THERE’S a buzz about Babul’s. The first restaurant in Barnard Castle has won many awards – including best pandemic takeaway, as voted for by readers of The Northern Echo – as well as plaudits for its social concern, sending out 10,000 meals to key workers.
The Barney branch has a reputation for modernising traditional Indian food, and ever since its second outlet opened in a former pizza restaurant in Darlington in October, we’ve found it impossible to book a Friday or Saturday night table.
In December, it was shortlisted for the best newcomer title in the British Curry Awards. On Christmas Day it won plaudits for opening, with the help of volunteers, for people in need of food and company.
We snuck in at the weekend, last table, a little late, and as we were leaving at gone 9pm, a busload – literally a busload – of women turned up for their group booking.
Darlington town centre is awash with curry houses, most of them pretty good. Once the buzz about a newcomer has faded, will their food keep them afloat?
The restaurant on the Green Tree Corner is unrecognisable from its days as a Pizza Express. It glows golden on a black January night, and has cascades of plastic plants falling from the ceiling so it feels like you’re dining in a rainforest.
With its pumping Asian soundtrack, it feels new and brash, and each table is equipped with a USB charger and a tablet on which to order drinks and summon a waiter.
From the tablet we ordered a couple of mocktails for £4.90 each – an extravagance cheaper than a glass of wine. My raspberry and lime concoction, stuffed with red fruit and crushed ice, was certainly a more interesting drink than my usual orange and lemonade.
Babul’s has grown out of the Spice Island takeaway shop which opened in the Denes area of Darlington in the early 1990s. Now a second generation at the helm, they have named it after their founding father but adapted it for the new century.
The menu contains traditional curries – korma, bhuna, balti, jalfrezi etc – as main courses, as well as signature curries. As Darlington is the birthplace of the world’s railways, I was desperately tempted by the Railway Lamb (£13.90), for instance, which was, according to the menu, “cooked by chefs working on the Indian railways in the 1900s”, but one of the modernising twists is that it offers a lot of smaller plates (dishes formerly known as starters) that build into an Indian-style tapas.
My wife Petra and myself really enjoy the greater variety of tastes you get from mixing and matching, and so we went away from the old-fashioned notion of starters and mains and ordered five smaller dishes to share. This, according to the maitre d’ who walked the floor enthusing about the food, is the way more and more people are ordering.
While we waited for our food to arrive we had a couple of warm, crispy poppadoms (80p each) and a typical pickles tray (£2.90) – red onion, mango and lime.
Suddenly, a blizzard of smaller dishes (well, metal containers) converged from all directions onto our small table.
I had ordered from the meatier side of the menu while Petra had gone for the vegetarian and vegan side, so my naga wings jostled for room with her gully gobi chaat.
The chicken wings (£4.90) were beautifully cooked, still juicy and finished with a fairly hot marinade. They were served with a tomato salsa-style dip and a crunchy coleslaw. My other meat dish was Dada’s Chops (£6.90), a couple of grilled lamb chops with a spicy tandoori marinade. Again, the meat was quite beautiful but it had an authentic Indian taste.
We shared the Cobra Pakoras (£4.90). A great gimmick of an idea, the famous Indian lager was introduced into the batter of fish goujons. In truth, we couldn’t really taste any lager but beer does seem to give batter a nice crispness and with the white fish inside, accompanied by a raita yogurt, it was a nice dish.
But, even as an unreformed meat eater, it has to be said that the vegetables stole the show. Petra really liked her gully gobi chaat (£5.90) which was a cold dish centred around three florets of cauliflower, dusted with some mystical Indian seasoning and served on a bed of diced potatoes, chickpeas, onions and pomegranates. The cauliflower was al dente without being hard and the mystical seasoning made it somehow more cauliflowery… plus there were great occasional explosions of fruitiness from the pomegranates.
I, though, preferred the mushroom bhaji (£4.90) – meaty steaks of wok-fried Portobello mushroom that were firm to the knife and absolutely bursting with flavour. Wrapped in an endearing dark bhuna sauce, it made a great dish.
We’d ordered a pilau rice (£3.50), which we didn’t really need and which was probably a hangover from a more traditional Indian dinner when something is required to soak up all the sauce. We also had a garlic naan (£3.40), which was thin rather than bready but was packed with an Italian-sized dose of garlic. It worked really well to mop up the bhuna sauce from the mushrooms.
After the spices and heat of our main dishes, something cold and sweet would have been nice, but Babul’s don’t yet do desserts. They do have plans, as they do to make more of the traditional main courses, like the Railway Lamb, into sharing dishes.
Our bill came to £51.50. Given that a tenner of that was on our extravagant mocktails, this represents great value for such vibrant, flavoursome food where each ingredient speaks and is not drowned out by spices and heat.
As we waited to leave while the busload of ladies was ushered passed us, we could see why there is such a five-star buzz about Babul’s.
Babul’s, 2 Skinnergate, Darlington, DL3 7NB
Website (for bookings and menus): babuls.co.uk
Tel: 01833 625430
Ratings (out of 10): Surroundings 7. Service 9. Food quality 8. Value for money 9.
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