We’ve been in the new food hall at Fenwick, Newcastle for just a couple of minutes and during that time the ever-versatile Rhys McKinnell has managed to wipe down a table, direct a customer to a jar of bilberries and convince me that Fuego’s courgette, apple and monte enebro salad is something I should be eating every day of the week.
And that the well-chosen bottle of primitivo I am clutching in my hand is the perfect cheeky midweek wine (how right he is later proved).
Rhys is the man who has in part been responsible for bringing the all-singing-all-dancing new-look Food Hall to Fenwick in Newcastle. So we owe him a lot.
It is of course a team effort, but as head of food and catering in the region’s flagship department store, he’s been the one juggling food balls in the air for months and months. Planning for the project began two years ago and building work started in the summer.
It has been a big deal but now it’s here, the Food Hall is definitely something to be proud of. It’s going to mean a dent in the wallet of every self-respecting food lover, so be prepared. You will come for a coffee, stop for lunch then return home with a bag filled with treats to cook for supper.
What’s good to see is the chains disappearing (bye, bye Yo Sushi and Pret) to be replaced with home-grown, quality suppliers who are a credit to the North East and who would sit alongside their contemporaries in any city.
The concept of the food hall in a department store isn’t a new one. Fenwick has 14 (yes!) eating places.
“Food halls are trending globally”, says Rhys.
This might be true but for every cool foodie adding a few razor clams and some samphire to their basket, the people at Fenwick know they will have the devoted shopper seeking our their favourite product, snazzy surroundings or no.
Which is why Rhys has been stopped in his tracks by genteel Mrs Gosforth (in her ‘town’ hat), demanding to know where her favourite jar of bilberries has disappeared to in this grand new food hall.
No panic. Staff are obviously on message and prepared for all this: on tap appears a posse of charming staff ready and waiting to guide customers round the shelves, showing off new treats and calming any fears of the new.
“We did a survey when we started the whole process and something like 4,000 people came back with ideas to help us research what was needed and wanted”, says Rhys.
“Wet fish was a thing for example – a fishmonger counter and it’s here.
“There is great nostalgia for Fenwick and a huge amount of goodwill from customers.
“You have to remember that Fenwick had restaurants years and years ago. Once people only ate at hotels and department stores – we have been serving food here from 1936 and our vision is that we continue that, with a beautiful portfolio of independent restaurants that are unique.
“Fenwick is an independent so we are lucky to be able to trade with the people who are the right fit”, says Rhys.
And the people who fit the bill are an impeccable bunch. The name Terry Laybourne has to be there when it comes to quality food in Newcastle. He was a consultant throughout the Food Hall project, working alongside Fenwick Executive Chef Kelly Richardson on the various concepts.
The Food Hall’s new restaurants are Fuego, a Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and restaurant: bakery-patisserie-café Mason + Rye, centred on fine patisserie, artisan baking and Viennoiserie to either eat in or take away.
The dining experience also features two new ventures from Laybourne’s 21 Hospitality group; casual seafood bar and fishmonger Saltwater Fish Company and South East Asian street food restaurant Ko Sai, which is led by Thai-born award-winning head chef Parichat Somsri-Kirby.
Head chef at Saltwater is Chris Eagle, who, up until recently, had been head chef at The Broad Chare on The Quayside, Newcastle. Prior to that he worked at Café 21. Running the front of house and service team is Rachel Elliott, who previously worked at Caffe Vivo.
Fish will be cooked from the counter ensuring a lively, dynamic environment throughout the day. Diners can see and discuss how seafood is prepared and cooked.
Heading the fishmonger is well known chef and fish specialist Ian Lowrey, who worked with Terry Laybourne when he first received his Michelin star in 1992. Prior to that, Terry and Ian worked together at the renowned Fisherman’s Lodge in Jesmond Dene.
Depending on the season and daily catches, menu choices will include freshly prepared fish, oysters from different beds, French-style fruits de mer platters, salt and pepper squid, seafood cocktail, crab sandwiches and salads. A fish-focused wine list will accompany the menu.
Terry Laybourne explained: “Our chefs will work hand in hand with the fishmonger, taking a ‘we cook what we sell, we sell what we cook’ approach. Fish is seasonal so both our fishmonger and menu will be constantly on the move, reflecting the rhythm of the season.
“We have brought together a skilled and experienced team to select the best of seasonal seafood and go wherever it takes to find the best. Our fishmonger will ensure we consistently offer the finest, highest quality seafood that comes from the fabulous larder off the North East coastline as well as other ports around the UK.
The refreshed delicatessen department features an array of renowned brands from across the world paired with the very best local produce, including a number of products which are exclusive to Fenwick in the region.
Indian cuisine lovers can visit Rafi’s Spicebox concession for bespoke curry packs made to order and health food addicts can choose from fresh juices, organic and non-processed food at The Naked Deli outlet.
The butchery counter features produce from the Blagdon Farm Shop team with excellent aged beef and prepared game among the offerings.
The revamped confectionery department now features specialist chocolatiers from around the world and from closer to home, visitors will discover artisan roasters Ouseburn Coffee Company.
The new look Fenwick Wine Room, adjacent to the Wine Bar, features an innovative Enomatic wine dispensing system, the first one in the region.
This is great fun for wine-lovers. You can load up a credit-card-style ‘ticket’ which you then use to buy tasters of specially-chosen wines.
There will be a rotating selection of new wines roughly every fortnight and the idea is that customers can have a small taster of wines they might not normally try, encouraging them to experiment in a sociable fun way. The Enomatic section is alongside the tapas-counter at Fuego, bringing a new and fun aspect to eating and drinking and already it’s clear that Fuego has become something of an ‘in’ place to head after work.
“Our vision was to create an exceptional dining and retail experience in the heart of Newcastle and we feel we’ve achieved just that. We’re looking forward to hearing our customers’ thoughts on the new space as we begin the countdown to Christmas”, says Rhys.
“There is something for everyone – come in and buy something special for a dinner party on Saturday or know that you can buy your favourite Ringtons tea.
“We set out to make sure that if you come to buy a piece of beef to cook a recipe then you will be able to get everything else you need – every ingredient, so it’s a complete shopping experience”, says Rhys.
At the same time, the bar-dining experience had to be right too.
“There is an appetite for quality and people are prepared to pay for quality. People will come for champagne and oysters and we are pleased to be able to offer it. There is a great interest in world food and in a food hall that has some authenticity. Fine, fresh ingredients, the best of local produce and the knowledge that goes with them.”
The project was developed by London-based agency CADA Design, which aimed for a warm, contemporary space encompassing a series of unique destinations for shopping and dining.
The patisserie is more ‘sassy’ than a tea-room and other stand-out features include Fuego’s striking wood stone oven, the theatre kitchen at Mason + Rye plus the impressive floor to ceiling drinks display in the Wine Room.
Says Rhys; “we’ve spent two years ‘curating’ everything that is sold in the Food Hall and we hope that we have made it the complete shopping experience.”
Things we love about Fenwick Food Hall
The try, sip, buy simplicity of the Enomatic credit-card wine dispenser – load your card and then load your glass and enter a whole new world of ‘must-try’ varieties.
Happy hour oysters for £1 a shuck at Saltwater Fish Co, 3-5pm. Think of it as afternoon brain food.
A punchy flat white from the artisan Ouseburn Coffee Co and cool chairs to sip it at (make it your new workspace!)
A get-moving in the morning fresh-as-can-be smoothie from local heroes Naked Deli
A platter of lusciously creamy 24-month aged Jamon Iberico de Bellota at the counter in Fuego. And a plate of padron peppers.
Bring home your own bacon with a home-smoking kit
Chocolate lovers, your time is now. Artisan du Chocolat brings us sea salted caramel truffles.
Where else can you buy a whole frame of honeycomb?
Utterly authentic Thai noodles, street food and dishes at Ko Sai, inspired by the recipes of chef Parichat’s mother.