We were shown to table for two at the back of the ground-floor dining room, beneath a framed menu, dating from 1924, that was discovered under floorboards during the building’s restoration. Next to that was a framed document listing the members of the Union Club in 1862-63, when it occupied premises on Clayton Street. The Scotch egg was beautifully presented. The soft yolk was cocooned in lightly spiced smoked haddock kedgeree featuring peas and crisp golden breadcrumbs.
“The speciality of French cuisine is that each time we cook produce we make a sauce or jus from some part of it. From scallops we make a sauce from la barbe. If I was cooking fish, I would use the bones to make a stock for a sauce,” says Mathieu while Monsieur Meurin looks on at his work. We then receive a pro tip for slicing scallops. Placing them in a freezer for 15 to 20 minutes, in order to cool, makes them easier to cut. It helps push the individual scallops together so that pieces two to three millimetres thick can be sliced. Simple but highly effective.
Chef Lieven Lootens often finds inspiration from vegetables. “I think they are more inspiring for me because they have more beautiful colours and textures, and more differences in shapes. I really have something with vegetables and herbs. I really love herbs and things that grow in my own garden. We go outside in the countryside, at home, see those herbs and smell them. By the smell only you get teased by your senses. You associate them with other vegetables or the meat that you have. From there on you start building those flavours together. That’s how I create dishes when I have products from the season and can feel it, taste it and smell it,” he explains with passion.
The fenced winter village stands next to Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which was illuminated purple on Saturday. Wafts of the Asian-style street food and grilling sausages, from the market’s stalls, smelt tempting as we headed by to check out the pods. People were sitting inside watching Christmas movies. Where would we be dining? None of the tables looked large enough to seat 10 people. We were, we concluded, in the wrong part of the village.
The space now has a hip, contemporary feel. It’s very much decor of the moment. Picture brickwork walls, a concrete floor plus industrial-style metal piping on the ceiling. The restaurant’s white pillars bear Pizza Punks’ anarchist-style logo; a ringed, hand-drawn capital ‘A’. There's more elaborate graffiti-style artwork at the back of the room, near the steps down to the toilets. It is the company’s first restaurant in England, following openings in Glasgow and Belfast.
Even before Europeans settled the region, Basques, Bretons and fishermen from England’s West Country would sail the waters of the world’s 16th largest island to fish for cod. Despite the depletion of cod stocks and a moratorium on industrial-scale fishing, Newfoundlanders still refer that particular species when they use the term fish.
“People have to pay a lot for a mud bath but our pigs can have it free,” jokes the man who has become known as Mister Livar. The pigs enjoy wallowing in mud as they are unable to sweat. They disperse body heat by breathing and contact with cool surfaces. This explains why they spend time in mud on warm days.
Barney then invited me to follow his lead, blindfolded. The masterclass proved a fun way of getting to know other people as we were asked to get into pairs and work together (one blindfolded, one not) to mix a mojito. We then made other cocktails from the menu, picking up tips on how to improve out mixing as we went.
Among the main course options, Walter has introduced a mild katsu chicken curry and lobster tempura, served in a crisp pancake basket with a Thai-style Sriracha flavoured mayo dip. The succulent lobster is served with the option of salt and chilli fries or rice.
It’s a place that has managed to generate a buzz. “What? You’ve never eaten there?” was invariably the response if I admitted I hadn’t dined at Riley’s Fish Shack. I could tell that people were looking at me, judging, probably thinking something along the lines of “you can’t really be from the north-east of England and interested in good food without having been there.”