IT was a shame to wave goodbye to Amalfi’s, an Italian which had spanned the decades on the prime corner spot opposite the Sunderland Empire.
But hot on its heels is Spice Empire, hoping to plug the gap left by its predecessor for pre-theatre grub.
First impressions were good when I visited with Echo chums, Georga Spottiswood and Cara Houchen.
We hadn’t booked, but only had a 10-minute wait while the waiter prepared us a table.
In the meantime, we had a girly gossip over a rather nice bottle of Pinot Grigio, which was reasonably priced at about £12.
Our table was the best in the house and sat at the Georgian-style bay window, overlooking Sunderland Minster and the cobbled Church Lane, it felt more like we were in York than Sunderland.
The menu, however, transported us straight to India.
There was a melting pot of flavours on offer including tandoori specialities, chicken tikka delicacy, vegetarian choices, balti dishes, king prawn and venison dishes and more.
As an added bonus, the fact it was a Thursday night meant we could take advantage of that day’s offer of five courses for £8.95.
The promotion includes any starter, any main, rice or chips, ice cream and coffee, but you have to pay a little extra for king prawn or chicken and lamb tikka varieties.
After the obligatory pre-starter nibbles of poppadoms, pickles, chutney and mint yoghurt, our starters arrived promptly.
I’d ordered the deep fried butterfly king prawn. It was a whopper and was nicely garnished and displayed.
I stuck with prawns for my main course too, ordering the king prawn tandoori, which is £9 when not bought as part of the five-course deal.
It’s a notoriously dry dish, but this one still managed to pack a punch flavour-wise. Again, the presentation was top notch and my side dish of pilau rice was the perfect tasty complement.
Georga too sang the praises of her choice. She lives in South Shields, arguably the North East’s curry capital, but it was this Sunderland curry – the sabka maza – which earned this accolade from her: “One of the best curries I’ve ever had.”
Cooked with garlic, ginger, onions, tomatoes, green chilli and hot spices, this curry had a real kick to it and was bursting with flavour.
Cara stuck with an Indian staple for her starter – the chingri mirch (£4.50) – lightly spiced prawns served in a baked green pepper.
The presentation was pretty and the taste flavoursome.
Her main meal, however, was a more adventurous affair. The mashur, cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, coriander, garden mint and tandoori spices was a real minty treat.
With drinks, our bill came to a little more than £40 – not bad at all.
Despite being a cheap deal – the offer also runs on a Sunday – portion size was spot on and we left feeling contently full. You can expect to shave even more off the price if you opt for the takeaway version.
Being slap bang underneath more established Indian restaurant Motiraj Tandoori means the two restaurants may be battling it out for custom.
But, in my opinion, Spice Empire has the edge.