“ Address: 41 Bridge Street, Northampton NN1 1NS „
~Saturday night is sofa night~
Despite living just a few miles out of Northampton we very rarely go into the town in the evenings, especially on a Saturday due to my long term addiction to (hang my head in shame) Casualty. It took a tempting offer from the 'deals' company 'GroupOn' to lure us into the town centre for an Indian meal at the Royal Bengal. I paid £21 for dinner for two and emailed the restaurant a week before to see if they had a table. I could have rung of course, but the email service was excellent - I received polite, friendly and helpful replies, asking me for a code number which I got wrong and then even more politely pointing me in the direction of the right code and then saying they'd be happy to see us at the time and on the date that I'd requested.
The Royal Bengal is located on Bridge Street which is very central. It's the A508 extension of the street known as Drapery after it passes the fancy church in the town centre and just up the hill from the bar and restaurant in the converted church. Bridge Street has a lot of bars and restaurants but our booking was for 7 o'clock which was thankfully early enough for us to avoid the yobs who hang around the town later in the evening. We parked up in the car park by TK Maxx where a ticket for the evening is just £1. It was just a short walk, certainly less than 5 minutes, from there to the restaurant.
~Looks can be deceptive~
It's probably a good thing that the Royal Bengal decided to do a GroupOn campaign because looking at it from the outside, I probably wouldn't have bothered to go in. It doesn't look very special from the façade which has rather a cheap looking blue signage and it looks quite small. Once we stepped inside I was really surprised how big the place was and concluded that it must be deeper at the back than it is at the front, probably extending behind the shop next door. The Bengali theme is expressed through a large tiger-face carpet as you go in and lots of traditional paintings and murals inside. The room is so big that the ceiling felt a bit low and gave a slightly 'cafeteria' feel about the place. The décor is very traditional with hand painted murals on the walls. The one nearest to us showed a sari-clad lady sitting on a rock reaching her hand out to a peacock. It reminded me a lot of restaurants in India and after visiting a few Indian restaurants recently that were trying hard to look like they weren't really Indian, I was quite touched that they didn't seem to be trying to be anything other than exactly what they were. The music that played all evening was modern Indian - nothing old and twangy and nothing too Bollywood either. I rather enjoyed it.
The best thing about the Royal Bengal was the staff. Before I go on to be slightly less glowing about the food, I do want to say that I can't remember an Indian restaurant where I've seen so many happy, smiling and friendly staff. Lots of different people served us during the evening - which was a bit odd, I have to admit it felt a bit like we were being shared around- but every one of them was absolutely lovely and exceedingly polite in an old-fashioned genteel way that you rarely see. One chap came back to check part of the order and said "Do please excuse me" before asking if the lassis were sweet or salt. It's not unusual to get a restaurant with one or maybe two stand out members of staff but absolutely all of the waiters were delightful, though I have to admit there were two with fabulous beards which my husband and I both took to immediately (probably due to shared memories of a lovely guy with a similar funky beard who drove us for 4 days in Hyderabad a few years ago). All the waiters - and they are all men, this is not a place for waitresses - were smartly dressed in waistcoats with neatly ironed tea-towels thrown carefully over their shoulders.
We we given a table set for four at the front of the restaurant. After a couple of recent meals where I've been given tiny two-person tables without enough room for all the plates and glasses, I was pleased to get a bit of space. The first waiter brought the menus and the wine list, took our Group On voucher with a big smile and asked if we'd like to order some drinks. I ordered a half of lager (Kingfisher as it turned out) and hubby had a diet Coke. Our deal entitled us to a starter each, a main course each and a so-called 'sundry' dish. These included rice, nan breads and other bread types. There were some exclusions - I believe the piri piri scallops were excluded from the starters and a steak dish from the mains and there was a supplement of £2 on any of the king prawn dishes.
The menu is very much one of 'all the usual suspects' - a very standard selection of dishes without too many surprises, laid out in quite a predictable way. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact some of the most creative ways of arranging a menu can be the most confusing. Everything was pretty much where I expected it to be.
Part of the point of buying GroupOn deals is to try something different so I banned my husband from having an onion bhaji as his starter and insisted he try something he wouldn't normally go for. His idea of creativity was waiting to see what I chose and then saying "Yes, that sounds fine". So we ordered prawn puri for both of us. I did think that the prices of the starters were very good with an excellent range of options at £2.50 to £2.95 which seemed like a flash back to past times when going out for an Indian was a cheap thing to do. Our puris were listed at a very reasonable £2.95. For main courses I zoomed in instantly on the Bengal Fish Curry and we chose a prawn sagwala as our second dish after some debate over 'rogan versus sagwala' (or if you prefer 'tomato versus spinach'). Since the fish curry turned out to be remarkably red, I think the spinach option was the right one to take. There were at least three different regional fish dishes but since the place was called the Royal Bengal, I thought that the Bengali fish curry ought to be the most reliable. To go with these we ordered a plain rice and a garlic nan. If we hadn't been on a deal we'd probably have taken the prawn biryani as the second dish but then we'd not have known what to do for our second so-called 'sundry' as biryani plus extra rice would have been an overkill. The sagwala was taken off a long list of assorted curry sauces, to which you could pick which meat or vegetables to add. To be honest, I was disappointed by the absence of any lentil based sauce amongst the options though the online menu has a danshak which I didn't spot in the restaurant menu. In order to help all this slide down nicely, we also ordered two sweet lassis.
We were not in anyway attempting to max the value of our GroupOn deal which claimed to be worth up to something like £53. I have absolutely no idea how anyone could have come close to that amount as almost all of the dishes were very reasonably priced. Only if you were absolutely determined to pick the most expensive things on the menu would you come even close to that amount. As it was we paid £21 and probably ate around £26-28 worth of food and coffee.
~Slick but not rushed~
The service was very good and our starters were out within about ten minutes. A puri is a fried, thin unleavened bread and a good one should be light and fluffy whilst a bad one can be heavy and very greasy. Fortunately these were on the good side with a generous dollop of mild prawn curry folded into the bread. The pickle tray was brought for us to liven things up though I have to admit that the absence of a really hot lime pickle was a shame. Instead we got chopped onion in turmeric, a mango chutney, a yoghurt raita and a bright red sauce that tasted of nothing I was able to easily identify.
Once the plates were cleared the next waiter asked if we'd like to have the main courses or to wait. It's nice to be asked but we went with the 'bring them over, line them up' approach. A hot metal stand was brought over, the warmed plates were delivered, our used cutlery was replaced with new clean knives and forks and then the food appeared. I was a bit startled by just how red the fish curry was - think traffic light red and you're not too far off. By contrast the prawn sagwala was a tad 'greyish' in hue but packed a heck of a garlic punch despite being rather too mild on the chilli heat. The portions of everything except the massive nan bread were slightly on the not overly generous size which was actually perfect because it meant we ate every last mouthful and didn't have the usual sense of guilt that confronts us when there's a heap of food still left and you're starting to think of all the starving millions and feeling like you really didn't try hard enough.
The rice was perfect - which isn't surprising considering how much they must cook every day. The nan was very garlicky but possibly a bit too chewy. The sagwala was intensely and surprisingly garlicky and the traffic light fish tasted a lot better than it looked and had a large amount of tender, boneless white fish. As we ate, the waiters were whipping away the empties so discretely that we barely even noticed they'd gone though it was nice not to be sitting surrounded by the empty dishes. By the end of the food we were pleasantly but not uncomfortably full.
I should probably have given a bit more attention to the dishes we'd chosen in order to ensure that at least one of the mains had a bit more kick. Picking two dishes both graded as 2-star in terms of hotness (the menu had 1 through to 4 star options) meant we were a bit under-spiced and certainly it was no practice for our upcoming trip to India in a few weeks time.
We had coffees after we finished though the 'liqueur coffees' included on the deal weren't offered and we didn't ask for them - I can never see too much point in spoiling a good coffee and a good drink by putting the two together. Our bill for half a lager, a diet coke and two elegantly served lassis (complete with cocktail umbrellas!) came to somewhere around £6.50. We gave them a tenner, commented to each other that we'd love to take most of the waiters home with us, and headed out into the evening. Our meal, handled at a gentle pace, had taken just under an hour and a half.
I'm not sure I'd rush back when Northampton is full of so many other Indian restaurants but I'd certainly give the Royal Bengal a thumbs up for its great pricing and mostly for the lovely staff.
Traditional Indian restaurant in Northampton town centre