“ Address: 31-35 Starbeck Avenue / Newcastle-upon-Tyne / NE2 1RJ „
One good thing to come out of the recession is the number and variety of new food related businesses. Consumers seem to be going back to old fashioned values, liking to treat themselves with the odd homemade mini luxury like a beautifully decorated cupcake or a posh pickle or chutney, rather than splashing out on a major purchase. 'Local' seems to be having a revival too with neighbourhood restaurants springing up in cheap to rent premises. The Chill Out Café in Newcastle's Heaton district is one example of a new venture that is very 'of the moment'. Originally called the 'Indian Chill Out Café', this is a small restaurant that serves a limited (but good) selection of Gujarati dishes but is also open as a café just for drinks: during our visit customers included a young couple who had come in for coffee, a council workman who had come in to collect a takeaway meal and other diners ranging from a rather trendy pair of twenty-somethings to an elderly couple (not us!).
This is a homely place, that is smart without being stuffy, and relaxed without being too casual - a happy medium you might say. It occupies a corner site with huge picture windows which allow you to watch the world go by. Heaton is an area where lots of students and young renters live and the streets are bustling at all hours. The tables and chairs are a nice mix'n'match affair which contributes to the cosy ambience. A bold statement wallpaper of a brown background with black and white flowers covers the main wall and there are loads of colourful framed photographs of people and landscapes from India. It's quirky and modern and works really well. Finally there are plants, loads of them: lovely, well tended cheese plants, and the like, that add to the idea of homeliness.
Gujarat is a province in the western part of India and its cuisine is largely (but not exclusively) meat free; the menu here has a section of main courses from Gujarat and a few others that are more generically Indian. he menu at the Chill Out Cafe is a single sheet and while the choices are limited, they do include a couple of meat curries, fish options and vegetarian dishes so, provided you're not a really fussy eater, you'll find something to choose. You'll also be asked when you order how hot you want your dish and the chef is quite happy to make things hotter or milder depending on your preference. If you like hot, ask for very hot; we asked for one hot and one medium and felt that both could have been comfortably spicier.
There are only four starters to choose from but we'd have happily picked any of them. I had the potato vada (£4.50), balls of mashed potato covered in a spiced gram flour batter and deep fried. They were fantastic: the outside was crisp and crunchy while the moist potato inside was fluffy and light. They were served with a tangy coriander chutney that had a really fierce kick. Himself chose something he'd never tried (or heard of before though only days later we saw it featured first in a magazine, then on a TV show), 'pav bhaji' (£4.50) which is a mixture of spiced cauliflower, cabbage and peas in a tomato sauce on top of a toasted bread roll, topped with mild cheese, in this case Gouda. If I hadn't seen it later in the magazine and on TV I might have believed this strange dish made up but while it was quite unusual, it was also very good. The cabbage, cauliflower and pea mixture would have been good on its own, perhaps formed into patties and fried like bubble and squeak, but it was made even better with the addition of the melted cheese. Although I liked what I tried of this, I was glad I hadn't chosen it myself as it is quite filling for a starter; it would be a good lunchtime plate if you wanted a bit more than a snack, but not a full main course.
The Gujarati main courses on the menu at the Chill Out Café are all meat free and from these I chose the channa masala - chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce (£4.50): it was a generous portion but speaking as someone that isn't a vegetarian I did feel that the dish was a bit dull and more like an overgrown starter than a main course. I'm happy to eat meatless dishes but this one needed something extra to make it a bit more exciting. Having said that, I can't deny that it was tasty; the sauce was rich and full of flavour and it was carefully spiced, even if it was not as hot as I'd have liked. The chickpeas were just right for me: I hate them to be too hard but these had just the right amount of bite.
Himself enjoyed his lamb curry (£7.50), which contained both chop and leg meat. There was plenty of meat in it and it was tender and full of rich flavour though, like mine, it could have been hotter in terms of spice. While it was described only as a 'lamb curry' this was no ordinary dish, the balance of flavours was excellent and this was a warmly aromatic dish. Side dishes of rice and chappatis were well executed and fairly priced. In fact all the dishes at the Chill Out Café are very reasonably priced and make a good advert for staying local (not that local to me geographically, admittedly but I really mean outside of the city centre).
The restaurant doesn't have a booze licence but you can bring your own or buy from the nearby off licence; a word of warning, however, the corkage charge of £1.50 (I think) is per bottle so bring wine, or larger bottles of beer otherwise you are going to be paying quite a bit extra. We didn't know about the lack of alcohol but we were happy with soft drinks having spent the afternoon in several real ale establishments; the mango lassi I had was really good and was so thick I could have done with a long handled spoon to make sure none was left in the glass.
The Chill Out Cafe is open from 8 in the morning until about 10pm. In the morning you can get breakfast and hot drinks but only cooked English style breakfasts are available and I would love to see some Indian breakfasts on the menu. At lunch time there are various wraps (paneer, chicken, etc) and the delicious sounding keema on a bun topped with Gouda, all priced at less than £4 each.
With friendly service, a comfortable environment, great food and fair prices, it's easy to see why so many people are raving about the Chill Out Cafe. Although it's not in the centre, it's only a fifteen minute walk from the Haymarket, or a five minute bus ride from the centre (take a 38 heading to the Freeman Hospital, or buses heading for the coast) ; there's parking just outside the restaurant too so there's no excuse for not heading over to this part of the city.