I have mixed views about chain restaurants – I don’t visit them very regularly simply because I like variety and I don’t believe in paying for something I could whip up easily at home. I’ve been called a food snob on more than one occasion due to my resistance to drop upwards of a tenner on work outings by visiting chain restaurants where I suspect the kitchens do more reheating than cooking.

I know other food enthusiasts are against chains in principle and I have read many posts about how chains stifle creativity, raise rents and make our cities look too similar. At the other side of the argument – chains provide jobs the same way independent restaurants do. I would love to see more protection in place so that we don’t end up with totally identical streets up and down the country, ones that give independents a better chance to flourish alongside good chains and stop smaller names being priced out of rent deals. I’m not about to pay someone a tenner for a meal they’ve merely defrosted and plated up but I don’t boycott chain restaurants completely either. Las Iguanas has long been my chain restaurant of choice when the occasion calls for it – it usually has options for vegetarian friends, the cocktail happy hour is great and service is usually good too. I’m pleased to say Jamie’s has now been added to the list of high street names that are really rather good at what they do.

We were recently invited to try the menu at Jamie’s Italian Newcastle. We received a discount on our meal but this review is a true reflection of our experience on what was a very busy Friday evening. We were greeted at the door and taken to our table by floor staff and introduced to our waitress who was able to explain the menu fully, recommend sides and managed to offer water for the table unprompted, all good so far. We dined early (around 6.30) so there were a fair few family groups in and I do suspect its with groups like these that Jamie’s really excels. I noticed the little touches such as flags on children’s ice creams that show that father Jamie has thought about little ones when putting this offering together.

I’m by no means a Jamie devotee but we do have a few of his cookbooks and my attempt at his Vodka Chilli Pasta remains a lasting and prominent memory for one of my former housemates (I went a bit crazy on the chilli). I’ve never really seen a Jamie Oliver recipe and thought “that sounds horrible”, in fact, when his perky face pops up on screen I’m usually drawn in, so it was to be expected that we found it quite difficult to narrow down our choices from the menu. In the end we selected crispy squid with crushed garlic mayo (£5.95) and Italian nachos (£3.95) to start and were impressed with what turned up at the table.

As you can see the portions were pretty generous considering the price. The garlic mayo was perhaps a little too potent (I was still tasting garlic hours later) and I would perhaps have liked a slightly crisper texture to the fried ravioli nachos but there was a lot to enjoy about this dish. A look around at the other diners confirmed that these portions were a fair representation of what everyone was being served. The place itself is huge, far bigger than I had realised but I found myself enjoying the buzz of the place – the lights and family friendly radio tunes meant the ambience was upbeat. And so, on to the mains.

I ordered the fish special – seabass with fennel, beetroot and carrots and under some duress from me, Steve chose a pizza (Italian Hot £12) and polenta chips. The surprising star was the polenta chips, I wish they weren’t so filling because they were also very more-ish, I’d eaten half a bowl without blinking. I do love rosemary though. All of the elements of Steve’s pizza tasted fresh and it had a good balance of sauce and cheese, it wasn’t at all greasy. Meanwhile, my seabass was a little overwhelmed by the olive oil it was dressed with (I’m still pretty sure Jamie has a personal sponsorship deal with the olive oil industry). I do like a crisp fish skin and that just wasn’t possible with the amount of oil and I’m probably a little more resistant to the stuff as a slimming world follower. The veg was cooked perfectly though and sat great alongside the fennel. In future I’d probably just ask the serving staff to hold off a little on any oil.

There’s a pretty decent drinks selection at Jamie’s – the boy stuck to Moretti, while I started off with a homemade lemonade, which was perfectly refreshing after a bit of rushing to make our reservation. By dessert I was ready to move onto something alcoholic and made a vague attempt to match my Florence Fizz cocktail (£6.95) with my Amalfi Lemon Meringue Cheesecake (£5.45). The Limoncello, pomegranate juice and elderflower fizz went really well with the soft meringue and curd. Sometimes I think the other half orders food because he knows I will like it – other times I know he orders it because I think I will like it (ahem) and I think his dessert choice of  Sour Cherry and Almond Tart (£5.45) was the former on this occasion. It was good but not quite as wonderful as my cheesecake, which I had to battle him a little to finish.

We were more than pleasantly surprised by Jamie’s – I think in terms of price points, they’ve got things right, I like what they have on the menu and there are a lot of deals you can access through membership to their gold club. Jamie’s is unlikely to become our favourite restaurant but it could well become a regular pre-drinks spot.

Have you been to a Jamie’s? What did you think? Do you steer clear of chain restaurants or do you think they have their place? I’d be interested to know how you feel about the topic so please do comment below.

 

Drinking in my 30s is proving to be a very different affair to that of my 20s. For a start, now I no longer live in the centre of a city a night out needs to be approached with military-style planning. I’ve learnt that failure to take this approach can end in unspeakable consequences that go beyond inconvenience. Secondly, I’m getting ever so fussy about what I’m willing to drink (potentially a result of living with a pro drinks mixer). All considered, when I go out now I like it to be a bit of an event, which means my recent invite to the re-launch of the Redwood Lounge at the Vermont Hotel in Newcastle was extremely welcome.

I’d never been to the Redwood Lounge before and must admit that having been to Livellos at the opposite side of the hotel, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, the Redwood Lounge has a much more relaxed and classier vibe and more importantly for my 31-year-old self, some incredibly comfortable leather sofas! On arrival we made our way to the bar and chose a cocktail from the new menu, I opted for a peach fume (beautifully smoky peach, not too sweet, not too dry) while the OH had a gin martini (he said it was well made and he does know about these things). We then sat ourselves down very comfortably to listen to the entertainment – a singer and guitar player. It’s always a pleasure to watch live music but even more so when you’re in a relaxed setting with a good cocktail in your hand.

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While watching the entertainment I spotted fellow blogger and ex colleague Sarah, who wrote about her experience of the night over on her blog Plain Sarah Jayne, she has a few more photos than I do as i again seem to have selected a spot with poor lighting (when will I learn), so I must admit I had to steal some of the Vermont’s own images for this post!

As part of the relaunch the management introduced the new menu, which includes a Gentleman’s afternoon tea. While I don’t strictly speaking think there’s any need for a his and hers (why should us ladies be deprived of pork pies and scotch eggs?) I thought it an impressive platter. My devotion to condiments is well documented, so I was pleased I had more than one relish, to um, relish.

IMG_7247I’ve heard good things about the Vermont’s other afternoon tea offerings, so it’s been added to the ever-extending ‘to eat’ list. I suspect we will make our way back for drinks first though – places like this with a pleasing cocktail menu and amenable seating arrangements that are a cut above are few and far between in the Toon. And though it’s not strictly a point for review, I can’t help but add the toilets are first class too. The Redwood Lounge is well positioned to accommodate more discerning drinkers, I just wish I didn’t have to climb so many stairs to reach it!

I eat out more than the average person. Once or twice a week is pretty standard, which does admittedly make slimming a little hard sometimes but it’s a habit that I’m not willing to give up. Not every trip out makes it onto the blog because more often than not I’ll head back to places I’ve been before or, if the food or service somewhere is very disappointing, I don’t tend to give it a feature. St Mary’s Inn is one of the places I know I will visit again and again because on our first visit we were planning a return even before we’d finished our main course.

Based in an old hospital building at Stannington village on the outskirts of Morpeth, St Mary’s Inn isn’t too easy to find. We went along on a Friday evening in March when the night sky was pretty damn black. We had to navigate through the housing estate the gastrob pub is based in without too many signs to guide us. If I had a criticism of the place it would be this, though if too many people start being able to find St Mary’s, it may well become one of those venues where it’s impossible to get a table!

We’d been invited to review St Mary’s by the owners and had heard many good things before our trip, which is to be expected when you consider the place is owned by the same people as Jesmond Dene House (as featured in our Aldi Christmas post). The building itself towers above the houses of the estate, which I’ll give to you as a tip to find it. Inside, the old hospital has been divided into different areas – a bar, some little cosy corners where you can sup a pint mid dog walk (dogs are welcome and bar snacks are available, which means Ruby is definitely going to St Mary’s at some point too) and of course, several larger dining areas complete with large tables and some booths. Ooh, not forgetting an outside patio I spyed that will be lovely when the sun finally springs up in Northumberland! It was a fairly chilly night and we were pleased to find the staff stoking the fires when we arrived. Despite the size of St Mary’s Inn there are lots of cosy spots and there were many of family groups and couples dining when we arrived.

Our menu choices weren’t easy to make – there are lots of locally inspired plates on the menu and while meaty choices caught our eye on this occasion, the vegetarian options seemed equally appetising and it was nice to see more than one token veggie choice available. You can take a peek at the menu, which also features an afternoon tea option here.

Service throughout our meal was excellent and while our waitress may well have known we were there at invitation of the owners, we observed attentive service at all tables and at the bar area too. We were particularly impressed with our servers’ knowledge of the menu as she recommended different side selections based on what would come with our main course automatically and was able to talk about all elements of several main courses to help me make my decision. It sounds like a simple thing all waiting staff should be able to do but I’ve been pretty depressed by how little some restaurant staff seem to know about the food they are serving recently. Anyway, I digress.

For starters we chose chicken liver parfait, onion jam and truffle brioche (£7.20) and a rather awesome looking piece of pork pie with homemade picalilli (forgot to write the price down but think this was about £6). There was pease pudding elsewhere on the menu, so the other half was extra cheeky and asked if he could try some with his pie.

The  very generous portion of pate was beautifully smooth, complemented by the sweetness of the jam. The pork pie was meaty with lovely jelly and thick crumbly pastry. I didn’t feel the truffle element of the brioche was particularly necessary but the bread was delicious all the same.

We’d chosen some very meaty main courses – I selected the mince and dumplings (£12.00) and Steve chose the maple glazed pork chop (£15.00). We both got some delicious roasted root vegetables (Steve as a side and mine as part of my main). The herby dumplings came in a deep bowl with some top class mashed potato and cabbage on the side. The massive chop came with vine roasted tomatoes and a pot of wholegrain mustard.

I liked everything about my comforting main course and could happily have drunk the rich meat gravy through a straw had I not been in public and the gravy itself not been so deliciously thick. The pork chop was lightly glazed and well cooked, though Steve did lament that the fat wasn’t cooked quite so much on one side, which was a really minor thing all in all. I must confess, we decided to have dessert not because we were hungry but because the previous two courses led us to believe we’d be in for a treat. Still, lack of free stomach capacity dictated we would have to share a dessert and we opted for a warm almond and apple tart with ginger ice cream (£6). It came served with an apple crisp.

Frangipane style apple tart with ginger ice cream and apple crisp The apple tart was frangipane style but not over sweet. The ice cream was very creamy with small pieces of stem ginger folded through. I’m not quite sure how, but we cleared the plate rather quickly.

It’s been a while since I raved about a place as much as I have St Mary’s following our visit. A friend who lives on the estate recently confirmed my suspicions that the food is consistently good and recommended I try the afternoon tea next time I visit. There are rooms above the pub and restaurant and we are almost tempted to book one just so we can both sample the best of the menu and the bar in one evening. Along with 40 whiskies on the bar, that outdoor area that will soon be coming alive for spring and the little nooks where we can relax with a pint of Apsall without leaving Ruby the dog at home, we have many reasons to return to St Mary’s Inn.

It’s Easter weekend, which makes this post eggs-pecially well timed, even if it is six months in the making. Today I’m going to be sharing a few photos and insights from a very special day back in November when I visited Hotel Chocolat in Leeds to take part in one of their bean to bar experience days. Like a good blogger, I wrote up most of the post shortly after my visit and uploaded all of my photos but then a ghastly glitch meant everything disappeared and I couldn’t quite face doing everything again, until now, while surrounded in chocolate I need to avoid eating!

I should start by saying the day was one of my standout food experiences of 2014. I was lucky enough to be invited to review the bean to bar experience while I was in Leeds on my birthday trip and have been recommending them as alternative gifts ever since. if  you’ve not yet managed to buy someone an Easter egg or want to give something a little different, I’d say this is a memorable present that gives people the gift of new skills and knowledge as well as oodles of chocolate!

Upon arriving at the Roast & Conch on Boar Street, we were invited to take a seat at the bar and choose a drink to ease us into our chocolate experience. I’m a lady that’s fuelled by caffeine 80% of the time so I had to choose a flat white rather than hot chocolate and it was a pretty good coffee too, just what I needed after a night on the tiles in lovely Leeds!

Latte hotel chocolat After a little tour of the Chocolat Lab we took our seats. It was a small group of just four people, so we got lots of attention, had the opportunity to ask lots of questions and all got to take part in the various stages of making. It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who is passionate about food and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about chocolate. We first learnt about tasting chocolate, identifying different flavours and textures and then talked about the processes behind growing, drying and roasting. We tasted lots of chocolate (yes!) with the most bitter hitting the right notes for me, though I wasn’t a fan of the cocoa in it’s purest form.

baba de cacaoI won’t give away too many of the facts and figures we learnt on the day but it was very interesting to learn about the different types of cocoa beans their flowers and yields and what they tend to be used for. I was also surprised to learn that 70 per cent of cocoa’s flavour is locked in by drying with more added at the roasting point. Up until my visit, I knew little about Hotel Chocolat as a company, though it’s usually my first point of call for buying things like Christmas gifts for clients because I like the quality and attention to detail shown in their products. Some of what we learnt during the Bean to Bar talk is covered in this recent interview by the Guardian – namely that Hotel Chocolat has its own growing fields and chocolate Hotel. I’ve always quite fancied visiting the hotel but it’s a bit of a pricy affair, should we win the lottery however I’ll most certainly be making a booking.

The chocolate making itself was surprisingly hard work. Grinding the beans into a paste and then mixing smoothly with sugar was as torturous as making a really good thai curry paste but took far far longer. Naturally, I decided to cheat by swapping my pestle and mortar with my boyfriend’s half way through and felt very smug indeed when my chocolate turned out to be the smoothest.

As you can see from the final photo, chocolate making proved to be a rather messy affair. The tempering of the chocolate also took a lot more skill than I imagined. Ever the show off, Steve rolled up his sleeves and smoothed the chocolate out on the bench to cool it, moving it around like a pro. It’s a shame he doesn’t leave the kitchen bench as clean when he cooks in there!

Tempering Chocolate

The final step was to put our chocolate in moulds, which I did with messy grace. Thankfully, in chocolate making messiness doesn’t appear to impair flavour. Once cooled my chocolate was beautifully smooth. Alongside the chocolates we made ourselves we also received a goodie bag of chocolates to take home and a discount for purchases made in store on the day or online after the event. I’ve been to quite a few cookery classes both in the UK and abroad and £65 for an activity that lasts a couple of hours and includes goodies to take home is quite reasonable and something I wouldn’t resent paying at all given the amount of knowledge displayed by our tutors. Until April 6th Hotel Chocolat are offering attendance for two at the course I attended for the discount price of £100, so if you’re tempted to try tempering, now’s the time to do it!

Over the past year I’ve developed a real thing for afternoon tea – it’s like a really posh mini buffet all of your own and I friggin’ love a buffet. I’ve snaffled a few I’ve not had a chance to post about at venues including Malmaison and Linden Hall Hotel and I held my own Slimming World-friendly afternoon tea too. By far the best of the bunch was the afternoon tea I ate a few weeks ago at the Mercure George Washington. The new afternoon tea menu only went live this month, but I was invited for a sneak preview by the chef and was blown away by the quality of the food served in their lovely orangery.

I headed along to the George Washington with my friend Hannah, who often gets a feature on the blog, here she is getting into the festive spirit in a Christmas hat. When we arrived at the hotel we were really pleased to find there was a Christmas dance going on, so along with our afternoon tea we were treated to some classic Christmas choons, as well as some beautiful decorations.

Hannah Mattinson at the Mercure George WashingtonWe ordered coffee and tea respectively, which was served right away. Not long after arrived a festive feast to end all feasts. The afternoon tea starts at £14.95 per person and while I think we were treated to an extra layer of treats for Christmas that may not come as standard (including a Yule log each and some seriously yummy mince pies with a good whollop of citrus), there was certainly a lot of food to devour.

An afternoon feast of sandwiches, patissserie and scones at the George Washington

Along with salmon, ham and egg sandwiches was a standout savoury star of the show in the form of a mini cheesy scone with a hint of spice, this came topped with cream cheese and strips of ham and was the favourite item of all for both Hannah and myself. I was supremely pleased to find mini eclairs (butterscotch no less) and fruit tarts on the cake stand. The chef at the Mercure Washington was previously a specialist patisserie chef and it really shows – each and every cake offered something different in terms of texture, flavour and skill in making it. Surprisingly, we each managed to squeeze in a scone, which you’d have to when they look like this….

a cream tea

Even if the afternoon tea had been half as big, the quality of everything we ate and the friendly service would have made it well worth the usual £14.95 price tag. After tea we made use of the hotel’s spa facilities (another bargain at £5 for use of the swimming room, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna) and I treated myself to a head massage. Unlike the spa rooms at some other hotels the treatment area was clean, beautifully decorated and smelt scrum-diddly-umptious thanks to some scented candles. After the trip I’ve become a bit of a Mercure mega fan, along with recommending the place to everyone in office I’m planning to take Ma Berg for Mother’s Day too.

Do you have any local recommendations for afternoon tea? What do you think makes a good afternoon tea?! Let me know in the comments below.