After a slow start, Chris Lloyd really warms to the new Nando’s in Feethams, Darlington

IN Britain, there are nearly 300 branches of Nando’s, a restaurant chain specialising in marinated chicken with a Mozambiquean theme. Around the world, there are more than 1,000 outlets in more than 30 countries.

And now there is one in Darlington. As I may be the last person on the planet who has never had a Nando’s, I thought it was time I lost my peri-peri virginity.

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Such was my excitement, I fumbled embarrassingly when trying to enter the restaurant, which is part of the new Vue cinema development at Feethams. I pushed at the main door when I should have pulled. After some premature rattling, I made it into a square all-glass vestibule. Determined not to repeat my mistake, I pulled on the one handle I could see only for it to close the open door I was supposed to be walking through, thus trapping me in a transparent cell with everyone inside the restaurant staring through the glass at the novice who couldn’t even get past first base.

Fortunately, an extremely helpful assistant rescued me, showed me to a table and, after ascertaining that it was my first time, talked me through the menu.

Once upon a time, ordering in a restaurant was simple. Something on the menu caught your eye and you asked the waiter to bring it over.

Not at Nando’s. At Nando’s there are nearly as many choices as there are chickens in the free-range fields of Piercebridge.

Although there’s really only chicken on the menu (there are three vegetarian dishes and a couple of steaks), it is chicken that comes in the form of breast, wings, thighs, on-bone, off-bone, spatchcock, butterfly, quarter, half, whole, burger…

Then you have to decide on the heat of the peri-peri chilli on a periometer scale of five, where one is extra mild and five is extra hot and like tackling a “ferociously fiery dragon”.

Then, if it’s a burger, you then have to decide whether you want a bun, a pitta or a wrap. Then, you have to decide on your sides and whether you want them “fino” or not, and then, if you opt for chips, you have to decide whether you want them plain or peri-salted…

Seeing my inexperience, the waiter very generously offered me three complimentary chicken thighs of differing heat. I chose mild, medium and hot, but it wasn’t as simple as that. The mild one came as either lemon and herb or mango and line – which would I like?

While he was away, I noticed that the regular Nandologists, who included three Middlesbrough football players, were all making further choices. The back wall was lined with shelves of peri-peri sauce bottles, from extra hot to Heinz tomato ketchup. I collected a bottle of wild herb peri-peri and another of garlic peri-peri just in case I didn’t have enough peri-peri on my plate (peri-peri is the Swahili word for the Bird’s Eye Chilli, meaning “pepper, pepper”).

My complimentary thighs were hot and juicy. I felt the mild had a surprising little kick to it while the “highly combustible” hot was pleasantly heating my mouth without causing any alarm.

This taste test enabled me to get my ducks in a row and I ordered my main meal of a quarter of chicken on the bone of medium heat with macho peas as a side and peri-salted chips (a two regular side combination for £7.60).

Mozambiquean music played from the speakers, and there’s African art on the walls and the menu covers – even the toilets are splendid in their colourful ethnicity, with rough sawn doors and handbasins hollowed out of logs that may have been found floating down the Zambezi.

My food came quickly. The chicken is fresh (not frozen), reared in Britain and marinated for 24 hours in peri-peri before being flame-grilled with the skin on. It was piping hot, very juicy, immaculately cooked and extremely tasty, although I quickly realised that tackling it with knife and fork was the wrong choice and I really needed to use fingers.

Quarter of a chicken just about sufficed although I would suspect most moderate appetites choose the half a chicken, although that obviously pushes up the price, from £4.40 to £7.15.

The macho peas were possibly the highlight. They were described as “whole peas drenched in pea mash, parsley, mint and chilli”, but in reality they tasted extremely of peas with a nice hint of mint and they had a bit of give to them – certainly no trace of mushiness.

The peri-salted chips were slightly disappointing. They were crunchy on the outside and fluffy in the middle but I wondered if their brownness indicated that they were a touch overdone. Nevertheless, the seasoning lifted them and I had the full range of peri-peri sauces to dip them in.

Nando’s doesn’t have a large dessert selection but I found a Portuguese custard tart (£1.95) which was small but once past the pastry was nicely custardy.

My bill came to £14.80, which is not cheap, although I had made a tactical mistake by ordering a mango quencher – a £2.65 fruit juice with apple and pineapple which was a little cloying – when I should have gone for a “bottomless” fizzy drink for the same price. This can be refilled as often as you wish, although you do have to make another choice about how much crushed ice you want.

I was now so experienced at Nando’s that I successfully negotiated the doors to get out and after that first time I would be happy to do it again.

Nando’s, Feethams, Darlington DL1 5RD

Phone: 01325-463243

Website: nandos.co.uk

Food quality: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Ambience: 3/5

Value for money: 3/5