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Barry Nelson goes in search of a curry and finds a Bollywood Bad Boy in Shildon
Most of us are curry fans these days and what curry fans like to do is swap stories about where they had their finest baltis, chicken tikkas or vindaloos.
In my case, I can go into raptures about curries consumed in places as far flung as Bradford, Bangor and Northampton.
And as the real curry aficionados will tell you, the surroundings do not necessarily feature in the overall reckoning. For instance, some of the most memorable early curries were consumed in Bradford basements at Formica-topped tables and under neon strip-lighting.
Conversely, some visits to London curry-houses with national reputations have ended in disappointment, despite the fancy uniforms or tasteful decor.
Unfortunately, too many Indian restaurants these days churn out bland food that fails to make the grade. So, it was in search of an exceptional curry that my wife and I found ourselves journeying to Shildon, County Durham.
Some curry-loving Brummie friends, who have lived in the North- East for decades, strongly recommended The Spice Island restaurant in Shildon.
The couple have patronised this 40-year-old establishment for years, always find the food very satisfactory and have recommended it to friends and family.
Finding The Spice Island in Shildon is straight-forward. The first floor restaurant is above a large fish and chip shop in one of the main roads into the town. In the dark, you should look out for an illuminated Pukka Pies sign.
We parked in a side street and then walked to the entrance at the end of the block. Climbing the steep staircase and entering the restaurant you are greeted with a light and tastefully decorated interior, smartly dressed waiters and pleasant background Indian music.
We had booked for 7pm, so the restaurant was empty apart from a family group who were tucking into a banquet. As we checked out the menu small groups of other customers began to arrive.
The menu is impressive, ranging from all the usual curry house suspects to a cluster of house specials.
One main meal in particular took my wife’s fancy – the splendidly named Bollywood Bad Boy.
Fearing that it was verging on vindaloo territory my wife asked the experienced waiter how hot it would be. He helpfully advised that if he asked the chef to tone down the heat he was sure it would be fine.
Reassured by this advice, we examined the list of starters.
My wife went for something completely new, called a chingre mirch, billed as lightly-spiced prawns stuffed into a baked red pepper, for her starter, combined with the Bollywood Bad Boy as her main.
I opted for a sharmi kebab followed by another unfamiliar dish – a devasi, described as a braised golden brown, tender lamb in onion, garlic, ginger and Garam Massala. Both with Pilau Rice.
As side dishes we went for two of our favourites, brinjal bhaji (aubergine curry) and chana bhaji (chick pea curry).
We ordered ice-cold bottles of Cobra Indian lager while we waited for our first course, along with a couple of papadoms and a mixture of chutneys.
The lime pickle, tomato raita, mango chutney and minty yoghurt, served in delicate white dishes, were a great way to get the tastebuds going.
After a suitable interlude, the waiter reappeared with our first course.
My wife was impressed by the appearance of the large, juicy, baked red pepper and described it as “delicious”.
The prawns were cooked just right and the combination worked brilliantly.
My sharmi kebab was perfectly prepared and very garlicky.
After a reassuring pause – showing that our meals were being freshly cooked – the veteran waiter reappeared with our main courses.
The Bollywood Bad Boy was hot, hot hot and hit the spot. It was full of flavour, which was not negated by the chilli kick, all in a copious pepper and tomato sauce.
The lamb devdasi was a superb, aromatic delight. Consisting of tender pieces of lamb in a delicious onion, garlic, ginger and unground garam massala sauce.
‘Unground’ means there are large, fragrant pieces of cinnamon, bay leaves and other whole spices in the mix.
Tucking into the two side dishes, my wife declared the brinjhal bhaji was the best she had ever tasted – and the chana bhaji was not far behind.
Once the main course dishes had been removed, we checked the dessert menu, which offered a range of standard Indian puddings, including kulfi and a delicious-sounding Eastern Delight, consisting of chocolate covered Turkish Delightflavoured ice cream, which my wife rather fancied.
But as we were really full, we decided to call it a night and get our bill.
So, for just over £52 for a “more than we could eat feast”, drinks included, we felt that this was good value for money for what was an outstanding curry – looks like our Brummie friends were right.
And with a bit of luck you might get served by veteran waiter Ullah Altaf Hussain, who, at the grand old age of 78, must be one of the oldest waiters still working in the North- East.
Spice Island, 100 Main Street, Shildon, DL4 1AQ
Quality of food: 4/5
Value for money: 4/5