Bistro 46, 46 Brentwood Avenue, Newcastle NE2 3DH (0191 281 8081). Starters £6.95-£8.95, mains £15.95-£24.95, desserts £5.95-£7.95, wines from £18.50
Max Gott always bags his target, at least eventually. For the table, it’s the pheasants, partridge and deer he shoots then serves at his compact bistro on a suburban shopping parade in Newcastle. In this case, it’s also me. When I looked back through my inbox, I found at least half a dozen frothing email threads initiated by Max over two years. Please, chefs, don’t be like Max. Don’t inundate me with needy messages. Just send me a simple, cleanly written menu, which is short on adjectives and big on intent. Leave it at that. Max only got away with sending me all the additional messages because of a certain self-deprecating charm. He kept apologising while also not shutting up, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.
He was trying to do something a little different, he said: serving game he’d shot himself on the hills of Northumberland without banging on about it on the menu, in case that made those people who don’t like to be reminded that meat comes from living things, all frothy and uncomfortable. There was a bit of foraging, too, he said, but he didn’t bang on about that either, because he knew it could be annoying. In his restaurant, he said, it was all about the daily specials. And so, if I ever happened to be passing, might I?
Two years on, I have. Some people find the idea of shooting game reprehensible. Where it’s merely for sport I agree. Shooting living things as a way, say, of compensating for small genitalia is sad. But if you have a problem with game being shot solely for the table, then stop reading now. Go to the gardening column. You’ll be happier there, and I don’t want you to be sad on a Sunday morning. The rest of you, stay.
Gott really is trying to do something a little different. Italy, Spain and France are full of restaurants like this, cheerily throwing on to the table whatever used to wander about outside; the UK, not so much. Where they do exist here, they tend to be self-conscious country pubs, with the whiff of dung on the doorstep. Bistro 46 is in Jesmond, where students and academics cluster together for warmth. From the outside it looks like the kind of place that should be knocking out beetroot and goat’s cheese salads, steaks and crème brûlées. On the inside it looks like that, too, save for a boar’s head on one wall and a shotgun high on the other.
But instead of the beetroot thing, there are pheasant bonbons: spiced and seasoned balls of minced loveliness, lightly breaded and deep fried, and served on a mess of burnt leeks with, on the top, finely shredded puffball. Gott has a way with pheasant. He manages to make it taste of something. Too many cooks don’t. Unless it’s been hung for so long there are maggots setting up home in its arse and picking out Ikea furniture for the living room, it’s frankly rather bland. And if it is hung for that long, it tastes only of autopsy and death.
He pulls off the same trick in a special of a pheasant scotch egg, the minced bird spun through with wholegrain mustard. The yolk is at that perfect place between set and running. On the side is some of his mum’s fruity chutney. Partridge breast comes sliced alongside chorizo, new potatoes and a Jerusalem artichoke purée, the whole dressed with crisped greens and a dribble of meaty jus, plus deep-fried shredded potato. They like a bit of detail at Bistro 46.
Mostly what they like is feeding people. The kitchen seems incapable of pronouncing the words “small portions” let alone serving them. Like the Great Wall of China, these are dishes that would be visible from space. From the all-important specials board there is a heaving dish of “Kerr honey-glazed short rib, artichoke and hand-cut chips”. Later, Gott emails again to tell me: “Kerr is the guy who I stalk with, but who also keeps bees.” He emails once more to tell me that they get their vegetables in large volume and use them all up, hence a lot of artichoke at the moment, puréed, roasted and so on. He emails a third time to say he used to put all this information on his menu “but it was a longer read than my dissertation”. Obviously, I want him to stop typing but, despite myself, I’m rather enjoying the narrative.
We have venison, deep rosy slices of the stuff, with impeccable mash, a few roasted veg, some greens and a deep, luscious cep sauce. Oh, and another pheasant bonbons, just because. It comes with a knife fashioned from a deer antler, which came in turn from an animal that made it on to the plate. Nothing goes to waste. We are also given a glass of cloudy cider made from apples scrumped from the streets of Jesmond, because all proper trees are theft. It’s crisp and dry and delicious.
The instinct to largesse doesn’t always work. A side dish of “loaded fries” is advertised as coming with braised pheasant – there really is an awful lot of pheasant around at the moment – with parmesan and chives. The fries have gone soggy under the thick plug of cheese and ground meat. Charred sprouts with pancetta are much better. Not that we finish them. We are but two men, and there’s food on this table for four. That’s how they roll in Newcastle. Judge them, not me.
Desserts are a friendly bayonet pointed at the chest, demanding cheery surrender. If you wanted something light and refreshing, you’re in the wrong room. There’s a crumble made with more scrumped apples, with the obligatory frothy custard, and a very fudgy brownie in a pond of caramel sauce, with a big thick quenelle of cream. Look, it’s cold outside.
It took me a while to get to Bistro 46, but I’m very pleased I made it. From everything I’ve described you could conclude it’s distinguished by the whole field to fork thing, and obviously there is that. But much more important than any of the ingredient-sourcing, is the mood. This is a small restaurant with heart. It’s run by a group of enthusiasts who are determined to win over their customers by knocking out plate after plate of the things they love. It’s both utterly mad and completely delightful.
The Game Bird at London’s Stafford Hotel is much grander than Bistro 46, but they share an interest. The British grill room menu – there’s that fine pea and ham soup, London Particular to start, with the promise of steamed steak and ale suet pudding to follow – also has a game section. It could be roast pigeon, or a whole stuffed partridge with bread sauce and game chips (thestaffordlondon.com).
Thackeray’s in Tunbridge Wells is running a five course ‘honesty menu’ through until March, which will be available to 20 diners from Tuesday to Friday evening. Customers will be asked to pay what they think the meal was worth. According to owner and executive head chef Richard Phillips the team ‘wanted to try something truly innovative in 2020. This definitely isn’t a test. It’s a treat.’ The menu will change nightly (thackerays-restaurant.co.uk).
Help is at hand if you’re thinking of kicking the booze this month: BrewDog has announced the launch of its first ‘alcohol free’ bar, on London’s Old Street. It will stock 15 low or 0% abv craft beers. They insist it’s not a pop-up but ‘a pilot concept bar’. Which is a phrase the English language has been waiting for (brewdog.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/jan/12/bistro-46-newcastle-a-small-restaurant-with-heart-game