HELEN GILDERSLEEVE attends the debut of Jason Cook’s Comedy Club on a Saturday evening. A sell out event that proved hops and hysterics are truly a winning combo.
It isn’t long since the popular Wylam Brewery Palace of Arts opened its grand doors less than a year ago. Since then the brewery has hosted many successful events, quickly becoming a venue etched firmly in the social calendars of many locals.
Around 350 laugh seekers headed to the brewery on what was a freezing, depressing night and it’s fair to say it was definitely worth the trip.
Cook, writer of the popular Hebburn series on BBC 2 invited a trio of comedians including local lads Gavin Webster and Carl Hutchinson as well as Canadian headliner Phil Nichol.
The night was compered flawlessly by Cook who dropped in comical anecdotes throughout of kinky mishaps with In the Night Garden toys and mocking phone users in the audience.
First up on stage was special guest Gavin Webster who had everyone in fits with his account of Geordies being so hard they single-handedly stopped anyone attacking Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. His hilarious take on the Glasweigan accent also went down a storm.
Next up was the mightily-pee’d-off-with-life-and-everything-it-entails Carl Hutchinson. Sharing his witty accounts of why he despises vegetarians right down to an account of why he’d strategically jump off a bridge in rush hour and give Games of Thrones spoilers to the general public, Hutchinson is definitely one to watch on the national comedy scene.
Surprise guest of the night was Canadian, London dwelling, funny man Phil Nichol. Who one can only describe as completely off his rocker. In the best way possible.
His act started off lightly with some great comparisons between Canadians and Cockneys, then quickly transcended into a potty-mouthed, guitar playing frenzy. Songs were littered with below the belt blinders and material that would make your mother blush. His act ended with him stripping half naked and being carried through the crowd by a guest he’d befriended. Not a single person could have kept straight-faced if they tried.
Cook certainly exceeded all expectations for his first stab at a gig here and it’s easy to see that the next shows will be definite sell outs. The Wylam beer fresh from keg to cup was an added bonus, I was a particular fan of the aptly named Keep Taking the Plsner.
If it’s laughs you’re after in a unique venue then you should definitely come along to the next one; a superb evening out.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
PAUL WHITE reviews North East musician Mike Ross on a return gig to the region.
Back in the late 90s, I had the pleasure of writing about live music for The Northern Echo. While the opportunities to interview the likes of Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres, Gerry Marsden, Terrorvision, Deacon Blue and many more was fantastic, what I really loved was seeing local bands play live and be well-received by decent-sized audiences around the Darlington and Durham music scenes.
One band that I maintain to this day to be one of the best and most exciting bands to see live was Taller Than, a three-piece outfit from the Sacriston and Lanchester area.
Playing their own music as Taller Than, often coupled with covers sets as the Popular Beat Combo, they were regulars at the likes of O’Neills in both Durham and Darlington, and the Filibuster & Firkin in Darlington, along with many more venues around the region.
In 2000, they played their last gig in Darlington before moving to the Brighton area, where all three members are still active in the music industry.
Sixteen years on, singer and guitarist Mike Ross returned to Darlington on Sunday night for his first return gig in the town, playing a two-set late afternoon session at The Quakerhouse.
Normally fronting the Mike Ross Band, Mike stripped back a range of his own numbers and covers, without losing anything in his simple guitar and vocals arrangements.
Opening with a Credence Clearwater cover, he quickly got the audience onside before heading into the latest version of an old Taller Than number, Questions, and mixing his own tracks like Ran Thru Here and Statesboro Blues with his own cover of Aretha Franklin’s Baby I Love You, which appears on his latest album, Jenny’s Place.
The hugely appreciative audience in a venue I had forgotten how much I like, complete with a great selection of real ales – right up my street – were ready and waiting for a second set to follow the break.
Set two opened with a version of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With and took a blues journey through Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, before dipping into Mike’s Spindrift debut album for Don’t Worry Baby Just Call, then returning to the familiar for the audience, with Johnny cash’s Get Rhythm, Marvin Gaye’s Heard It Through The Grapevine and more.
Closing the show with his own Bamboozled, Mike left the audience happy at the close of his mini North East tour and promising a return to the region in the Spring.
It was a great way to remind myself just how good Mike Ross is and what a great venue The Quakerhouse is, as well as what a hotbed of great musical talent the North East is, whether or not you’ve heard of many of the acts.
HELEN GILDERSLEEVE gets a taste of Louisiana as she chats to local Americana bluegrass band with a difference, Big Red & the Grinners.
Trying to describe the talent of this band is difficult – you just need to see them.
Featuring banjo, accordion, double bass, acoustic guitars and percussion, Big Red & the Grinners move seamlessly from the likes of Jay Z’s 99 Problems, Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam, Tony Rice’s bluegrass classic Freeborn Man to a hilarious rendition of Paradise City by Guns n’ Roses.
It’s clear from the minute Big Red & the Grinner’s step onto the stage at any of their gigs (and I’ve been to six), that the audience love them. And if they don’t immediately, they soon will.
“They call us Big Red and The Grinners because I’m Big Red, and these are the Grinners” followed by yells of “Yee Haws” is how this band operates. You just can’t help but like them and I defy anybody not to.
So what makes this band so likeable? It’s a mix of their hilarious and foot tappingly addictive covers of classic songs through to the jovial and informal way they interact with their audience treating them to cheesy jokes between songs. It’s a struggle not to smile and get up and dance.
A particular favourite of mine is their cover of the popular ‘Crazy’; “my Grand-pappy wrote this song for a young fellow named Ceelo Green, or Gnarles Barkley, whatever you wanna call him”, shouts Red as he laughs into his microphone, beer in hand, and stays that way until they finish with John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ with the whole audience dancing away and singing along at the top of their lungs.
Tell me a bit about Big Red and how you began?
Joe, our guitarist and banjo player had become tired of what had become a stale and predictable music scene in the local bars and clubs where most of the bands all seemed to be playing the same stuff. With a desire to create something different he set about assembling a band of musicians willing to try something out of the ordinary. We didn’t set out to create a certain ‘type’ of band, the only brief was that the song choices had to be different from what anyone else was doing at the time.
After a few rehearsals and some interesting early gigs, the songs themselves somehow seemed to shape what became Big Red & the Grinners and things just developed from there. Our music has been described as a combination of bluegrass, rockgrass, folk and blues – we’re still not entirely sure ourselves – or what ‘type of band we are! Ask ten people at one of our gigs and you’ll get ten different answers – we like that!
What’s the perks of the job?
Apart from the free beer and private planes? Getting to meet lots of interesting folks is a great part of the job. We’ve been lucky enough to share the stage with the likes of Ward Thomas, Della Mae, Lost Bros and Field Music which has been great. We’ve also popped up on TV a couple of times too and it’s been good to see how all that works behind the scenes. We’re still waiting on the call from James Corden that he promised though!
What’s your musical inspiration?
Well anyone who’s ever seen us knows that Red’s Grandpappy is our musical inspiration. People are amazed at how many hit songs that man wrote! We’ll be bringing out our first CD containing a good selection of them in time for Christmas. Forget Little Mix, Michael Buble or Lady Gaga….it’s Grandpappy’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 that you need as your stocking filler this year. Available from all good high street stockists…..or from us which will be easier!
Where do you enjoy performing?
We enjoy performing everywhere but festivals are our favourite gigs. You get to travel round the country to play for people who don’t often get the chance to see us – or have never seen us before. We closed the Upton Blues Festival down in Gloucestershire this year where almost every building in the town is turned into a music venue. Headlining the outdoor stage on the final night next to the river was pretty special.
Locally, we love playing Sage Gateshead and The Cluny. Two very different venues in terms of size and atmosphere but both have something about them. The Americana Festival at Sage Gateshead and Stormin’ The Castle down in County Durham are particular favourites.
Where does the deep south influence come from?
That will be Red’s Grandpappy again! He’s from that neck of the woods.
We keep telling Red we’re only bringing back home what’s rightfully ours though as much of American roots music is based on Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. He begs to differ but everyone knows he gets his geography mixed up now and then – I suppose it’s only to be expected from someone who must clock up more air miles than Springsteen!
RICHARD CALLAGHAN is captivated by Durham-based Martha, one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the North East in recent years
This Saturday’s concert in Newcastle was the third time I’ve had the privilege of watching Martha live, my sole regret upon leaving Live Theatre being that it was only the third. Where their 2014 debut Courting Strong confirmed them as the most exciting band to have emerged from the North East for years, this year’s thrilling follow up, Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart, surpassed its predecessor in every department. Yet, such recorded brilliance threatens to raise expectations to a level that many bands simply cannot meet. All too often the product of a tightly controlled recording studio, however exemplary, can prove impossible to match on the stage. It takes a very good band to be as good live as they are on a record. Fortunately for all concerned, Martha are indeed a very good band.
Matching music with an uncommonly muscular grace to lyrics betraying an acute and gentle wit, the Durham four piece know exactly what is required, the ferocious charm of their live performance grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and dragging us along. It helps, of course, that they possess such a strong collection of songs, but as previously stated having great tunes is only an asset if you can carry them off in person. This Martha do with aplomb.
The ability to produce a set entirely free of filler is a rarity in a band with only two full length albums behind them, yet the eleven songs Martha raced through on Saturday evening constituted just that. Personal highlights included two of my favourites from the new record (“Chekhov’s Hangnail” and “Goldman’s Detective Agency”), alongside Courting Strong’s “Present, Tense”, and the ever wonderful “1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely”.
Whether it is by virtue of their determinedly DIY ethos, or a symptom of the changing face of the music industry (one cannot help but feel that were this a decade or so ago they would have been beguiled with, and engulfed by, an enormous recording deal long before now), Martha have emerged as one of the most consistently interesting and staggeringly complete bands in the country. That the nature of their progress to this point means that we still have the opportunity to watch them play in small rooms (rather than the enormous venues which are clearly their destiny) is a gift to music fans everywhere, and one I urge you to seize if you have the chance. You might not get it again.
Any review ought to be balanced by the mention of both positives and negatives, so I’ll end this one with my two biggest criticisms of Martha’s performance. The set was too short, and they’re not playing again tomorrow. Come back soon Martha, I can’t wait to make it time number four.
In a bid to banish the holiday blues KIRSTIN HANNAFORD finds that dAtbAr in Newcastle hits the mark!
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.
‘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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
With 70 million cups of coffee consumed in the UK every day, it’s easy to see why we’ve taken to roasting coffee on our doorstep. HELEN GILDERSLEEVE explores the region’s growing independent coffee roasteries, suppliers and cafes.
Tyneside’s longest reigning coffee supplier is the much loved Pumphrey’s Coffee, based in Blaydon. Established in Newcastle’s Flesh Market (near the Bigg Market) back in 1750, Pumphrey’s is a true family business. Directors Stuart Archer (Snr) and son Stuart Archer (Jnr) provide top quality coffee and are dedicated to meeting customer requirements whether that be coffee beans, teas, brewing equipment or espresso machinery.
Pumphrey’s strive to purchase the finest coffee beans from around the world and roast them to order in the traditional way with flames. This involves open flame roasting drums dating back over 80 years and under the careful eye of master roaster Stuart Lee Archer, Pumphrey’s aim to provide delicious tasting, fresh coffee to their customers’ choosing.
Since 1983, Pumphrey’s Coffee has been based at Bridge Street in Blaydon. The site comprises a warehouse, factory, training room and a coffee shop open to trade and the general public.
Newer to the scene is the equally popular Ouseburn Coffee Co (OCC), based in Foundry Lane in Newcastle’s Ouseburn area. Established in 2012 by a small band of artisan coffee roasters and baristas it offers a highly selective range of coffee from around the world. All OCC coffee is lovingly roasted in small batch lots and bagged up fresh the same day.
Established in 2012 and offering ethically sourced seasonal coffee the coffee is roasted and bagged by hand in small batches on Foundry Lane in the heart of the Ouseburn Valley.
The business has gone from strength to strength and opened the doors of its Harvest Canteen café in Jesmond in 2014.
Famed for its simple, striking black and white design, which carries through to Harvest’s décor, the cafe has a clean, chic and relaxing feel and coffee lovers can pick anything from a flat white or an espresso through to a 7oz latte.
The more eccentric of coffee drinkers may even want to try OCC’s Cold Brew. Using just fresh roast single origin coffee, slow cold water extraction and triple filtration, OCC don’t add anything else to their brew and it is recommended to be enjoyed either on its own for the ultimate kick, with water or even added to gin or rum for a boozy drink with a difference.
They also have a regular stall at the popular Tynemouth Station Market every weekend. I love nothing more than sipping one of their lattes whilst browsing the market. This year also saw OCC boasting its own counter in Fenwick’s all new Food Hall. It certainly looks like there’s more to come from these guys.
A particular favourite of mine is BLK Coffee on Heaton’s bustling Chillingham Road. BLK has a regular rotation of beans from around the globe for the most dedicated and adventurous of coffee lovers.
The brainchild of BLK is local lass Alison Bell, who has her own coffee inspired blog and website- Black Coffee and Other Stories. BLK also stock amazing cakes every time I go in. Keep up the great work, Alison.
For city centre folk in need of a pick-me-up, Pink Lane Coffee near Newcastle’s Central Station has established itself as one of the foremost speciality coffee destinations in the region, featuring in publications such as Grazia, ShortList and the UK edition of the Condé Nast Traveller since opening in 2012.
Pink Lane Coffee is a spacious and creatively designed café featuring local art work and a quirky décor. It even has its own mini library of books to borrow for those like me who often forget to remember their own.
They now roast their own beans called Colour Coffee which are served at various cafes across the North East. Owner, Anth Atkinson, set up shop in Sandyford where he hopes to encourage locals to enjoy independent coffee.
Since Colour Coffee was founded in November 2013, near Corbridge, Northumberland, the firm has sourced a range of seasonal coffees from across the world, taking a scientific approach to production, with laptops and temperature sensors used to monitor and replicate each successful roast. Who knew science could taste so good?
Other fabulous independents across the region include the very popular Flat White in Durham, Flat Caps Coffee and Laneway & Co in Newcastle, Cullercoats Coffee and The Boatyard in Cullercoats, Navaho and Coolaboola in Jesmond, Holmeside Coffee and Café Eighteen in Sunderland and The Mockingbird Deli in Yarm, to name a few.
DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region
I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.
He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.
Alex is the owner of Iles Tours, a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.
You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.
Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.
“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”
Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”
Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.
“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.
“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”
As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:
“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.
“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”
In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.
“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.
“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”
Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.
His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.
I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?
“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.
“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.
“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”
Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.
Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.
Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.
I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:
“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”
Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.
Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.
“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.
Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?
“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.
“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”
Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.
His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.
Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region, so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?
“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”
So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:
“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”
However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.
“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.
For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk