Once in a while I eat at a place that just blows me away, I leave feeling so incredibly satisfied. I just can’t wait to blog about it. It’s been a while since I felt like that to be honest but this was undoubtedly one of those places. I don’t know if it was just the sheer uniqueness of their dishes, the fact that I was in an amazing mood because I’d just bought the most ridiculous array of nutella stuffed pastries, biscuits and macaroons at the Christmas markets, but it was literally my perfect meal.. and something so, so different to what I usually go for.
I’d actually spotted The Herb Garden on my walk to the hotel from the train station. It hadn’t been on my list of places to try (and I already had far more places on that list than I knew I’d be able to make it to!) but something about how charming it was made me want to stop and look inside. They’re tucked away close to one of the smaller bridges, away from the busy city centre where you get all of the usual chain restaurants as well as bars, pubs and a big shopping centre. They’re predominantly a pizzeria (no wonder I was drawn to it!) and the first thing I saw when I walked in was an open kitchen with a big wood fired pizza oven. They had an amazing list of Christmas specials (how Christmassy some of them were is debatable though!) including some unique combinations which I knew I’d want to try. Their main menu is pretty simple – they just have breads, dips and the usual antipasti boards for starters and a variety of pizzas and calzones for mains. I didn’t get to look at the dessert menu but I saw a couple being brought out and I knew I’d be getting one no matter how full I was!
I ended up deciding to bail on the conference dinner on the second night in favour of visiting this place. I’d say ditching a long, drawn out three course meal with more awkward chat than food for a little Italian gem was a great shout.. much as I love refined dining I find that at big events the portions are always tiny! Even if I’m lucky enough to be at a table with empty places I still seem to feel hungry after eating the absent people’s meals too!
It takes a lot for an Italian place to tempt me away from the pizzas, but honestly having seen their menu I was not even remotely tempted to order one (and that’s seriously saying something!). I’d seen a vegan special on their menu the day before when I’d stopped to look inside which sounded amazing – cauliflower ‘steak’ with beetroot, cashew and hazelnut mashed potato, roasted parsnips, roasted beetroot and fried wild mushrooms. I was gutted to see it had disappeared off the menu as they’d launched their Christmas specials list to mark the 1st of December. I happened to mention it to the waitress who said they actually had some left – I couldn’t believe my luck 🙂 I knew I wanted it but I’d also seen a Christmas pasta special which I loved the sound of, so I decided to order two mains and a starter.. why not? 😉
I asked for the cauliflower steak to be brought with my actual starter – an antipasti board as I didn’t want two hot meals at the same time. Turns out that was a terrific decision – the antipasti board was the perfect accompaniment to the cauliflower dish, with rustic bread to mop up the extra mash. I went for the veggie antipasti board, as I love the roasted veg, hummus and cheese far more than I like cured meats, and it was everything I love on a giant board with bread – I couldn’t have asked for anything else! Slices of creamy mozzarella with sundried tomatoes, olives, roasted courgette, aubergine, baby peppers, artichokes, and a huge pot of hummus with slices of sourdough bread – crusty round the outside and incredibly soft in the middle.
The cauliflower ‘steak’ was essentially roasted and salted cauliflower, which I absolutely love!! It came beautifully presented on a generous base of ‘cheesy’ mash, a huge pile of the tastiest fried wild mushrooms, thin and delicate slices of roasted parsnip and beetroot and some edible flowers just to make an already perfect plate of food even more beautiful! Every element of the dish was divine – so full of flavour and so well thought out.
Then as if I wasn’t happy enough, my main meal arrived – another incredibly clever dish with so many different components, all working perfectly together. It was the ‘Santa pasta’ Christmas special – very debatable as to which parts of it were actually Christmassy but delicious none the less. The pasta was cooked perfectly, it was a pretty vibrant pink from the beetroot and I loved how many different items were in the dish. I love wild mushrooms in any dish, and the chestnuts were beautifully chewy and satisfying. Admittedly the dish as a whole was slightly underseasoned – I had to add a pinch of salt and pepper, which I never usually do when I’m out, but it was otherwise faultless.
After polishing off my main, the waitress offered me a dessert menu, and despite being surprisingly full (perhaps not so surprising given I’d had two mains and an antipasti board for two….!) I couldn’t resist. I’d seen them bringing the desserts out and they all looked so appealing. I was briefly tempted by the chocolate brownie – it just looked so Instagrammable!
But I’d had a lot of cakes and brownies already that day at the conference (check out that platter above, which was just one of our snack breaks!) so I decided to try something totally different. I asked the waitress what she recommended and she said their tiramisu was a totally different take on a standard tiramisu (which, for the record is one of my least favourite desserts ever). I love coffee, but soggy sponge and too much cream in a dessert is absolutely not the one! Since I made the mistake of asking for a recommendation, I could hardly turn around and order something totally different (!) so decided to give it a go though – she said it came with an Oreo crumb topping after all so that sealed the deal! I also went for something else I would never have dreamed of usually ordering, but I love coconut so I decided to give the creamy coconut dessert with mango lime compote a go. Both of them were amazing – again stunningly presented and so innovative. The tiramisu came in a little flower pot and it had a biscuit base, topped with cream, caramel and an Oreo crumb topping. There was only the slightest hint of coffee and not a soggy booze soaked piece of sponge in sight – absolute dessert heaven.. it couldn’t have been further from a standard tiramisu! The mousse was pretty good too – perhaps if I were to order again I’d have gone for the brownie after all (I did eye up quite a few which the waitress brought out!) but it was creamy, light and refreshing, which was probably what I needed more than a heavy brownie after such a big meal!
I left just feeling so satisfied. I’d tried so many different foods, had so many dishes that I’d usually never dream of ordering and I feel like it’s even changed my outlook on eating out. Had I gone for a standard pizza which I’d usually always order, I’d never have got to try such exciting and well thought out meals. I really feel like we do eat with our eyes just as much as with our mouth and just the way the food was presented made it a million times more delicious for me.
They also have a weekend brunch menu (obviously I won’t be around to try that, which I’m sad about!) but it features breakfast pizzas including ‘Breakfast in Bed’ (chocolate, hazelnut, banana, honey and vanilla ice cream) and ‘Fannie Farmer’ (pecan pie, salted caramel, maple syrup and vanilla ice cream) – how amazing do they sound!? If I’m ever back in Newcastle that will be top of my list for sure!
To top off the perfect evening, I had plenty of Christmas biscuits, pastries, and everything Nutella-related to enjoy with a mug of tea after the meal too from a stall at the Christmas market in the town centre!
I think it’s clear from my raving and excessive use of the word ‘perfect’ in this review that I’d recommend it, but I really would go back in a heartbeat. If I’d eaten here on the first night I feel like I’d have gone back here the second night too! In the interest of completeness though I have to admit that the service was unbearably slow. Possibly the slowest I’ve seen. There were only three waitresses serving the bar and the whole restaurant, and they were all absolutely lovely, but it was almost impossible to get their attention. Trying to make eye contact makes you feel like you’re the teacher who just asked for a volunteer. I had to get up from my table to get their attention to order, and I ended up going up to the bar at the end to pay because it had taken them so long to bring my bill, let alone the card machine. I do think that was more as a result of them being understaffed as opposed to their incompetence though, and slow service or not I would absolutely not let it deter me from coming back. I’d go to the kitchen myself to get the food if I had to!
Link to their website: https://www.theherbgardenuk.com