Heather Barron seeks some culinary accompaniment to a festive musical treat

WE’D booked our annual Christmas treat to see Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at Newcastle City Hall, so the only question now was: where to eat?

Recommendation is always a good starting point, and I’d heard about the Botanist, in Monument Mall, from one or two friends who were more familiar with the city than me.

“It’s definitely worth a visit – but you might have to book ahead,” I was warned.

The friend was right. Booking on-line was simple, but even though I was looking at a couple of months in advance for a Wednesday evening, anything between 6pm and 9pm was unavailable. However, a 5pm table was just right, which is, oddly, classed as lunch.

Slotted snuggly (easy to miss) in a short lane between Waterstones and Jamie’s Italian, just near Grey’s Monument in the centre of Newcastle, the Botanist was already busy when we climbed the three flights of stairs to the bar and restaurant.

But, wow, what a venue! “It’s like being inside a snow globe,” my husband, Peter, exclaimed, gazing at the high-domed ceiling resplendent with fairy lights.

A beach-style bar dominates the room, with a large (not real) tree, festooned with lights, surmounting the top, and surrounded by high tables and bar stools accommodating the clientele.

If you venture up another flight of spiral stairs, there’s an outdoor garden bar, which, on the night we were there, was rather wet, but looked like it would be a lovely place to sit with a cocktail on a summer’s evening.

Back downstairs, our 5pm table was ready promptly, but if you are anywhere near 5 foot 3 inches tall, it is hard work – and extremely unladylike - getting on and off the high bar stools.

The menu was extensive, with a tempting selection of more unusual dishes. We had a bowl of buttery Nocellara olives to nibble, and to start, I chose Gambas Pil Pil – prawns cooked in chilli, garlic and olive oil, while Pete selected homemade Scotch Egg.

We both wanted to try the ‘famous hanging kebab’, so we ordered a Jerk Salmon with garlic butter, rice and peas, and a Halloumi and Sesame Falafel with garlic butter, couscous and seasoned chips.

While we waited, we were offered the wine menu, but, as I was undecided between a rosé and two whites, the waiter brought me over a taster of all three. What a lovely touch that enabled me to select exactly the wine I knew I would enjoy.

Everyone else’s meals looked delicious as they passed our table, and that is exactly what our starters were. The prawns were soft and succulent, smothered in a hot, smoky, paprika-like oil, moped up with soft pillows of Turkish flat bread; the Scotch egg was declared the tastiest Pete had ever had, with a perfectly cooked egg, a light, crisp shell, and served with a spicy piccalilli.

We couldn’t wait for the main, and we weren’t disappointed. The kebabs were ‘sopped’ with a sweet chili and ginger sauce before cooking, then coated with the garlic butter at the table, poured through a hole in the top of the stand, to coat the kebabs and drip onto the rice and couscous in a small tray below.

It was all extremely tasty, and encouraged us to push the boat out with the dessert menu, to see if they match the standard of the savouries.

We shared very hot baked chocolate cookie dough with salted caramel sauce and toffee ice-cream (don’t count the calories), and a perfectly cooked vanilla rice pudding with sharp Amarena cherries, and a crunchy cinder toffee topping.

Although we didn’t manage to finish them both, they were the ideal end to a much-enjoyed meal.

The bill was presented in a leather-bound copy of The Spanish Farm by R H Mottram with the pages carved out, like smuggling contraband into prison.

We thought it was a very reasonable £64 for three courses, a gin and tonic, a coke and a glass of wine.

And, as it was Christmas, a little card informed us that “We will be adding a contribution of £1 per table to your bill to help raise money for Cash for Kids.” While I have no objection to this (you can opt out, if you wish), I would have liked The Botanist to state that they would match each £1 paid by customers.

It couldn’t have been a better Christmas night out for us. A truly scrumptious meal in exotic surroundings, and fantastic entertainment by the legendary Jools Holland.


The Botanist, Monument Mall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7AL

Tel: 0191 261 6307

Website: www.thebotanist.uk.com/location/newcastle

Opening times: Mon – Thurs & Sun: 12pm – 12am; Fri & Sat: 12pm – 1.30am

Ratings (out of five): Food 4, Value for money 4, Ambience 5, Service 4