Way aye, man! Howay, pet! Mi eyes, Duncan, mi eyyyyyes!
Okay, enough of that. If you hadn’t already guessed I recently took a wee trip up to Newcastle… well actually, up to the beautiful Northumberland coastline on what I believe the cool kids are calling a “mini-moon”.
After having married a couple of days earlier, myself and the new Mrs Grub set off on a planned culinary expedition around the northeast of England, taking in various eateries along the way, and culminating in a visit to the Michelin-starred House of Tides on Newcastle’s Quayside. Having been lording it up solo at a number of Michelin gaffs of late I thought it about time I treated my significant other to the fine dining experience. So it’s fair to say that we both had high hopes for the night on Wednesday of last week when we donned our glad rags and took the short jaunt down the Quayside from our hotel to ‘sleb chef Kenny Atkinson’s city centre restaurant.
The building is lovely, a 16th century townhouse which has been restored in keeping with its Grade I listed status – local stone, stained wood, exposed brickwork. That sort of thing. Very relaxed, not at all stuffy, which was nice. As was the maître d’ who welcomed us warmly before showing us to a table in the small bar area, which is basically the remaininder of the ground floor that hasn’t been taken up by the kitchen. We each ordered from the cocktail list whilst deciding which menu to opt for – the five course or an eight course, both tasting menus (*grumble*). To be fair, I knew it would be a tasting menu before we arrived, so it was hardly a surprise, but seriously, am I the only one who’s sick to the hind teeth of the tasting menu trend? Anyway, that’s the subject for a different post.
The bar had a real olde worlde charm about it; quite basic, just simple wooden tables on rustic floorboards, with exposed electrical routing snaking its way across the back wall. Think 17th century pirating inn as designed by hipsters. It was cosy and informal. I’m sure I could have rocked up in my old jeans and t-shirt and nobody would’ve batted an eyelid. The cocktails – a fig and ginger mule for me (Durham vodka, fig and ginger shrub, and soda) and a ‘rainy day spritz’ for she (Lillet blanc, elderflower liqueur, cucumber, mastiha, tonic) – were both excellent, and at £10 and £9 respectively not ridiculously priced either (considering our location). Needless to say, we chose the eight course menu.
As we sat enjoying the booze we were presented with a couple of canapés: cod’s roe tart with apple and smoked bacon, and a carrot meringue with carrot and fennel pollen curd. The meringue was of the fully-dried French variety, and as such was a little underwhelming. Kind of like biting into a soft, vaguely carrot flavoured piece of chalk – albeit with quite a pleasant curd on top. The cod’s roe tart was much better. I’m not a meringue fan at the best of times (I don’t understand it: egg whites and sugar – what is the point of it?) so perhaps my view was biased.
Canapés and cocktails downed, we were escorted to our table which was up a small flight of stairs on the first floor of the building. We were shown to the far end of the room, to a table for two that was positioned, along with three other tables, in front of banquette seating. The good lady took the banquette seat and I took the chair facing it on the other side of the table. There was already a couple seated to my immediate left and another sole diner two tables to my right. When the vacant table to my immediate right was taken around an hour into our visit things did switch from comfortable-cosy to a little stifling, exacerbated no doubt by the muggy evening outside. But hey-ho, they’re here to put bums on seats and that’s exactly what they were doing, and if they can manage to do that on a damp Wednesday evening in May then more power to them. I gave the obligatory smile to our fellow diners and tried to focus on the food. Also, I must mention a lovely touch that was greatly appreciated: as we sat at our table we noticed two envelopes sitting at its centre, unlike the single envelope on the neighbouring tables; One contained a copy of the evening’s menu, and the other held a congratulatory card from the House of Tides team in celebration of our marriage. Bravo, House of Tides, you’d won us over before we’d even begun. Now we were itching to get stuck in.
As the name might suggest, the menu is seafood-heavy. So having never been much of a drinker I passed up on the wine flight and instead chose an £8 glass of Riesling, which I thought might best complement the majority of the menu (2016 Riesling Trocken Oliver Zeter Nussriegel), and most pleasant it was too. Things kicked off with sourdough bread and cultured butter. Now, if you’ve read my posts before you’re probably familiar with my views on tasting menus – I’m not a huge fan, and I make no bones about that fact, but when done well I’ll hold my hands up and clap along with the rest of the crowd. And one of my chief gripes with the tasting menu trend is the increasing focus that seems to be given to the presentation of bread. It’s bread – and yes, there’s good bread and there’s bad bread, and in a place that has earned a Michelin star I’d expect their bread to fall into the latter category – so if you’re going to give the stuff a formal introduction it’d better be the best bread I’ve ever tasted. And it just wasn’t. It was okay. Four slices of the ubiquitous sourdough mixed flour blend that, in all honesty, falls short of what I can buy at my local bakery. The cultured butter too just didn’t pack the punch that was promised. It was vaguely tart, but barely noticeable.
And this would be the theme for the remainder of the meal. With the exception of a couple of real highlight moments the majority of the offering were just a little underwhelming.
There was a langoustine skewer, kushiyaki-style, with a deep barbecue glaze that was very nice. The veal sweetbread, served with a beef fat crumb, apricot and deeply rich black garlic was perhaps the standout dish with the sweetbread being cooked to perfection, moist and soft yet with enough bite to provide a pleasant mouthfeel so often lacking in these delicate meats. Its rival for the top spot was a stunning offering of Cumbrian lamb with smoked asparagus, lemon verbena and Swiss chard. This is what I mean when I talk of tasting menus hitting the spot; barely a couple of mouthfuls of food on the plate, but each component carrying enough of a punch to surprise and delight in equal measure. It was a beautifully balanced dish, singing with vibrant acidity from the lemon verbena gel and the wonderful earthiness of the smoked asparagus. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy asparagus again unless it comes smoked.
Those dishes aside, the two dessert offerings were also nice – the banana parfaît with coconut, sesame and kalamansi was a surprise to me as I don’t tend to enjoy banana desserts, but this worked well. It was the combination of that herb-like fragrance of ripe banana paired with sweet kalamansi citrus that brought a smile to my face. Remember that dessert of sous vide banana in yuzu juice that Louisa Ellis made in the Masterchef Pros finals week? The one they were all swooning over? Well that combination always intrigued me and this dish, with kalamansi taking the place of yuzu, is – I would imagine – very similar to how Miss Ellis’ dish might taste. I’m still thinking about it now, over a week later, so it must have hit the mark. The other dessert – rhubarb, dulce de leche, rose water and brown butter – was also very nice, but until writing this post I hadn’t thought about it. So take from that what you will.
As for the other three courses on the menu, well…
I’m sitting at my desk writing this post, referring back to the take-home copy of the menu we were given on our visit. And I’m doing this because I struggle to remember the other dishes. And that’s never a good thing. In fact, I remember the king crab dish (king crab, oyster, dill, radish, caviar) not because it was a revelation but because my other half bit down on a piece of shell whilst eating hers. It was just a bit meh. And so was the ‘Orkney hand-dived scallop with strawberry, tomato and olives’. I love scallops, I love olives. And I love strawberries in a savoury preparation. But I also love a little seasoning on my food and this dish was woefully in need of some salinity. The sea bass (sea bass, mushroom and parsley) was beautifully cooked, with crisp skin and soft, moist flesh but again was lacking in seasoning. The mushroom ketchup that accompanied it was bold in flavour but its consistency wasn’t the most pleasant. If you’ve ever used xanthan gum to thicken a liquid you’ll know what I mean.
Now maybe we just caught them on a bad day, because there’s no doubt that head chef Danny Parker is a true talent. But I’m absolutely convinced that something must have been overlooked. Humpday blues? I dunno. The attention to detail just didn’t seem to be there.
We also chose to share the optional cheese course, which came at a supplement of £12 per person. You are given the choice of taking the course either pre or post dessert; we chose to take it before our dessert courses, and were promptly fetched a selection of five British cheeses ranging from a mature Orkney cheddar to an ash-coated goat’s cheese, with a relatively mild blue, a smoked offering and a hard manchego-like sliver on there too. There was a sixth, semi-soft French cheese too, the name of which escapes me. This was all served with pieces of lavosh cracker bread and a small pot of local honey. All of the cheeses were nice enough, the lavosh and honey working extremely well with the goat’s and and hard cheeses, less so with the blue and semi-soft. Still, worth the £12, I’d say – though I’m glad we ordered just the one.
We then chased the whole lot down with a double espresso (myself) and an espresso martini (t’other half). The espresso martini was, I’m reliably assured, top notch. The espresso was nice, if a little bitter. Certainly not amongst the best I’ve tasted – again, at £8 for a double I’d expect it to be blindingly good (the espresso at L’enclume, which is priced the same, was infinitely better). And while we’re on the subject of pricing, I do have another quite substantial gripe: the service charge.
House of Tides, along with so many of these ‘fine dining’ restaurants sell their wares at one advertised price, but then add another wedge – in this case, 12.5% – onto the final bill as a ‘discretionary service charge’. Which is ridiculous.
The service was excellent. And so there was no way I was ever going to raise my hand on receipt of the bill to politely request the service charged be removed. Nobody would do that, which I suspect is the whole point. It’s nothing short of a ruse. These people aren’t stupid, they know how to price a menu, how to incorporate the overhead costs, the lighting, the business rates, stockholding… the staffing costs. When the price to the customer is decided, that figure should cover those costs. Otherwise the menu may as well state: “This price covers the cost of your food, and the food only. If you would prefer not to serve yourself the price will increase by 12.5%”. It’s absurd. The front of house staff have to be paid regardless, so just be honest about it and include the cost in the advertised price. If I should then, upon completing my meal, decide to leave a gratuity of my own volition then all the better, but don’t take it from me by subterfuge – that’s just shady.
And if it seems as though I’m overreacting, that 12.5% equated to just shy of £40 from my bill. I’m by no means saying that gratuity is a bad thing – not at all, I fully believe in tipping well for good service; it’s how the industry thrives, and great service deserves to be recognised – it’s just that I’d like to make the decision of both when and how much for myself. Honestly, it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
So if I had to summarise the experience in a word it would, sadly, be ‘underwhelming’. House of Tides is in a great location, has a refreshingly relaxed vibe and all of its staff are lovely – the food simply didn’t match up to this standard. Having now eaten at a good number of one and two star restaurants, as well as countless one, two, three and four rosette establishments I am honestly struggling to see why this particular place boasts a Michelin star when I’ve had much more memorable food, cooked with every bit as much skill (and dare I say a lot more passion) at both one and two rosette level. The food was nice, but at £300 for two with no wine flight that simply isn’t good enough. I dearly wanted to leave that place singing the praises of the wonderful meal we’d had during our mini-moon trip to the northeast but I just can’t. I enjoyed the experience and was fed some pleasant food which showed brief flashes of brilliance. But would I recommend it? Sadly, probably not.
Cod’s roe tart, apple & smoked bacon – 8/10
Carrot meringue, carrot & fennel pollen curd – 6/10
Courses & bread:
Sourdough bread & cultured butter – 6/10
Isle of Skye creel caught langoustine – 7/10
King crab, dill, oyster, radish & caviar – 7/10
Orkney hand-dived scallop, strawberry, tomato & olives – 5/10
Sea bass, mushroom & parsley – 7/10
Veal sweetbread, beef fat crumb, apricot & black garlic – 9/10
Cumbrian lamb, smoked asparagus, lemon verbena & swiss chard – 10/10
Rhubarb, dulce de leche, rose water & brown butter – 7/10
Banana, kalamansi, coconut & sesame – 8/10
Optional cheese course:
6 cheeses, lavosh, local honey – 8/10
Total bill: £300 (£95 per person, + optional cheese course and drinks)
House of Tides 28-30 The Close, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 3RF (0191) 230 3720