrapped up warm and set out for Berwick anyway; when we arrived, though, continuing snowstorms forced us to abandon the walking and seek shelter in "The Barrels" which is an utterly brilliant little boozer in the old part of town. By the time we were ready to eat we were, I must confess, slightly the worse for the drink and hardly ideal restaurant reviewers; fortunately, I'd had the foresight to stick a notebook in my coat pocket in which I was able to make notes, using the pickle tray as cover.
The Magna is housed in a lovely old building which may previously have been a bank (I'm sure any local reading this will put me right if I am mistaken) and, although it appears that rooms may have been sacrificed to create a large open dining area, there are still a few retained features such as the lovely high ceilings and cornicing. On a very cold, snowy night, with its windows all lit up, the Magna looked very inviting. We hadn't booked and the restaurant was pretty busy but we were shown to a table for four in a corner of the restaurant; fair enough, someone has to sit in the corner, but I did find that it was quite difficult to attract the attention of the waiters from where we'd been placed.
The Magna's menu is a fairly standard one featuring the usual dishes and a few 'specials'; in spite of the rather grand appearance of the restaurant, this is very much your typical 'British curry house', and not a 'contemporary Indian restaurant'. One thing that struck me was that, on the whole, main courses were very reasonably priced, especially given that there are only two Indian restaurants in town which aren't close together so there's little competition, and because the restaurant's appearance does give an impression of swankiness (then again, the size of the dining areas does suggest that they like to pack 'em in, and the restaurant only got busier during the time we spent in there).
We refused starters but ordered a couple of popadoms and the pickle tray; Himself was delighted to see the inclusion of crispy onions among the selection of pickles and chutneys; this is something we usually only see in Scotland so it was good to find that crispy onions have crept over the border. On the other hand, the mango chutney was more of a mango syrup as it was far too runny and contained no solid pieces at all; it was also of such a vibrant colour that it was almost glowing with a radioactive hue.
After vascillating frantically for ten minutes I waited until the waiter arrived before plumping for a prawn bhuna for my main course. I almost never order prawns in an Indian restaurant because, unless you are willing to pay extra for king prawns, you invariably get teeny little North Sea things drowning in a sea of spicy sauce. Whatever possessed me to order a prawn dish on this occasion I do not know, though I'm guessing that several Timmemans cherry beers may have played a part. Naturally the dish was highly disappointing; the prawns were miniscule and took a great deal of finding, while the sauce was non-descript and could have been any medium sauce including a rogan josh, a dupiaza (as it contained a large amount of onion) or a balti. There was a distinct lack of fresh coriander which can add a little life to the most boring of curry dishes and the sauce was more of a slightly spicy gravy than the rich, complex sauce it should have been.
The Curry Monster chose the lamb madras which, fortunately, was a bit livelier than my dish. The lamb appeared to be reasonably good quality and was quite tender. The verdict was that the sauce was tasty but could have easily been a bit hotter in terms of chili heat.
We shared a slightly greasy nan bread and a portion of plain pilau rice. Both were distinctly average and the portion of rice was a tad mean. It was only when we had almost finished eating that a waiter appeared and asked whether we wanted any more rice - great timing, not! I'd (wisely) ordered a diet coke as by this point more alcohol would have been imprudent and Himself had ordered a pint of lager both of which we'd emptied long before we'd finished our mains; we'd have had another drink each but found it impossible to catch our waiter's (or any waiter's) eye; in my opinion this is bad service, and poor business as drinks are where restaurants can make lots of money.
Overall the service was just about adequate; it wasn't especially friendly or attentive but the order was at least taken down accurately. I had asked whether any of the dishes we'd ordered contained nuts and rather than just reply in the negative, the waiter did go and check with the kitchen.
Before venturing out into the blizzard to trudge to our hotel we did, of course, pay visits to the toilet (nobody wants to be caught short in two feet of snow). The first niggle was that the toilets weren't very well sign-posted and it was only by following other diners that we found them as I couldn't find a waiter to ask when I wanted to go. While the toilets were spotlessly clean they were a little run down in terms of fittings and décor, and they were also very cold - it's a good job you don't spend much time in there!
The Magna isn't the world's best Indian restaurant (and, as there is still another for us to try, it may not even be Berwick's best) and closer inspection of the awards listed on the restaurant website suggests that the Magna may be trading on past glories as the most recent award was given back in 2005. Is it OK to describe a restaurant as "OK if you're pretty drunk"? The Magna is.
39 Bridge Street
Berwick upon Tweed