Monday 29 September 2014

Miller and Carter: For the Love of Steak

Many months ago, Miller & Carter announced it was opening its doors in Newcastle and I've literally been bursting to get myself in there ever since.  It's definitely been the most anticipated dinner of my life.

So when the restaurant announced a series of events to celebrate their opening, it seemed only fitting that I should move myself in and make the brand new Mosley Street restaurant my home for the week.

Miller & Carter's debut week in Newcastle began with a series of soft launch dinners with the restaurant's most excited fans invited to book tables with the promise of 50% off food.  To prove my enthusiasm it seems I booked the very first table and so when I bounded through the door at 6:00 pm on Tuesday, not only did I find myself at the top of the booking list but also found myself gate crashing a team meeting.  Sorry guys!

Now for a Geordie history lesson.  Miller & Carter's new home once belonged to Ant and Dec.  The famous duo opened up a bar at the premises called the Lodge 11 years ago.  Being new to Newcastle I'd never actually been to the Lodge but I hear it became a bit of a popular place to down a few beers before heading off to the clubs - think sticky floors, aging interior and a shabby DJ booth.

One thing I can tell you is that the place looks amazing now.  As soon as I walked through the huge doors I was in awe of the grandness of the entrance.  The restaurant is furnished in dark wood, deep reds, gorgeous tartan and the centre piece is a rather lovely staircase taking you upstairs to a smaller cosier eating area.

I was very lucky and got my own little private tour with the restaurant's manager Rob who proudly showed me Miller & Carter's trademark giant bull which watches over the door and explained some of the changes that have been made to the building.

Simon and I were shown to a booth at the back of the restaurant.  We were seriously impressed by how huge the space is.  The restaurant began to fill up pretty quickly but we never felt overcrowded and had plenty of room to enjoy our experience.

It took us forever to decide what food to choose.   The menu was so full of amazing sounding dishes that I changed my mind quite a few times.  Luckily the waiters at Miller & Carter are all huge steak geeks and so are more than happy to chat through their favourite dishes and provide recommendations. 

There were two things on the menu that  I really wanted to try so lucky for me Simon decided to order my second choice so I could try both.  He went for the Fillet Wellington, steak topped with pate and mushrooms and then wrapped in puff pastry.  Wow! Where to begin!  It may well be the most amazing thing I have ever tasted .... gorgeous, juicy meat covered in perfect pastry.   Heaven!   

I admit I ate quite a lot of the food off his plate and didn't even apologise for it.  I just couldn't help myself.

I decided to order the rump 8oz steak.  For some reason that night I had a very strong craving for mac and cheese so had that as a side dish to my meal.  What a combination!

I did feel a little greedy, like I had two meals on the go but I wouldn't have had it any other way.   I ordered my steak medium and it was served just as I asked.  My knife slid effortlessly through my steak and, with no apologies for using such a cliché, the meat literally melted in my mouth.

All of the steak dishes come served with parsley butter, a slice of onion loaf and a lettuce wedge which comes with a choice of dressings.  

When it comes to delicious flavours Miller & Carter really prove their worth with an amazing assortment of wedge dressings (the cheesy ones are my favourites) and steak sauces.  I have to mention the British Beef dripping sauce that Simon chose, it was like a pot of really gorgeous thick gravy. 

Now after all of that food we were fairly stuffed however I would never want to let down my readers so we ploughed on with dessert (the things I do for you guys eh?!).  In all honesty our eyes never made it down the menu too far as the first two treats listed were our favourites.   Sticky Toffee Pudding for Simon and Bannaoffee Pie for me.

My pie could only be described as epic.   The toffee that was sitting on top of the base was so thick it almost glued my mouth shut (believe me this is a good thing!) and the caramelised bananas sitting on top of the generous slathering of cream were just perfect.

We both thoroughly enjoyed our meals and have bumped Miller & Carter up to the top with our favourite restaurants in the Toon.  We will most definitely be returning.

.... and I'm not lying when I say that as I was back through the doors only two days later with my blogging pal Chloe for a Press Lunch.

This time however I was getting a little behind the scenes glimpse and would be working for my food.  Assisted by Chef, Chris Stevenson, we all donned our special hats and aprons and filed into the kitchen to cook our own steaks.

Hearing more about how the steaks at Miller & Carter are sourced and prepared was fascinating.  Believe me, the beef being served is the finest - the restaurant know exactly where the meat has come from and are very particular in how they store and serve it to ensure when it appears on your plate, it is the very best.

It was so great to learn more about the journey from Farm to plate and I had no idea how much work goes into creating the perfect cut of meat.  Miller & Carter want to make sure they get everything just right, so the team enter into Steak School to learn about the process of serving the perfect steak.  This means that everyone has a great knowledge - when you pop in for a meal don't be shy to ask any questions you may have about your meal.  These guys really do know their stuff!

The challenge with cooking a great steak is to get a perfect diamond effect which Chris taught us how to make.   Then we each got a go at placing our meat onto the grill, flipping between a 2 o'clock and 10:00 o'clock angle.   I don't think our efforts were too bad!

Of course we are a bunch of amateurs so after each having a little go we moved into the restaurant for some wine so that Chris could finish our meat off and prepare us some food.

We were given a fantastic selection of food to share - four different lettuce wedges, sweet potato fries and of course lots and lots of steak served with all of the toppings.  

I had a lovely time eating delicious food and chatting with Chloe, Eve and Sarah Jayne and before we knew it, it was time to get up and leave.

Having spent so much of last week in Miller & Carter I will admit I am already missing the nice big juicy steaks.  Anyone else thinking I need to book myself a table?

Friday 26 September 2014

Brockbushes Cake Pit Stop

Life without a car, especially when you are new to an area and are desperate to explore, is so frustrating.  So whenever we have a hire car I like to make the most of it and get to as many places as I possibly can. 

Knowing that we'd be journeying home from Center Parcs in a car it wasn't long before I was examining Google maps to see if there was anywhere interesting on our route home.  I was thrilled when I realised that we could easily pop to Brockbushes on our way back to Newcastle.

Brockbushes is a Farm Shop and Tea Room that I have heard endless amazing things about and it has been on my cake list ever since I first relocated to the North East.  Unfortunately for me, its position just outside Corbridge on a main road makes it a little difficult to reach without a car.

Believe me it was worth the wait, I don't even know where to begin in telling you how much I loved Brockbushes.

I think I'll start with the cake as it was the main reason we went.  The Tea Room is part of the Farm Shop and is very popular.  It seats 100 people but was absolutely rammed when we arrived on Friday lunchtime, we only just managed to find ourselves a table.  It may have been packed out but the place was full of regulars which made for a very friendly and happy atmosphere.

The focal point of the tea room is the food counter which features the largest display of cakes I have ever seen.  All home made in Brockbushes' Farm Kitchen, there was a mammoth amount to choose from.  From scones and biscuits to gateaux, cakes and puddings.  If we'd been people who eat normal things for lunch there were also some very tasty looking quiches and savoury pies.

We both decided to have a "special" latte - I ordered a bakewell latte, flavoured with amaretto and cherry syrup and Simon went for a chai latte.   On the menu it mentioned that it came with a special surprise .... interesting!

When it came to picking out the cake we wanted we had a very tough decision to make.  I could happily have stood at the counter all day with my face in the various cakes.  In the end Simon chose a fruit pavlova and I had the chocolate and strawberry sponge.

The ladies behind the till were so well organised, despite it being really busy.  I was very impressed by how quickly and efficiently our order was taken and before I knew it I was back at the table waiting for our treats to arrive.

When our tray of goodies appeared we were overwhelmed by the amount of food we had.   Remember the special surprise I mentioned earlier?  Well it turns out the special lattes come with sweet treats on the side. 

Mine came with a generous slice of bakewell and Simon's came with a couple of biscuits.    Ooooooops!

Our portions of cake were absolutely mammoth which was great because they were both so delicious.  I had a mouthful of Simon's pavlova and it was so naughty and creamy.  

My chocolate sponge was just as good to look at as it was to eat, it came decorated with fresh strawberries and it took me all of about 2 minutes to eat as it was so tasty.

We were so full once we'd finished Simon actually announced he officially had "cake fear" and never wanted to eat another piece of cake in his life (anyone else thinking that could be a bit of a problem?).  

Luckily we had the rest of Brockbushes to explore to help our cake settle before getting back in the car.

The Farm Shop is full of wonderful bits and bobs and I really loved the amount of gorgeous gifts that were on display. 

It has a massive amount of local produce with fruit, cheese, freshly baked bread, jams and eggs on sale.  I really enjoyed looking in the massive freezers that had puddings, pies and pastries ready to take home.  If we hadn't been so full of cake and in need of a serious post holiday detox I definitely would have filled the boot of the car up with frozen treats.

Brockbushes is somewhere I want to return in the Summer as it has a nice large outside space with tables and chairs, a kid's play area and a 35 acre Pick Your Own fruit farm that grows strawberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and raspberries depending on the season.


We only made a very quick visit this time as unfortunately I had a boring amount of holiday laundry to get on with but we will definitely be getting our hands on a car in the Summer so I can do some strawberry picking.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

A Week at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest, Cumbria

In an effort to save money, both of our holidays this year have been staycations.  Last week we enjoyed our second holiday, a mid week Monday to Friday break at the Center Parcs Whinfell Forest resort in Cumbria. 

Simon has been to Center Parcs quite a few times over the years with friends but this was my first ever visit so I was really looking forward to giving it a go.

One thing we kept hearing after booking our holiday was how expensive Center Parcs is and how it's not the ideal destination if you are wanting to save some pennies.   I pride myself in being pretty careful with money and Simon and I try very hard to be sensible and not waste too much of our hard earned cash.  So I was really interested to see if it was possible for a couple to go away for a four night Center Parcs break, have an amazing time and not spend a fortune.

We purposely booked our trip for mid September when the schools had returned as the cost of our holiday was significantly cheaper.  We paid £300.79 for two of us to stay in a New Style, 2 bed woodland lodge which was a bit of a bargain.

I had heard that the onsite supermarket at Center Parcs is expensive so we made sure we wrote a list of all the essentials we would need for our holiday and looked up the nearest Tesco so we could pile our car up with groceries before arriving.   This definitely saved us a lot of money.

I was very excited as soon as I saw our little cabin in the woods, it was small but so comfortable and cosy.   We wanted to make sure we had a really relaxing holiday with no itineraries or alarms so most of our mornings were spent lazily slobbing around the cabin (we became hooked on Homes Under the Hammer!) and we spent most our evenings cooking and eating dinner in the cabin, drinking wine, watching DVDs and playing Sesame Street Monopoly.

My favourite feature of the cabin was the fire place, we bought a log in the Centre Parcs village and had the most romantic evening toasting marshmallows in the fire.  

Our cabin also had its own little private patio area with a BBQ stand so we made sure we brought a disposable BBQ with us so we could have a burger and hot dog night. 

Not having a garden for BBQing at home we loved being able to get outside and cook.

We were careful not to get sucked into booking up activities in advance.  There are so many things to do at Centre Parcs and whilst there were loads of things that I'd definitely consider trying in the future we decided to wait until we arrived before deciding what to do.

The only thing we did plan in advance was our bike hire which we booked a few days before when we realised we were set for some nice weather.   Our bikes (including helmet hire and bike lock) were £31.00 each.

They say you never forget how to ride a bike but boy was I wobbly when I first climbed on mine.  It must have been about 22 years since I'd last been out for a cycle and I was a little nervous when I first started peddling.  

Whinfell Forest is pretty hilly and cycling down some of the steep hills did freak me out to start with, I felt a little out of control and was convinced I was going to go head first over the handlebars. 

Luckily, I quickly built up my confidence and it wasn't long before I was whizzing along absolutely loving the feeling of biking in the sunshine with the gentle breeze whistling in my ears.  We became addicted to our bikes very quickly and despite feeling a little saddle sore we loved jumping on our bikes at every opportunity and spent a few days just cycling round the resort enjoying the lovely weather.

We were very lucky with the weather during our time away, I had to slap on the sunblock every day as the temperatures soared.  The sunshine did make it far easier to have a cheap stay, we spent every moment we could outside exploring and enjoying the perfect warm Autumn days.  When we weren't frantically pedalling our way round we were taking lovely leisurely strolls through the forest.  It was the perfect place to appreciate the arrival of Autumn.

The highlight of our trip definitely had to be the red squirrels.  You may think that I made Simon pose for this photo for comedy purposes but I promise you he did spend most of his holiday gazing upwards hunting out squirrels in the trees. 

He absolutely loved them and I'm pretty surprised he didn't try and squirrel one away (see what I did there?!) in our suitcase to take home.

Red squirrels are very easy to spot in Whinfell, we saw one every day and it didn't cost us a penny.  The Rangers Lodge was a good place to start as food is left out for them there. 

Another place we spent a lot of time was in the Bird Hide, it actually became somewhat of a second home.

I'm not always the most patient at sitting still waiting for nature to appear but after about 10 minutes of staring at a few pigeons we were finally in luck and spent a really enjoyable 2 hours watching red squirrels, rabbits, mice and even a woodpecker.  

We ended up camped out in there so long that we became King and Queen of the Bird Hide.  People came and went and each time new people peered in we'd enthusiastically give them a complete summary of all the animals we'd seen and the best place to see them.    Bird Hide Geeks!

We did end up doing a couple of activities at the Sports Centre during our stay.  We decided to partake in some table tennis which cost £7.00 and the next day we played some short tennis for £9.00.  We just turned up on the day and booked in person and each time the Centre was quiet and we were given extra time.  Our short tennis court should have only been for 45 minutes but we were given it for an hour and a quarter.

Before going on our holiday we'd already decided we were going to eat out in the resort twice and that the rest of our meals would be cooked in our cabin.   If you are wanting to save money at Centre Parcs it's a good idea to look through the website and pick out where you want to go in advance and then stick to your plan.

We chose a restaurant each, my choice was the Pancake House which unfortunately don't take bookings and gets very busy so we had a delicious late lunch there at around 3:00 pm.   Being piggies we had a savoury pancake for main and still managed to wolf down a sweet.   

Simon's choice for food was Hucks Bar & Grill, an American Diner.  We were more disappointed with this one, our meals were a little over priced and the food was far too stodgy and greasy, but at least we had a gorgeous sunset stroll around the Lake to make up for it.

We had the most fantastic week and I am feeling a little smug that I proved so many people wrong.  Our holiday was so much fun, we loved every second and it didn't cost us a fortune.   In fact we're already thinking about booking another Center Parcs staycation for next year.

Of course the joy of Center Parcs is that it caters for all ages and family sizes.  If you are more interested in reading about enjoying Center Parcs as a larger family please do head along to one of my favourite local blogs North East Family Fun!   You can read about their holiday experience here, how to save money at Center Parcs when you have kids here and grownup time at Whinfell's Spa here


Monday 22 September 2014

22 hours in Blackpool

Ask Simon what one of my most annoying habits is and he'll probably tell you that it's my obsession of turning adventures into more adventures.

Our week away in Center Parcs had been planned for a while but after a quick glance at Google maps I decided to convince Simon to extend our holiday a little and have a night in Blackpool.  So after showing him the short 84 mile distance between Blackpool and Whinfell Forest (as well as telling him he's the best boyfriend ever) I managed to get him to agree and we were off for a 22 hour stay in Blackpool.

I've been wanting to go to Blackpool for years but trains from where I used to live in London and from where we are now in Newcastle aren't easy or cheap.  So finally getting there was a great feeling. 

Blackpool has always seemed like such a great place to be a cheesy staycation tourist.  I was looking forward to finally seeing the famous Tower, tucking into some traditional British seaside food and of course enjoying the Illuminations.

Luckily our close friends go to Blackpool quite a bit and recommended a hotel to us.  We stayed at the Big Blue which is a fantastic 4 star hotel right next to the Pleasure Beach.  If you're looking for somewhere to stay in a great location I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Big Blue.  The staff were so attentive and helpful, the hotel was beautifully decorated with lots of space and the hotel even has its own private access to the Pleasure Beach.  We paid £70.00 for our double room which had the most interesting view overlooking the theme park.  We really loved looking out of our bedroom window to see the tangle of rollercoaster tracks.

We began our adventure with a stroll along the seafront to watch the sunset.  We found a lovely spot overlooking the sea close to the Tower.   Watching a sunset is one of my favourite things to do so it was great to take advantage of being on the west coast and in a prime location to enjoy it. 

We marvelled at the most beautiful views as the sun turned orange and disappeared into the sea.

Our hotel had recommended catching a tram the 3.5 miles to Cabin where the Illumination Boards started but we were feeling pretty energetic and decided to walk.  It was a lovely stroll along the seafront enjoying the lights strung across the promenade until we got to the main Illuminations.

The famous Blackpool Illuminations have appeared every year between September and November since 1912.   One million coloured bulbs light the sky in the most amazing displays and visitors flock to the coast to enjoy them, either with a walk out in the fresh air or choosing to "trip the lights tramtastic" and climb aboard the specially lit illumination tram which offers a unique view of the lights.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Illuminations but I really enjoyed them, there was a definite nod to things from our childhood and Simon and I loved seeing some of our old favourites like Postman Pat, Sooty and Basil Brush making an appearance.

Some of the lights were so well thought out with moving images and added sound and water features. 

It was a pretty late night by the time we got back to the hotel but we slept like babies after all the sea air and walking.

The next day after tucking into a hearty buffet breakfast at our hotel we had a few hours to enjoy the seaside before we needed to leave for Center Parcs. 

Our first stop of the day was the Blackpool Tower.  We used our Tesco Clubcard vouchers to buy tickets to the Blackpool Tower Eye.  

The experience started with a short 4D film about Blackpool.  I'm not great with 4D and jumped out of my skin as puffs of air hit the back of my legs and water sprayed at my face - it was good fun though.  After that it was time to get into the lift and climb the 518 feet to the top of the tower.

The first level was sensational with floor to ceiling glass windows showing off aerial views of Blackpool.

The highlight is the Sky Walk, a 5cm thick sheet of glass on the floor which isn't for the faint hearted.  

I have always loved climbing high for great views but we both felt a little giddy looking down and seeing a sheer drop under our feet. 

It took a little getting used to but once we'd taken a deep breath and dared to look down we were rewarded with a great feeling of walking on air over Blackpool.

The Tower has two more outside levels taking you higher up the tower but unfortunately by the time we got up the stairs the rain had started.   This was actually the only time during our entire holiday we saw rain so it was pretty unfortunate it was when we were wanting a nice clear sky to admire the views.

We finished our short stay in Blackpool with a quick look round the Pleasure Beach.   I'm not the biggest fan of theme parks because I am a massive wuss.  My favourite rides are always the ones designed for 5 year olds and a terrifying experience on Nemeses at Alton Towers many years ago has left me with a fear of going on anything that goes too fast, drops from a great height or flips me upside down.

I would love to be able to tell you that I went on the famous "Big One".   When it opened in the 90s its impressive 235 foot drop at 74mph made it the highest and fastest roller coaster in the world so as you can imagine it's not on my "must do" list.  Just looking at the almost vertical drop was enough to convince me that my feet were staying firmly on the ground.

So we enjoyed our time strolling round people watching.  Before going into the Pleasure Beach I thought it would just be a bit of a mediocre fun fair.  I was so wrong!  I was really impressed with the way the rides were landscaped.  The roller coaster tracks run all over the Park and I loved being able to walk under the tracks and get amazing views of all the coasters.  I may not enjoy going on them but I became addicted to watching them.  I could happily have spent hours watching everyone go round on the rides.

Before we knew it our time was up and we had to go and collect our car from the hotel and begin our journey to the Lakes.  We were very sad that our trip was over so fast but I am so glad that I finally got a chance to enjoy Blackpool and we've decided that we'd love to make the Blackpool Illuminations an annual trip.
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