Category Archives: Food and Drink

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

How do I love beer? Let me count the ways

The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White
The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White

Beer blogger PAUL White tries out a local beer inspired by a poet.

It’s nice to learn something new, especially if it’s about your own part of the world.

I hadn’t been to the Toronto Lodge, just outside of Bishop Auckland, since a revamp a couple of years back, but decided to drop in for a bite to eat. I’d also heard it was home to some real ales, as well.

It turns out that it offers a range of ales from Sonnet 43, a brewery from nearby Coxhoe, which is where the learning begins.

I hadn’t been aware of this particular brewery, but it has an ale for all tastes. Personally, I decided to go for the bourbon milk stout, The Raven. After all, this last week did feature Stout Day.

Now, the brewery name and that of the beer itself are no coincidence, as I also learned that Coxhoe was home to a rather famous poet – most of you will at least be familiar with one of her lines.

For it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, in her Sonnet 43, wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”.

Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

I’ve driven past Coxhoe thousands of times, but I had no idea that it was home to Browning, or that she had inspired a brewery.

The beer is likewise poetically-inspired, taking its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic classic.

Likewise, I have driven past the Toronto Lodge countless times since the revamp and it has been remiss of me not to have called in before now. What a great place with reasonably priced, but very good, food and drink.

But what of the beer itself?

Well, it’s a pleasant discovery, with a full flavour that is at once bitter and also smooth; a proper milk stout. It’s not an overly heavy drink, so could easily be one to settle into for an evening, should the opportunity arise.

With a lot of my beer reviews, I’ve highlighted those ales that are a natural progression for a lager drinker coming into the realms of beer. This is not one, but Sonnet 43 have plenty that would fit that bill.

Overall, it was an outing of discovery for the brain and the taste buds and I will be returning to sample more of the food and drink in the very near future.

Blog post originally written for Poets Day Pint.