Newcastle gets a gourmet treat with funky new restaurant that dares to be different.
When the seasons change and the nights draw in and the leaves on the trees turn gold, it’s time to head out of town for a bit and listen to the year grow old. The best place to ponder this is Newcastle: doggerel-provoking, kiss-me-quick, Percy French’s Newcastle.
The polyester and wool mix poshness of Royal County Down golf club evaporates in October when it is transformed into an arctic survival course, the Tropicana fun pool is closed until next July and while the Corsa men thump, bump and bass it up the Main Street in their brightly pimped MOT failures, the mists descend from the slopes of the Mournes and swamp the town in wet misery.
But there is defiance in Newcastle these nights. A resistance movement of restaurateurs determined to bring happiness and light, and perhaps a little comfort and warmth to the people of the town, has had enough of the old ways. For goodness sake, they say, the town’s people are bored with cold convention and carveries. These people need and demand something else. The new market challenges have been met enthusiastically through the creation of the Seasalt, the Mourne Seafood Café and now Vanilla.
Well established and popular, Vanilla is probably the best restaurant in Newcastle. It certainly is the chicest. Long, low and narrow, the restaurant is a straight and symmetrical strip with tables on either side until you get to the little bar at the back.
Cool green light shines down from large lampshades and tiles, carpet and blond wood furniture with soft upholstery and a naturally hospitable and cheerful service create an instant welcome. Escape from convention and the cold outside into a room like Vanilla’s full of like-minded diners creates a bit of excitement and conviviality that makes the appetite keener.
So sight of the menu and its adventurous contents were all the more heartening. By the time the three of us had had our first drink, I felt Vanilla was getting such a great start to this review that the chef would need to shave his beard into my dinner and I would still struggle to raise a complaint.
And complaints were few, and even those were moot. There was a lot of salt on all the dishes, but then many of these, such as the salt-and-pepper squid were accompanied by antidotes. For instance, the squid came with the sweetest and moistest salad of shaved ginger, cucumber and mango, making a perfect marriage of opposites. The green light was probably not the most flattering, causing the salt-and-pepper crust to look grey. But aside from that its savouriness and plentifulness made for easy sharing. The other two agreed it was good.
A main course of smoked cod with egg Benedict was a minor sensation. Again the saltiness was deep but having tasted a sample, I felt it was right. The comforting runny egg yolk and hollandaise put out the salty fire and blended with the cod to make it quite brilliant.
My own veal shank, a big chunk of osso bucco on a bed of risotto, was sturdy stuff. A juicy big scoop of bone marrow lurked in the Beano-like representation of the leg and when mixed with the risotto, made the dish a spectacular celebration of winter. I loved it.
The confit of duck with the eccentric addition of some salt-and-pepper squid is an indication of the fun and games they’re having in the kitchen. With the likes of lightly cured roast salmon with Lyonnaise potatoes and chorizo, roast turbot with a poached egg beignet and breaded boneless chicken wing, beef brisket (when did you last see a nice bit of brisket in a restaurant?) and black pudding mash, onion rings and hollandaise and much more, you get the idea that the kitchen is part taste laboratory, part ideas incubator.
This is the right way to go and it’s an irony that it takes a modest place in Newcastle to take the lead in experimentation like this.
Desserts were equally quirky with crispy sorbets and a perfect crème brûlée featuring rhubarb compote.
Vanilla on this Thursday night was busy, yet the mood was calm and homely. A very friendly front-of-house operation proved to be as quick and efficient.
As it happens, I bumped into a few other
people in the place and asked them for their verdict. Some were spending a little romantic time a deux in the nearby hotel and were treating themselves to a good dinner. They weren’t disappointed. The adjective ‘salty’ did pop up once or twice but not disparagingly.
Vanilla is a good example of how things are changing so dramatically and so quickly in the heartland of traditional tourist destinations like Newcastle. You thought these were places for your grandparents? No longer. With the likes of Vanilla, you can tell the youth wing has moved back and things are looking up at the seaside.
Jumbo scampi x 2: £10
Osso bucco: £13.95
Cod benedict: £15.95
Duck confit: £11.95
Herbal tea: £1.45
Bottle Picpoul white: £19.99
Sparking water 75cl: £3.95