When you visit a restaurant which has its own concept, you often worry that this might be little more than a gimmick used to mask other shortcomings.
Clearly, however you do it, the food should come first and fortunately, at the North East’s latest venue to attract rave reviews in the national press, that’s definitely the case.
Träkol, part of a small complex built from shipping containers on the Gateshead quayside, describes itself as ‘a fiercely seasonal open-fire kitchen that showcases nose-to-tail cooking’ (träkol means charcoal in Swedish).
‘Our concept is to bring primitive outdoor cooking indoors’, the mantra at the top of the menu adds. ‘We work with great farmers and use only British rare and heritage breeds using Himalayan salt dry-aged meat and dry ageing on the premises’.
It all sounds rather grand, but the simple fact is that everything we ate during our lunch there earlier this month tasted fantastic and it doesn’t cost the earth.
Plus, if you’re a little tired of your burgers, steak and ale pies, pan-fried sea bass and other gastropub staples, then you’re sure to find something a little different here.
What’s more, one of the other elements of the By The River Brew Co set-up is a micro-brewery and taproom, so you are able to pair your meal with one of their own beers, which are served in two-thirds-of-a-pint glasses to enable you to sample a wider choice.
We opted for what they described as their ‘table beer’ which did what was expected and was very good without overpowering any of the food.
The menu contains such an interesting array of options that we decided, especially given it was lunchtime, to get a selection of smaller plates to share, although there are also standard main courses.
The grilled pork jowl with XO slaw (£7.50) – which Jay Rayner in his highly complimentary Observer review described as ‘one of those dishes that you think about when you wake up the next day’ – was indeed superb.
Think the best bits of the flavours of pork belly and scratchings (not the texture) in one mouthful with a crisp outside and soft, tender meat inside.
The flamed surf clams with fermented black beans and chilli (£8.50) were a lovely blend of the salty, soft seafood, the heat of the chilli and a gentle bitterness from the fermented beans.
There was another welcome chilli kick in the spicy sausage-stuffed squid (£7), with the meaty sausage tastily contained inside the soft squid.
Clearly, the meat and fish is crucial in an open-fire kitchen, but it was pleasing to see that there was still attention to detail on the accompaniments.
I don’t think I have had a better or more inventive liver dish than Träkol’s grilled duck liver (£7) with celeriac and hazelnut dukka (an Egyptian dip made from herbs, nuts and spices).
The dish is usually made with duck hearts, which were unavailable on the day, but it still worked extremely well with the liver.
We also had a plate of the house salami (£3.50), some fries (£3) and roasted beetroots with dill, mint and zatar (£3). I really enjoyed the latter with the vegetables cooked so that they retained some texture and didn’t go mushy.
We had eaten well but, after a break, decided we were able to tackle a dessert.
My wife had the peanut, chocolate and salted caramel sundae, while I went for the wood-fired figs, caramelised brioche and truffled mascarpone (both £6).
I particularly enjoyed mine, especially the truffled mascarpone which was a new one on me, although I would have preferred my figs to have been cooked a little longer and therefore slightly softer.
We were impressed with the portions served as the phrase ‘small plates’ can mean an array of things and our food bill including desserts totalling £51.50 was very reasonable.
Next time, I’m going for something from the feasting section: Middle White Pig – half a roast head, 1kg chop, black pudding – anyone?
MAKE A DAY OF IT AND SEE THE REST
Träkol is worth a visit in its own right, but even if you’re the area and don’t fancy a meal, it’s still worth checking out the complex. As well as the restaurant and brewery/taproom, there’s the Backyard Bike Shop, which offers bike servicing while operating as a coffee shop by day and cocktail bar on certain nights, and a street-food market on weekends. The only issue with the restaurant being housed in converted shipping containers is that we found it a little cold. There was a fire burning and it was a chilly day, but it may be worth wearing an extra layer when you visit.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Chargrilled cauliflower steak with shawarma spices......£11
Middle white pork T-bone, grilled broccoli, white miso butter......£16
Barnsley chop, seaweed butter, cockles and sea vegetables......£18
Roasted shellfish & garlic butter......£26
Grilled Cornish mackerel with green peppercorn and lime dressing......£16
400g aged sirloin, smoked marrow bone and fries......£20
Asado lamb, watercress, gem lettuce and fresh curd......£16
Middle White Pig......£40
Ash-crust, salt-baked sea bream......£50
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Value for money......8
Access for disabled......7
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: The food is superb and very well-thought-out at a restaurant which offers something different.
Contact: www.bytheriverbrew.co/trakol or 0191 737 1120