The High Bridge Quarter, running from Pilgrim Street through to Bigg Market, is one of the best-kept secrets in Newcastle. Famously one of the last-remaining streets in the city to still boast some old-school cobbles, it’s also home to a cracking selection of independent shops and bars, and even some art in the form of the dinky Baltic sister venue, Baltic 39. It also hosts one of the finest Indian restaurants in the North East, Dabbawal, the street food kitchen which has been knocking out premium quality spins on the rich flavours of Indian city streets in their cool, underground venue since 2011.
Walking in we found the restaurant already heaving at the relatively early time of 6pm, and were warmly welcomed straight away and ushered to our table. Settling ourselves down, we dived straight into their glorious evening menu. Split straight down the middle into a selection of Tapas and Starters alongside Big Eats – their main courses – the choice is broad and roaming but thankfully not overwhelming.
While we were here for the evening dinner menu, we found out that Dabbawal also run an express pre-theatre menu for those wanting to line their stomachs before a show at the nearby Theatre Royal, or even enjoying an evening screening at the also just-round-the-corner Tyneside Cinema. And, for the day trippers, there is a healthy and light lunch menu full of fresh, wholesome options and the only roomali roti wraps in Newcastle, these thin flatbreads being a traditional element in Mughlai cuisine.
Back to our evening menu then, the tapas and starters are recommended to be “shared the Indian way”, with the Dabbawal gang recommending a selection of three tapas and one side per person, which, we later discovered, was just perfect for activating the belly before sliding into a robust main course.
The starters are divided into soups, salads, chaats, street classics, and Tandoor. The mains break down as you would expect across chicken, lamb, and vegetable dishes, and, for those wanting to push the boat out a bit more, there are some reasonably-priced Dabbawal Signature Dishes to enjoy too. The cream of the selection, the current crop features Duck Nilgiri, Railway Lamb Curry and Saffron Pulao, Hari Ali Tiger Prawns, Kerala Malabiri Salmon, Seabass Makalia, Masala Dosa, and Kofta Curry. And bookending all of this are a hearty, usual suspects range of sides, poppadoms, and naan breads.
Spoilt for choice you may well be, so for those finding it difficult to chose but willing to embrace the unexpected, Dabbawal offer the tantalising choice of a Surprise Menu for just £21 a head, which delivers a stunning combination of street food classics, grills, and curries. This has to be a group decision however as the whole of your party must order one of these menus per-person, but for a group up for a bit of a surprise (and you really will not go wrong with this menu), it looks like fun and really good value to boot.
The whole menu caters well for most dietary requirements, with vegetarian, nut-containing, or gluten-containing dishes clearly indicated, and outside if the printed menus the staff are more than happy to talk you through the menu and help with any dietary necessities. As is to be expected, they mark their spiciest dishes with a cheeky red chilli cheerfully hanging off the end of the dish description, warning off the more timid-tongued amongst us and daring the spice-enthusiasts to test its mettle.
The food itself consists of only the best, tastiest, leanest cuts of meat, and they don’t cook with any cholesterol-heavy ghee (clarified butter) either, and they are constantly working hard to ensure the finest quality ingredients cooked and delivered to you in the lightest, healthiest manner.
First up then, some deliciously light and crispy poppadoms served with delectable mango chutney, tomato and coriander chutney, and mint yoghurt; the prefect little tease for the feast to come. We washed the lot down with the extraordinary mango lassi too, the Indian take on a smoothie, with delicious blended yoghurt and fresh fruit served up in a gleaming silver goblet, very easy to polish off in one go.
Onto our starters proper, we went for Classic Onion Bhajis, Masala Batada Vada, Punjabi Chilli Chicken Tikka, and a Dabbawal Signature Salad. The bhajis – a dish easy to do but hard to do right – were just right, fading pleasantly from a gorgeous, dark-golden exterior to a beautifully flaky middle.
The Masala Batada Vada were a revelation; lightly-spiced creamy mashed potato packed into a crisp, golden brown gram flour batter. The Punjabi chilli chicken tikka boasted beautifully-cooked, delicate meat in a mouth-watering chilli, cumin, garlic and ginger marinade, served up as with the previous two dishes on a nicely minimalist long plate, with a tasty dip and a slight, lightly-dressed salad to accompany.
The Dabbawal Signature Salad was beautiful thing indeed, with delicate mango, thick sweet honey, crunchy peanuts, and crisp, fresh spring onions all diced up and surrounded by thinly-sliced apple, with a fan of jaunty slices waving merrily from the top of the dish too. Wonderfully light and delicately flavoured, we can see ourselves returning in the hotter summer months to enjoy a signature salad or two and a mango lassi; a perfect, delicious healthy pairing for a hot summer day in the city.
From the Big Eats selection we chose the Naga Chilli Lamb Curry, a super spicy curry with pickled naga chillies (famously, some of the hottest chillies in the world), and a Dabbawal signature dish, the Masala Dosa – an Indian crepe stuffed with onion and curry leaf-spiced potatoes, served with vegetables and a lentil broth. Seemingly oblivious to the amount of food we could reasonably be expected to take in, we of course plumped for additional helpings of Pulao Rice and a Mozzarella and Coriander Naan between us.
The Naga Chilli Lamb Curry arrived hot and heavy in a silver bowl, submerged meat peeking out of a rich, thick, deep-orange broth, speckled with spice and a hosting a big, dark, naga chilli, poised atop the dish with sinister intent. The lamb was rich and plentiful, diced up into hearty chunks, wonderfully-cooked and bursting with incredible flavour. Decidedly warming but non-overpowering rich spice pervaded the whole dish, and we even managed to conquer the not-so-evil-after-all naga chilli itself, wolfing it down in one go. Whilst assuredly a dish for the more experienced and hardy spice enthusiast, it emphatically does not become a parody of itself by allowing heat to overcome flavour. The entire thing was perfectly balanced to enable a rich, robust, dark spiciness and warmth to compliment the seriously quality lamb within.
The Masala Dosa also arrived on a gleaming silver platter, expanding our perspective of what a crepe could be, landing huge and groaning alongside silver cups of lentil broth and what seemed to be another serving of tomato and coriander chutney. Diving straight in, we divided and conquered with a swift slice straight through the belly of the beast, revealing a steaming interior packed to the gills with a bounty of light and sweetly-spiced potatoes, complimented with diced onion and curry leaf. Delicious from the first to last bite, the crepe was incredibly savoury and moreish, enlivened through lashings of lentil broth and chutney.
Sitting in stark contrast to the concentrated raw power of the Naga Chilli Lamb Curry, the two dishes are at disparate ends of the spectrum, perfectly capturing the range of dishes Dabbawal can muster, showcasing the opportunity for everyone of every taste to find something to perfectly suit their palate.
Alongside all of this were some very well-done sides; beautifully fluffy Pulao Rice, served just right with not a single grain stuck to another grain and frankly delicious just on its own. The Mozzarella and Coriander Naan was also a delight, sliced into four pieces and served up on a long basket, every slice glistening with tasty melted mozzarella and hearty, verdant chunks of chopped coriander.
Fully in our element, we rounded off the night with a dessert and coffee course of Indian Kulfi Ice Cream and double espressos. Our creamy pistachio ice cream arrived in a jaunty little tower perched atop chopped strawberries, full of flavour and complimented by a nicely tart raspberry compote sat just next to a smattering of crushed pistachios. After chasing the sweetness down with rich, dark espresso, we made our way to the bar to perch for a while sipping beers and chatting over our favourite parts of the meal before leaving entirely satisfied, and waved off with full bellies by the incredibly friendly staff.
Dabbawal want their experience to be all about sharing and grazing, with their signature Indian street food snacks, tapas-style dishes and classic plates taking diners on a journey of many different, unique flavours, and they certainly delivered on every front. Their menu invites you to explore, and their hugely knowledgeable and friendly staff will work with you to help you find just the dish you need, encouraging experimentation that never fails to pay off. The vibe is relaxed yet bustling, diners packed closely together across three interwoven spaces decorated in rich, vibrant colours, with light and energy spilling in through the high-set windows from the buzzing street beyond. There is a wonderful energy and cosiness to the place, and a genuine warm welcome that will make this place one of your go-to venues in the city.
Brilliantly, we have also now been treated to a second Dabbawal which opened in Brentwood Avenue, Jesmond, back in 2013. The definition of a hidden gem, find this place and you will discover a very similar but slightly-tweaked menu in delightfully different surroundings, including some all-important outside seating for those summer salads and mango lassis. The Dabbawal team describe their sister venue as having “a magical serendipity”, and who are we to argue?
Magical indeed, Dabbawal comes with a hearty recommendation from us.
Dabbawal is located at 69-75 High Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6BX. You can call them on 0191 2325133 and find them at dabbawal.com too. Leigh was given a complimentary meal for the purpose of this article. As always, all views are true to experience.