125 Jesmond Road
Newcastle upon Tyne
0191 239 9566
Gluten free options? TBC
Where to start with this one? Tell you what, let’s start at the bottom and talk about the toilets.
I had entered the Punch Bowl in a hurry, a meandering pre-dinner walk through Jesmond Dene having rendered me in fairly urgent need, if you get my drift. I clocked that the loos were where I remembered from the olden days, before this place had been closed and reborn. I pushed on the door of the solitary cubicle and was relieved to find it vacant. It wasn’t until I rose from the facility that I found I was facing a worrying set of choices.
A panel attached to the side of the toilet had a series of buttons on it, offering either rear or front oscillation, “massage”, “dry” or “De-odor/self clean”. Other buttons invited me one to adjust the water pressure and/or the nozzle position. I didn’t see a nozzle. What nozzle? What fresh hell was this? Why were lights flashing? Did I do something wrong? It dawned on me: this must be one of those fancy Japanese-style bogs. What the…?
Well, call me a prude, but I’m not about to have my nether regions hosed down by a machine immediately prior to meeting a friend. I got out of there before the thing did something I wouldn’t forgive it for, and retreated to the safety of the bar.
I’d love to know what percentage of the clientele are making fulsome use of those facilities. Or perhaps I wouldn’t. Either way, that loo is a good example of what seems to be the vibe from the still-fairly-newly-reopened Punch Bowl Hotel: let’s do as many things as possible that people will notice, talk about and remember.
There’s a cinema bit, live music, vermouth on tap, and, to keep you in the lavatorial mood, sections of the menu called “Your Little Shites” (kids food) and “Vegan Arseholes” (vegan food). There’s a cracking selection of beers (obvs) and wine (not so obvs), food for dogs and cured meat from Borough Market. Got all that? It’s almost an amazing pub. Almost, because the food, at least when we went, was definitely not so memorable.
Case in point: Adjarian Khachipuri is a (currently) trendy Georgian flatbread with a stuffed cheese crust, loads of cheese in the middle into which you crack an egg and a heart attack's worth of butter a minute or two before removing from the oven. Except this version had no cheesy crust, lifeless dough, scant cheese on top and a way overcooked egg. It’s meant to be decadent; this was depressing. “Google it!” the menu advises. It tasted like the kitchen had done just that, but skipped the bit that tells them how to actually cook it.
"Super Reuben fritters" were better, having the flavours of Reuben encased within a crumb shell. The tang of mustard and sauerkraut was welcome, although some more pastrami in there would have been a good thing.
I can’t be so enthusiastic about some croquettes that were just too big and unwieldy and nowhere near delicious enough to justify the calories. Their bechamel was underseasoned and dull, and the saucisson they allegedly contained, despite being “award-winning”, hadn’t given much of itself to the actual flavour.
I hadn’t expected cheeseburger egg rolls to be deep fried. Their arrival was the exact point at which I realised we may not have ordered very wisely. Nevertheless, they were the best thing we had: basically spring rolls full of juicy nubbins of beef, gooey cheese, with a decent Russian dressing in which to dip them. Perhaps this dressing would have been a better accompaniment to the Reuben fritters rather than the mustard and mayo dip (Russian is the traditional Reuben accompaniment, after all).
Mac and cheese on the other hand, was rubbish. Wrong pasta (far too big), dry, barely any cheese sauce, underseasoned and the chestnut mushrooms it contained tasted weirdly of almost nothing.
My main course was called “Frank’s buttermilk chicken biscuit”. Frank ought to know that the fries they put with it were awful, a bunch of scrappy, scraggly also-rans, as if the kitchen had been just about to run out. Fried chicken should be about as comforting and homely as food gets; this tasted like it was about to kick me out. The flesh was insufficiently moist and the crust nowhere near crisp enough. The “biscuits” that came with it were stodgy, dry and inept. Maybe Frank needs a cooking course, or a copy of Better Googling For Chefs.
Service was a bit haphazard too. They had no record of my booking, although there was plenty of tablespace, so no big deal. A waitress said there were no puddings. I pointed to a leaflet on the table offering a number of sweet pies. She gave the impression of never having seen it before. The bar told me they’d all run out. Oh well. While there, I got a look in the kitchen. Well-organised serenity it was not. It looked like they’d just struggled through a hammering on a bank holiday, not a bog-standard weekday evening.
In spite of all this, I’d still highly recommend you visit the Punch Bowl for drinks. It’s great that Frank and Bird (ah, maybe that was the Frank?), who also run the ever-popular Brandling Villa, have taken over the place and they’ve done a really fine job of the fit-out. I particularly liked the green tiling that reminded me a bit of the Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter, and the blue star outside the front door that reminded me of being able to smell the Scottish and Newcastle brewery on a match day.
I really admire that this company is doing a whole variety of fun stuff in this toughest of sectors and that it appears, from the outside at least, to be succeeding. The range of booze is first rate - Almasty for me, an excellent Fiano from Sicilian producer Planeta for the pal, thanks. If you want to eat, however, until they’ve sorted the food offering out, maybe just walk a couple of doors along the road to The Patricia. Before you go, be careful which buttons you press when you’re in the loo.