Malcolm Warne tries out Darlington’s latest town centre Indian bar and grill and finds plenty to curry favour

QUITE how, on the warmest night of year so far, we found ourselves in Darlington’s latest Indian restaurant –called uncompromisingly Red Hot – I’m not entirely sure.

Rank bad planning, probably. Something to do with a looming deadline and a few days when unexpected warm sunshine and the desire to take advantage of every last scrap of it in this hitherto miserable summer totally screwed up the original schedule for the Warne Weekend.

Red Hot has been open for about 15 weeks in Houndgate – one of those fringe-of town-centre streets which doesn’t seem to quite know what it is exactly. A boutique hotel, and a champagne bar rub shoulders with empty offices and the back end of Boyes and the Dolphin Centre.

A former pawnbrokers has been converted to a small restaurant or “bar and grill” with just 24 covers. We had heard about it from a friend who had recommended it. Looking at the framed cuttings on the wall from the Echo, it was clear the owners have a flair for publicity. The opening of Red Hot has been covered in the local Press and more recently, in the oldest trick in that modestly-proportioned book How to Market Your New Indian Restaurant, a youthful Echo reporter (all reporters now seem, like policemen, youthful) had been persuaded to accept a hot curry-eating challenge.

Not entirely surprisingly, the lad had put up a brave show but signally failed. And when you think about it, it would not make much sense from a PR perspective if he had polished off the plate of Naga chilli-infused Akki Special without breaking sweat. Especially not in an establishment called Red Hot.

But nevertheless it sounded promising. I’ve got tired of so many Asian slop-houses purveying almost identikit fare and the Red Hot menu does ring a few changes. For example, it’s the first time I’ve come across quail in an Indian. For those wedded to the familiar, there is also the complete range of Madras, vindaloo, bhuna, dupiaza, rogan josh, dansak, pathia and korma curries.

And presiding over it all is co-owner Gulan Choudhury, a whirlwind of a man who single-handedly looked after us and the other two tables with professionalism and passion. We could certainly see where the predilection for PR comes from. As Sylvia said: “He certainly can talk.” Which is something of a singular tribute, as all who know and love Sylvia will readily testify.

In the kitchen Akki Miah – creator of the nearly-famous Akki Special – was also single-handed. We can tell you that because an open serving door gave us a privileged view of the kitchen. All the kit was there – a flame grill, a tandoor oven and it looked spotless, as did the toilets by the way. I would happily have eaten my meal off the floor in there (if only to escape Gulan’s chatter). To be fair, that sounds like he was tiresome. He wasn’t. He was just very keen to impress on us the freshness and quality of the food (fine dining, he called it).

He wasn’t wrong either. Our shared lamb tikka starter was the tenderest, most moist pieces of marinated lamb coated in an aromatic, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce served with some mixed salad. Sylvia was just saying that it could just do with a little raita and Gulan appeared with a potful.

Our main dishes were a punchy chicken tikka korai (£6.95) with lots of tomato, chilli and onion with fat and juicy pieces of chicken. Goan lamb Garam Fry (£8.95) was more very tender lamb marinated in cider vinegar and then fried with a garam masala dry spice mix which gave it an earthy, almost bitter flavour. The ginger and coconut mint flavours gave it a welcome lift. We had a couple of sides which were a little less successful in that we were not sure why anyone would use Jersey Royal potatoes for a Mumbai (Bombay) aloo (£2.95). If they were Jersey Royals you certainly couldn’t taste the distinctive flavour through the curry sauce.

I’d picked Sheem Begun (£2.95) because I rather fancied the combination of aubergine and broad beans and while the aubergine was fleshily good, the broad beans were still in their pod. Which would have been fine if they had been young and fresh. Unfortunately, these were not and the pods were like the stringiest of runner beans. I pointed this out to Gulan on one of his regular table stop-bys for feedback. He assured me that this texture was very popular in India. Hmmm.

The pilau rice (£2.25) was fantastically aromatic, the poppadums and pickle try (£4) were good too. The only downer was the music – an irritatingly unremitting Euro-pop-meets-Bollywood thumpety-thump. We had a couple of bottle of Cobra beers (£2.95 each) and the bill came to £38.

Red Hot Indian Bar and Grill

4a Houndgate, Darlington DL1 5RL

Tel: 01325-466321 No website but menu on facebook site

Open: Mon-Sat noon-10pm, Sun noon-6pm

Plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options

Food quality: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Surroundings: 3/5

Value: 3/5