Value For Money ✪✪✪✪
Pandemic friendly? (Ease of procurement, social distancing etc) ✪✪✪✪
Newcastle upon Tyne
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I don’t know about you but I reckon, what with one thing and another, that the warm, flaky embrace of pastry and pies is pretty much what we all need right now. Another lockdown beckons, but this time with the added bonus of dark nights, a fractious political scene and just the general knackeringness of it all. If that doesn’t make you want to reach for the nearest steaming carb-bomb then yours is a stronger soul than mine.
I’m a bit surprised that Greggs’ share price hasn’t sky-rocketed during 2020, actually. I’d have thought that the existential grimness this annus miserabilis has wreaked would have had us all upping our intake of tepid beige slices, but then what little I know about food dwarfs what I know about economics. Anyway, I'm not here to slag off Greggs, not by a long shot. What I would like to do is sing the praises of the high-end alternative who are churning out some god-tier baked things which certainly lifted my mood over the weekend that Boris - eventually - stood up at the lectern and shut everything down all over again.
David Kennedy is a chef whose food I’ve enjoyed eating in and around Newcastle for almost as long as I can remember. From the original Cafe 21, to his own mini-empire of Black Door restaurants, to the River Café on the Fish Quay, and latterly stints with Ladhar Group and again with 21 Hospitality Group he has been helping to drive up the standards of what one might reasonably expect from a meal out round here for a good chunk of time. And now he’s teamed up with Murray Rhind, himself a veteran of places like Café Royal and, most recently, 31 the Quay, and they’re baking stuff and it’s all basically brilliant.
On a suitably inclement Saturday morning, under dingy, leaking skies, we trundled through town and up West Road, parking opposite Wingrove Road before donning face masks and jogging into The Beacon to avoid the deluge. Sanitised and scanned, we made our way to the café from where Kennedy and fellow 21 Group stalwart Glen Robson were dishing out a sensational range of breads, pies, bakes and cakes to shove in your face immediately or take home and consume at your leisure. We decided to invest heavily, and make a full day of doing the latter.
A ham and pease pudding pie, encased in what I think was a hot water crust, was beautiful inside and out. Strands of pig, well seasoned split peas, root veg and maybe a touch of mustard: first rate stuff. A steak bake contained healthy chunks of prime-tasting cow in a gutsy gravy that had gravitas and poise, perked up by the inclusion of significant quantities of green peppercorns.
A sausage roll of “bashed roots” was a less obvious triumph, the exterior as bronzed and glossy as a presidential candidate, the filling perked up with toasted walnuts and an assertive approach to spicing. Best of the lot, however, was a trip back to the 1980s in savoury format, in the shape of a mushroom vol au vent. Antonin Carême himself would have been happy with a pastry case as light and as flaky as this; it crumpled away to a buttery nothing on contact, revealing its innards of creamed wild mushrooms and tarragon. Just glorious.
Puddings weren’t half bad either. An almond croissant was just a small amount of butter, a little almond paste and a smidge of baking time short of total perfection, but it was still worth every one of its many, many calories.
A toffee apple thing was full of excellent frangipane and none the worse for that, and a millionaires shortbread featured a fabulous biscuit base, if just a little more of it, and a little less caramel, than I might have liked. Best of what we tried was a passion fruit meringue pie which sadly didn’t make the photo shoot on account of getting squidged on the car ride home. Be assured nonetheless, it was a zippy, creamy wodge of excellence.
For dinner we had a North Shields fish pie, which I already knew would be outstanding as I’m sure I’ve eaten something similar in at least two of Kennedy's previous restaurants. A stint in the oven and decadent, rich crests of saffron flecked mash emerged, giving way to generous chunks of salmon, something - presumably haddock - smoky, and another white fish, all bound in a white sauce of unusual depth and heft. The very best fish pies are a sort of grown-up version of baby food, softness upon soft, an exception to the usual rule that says a dish requires textural contrast. This was one of the very best fish pies. What a dish. What a day!
For now, you can catch this stuff, and way, way more, every Saturday at The Beacon. Seriously, get yourself down there and stock up. But there are further plans afoot. Kennedy and Rhind are taking over a certain Jesmond ex-pizzeria, initially as a lockdown-friendly bakery takeaway, but with plans to do a good deal more than that with it once prevailing conditions allow.
You might think 5 stars for food for pies and pasties needs some justification. Firstly, they’re my stars and I’ll dish them out as I see fit, alright? Secondly, I’m not kidding, this was some of the best baked stuff I’ve had in recent memory. But thirdly, and maybe most importantly, zenith level food you can takeaway and heat up at home is absolutely what we all need right now. Or at least I think so. It completely cheered up my weekend. Kennedy and Rhind aren’t just punting food here, they’re providing pleasure, sweet buttery pleasure. It’s an important public service, in an egg-washed package, and could scarcely be more necessary.