Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

I feel like Tynemouth has been kept a secret from people like me. That if word got around the area would be ruined by precious souls inflicting their rushed way of life on the locals, bringing down the community with bad habits. The truth is they do things differently up here. They do life better. They have not one, but two beaches, separated by castle ruins straight out of a movie scene and a pier that requires a full turn of the head to track from shore to lighthouse. There is no immediate rush to get anywhere, and everyone wants to help: from the woman in the lunchtime queue who advised on what to order, to the man who started off giving us directions and ended up advising on how to avoid a parking charge. The people are better here, untainted by the rat race that engulfs the bigger cities, unharmed by the obsession that status is everything. On the morning we arrive in Tynemouth it is bathed in pure sunlight. The picturesque village is quietly heaving with those transitioning from coffee shop to pub terrace, hell bent on making the most of an unusually warm Monday in May. We pass these on the way to the steep steps which lead down to King Edward’s Bay. We have lunch to eat.

Riley’s Fish Shack is just that: a wooden hut sat off-centre on the beach. It’s a tiny place with a huge reputation. Two tables inside protected by sliding glass doors, and seating for maybe ten more on wooden stools if the weather holds up. We get there early, order wine and wait for the fish to arrive. It is noon by the time that we can order, by which point the queue is fifty deep. Clearly they have an audience. We order chilli fish empanadas, a small portion of langoustines, monkfish kebab, and turbot with garlic butter. Two more glasses of wine and pay the total of £80.00. The cheapest item is just under a fiver, the most expensive is £26. As ever, we massively overestimate our eating potential.

Simply put, it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent years. Maybe it is the terroir; the shining sun and the North sea slowly rippling onto the sand. Or maybe it is that the fish is supremely fresh, cooked to a nacre either directly over flames or in the pizza oven. From the pizza oven comes chilli fish empanadas, a kind of pasty encased in pizza dough. The casing is robust; tightly crimped like the crowd at an 80’s tribute night which works the jaw like a pill at a 90’s rave. The filling is an unidentifiable white fish (I’m taking a punt at coley) spun with veg and plenty of spice. At £4.80 it would make a very nice office lunch provided you were happy to join the queue which was 80 strong at this point.  A small portion of langoustines is a more primal affair that requires a good grip and hand wipes. No wonder my girlfriend was so good at it. Free the meat from the shell and dredge through a garlicky mayonaise. Repeat process. Produce this good requires minimal intervention.

And then they pulled out the big guns. Turbot is cooked on the bone, which anyone with any sense will tell you is the best way to cook turbot. It comes drenched with brown butter flavoured with garlic. You know it is going to taste great just by looking at it. It does. We communicate only in raised eyebrows and smiles. If anything the monkfish is even better, the meat almost delicate in texture and with a hint of char from the grill. It is served on flatbread coated in a spiced potato puree, with tamarind, spinach, fresh chilli, raita, and bhel puri. It demands to be torn up, folded, and eaten in one. For once I’m not happy about sharing – finding an excuse to travel to the extremities for food like this is the very reason I started this blog. Both of these are served with blackened potatoes that have seen both parts of the grills flame. There is a salad of sorts that we don’t really touch, and a sourdough stick that Claire waxes lyrical about for the rest of the day. We both hum of garlic. Neither of us care.

Afterwards we walk back into town, contemplate walking down to the lighthouse, and then decide that a trip to the nearby Gareth James is far more sensible. It is there we eat the most incredible chocolates over coffee whilst looking at properties, dreaming about a life where Riley’s is within easy reach. I’d seen it on a programe with Michel Roux Jr, another with Rick Stein, and read about it in The Observer. I’ve always wondered if fish cooked over a bit of wood and a flaming grill could be that good. It is. It really is. Riley’s Fish Shack is a little bit of perfection in the most idyllic location. Life really doesn’t get any more rewarding.


Peace and Loaf, Newcastle

It was Masterchef The Professionals that drew my attention to chef Dave Coulson. I like Masterchef The Professionals for numerous reasons. First and foremost it doesn’t contain John Torode, and it has marginally less Greg Wallace which, like those useless Panda bears (who, like Wallace, also chew with their mouth open and mostly do nothing), is still too much but is at least an improvement. The cooking is at least 30% better than the best of the standard show and approximately four million times better than the celebrity version, which does nothing other than shatter my dreams of semi-famous pop stars who gave me semis in my teenage years. It features Monica Galetti and her excellent scowl, though I preferred it in the early years when they had to earn the right to cook for her then boss, Michel Roux Jr, as opposed to now when they get handed open-palmed to Marcus Waring. Dave Coulson was on screen in those early days, impressing Galetti and winning over Roux Jr. I remember him clearly: shy, a little awkward, with a dry wit underpinned by that humbleness which eludes us in the lower end of the UK. Moreover I remember his cooking: his refined take on the flavours of a chicken pie, or the strong nod to Asian flavours. He made the final and I made a promise to myself to get to his restaurant.

We finally get around to this on a little road trip around the North East where his restaurant, Peace and Loaf, would be our first stop. It can be found on a quiet row of shops in Jesmond, the black frontage hiding a large space behind two sets of doors of which opposing sides open to confuse morons like me. Inside the kitchen pass sits on the middle of three floors, with the chef’s beard and tattoos visible at all times from our elevated position. His style of cooking reminds me of a certain David Everitt-Matthias, albeit with less precision in the presentation: there is an earnestness to the way he delivers an ingredient, a dedication to it’s surroundings, and he likes that challenging mix of land and water on the plate.

From the snacks that arrive we know that the trip is worth it. Crab cakes with sriracha mayonnaise are dense and spicy, a tomato loaf has a herbacous balsamic dip, and shards of linseed cracker with apple puree are well mannered if a little underwhelming. Best are cubes of fried corned beef, fatty and unctous, with a little brown sauce, that would be the first of many nods to the food of the North. The next would be a starter of parmo – traditionally a teeside dish of battered chicken cutlet with tomato sauce and melted cheese – reworked here to have octopus as the main protein. It has no right to work to work, yet it does; the tenticle was tender, the batter light. Underneath was a kind of seafood ragu not dissamilar to the one we had two weeks prior at Le Gavroche. The addition of parmesan isn’t too wild when you think about it; lobster stands up to it with thermidore, why shouldn’t octopus? Anyhow, it was very nice and managed to make the other starter of artichokes in various forms look a little boring in comparison. It had tiny forgivable flaws; the veloute is a little heavy on salt, and they make some of the crisp elements a little soggy, though it works, mostly due to the gloaming black garlic at the base of the bowl that sucks in the lighter, earthier bits. Bao buns then arrive. We never order bao buns, but it’s okay because everyone else is getting them. They are good bao buns, light and delicate, filled with braised duck that threatens to exit side door and ruin my shirt. I could eat a lot of these. Yes, I am fully aware that it’s a little batshit crazy to serve a Tawainese street snack in between the starter and main, but then I suppose we’ve just eaten battered octopus with cheese, and still have lamb with kippers to come.

I don’t enjoy that lamb with kipper dish. It suffers from an attention deficit and is loaded with a lengthy list of ingredients that crash into one another at high speed. The lamb is really well cooked, and I’d have probably enjoyed it with the red peppers and the gastrique sauce made from the same vegetable. I liked the goats cheese bonbon, and the little bit of kipper I tried with the lamb made a little sense. Goats cheese with kipper is just plain unpleasant, and the cubes of falafel are too granular and have absorbed a faint fishiness. It’s too much. There is also a lot going on with a monkfish, though this time the various bits bleed into one coherent chorus. The curls of fish are beautifully cooked, with nuggests of cheek in a light batter. There are long straggly bits of carrot, whole roasted carrots and a carrot puree. There is a smear of what I think is tamarind, paneer, and a side of the most addictive dhaal topped with deep fried chilli and onion. What holds it together is the sauce, which is buttery, rich and lightly spiced. It’s busy but everything is running in the same direction. It is a very good bit of cooking. Claire orders a side of salt and pepper chips, which are new to me because I grew up in a cosmopolitan city where Chinese takeaways and chip shops are allowed to exist separately. They are a revelation; the chips snap in the right places, the soft tangle of onion, pepper, and chilli familiar from fried chicken or squid.

Dessert is an easy option. All of them, which the French like to call an assiette and Claire now thinks should be a mandatory option everywhere we eat. I’ll ignore the fact that the four desserts are served on a plank of wood and focus on how good they were to eat. The skill is obvious; they all riff on familar flavours and have a firm finger on the pulse for texture. A take on tiramisu is a boozy affair, as is one that has rum fluid gels with pineapple and coconut sorbet. The sandwich of rhubarb and custard is too sweet, though I am amazed by the wizardry that is the cream that tastes of puff pastry. Best is a chocolate mousse with cherry sorbet and pretzel, the salt level intensifying the flavours in a way I wasn’t expecting. All four of these are just £20: little wonder the table next to us are trying to bargain with us for some of it.

Service is excellent, and three glasses of wine leaves us with a bill of £130 to pay before we get in the car and drive north to our next destination. One dish aside I really enjoyed Peace and Loaf, with its playfulness and feet firmly in its surroundings. As we leave I head over to the pass to personally thank the chef. He smiles and asks me to tell all of my friends about it. Don’t worry about that Chef, I’ve got that bit covered and then some.