Grand, ornate, iron gates serve as a welcome to one of north Northumberland’s newest restaurants.
Although Lal Khazana has only been open for a few weeks, it has already shaped a good reputation for itself and it is filling some big shoes.
For many years, its predecessor, the Bengal Cottage, was one of the finest curry houses around – a favourite haunt.
So, the question on everyone’s lips – how does Lal Khazana compare?
Beyond the gates and across a crunchy bed of red-stone chippings stood an uninspiring single-storey building. Once inside, though, the racy aromas of the East hit us between the eyes. What a delicious greeting!
We were guided through the bar and takeaway pick-up area and into the restaurant.
It was typical of the genre – plain, modern furniture, glass chandeliers and wall lights, dark brown flooring and panelling and generally unfussy decor.
The tables were set immaculately, with red cloth napkins folded into hat-like shapes, cutlery gleaming and glasses shining. Everything was spotlessly clean. To our right was a room-length window through which the sun streamed, soon to be replaced by driving rain on this unsettled spring Monday evening.
To our left was a smaller room with two tables of eight, ideal for party nights, and a wonderful opening into the kitchen. It was fascinating to watch the chefs in action.
We were near the entrance so the music from the TV screens in the takeaway area competed somewhat with the Indian music in the restaurant.
Our drinks – a pint of Cobra lager and a large glass of red wine – arrived promptly and allowed us plenty of time to study a typically extensive menu. There are tandoori and biryani dishes, meat and seafood dishes; vegetarian and traditional dishes; even English dishes for those who want to join the party but aren’t keen on curry (for the record, sirloin steak, £10.90; fried chicken, £7.90; scampi, £7.90; chicken nuggets, £7.50, all with chips and salad).
It’s a daunting task trying to select from such a cornucopia of delicious-sounding options. I almost resorted to the blindfold-and-pin method but plumped in the end for reshmi scallops starter (£6.50), followed by something different for me, Madhupuri chicken (£8.50) with mushroom pilau rice (£2.90) and keema nan (£2.70).
Mrs L took the safe route, going for king prawn starter (£5.90), then chicken tikka masala (£8.90) with plain pilau rice (£2.50) and garlic and coriander nan (£2.70).
Before the starters arrived, we had a couple of warm popadoms (50p each) and pickle tray (£2), containing a fine selection of fresh, crunchy, spicy (nay, hot!), cool and sweet accompaniments. A super entrée.
The subtle flavour of the scallops was matched by the sauce of peppers, onions, garlic and gentle spices in my starter. My puri bread and precise salad, with lettuce and slivers of beetroot and carrot, added up to a well-presented, delightfully cooked dish.
It was a similar tale across the table as a hint of ginger and slices of spring onion also tickled Mrs L’s taste buds.
We agreed we would willingly make the journey out to Shilbottle for the starters alone.
It had been the menu’s description of my main course that had grabbed my attention: ‘Pieces of chicken barbecued in a tandoor, then cooked in a honey-flavoured, sweet-and-sour, thick sauce, with onions, tomatoes and a mixture of ground spices.’
For me, irresistible and quite unusual in an Indian restaurant.
It was indeed sweet but with a decent enough kick to remind me this was Indian cuisine. The rice was cooked to perfection, fluffy but retaining the slightest of bites.
Mrs L tucked into her spread as if her life depended on it and, it has to be said, she fair demolished it. She enjoyed the creaminess and rich flavours of the curry without the deep heat of some of the more spicy offerings.
We concluded by sharing a portion of traditional Indian ice cream, mango kulfi (£2.50).
There had been enough evidence in the one meal, served with ultra-friendly efficiency, that Lal Khazana is going to fill those big shoes more than adequately.
A PARADISE FOR VEGETARIANS
If you’re a vegetarian, then you need to make a beeline to Lal Khazana. Apart from the veggie versions of the traditional curries, bhuna, dupiaza, rogan josh, pathia, kurma, Malayan, Kathmiri, dansak, Sri Lanka, Madras and vindaloo (all £6.50), there is a separate vegetarian section on the menu, where the likes of begun stuffed pepper (£7.90) and chana masala (chick peas, £6.90) reside.
The dish that caught my eye was shobnan-e-sabzi (£6.90) – ‘mixed vegetables cooked in a creamy mango sauce’.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Onion bhaji (v)......£2.90
Stuffed pepper (v)......£4.90
King prawn sag......£11.90
Maaser salan (salmon)......£11.50
Vegetable biryani (v)......£7.90
Chana masala (v)......£6.90
Tandoori mixed grill......£11.90
Chicken handi lazeez......£8.50
Bombay aloo (v, potatoes)......£3.50
Bhindi bhaji (v, okra)......£3.50
Star ratings (out of 10)
Quality of food......8½
Use of local food......none on menu
Toilet for disabled......no
Cater for kids......yes
Verdict: Well cooked food; very friendly and efficient. A great evening.
Contact: Call 01665 575880, or 07800 635340, or visit www.lalkhazana.co.uk
The previous Northumberland Gazette Eating Out column reviewed The Apple Inn, at Lucker. And if you missed it, here is a link to the Gazette’s top tips of 2014.