I’ll say one thing for my friends on Twitter: they are nothing if not persistent.
“Visit Dabbawal”, they kept urging, “it’s authentic Indian street food”.
Feeling in an obliging mood, I took a friend to the branch on High Bridge.
You could miss Dabbawal, were it not for the bicycle chained up outside – a nod to the streets of India.
It’s purple and gloomy, and inside you nearly trip up over some little table and chairs placed as a waiting room near the door. It’s cramped and – well, neither Indian or street. More like a grubby dive in Camden.
We were sat at a lonely table without greeting or smile in this gloomy grey atmosphere, almost the only diners on a Wednesday lunchtime.
Poppadoms with bland chutneys scarcely enlivened the mood. But the Dabbawal grill arrived – a nice mixture of tandoori grills, including good lamb chops and citrus prawns. However, these sat on a salad that was so old, the ends of the leaves had gone brown and soggy. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lettuce, looking as weary as the staff who served us.
Even a perfectly decent lamb rogan josh couldn’t raise my spirits, which were lowered even further by two poor desserts: a bland mango kulfi and a rice pudding which appeared to have been made with real, rather than condensed milk, and was overcooked to mush. It lacked taste, authenticity, and cardamom.
And that, I thought, was that. I write about each meal as I find it, and this was severely lacking in anything I can recall about my several visits to Indian streets: the colour, vibrancy, intensity and surprises of the food and the friendliness of the welcome. Bad Dabbawal.
But I reckoned without my Twitter followers. “Underwhelmed,” was the single word I tweeted, and the response was immediate: “You should have gone to Jesmond.”
There’s another, newer, branch. Chastened, I made the relatively rare decision to give Dabbawal another go. I was really glad I did.
It’s incredibly hard to find. On the website, rather than the posh-sounding “1 Brentwood Mews,” they really ought to say “it’s in the back lane behind Avanti in Brentwood Avenue”. It looks like a shack beside the railway tracks. Which, of course, is exactly the point.
It was as authentic as the old Moti Mahal in Old Delhi, home of the butter chicken. An old, corrugated sheet of metal separating it from the Metro tracks, a load of tables outside, freezing in the October night (it’s only open in the evenings) and inside, a half-finished interior – or so it appeared.
Bright red and yellow walls, and a ceiling draped with lights that look as though the electrician is off on an extended lunch break until the ceiling tiles arrive.
I love it. It has an informal ambience, with nice Indian music and friendly, if slightly inexperienced, staff. There was also an enthusiastic owner, delighted to introduce me to his new establishment.
Street food, please, I said. He didn’t know that I know India like the back of my right hand. “I’ll teach you,” he said. And so he brought me some Bombay bombs.
Wow. They are really good. Though the picture here makes them look enormous, in fact they are tiny little puri, stuffed with potato and tamarind chutney, sprinkled with sev – the little crisp noodles made with gram flour and water and pushed through the sevanzhi mill. They reminded me of the little tamarind and potato puri, dripping with yoghurt, I have enjoyed many times in what used to be called Bombay. But that’s another story.
These were fabulous. As were the lamb chops (adraki champeen), marinated in ginger and paprika, cooked beautifully rare.
The food was presented well on modern black plates, and there is certainly an enthusiasm and ambition exuding from the kitchen, even though they don’t get everything right.
Chicken chilli fry is exactly how it sounds, and no more Indian Street than Grey Street. They don’t use ghee for health reasons, which is a shame, because ghee is neither bad for you (as it’s clarified butter) nor does anything quite replace it on the flavour scale.
I ordered something called Dal pakoda chaat, which was supposed to be lentil balls in chutney, but instead some potato and curry leaf pancakes arrived with a coconut chutney. I recognized them immediately as little dosa, except that they lacked sourness, which should have come from an overnight fermentation, and arrived with thick batter and without sambar – no one can eat dosa without a bowl of sambar.
Eventually some lentil balls turned up, smothered in a completely inappropriate spicy sauce. It was like eating dry falafels with tomato ketchup.
But other dishes were good. I tried one curry – a sweet and spicy chicken jhalfrezi, with a side of interesting sweet potato and cumin, which I ate with wafer thin roti.
I do recommend Dabbawal in Jesmond. It will get even better if it can focus a little, so I shall return.
As to the old Newcastle branch – I think the owner needs to put a nice Bombay Bomb under it, at least at lunchtimes.
Secret Diner’s Verdict (out of 5 stars)
69-75 High Bridge
Newcastle upon Tyne
0191 232 5133
1 Brentwood Mews
0191 281 3434