I ALWAYS think restaurants who can boast of award-winning chefs or food have an added pressure of making sure standards do not slip.

And when it comes to a mystery ‘shopper’ in the form of the Eating Out team, I do feel particularly sorry for them.

But one place where I knew there could be no such concerns is Spice Island, in Barnard Castle.

Having eaten here before I knew it was a sure-starter for when my sister-in-law and her husband came to visit and it just happened to be the same week that its executive chef, Milon Miah, was crowned International Indian Chef of the Year 2017.

This is no mean feat as Mr Milon was chosen from hundreds of other chefs across the world.

Naturally then I had high expectations for our visit and was not let down as we walked through the doors of the restaurant.

The first thing I noticed was how many people were waiting for takeaway orders – always a good sign in my book – and the fact that the restaurant itself is almost like an Aladin’s cave as you pass through the bar area and into a long dining area with sleek black interiors and mirrors lining one wall to give the impression of space.

We were led to a table at the back of the restaurant and seated by a polite waiter who took our drinks order and allowed us to peruse the menu.

As with any Indian restaurant I visit, the first thing I want to test is their poppadoms (70p each) and pickle tray (£2.50) so we decided to order six to share from the Nibbles section of the menu while we debated on what starters and mains to have.

The poppodoms arrived frehs from the kitchen and were still slightly warm when we hastily dug in.

The range of pickles was also satisfying as it gave a range of sweet with the mango chutney to the fiery red pickles and a good crunk of onion pickle for texture in between.

It did not take us long to demolish these and when the waiter came back to take our order, I was still trying to decide from the extensive menu.

In the end I chose the special mixed grill (£5.95) while Ali chose the chicken chat on puri – chicken gently simmered in chat sauce and served on puri (£3.95).

My mixed grill was everything I expected with pieces of tender chicken, lamb and prawn cooked in charcoal and surprisingly delicate in presentation for a dish that is essentially a plate full of meat.

Ali also enjoyed his starter saying it had a great explosion of flavour that wasn’t overwhelming when combined with the texture of the puri – similar to a chippatti in texture.

Mains were a lot harder to choose as I always go for a curry but was distracted by the sizzling plates making their way to other diners.

Thankfully Ali came to the rescue here as he was ordering the Tandoori mixed grill – every meat lover’s dream and promised to let me have some.

In the end I chose the modern classic of salan chicken – chicken which is gently spiced with coconut cream, Tandoori sauce and fresh coriander (£11.95).

We also decided to share a peshwari naan (£2.95) to further satisfy my sweet teeth and a pilau rice (£3.25).

The dished filled our table when they all came out and were a feast to all the senses with them presented in individual brass dishes, ready to be scooped out.

The naan bread didn’t disappoint as it was still warm and easy to pull apart revealing the fruit inside to give an extra sweetness to my curry.

Meanwhile the rice was piping hot but delicate in flavour against the creaminess of my sauce while the chicken pieces were so tender they almost melted in my mouth.

Ali’s plate full of meat also arrived and a hush descended over the table as we all tucked in – only interrupted when we were asked if we would like more drinks.

When I looked at the clock nearly two hours had gone by but you know what they say about time flying when you’re having fun. We were even encouraged to join in with a round of Happy Birthday for one of the customers as the lights dimmed and manager Zak Ahmed presented a cake with candles to the young woman in question.

My sister-in-law and her husband also commented on how much they had enjoyed their meal and with the total bill coming to just over £100 – it was good value too.

All-in-all I’d say this restaurant is well worth a visit - if you can get a table now bookings have shot up following Mr Milon’s award!


Spice Island, 9 Market Place, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 8NF

Contact: 01833-630575 or spiceislandrestaurant.co.uk

Open: 5.30pm until 11pm seven days a week.

Cheap and cheerful: Classic vegetable korma (£6.95)

Top dollar: Tandoori king prawn balti (£15.95)

Scores on the doors (food hygiene rating): 5 (Very Good)

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 8, Surroundings 8, Value 8, Service 7