In my time as a blogger I’ve been given the opportunity to do some pretty awesome things in some interesting places. The latest of these unlikely scenarios took place a few weeks ago and saw me and the boy invited to attend a special festive feast prepared by Jean Christophe Novelli at a beautifully and seasonally decorated Jesmond Dene House. We were dining at the invitation of Aldi who with the help of the celebrity chef and his team were showcasing their Christmas range in one of the most festive settings I’ve ever seen. We were greeted with a fizz reception and then shown into the dining room, where we were seated next to this gorgeous roaring fire.

christmas decorations on fireplace, Jesmond Dene, NewcastleI’m already a pretty big fan of Aldi and a mild addiction to their mini stollen means I was already pretty sold on their Christmas range, which is why we snapped up the invite but I was still a little blown away by the meal we were presented with. We started with meli melo – minute sun-dried vine tomato with king crab and caviar, which looked a little something like this…. crab and caviar starter at Jesmond dene houseThe dish was a lovely mix of colours and textures and despite the luxe element of the caviar the standout element on the plate for me was the tomatoes – full of flavour and showing how you can stretch the most basic of ingredients. Next up was the main event a Turkey Wellington with garlic, parsnip and sweet turnip mash and stuffed cabbage. I must confess that I didn’t notice how phallic the photo I took looked until I started getting some quite risque comments on Instragram.

Turkey Wellington, stuffed cabbage and garlic, parsnip and swede mash

My favourite bit of this course was the Wellington, which is something I’d never really considered doing with turkey before. If you’re going to mess with a classic like Christmas lunch it needs to add something extra and I’m real fan of introducing new textures as well as flavours. Next up was dessert, traditionally the final course but two whole courses away from our finish point. On the menu was an award-winning 12-month matured Christmas pudding with Cornish clotted cream, unfortunately it’s colour combined with the atmospheric lighting meant my pud photo is not as tip top as it could be. Still, here’s a peek at my pudding…

christmas pudding and clotted cream aldi

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas pudding for the reasons most people love it – namely the fruit and nut content and I found this pudding very nutty so if you’re a fan of a packed out pud this would be a good choice. By this point we were seriously searching for room in our growing tums but I must admit to getting rather carried away when we were presented with a rather beauteous cheeseboard…oh..how..I..love..cheeeese!

cheeseboard at aldi festive feast There wasn’t much of any of these lovely specimens left by the time they cleared our slate. I demolished a fair chunk of the blue and the brie and washed it all down with a lump of mature cheddar, pushing to the back of my mind the likelihood of pains resulting from dairy over consumption. Since I’d eaten my body weight in cheese I found the mince pie course quite hard to tackle. So hard in fact, that I forgot to photograph it, though I can recall the mince being rich and the pastry crumbly.

The AldiFestiveFeast was a really lovely way to start our holiday season and we had a fantastic time even though we left a little early to check on the puppy. This meant we didn’t get to meet and greet the Chef who spent an awful lot of time chatting to guests. At the end of our meal we were presented with a receipt that totted up the cost of what we’d eaten for the night, with more than a splash of wine included it came £20.35 per person. While Aldi’s mini stollen will always have a special place in my heart I think I’ll also be making some room for some of their cheese selection this year and I’m keen to pop back to lovely Jesmond Dene House too.

Now I work in the Toon a few days a week I seem to be eating out in the city centre less – I’ve been visiting a lot of super local Northumberland restaurants lately and also heading to eateries in Jesmond and Gosforth. One such venue is Jam Jar, where I headed a few weeks ago at the venue’s invitation after a change of chef.I’ve never actually been to Jam Jar despite several attempts to visit – awkward things like catching colds kept curtailing trips at the last moment. I’d heard mixed reviews but approached the table in the relaxed looking Osborne road venue with an open mind. Jam Jar run a few specials on different nights, so we’d already scoped out the menu online and were a bit disappointed to find the nights were not as advertised on the website and we needed to make another selection. It was in fact steak night – where you can get two steaks for £15, which is a pretty good deal. The website has since been updated so the correct days are now showing for the right deals and there’s some snazzy photos on there too.

However, my dining partner and I didn’t think it would be too insightful if we both ate the same thing, so he asked for a burger while I chose the steak. We also selected one of the seriously jammy drinks from the cocktail menu – I had a Tea Time Jam and he opted for a Mexi Jam.

apricot jam and amaretto cocktail from jam jar jesmond

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Jam Jar has a bit of a backroom, which was filled out with a rather large birthday party. There must have been around 30 dining in total and it’s always tricky for a kitchen to cater to such a high volume at once. With this in mind, we did have a bit of a wait for our food, though we were happy enough to sit and sip our drinks as there was genuinely a nice atmosphere I was pretty taken with my cocktail. As someone who still regularly drinks wine and spirits out of mugs (much to my mother’s disgust), I’m a fan of sticking drinks in jam jars – whether it’s trendy or not, it’s a good size glassful for me!

When our food came it did look good and my steak was a decent size and cooked perfectly to medium rare. Unfortunately the burger wasn’t quite as good – the patty itself was well done – rather than the medium rare we were expecting. It was also quite hard to track down the smoked cheese sauce that had us salivating when we first read about it. It was however a plentiful plateful and the fries that came with the meals were also an ample portion. Looking around the other tables our portions seems to be the standard and we certainly did not go hungry. If I was being picky I would say some of the fries were a little overdone – all crunch and no potato, though they were well seasoned and presented. Jam Jar do run a limited desserts menu, but we were already feeling pretty full, so we chose to share an alcoholic milkshake instead.

The milkshake really hit the spot as a replacement pudding and I probably stole more than my fair share. Overall we felt that Jam jar was a place with a nice ambience and decent drinks, it’s not necessarily somewhere I’d choose just for dining but I will definitely call in for another drink while our burger was not perfect they did have a large party to battle when we were in and maintained good service levels.

Despite being a North East native who repatriated over 18 months ago, there are still plenty of nooks and crannies I’ve yet to explore, so it’s particularly nice when I’m invited to test out a place that’s out of the Toon. One such place I was lucky enough to visit recently is Haveli, a fine dining Indian restaurant located in Ponteland, Northumberland.

If I’m going out for a meal to a restaurant I’ll be pretty excited for a few days beforehand, fuelled by the usual menu perusing. In the case of Haveli I was perhaps a little more so than usual thanks to the photographs of food on their site. By the time we arrived for our meal early on a Friday evening, anticipation levels were running quite high. The venue itself is very classy, with lots of round tables perfect for groups of friends chatting and eating and a beautiful bar facing the room where the staff prepare cocktails. Here’s a peek:The decor at Haveli, pontelandIt was a little darker and more ambient when we arrived and though it was moderately busy as we were seated it was very busy before we left, with people also popping in to get takeaways. Although the place was busy it never felt too crowded because the tables are nicely spaced out, which makes me feel much more relaxed when dining.

The menu at Haveli offers plenty of choice without being overwhelming but we still found it difficult to make our selections thanks to how appealing everything sounded. There were some great choices on the early evening menu, which gets you two courses for £18 or three for £21 but in the end we settled on some a la carte options, I chose the crab and cod fishcakes (£6.85) and across the table was a lamb kebab (£8.30). Before they arrived we were presented with some rather pretty poppadoms and a pickle tray, which looked like this;

poppodom flowerchutney pots, haveli, ponteland

 

 

 

 

 

I really liked the way the poppadoms were presented as a flower in the bowl – it made them a lot easier to eat as well as looking pretty. Of the sauces – tamarind, mint and mango chutney the mint was our favourite, we half suspected there was also some pea in it but the colour and flavour were perfect. The tamarind was perhaps a little too sweet for us but it didn’t stop us eating a good few spoonfuls!

fishcakes haveli

kebab, Haveli, PontelandThe sauces that came with both of the meals were delicious too. Anything that comes with extra sauces is always a winner in my book!

 

For our mains, I chose Nihari Gosht (£14.50) otherwise known as braised Northumbrian lamb in an onion gravy, also on the eating agenda was a chicken curry with black pepper, though I can’t seem to find it on the menu both were delicious. What really impressed about both of the main courses was the depth of flavour in the sauces, which had really taken the flavour of the meats as well as the spices. Portions were generous too and we struggled with our sides of rice (£3) and garlic naan (£3.50).

chicken curry beefy curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the struggle to reach the bottom of our bowls, there was no way I wasn’t taking the opportunity to eat the gin sorbet I’d spotted on the desserts menu. It was the accompaniment to a passionfruit masala chai cheesecake and although it took a little longer to reach the table than the previous courses, it was well worth the wait. If I was being picky I would have liked a crunchier biscuit base, but the flavours and the sorbet were delicious. The second dessert was a mango and cardamom brulee, which unfortunately had been taken that little bit too far. We did mention this to our server who was quick to notice that we hadn’t cleared the plate and the staff were very apologetic. In different circumstances we would have been disappointed but when staff do notice that you’ve not finished something and make a point to enquire why, you feel a lot more at ease and it’s great when feedback is received well.

espresso martini,heveli

As the atmosphere was now quite buzzing, we decided to order a cocktail while we waited for our taxi, I chose my favourite espresso martini. When it came it ticked all the boxes and it was the perfect finish to our meal.

We loved Haveli even though a few minor things weren’t perfect and this was largely because the customer service was excellent and the rest of the food was some of the best we have eaten this year. I look forward to testing their takeaway service too.

 

 

 

*I was invited to dine at the invitation of the restaurant but did pay for drinks and service.

I’m not much of a gambling woman, though I do admittedly take some risks when it comes to the consumption of out of date foods from my fridge and cupboards (unami paste doesn’t really have a use by, right?). When I’m eating out I usually know where I’m going in advance and I’ll typically decide what I’m going to choose from the menu long before I’ve even entered the restaurant, leaving only the possibility of a particularly charming waiter/waitress and a magical sounding Chef’s special to sway me.

I therefore felt slightly uncomfortable when I arrived at Freya’s Restaurant in Aspers Casino a few weeks back, purely because I hadn’t had time to indulge my pre-restaurant ritual. I was invited to visit the restaurant to check out their new menu and was thankful to find a Friday evening where I was neither wedding or hen do bound and took a trip to the Toon. Though time constraints meant there was no time for my usual pre-visit menu analysis. My dining partner and I were greeted at the door by friendly and chatty door staff, putting us in a good mood for what was to be a great night.

pretty lights in Aspers Casino

Freya’s Restaurant is to the side of the main floor and is decorated very tastefully with tables that are nicely spaced apart (no elbow to elbow dancing with your fellow diners). We were seated at the back of the restaurant so I could have a good nosey at the full room (and all the lovely lights) and keep an eye on the service other diners were receiving. As it was early evening, the place was not completely packed but there were several parties in for what appeared to be birthday celebrations and a few couples on dates, mostly taking advantage of the good value prix fixe menu (three courses for £12.95, which you can see here).

When dining at the invitation of a venue I’m always extra cautious to observe service other guests are receiving and to note whether I might be getting special treatment because the staff know I’m in for a review. With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that the staff did not appear to know I was conducting a review until I asked a question towards the end of the meal and I’m pleased to say the service throughout was superb.

And the food? Well, the last time I dined in a casino restaurant it was at the now defunct Leeds Kitchen by James Martin restaurant at Aleas in Leeds. The food there was very good but for atmosphere and service on the night, Aspers comes out trumps.

Without my careful menu pre-selection I found myself wanting everything on the menu, so we decided to start with a tasting board (£9.95) – an unusual but pleasant mix of pea and mint soup, prawn tempura and shredded duck salad. The individual elements of this starter were all rather pleasant – it was a nice fresh minty soup, the prawn batter was extremely light and crisp and the duck and dressing of the salad impressed me particularly. I did think the plate could have been brought together a little more though, perhaps through an Asian touch to the soup.

For mains we went a bit red meat crazy (apologies for the photos, the lighting was very ambient!). I chose cumin spiced lamb rump with lemon cous cous and mint salsa (£14.50) and my date for the night, who is a little harder to impress as a more accomplished chef than I, chose a duo of duck with Yorkshire pudding (£13.95) and a side of mashed potato. We both asked for our meat to be served pink so I must admit we were a little disappointed when it arrived and wasn’t blushing at us.Still, for my part, I was very pleased with my selection. The lamb was still moist and tender and the cous cous cooked perfectly (not like the lazy mush I frequently cook at home).

The date’s experience of duo of duck was mixed – the duck breast though not pink was very tasty and was great with the sweet accompanying sauce, though the Yorkshire pudding was pretty over crunchy and the slow cooked leg could have been more moist. The side of mash was everything you’d want, demonstrating that Freya’s have got the essentials more than mastered – creamy, smooth and utterly butterly, I’m not ashamed to say I stole several spoons of the stuff.

sticky toffee pudding and vanilla ice cream at Freya's restaurantWhile portions at Freya’s are not massive; food is prettily presented rather than piled on the plate, we were starting to feel quite full at this point. A myriad of starters plus a few glasses of Merlot and consuming every morsal of my mains with added mash meant I was feeling a little nervous about fitting in a dessert. In the end, we decided to share a sticky toffee pudding for £3 (which is fast becoming my go-to on menus) and I’m very glad we did.

After a very short wait we were presented with a perfectly round pud oozing with a dark toffee sauce and decorated with a physalis. Personally I enjoyed having a darker, richer sauce, which was not the butterscotch variation that often gets served. I would perhaps have liked to have seen more fruit in the pudding itself, but that really is a matter of personal taste and it was a well-executed dessert.

Next, we decided to try our luck on the roulette tables. I’ve only ever played roulette while on a stag do in Manchester when I was lucky enough to win about £150. I’m not all too clear on the rules but fuelled by Merlot and chips purchased with my date’s cash rather than mine, I was feeling rather flush and somehow managed to nudge us £55 up in the space of five minutes (thanks, number 18).

Fed, watered and with fuller wallets, we left Aspers and headed out into the rain to spend our winnings on as many different cocktails as we could find. I awoke in the morning with a slight Merlot+pina colada hangover but having had one of the best nights out this year so far. There are a few small points Freya’s could improve upon, but overall the atmosphere and experience shine through and the menu is well considered without lacking broad appeal. We will be back.

 

I’ve only been working freelance for a few weeks but I’m already enjoying the change in lifestyle it’s afforded me. At the beginning of the week I now work in Newcastle at my part-time comms/marketing job and the rest of the week and weekend is mine, mine, mine!

I fill these days of freedom with copywriting and feature writing and have already carved out a bit of niche writing about marketing and food topics. The flexibility of the freelance lifestlyle is already allowing me to catch up with friends more often and I’m finding that I’m starting to tick off restaurants and other foodie spots on my to-do list, which in turn means more runs and walks beside the beach are required!

One recent ‘to-do’ was ticked off on a catch-up with my friend Jane when we visited the Brownie Bar in Eldon Square. I first encountered the Brownie Bar at food festivals and have also taken advantage of their gift service in the past but until a few weeks ago I hadn’t visited their café spot in Newcastle. With a few jobs to do in town, I arranged to meet Jane for a completely novel mid-week catch up so that we could take advantage of the bargainous Groupon voucher I bought for £6, which entitled us to a warm brownie and ice cream with hot beverage each.

It was Thursday, I wasn’t at work, there was coffee and there was cake. I was a very happy Fay indeed. So happy, it almost didn’t matter that Jane was her standard 45 minutes late. I spent some of the time perusing the growing range of brownies and blondies available at the Brownie Bar. I have a feeling I might have pressed my nose up against the glass to look at the many varieties in all of their close up glory. In the past I’ve favoured the Brownie Bar millionaire brownie. However, on this particular day I was enticed by a banana and salted caramel blondie and moved over from the dark side. Jane chose a nutella and peanut butter brownie and we both selected a cappuccino to wash them down.

The staff at the bar were very friendly, answering questions about the brownies and serving our drinks super quick. As I’ve come to expect from the brand, the bakes themselves were delicious, mine with a beautiful undercurrent of banana and sticky toffee sauce. I chose a good dollop of chocolate ice cream to go with it and Jane opted for a vanilla. I would say the sauce in my blondie was more butterscotch/toffee than salted caramel but it was delicious. I attempted to taste Jane’s brownie but found it far too peanutty for my peanut hating taste buds – a good choice for peanut lovers though, undoubtedly.

Even without the Groupon (which netted us this little lot for £6) this treat wouldn’t have been very costly and it was really refreshing to be able to meet up with friends during daylight. I’m more than enjoying my taste of flexibility and freedom, here’s hoping my waistline can take the joy!

P.s I have one voucher left that needs used by the end of August, anyone fancy a coffee catch up?