We were running late and were unsure exactly where our destination was, but when we pulled up in the one wing-mirrored Fiesta and slung it haphazardly between two sport utility vehicles it soon became clear we were almost in Darras Hall hinterland.
Haveli has been dishing up crafted modern Indian cuisine for a year now from its home on Broadway, the heart of the village shopping facilities. It’s more than a stone’s throw from the main hub of Ponteland’s pubs and eateries, but first impressions are what counts. And I’ll be honest; peering through the grubby car window, I thought this place looked a little bit swanky.
Honouring tradition and innovation, the restaurant’s focus is on quality and flavour without compromise. The head chef and the manager have worked in some of Delhi and Mumbai’s top hotels so diners are guaranteed authentic culinary Indian heritage.
Haveli, in Hindi, means mansion, a building of historical and architectural significance, considered a status symbol. I don’t know about history and architecture, but it certainly has an air of exclusivity. Perhaps this is why Haveli has curried favour with a fair share of famous faces since opening last March, many of them footballers, perhaps unsurprisingly given its location, however, more remarkably, AC/DCs Brian Johnson.
The open-plan floor and blue lighting gave a distinct air of a la mode. I’ve read that blue light is beneficial during daylight hours but becomes disruptive at night. We had booked in advance but there was evidently no need; our fellow diners numbered five. Mondays appeared to be their quiet night.
The a la carte menu offered signature dishes on top of the classics, so there was plenty to choose from, but there was no sign of the early evening menu which I had perused online.
With a penchant for the milder spice, the jhinga moilley (£13.50) – Indian Ocean king prawns in a mild ginger and coconut sauce – was an ideal choice for my lily-livered dining partner.
The murgh chettinad (£9.95), a fiery south Indian dish with coconut, fennel, star anise and chillies, caught my eye. It had earned itself two stars on the spice scale, which translated as ‘very spicy’ and with that blissful Brit ignorance that belies that a good curry should make you weep, I decided this was the one to make me cry. It’s reassuring to know that the freshly-ground spices flavour locally-sourced meat from Dissington.
We took up the offer of poppadoms and three chutneys (£3.50) while we awaited our starters. The poppadoms were daintily quartered and lightly crisped; a welcome relief from the unwieldy unidentified flying objects that so often find their way out of many curry house kitchens. We mused over the chutneys trying to decide which exotic Eastern spice lent its subtle taste to each and lamenting the lack of a spicier option. The dark chutney somewhat perplexed my palate and I was convinced of a chocolaty aroma, alas my hopes of finely tuned taste buds were dashed when our waiter confirmed it was tamarind.
Our starters arrived quickly. The murgh ke pasanda (£7.50) – chicken breast marinated with sandalwood, saffron yoghurt, ginger and garlic – arrived, bejewelled with ruby pomegranate seeds, while my shikampur (£7.95) – minced-lamb tikki stuffed with yoghurt, raisins and royal cumin – landed innocuously before me. I don’t say this disparagingly; seldom can a shikampur look as scintillating as it tastes and its melt in the mouth texture and the fusion of flavours more than made up for its shortcomings on the visual aesthetic. There was a definite hint of ginger that nodded to something sweet and festive. The chicken too was a success; succulent and subtly spiced with the sandalwood imparting a rare and fanciful piquancy.
The main courses arrived in style and the almost conch-shaped bowls were deceptively large so there was plenty of sauce to accompany the fluffy pilau rice, which came topped with fried strands of onion.
The prawns were of epic proportion and the lavish sauce they swam in was satisfyingly mild and creamy.
Although content with my chicken, I had hoped for more of a kick from a dish deemed as six or seven on a 1-10 scale of spiciness, but its delicate yet mouth-watering flavours sufficed. With this rating scale, I could have contended with a vindaloo.
The peshwari naan (£3.50) was skilfully crafted, not too crisp and not too soggy, and enveloped a sweet paste of sesame seeds, fennel and cashew nuts. It was a fair size and shared between two it was just right.
The desserts had all the hallmarks of classic Indian influence with a modern twist. We rapidly singled out the mango and cardamom crème brûlée (£4.95) for the crowning glory. Exquisitely presented, one was enough to share, especially as we had just asked for our leftovers to be bagged up to take home. The sweetness of the mango mingled melodiously with the fragrant and ever versatile cardamom, and coupled with the velvety texture, it slipped down a treat.
The wine menu was impressive, but choice is limited for those not indulging in a full bottle. I chose a Malbec, apparently so named after the Hungarian peasant who first introduced the grape to France. There was nothing peasant about the price (£7.95), but it was certainly a noble and satiating wine, with hints of bramble, ash and white pepper. The Estonian Viru beer was light and refreshing and altogether a more appropriate choice to accompany a curry.
An extensive cocktail menu reminded us that Haveli is here to offer a complete dining experience.
Despite the empty chairs, there was an impressive and encouraging footfall for takeaways indicating a loyal customer base. The service was impeccable and our waiter and waitress couldn’t have been more courteous.
Passion and commitment are expressed meticulously, from the exquisite attention to detail in cuisine, through to the attentive hospitality and stylish and elegant decor. The kitchen is certainly the epicentre of this establishment so look no further if you’re looking to spice things up in style.
THERE ARE GRAND PLANS AHEAD
While paying for the bill, we spoke to the manager who was keen to tell us of his aspirations for Haveli in the coming months. He is eager to shed the air of exclusivity with which the restaurant has been attributed and attract more regulars than special-occasion guests. They are looking to take on more kitchen staff and will be getting a new menu in April, with a view to catering for those who want to enjoy lighter bites. There is also a children’s menu for younger diners.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Seekh gilafi (lamb mince)......£6.50
Murgh haryali (chicken)......£6.50
Bharwan mushroom (V)......£5.50
Goan lamb vindaloo......£10.95
Kashmiri rogan josh (lamb)......£10.95
Navrattan korma (mixed vegetables, V)......£7.50
Dhabba kukkad (chicken)......£10.95
Machar jhol (monkfish)......£12.50
Traditional Indian rice pudding with almond and saffron......£5
Valrhona chocolate and cumin tart with pistachio ice-cream......£5.50
STAR RATINGS (OUT OF 10)
Quality of food......8
Value for money......8
Children catered for......7
Use of local food......8
Access for disabled......9
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: An elegant setting for authentic flavours and stylishly spiced dishes with contemporary twist
Contact: 01661 872727 or online at haveliponteland.com