CHANCE brought us to the door of Duke Bombay Cafe in Darlington. We had intended dining elsewhere, at Salvos, a new-ish Italian a few doors further down Duke Street, a thoroughfare once solely associated with estate agents but now becoming something of a collection of eateries.

Home to three or four other dining establishments, we noted there is soon to be another – Hoboken Grill – a New York-style eaterie.

We had been turned away from Salvos because it was packed with not a table to spare – which turned out to be something of a lucky escape.

As we had enquired about the availability of a table we had noted the large party which occupied most of the restaurant (it used to be Cafe 85 by the way) was almost exclusively women engaged in, how can we put it, animated conversation. The noise was overwhelming.

So there we found ourselves outside Duke and its slightly anonymous looking exterior, at least for an Indian establishment, and realised this was a new arrival too.

It has been open four weeks and is an attempt to recreate the style of the cafes established in the teeming Indian city in the 19th Century by Iranian immigrants, and which multiplied by the hundred as their reputation for serving tea and simple fare to all in surroundings of faded grandeur became popular.

The blurb on the Duke menu (an A3 piece of paper) says nearly all these original Bombay cafes have gone but the fondness for this simplicity is reflected in the basic, rather stripped-down, tables, chairs and interior decor of Duke.

Certainly, it makes for a contrast from the Bollywood glitz, stardust and mirrors which have been the hallmark of many contemporary Indian/ Bangladeshi restaurants in recent years.

And for those tired of Indian menus featuring the long lists of bhunas, kormas, madras and jalfrezi curries, the Duke menu has a refreshing look about it. Setting aside the vogue-ish affectation of calling starters “small plates” and mains “big plates”, there are dishes I’ve never come across before. For example, its version of chicken tikka is made with a marinade of sweet vinegar rather than yoghurt and laced with ginger juice, as well as turmeric, chilli and garlic. And grilled spicy lamb chops are marinated in lime juice before charring on the outside with ginger and garlic.

We started with the Indian staple starter of poppodums (70p a piece) and chutney tray (£2). Unlike some we have been presented with in some other Indians, these were thick, crispy and still warm.

The chutneys included the usual raitas, lime pickle, onion salad and a green highly aromatic and sweet sauce which seemed so complex we couldn’t identify for certain the source of the key flavours. We asked our waiter who said he thought it was chef’s secret, which it turned out to be because no further information was forthcoming. Whatever, it was delicious.

We shared a “small plate” of “Tasty” tandoori scallops (£4.20). This was two plump scallops marinated in a tandoori sauce and flash fried with a quite spicy tamarind onion sauce and fresh lime, which rather overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the scallops but nevertheless made for a refreshing palate teaser.

My main course “big plate” – draighi (£8.90) – was lamb cooked on the bone very slowly with garlic, chilli and turmeric. It was very rich and the turmeric gave it an earthy almost dry quality.

I had a side dish of “The Best”

Darlington and Stockton Times:
The Duke Bombay Cafe attempts to emulate the trademark eateries of that Indian city

aloo gobi (spicy potato and cauliflower – £3.20) which probably didn’t justify the extravagant menu description but was nevertheless very acceptable. We also shared a fragrant rice (£2.50).

Sylvia’s main was “Curry in a Hurry” – a classic medium chicken curry (£7.90). We were not quite sure about the haste element and the dish was served in small milk pan.

Whether this was to reinforce the “simplicity is good” credo or to suggest the dish had been prepared in the pan we were not sure of either but Sylvia thought the chicken was as moist and tender as it could be and the curry sauce was about right for her in terms of heat and consistency.

She had also been tempted by the “Gunpowder” potatoes side dish (£3.20) and they turned out to be every bit as explosive as their menu description suggested. New potatoes, skins on, had been smokily grilled, lightly crushed and tossed with butter, aromatic seeds, green herbs and chilli. They certainly packed a punch.

The four dessert choices (kulfi, mango slices, yoghurt, gulab) had a rather familiar look about them so we asked for the bill – a modest £40 which included a large bottle of Cobra lager and Diet Coke.

Service from a mix of senior Indian staff and young English lads was casual while at the same time very friendly and efficient, reflecting the restaurant’s attempt to create a different Indian dining experience. We liked it.


Food Quality: 9/10

Service: 8/10

Surroundings: 7/10

Value: 8/10