“ Address: 2-6 Shakespeare Street / Newcastle Upon Tyne / NE1 6AQ / Tel: 0191 233 2515 „
15 November 2010 : please note before reading this review - when I visited this restaurant a few weeks ago, I signed up to receive news messages via email. I have now received an email which, sadly, announces that the restaurant is closing. I have included a web address in this review and that site now also appears to be closed.
I wasn't sure what to make of 'Starters & Puds' after it opened in Newcastle in 2008. I read press articles and reviews as they emerged and I noticed that opinions were mainly positive. The restaurant went on to win awards -Head Chef Lee Campbell won the title 'North East Chef of the Year' in 2010 for example. More recently, I began to notice occasional customer reviews which were less glowing but finally, I tried the restaurant for myself.
The notion behind the name is that any diner should not be restricted to eating a three-course meal or even a main course. If two starters and a pudding is what they fancy, then that is what they shall have. In reality it is a British take on the concept of Spanish-style Tapas dining or of Greek Meze - that is, to eat from a selection of smaller dishes instead of ploughing through a structured progression of starters, main meal and dessert courses. I like the concept, but with the British climate, where perhaps you might like to have each hot dish hot and where the produce and style of cooking doesn't lend itself so readily to the dishes sitting on the table waiting to be picked at, it could be tricky to pull off successfully.
The menu is extensive. It all kicks off with nibbly things for you to go at while you are perusing the menu - things such as bread and oil/vinegar/tapenade or a selection of marinated olives. Take note that these are not complimentary but there is a £2.60 charge for each. You can even splash out on a pre-starter plate of antipasti (cured meats, cheese, breads, oils and so on) for £11.20. The price seems oddly high but that platter is designed to share. (It's not something I've tried so it would be worth checking how many diners this could be expected to serve.)
The next part of the menu is where it really deviates from British tradition and offers something nearer to a meze selection. In fact, this section is headed as "The starters and before bit" and there are fourteen choices. If you are interested in knowing about all of these options, I am going to include a link to the restaurant's website later on, but for the time being I will just pick out a few examples. Shellfish Mariniere, Black Bream, Cassoulet, Chicken Terrine, Braised Daube of Beef, Wild Mushroom Casserole. Ratatouille Tart - so fish, meat and vegetable dishes are well represented. The prices range from £4.95 to £7.95. I gather the idea is that these are not large 'main course' portions but modest sizes which would allow you 'room' to try other dishes.
There are ten side dishes, all priced at £2.75 which include four salad choices, three potato dishes - four if you include sweet potato wedges - garlic bread and roasted Mediterranean vegetables.
There is a choice of ten puddings all at £4.90 each or you may select any three for £12.20. A selection of local cheeses served with biscuits and chutney is available at £5.95. Three pudding wines are included in this section of the menu and they will cost you either £2.95 a glass or around £16 per bottle depending on your choice.
The wine list offers thirty two choices ranging from £13.90 to £48 per bottle. (The latter refers to Moet et Chandon Rose though, so that price list is not quite as scary is it sounds!) Many of the wines are available by the glass at £3.60 -£4.85)
A simple coding system on the menu denotes which dishes are gluten free and which are suitable for vegetarians.
~~~The Food and the Service~~~
I called in one afternoon for a late lunch and a lunchtime menu of £9.95 for two courses was being offered. There was a reasonable selection of starters and whatever I am supposed to call the next course and I opted for mushroom pate followed by pea and mint risotto. I say "followed by" but that isn't strictly correct as the menu did warn clearly that both dishes would be brought to the table at the same time. I felt a little unsure of this system of service but decided to give it a go anyway.
The young waiter who took my order was informative and friendly (if you view being called 'darling' by a lad half your age as friendly rather than overly familiar - though I have to say this young man's all round demeanour meant that I did not take any offence).
I knew that I would be driving very soon afterwards so I didn't have any wine and as I wasn't in the mood for a soft drink I simply asked for plain water. A tall, slender and rather elegant glass of ice and water was brought to the table promptly.
I didn't have to wait very long for the food to arrive (between ten and fifteen minutes, perhaps) and three plates were put before me. The pate, the risotto and a small bowl of dressed salad leaves, the latter being included in the lunch menu. Then came the dilemma. Would I eat the risotto first? I do not like my food cold and risotto is often eaten as the first part of meal. On balance, I didn't fancy finishing the meal with the pate so that is the dish I tried first.
There was a generous slab of smooth, velvety, rich and intensely flavoured pate served with a helping of home-made chutney. (I'm assuming it was made in the kitchens. If not, the fruity, raisiny, softly textured, mild flavoured chutney was the nearest thing to home-made I have tried in a while.) Two hefty slices of softly textured bread accompanied the pate, one white and one brown. I gather that the bread is also made in the restaurant kitchens. I always think that pate is such a simple thing to make but if it is well made and well flavoured it can be a real treat. This was. There tiny pieces of mushroom left unpureed to add a hint of texture and the flavour really was excellent. One point of interest to any vegetarian readers - when I ordered the pate, the waiter asked immediately if I was vegetarian. I replied that I was not but he explained he needed to check as this is not a vegetarian dish as the name could imply, but is a meat based pate flavoured with mushrooms. Although this did not affect my choice, I liked the way the staff respected and considered the customer's feelings on the matter.
Next came the, er, next course, the risotto. As soon as the dish had been served I could see that this was not going to be a hit. Not for me, anyway. I like my risotto creamy textured - almost soupy. Now I realise that you can't have hard and fast rules about risotto consistency as you will find slight differences in the various Italian regions, but I know how I like mine. The risotto served to me was firm and there no 'spare' liquid in the dish. I could draw a fork through the rice and see the bottom of the bowl clearly. There was no movement of the rice to fill the gap I had just created. The flavour, however, was excellent with the freshness of the peas and the mint and a subtle sharpness with I'm guessing came from added parmesan. The consistency of the rice grains - definitely al dente - was good even if the overall consistency of the dish was not to my liking. I must also add that the risotto was only lukewarm by the time I ate it and this was quite an unappetising feature. Although the flavour was good I knew that I would not order this again if I were to return to the restaurant. I have to confess that I looked at my watch to try to work out if there had been time to cook a freshly made risotto serving. (If my concern that the risotto had been pre-prepared can be assuaged, I would be willing to listen!)
I decided against ordering any additional dishes or pudding.
~~~The Style and the Ambience~~~
The restaurant is situated in a basement. That means it could be hugely atmospheric - cosy, secluded, intimate feeling. On the other hand it could feel cramped and claustrophobic. For me, it hovers somewhere between the two. There are some areas - take the bar for instance with its low, barrel-vaulted ceiling - which are very atmospheric and intriguing.
Other areas such as the more open dining area I occupied seem to lack definite character. It was fairly dimly lit but not in a way which suggested cosiness or romance or intimacy. It was just dimly lit. The fixtures and décor seemed a clash of styles to some extent. Victorian style cornice work, tapestry fabrics and a gothic fireplace work quite well together. But not with terracotta-coloured floor tiles, exposed brickwork and black pillars. Additionally, the practice of writing captions and quotes on walls in restaurants really spoils the décor in my view - at least if it is overdone - and I felt quite irritated by the script emblazoned on the wall opposite me. I think there will be some diners who love this eclectic style but others, like me, might feel rather ambivalent toward it.
I called in at a very quiet time of day. Only two other tables were occupied when I arrived and I was alone in the room when the time came to leave. The waiter was attentive and helpful but the absence of people left a bit of a void really, in terms of ambience. I would be interested to experience the ambience during an evening service. Perhaps the restaurant full of life and voices would feel quite different.
The ladies toilet is compact. The nature of the building means that space - and what you can do with it - is limited of course. The toilets were adequately fitted out and very clean but I had somehow expected something a little more luxurious given the image of the restaurant.
~~~How to find it~~~
If you can find your way to Newcastle's Theatre Royal you are almost there. If you leave the theatre and turn left, then left again into Shakespeare Street and then look across the road and you will see a distinctive canopy heralding the entrance to the restaurant.
The restaurant is open from 11am to 11pm.
For bookings or further information contacts are as follows:
2-6 Shakespeare Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 6AQ
Telephone: 0191 233 2515
You are only a couple of minutes walk away from the nearest Metro station (Monument) and the area is also well served by buses. For further information on public transport (including ferry and rail services) use the following website: http://www.nexus.org.uk/home
Car parking is available in adjacent streets - payable by meter.
~~~Disabled Access and Facilities for Parents~~~
This is a basement restaurant accessed by narrow and quite steep stairs. Due to the age of the building there is no lift. Unfortunately there is little which can be done to some older buildings - especially if they are 'listed' or in a conservation area which I believe this could be - and it would not be accessible for wheelchair users or anyone who has difficulty using stairs.
At the time of my visit, I did not notice any young children or babies accompanying their parents so I cannot say what facilities there may be for families. It would be worth telephoning the restaurant if you have any queries in this regard but bear in mind you would have to get a buggy down those stairs. Frankly, there are other brasserie style restaurants in Newcastle in a position to cater for young families with far more ease and comfort.
I think I am going to have to treat this review as a 'work-in-progress'. Perhaps one great dish and one which didn't quite hit the mark do not provide sufficient 'evidence' to form a really rounded review. I would also like to experience the atmosphere of the restaurant when it is better filled and likely offering a more lively ambience.
If you do try the restaurant, I would suggest giving careful thought to which dishes you would be happy to eat as they gradually lose their heat. Alternatively, take an even more sensible approach and order dishes one-by-one, if you have plenty of time, that is. If you are booking ahead check which dining room you will be seated in. Have a look at the website first and if you think you might have a preference ask the staff to accommodate you.
I am not completely convinced that the idea of 'British Tapas' really works but I would be willing to go again and try more dishes. When I do, I will report back!
(NB: this review appears on other sites under the username of ALM1 or The Travelling Geordie)
During a weekend in Newcastle last year I was looking for somewhere to have a nice meal with the other half and I stumbled across this place on t'internet. I was intrigued by the name and so had a quick look at the website and reviews. An independent restaurant which came very well recommended and with a very affordable menu...jackpot.
The restaurant is set in the vaults of an old bank in central Newcastle. Walking down the stairs into the restaurant I could tell that this would be a something a little bit different. Even if you are not planning on a meal here, I would recommend you pop in for a quick drink as it really is a pretty unique place. The barrel-vaulted ceilings, original stone fireplace and exposed brickwork really makes you feel like you are in a heist movie. It was fun to imagine the previous use of this space and the amount of cash and valuables that would have been stored down here.
The lighting and ambiance were just right. Not too dingy nor to bright, rather a real air of sophistication. Even the restaurant furniture, which I wouldn't normally notice, was really in keeping with the surroundings.
The service was excellent, not too formal and very friendly. Despite the rather posh ambiance of the place, the staff were very down to earth and we were made to feel very much at home.
An example of how this place values and understands its customers can be found with their offer to theatre-goers. The restaurant is right next door to the Theatre Royal and so they offer to let you come in for your starters before the show, then come back and have "puds" after the show...they will also keep your wine chilled in anticipation of your return.
The idea of the restaurant is borrowed from various Mediterranean eateries, whereby you can order a variety of starters (tapas) style. You then do the same with desserts. Alternatively, if there is a dish you particularly like the look of then you can order a larger version of the starter. As I like to have a nice variety in front of me then I opted for the former and duly picked 3 dishes, as did the other half.
We started with the bread of the day which was homemade and made both our mouths water with its fresh doughy texture and amazing smell. You really can't beat a good bit of bread to get the stomach muscles ready for what is yet to come!
I had the smoked haddock fish cake which was delightful, full of succulent fish and potato with a really good tartare sauce on the side. Crispy potato skins with sweet chilli sauce which were much nicer than the standard of potato skins I have become accustomed to. Crispy on the outside with a soft inner, complemented really well by the side sauce. I also had smoked duck breast wraps which were good. Full of juicy meat rather than the rubbish you usually get served up in your local Chinese. Also really fresh cucumber and spring onion unlike the limp watery rubbish I have had in the past.
Mrs Fulldonx had grilled halloumi and pan fried gnocchi...her silence as we ate spoke volumes and told me how much she was enjoying her choices.
For the Puds part of the meal we really indulged and went for the "A little bit of what you fancy" option. Quite pricey at £11.90 but it meant we could pick 4 different puds to be put on a platter for us to pick at...I was in hogs heaven!
Dark chocolate tart, winter berry cheesecake, apple crumble and chocolate brownie. I'm not even sure now how we managed to fight our way through that lot but we did! The dessert menu is one of the nicest I have come across, and although we picked those 4, there were at least another couple that were vying for a spot on our platter.
The total bill came to more or less bang on the £50 mark which included drinks - 2 beers for me and 2 vodka and lemonades for the better half. It actually worked out as quite a cheap night as we were so full afterwards that any plans for going out drinking and/or dancing we firmly removed from the agenda.
This little place really is a gem in the heart of such a vibrant city in the North East. If you are ever up there then you have to pay this place a visit. As I said it is worth just going in for a drink to marvel at how they have transformed a disused bank vault into a restaurant.