28 November 2015

Painted Elephant [CLOSED]

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 

6 Upper Princess Square 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 8ER 

07497 003 253 

Dinner: Tues-Sat until 8.30pm 
Lunch: Saturdays only 12-3pm 
No credit cards 

It’s nice to be proved wrong every now and then, especially when the humble pie you eat turns out to be rather agreeable. 

It has always struck me as a gastronomic irony that exclusively vegetarian or vegan restaurants are frequently the least likely places to find proficient cooking of vegetables. Over the years I’ve endured so many unimaginative stews, overcooked “lasagnas”, and underseasoned lentil-fests that I now tend to be wary of establishments that don’t press the flesh. And don’t get me started on the wretched culinary horrors that are thrown into the vegetarian aisles of supermarkets.

When Anthony Bourdain professed in his memoir Kitchen Confidential that "vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction the vegans… are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit," I didn’t agree with him, but I had an idea what he was talking about. 

It need not, of course, be this way. Some of my favourite restaurants work wonders with vegetable dishes, and serve excellent fish and meat as well. Alain Passard creates 3-Michelin-starred magic in his Parisian restaurant Arpège from the vegetables of his own biodynamic farm – his beetroot tartare alone is almost worth the cost of the flight and the meal – and many others have followed his inspiration. Nearer home, the Darlington-based wunderkind James Close can turn even the humblest vegetable into a work of art – but he also does incredible things with oysters, duck liver and smoked eel. 

By contrast, many exclusively vegetarian restaurants I’ve endured are stuck in a 1970s hippy/student world of stir-fries, roasted vegetable flans and bean burgers. Which is a rather long way of saying that I had limited expectations of the meal awaiting us at the Painted Elephant. It was a foreboding born of bitter experience, rather than merely prejudice. Though I confess prejudice played a part too. 

On a dank and gusty November weeknight, this tiny room, tucked behind Newcastle Library, gave us a cheery and homely welcome. The painted elephant itself is purple, adorning a wall next to a giant blackboard displaying the entire, short menu.  

The interior is lit by a criss-cross of fairy lights and furniture is functionally wooden, the tables decorated with candles and autumn squash. I counted only 14 seats; if you want to eat here, you should book. 

I also noticed that the blackboard was covered in the wipe-marks of deleted dishes; it looked like a list that changed regularly, which is always a good sign. 

Our meal got off to a disappointing start, or, to be precise, a disappointing starter. A small pot of jalapeño hummus had a bit of poke but wasn’t especially smooth and could have used more tahini, lemon and garlic. The accompanying pita bread was lifeless, and tasted distinctly bought-in. 

On the other hand, Mrs Diner’s dish of mooli “scallops” was excellent. Cooked until just tender, this japanese radish tasted powerfully of itself, was nicely seasoned with what looked like a Togarishi spice mix and came with coriander oil, sliced raw radishes and pomegranate seeds. The result, in taste and look, was bright and uplifting. 

My main course of cauliflower “steak” comprised a pair of brassica cross-sections that had been crusted in blitzed herbs before being treated to a light charring, sat on a mound of fluffy rice and scattered with scallions. Again, the vegetable was barely cooked, keeping it crunchy and flavour-packed. This is probably not how your granny cooks her veg (unless you’re lucky enough to have a chef for a granny), but I’ll take bite over bland any day. 

Best of all was the jug of Thai-inspired sauce that I liberally doused my plate with, so subtle and well balanced it could have performed a tight-rope act. I asked what it contained, and back came a hand-written list of ingredients including tamarind and orange zest alongside a host of Thai staples. This was impressive. 

Mrs Diner’s beetroot and puy lentil burger was also well cooked, full of flavour and with a nice crunch from some sort of seed or nut lurking within it. It was a shame about the bog-standard roll; I politely suggest that The Painted Elephant might consider upgrading its bread supplier. 

If I had been slightly apprehensive about this meal, Mrs Diner, a dedicated carnivore, had been outright, and loudly, pessimistic. 

By the time she was seeing off the remnants of a rich chocolate brownie in which the inclusion of chilli had been managed to perfection, she was voicing enthusiastic and surprised approval. 

Also excellent was my spiced apple cake, accompanied with a powerfully sweet ice-cream, with a crumbly texture derived from coconut milk rather than dairy, and all the more delicious for that. 

There is no alcohol licence, but you can bring your own wine for £1 a head. What you shouldn’t bring are your credit cards, as they only take cash, but you won’t need very much of that: our bill, with a couple of soft drinks, came to just £34. Service was as cheery and warm as the room. 

The Painted Elephant is owned and run by a young couple who on their website openly confess to having started with little catering experience. The important thing is that one of them can really cook, and does so with a natural deftness of touch that makes you suspect the food here may get even better over time. It is really refreshing to find a place in Newcastle cooking interesting vegetable dishes that maximise, rather than obliterate the flavours of the raw product. We have plenty of vegetarian friends and now we have somewhere to recommend where they can order with impunity. Four stars for a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

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