All posts by Kirstin Hannaford

It’s a Chef’s Wife : Playing the chain game

Chef’s wife and food blogger, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD heads to Prezzo for a pre-match meal with her dad before joining the crowds for some festive season football

Enjoying some pre-match food at Prezzo. Photp: Kirstin Hannaford
Enjoying some pre-match food at Prezzo. Photp: Kirstin Hannaford

There used to be a time when a midweek home match at St James’ Park followed a set pattern. I’d rush to get finished at work by 6pm and race down into the centre of Newcastle to meet my dad for a bite to eat before heading to the ground to take our seats in time for kick off. That was back in 2010 when relegation to the Championship after 16 years in the Premier League led to an increase in games on weekday evenings, and I still cared enough to sit in the cold for 90 minutes knowing I had to be up early for work the next day.

Six years on I still make it to most Saturday afternoon matches, but it’s been a good few years since I spent an evening shivering in the crowd watching 22 men run around the pitch at St James’ Park hoping I’d be repaid for my efforts with the glory of a win.

So when my father offered me the chance to accompany him to the Nottingham Forest match during the lull between Christmas and New Year, I decided it was time to get the layers on and join the other 50 odd thousand folk hoping for another three points. Plus, a spot of Italian cuisine and a night with my dad had far more appeal than another evening of eating left-over turkey curry and watching the Big Fat Quiz of the Year on catch up.

Feeling pretty fed up with festive fodder, I booked a table at Prezzo, located on the edge of Old Eldon Square’s “hippy green” in the spot that once housed fellow Italian chain, Strada.

Prezzo opened its doors in Newcastle in November 2014 and became the company’s 250th restaurant. It immediately blended in with the plethora of high street pizza pasta chain restaurants that appear to be multiplying in the city centre, each presenting identikit menus to droves of hungry customers, often seen clutching two for one vouchers.

For many people the idea of a chain is synonymous with mediocrity, but this doesn’t need to be the case although such unimaginative places frustrate my husband. Apparently they are the culinary equivalent of painting by numbers. However, Mr Chef wasn’t invited on this occasion and while I understand his preference for a good old fashioned trattoria, where mama lovingly serves up a hearty Italian feast, there is something slightly reassuring about a familiar menu and recognisable surroundings when you have a quick turnaround and you’re feeling rather peckish.

As I approached the glass fronted restaurant on what was a surprisingly mild December evening, I could see my father waiting expectantly in the doorway and so we swiftly made our way inside.

We were met by a direct but not unwelcoming waitress who showed us to our table at the front of the restaurant looking out over Old Eldon Square and the multiple crowds of teenagers set for the night with their beer cans in hand, each trying to outdo one another with their bizarreness.

The restaurant has a modern interior over two floors with a mix of tiles and wooden panelling lining the walls, shiny silver light fittings and neutral décor giving a contemporary minimalistic feel devoid of any real atmosphere. Most of the tables were occupied by diners of varying ages, families with children and a number of obvious fellow match goers, so I was pleased to have booked in advance. We settled down at our table and surveyed the menu which as expected contained a selection of pizzas, pastas, risottos, salads, and meat dishes.

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As anyone who lives with a chef will know every good Italian meal should contain wine and olives, so I decided to start with marinated olives and a large glass of Merlot. My dad on the other hand opted for polpette gigante, large meatballs made of veal, pork, beef and pancetta. Having always been a bit of a cheapskate, he chose to accompany it with a glass of house white which perhaps predictably was a tad sharp.

The mixture of black and green olives served in a light olive oil with peppers, garlic and herbs was full of flavour and proved a successful choice in taking the edge off my hunger. My father’s meatballs were tasty and came in a tangy tomato sauce, dressed with basil and some kind of unidentifiable cheese slivers which he described as somewhat insipid.

On to the mains which arrived promptly once the starter plates were cleared. I plumped for prosciutto e funghi pizza (Prosciutto ham, mushrooms, olives, rosemary, mozzarella and tomato), but chose the light option which is made with a smaller flatbread base and is complemented by a side salad with optional dressing.

My dad played devil’s advocate and decided on pasta. His large bowl of pappardelle gorgonzola (chicken, pancetta, leeks, broccoli and parsley in a gorgonzola sauce) looked appetising enough and the pasta was cooked perfectly, however the sauce was disappointingly bland and lacked the depth of flavour promised by the prospect of a rich creamy blue cheese sauce. Mine was an okay pizza; a thin and crispy base just on the safe side of overdone with a decent amount of ham and mushroom topping.

The staff were friendly throughout and the service was on the whole attentive with a check back after the starter and again after the main to ensure everything was okay. We did wait around 10 minutes for my second glass of Merlot to arrive from the bar and at times there was a certain amount of aimless wandering to be observed as waiting staff tried to decide whose antipasto was whose.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to be critical given that we got exactly what we ordered. The bill came promptly on request as did the amended version once I’d remembered the 25 per cent off voucher I had printed off in haste before I left the office earlier. The bill came to £43.41 which for two courses and three drinks I considered a reasonable price.

And so ended a meal that was generally competent, with a few own goals but no adrenalin surge from a superb shot on target. All in all an unexceptional but okay dining experience. But with the company’s tagline offering to “bring a touch of class to Italian casual dining” I had hoped for a bit more as well as the chance to prove Mr Chef and his cynical outlook wrong.

I suppose that the appeal of many chains is that generally you know what to expect, and I guess we got exactly that, another faux Italian delivering food that fails to surprise, but doesn’t offend.

www.prezzorestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/newcastle/

Twitter: @love_prezzo

Prezzo also have restaurants at Cramlington, Darlington, Dalton Park, Co. Durham and at Catterick in North Yorkshire

It’s a Chef’s Wife: Dabbawal

In a quest for a great curry and a spicy Indian banquet, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD heads out to Dabbawal, a recent contestant in Newcastle’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle, and finds that although they didn’t win the battle they may just win the war!

Dabbawal. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford
Dabbawal. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford

It’s a common misconception when you live with a chef that you must get delicious meals cooked for you every evening. What people clearly forget is that he works long shifts most days, rarely has weekends off and any free time he does get is more than likely spent catching up on his sleep.

When he does cook at home, and to be fair it’s a lot more often than I do, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that it will be a curry. There’s nothing he loves more than creating a huge big steamy pot of generously spiced beef and spinach Madras and inviting a crowd of friends over to enjoy the results. I think it has something to do with his love of flavours and his slightly worrying obsession with the kind of obscure sounding ingredients that your everyday supermarket wouldn’t even know existed. Needless to say, he does curry well. With such high standards at home when we treat ourselves to an Indian takeaway or frequent one of the many local Indian restaurants, it has to be something special to impress.

Craving spicy food. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford
Craving spicy food. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford

When we found out about Wylam Brewery’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle last weekend I got a craving for spicy cuisine. It seemed the perfect chance to catch up with some old friends for a good beer and a spot of curry all together in one place. Plus, the opportunity to try offerings from the likes of Sachins, Dabbawal and Curry Rolls was one not to be missed. Hot off the heels of their Battle of the Burgers event back in September and billed as a sensory overload of all things Indian spice, I have to admit I was quite excited.

Unfortunately, it was not to be as the unexpected hordes of hungry curry lovers led to a jam packed venue and queues for food that even my stomach couldn’t wait for. My hankering for a good quality Indian feast was sadly left unfulfilled. Not one to give up easily, I had a word in the other half’s ear and managed to persuade him that we ought to try out one of the contenders in situ. And so, the following Tuesday evening we ventured to Dabawal’s Newcastle restaurant in the hope of an Indian banquet to top all others.

The modern looking eatery is tucked away on High Bridge Street, but when we arrived around 9pm we found most tables occupied, which for a week night can only be a good sign. Simply furnished with unclothed wooden tables, industrial light fittings and brightly coloured graphics adorning the walls, it provided a well needed haven from the bitter Geordie weather.

The restaurant is named after the dabbawallas – lunchbox delivery men, who bring the comfort of home-cooked food to offices in cities across India – or so I was helpfully informed by my curry connoisseur husband as we were guided to our table by a friendly waiter. While appreciative of the lesson in Indian culture my eyes turned quickly to the menu which offers an array of Indian street food served tapas-style as well as a range of traditional and more imaginative sounding curries. Accompanied by a friend, we chose not to be our usual selfish selves and opted to eat socially, sharing everything, making our selections from the street food tapas menu.

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Photo: Kirstin Hannaford

The Vegetable Samosa Chaat – a dome of sliced crispy samosa parcels on top of a spicy chickpea sauce, drizzled with tamarind and yogurt – was crunchy, fragrant and very moreish. On the recommendation of the waitress we also went for Haryali Chicken Tikka, succulent chicken breast pieces marinated in coriander, mint yoghurt and green chili. Perhaps the best chicken tikka I’ve ever tried and I was pleased we’d asked for the expert advice.

The Seekh Kebab Kybria – spiced minced lamb kebabs with red onion and sweet peppers – were tasty but a bit dry and in my opinion would have benefited from a bit less time in the oven and a tad more yoghurt sauce, but they were devoured all the same. With the addition of some juicy Citrus King Prawns, and sides of Lentil Battered Okra and creamy Paneer and Spinach we were set for the night.

We chose to mop up the sauces with some steamed rice, a perfectly baked roti and a somewhat disappointing Peshwari naan. It was overly sweet, with congealed sugar crystals clearly visible on the surface of the dough and the only real let down of the night.

It might be stating the obvious but none of us had room for dessert and with work calling in the morning it was time to head for home. Carrying on the sharing spirit we split the bill three ways. In my view £22 each for an over generous helping of spicy delights, a bottle of cobra beer and two large glasses of house red wine wasn’t bad value.

With the majority of dishes hitting the mark and impeccable service throughout from attentive, knowledgeable and friendly staff, Dabawal may not have been crowned the winners of Wylam Brewery’s Curry Battle (that prize went to Curry Rolls), but they definitely won us over. I certainly won’t be giving up the home cooked curry from my mister, but we’ll absolutely go back to Dabawal for seconds.

Dabbawal Street Food Kitchen

69-75 High Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6BX

0191 232 5133

www.dabbawal.com

Twitter: @Dabbawal

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Dabbawal

 

also at:

1 Brentwood Mews, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 3DG

0191 281 3434

It’s a Chef’s Wife : dAtbAr hits the mark!

In a  bid to banish the holiday blues KIRSTIN HANNAFORD finds that dAtbAr in Newcastle hits the mark!

Photo courtesy of dAtbAr
Photo courtesy of dAtbAr

My husband and I have recently returned from seven glorious days of sunshine in southern Spain. We enjoyed a fantastic break from the daily grind; a welcome escape from the office for me and a well-deserved rest from the kitchen for him. Now back in Gateshead with the temperatures barely scraping double figures and the prospect of another full week at work looming for us both, he wasn’t in the mood to cook and we needed a treat to ease the pain of being back to reality. And so we found ourselves in central Newcastle on a busy Saturday night amidst the chaos that inevitably ensues the day after payday, on a mission to seek out some good grub.

Dat Bar Newcastle

‘dAtbAr’ on the corner of Market Street next to the Theatre Royal wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice, but as we strolled down from the Monument and it started to rain, the bright neon sign above the door caught my attention and we decided to dive inside for cover and peruse the menu.

We were greeted immediately by a young friendly waitress who directed us from the bar area to an inviting looking booth in the dining section and took our drinks order.  I had always thought of dAtbAr as a bit of a hipster hangout and inside it certainly has a young and trendy feel with an open kitchen at one end, and a quirky, arty interior which lends it a relaxed, creative atmosphere. You can’t fail to miss the comic book-style wallpaper and array of modern artwork adorning the walls. With my eyes still focused on the décor, predictably the other half was already dismantling the brown paper menu from its clipboard to see what was on offer. Unless you’re edible, it can be difficult to get a chef’s attention at the best of times and when he’s hungry and keen to scrutinise his competitors, it’s virtually impossible.

The menu boasts a range of small platters, sliders, sourdough pizzas, ribs, steaks and burgers and as my eyes scanned the options I felt my appetite increase. It’s quite meat focused and the impressive looking mix-and-match charcuterie boards are prepared using a vintage Berkel slicing machine. Veggies are not forgotten either with a number of meat free pizza and salad choices.

Olives. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford
Cerignola olives. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford

After much deliberating we opted for a couple of the ‘small plates’ to start. I ordered Cerignola olives with roasted salt almonds and rocket while he went for the meatball slider, billed as a pine nut and raisin beef meatball in a ‘soft milk bun’. With the open kitchen in clear sight it was disappointing to see our starters sit on the pass for over ten minutes before they arrived at our table. Not something I would have noticed had I not had a hawk eyed culinary expert by my side providing a running commentary on the number of dishes going out before ours.

When they came, my gigantic green olives were bursting with flavour and partnered extremely well with the salted almonds serving as a tasty and light appetiser. Unfortunately, the other half wasn’t quite so happy with his slider as he bit in to the ‘soft milk bun’ only to find it was rock hard – presumably due to its time spent under the hot lamps of the serving hatch. With a steady flow of diners on a busy Saturday night, the two waiting staff had their work cut out. To their credit they were rushing about trying their best, but with so many hungry customers they certainly didn’t have time for a check back to see if our meal was ok – which I’m told is a must in the restaurant world.

After the debacle of ‘starter-gate’, I was worried that it might all go downhill, however, I was quickly proven wrong when we were presented with a feast for two that even impressed Mr high standards chef!

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Joe Burger. Photo: Kirstin Hannaford

The meat is taken very seriously at ‘dAtbAr’ – they make their burgers from beef supplied by Northern Ireland based Hannan Meats where they age the beef inside a 12-foot high vault of Himalayan Salt bricks to give it a distinctive flavour and texture. Naturally I was keen to sample the goods first hand. My Joe burger came with baby gem lettuce, large slices of beef tomato, gherkin, crisp pancetta and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce that had a pleasant but not overbearing kick. Served medium rare at my request, with a side of shoestring fries, it definitely hit the spot and the beef patty lived up to expectations with a unique, almost gamey flavour, encased in a soft brioche bun that bore none of the texture issues we’d encountered with the starter.

The husband opted for a pizza. I’m told that the perfect pizza relies on a good pizza oven and an even better pizza chef. A pizza chef that knows what they’re doing and manages to do it well is worth their weight in gold and apparently dAt bAr have hit lucky. My other half’s Ava Rose pizza wasn’t a choice I would have made, but I have to admit the melty beef ragu sauce topped with loads of parmesan on a huge slow risen sourdough base had my mouth watering with food envy. To my relief, it was a resounding success with him too and what he couldn’t manage got boxed up and taken home for my supper.

Photo courtesy of dAtbAr
Photo courtesy of dAtbAr

After several attempts to get the waiting staff’s attention I ordered a second round of drinks; for me, another glass of Shiraz and for him, a pint of Heineken. Call us philistine’s if you wish as the drinks selection is vast. There’s a rotation of 20 draught beers behind the bar from UK brewers and beyond, providing a real treat for anyone that knows their Beavertown Smog Rocket from their Brooklyn lager. It’s not all about the beer though – there’s also a good selection of ciders and wine and a pretty impressive looking cocktail menu.

With no room left for desert we asked for the bill and to be honest £46 for two courses and two drinks each felt like pretty good value. Yes, the service was slow, but with a couple more waiting staff that wouldn’t have been a problem and although the starter was disappointing the main event made up for it. The verdict? Great food, in a vibrant atmosphere and even with a few minor hitches, it still more than succeeded in easing the post-holiday blues.

dAtbAr can be found at: 

11 Market St.
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE1 6JN

0191 244 2513

About dAt bAr

Twitter: @dAtbArnewcastle

InstagramdAtbArnewcastle

FacebookdAtbAr

 

Find out more about Kirstin Hannaford and our England’s North East bloggers here

datbar

It’s a Chef’s Wife : Zaap

Zaap Thai Street Food comes to Newcastle

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson

In the first of our ‘It’s a Chef’s Wife’  reviews, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD checks out Zaap, Newcastle’s new Thai street food restaurant

In a bid to save some pennies for our imminent holiday, the other half and I have been trying to avoid too many indulgent nights out of late. However, after hearing a lot of positive noise on social media about Newcastle’s new Thai street food restaurant Zaap, we decided it was about time we had a lapse in our self-control and give it a try.

The restaurant is housed in the iconic former Co-op building next to the Gate that recently underwent a £17 million renovation. It officially opened its doors on 17 August, becoming neighbours to Cabana and Turtle Bay.

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson

As all of you fellow chef’s wives will know, a meal out with the husband can often involve a level of scrutiny that those of us lacking in culinary expertise would view a tad extreme. Our visit to Zaap was no exception as we approached the restaurant entrance and he quickly took umbrage to the hand written sign on the door stating the restaurant’s opening hours. Not a great start, let’s hope the food wasn’t going to disappoint.

Once inside the greeting was immediate and warm, staff were relaxed and confident. We were led to a table of our choice past the busy open kitchen towards the back of the restaurant. There’s so much to look at with bright neon lights, lanterns hanging from the corrugated iron ceiling and a plethora of trinkets from the Far East adorning the walls. What the owners are clearly striving for here is the bright lights and heady atmosphere of Ko San Road, and although I have never been, I’m told by the husband that has, that it makes a pretty good replica.

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson

The menu, printed over both sides of a sheet of A3 paper, was full of roasted meats, stir fries, curries, noodles and soups and to someone less familiar with Thai cuisine was a little bewildering. However, don’t forget I’m with an expert, and not just of the culinary variety given he’s spent a lot of time in Thailand as he sought to remind me while we perused the list of dishes. Plus, there are handy translations below each option which he seemed to overlook. Alongside the food, there’s an extensive drinks menu that includes Thai beers and whiskies, not to mention a few unusual soft drinks, like bubble tea (Taiwanese milk tea served with tapioca balls), Ma Toom (Bael fruit juice) and An Chan Soda (butterfly pea juice with soda).

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson.
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson.

After ordering a glass of red wine and a bottle Beer Lao, much to the appreciation of my other half who fell in love with the tipple whilst travelling and reckons it’s a scarce larger find in the North East, we set the ball rolling with a couple of starters to share. Moo Yang are grilled strips of pork on a skewer with sesame seeds, tender with a slight extra bite to them, seasoned to perfection. They came with a mildly spiced dipping sauce, and coupled with a generous portion of edamame beans, made for a tasty and not too heavy introduction to the main event.

Service, though speedy and attentive, wasn’t totally flawless yet. We had to ask for some kind of vessel to dispose of the edamame pods and my partner’s request for a glass for his Beer Lao resulted in the delivery of an extra glass of water. Still, given the quality of the starters both issues were easily forgiven.

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson

Mr. Chef then opted for Moo Gang Panaeng (Pork in rich panaeng curry with lime lives) while I went for Gai Pad Kee Mao (spicy stir fried rice noodles with chicken, basil and vegetable). Both of which thankfully succeeded in hitting the spot. His curry came with an impressive sandcastle of rice and to my relief was a hit. Perfectly cooked pork, with a tangy and flavorsome sauce, that was just the right amount for his man-size stomach. My noodles were equally delicious with succulent chicken strips and stir fired vegetables that retained just enough of a firm texture – you could taste the basil in every bite. Unusually, both meals came presented on a round tin tray which I’m told was another authentic feature of my Far East dining experience.

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson

With regards to value for money it’s another “yes from me”, with the total bill for two starters, two mains and a couple of drinks each coming in just under £40, meaning we didn’t make too bad a dent in the holiday fund.

It’s fair to say that there’s nothing quite like Zaap in Newcastle. The breadth of the menu, coupled with the eclectic decor makes it one of a kind. It may not be 100% authentic, but they’ve certainly gone all out to bring a slice of Thailand to Newcastle, and the result is a colourful, chaotic representation of the Thai street food scene.

Zaap. Photo: David Simpson.
Zaap. Photo: David Simpson.

Zaap Newcastle can be found at: 

117 Newgate Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 5RZ

0191 230 1280

www.zaapthai.co.uk/newcastle

Twitter: @ZaapNewcastle

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ZaapNewcastle/

Find out more about Kirstin Hannaford and our England’s North East bloggers here