Saturday, 24 May 2014

Restaurant Review: The Herb Garden, Newcastle upon Tyne

When doing these restaurant write-ups I've spent a bare minimum of time talking about the actual interiors of the buildings in which we've been sat. I'm generally a good deal more interested in the stuff on the plate than the carpets, lights and other bits and bobs you have to throw together to create something called a "room". Maybe my priorities are changing with age, or maybe it's because recent meals out have involved a repetitive -ad nauseaum almost - diet of chemistry lab stools, exposed brick and filament light-bulbs, but The Herb Garden, sited in a railway arch just round the corner from Central Station, may just be the first restaurant in which I've enjoyed being sat there looking around more than the food itself. Not, I hasten to add, that there was anything drastically wrong with the meal we had; but the do-out is both pretty unusual and a real looker.

The part of the room in which we sat was festooned in paper lightshades which probably cost a grand total of bugger-all, but created a pretty nifty effect. Rather less easy on the wallet of whoever owns this place will have been the aquaponic system in which the herbs that have given the place it's name are grown in pods, in  rockwool, around a central light. I'd be interested to know how much of the greenery the place gets through is actually coming from these, but regardless of that they look good and I don't think I've seen anything like it in a restaurant before. There's a variety of seating including communal benches and raised tables around one of which we perched on - hallelujah! - really comfy leather stools. Honestly, I've had it with seating that eschews being something you'd want to plonk your arse on in the name of some vague idea of stripped-back cool. If people aren't comfy they'll bugger off all the sooner after paying the bill, I suppose. The floors are all polished stone or concrete or something and the walls are a rather fetching shade of greenish-blue. So anyway, now you know that I liked the look of the place, what about the standard of the comestibles?

Our waiter described what they're doing as "modern Italian" which as far as I can see translates into pizzas and salads with the odd burger and meat-based main on the specials board. There being three of us, we decided to go for a pair of pizzas and a salad to share.

Bread, hummus, olives
We passed the time before their arrival with some hummus, "rustic" bread and olives. £3 got you a good quantity of nicely marinated olives and the hummus was pleasant although wouldn't have suffered from more lemon, tahini and salt to pep it up. The bread was fine but, being soft of crumb, a somewhat feeble hummus-scoop. Flatbreads please. Also, here's a thing: nearly every bread ever seems to describe itself as rustic. Whatever happened to all the sophisticated metropolitan breads I wonder?

As pizzas take up the bulk of the menu, their quality is going to be the thing which most customers will judge the place by.

Spinach,egg, pecorino, garlic, olives, micro basil
Chorizo, mixed peppers, mozzarella, oregano
Although a number of the options involve what sounds like a potential surfeit of toppings, none of these are daft or rank-sounding, so fair enough. The two we had were both solid, if unspectacular. The base managed to do the crispy yet chewy thing, but just lacked a bit of the character that comes from dough that has really not been rushed. Toppings were clearly of decent quality, but to be picky I'd caution against putting raw peppers on a pizza; roast or fry them off first. Also, the egg that sat in the middle of one of the pizzas was a bit underdone which, while admittedly better than overcooked, did not find favour among our number.

Mixed leaves, mini-beetroot, walnut, feta pomegranate
The salad we had was a clear winner, partly as it was composed of a number of things that just go together extremely well, and partly because all those elements were present in appropriate ratios and judiciously dressed with a light vinaigrette.  I quite liked the slightly retro clump of cress on top too. In fact, I can't help wondering if they haven't missed a bit of a trick here; if the main thrust of the place was producing big plates of vibrant, zingy salads - a sort of geordie Ottolenghi's - that would mark their food out as something quite unique in Newcastle, and fit the name a bit better than being primarily a pizza joint. The pizzas were somewhere between fine and quite good, but there are a few places serving similar fare around, and if I want truly great pizza, there's only one game in town.

Tiramisu with chocolate "soil"

Creme brulee
A pair of really very good desserts book-ended things nicely. The Tiramisu was a touch over-set, but all the requisite flavours were present and correct, while the chocolate soil - some sort of crunchy crumb - and a pansy flower continued the garden vibe, as indeed did the lavender in the creme brulee. Any more and it would have tasted of soap, but this was spot-on. If we're being picky as hell, a bit more sugary crunchy bit on top wouldn't have hurt.

The damage, including a very drinkable bottle of Sicilian house red between the three of us, came to just over £20 each, including service, which I think is really quite good value. The food was nice but probably isn't going to sweep anyone off their feet. However, like I said, The Herb Garden is a very enjoyable place to sit and be fed, full of quirk and charm. On that basis alone, I'd be inclined to go back, and maybe try out a few more of those salads.


The Herb Garden, Arch 8, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SA
0191 222 0491

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