Sunday, 16 June 2013

Review: Pleased to Meet You, Highbridge Street, Newcastle

You have to hand it to Pleased to Meet You, they orchestrated a promotional campaign in the run up to the opening of their new Gin and Draft house that made sure anyone who would be interested, was.

It's not often that a new bar opens in Newcastle, there are just a handful of decent cocktail bars in town (Popolo, Alvinos, Tokyo, Livello if that's you're sort of thing) so it was certainly a welcome addition - I am always looking for somewhere for after work drinks and casual food. Rumours have abounded for the last couple of months to a supposed 'gin palace' opening and with at least 50 gins from around the world, (plus a well selected, interesting range of craft beers) it seems to be pretty close to the mark. 

Rather than play up the whole prohibition, speakeasy style that would go so well with the gin and cocktail theme, the decor is kept 'city smart', polished brass, exposed bricks and leather booths (and really nice toilets but a ludicrously unnecessary bike). Housed in what used to be The Lane, a pub long closed before I ever came to Newcastle, it's great to see another thriving business opening on Highbridge, no matter what it is. 

We went down on the opening night of Pleased to Meet You, but only stayed for one after feelings of (unrelated) nausea. You could already tell, however, that this was instantly going to be a success. It was full of rich looking business men, looking for somewhere smart and slick, and 20-30 somethings who have an interest in good drinks. 

And the drinks menu is very, very good. I haven't gone for beers yet, but the gin menu is seriously amazing, the cocktails well thought out and well made. The actual glasses are lovely too. 

The problem we found, when visiting on a recent Thursday, was w-a-i-t-i-n-g. Half the bar couldn't serve cocktails, people weren't sure how much stuff costed and it's not on the menu, I got charged different prices for the same drink at different times in the night and all round wasn't the sort of experience that would make you come back, no matter how good the drinks are. 

To add to this, the table situation, was a whole lot more confusing. Could you just sit down and order food? Were some tables reserved? Could you take a table instead of putting your name down if one was free? Can you have a table if you just want to drink? No one seemed to know and there was some strange game on musical chairs happening between the tables throughout the night. Too many people, not enough tables; lots of people drinking and no where to eat food. We almost gave up and went elsewhere. 

We perched in the corner at a sort of dressing table until we got our 'proper' table. Then it took me literally about half an hour to get the waitresses attention to order a drink, although it has to be said the man who looked in charge of tables and food service was very good. 

Now, I know I said I wouldn't talk about burgers any more, and I don't really want to, but Pleased to Meet You seem to have made something of their burger; it being freshly ground chuck, brioche bun, dill sauce and pickles (£8). It ticked all my burger requirement boxes, it was almost necessary for me to try it. 

Now, this was a good burger, although under seasoned it was juicy and pink with a strong meaty flavour and a nice sauce, but that is NOT a brioche bun, that is a sesame seed bap.

I felt cheated as soon as it arrived. It reminds me of when I used to work in a cafe about 10 years ago and sometimes we'd give people toasted white bread buns pretending they were ciabatta. 

The portion of chips were very nice but on the small size, although nothing compared with the thimble of coleslaw. The accompanying salad of cucumber and watercress was fresh and well dressed.

I'm tempted to throw in a line like 'Pleased to Meet You, except I'm not sure I was', but that's just lazy writing and not even true. On the whole it is a very promising new bar, which I liked a lot.
You would imagine service issues will be rectified as time goes on, I'm just more likely to come for gin, cocktails and nice glassware than food unfortunately. 

Pleased to Meet You is on Highbridge Street, Newcastle. You can find out more on their website or their twitter @ptmynewcastle 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Review: Cafe 21, Newcastle

I haven't been feeling quite myself recently and this little blog of mine has been suffering somewhat. I fear it will become another tiny neglected corner of the internet, only to be discovered by the odd, obscure google search.

I haven't really been wanting to eat very much, even less wanting to cook. Earlier this week my dinners had consisted of noodles with butter for consecutive nights and value range bran flakes from a tupperware. It's all very unlike me.

With mine and the other half's anniversary fast approaching I was actively willing myself to get a taste for more than just plain carbs. We've been saving up (in more than one sense of the word) a trip to Cafe 21 for a special occasion, and after spending our last anniversary in all out luxury at Jesmond Dene House, there were few places in town that could really compete.

I'll save any form of introduction, after having written about the other venues in the 21 empire, here, here, here and here. Oh and here. We last made a trip to my personal favourite Cafe Vivvo as a sort of pre-holiday treat, before you know the actual treat of going on holiday, and enjoyed the most sublime tuna steak and venison ragu.

Cafe 21 has a different vibe from the other venues in the chain, perhaps less fancy than Jesmond Dene House, but it's certainly aware of its position at the top of the Newcastle restaurant pecking order and had the crisp white table cloths to match (When I managed to knock an entire glass of water all over ours I was pleased to see it had excellent absorbency).

I was luckily feeling slightly better, and even more so after a carafe of Argosy Sauvignon Blanc (£15.90) that was far too drinkable, and starters of crab on toast (£12.50) and scallops (£14.50).

The crab came lightly dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, broad beans and fresh pea shoots on chewy, tangy sour dough and was the perfection of early summer on a plate. The OHs scallops were actual heaven; yieldingly soft, cooked exactly right and swimming in rich chilli and garlic butter. Both of these dishes were wonderfully uncomplicated and let the flavours of the crab and scallops be the main focus.

It's very uncommon for us to go out and eat an entirely sea-based meal, it's not often I would choose fish when out, let alone for both courses. Maybe it was the summery feeling to the evening that led us to avoid heavy red meat, but my main of Fishmarket Stew (£19.80) was probably one of the best things I've ever eaten.

You can tell the quality of the stock from the shimmer coming from that picture, thick and velvety combined with the freshest fish - scallops, prawns, hake, cod, salmon and mussels - and the creamiest of aioli, saffron potatoes and braised fennel.

I've been craving a dish just like this for a number of years and it felt strangely familiar. It reminded me of a section of the novel Saturday by Ian McEwan which I read for the first time in my teens. The protagonist labours in great detail over a fish stew which I've wanted to re-create ever since (the recipe has been reproduced online here so I'm obviously not the only one) and is one of my favourite scenes of food in literature (one of my topics of geekery). It's a bit of an odd experience to have a dish of food conjure up memories of a fictional incident hidden away in the pages of a book but after not eating properly for weeks it was a welcome reminder of why I love it so much.

The other half had a plate of plaice and shrimp (£16.80), which came with the butteriest of potatoes and a bowl of lettuce, which seemed a little superfluous.

The meal was finished with a round of espresso martinis, the after dinner cocktail is definitely the way to go from now on. Sweet, bitter, alcoholic loveliness.

Including service the bill came to £104.83, and to reflect being loving equals, we split the bill. I can't deny it's not expensive, it's a good way more expensive than anywhere else in town but that's part of what contributes to it being seen as the best.

And I would agree, Cafe 21 is the best restaurant in Newcastle, I've heard many people say it before and I can join in with their cries, but I'd say it's 'best' from an objective opinion. Often when people are giving recommendations they get confused between 'best' and 'favourite'; when someone says 'oh blah blah is the *best* restaurant in town', they more than likely mean it's their favourite.

Yes, Cafe 21 is the best restaurant in town, but I don't think it's my favourite. The food, drinks, service were all as close to spot on as you can get, but misses some little undefinable feeling of atmosphere. Maybe it isn't my favourite because it's a 'special occasion' sort of place and I want to be able to enjoy my favourite more than once a year.

Cafe 21 is located at Trinity Gardens, Quayside, Newcastle. You can find out more on their website, and book on 0191 222 0755.