The Small Canteen, 17 Starbeck Avenue, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 1RH (07816 524826). Starters £8, mains £18-£19, desserts £8, wine from £20 a carafe
The Small Canteen is not a restaurant for claustrophobes. The name isn’t whimsy. It’s an accurate description. It’s a room in which to eat and it’s very small. The business occupies a flat-roofed, oblong block on a residential corner in Newcastle’s Sandyford. There is a big green and gold painted sign across the top of the building and that is possibly the flashiest thing about the place. If you want the loo, they’ll direct you out the door on to the street and round the corner. On a rainy Newcastle night, it might be best to go before you arrive. Inside, there is room for 15, in a way which some might call intimate, others an invasion of privacy. Then again, this space used to be a sandwich shop and those are rarely built in ballrooms.
The tables are solid lumps of scrubbed-down old wood, which I’m absolutely sure were not reclaimed from a skip. The compact menu, which changes daily according to what’s available, is written up in multi-coloured chalk on a blackboard, in an enthusiastic hand. And it is, of course, all bloody marvellous. The Small Canteen serves big food, in the classic bistro tradition; the dishes are rich and generous and designed to get you through the night and a few of the following days, too. The scene is set by the dips that await you at the table, on a Small Canteen monogrammed plate: a tricolour of deep green salsa verde, sunset orange red pepper purée and an-off white aioli. All of them boast proper depth and power. Take a photo of the menu because it’s on the wall behind you, then, while you study it, get to work on those dips with the hunks of accompanying bread. Just beware. There’s more coming. A lot more.
It’s all the work of Sam Betts, an experienced chef who came out of Covid wanting to do his own thing. He could be called the head chef, but as he’s the only person at the stoves, he’s just the head of himself. There’s a strong sense he very much likes it that way. Tonight, there’s one person out front taking the orders, doing the carrying and clearing, and another chap on pot wash. There isn’t room for more.
As there are just three starters, two mains and two desserts we order it all because it’s priced to encourage that sort of behaviour. The starters and desserts are all £8. The mains are around £18. A double-cooked cheddar soufflé is springy and light and served in a lake of chive-flecked, cheese-boosted béchamel. Around the rim the cheese sauce has become crusted and brown and is demanding to be scraped at. It reminds me of the heart-stopping soufflé suissesse at Le Gavroche, only one that’s started hanging out with a rougher crowd and learned some delightfully louche manners. A confit pork terrine is served at a perfect room temperature. It’s in a slab the thickness of a big Stephen King novel. There are bursts of pistachio green among the meaty pink and on the side there’s a relish made from pickled walnuts. Betts has clearly spent a lot of time learning the craft of the terrine. The third starter is a golden trio of smoked haddock croquettes in a panko crumb, accompanied by a rough-hewn tartare sauce. We begin to worry a little about how much enthusiasm we put into dispatching those dips.
For here come the main courses, like aircraft carriers cresting the horizon. The braised beef cheek clearly originated with a proper-sized beast. It is fork-tender and slumped on a duvet of mash that is not shy of the horseradish with which it has been impregnated. Because Betts doesn’t do restrained there are also roasted shallots and slabs of smoked bacon as if it’s a boeuf bourguignon that never got properly disassembled into its various parts. Obviously, there is gravy. Lots and lots of gravy, for this is Newcastle and they wouldn’t have it any other way. The other main is three silky ravioli, each the size of saucers, stuffed with a smooth butternut squash purée and dressed with toasty beurre noisette and pine nuts. Alongside is a brightly dressed salad, because leaves are in order.
If I have a doubt about any of this, it is not for the customers, but for the business. The portions really are quite challenging and the pricing does not seem to reflect what’s gone into them. For the same price, that terrine could be the thickness of a novella rather than a blockbuster and nobody would feel short-changed. It would still be the edible equivalent of a major page-turner. The peak of the beef cheek dish could be a few inches lower and again nobody would complain about having less of a summit to scale. It’s exemplified for me by our wine choice. It’s a lovely, smooth 2021 gavi di gavi from Villa Casetta. It’s up on the blackboard at £26 alongside two similarly priced whites and reds. It retails for between £18 and £20. Of course, we are meant to celebrate good value, but for God’s sake, Sam, this is no way to do business. The Small Canteen is one of the good places. No. It’s one of the great places. It needs to survive.
And so to the desserts. There is a wedge of raisin and apple cake with the lightest, most acutely judged waft of saffron. It is both homely and accomplished; the thing your favourite auntie, the one who knows how to bake, gets out when you come round because she is pleased to see you. It comes with mascarpone ice-cream. Or there’s the panna cotta, set in a glass tumbler. A slab of seedy nut brittle sticks out of it. On top are the sweetest of blackberries. And, of course, they are huge specimens, the biggest blackberries I have seen in a long while.
It would be a lie to say that any of this was truly surprising. It was Betts himself who brought the restaurant to my attention, with an emailed photograph of one of his messy blackboards. It just seemed the kind of place I would like. But I hadn’t quite bargained on it being such a joy. In a restaurant world that too often celebrates the big and the dramatic and the glossy, it was delightful to find somewhere so damn pleasurable and so at ease with itself. The obvious should generally be avoided but it has to be said: the Small Canteen is a restaurant with a huge heart.
A 4,000-strong Facebook group for self-declared food, booze and music obsessives called the Porky Punk has, after a dozen years of sharing hungry ideas with each other and just happily wasting time online, spawned a book. The Porky Punk Annual Manual, published by hospitality industry veteran Mark Souter, who founded the group, has a foreword by cook and broadcaster Andi Oliver and more than 80 recipes, alongside stories celebrating pickling, fermenting, preserving, micro dosing and a whole bunch of other stuff which may or may not be relevant. Copies are available to buy here.
My annual reminder that fundraising by Streetsmart, which invites participating restaurants to put an extra £1 per table on bills to help alleviate homelessness, is in full swing from now until Christmas. According to the most recent figures, homelessness has risen 12% since before Covid. More than 560 restaurants in 24 cities across the UK are involved this year and they hope to beat the £786,000 raised in 2022. For a full list of participating restaurants, visit streetsmart.org.uk.
Big business update: the Asda Group has become the owner of “natural fast food” company Leon, which originally launched as a plucky competitor to high-street fast-food brands. Asda has bought EG Group’s business in the UK for £2.07bn, which includes Leon. The brand had already started running coffee kiosks in various of Asda’s supermarkets and will now be fully rolled out across the estate (leon.co).
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1