Gluten free? Yes
There is a certain art to writing a good menu. As with so much in life, it’s about getting things in proper balance.
Take the level of detail. At one extreme, some menus - especially in your hipster-habituated newer places, sporting a font that looks like it was produced by a Dymo machine - are overly terse, offering only a list of principal ingredients. “Prawn, citrus, peanut” – that type of thing. All well and good, but what have you done with them? I want to know what I’m eating, not your shopping list.
On the other hand, you have the purple prose over-revealers. You know the sort: “Our famous best-ever house cured salmon, sashaying nonchalantly on a bed of wilted spinach, drizzled with chef’s own signature relish and served at a 45 degree angle to a dome of audaciously boiled rice”. I’m happy for a menu to show a bit of leg, but not to get its kit off before I’ve even been served a drink.
Also of importance is the issue of familiarity. Are you serving up the same tired staples as every other place since decimalisation? Or are you seeking to shock, by clattering together ingredients that have no business sharing a plate?
The well written carte should offer something for the curious and the customary diner alike. On all these fronts the main menu at Fat Mermaid in Amble is a triumph. Over 5 sections, with sensible titles like “From the Sea”, “From the Garden” or “Snacks”, are proposed that rare thing: a bunch of dishes any one of which I’d be happy to order.
Who on earth wouldn’t want to try a baked mash of saffron and crab, or a heritage carrot terrine with caramel hazelnuts? Doesn’t spiced monkfish with aubergine and lime cous cous sound good? Or what about a ceviche of scallop, with tigers milk, raisins and cockles? These are actually the ones that got away – I couldn’t order everything. However, portions are (generous) tapas sized, so we did manage to try quite a few.
Happily, for the most part, the reality was as well pitched as the description. Tender snails, pungent with garlic, came in a mess of oxtail and bone marrow that was as powerful and rich as a meeting of the G8, although a good deal more fun.
Mrs Diner is not of fan of the snail, so I had to wade through these alone, decadently serious work. King prawns are more her thing, especially when served with a tingly-spiced nam jim sauce and some pink-hued shredded pickled root veg as was the case here.
A pearly wodge of cod had skin that was a bit scorched, but was nicely seasoned by its throne of samphire, and given further fishy depth by a lobster butter.
A re-formed and crisped up cuboid of pulled pork shoulder had tremendous piggy flavour, although I struggled to pick up the advertised liquorice note. A vivid goblin-green mash of beans and peas brought freshness and vim to the dish, while a chorizo crumb boosted the oink-count further.
By now you might be wondering who wrote this menu and cooked all these great plates of food? That would be Jonny Bird who, with wife Julie, also owns Sea&Soil, also in Amble. I enjoyed a meal there when it was called Sea Salt, but to my mind this tapas format better suits what appears to be Jonny’s eclectic and restless taste in cooking.
I had tried Jonny Bird's lobster mac and cheese as a side dish when I visited Sea Salt/Sea and Soil, and pronounced it "stonkingly good". It still is.
At which point, like the ungrateful pedant that I am, I should mention a couple of niggly misfires. A salad of beets looked pretty but was underpowered: they had not been roasted long enough to develop real depth.
The purple chicory and smoked potato mash that accompanied a piece of chicken thigh were delicious, but the meat itself lacked crispy skin and was a touch dry.
Although worryingly stuffed by this time, we elected to share a dessert. The peanut butter cheesecake had good flavour and came with some lovely vanilla ice cream, but I’m pretty sure I detected flecks of un-melted gelatine, or something similar, in the mix.
Perhaps these slips are what happens when you’re serving a full modern tapas menu, at the same time as a more traditional offering of quiches, plus a menu of open sandwiches, plus brunch? Perhaps The Fat Mermaid is trying to be just a bit too much of everything to everyone? But don’t for a minute let any of that put you off booking a table.
The story here is that this is a gem of a place, and just another compelling reason to visit Amble. The regeneration of the Harbour area has been impressive, and all involved deserve credit. The harbour chippy used to be the only reason to come here. Make no mistake, they still turn out a decent fish supper. Then there was The Old Boat House, still a magnet for fish lovers all over Northumberland. Now if you fancy something a bit more ambitious, you should definitely check out Jonny Bird’s beautifully written and tastefully cooked menu at Fat Mermaid.