Sunday, 19 February 2012

Review: Joseph Benjamin, Chester

For regular readers or northern dwellers, I have to sadly, and almost painfully, point out that Joseph Benjamin is not in Newcastle. It's not anywhere even close to Newcastle, so if you are reading this hoping for somewhere delicious go to next weekend, you should look away now.

It is painful to note this, because Joseph Benjamin is so close to perfect that it isn't fair for it to be this far away from me. It is what I long for in Newcastle, to the point where on slow afternoons I unwisely daydream about opening a place like this myself.

Located in Chester city centre, Joseph Benjamin is a cafe, restaurant and deli all rolled into one. You could pop in for a quick coffee and a sandwich, pick up a loaf of freshly baked focaccia, or sit down to a lavish 3 course lunch or dinner. It panders to the 'ladies that lunch clique' and it does it so effortlessly well. The owners, brothers Joe and Ben (do you see what they did there) are on the floor, taking orders and give it that unique personable feel that so few places manage to capture.

Take home bread counter + book shelf

I had pressed my nose up to the windows and gawked in like a small child in a bakery with jealous longing on a previous trip to Chester, so when a lunch was proposed whilst visiting the other half's family I was quietly pleased. My stomach was not so quietly growling with anticipation.

Joseph Benjamin's delicious menu
There were some very tempting things on the menu; it is centred on 4 starters and 4  mains which are a mix of traditional methods and clever flavours as well as a couple of comfort food 'staples'. I lusted after the Chicken Breast with a fricassee of Queen Scallops and Celeriac, equally I fancied a platter of local cheeses and hams and again could have had a dalliance with the half chicken and gravy, but in the end went for the Seafood Chowder off the specials board.

Joseph Benjamin, Seafood Chowder

Hands down the best thing i've eaten so far this year. A rich, deep tomato, dill and saffron sauce, chunky meaty cod cheeks, flakes of succulent whiting and some gorgeously fresh mussels. It was warming, wholesome but so very refined. I could have eaten 10 bowls of it. And it came with 2 different types of freshly made bread to mop up the flavoursome juices.

Other dishes were equally as good, also from the specials menu was a Truffled Lambs Heart with Lamb Steak and Red Cabbage which the other half devoured like a hungry wolf. The steak was perfectly cooked and the heart was beautifully tender

Joseph Benjamin, Truffled Lambs Heart Special

The Half Chicken and Gravy fulfilled all it's promises of being perfect comfort food, a large white jug supplying lashings to thick meat juices. Lord, I'm salivating thinking about it.

Joseph Benjamin, Half Chicken, Chips and Gravy 
Finished with coffees and brownies, I left with a pleasing warm feeling. Not just because of my very full belly, but because everything about the place was absolutely spot on. Attentive, well mannered service and an establishment that so obviously put real care and effort into everything they were doing, from the sourcing of the food to the friendly staff. The decor was neutral, slate grays and creams, smart yet relaxed wooden furniture, minimal yet unpretentious. It gave me everything I want from eating out.

Newcastle establishments, take note and give me something like this.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review: Little Saigon, Bigg Market

Remember the other week I went to Albaik which was an amazing find in the most unlikely of locations?

Well Little Saigon is a bit like that, although not as good.

The Bigg Market in Newcastle is known for many things, and as much as I love the site of women in sailor outfits defecating from their mouths in door ways, it isn't exactly my favourite place in the city. And it certainly has it's hand in portraying all the wrong stereotypes about Newcastle, but there are certain good things to be found there and no, Blu Bambu, I am not looking at you.

Little Saigon is a Vietnamese restaurant located in the Bigg Market and although its decor fits into the dated, themed restaurant styling and vague tackiness of it's locations the food is a million miles away from take away kebabs and cheesy chips.

We went to Little Saigon at 6 o'clock on a Saturday, on match day. God even at that time being in town is a struggle. As well as the many drunken revellers outside the restaurant was fairly busy. I did get the sense that the service, which was very efficient and suited us at the time as we were in a rush, was making the effort to get us in, eaten and out as quick as possible. And the food sort of reflected this, quick service pots of pre made sauces easy to serve to lots of tables on heavy rotation.

Several of us got the Caramel Pork, £7.95, which is slow cooked in a clay pot and means the pork is really tender and the sauce is full of flavour. The issue was the sauce had a gloopy texture, similar to that of chinese take aways from up and down the country - it automatically makes it seemer cheaper. It does however make the rice (Steamed £1.95) go sticky thus easier to pick up with chop sticks, little tip for you there.

Little Saigon, Caramel Pork, £7.95
Other dishes had a similar texture but were equally flavoursome including King Prawn Sate, £10.50 (i'm not really sure what that is) and lemon grass chicken (£7.95).

Little Saigon, King Prawn Sate, £10.50
The other half had a drier dish of chargrilled duck in a red soy bean sauce, which he didn't seem too fussed about but I thought had a nice smoked flavour.

Although all this food was perfectly acceptable, at a reasonable price (but i'm sure it used to be cheaper and better) when I have food like this i always think i'd prefer to have a few starters rather than a single main meal. I want to try lots of things and for some reason the little dishes, often deep fried and involving pastry are so tempting. I had been here with a large group before and we shared all the dishes, starters and mains, and was definitely a more enjoyable way of eating. The same applies the first time I went to what was then Barn Asia, being a little strapped for cash meant we got 4 starters to share with some sides and it was all so tasty, duck dumplings and their famous scallops and caramel pork dish but don't get me started on how tasty they are. 

Now that i've been here a few times, i'd definitely say that over time the food has gone down hill, it still makes for a nice enough dinner but at the price you could find better elsewhere (and not have to deal with the drunks outside). But we did get 30% off our total bill and free bottle of hideous wine because it was either Little Saigon's birthday or anniversary or some kind of occasion. I wasn't sure but when a main, rice and beer come to £10 I wasn't asking. 

Little Saigon, 6 Bigg Market, Newcastle, NE1 1UW, 0191 233 0766

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Review: The Butterfly Cabinet, Heaton

Ah The Butterfly Cabinet, home of the hungover student on weekend mornings and a bastion of the cutesy, kitsch looking cafe. Before being reincarnated as The Butterfly Cabinet, it was called Belle and Herbs and had a strong reputation for doing the best breakfasts and American pancakes in town. I once tried to visit after foolishly trying to complete the Withnail and I drinking game but had to leave after ordering only tea and apple juice as it was very likely I was going to be sick, everywhere.

Whilst that trip might sound pretty disastrous, what with the lack of consuming any food or drink, but my first trip a couple of months back wasn't a great deal better - slow service, uncomfortable table and after being rather unimpressed with the quality of my fried breakfast I then discovered a hair in my beans. My waitress then asked if she should take the hair out so I could carry on eating. I despaired.

But we were with friends, in need of sustenance and The Butterfly Cabinet is so wonderfully located just at the end of our street. And yes, the decor is fashionable mis-matched but it pulls it off very well with an authenticity and if you ever go check out the ceiling which really is a work of art.

N.B mis-matched furniture however, as good as it may look you have to be able to actually use it for it's intended purpose, so I find it's preferable that you are able to put your legs under tables. Hence the bad mood of my first visit.

We were hungry and the cafe was, as ever, heaving so the service can be excused for being a little on the slow side (I think our food took about 45 minutes) but they were polite and friendly. We arrived at 1, breakfasts are served all day and lunch from 11am. This meant many, many potential options .

I thought I should carry on my venture for the best burger, and I had been recommended this place by several people. I went for the Ron Burgendy (£8.50), firstly because that is a fantastic meat pun and the fact it was the largest thing on the menu, a 10oz meat patty, bacon, cheese, chefs sauce, onion marmalade and lettuce.

The Butterfly Cabinet, Ron Burgendy, £8.50

It arrives looking towering but most of the height was just lettuce, an excessive amount of lettuce once removed the burger resembled a more manageable height. It was a nice burger, i'd go so far to say a good burger, very satisfying at the time and the onion marmalade and 'chefs sauce' gave it a really distinct flavour but the meat didn't have the juicy redness I love so much. For £8.50 and with that many chips it's definitely a good buy however. A little less lettuce would be nice, a full gherkin instead of two measly little slices.

Other buys at The Butterfly Cabinet included the Breakfast of Champions (£8.50) which had beans, bacon, sausage, black pudding AND white pudding, hash browns, potato scones, eggs and fried bread. An unbelievable amount of food, you'll have to excuse the protruding nose at the side of this picture

Breakfast of Champions, Butterfly Cabinet, £8.50

With a cup of tea my lunch or technically brunch as I was yet to eat that day, although I don't know if a burger can count as brunch, came to £10.20 which seems reasonable. Especially as no extra hair was included with my portion this time.

Our table looked like this once we had finished, and I didn't eat for the rest of the day.

Empty plates at The Butterfly Cabinet

The Butterfly Cabinet, 200 Heaton Road, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne NE6 5HP, (0191) 2659920 Breakfasts served all day, lunch menu from 11am