What do you eat when you go shopping and what do you think of the new wave of food courts? If you’re a resident of the North East and you’ve indulged in a little retail therapy recently (willingly or less so), you’ll know the food offerings at Intu MetroCentre have been undergoing a bit of a revamp. I was recently invited to the launch night of one of the new residents, Thaikun, so while planning a review of this colourful new ‘street food’ stop, I’ve found myself musing about the food culture in shopping centres generally. Consequently this post is partly a review of the very jazzy new Thaikun at the Metro Centre and a bit of a personal ponder about the ideal fuel for shopping trips.

Memories of the Metro Centre

Truth be told, I have few memories of eating in the MetroCentre as a child – we ate in the zone with the old Mediterranean vibe where the independents once were vary rarely when I was a kid. The only fast food I can ever remember eating as a child was my first ever Burger King aged approximately 11 and that was on Northumberland Street when my brother and I went to see the Fenwicks’ Christmas window display with my dad, I’m pretty sure he told us not to tell Mam we’d eaten there either. We had double cheeseburgers FYI.

I’m pretty open about the fact I’ve always had mixed feelings about chain restaurants, I’ve had some great nights in Pizza Express and Las Iguanas with my friends and I recognise how useful they are when it comes to pleasing a crowd and eating cheaply. I like to support local but I recognise chains employ people and give them opportunities too. Mix this all up together and I’m not sure how I feel about the MetroCentres new food court and the fact it’s all chains (although it does have some smaller ones – Thaikun for instance only has eight branches).

What’s the ideal shopping centre food set up?

When I visit my former home of Leeds, I’m always impressed by the mix of places to eat in the Leeds Trinity shopping centre, which includes Trinity Kitchen where various independents take up rotating pop up slots. There are also some familiar high street chains in there, some less familiar ones and some posher places to eat too. There was a good amount of controversy when this shopping centre opened and shortly after its opening many questioned whether it contributed to the closure of some other restaurants in the city centre. That said, in Trinity Kitchen I think they’ve successfully harnessed a relaxed, casual eating vibe – the sort of vibe Thaikun is clearly aiming at with its street food offering.

Thaikun, Review

First things first, eating at Thaikun was a very fun experience – the staff put a lot of effort into entertaining us with singing and shots – though as I’m currently up the duff I wasn’t under the influence for the review. There definitely seems to be a certain formula new chains are following at the moment – the loud and proud decor of the surprisingly large restaurant takes all the sights of Bangkok and amplifies them times a million, a lot like the Caribbean influenced deco of Turtle Bay. That’s more an observation than a criticism.

Thaikun is owned by the Chaophraya chain (which I’ve previously visited in Leeds) and boasts a chef director who had her own restuarant in Bangkok in the past. This shows in the menu through some lesser spotted dishes that don’t show up at every Thai restaurant. For example, I was delighted to see khao soi guy on the menu, which I learnt to cook while I was in Thailand. I was unable to sample it on this occasion as we were served a set menu at the launch event but it’s top of my list of things to try next. Here’s what myself and my dining partner Hannah shared:

The shared platter of starters were good finger food and little nibbles are always a good way to introduce little ones to trying new things. I did miss the usual array of Thai condiments while I was eating these – I would have liked to have add some spice with some Nampla Prik or a little sugar but was pleased by the presence of Sriracha and a serving of two chilli sauces. I enjoyed the salty squid (this was super salty) but found the squid a bit overdone. The sticky pork was the star of the starters while I’d liked to have tasted a bit more spice in the fish cakes and corn cakes. I think perhaps they’re relying on customers to spice to their own taste. Apologies for the poor photography – ambient lighting and a lack of editing time make for yellower than average snaps!

Main courses covered the traditional Thai favourites with green thai curry, pad thai, a sticky pork and a spiced mince. The latter was actually my favourite overall dish and the one I’d consider to be the most authentic tasting based on my own experience of food in Thailand. It reminded me of a lovely dish I ate in Chiang Mai, which has a lot of Burmese food influences.

The green curry was nice – quite heavy on the basil mind and the pad thai had plenty of juicy prawns, though it didn’t quite have the balance of flavours of those straight off the Bangkok streets. Those around me seemed to be enjoying some cute cocktails served in Takeaway boxes but as I wasn’t drinking I asked to see the drinks menu and was pleased to see a totally calorific but very moreish Thai tea on the menu (very sugary but I may well be popping in for these to takeaway while shopping). Even as a hungry pregnant momma-to-be, myself and my dining partner Hannah didn’t quite manage to finish this feast.

We had a lovely time at Thaikun and though it’s authenticity didn’t totally ring true for me I’m keen to try more dishes on the menu next time I’m shopping with friends (and I’ll post an update then). I like the idea of introducing kids to new cuisines on unavoidable family shopping trips, so from this perspective this fun concept gets a thumbs up.

Have you been to Thaikun yet? What do you think of the new food court offerings in the MetroCentre? Have you eaten at any of the other new places and do you miss the independents?

 

If you’re a Newcastle native you’ve probably heard about the opening of a certain Caribbean restaurant earlier this month and if you’ve stumbled across this post in search of a review of what Turtle Bay has to offer, welcome! I hope my mutterings are of some use.

Before I get stuck into the nitty gritty of this post, I shall confess that when I attended the press event for Turtle Bay just a few weeks ago it wasn’t my first visit to a Turtle Bay restaurant and neither was it my last visit. You see, I’m on pretty friendly terms with one of the staff members, so I’d already been to the Turtle Bay in York before his interview and I’ve since been to one of the friends and family evenings at Newcastle too. Despite the close connection I’ll be giving as balanced a view as I can in this post, starting with the facts…

Turtle Bay is in the old coop building near the entrance to the Gate. It’s directly opposite the Debenhams entrance to Eldon Square, which means it’s in a good spot for a shopping day lunch or is in an ultra convenient location to start a night on the town with some food and half price cocktails. The deco, like the cocktails, is loud, colourful and hard to ignore. The floor is a mix of table sizes – you can tell that they are targeting groups of friends and family as well as the date crowd and they do it well – who doesn’t like extended BOGOFF cocktail happy hours and large portions of food?

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Most of the main courses at Turtle Bay come in around the £10 mark and are filling to boot. There is also a good selection of vegetarian options, so it ticks all the boxes as a potential crowd pleaser. When I visit a chain restaurant it’s most often with a large group for a birthday and Las Iguanas has often been my go-to in the past.

One of the founders of Turtle Bay was also previously an owner in Las Iguanas and they’ve clearly taken some of the best bits over to the new business and added in a little Caribbean hospitality for good measure. I’ll share some of my snaps of the food below, but if you’d like to peruse what’s on offer for yourself here’s a shortcut to the Turtle Bay menu, The website though very colourful seems to be a little clunky sometimes – maybe something for the company to concentrate on as they expand. That said, I did use it to book a table when I visited York and found the system very smooth – in addition to confirmation they followed up with an enquiry about how the visit went, which shows the strong emphasis on customer service.

You should find the staff at Turtle Bay surprisingly upbeat even on a wet Wednesday or snowy Sunday – it’s kind of their ‘thing’ and when you’re looking for cocktail recommendations or have umpteen queries about what’s in the food, it’s nice to have someone smiling back at you. Unfriendly service is one of my biggest peeves, to win my loyalty you need to be friendly, know your menu and offer some great grub. And on those fronts Turtle Bay scores well. Now on to what was consumed…..

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As I was driving I stuck to alcohol free cocktails. This is the coconut and pineapple punch and a passion fruit cooler. The punch contains condensed milk and cream, so it’s not exactly low calorie but if like me, you love a pina colada – this one or its alcoholic counterpart the Koko Kalada is for you. If you’re more of a beer person. they have some bottled ales and beers along with the familiar Jamaican Red Stripe and Guinness and there’s a few familiar white. red and rose wines to choose from too,

IMG_3549Starters were served up on a board at the event and if you yourself like a bit of snatch and grab you could try the beach food platter (jerk chicken wings, pepper roti, sweet corn fritters) , which is what the above essentially is. albeit with the addition of some rather lovely duck rolls in place of the usual garlic and herb flatbread. The pepper roti was my favourite – potatoes, carrots, peppers, cheese and scotch bonnet – that’s essentially a spicy cheese pasty, right? I love a good cheese pasty.

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Next was a selection of the mains, sides and light bites. Left to right Rastafari run down, whole jerk chicken with a side of sweet potato fries with cheese, jerk chicken toasties and goat curry). As a bean hater I dodged the butter beans in the vegetarian Rastafari run down but the sauce itself was very nice. I was a tad frustrated at the difficulty in eating the sweetcorn though, which was left on the cob and so eating it was a messy affair. I filled up far too much on the melt-in-the-mouth goat curry to leave much space for the jerk chicken but know from oohs and aaahs elsewhere on the table it was a big hit. The sweet potato fries were very nice and all but I’d already stuffed in a few bits of plantain and some dumplings, which I couldn’t help but feel were a more natural accompaniment to the curry.

Personally, I probably wouldn’t order a toastie while out at Turtle Bay – the chicken one was jam packed and tasty (though I wasn’t keen on the concept of a salmon and goat cheese version) but I can see why it’s on the menu. If you wanted to grab a snack while shopping the toastie might weigh you down a little less than some of the regular mains, which really are generous portions. I’ve eaten at Turtle Bay three times now and still haven’t finished three full courses. Mind you, I haven’t been choosing the salad or lighter options.

We sampled a few puddings that in truth didn’t photograph well because they were smaller versions served up for sharing. The brownie (which I believe is gluten free) was warm and gooey as it should be, though a mite sweet for my taste. I loved the simplicity of the Caymanas rum cake, which was essentially a sponge soaked with a warm rum-laden caramel. I have the banana and toffee cheesecake and poached mango earmarked for future visits.

So, the overall verdict? If you’re looking for a great value meal out with a group of friends Turtle Bay has a lot of the bases covered – not least great portions and those extended happy hours between 12 and 7pm and again 10pm-close. Some dishes are not perhaps as full of spice as they would be were you in the Caribbean and when trying to cater for the wider public I guess this is to be expected. We Geordies love a bargain and a warm welcome, so I think Turtle Bay will do well.

Have you been yet? What did you try and how did you find it?

For someone who follows Slimming World, I didn’t half pack in a lot of cake and scone consumption during 2015. In fact, i’ve developed such an afternoon tea habit that around one in four trips out for food are now dedicated to the consumption of cake, scones and those delightful teeny tiny sandwiches. Oops! One of my most recent dalliances with the floury good stuff was at Matfen Hall, Northumberland.

Despite being in Northumberland, Matfen Hall is actually quite far from me. It’s in a really beautiful hilly location that ordinarily would make for a great drive but on the day I took my mum along to review the afternoon tea at the venue’s invitation, the heavens were bucketing down in the manner our region has recently become accustomed too. Still, there was a little sunshine hiding over the top of the country house hotel when we arrived and the golf course it looks out onto was quite beautiful, rain or not. We took tea in the Library, which really appealed to the literature geek in me. Our visit was just before Christmas, so we got to enjoy the lovely decorations too.

Christmas tree in the drawing room, Matfen Hall Spa

The Library was quite busy with diners enjoying the Sunday Lunch option and all the other food we saw shooting by looked very appealing. While the tablecloth on the table was perhaps a little tired, the service was attentive and the tables were nicely spaced – so much more relaxing than being packed into a standard restaurant.

Looking at the menu it was great to notice regional Ringtons starring once again and I plumped for their coffee rather than a festive tea. Mam expressed some lamentation that we weren’t having the Gentleman’s tea and asked whether Scotch eggs and pork pies really ought to be reserved just for men. I’ve seen a fair few Gentleman’s tea options popping up at places like The Vermont and Bonbar ad I’m not sure how I feel about the suggestion that pie is not for the girls. My love of pie is afterall, very well documented – you may remember my long ago visit to Asda Pie night?

afternoon tea menu, Matfen Hall

A festive trifle, spiced date cake and ginger cream tart were top of the cake pops on when the cake stand arrived along with scones that came with two types of jam and a good dollop of cream. The scones were just the right size and light and fluffy without the dreaded bi-carb aftertaste. Among the traditional sandwich selection was the best egg sandwich I’ve ever tasted. I don’t usually like egg between bread, no matter how dainty it looks but this filling was creamy and well seasoned and quite frankly I’d like to know the chef’s secret! Did we manage to finish the full selection? Not quite, so we took a few items home in a box for a second sitting on the sofa when Sunday evening came round.

Overall I was very impressed with the quality of the Matfen Hall tea and at £16.95 it comes in around the middle for cost at the higher class establishments in the reason. I’ll be using the fact it’s around an hour away to suggest a stop over at the spa next time we visit and when we do the £22.95 three course Sunday lunch menu is top of my to do list.

Have you already been to the spa or stayed in the hotel? If so, are there any treatments you’d recommend or any rooms I should be requesting?

I’m completely caffeine fuelled. Speak to me before my first black coffee of the day and you’ll be lucky if I can muster a wonky smile. In the office I have a cafetiere permanently positioned next to my computer, powering me through. At home we have a pod coffee machine that I feel so guilty about I’ve gone mad keen on recycling in a misconstrued attempt to balance its environmental impact. I also like tea. Though I drink it rarely I fondly remember leisurely Sundays spent supping a full pot and eating biscuits with my former housemate, Laura.

Tea is my hangover hero and coffee is a continual companion but despite my enthusiasm I’m a bit of an amateur when it comes to making and drinking both. I like to think I know a thing or two about cake consumption but my knowledge of the accompanying brew is still in development, something I became even more aware of on two recent trips out.

Slurping with Ringtons
Sometimes as a blogger I’m lucky enough to be invited to events that seem too good to be true. Now, right up there with Pie Night at Asda is my Christmas trip to Ringtons. We’ve always been Ringtons fans in this house, not least because my boyfriend eats two packets of their ginger snaps a week. A little while back they  ran a Christmas blogging event at their HQ in Byker and I had my first seasonal slurping experience. It looked a little something like this

Shoutout to Shivanee of Cloudinateacup who you can see trying her hand at cupping tea in the final photo, you can read her post on the event here, which includes a good run down of Ringtons’ strong regional profile as well as some fabulous photography that’s far better than my own. When it comes to blogger events I do much prefer the ones that allow you to learn, get involved and get your hands dirty, so I really should have been more willing and prepared when it came to cupping.

For the uninitiated, this is the quality control process that’s used to test tea. Laid bare without milk and sugar it’s easy to differentiate between teas of different qualities and even detect subtle differences between blends. I’m down with tea tasting, I’ve done it before during a Chinese tea ceremony. I’m not it seems down with slurping in public. I tried to be okay with it, really I did. I’ve no shame about being the first out of my seat at a buffet or even the first on the dancefloor sans alcohol but when it came to slurping, I was very self conscious. Luckily, the top tea testers at Ringtons have no such silly constraints and I was blown away by their knowledge and enthusiasm. Tea might not be my first choice but I’ve now ditched my standard teabags in favour their Darjeeling.

Cup North

My second cupping opportunity came just a few weeks later at Cup North, Manchester. This two day event is all about coffee and if you’ve got a serious interest, I suggest you add it to your calendar for 2016. For me the event conveniently coincided with a planned catch up with my fellow coffee enthusiast Nic and while I shied away from cupping in the heat of the moment (it can happen to anyone) we did enjoy talking to all the coffee producers present and purchasing some fuel for life to take away with us. There was also some seriously scientific coffee equipment in action. Here are a few snaps of the trip.

Are you more of a coffee or tea person? Have you ever tried cupping and if so, what did you make of it?

The lack of posts recently might suggest that things have been quiet on the north eastern eating front. In reality I’ve still been out and about scoffing things, I’ve just been somewhat held back from blogging by a lack of photos. My iPhone 4 recently bit the dust taking a lot of photos of yet to be reviewed meals with it (backup your phone kids!). It seems I’ve lost a lot of photos and I’ve held off posting about new visits until I was able to take some decent snaps too as I think they are important as part of review posts. Hopefully the delicious looking photo of the afternoon tea I recently enjoyed at St Mary’s Inn within this post will have you in agreement!

I headed to St Mary’s Inn a few weeks ago for a Friday afternoon trip out with my auntie. Auntie Pamela loves eating out and trying new places, so she’s always a willing dinner partner! As she’s disabled, I always look for places for us to visit that are easily accessible and have convenient parking. I’m happy to say St Mary’s fits the bill on both fronts, though it does require some navigating to as you may remember from my previous post. We hadn’t booked in advance but the waitress was able to find us a table and noted our request to be at the edge of the room for ease of movement. It didn’t take Auntie Pamela long to spot the afternoon tea on the menu and though I’d intended to make Slimming World friendly choices I had been dying for an excuse to try it, so I didn’t take too much persuading!

I’ve read some mixed reviews on Tripadvisor recently about service at St Mary’s. On my first visit I was invited by the owners and so you’d perhaps expect the service to be nothing less than awesome (as it was). I’m pleased to say it was once again fantastic when the waiting staff had no clue I was a blogger. Our waitress once again displayed good knowledge of the menu – asking which scones we would prefer and talking about their relative merits  and the coffee which we ordered was promptly delivered. My Auntie struggled with the dainty coffee cup so we were quickly presented with a large St Mary’s mug and thoughtfully, a pot of coffee so that it would stay hot so she could pour it out gradually. The waitress also brought out some cream at the request of my Auntie instead of milk. There was around a 15 minute wait for the food, which I think is very reasonable during a busy service when not pre-ordered.

The tea was presented beautifully and smelled amazing – we chose a mixture of cheese and plain scones, both came warm with some raspberry jam and cream. Sandwiches were smoked salmon with homemade tartar, cream cheese and cucumber, salted beef and ham and pease pudding. On the dessert tier was a macaron with lemon meringue filling, individual Bakewell tarts, Eton mess and rich chocolate brownie with a rich chocolate ganache.

afternoon tea at St Mary's Inn, Stannington, Morpeth

The cheese scones were gorgeous – with no bitter bicarb aftertaste (unlike my experience of another afternoon tea venue in the region that everyone raves about!).  The smoked salt beef sandwich was probably my favourite while my aunty enjoyed the homemade pease pudding. There was no skimping on the jam or cream for the scones and the almond pastry on the Bakewell tart was some of the best I’ve ever had. The Macarons were light and chewy, though I’d have been happy to have them without the thin buttercream layer with the lemon curd filling only. We loved the brownies but saved half for later as they were quite rich. The waitress brought us a box to take our tea remnants away with us and asked us both what we had enjoyed.

Overall we found service to be attentive and genuine, so we left a good tip. I’ve been struggling with service recently in the region if I’m honest. I’ve been for an afternoon tea at a popular venue where I was kept waiting half an hour despite booking, only to be ignored while staff cleaned tables (which weren’t going to be used again until the next day). Then, there have been instances where waiting staff just haven’t bothered asking if things were enjoyed and some acknowledging feedback about things being overcooked by saying; “Ok, do you want dessert?” so I can honestly say in the past year my two visits to St Mary’s have stood out.

The afternoon tea at £14.95 is just one of the things on St Mary’s very varied menu , which always features a few additional daily specials on the board, I’m keen to try the pie night, which you can read about over on Newcastle Eats and the Sunday Lunch is on the to-do list too. Shaun Hurrell may have departed St Mary’s Inn to take on the world of tacos with Barrio Comida (and boy are those tacos good – post coming up soon!) but hopefully St Mary’s will retain high standards. I look forward to a return visit and in particular I’ll be eagerly waiting to see if they’re planning a Christmas Day menu; there’s talk of skipping Christmas Day cooking in the Berg family this year and heading out for some pampering instead.

Have you been to St Mary’s Inn? What was your experience of the service?