Food in Newcastle is getting better by the year. Here are some highlights from my recent trip back home.
As eagle-eyed readers with an ear for accents may have guessed from this blog’s tagline (‘Get it doon ya in Catalunya’) I am a Geordie, born and bred in SE Northumberland near Newcastle upon Tyne, but I only get a few days a year to explore Newcastle’s ever-improving restaurant scene. I can’t claim to be an expert (for local knowledge, I recommend the Newcastle Eats blog and the website of professional reviewer the Secret Diner) but I always enjoy my meals there. The days when eating out in the city was always a joyless and rushed prelude to a drinking marathon are, thankfully, fading. Newcastle lacks the food culture and depth of competition of some bigger cities but that’s changing fast. In no particular order, here are some of the places I ate well at in August 2015: The Bridge Tavern, The Broad Chare, and House of Tides.
Review: The Bridge Tavern, 7 Akenside Hill, Quayside, NE1 3UF, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK; Tel. (+44) 0191 261 9966
The former Newcastle Arms (and a few other names too) is tucked beneath the girders of the city’s iconic Tyne Bridge on the Quayside. It describes itself as a ‘Brewpub & Eatery’, which put me off straight away. I’m usually prepared on principle to boycott anywhere that calls itself an eatery. It’s a word that makes me squirm, like nails down a blackboard, and should be condemned to a deep and irretrievably lost level of lexical hell. My grump didn’t last long though; the pub itself won me over immediately. It’s all exposed bricks, old books and leather sofas, with a long bar lined with reassuringly heavy-looking hand-pulled pumps. Upstairs is a terrace with seats outside so you can enjoy the
sleet and bracing winds whipping in from the North Sea summer sunshine.
But it’s the back of the room that draws your attention, where gleaming copper kettles brew house ales that will later be served in the pub. The beer is produced in association with Wylam brewery and it is simply fantastic. The Crazy Horse I had was the best pint I tasted all summer. The Tavern serves ‘bar bait’ snacks, sharing ‘planks’ (cf. @WeWantPlates), starters and mains, mainly British, all with an emphasis on uncomplicated comfort food at sensible prices. We had spicy, breaded lambs’-tongues (£3.50), chilli-dusted (and over-salted) pork scratchings (£3), meaty pig’s head croquettes (£3) and an absolutely magnificent haggis toastie with quail’s eggs (£4.95). We hadn’t planned on dessert but, salty pork scratchings aside, everything was so good we couldn’t resist. A soft meringue roll with almonds and raspberries (£4.95) and a burnt malt cream were ordered. The latter turned out to be a beery version of crema catalana and was, dare I say it, even better than the original, with more depth and less school-pud sweetness. We didn’t have a main course but those being served (£8-£12) looked massive and delicious.
The Bridge Tavern is a brilliant pub, and a welcome addition to the Quayside. It now ranks alongside the Broad Chare (see below) as my default option for a meal when I’m in town.
Review: The Broad Chare, 25 Broad Chare, Quayside, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 3DQ; Tel. (+44) 0191 211 2144
The Broad Chare is part of chef Terry Laybourne’s empire, the 21 Hospitality Group. Terry has arguably done more for good food in Newcastle than anyone else. His 21 Queen Street was for years the flagbearer for fine dining in the city and, since 2011, his Broad Chare has set the local standard for pub food. The ‘any-more-down-to-earth-and-we’d-be-digging’ image that the Broad Chare cultivates (the word ‘proper’ was apparently put on cut & paste by the website’s copywriter) doesn’t quite bear up to close scrutiny. It’s not overpriced for the quality on offer but nor is it a cheap-and-cheerful place to eat by Newcastle standards (starters around £7, main courses £10-£20); however, its location next to the law courts on the Quayside means it’s constantly packed to the rafters with young and old professionals, and with local afficionados of simple, top-quality, ingredient-led British cooking. The real ales are superb (try the Writer’s Block) and the bar snacks downstairs are a treat, especially the pork crackling (without which, according to my wife, no trip to Newcastle is complete). Upstairs, the no-frills dining room serves things like liver and onions, ham shank and pease pudding, braised oxtail and locally caught fish. It’s all superb – I’ve eaten here on many occasions and I’ve never had a dish I didn’t like.
My most recent visit was spontaneous, so there are no notes or good photos. It was Newcastle Restaurant Week, during which different establishments offer a set-price lunch menu to attract new customers. I’d originally planned to go to the nearby Cafe 21 (another Laybourne venture) but couldn’t resist the lure of the Broad Chare. We had the crackling (of course) then a 2-course, £10-a-head lunch of things like lamb and barley broth, fennel and arhrahan cheese stovies with poached eggs and bacon, and fish burger with tartare sauce and thick cut chips, plus some really good bread and butter. Washed down, of course, by a couple of pints of Writer’s Block. It’s still the Newcastle food pub to beat.
Review: House of Tides, 28-30 The Close, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 3RF; Tel. (+44) 0191 2303720
Living in Barcelona, with limited access to UK TV, I’ve lost touch with who’s famous and who’s not in the British food world. Newcastle-born chef Kenny Atkinson is something of a media star, apparently, as well as a former holder of a Michelín star. His first hometown restaurant, House of Tides, has quite clearly been created with one eye on the little red book, offering Newcastle’s only real fine dining menus in a style that Michelín inspectors should find familiar. It’s located in a ramshakle, Grade 1, 16th-century former merchant’s house under the towering arches of the High Level Bridge, with views out over the nearby Tyne river.
The kitchen is visible from the street through a small window, and I was pleased to see Kenny getting hands-on in the kitchen – a rare event in the case of most celebrity chefs. It’s not always necessary of course, if the sous chef knows his job, but it’s always a plus. The restaurant is gorgeous, with many original features retained, especially in the downstairs waiting room where snacks are served.
We chose a £45 three-course and a £55 four-course tasting menu. There is no à la carte option but a wide range of other tasting menus are available, ranging from (at the time of our visit) £38 for 2 courses to £65 for six. Wine pairings (called wine flights here) are £45, while per-glass options are mainly in the £6-£8.50 range. The meal started in style with snacks of impeccable Lindisfarne oysters, croquettes and chicken liver parfait cones.
We were then moved to a light, wood-beamed dining room upstairs, fitted with one of the worst, scratchiest music systems I’ve ever heard. I don’t expect audiophile nirvana in a restaurant, but this was distractingly bad. Fortunately, the chairs were comfortable, even if the small and office-furniture-like tables were inexplicably out of character with the rest of the very attractive room.
Pea and pine nut soup with lemon oil was suitably smooth and summery, and a dish of cod cheeks with truffle, wild mushrooms, black pudding and squash risotto also excellent.
Steak tartare was one of the best I’ve had. The balance of acidity was impeccable and the salt-by-means-of-smoked-caviar device executed flawlessly. Steak doesn’t exactly play a major role in the flavour or serving size, and is it really a steak tartare? Who cares? It’s a great dish.
Sea bass, crab, crushed new potatoes, brown shrimp in butter, orange, green beans and artichokes are a lot of big flavours to juggle successfully, but Atkinson – just – managed it for a fresh and light summer main course that pleased rather than wowed. It’s an ingredient-led dish but it didn’t lead anywhere new.
Squash risotto with truffles and giroles was a let-down. It was far too similar to what had come before with the cod cheeks and gave the impression of laziness. Nothing wrong with the dish itself, but it shouldn’t have been in this menu.
Cheeses, homemade crackers and fruit & nut bread were very good. It would have been nice to see local cheeses represented and the sequence could have been improved but there was no arguing with the quality.
Crème brûlée (it was clearly a day for croquettes and crema catalana variations, after lunch at the Bridge Tavern) just like at home, with blackberries apple and ginger covered all the textural and flavour bases in accomplished style.
Dark chocolate, rosewater, strawberries and meringue likewise ticked all the technical boxes but didn’t set off any emotional fireworks. It was very enjoyable but didn’t really connect with me – in part because I get this style of dessert all the time.
Total bill for two was £157 inclusing 5 glasses of wine, a coke and a service charge.
To put the above comments into context, let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: we really enjoyed our meal. It was our anniversary, and I’m glad we picked House of Tides to celebrate it. It is an excellent restaurant and does Newcastle proud, offering ingredient-led fine dining that should put it in strong contention for a Michelín star. The building and interior design is wonderful and the location’s ideal. There is much to like here, and much to recommend it.
But some things could be improved. Service is competent but nervous; the very young staff are clearly learning on the job, and while none of them put a foot wrong, they transmitted their lack of experience on a constant, subliminal ‘ohshitohshit’ frequency that doesn’t put guests at ease. Time will fix this. Wine recommendations could be better. The food here is a relative bargain but the margins on the wine are not tight. Given the prices, it falls to the somellier to hit the bullseye with food pairings and that didn’t happen. Again, they weren’t bad; they could just have been better. If House of Tides were in London or Barcelona it would have to raise its game, but doing so would be easier because of the deeper hiring pool. Food-wise, the execution of dishes was flawless by any standards but there was a constant sense that the handbrake had been left half-on. It is probably a difficult and lonely furrow to plough, bringing this kind of cooking to Newcastle, and I understand that audience expectations must be taken into account. In that sense, Atkinson is doing a great job at pitching both his price and his product to the public: the restaurant was packed on a mid-week, midsummer night. But I think he can do even better. More rigorous focus on local produce? More ambitious menus with more and smaller dishes? Less fussy dishes with a clearer focus? Maybe all of the above; maybe none. I’m not a chef. I’ll definitely go back to House of Tides and I’m delighted that there’s a restaurant in my ‘old’ home that stands comparison with the best of those in my ‘new’ home. I hope that the Michelín inspectors reward it, and I hope that such an award will spur Atkinson and his brigade to even greater heights.
A couple of quick additional notes. We stayed in the Gateshead Hilton, which was roomy and offers great views at an excellent price. And if you’re ever at the Quayside market, visit Prince of Pies and eat everything they’re selling. Take home anything you can’t manage. They’re outstanding.
I’ll be back at Christmas. Can’t wait…