“ Address: 1 Boyd Street / Shieldfield / Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 1AP / Tel: 0191 2326666 „
La Gabbia is hidden away on the edge of Newcastle's partly regenerated Ouseburn district; I should stress that it's in the part of Ouseburn that's on the northern side of New Bridge Street, and not the lower side that is more lively and buzzing (that being the side with the Cluny, Seven Stories (the excellent visitor centre dedicated to childrens' books) and the brilliant Cumberland Arms pub. No, this part of Ouseburn is on the "wrong" side of New Bridge Street, and really ought to be described as Shieldfield. You can see, though, that attempts are being made to drag up this area in line with the rest of Ouseburn and La Gabbia is housed in a nicely refurbished old industrial building on a quiet lane just behind Stoddart Street. Unfortunately if you're coming from Stoddart Street, you do walk past the back of the Biscuit Factory (a contemporary art space) and see mountains of uncleared rubbish, some bagged, some not; and out first glimpse of La Gabbia was of a gable end adorned with graffiti (by which I mean idle graffiti, not something inspired by Banksy).
These days we buy a lot of Groupons (I probably don't need to explain what these are by now) and this is what prompted our visit to La Gabbia. It's interesting, when reviewing the restaurants we've used Groupons at, what each one offers, and how they present that; for example, some deals give you, say £30 of food for £10 so you just pay anything over £30, while others have set offers. Our offer for La Gabbia comprised two mains and two cocktails for £20.
The restaurant seemed quite quiet when we arrived on a Tuesday evening at around 6.30. I had telephoned the restaurant the previous day to make a reservation and was asked to bring the voucher with me. I was rather annoyed with the experience of calling the restaurant because the young lady who answered the 'phone spoke very fast and continued to do so even when I had asked her to speak more slowly.
It seems a policy for La Gabbia staff to speak loudly and quickly, and often in a nonsensical and patronising way. From the moment we arrived we were addressed as "guys", which puts me in a bad mood straightaway, and then asked whether we'd had a hard day at work; if you have had a hard day at work and would rather forget about it, then tough, you'll be asked about it anyway in an intrusive and pointless manner (pointless because, although you're being asked, the questioner doesn't really want to know). We were invited to sit in the bar area and a gentleman I presume to be the manager brought us a couple of menus. I was rather taken aback when he sat down with us and proceeded to "explain" the menu; fair enough, we had a Groupon that was for a set meal, but it would be easier to provide a separate sheet of choices available with the offer rather than do it this way. Alternatively he could have just told us to choose any pizza, pasta or main course dish and a cocktail; any extras such as starter or dessert would be paid for additionally. At this point I should mention that this area of the restaurant was dimly lit and it wasn't very easy to read the menu.
We were invited to order a cocktail straightaway but I wanted to look at the menu first. We decided not to have starters and proceeded at once to the mains. I was impressed to see that the choice of pasta and pizzas was quite limited; I much prefer to see a small choice using seasonal ingredients that can be changed every now and then to keep the menu fresh and interesting. There were a couple of salads and some meat and fish mains. La Gabbia bills itself as a contemporary Italian restaurant but I'd say that the menu is more international with choices like prawn and monkfish skewers (£13.95), seared lamb cutlets (£13.95) or minute steak (£14.95).
I was tempted by the pheasant salad and when the younger waiter came to take our order (sitting down on one of the stools opposite us) I asked about it. July seemed a bit early for pheasant to me and I said that I was happy to be corrected but wondered if it was fresh. The lad looked at me blankly and I explained that I though the shooting season was later in the year*, to which he replied "I don't know I don't go shooting." I asked if the meat came in fresh or frozen and was told it was not frozen. I opted for a pizza instead; a Rustica which was described as having on it aubergine, roasted red peppers, courgette and goats cheese(£9.95) .Himself chose the marinara pizza (£10.95) on the basis that it contained the most expensive ingredients (he told me later).
For my cocktail I chose a "Bramble", not named for the former Newcastle alertness averse defender, but because it's a mix of gin with sweet berries.This was served in a short glass filled with crushed ice without any embellishments. I think a little sprig of mint would have made it look a bit more exciting. I certainly couldn''t fault it for the amount of good dry gin in it but the berries (I don't know if it was made from muddled fresh berries or a berry liqueur) weren't quite sweet enough and the gin was overpowering. Himself ordered a Long Island (Iced Tea) which was excellent though I wouldn't personally have been able to drink a whole one (due to a bad experience in 1997 in a pub off Charing Cross Road but that's another story that need never be recounted in full).
The tables at La Gabbia are well spaced so although the place was starting to fill up (and we were soon joined by a group of six on my right) we didn't feel crowded. When our pizzas arrived my immediately thought was how colourful and tempting they looked but I also thought that the edges of the pizza base didn't have enough colour. Both pizzas had plenty of topping and on the seafood pizza there was no skimping with the pricier elements like the juicy king prawns. I thought we had been discreet in our whining about the underdone-ness of the pizzas but the manager seemed to pick up on this and asked in a rather pointed way if everything was alright. To be honest I would have ploughed on, it wasn't that the pizza was not cooked, it just could have been a bit crisper and a bit of colour would have made the base look less anaemic. However, I was pressed to explain what was wrong and the pizzas were removed for more cooking and, to be fair, were more to our satisfaction, so full marks to La Gabbia for resolving problems. The people on the next table ordered calzone pizzas and I did notice that they looked hardly cooked at all so I think that the chef is under-estimating the times or they were desperate to get food out in a hurry. Anyway, I enjoyed the pizza on the whole although the addition of tiny pieces of diced raw courgette proved not only a pointless addition but a cause for annoyance everytime the pieces scattered everywhere when I tried to eat my pizza. The pieces of soft creamy goats' cheese dotted over the pizza more than made up for the courgette irritations however.
The Marinara was described as having "king prawns, squid and crab meat, capers, chilli or garlic oil, tomato, mozzarella, rocket leaves and mascarpone" which sounds rather busy but was actually pretty good even if Himself suspected that no chilli had been near it and the capers were few and far between; Himself usually removes capers from any dish and gives them all to me but I think the excellent capers on this pizza may have converted him to caper-fandom. I hate rubbery squid but the generous strips of squid on this pizza definitely required a little more cooking as they were almost translucent.
Finally, by means of an apology the manager had brought us a small plate of very delicious homemade chips which were incredibly tasty. The pizzas, though, were a good size and although we ate most of the chips, we agreed we'd rather have had a complimentary coffee at the end.
Now, during the eating of our main courses we had been able to hear the waiter offer other diners a dessert but instead of giving them a menu or leaving the desserts board on the table, the waiter had sat himself down next to the customers and not only read out the options but explained the "concept" behind them. What nonsense! I recall Gordon Ramsey, when trying to help some failing restaurant, saying that the descriptions on the menu were too long and that a dish needed to be explained then they were doing something wrong. So by the time we were asked about desserts we had heard more or less all the options though I couldn't remember them all. The waiter asked if I would like to hear the choices and was confused when I said no, but I would like to see them. He insisted he would explain them but I said it wasn't necessary. There had been one option that appealed because I'd heard him mention banoffee to a neighbour but when I read that it was a "banoffee calzone" I changed my mind. I believe that it's the height of naffness to create such silly desserts.
While La Gabbia certainly looks the part - smart and stylish yet very comfortable - I had a number of gripes chief among them the fact that there's no excuse for food that's not fully cooked to be going out to customers. I also felt that the pizza base was terribly under-seasoned.
Then there are the issues with the staff: over friendliness, sitting beside the customers - not just in the bar area but at the dining tables too - and this ridiculous charade of explaining the 'concept' of a cheesecake. I'll concede that the manager acted swiftly and positively to address a problem but it's the irritations that I'll remember longer. (As it happens I mentioned to a colleague that I'd eaten at La Gabbia the previous evening and she said "Oh, I think my sister went there. Did the waiter sit down at your table with you? Joanne hated that." So I was not alone).
*Finally there's the pheasant. As I suspected a quick visit to Google confirmed that the pheasant season starts on October 1st (though the ever helpful Jeeves states that few are shot before the end of October). Call me picky but food that is in season makes more sense and is, in my opinion, more enjoyable because you don't have it all the time.
This place has the makings of a good restaurant but the management seem too focussed on image at the expense of food and service. Good waiting staff should be able to communicate with a range of customers and know how to address them; being repeatedly called "guys" makes me cringe. Ditch the whacky menu items and go for more classy dishes done well.
There are positives. I saw the staff deal brilliantly with children and there's an option for kids to put together their own pizzas at the table which I thought looked fun. The menus is not extensive but manages to offer plenty of choice including some appealing meat free options.
I wouldn't choose to go back unless someone tells me it's changed for the better, but I wouldn't necessarily advise people not to go. The approach is not my style but others may like it.
"La gabbia" means "the cage" - I don't know its relevance to the restaurant