Le Raaj Indian Restaurant, Chester-le-Street

My partner, Richard, and I love taking a small break around December time when possible. It’s nice to just switch off from the Christmas chaos and focus on seeing a new place or revisiting places we love. This year we visited Durham for a few nights. I must say, Durham will always hold a special place in my heart as I spent three years living there as a student at the university. Plus, I have family in the North who we love to visit and spend time with.

I was particularly excited when the Indian restaurant, Le Raaj (http://www.Le Raaj.co.uk), invited us to join them for evening dinner since they seemed to have a very fresh, contemporary approach to Indian cuisine. Plus, it was amazing to see a restaurant that had made such a positive commitment to making the whole dining area and experience accessible for guests with or without disabilities!

I loved the opulent decor throughout Le Raaj; it definitely felt like there had been a focus on a high quality finish in terms of design, furnishings and decorations. It was refreshing to see such luxurious decor throughout the building whilst also retaining full accessibility to the vast majority of the restaurant. There was plenty of space for my powered wheelchair (the WHILL model C) to weave between tables, even when the dining area became busy and filled with guests. I loved that the restaurant was so popular as it gave a fun, jovial ambience to the room! You could certainly see why Le Raaj was so popular when you tasted the food. Every dish that Richard and I had was perfectly balanced with fragrant spices and impeccable presentation – we   enjoyed every one of the dishes we ordered.

There are two Le Raaj restaurants in the County Durham area and each is a family-run franchise. There is one in Sedgefield but the one we visited was located in Chester-le-Street.  

The first thing you notice about Le Raaj was the large metal elephant statue that was proudly displayed at the entrance to the restaurant. This is a wonderful statement of grandeur and definitely showed that there was no expense spared when decorating and furnishing these restaurants. Plus, it’s a great spot to get a group photograph to pop on social media!

The car park was adjacent to the door and very sizeable. We actually took a taxi from our hotel in Byers Green. There are fully adapted, wheelchair accessible taxis in the Newcastle/ Durham area but occasionally the waiting time is slightly higher than a conventional taxi firm. We instead took a non-adapted taxi as my WHILL C can be taken apart very easily and stored in a normal car boot while I transfer into the front car seat.

The restaurant had an ideal situation as it is very close to the nearby areas of Durham, Washington and Sunderland so it is easily commutable from many places. Whether you arrive in a taxi or drive, the car park is large enough to park close to   the restaurant. There was plenty of parking available even when the restaurant became busy.

The front entrance doorway had a gently inclining slope that would be easy to access in a manual or powered wheelchair. The double doors as you entered the building had plenty of width so I didn’t have to worry about my wheelchair catching the glass at all. I would always recommend ringing ahead to the restaurant to book your table if you have a disability, mobility requirements or even dietary requirements. Plus, if you are in a larger model of chair you can then be advised as to whether the dimensions of the chair will suit the restaurant space.

Upon entering, we were greeted by the owner, Rez, who welcomed us to our table. Rez was a genuinely nice person and you could tell that he was passionate about making his restaurant experience exemplary whilst also being accessible to those with a variety of disabilities. Throughout our visit, both Rez and the other staff working on that day were so helpful and did everything within their power to make every diner’s  experience a positive one.

Le Raaj was divided into separate room areas and there were a couple of private dining areas that can be hired for larger parties or even to make a romantic dinner for two truly special! If one of your party has autism and prefers dining in a quieter space then these would be ideal to rent out to ensure their night continued to be a joyful experience. 

We visited during December so the private dining areas were filled with locals having their annual Christmas party gatherings. It was really great to see such a fun atmosphere and such a wide mix of age groups all enjoying the   sensational food and drink at Le Raaj. 

Beyond the private dining areas, there was a large corridor that took you across to the areas used for the other dining guests. The corridors had plenty of width for my powered chair (WHILL Model C) to wheel around in and even make a 180 degree turn if necessary. The flooring in this corridor area was tiled but there was a rich purple carpet elsewhere. As many wheelchair users know, carpet can present problems when self-propelling manual chairs or turning powered chairs. However, since the carpet wasn’t overly thick, I still found it really easy to manoeuvre my powered chair around every area of the restaurant. This is another great example of how Le Raaj has combined stylish, modern decor choices with their policies of inclusion and access for every customer.

The dining areas all had plenty of space left between tables for me to weave around and access every table. The restaurant filled with diners soon after these photos were taken and became really busy but I still was able to navigate easily behind filled tables. Our visit was on a Monday evening and it was great to see how popular Le Raaj was, even on a midweek night in frosty December. The dining space had a great atmosphere throughout the night and the vast majority of tables were filled constantly!

The only area that a visitor who had mobility requirements couldn’t access was a raised platform area with three wide steps. This wouldn’t be a problem though as this was a very small proportion of the restaurant space overall and only included around five tables on this platform. The Le Raaj website (http://www.Le Raaj.co.uk) allows you to send an email or make a phone call to book your table in advance. I found the staff really helpful here since they booked us a table that I could very easily access in my powered chair (WHILL C) and one that would give me an easy access route to travel to the disabled accessible toilet. I think if you gave details of your requirements there then Le Raaj would accommodate and modify anything that they needed to!

I thought the opulent decor throughout the restaurant really elevated it from many Indian restaurants that I have been to. The soft purple lighting gave a rich hue to the chandelier and this purple theme continued through the carpets and chairs. The napkins had impressive folds to them rather than lying, limply folded under the cutlery and there were splashes of branded items such as the glass barriers, entrance doormat and wall signs all bearing the restaurant’s name, Le Raaj, on it.   This was great as it showed how rightfully proud the family-run owners were of their   restaurant!

The attention to detail didn’t stop at the furnishings though; Le Raaj had clearly thought about access when they designed their disabled toilet area. The door had plenty of width for me to enter in my compact powered chair (WHILL C) and a RADAR key wasn’t required to unlock the door. The emergency red pull cord reached the floor which was great to see (a disabled visitor who has fallen needs to reach this from the ground) as many restaurants loop this cord up or tie it to hang higher. There were plenty of grab rails so you could easily pull yourself on and off of the toilet and the sink was at the perfect wheelchair-level height for me to use.

There was no mirror in the disabled toilet which was disappointing – disabled guests need to check they don’t have lipstick on their teeth too! Plus, I don’t believe there was a sanitary bin. The room was fairly tight for me to turn my wheelchair around and exit the bathroom facing outwards but the toilet was located in a quieter area of the restaurant so reversing out wasn’t a problem or turning was doable with   patience. 

Once we were seated at our table, Richard and I browsed the menu. These are available to view online at the base of both the Chester-le-Street and Sedgefield restaurant pages (http://www.leraaj.co.uk/chesterlestreet.html) so you can see the delectable food and drinks the restaurants have on offer prior to your visit. These also include details of the takeaway prices, the £8.95 dine-in lunch menu and the grand buffet which can be ordered for larger groups renting out the private spaces.

We found that both the food and drinks selections were wide-ranging and definitely held something that every single person would enjoy! Richard prefers beers on draught so was pleasantly surprised to see that Le Raaj had Cobra beer on draught. More authentic beers such as Cobra or Kingfisher are less carbonated so you can enjoy drinking these alongside the food we ordered.

I have a real sweet tooth so I ordered a glass of sweet wine. The waiter here was great as I am certainly no sommelier (fancy wine buff) so often need recommendations in order to avoid dry wines. Another instance of how helpful the staff at Le Raaj were throughout our dining experience.

The full food and drinks menus are available to peruse at the base of the Le Raaj website.

We were both really hungry as we entered Le Raaj since we had previously had a full day exploring Durham and really worked up an appetite! We were glad to see that the food arrived really quickly! We ordered poppadoms and a pickle tray which consisted of mango chutney, shredded onion and coriander, creamy mint yoghurt raita and a tamarind chutney which tasted like a rich spiced tomato paste. The poppadoms were fresh and large and very reasonably priced. In fact, I think most of the dishes we ordered were very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food available!

When our starters arrived, Richard and I both loved the colourful presentation. The mint yoghurt sauce had a vibrant orange colour and was swirled around the exterior of the plates alongside a side salad and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. I ordered the ‘Extraordinary Onion Bahjis’ and these were very generous in size. These had a very subtle spicing but you could definitely taste the delicious crisp battered onions. 

We don’t cook crustacean seafood dishes particularly often at home so Richard always jumps at the opportunity to order this when we dine out. He ordered the tandoori king prawn dish. These king prawns again were very generous in size and you could taste the meaty freshness. The spices really complimented the prawns   and gave them a rich variety of tastes. Richard also really enjoyed his starter and  would recommend them!

Again, Richard and I were pleasantly surprised by the attention to detail with the presentation of our main courses. Alongside the bright colours you see in many Indians, there were vibrant fresh garnishes and drizzles of creamy raita dressing. I could see the love that the Le Raaj chef had for each of his/ her dishes. Le Raaj clearly understood that a dining experience is completed when a dish excites every one of your senses, not just the taste buds.

I love trying something new when I visit a different restaurant. It’s nice to have a wholly new experience every time! I ordered the Nihari Gosht which was a welsh lamb shank that had been slowly cooked over a period of six hours whilst being covered with a spice paste. This paste interweaved a complex variety of eastern spices which gave a full flavour without being overly fiery with hot spices. The lamb was cooked alongside caramelised onions and cherry tomatoes to form a delectable thick sauce around the lamb. This was served alongside a small heap of saffron rice. Interestingly, Nihari is considered the national dish of Pakistan; if a whole nation reveres it as part of their national identity then you can certainly see why it was so good!

Richard is far less of a wuss when it comes to spicy heat from an Indian dish. He ordered the lamb chilli masala which included tender cubes of lamb cooked in a thick spicy sauce alongside fresh green chillis. This dish definitely had the desired “kick” of heat but also included a vast variety of spices to tingle your taste buds! The portion size was definitely plentiful; Richard couldn’t even finish his meal which is highly unusual for either of us!

We ordered fresh saffron rice to compliment Richard’s dish and I chose a peshwari nan which was a light, fluffy bread stuffed with coconut, almonds and raisins. 

There was a huge variety on the menu of both side and main dishes so there is definitely something to please everyone! I liked as well that the waiting staff were highly knowledgable about each of the dishes so you could ask for recommendations if you preferred your chosen dish to be mild/ spicy/ creamy/ rich. A waiter also mentioned to a couple dining next to us that they could add extra spice to any dish to give it a further kick! Plus, there was a separate vegan and gluten free menu so those with dietary requirements weren’t excluded from the vast taste experience in    any way. 

Overall, Richard and I had an amazing time at Le Raaj in Chester-le-Street (http://www.leraaj.co.uk). We loved every one of our dishes and thought that the presentation really elevated the experience. This was also true of the presentation in terms of furnishings and decor; these were clearly of a high-quality and gave the dining area an opulent, luxurious feel. I found it very easy to be able to navigate the restaurant using my powered chair since the restaurant was predominantly level-access and there was plenty of space between tables and throughout the building for me to easily wheel around. The disabled toilet was accessible to me with plenty of grab rails, a wheelchair-level sink and an emergency pull-cord that fully reached the floor. It could have benefitted from a mirror, sanitary bin and a little extra space but was perfectly usable and didn’t detract from my dining experience at all.

The food and drinks menus were both vast and included options to suit even the pickiest diner or those with dietary requirements. The staff were really friendly and helpful when I had questions about the dishes and definitely accommodated all of my access needs during the visit. With the addition of private dining areas you could hire out, you could easily have a really memorable group special event or even rent a quieter area for a diner with autism or a similar sensory processing disorder if necessary. 

I would definitely recommend Le Raaj to anyone in the Durham County area; whether you are visiting for a group celebration, an intimate date night or just a weekday treat, Le Raaj is definitely the place to go!

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