We’re rather lucky here at Luxe HQ – we’re given the opportunity to sample great food all the time. Menu launch parties, sneak-peek taste tests and masterclasses, VIP access to restaurant openings and more mean we’re out and about all over the region month to month, putting our tastebuds to the test, trying new dishes and discovering new and upcoming places to tell you, our dear readers, all about.
However, once in a while, the chance to try something completely different – a truly unique and memorable foodie experience – comes about – and it has us so bowled over, we can’t help but feeling like the luckiest team of food-lovers in the North East.
And it comes from the guys behind The Experimental Diner (formally Off The Wall Events). Together, they’ve joined forces with some of the region’s best-loved and most creative chefs to create a fresh, new dining concept, designed to give food-lovers and avid eat-outers a culinary experience with a difference – and a one they won’t forget in a hurry.
Their new venture involves chefs taking to a pop-up table in a number of unusual, whimsical venues all over town – castles, rooftops, historic landmarks, even your own back garden – to cook for a select number of lucky diners, showcasing their skills and proving they have what it takes to create show-stopping food outside of the restaurant kitchen – and their comfort zone.
They begin this month – and the first took place at Alderman Fenwick’s House in Newcastle city centre. Dating back to the latter part of the 17th Century, the listed building has been lovingly restored by the folk at The Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust – and the result is a breathtaking, though wobbly-staired, masterpiece of a venue, boasting tons of beautiful, ornate original features and stacks of charm from top to bottom.
We were among the guests and, like most of them, we never knew of its existence before our visit – but fell in love with its oldy-worldy good looks and history (find out more here) from the get go. Turns out, it’s played a significant role in the Toon’s history, serving as a private residence, political club and coaching inn over the centuries.
Taking to the stage within this gorgeous build were Peace and Loaf’s junior sous chefs, Simon Whitehead and Hugo Embleton-Black, who, on their night off away from Jesmond, were more than happy to get stuck in and cook for us all, despite having nothing more than a basic, camper-like oven with one or two suspicious-looking hobs to work with.
But, in true Peace and Loaf form, the food didn’t disappoint – in fact it stood out as some of the best we’d had in ages. Once seated, surrounded by twinkly candlelight and great company in what used to be one of Alderman Fenwick’s drawing rooms, we were treated to six super courses – canapés, starters, a surprise course, mains, dessert and a little something-something to finish things off.
The cooking was done behind-the-scenes, but most of the plate-prepping, garnishing and preening was done live before our eyes, making for a truly unique and exciting dining experience.
We’d been given an inkling as to what to expect flavour-wise on the night, but the fun was watching the chefs adding bits and bobs – a slick of vodka gel, a sprinkling of vegetable ‘ash’ or a dash of herb-infused oil – before the plates landed under our noses, wondering what we’d be getting next.
Canapés were squid ink macaroons, light and airy with a slight salty tang, but with a deliciously smoky aftertaste that reminded us of summer BBQs at the coast. Pickled radish added sweetness, while a creamy spoonful of whipped beef dripping, spread on crusty handmade sourdough, and mini ham hock and peas pudding won most over.
The starter of delicate slithers of Norwegian skrei cod, dusted in locally-made spices, lemon and elderflower and vodka gels, plenty of cucumber and other greens and a topping of ‘vegetable ash’ (the guys often use odd, unwanted ends of veggies, burn them up and sprinkle them over dishes to add flavour) perked everyone up – it was like spring on a plate. Light, zingy, zippy, refreshing… what more can we say. It was gobbled up in minutes.
The ‘surprise’ course added the fun-factor – a warm brioche bun with pear parfait and chutney, crispy chicken skin (much more sophisticated than it sounds – trust us) and parmesan crisps. We were encouraged by the chefs to dive right in and eat it with our hands – and most (us included) obliged with glee. The mousse-y parfait mixed with the fluffiness and sweetness of the brioche made for a lot of eye-rolling – but only in the good way. A sweet-and-savoury trick-and-treat that went down a storm.
For mains, it was a plate of baby-pink hanger of beef, lovely and charred on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth tender elsewhere, on a bed of oozy pearl barley and wild rice risotto with braised cabbage, leeks and a good splash of wild garlic oil, washed down with a glass or two of good-quality red for those not driving.
Compared to the other courses, this one was relatively simple, but it the flavours married brilliantly. Meat and veg will always be a winning, timeless combo, but the Peace and Loaf masters always manage to bring new life to their food – and we loved the added element of the barley risotto. Still as creamy and comforting as your standard risotto, but with a little more bite and earthiness. Healthier, too, though conversation never once turned to calories on this occasion. And rightly so.
The guys wrapped things up with a show-off dessert – a bowlful of chocolatey ganache, tonka bean ice cream and honeycomb. The best part, we think, was the dark chocolate rubble found buried underneath the scoops of ice cream – laced in ‘space dust’ that crackled and popped in the mouth with each mouthful. All very Heston Blumenthal, but everyone loved it, turning to the person next to them, quite literally open-mouthed, in delight. It made you feel like a kid again.
After a few heart-shaped, whiskey-filled choccies, the ending came to a close – and we all stumbled out Alderman’s doors with full bellies and great big grins – as we’re sure you will too, if you’re lucky enough to bag yourselves a seat at the next event.
“We set up and ran last year’s Dine by the Tyne event and although we knew it would attract attention, it was a massive success,” says Lauren McKirdy, hospitality director at The Experimental Diner. “It soon inspired us to come up with new ideas and one of those was this unique dining concept.”
“We’re looking to bring an intimate dining experience to places you would never think would be possible – we have plans for places like floating barges and foots of monuments, and we really want to combine great North East cuisine with interesting venues to show off the best the area has to offer.”
We’ll keep you posted with updates from the Experimental Diner team about future events, but in the meantime, enjoy the quick snaps we took on the night. Oh, and perhaps book up for a meal at Peace and Loaf (if you haven’t dined there already) while you’re at it. The chefs’ talents know no bounds. Bravo to Simon and Hugo for putting on such a tasty show.