WITH the mid-winter blues starting to hit home, now's the time to be whisked off to a sunny place to recharge the batteries. Gazette editor Paul Larkin took the easy and cheaper option and took his wife to an Indian restaruant in Alnmouth, where they could at least pretend they were somewhere exotic in the world!
THERE is something curious about the Schooner Hotel at Alnmouth.
And I'm not necessarily talking about the ghostly goings-on that are allegedly rife in this listed 17th century coaching inn.
The exterior and entrance to the Schooner is looking a bit worse for wear and has needed a serious make-over for a while.
Yet, to the left as you enter, is the most gloriously-decorated Indian restaurant, quite out of keeping with the rest of the hotel.
Appropriately called the Spice Galleon, it was fresh, clean, subtly lit and neatly decorated with stylish ornaments and prints.
A blue glow emanated from around the top of the walls – I assumed it was part of the lighting effects and not a load of ghoulish ectoplasm, the sort of spooky things that have made the Schooner famous as 'The Most Haunted Hotel in Great Britain', an accolade twice bestowed upon it by the Poltergeist Society.
While we're on incongruities, the waiting staff were a right hotch-potch. One was smartly dressed in black with black tie, another in jeans and a hoody top.
They were, however, very polite and welcoming and couldn't do enough to accommodate.
The general atmosphere was jollied along by some stuttering Indian music, which, when it worked, was enjoyable and helped ship diners away from the freezing Alnmouth night to a world of spices and blistering heat.
The menu was a monster, in common with most Indian restaurants, with every dish under the sun in a full range of strengths. If you don't know your way round them, they can be daunting.
Each dish is also available in two vegetarian options, generally mushroom and vegetable.
We tend to go for something familiar and leave nothing to chance until we get to know just how hot 'fairly hot' or 'strongly spiced' are.
So we tackled the Spice Galleon selection with our usual lack of adventure. While we were perusing, we were offered drinks (a lager and a Guinness) and a couple of poppadoms (50p each), which came with tureens of onion salad, chutney, chilli pickle and a rather watery raitha (natural yoghurt-based sauce).
We kicked off with onion bhajis each (two plus a healthy helping of fresh lettuce salad for 1.80 each). You can't go wrong with onion bhajis! These were standard fare, nothing out of the ordinary.
The came the business end of the meal – I chose chicken dupiaza (4.50), a dish prepared with onions and spices and fried briskly, while my wife went for the Brits' favourite Indian meal, chicken tikka masalla (5.30).
We both had mushroom pilau rice (1.95 each) and shared a garlic naan bread (1.60).
The sauces were packed with meat, white, almost glowing in the blue haze.
Mine was not hot at all and, come to think of it, not all that spicy either. Although not an expert, I have certainly had spicier dupiazas in my time.
I reminded myself to go for something with a bit more kick next time I visit the Schooner.
The tikka masalla was very red, creamy and similarly mild, but it
suited my wife's delicate tastes down to the ground.
Our rice was finely cooked, with a good blend of mushrooms.
Another round of drinks helped the food go down very well!
By the time we had devoured the first two courses, our bellies were full and we decided to body-swerve the pre-prepared ice cream concoctions for dessert.
We had managed to assuage our appetites for about 30, pretty reasonable in my book.
For those with a broader outlook, there were plenty of speciality dishes to tempt you:
Special murgh jalfrezi, marinated, diced chicken or lamb baked in a clay oven and cooked with capsicum, onions and tomatoes (5.95); chilli chingri masalla, super king prawns first barbecued then cooked in a special blend of hot spices with green chillies (6.50); bhuna kathi gosht, a medium spiced dish of tender lamb roasted in a tandoor, cooked with onions, fresh tomatoes, a touch of fenugreek and coriander (5.95); Spice Galleon salmon speciality, fish marinated in house special spices and grilled (6.95); or even jaal jhul murgh, a very hot southern India dish, cooked in a generous amount of sauce.
All of the dishes are available as part of a takeaway service.
STAR RATINGS (out of five)
Quality of food 3
Vegetarian choice 3
Value for money 3.5
Children catered for 2.5
Disabled access 2
Disabled toilet No
Overall experience 2.5
VERDICT: Pleasant but not stunning
Contact details: Spice Galleon, Schooner hotel, 8 Northumberland Street, Alnmouth, Northumberland NE66 2RS . Tel: 01665 830750; website: www.theschoonerhotel.co.uk