“ Cuisine: Organic Cafe / Location: 89 Clayton St, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear NE1 5PZ „
Handle, spout, lid of metul (sic)/What's inside the singing kettul?"
Best known to people in Scotland, "The Singing Kettle" is an incredibly dated threesome that entertains children with songs and story-telling. They are, uncomfortably, the sort of people that if, in the future, shocking revelations about their predilections were exposed, most people would smugly say "I always thought there was something not quite right about them..." * When my brother's youngest two daughters were toddlers, his life was blighted by continually having to endure my nieces chanting the Singing Kettle catchphrase; happily for him he was not compelled to attend when my sister in law took the kids (on several occasions) to see the live Singing Kettle show in Aberdeen but he did have to endure countless hours of the various Singing Kettle DVDs and television shows.
Every time I walk past "Scrumpy Willow and the Singing Kettle" I think about Scotland's premier children's entertainment collective (well, second only to the Krankies) and it sends a shiver down my spine. It's a really terrible name; I mean, really...what were they thinking? It's twee, it hardly rolls of the tongue and it doesn't really say much about the restaurant. But the restaurant must have something because it's busy every time I go past and because it was praised as one of the country's best organic food restaurants in the Observer Food and Drink Awards.
The restaurant is situated on Clayton Street, close to but not in the very centre of the city. It's a five minute walk from either the Central or Monument Metro stations. Prking is available in nearby Fenkle Street but it may be better to park in one of the Eldon Square carparks which are free after five p.m. One thing that is useful to know is that the lst sittings for dinner are eight p.m. (The evening menu comes into play at six p.m.)
From the outside it looks very "tea shop" but a well placed chalk board on the pavement outside the restaurant let's you know that this is more of a bistro. However, customers are as welcome to come in for a coffee and cake as for a light lunch or a full meal. We were greeted by a very friendly and pleasant young lady who gave us a menu each and we stood there feeling slightly awkward not knowing whether we should pick our own table or if we were about to be led to one; as it happens there was only one very cramped table in the window, but after an uncomfortable pause, the waitress told us there were tables available upstairs.
There are only about half a dozen tables downstairs and probably the same upstairs. A word of warning: the stairs are quite steep and there are two flights of them. There is no lift and the toilets are back downstairs. Downstairs the décor is quite arty and "bohemian" with lots of paintings and photographs (most are for sale) on the walls, colourful cushions on the dining chairs and well thought out but mix and match lighting that gives a warm, intimate feeling in the evening. Upstairs is less enticing with almost bare walls, painted an uninspiring ochre.
My first gripe was that the waitress followed us up the stairs and stood there beside us waiting for us to dispense with numerous bags, coats and scarves so that she could light the candle on our table; to have her hovering right behind me was a little irritating. The next issue was that the cushion on my chair (pretty as it was) was far too large for the chair and not tied on in anyway so it made the chair less rather than more comfortable and kept slipping, and I soon dispensed with it.
The menu really is excellent. All the food used is organic and, as far as I could see, seasonally appropriate too (I cringed to see strawberries in my local greengrocer's on Saturday). For early birds there are breakfasts - hot and cold - including a vegan cooked breakfast that sounded pretty good and was priced around £4 so not at all expensive. There's also a selection of sandwiches and a variety homemade cakes, biscuits and sweets. Vegetarians are wll catered for and I spotted a note on the menu tht described a special technique they use for making their bread which, while not gluten free, is apparently eaten by lots of coelic customers without problem.
However, we had come for an evening meal, although, it being a midweek spur of the moment decision, we didn't want the full three courses (though starters and puddings are available too). As well as the specials which are listed on a chalkboard (inside as well as outside, and one on each floor), there were mains listed on the menu too. As well as the evening mains, there were half a dozen slightly cheaper dishes which are available throughout the day, not just in the evening.
After much deliberation I chose the crispy polenta with roasted vegetables (a fairly hefty £8.95 which seemed a bit over the top even before the dish was served) while Himself ordered a bowl of Irish Stew (£6.95) which is available throughout the day.
The drinks list is comprehensive and, again, all of the choices are organic. We might have had wine except the red was priced at £22 a bottle while its white counterpart was a more reasonable £14.50; in the right surroundings I would not baulk at paying £22 for a decent red but this did not seem the sort of place that warranted such a purchase. Instead Himself asked for one of the three golden ales listed on the menu and I asked for "Red Rocket" - a smoothie made with carrot, apple and red cabbage. After a couple of minutes the waitress came back to say that of the three golden ales, only one was available; as this one was described as having ginger and citrus notes, Himself chose instead a ruby ale which he thought would be better suited to his choice of food.
My smoothie when it came was delicious. It was the colour of blood oranges and was refreshing with the ideal balance of flavours. I can't say that I really picked up the red cabbage but the drink was good anyway. The ruby ale had a distinct reddish hue and was a good choice to go with the stew, plenty of flavour but not too strong.
We waited about fifteen to twenty minutes for our food to come. The Irish stew was served in a small deep bowl with a chunk of rustic bread. I didn't get to try the bread but, although it looked to me very much like the texture of soda bread, Himself assured me that it wasn't; he said it was good, though. The helping of stew seemed a little mean, at least in comparison with my main course. The stew was excellent; the quality of the lamb was good and there weren't too many fatty bits. The meat was tender and beautifully flavoursome. The potatoes were perfectly cooked and the addition of pearl barley thickened the stew nicely.
My polenta and vegetables were served on a huge white plate; I wasn't really impressed by the presentation but the food was, at least, very colourful. Two slices of griddled polenta were placed at a jaunty angle atop a pile of roasted vegetables which in turn was sitting on a pool of pureed red peppers. The polenta was nicely cooked and the char lines from where the slices had been griddled looked really good, however, I'd have preferred the overall colour to be more golden. The vegetables were also nicely done although the green beans had, in the cooking process, become a shadow of their former selves; the mushrooms were really good and oozed juicy rich flavour. The pepper puree was also very good but, because it was so sweet, there didn't need to be so much of it and it would have been better to have dotted it around the edge of the plate, or drizzled it over the top of the polenta and vegetables, than to cover the entire plate with it, sitting the rest of the food on top. While I though this was a pretty good dish, I do think it was a tad overpriced.
The upper floor of the restaurant was by now fully occupied and everyone had been served; the waitress did not reappear and, although, I quite fancied one of the desserts in particular, I didn't feel inclined to go downstairs to ask. The dessert I wanted was "Earl Grey Creme Brulee with Marmalade Bread and Butter Pudding" and I'm hoping it will still be on the menu next time I visit; it was priced at £3.95 which sounded to me like a good price. There were a few other desserts to choose from and listed beneath them were pancakes with a choice of toppings.
If it hadn't been a bit cold upstairs we might have been inclined to make it a more leisurely evening (that way I would have tried that dessert!) and ended with coffee, or more possibly tea as there was an interesting selection of organic teas on the menu; but much as the food (and the choice of dishes) is very good, there is something about the place that doesn't work and gives the idea that the food is overpriced. No doubt you are paying extra because the organic ingredients are more costly, but the surroundings don't match the high quality of the food and the slightly higher prices.
We paid downstairs at the counter which created a bit of a bottle neck when customers entered the restaurant and the waitress bade us a friendly farewell. I got the impression that she had forgotten we were there and, certainly, an extra pair of waiting hands would have been useful. Had we been approached and asked, we probably would have had desserts or hot drinks so Scrumpy Willow is missing out here.
At £22 for two mains and two drinks, Scrumpy Willow and the Singing Kettle is not cheap but we really enjoyed our food and there are lots more choices we'd go back for.
89 Clayton Street, Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel 0191 221 2323
* I'm not accusing the lovely Singing Kettle folk of inappropriate behaviour , merely suggesting that they look like the SORT of people who should be watched.