ROADSIDE cafes were once considered the highlight of long-haul stays and journeys in the UK. Breaks and refueling stops have been conveniently planned around the nearest Little Chef cafe – a historic British institution that sadly disappeared in 2018.
The popular chain once occupied premises just off the A66 in Sadberge before closing and becoming the Bengali restaurant Akbar Dynasty. Yet that closed in 2021 after licensing disputes and poor hygiene ratings, and now the building has been turned into Tulip, which still enjoys the well-known roadside location.
After turning off the A66 and parking alongside the Esso service station, I was warmly greeted by staff who quickly showed me to my table and handed me one of their enormous menus. Little Chef cafes were known for their huge ‘2Olympic’ breakfasts and this menu and the wealth of food on offer is Olympic size.
I ordered two poppadums (70p each) and a platter of pickles (£3.50) to munch on while I took a longer look at the menu. A glass bottle of Diet Coke, complete with a paper straw, also arrived at my table.
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Poppadum and pickles, to me, seems like the perfect litmus test of food quality and the experience of a South Asian restaurant right from the start. A mango chutney, mint raita, sweet diced tomatoes and spicy green chili condiment sung with flavor and complement each other perfectly. A solid start.
On the menu, the meat, vegetable and seafood entree sections are larger than some menus alone, and it’s clear Tulip’s menu has something for everyone. But so many choices, however, can make it difficult to make a decisive decision. After a few minutes of deliberation, I opted for the mixed kebab – chicken and meat kebab with onion bhaji (£4.75).
The skewers arrived fresh off the grill and were full of flavor with the subtle heat of the chili throughout. The bhaji was crispy and tangy thanks to a light squeeze of lemon provided in the side salad.
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Judging by the size of Tulip’s menu, it’s clear that the staff don’t want customers leaving without feeling like they haven’t eaten enough. For main courses, you have the choice between 10 different styles of curries and grills. ‘Old School’ curries and Biriyanis offer the usual fare you’d expect from similar restaurants, but there are also intriguing less spotty dishes everywhere. There is a Tulip Special Balti and a selection of traditional Punjabi dishes. But in the bottom corner of the menu I spotted a Hashnaji (£10.50), which promised green chilli, red chilli, a mix of bell peppers, onions, keema, garlic, ginger and spinach. “This amazing dish looks like what you would eat in an Indian family home as a guest,” the menu reads. That was enough to intrigue, so I opted for the lamb version.
Mushroom pilaf (£3.45), garlic and coriander naan (£2.70) and Bengan (£5.25) – an aubergine side dish – were also orders.
Special grill dishes were ordered by neighboring tables and came out of the kitchen on sizzling hot plates, while a Family Naan (£4.95) was almost the size of two human heads.
My garlic cilantro naan wasn’t too small and was falling down the sides of the plate, piping hot and sweating with garlic. It was a moreish combination of chewy and crunchy. The mushroom pilaf was ok, the mushrooms maybe a bit overcooked, and the aubergines arrived submerged in a tomato based sauce but lacked punch. They could have done with a little more heat.
But the Hashnaji certainly lived up to his explanation. The mixture of bell peppers and “well spiced” chili provided the perfect balance of flavors.
The restaurant was slowly filling up at this point and party-sized tables were crowding the room.
I was suitably stuffed, and although there were no dessert options on the menu, I couldn’t have put anything else.
Stockton Road, Sadberge, Darlington DL2 1SZ
Food quality: 7
Value for money: 7
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