Malcolm Warne squeezes along a tight alleyway to reacquaint himself with Northallerton’s Lion of Asia

I CAN’T be certain exactly when we last visited the Lion of Asia – Northallerton’s longest established Indian restaurant – but it must have been a long time ago.

I know that much for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the visit was the denouement of a D&S office outing which featured the consumption of a certain amount of alcohol and a long, chaotic session at Star Bowl, the town’s long-closed ten-pin bowling alley.

Secondly, I can’t remember a thing about it and that’s not just because of the convivial nature of the evening, so it must have been in the very distant past.

So the Lion of Asia’s longevity – it was founded in 1982 – is really quite something in a town which generally struggles to sustain any evening eating establishment for more than a few years.

It has managed to survive despite an unpromising location without a ground-floor street frontage. Of course, it’s not the only restaurant in town situated above a shop in the High Street but it does have a singularly unappealing access.

Diners reach the Lion of Asia via a passageway by the side of the Betfred betting shop opposite the Town Hall.

This thoroughfare cannot be considered quaint in any shape or form. You could call it a ginnel or a snicket but it would never be anything more than a dark, vaguely threatening route to nowhere.

Even in the daylight of an early summer’s evening it felt like the sort of place where you would stumble across a dead body. Sylvia had gone about two feet before suggesting we go somewhere else.

As there were no dead bodies, used syringes and or anything more disagreeable than a discarded pop bottle I urged her on to the dimly-lit fire escape stairs which took us to the restaurant.

I like to say that opening the restaurant door ushered us into a different world but that wasn’t entirely the case.

Although I can’t be sure about this, it didn’t look like a lot had been done to it since our last visit beyond, perhaps, a coat of paint. The carpet, in particular, had that timeless look about it and the shape of the windows suggested the building had once been subject to some spectacular subsidence.

But we suspect longstanding customers do not patronise the Lion for the standard of its interior décor. Indeed, the constant stream of the people coming to pick up takeaway orders suggested that many chose to enjoy its food in the comfort of their own home.

After the next takeaway order had been despatched we were seated with menus, Cobra lager and shortly after that with poppadums and a superior pickle tray (raita, onion, mango chutney, lime pickle and a particularly fiery chilli/mustard seed combo).

The menu features prominently the vaguely unsettling warning that managers reserve the right to refuse admission which is probably something do with the fact that it stays open late, well after the pubs have closed.

It is also bewilderingly long with all the familiar curries and a few we had not come across before (Thome, Mughalai, Singapur and Persian Biriyanis).

The list of starters was relatively modest so choosing a prawn on puree (£5.50) was relatively easy for Sylvia. She thought it a bit ordinary. The puree was very thick, the prawns just okay.

My sheek kebab (£5.90), served with some salad, was particularly lurid in colour and certainly hot but a bit on the dry side. A drizzle of raita from the pickle tray helped considerably.

We initially thought our main courses were quite good. Sylvia had chosen a chiken tikka balti (£8.80) and I had picked a chicken tikka korai (£8.90). Both were mildly hot, with lots of onion and coriander but the sauces were lacking in that gravy-like consistency that makes eating them with a naan an attractive alternative to rice.

And then we did what everyone does which is to sample our partner’s choice and realised that these were essentially the same dishes. Now that, to an extent, understandable in that both are prepared the same way and are almost interchangeable but if that was the case why was my korai 10p more than the balti?

The accompanying garlic pilau rice (£3.50) was nicely separate if not particularly garlicky. The garlic naan (£3.50) did better in that respect but was anything but light and fluffy. We hardly touched it.

Service was reasonably brisk when the demands of the takeaway business ebbed. We were glad we had eaten relatively early; as we were finishing two very large parties arrived.

The bill was just shy of £50 and although it included £9 of Cobra lager it didn’t seem like particularly good value.

We negotiated the fire escape, the dark passageway and agreed it might be another long period before we returned.

Food Facts

Lion of Asia, 88A High Street, Northallerton DL7 8PP

Tel: 01609-772767

Open: Sunday-Thursday 6pm-1am. Closed Mondays.

Food quality: 3/5

Service: 4/5

Surroundings: 2/5

Value: 3/5