An Homage To Italy - Pizzeria Francesca, Newcastle

I've always vowed after my first trip to Italy that I would go back.  Unfortunately, the years have flown past and I've since realised that it was approximately 7 years ago since my last visit.  Sigh.

After discussing my love for all things Italian, one of my colleagues started raving about a restaurant in Jesmond: Francesca's.  He couldn't have been more emphatic about the large, homely meals and the amazing value for money.  If the mountain won't come to Mohammed (or if Italy won't come to The Fox...) then it seemed like a viable option to cure my nostalgic longing.

I have finished my work down in Newcastle, so decided that Francesca's would be a great place to say farewell to my Geordie compadre Adele.  I sat in the front of the restaurant's lobby waiting for her, with a nice chilled glass of rose.

Stepping into Francesca's is literally like being transported to one of the kitsch restaurants you find dotted about the back streets of Rome.  Entering the foyer, the tiles are rustic and the wooden interior added to that cosy feel.  They also had a stunning big mural on the wall above a mosaic fireplace - the whole atmosphere was comfortable, homely and provincially Italian.

You can't book a table at Francesca's, so I would recommend getting there as early as 5pm to get seated.  We were lucky to waltz straight in and be seated.  When we were leaving, the queue was all the way round and at the front door, however I can assure you it's worth the wait!  The waiters are all native to Italy so it really adds to the authenticity of the place.  It was time to peruse the menu, and please be assured that this was no mean feat...

There are screeds and screeds of options to choose from.  Hot and cold starters, pasta, pizza, fish, chicken, beef and salads.  It was incredibly difficult to choose, especially as they all sounded wonderful, and the dishes passing us to other tables were giving off the most wonderful smells.  After much deliberation, we had made our choices.  Whilst waiting for our starters, they provide you with some complimentary crusted bread.

As Francesca's don't have an online menu, I haven't been able to get the exact name of my starter, although I shall hazard a guess.  I believe it was king prawn piccanti...

I will put my hands up right now and say that this has to be one of the tastiest dishes I have ever eaten.  EVER.  The sauce was a blend of garlic, peppers, tomatoes and chillies; each mouthful was so fresh and packed full of so many tastes.  The sauce was rich and the perfect consistency.  The prawns were juicy and meaty - probably the best prawns I have ever had.  The small portion of rice made it look like a little curry, and it was just enough to satisfy me, but also leaving me eager for my main.  I strongly urge you to try this, even if you're not a big prawn fan.  It's not a fishy dish, and I guarantee you will want more.

Adele played it safe, and went for some good old fashioned bruschetta...

Adele said that this was delicious, but there was just a bit too much tomato on it for her.  Can you get too much tomato with bruschetta?  I can be a bit funny with them myself, so I would be inclined to agree!

The friendly waiter came to check how we were enjoying our meal, and cleared away the dishes.  The service was pretty quick considering how busy they were (the waiters were always on the go, although it wasn't a rushed environment.  A great plateau to reach!) and our main meals appeared.

I chose the meat cannelloni...

This dish was about the size of my head (not that I have a particularly large head. but you get the jist!) and was bathed in molten cheese.  Three large rolls of pasta were stuffed full of mince and herbs, drowned in a rich tomato sauce and a thick layer of bechamel sauce.  I couldn't finish this, as much as I tried.  The portion was huge and each mouthful was so damn tasty.  I could tell that it was proper, home made grub, hand prepared and cooked to perfection - I have no doubt that this was a family recipe that has been tried and tested throughout the years.

Adele went for a bit of flare and ordered the diavolo chicken, with a side of chips...

Two juicy chicken fillets were nestled in a bed of tangy, spicy tomato sauce.  The smell of this chicken was amazing, although I don't know if I could order anything apart from the cannelloni now that I'm caught under it's spell.  The chips looked like they came from a chip shop, but tasted like they were freshly baked.

Once our dishes were cleared away, we asked to get our bill.  I was amazed and speechless that for three glasses of wine, two starters and two main courses, our bill was £25.  That's £12.50 a head for all of that food and drink.

I'm actually rather annoyed that I've waited this whole time to go to Francesca's, and no longer reside in Newcastle.  I suppose it gives me another reason to visit everyone for a catch up!  Have you ever been to Francesca's, or do you think you know somewhere that could rival it?  Let me know!

Contact Details:

Pizzeria Francesca
Manor House Road

Tel: 0191 281 6586


Wheelchair access: Yes

It's a Hard Rock Life - Hard Rock Cafe, Edinburgh

I love Edinburgh. I don't know if it's the history, the fact that the castle can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city, or just the fact it always makes me feel Christmassy. Any chance I get, I make sure I get through to the city and take it all in. When the Hard Rock Cafe were hosting an event to promote their smokehouse range, it didn't cross my mind to say no.

The Hard Rock Cafe is somewhere that I fell in love with when I first visited all those years ago. I went as part of a deal with the Edinburgh dungeons, but was wowed by the generosity of the portions considering the pittance we paid. It was also noteworthy how amazing the food was.

I was met by the promoter Lesley, who welcomed me with a corona and lime. I'm not a huge fan of beer but actually found it was quite nice after a long train ride from Newcastle!

We all sat around chatting, waiting for the chef, Adam, to come and talk us through the creating of a Smokehouse masterpiece.  This is Adam:

This man knows A LOT about food!  Not only was the man a kitchen manager in Afghanistan, but he has also worked in Michelin star kitchens preparing food we could only dream about.  I definitely felt in safe hands.

The Hard Rock Cafe are the only chain restaurant to smoke all of their meat in house, using a massive smoking oven in the kitchen.  That's when you know it's going to be fresh and fabulous!  The oven smokes and cooks the meat, using steam, so it retains all that juiciness and also tenderises the meat.  They use their own recipe rub to coat the meat, a mixture of amazing spices and flavours that I can assure you taste divine.

Adam went on to charm us by reassuring us that all of their food was prepared in house, and never out of a packet.  To prove it, he butchered a chicken for us to show us just how good he really is.  He then got a volunteer up to try... thankfully, I averted eye contact at that moment!

Once the chicken had been butchered to a professional standard, Adam went on to talk about how their meat was sourced.  The chickens are 'happy chickens', meaning that they are free to roam the fields and flutter happily around the farm.  They source their pigs from UK butchers, except the ribs, which come from France.  Adam had a pork shoulder to show us just how well the meat is kept:

He told us that for the pork shoulder, they use liquid smoke only.  The meat carries that much flavour, it would be looked on as a crime against taste to try and manipulate it!

Before we settled down to taste the amazing food we had heard about, Adam took us through the creating of their mouthwatering barbecue sauce.  A concoction of 13 ingredients (which to me doesn't seem like a lot, considering the taste that this packs!) blended together creates that amazing, smoky barbecue sauce.  

Once we sniffed the spices, and salivated over the smells, it was that glorious time of night that we got to taste the food.  We were presented with chicken wings, one coated in a mild sauce and the other a slightly tangier, spicy sauce...

The wings with the orange coating were slightly tangier.  The meat fell off the bone as you bit into it, and the sauce was so addictive that I couldn't help but have more.  Served with a blue cheese dip and some crunchy kettle crisps, these were a delight.  

Our hosts then brought out massive platters with a variety of different foods for us to try...

I wish that I had copied another blogger attendee and took a whole plate for myself.  The plate was piled high with chicken thighs, pulled pork, ribs, chips, beans, coleslaw and cornbread.  The pulled pork was definitely my favourite - they weren't joking when they said that it carried it's own wonderful flavour.  The ribs were immaculate once the meat came off the bone, which is a sign they have been cooked to perfection.

To polish it all off, I sipped away at a stunning glass of chilled rose wine.

I was absolutely stuffed after demolishing the mountain of smoked goods on my plate.  I've always known Hard Rock to provide decent portion sizes, and this was no exception.

To thank us for attending, we each got a little goodie pouch and also a jar of their barbecue sauce to try and create something of our own.  My head is swimming with delicious ideas... although I doubt I'll be at the Hard Rock level!

You can try the Smokehouse range for yourself by getting in to Hard Rock Cafe in Edinburgh!  I would seriously, seriously, recommend that you do it as soon as possible, for the taste sensation of your life.  Meat fans, you have met your maker.

Contact Details:

Hard Rock Cafe Edinburgh

20 George Street

Tel: 0131 260 3000


Wheelchair access: Yes 

A Bonny Scran - Arisaig, Glasgow

I find that only having a day and a half back in Scotland a week makes it difficult to see all of my favourite people every weekend.  After swapping numerous drunken Facebook mails that made me cry with laughter the next day, I realised how much I missed one of my oldest friends, Kenny.  What better way to catch up than to share old stories over lunch?

My eye has been on Arisaig, which can be found nestled in one of the corners of Merchant Square, for a long time.  They offer a mouthwatering menu of Scottish dishes that can be served to you on the cobbled terrace of their establishment.

We chose to sit in the terrace, watching curious passers by checking out the crafts fayre that dominated the floor of Merchant Square.  Our waitress was friendly and provided us with plenty of time to ponder the menu.  On a Sunday, they only have a set lunch menu available, although the choices on it were amazing so it didn't bother me that a la carte wasn't on the cards.

For starters, Kenneth Decided to go for the haggis fritters with onion gravy...

This was an amazing breadcrumb parcel stuffed full of Scottish haggis, and drowned in flavoursome, rich onion gravy.  The two fritters were pretty big, and each bite was deliciously packed full of flavour.

I decided to start with the home-made fishcakes, served with sweet chilli salsa...

The fishcake mixture was enveloped in a lovely crispy batter.  Mashed up potatoes, chives and salmon came bursting out of the flaky batter, and were perfectly accompanied by a leafy green salad.  The sweet chilli salsa was delicious, and had a fierce kick to it.  The combination of flavours was amazing, and I'd say that these were the best fishcakes I've ever had.

For our main courses, we thought we would be a bit naughty and get our drink on.  I went for a glass of California White Zinfandel rose, and Kenny had a Magners cider...

These were the perfect partners for our main courses.  Kenny went for Arisaig sausages with creamy mash and onion gravy...

Two big, succulent sausages sat on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes, surrounded by a moat of thick onion gravy.  It was a really good sized portion too, and smelled amazing.  I would definitely considering getting this on my next visit, as it was the perfect comfort food for a Sunday.

I decided to go for haggis and clapshot, served in a whisky and mustard sauce...

Clapshot is a mixture of mashed up potatoes and turnip (so neeps and tatties).  It was served in a mound next to what looked like a full haggis.  The sauce was stunning, and really delicious.  The sweetness of the reduced whisky mixed beautifully with the strength of the mustard.  This coating the meatiness of the haggis was just bliss!

I felt stuffed, but couldn't resist a sneak peek of their dessert menu.  Needless to say, I succumbed to gluttony!  Kenneth ordered the sticky toffee pudding...

A comforting, rich and sickly sweet dessert that was a perfect way to end our amazing lunch.  I do think however, that my dessert was the best.  I went for their cheesecake of the day, which was coffee and amaretto...

Although it's not as thick a topping as other cheesecakes, this was the perfect amount.  The sweetened coffee and amaretto mascarpone mixture sat atop a fragile, crisp biscuit base.  It was a beautiful cheesecake, and I'd love to attempt to make it myself.  It was the best thing I could have chosen to have rounded off our reunion.

As always, out stomachs bulged with food babies.  It was definitely time for the bill so I could squeeze in a snooze on the train.  For two starters, two mains (both part of a deal menu), two desserts, wine and cider, the bill was a mere £40.  I was over the moon for the portions and quality of food we received at Arisaig, especially at £20 a head.

If you fancy some good Scottish grub at very lovely prices, ensure that you book yourself in to Arisaig.  I will definitely be back to sample their a la carte menu!

Contact Details:

1 Merchant Square
G1 1LE

Tel: 0141 553 1010


Wheelchair access:  Yes

Calling All Seafood Fanatics! - The Squid & Whale, Glasgow

It was my dear older sisters birthday last week.  At Christmas time, we always manage to spoil each other with way too many presents - so much so that we struggle at birthdays.  It has become our new tradition that we treat each other to a slap up meal of our choice instead, as we are both massive foodies.

Sharon decided that we would go to The Squid & Whale, a Mexican cantina set on Great Western road in Glasgow.  I was a little taken aback by the actual setting of the place; I had pictured a restaurant with interesting Mexican artifacts, which was quite classy and relaxed.  Instead, it is half bar, half restaurant, with  student-esque feel to it.

The atmosphere was very relaxed, and casual.  We had booked a table for 6:15pm but we sat at the bar and the friendly waitress said we could just eat there too if we wished.  We started the night off with some fabulous hand made mojitos...

This was really delicious, and made by the friendly waitress herself (unfortunately I never caught her name!).  We sipped on our mojitos, perusing the menu and debating what to have.  We chopped and changed our minds, discussing if we would share & try each others as we wanted everything!  The menu is a mix of both fish and meats, so if you're not big on seafood then there are alternative options for you.

As a massive fan of the film "I Love You, Man" it seemed stupid for me not to begin with the fish tacos...

These were absolutely amazing.  Chunks of salmon, seabream and seabass mixed with chimichurri and topped with what tasted like a kind of guacamole.  All of this was generously placed over two soft, warm taco shells, ready for you to fold up and devour.  Be warned that this is messy, and you really need to get your hands in it to keep everything together.  I loved it and I would definitely get them again!

Sharon decided to go for the gumbo...

This was absolutely delicious!  Chunks of fish and smoky chorizo in chowder, with rice and garnished with parsley.  It was also served with a buttermilk biscuit, which resembled a scone, to soak up all the beautiful stock in this dish.  The biscuit was soft and crumbled apart with no effort, adding a light, mellow taste to the powerful fish soup concoction.  Sharon said it was a winner, and I'm inclined to agree.

Choosing a main course was horrendously difficult.  I wanted to try something different, however the food contains it's own twists which made it painful to choose.  I decided to go for the tequila and lime chicken thighs...

The chicken, served off the bone, was amazing.  Rubbed with paprika, then glazed in the oven with tequila, lime, honey, pineapple, coconut AND agave, it had a strange taste (in a beautiful way).  Served with a side of roasted garlic scallion mashed potatoes and topped with crispy fried onions, this was an amazing dish and tasted phenomenal.  The chicken was so tender it fell apart in my fork and each mouthful was bursting with fruity flavours.  I never order chicken when I am out for dinner, and I'm glad I decided to this time!

Sharon's main however was the best.  If I return, I will be ordering it!  She went for the blackened seabass...

The fillet of seabass was pan fried, so had a crispy skin infused with blackened spice.  The fish itself was flaky and perfect, served with lime and coriander rice and salsa verde.  The combination of tastes were outstanding and it really was a great tasting fish dish.

We decided to get some side orders to try too.  We ordered jalapeno bread, coca-cola baked beans and southern spiced fries...

The jalapeno bread was rather dry, and it didn't contain jalapenos.  There was a side of a tomato based dip with the bread, but it didn't pack a punch and was rather bland.  The coca-cola baked beans were tasty, but they didn't go with what I was eating so Sharon took them away with her.  The chips were delicious and akin to those at Nandos.  I couldn't really decide whose were better!

Considerably stuffed full of Mexican/Southern carbs, we called for our bill.  For two cocktails, two soft drinks, two starters, two mains and three sides, our bill was a nice £55.  That worked out around £27.50 each, which is pretty decent!

Overall, the food was tasty and the staff were friendly.  The location is ideal, however the set up of the building itself didn't meet my expectations.  I would have preferred a bit more elegance and class, or a uniqueness to the place, rather than conforming to the student ways of Great Western road.  To me, you are either a pub that serves pub grub, or a restaurant with a bar.  I'm not a particular fan of the new hybrid of bar-cum-restaurant setting, but perhaps that's just me being pedantic!  Try it for yourself and see how you fair...

Contact Details:

The Squid & Whale
372 - 374 Great Western Road
G4 9HT

Tel: 0141 339 5070


Wheelchair access: Yes