IT TOOK a bit of patience, but after four phone calls (mostly going to voicemail) and a shift in my expectations from a prime Friday night dinner to a mid-week one, I finally managed to get a table at Fat Buddha.
I wondered if I’d slipped into a parallel universe. We’re in the grip of a recession, we’re told restaurants are struggling as consumers tighten their belts and swap their nights out for takeaways at home, yet Newcastle’s newest restaurant was fully booked.
There wasn’t a single seat left – and the first floor restaurant has 125 of them. Blimey. I felt like I’d been transported to an episode of Sex in the City set in Yuppie-era New York where nobody can get a seat in the hottest restaurant in town.
Perhaps it’s an indicator of green shoots in the economy or maybe it’s simply that Bob Senior’s Utopian Leisure has got the recipe bang-on for an upmarket Asian Fusion restaurant following on from the success of it’s sister restaurant in Durham.
So with high expectations, my friend and I headed for the Swan House roundabout to be greeted by a golden Buddha at the doorway and an equally welcoming young woman who escorted us up the sleek staircase to our table.
It’s hard to believe this place was once inhabited by Bar 55 and Lineker’s, such is the transformation.
A beautifully ornate high domed ceiling reminiscent of a high-class Milanese shopping arcade dominates and contrasts with uber-modern furnishings. Dark wood, glass and oriental-style wooden fretwork panels abound, with vibrant greens and cerise pinks adding a splash of colour.
The £1m refurbishment appears to be money well spent, though, as the place was packed with mostly well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings and buzzing with chat and laughter. I also loved the Titami rooms for 10, which reminded me of my time in Japan. They’re perfect for memorable nights out when you want a bit of privacy to let your hair down.
Browsing through the extensive menu with a very smooth and mellow house red in hand (the Australian Jarrah Wood Shiraz at £14.95), there were so many dishes to choose from, with influences from across East Asia including China, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia.
I’m a big fan of Asian food and, having eaten in the latter three countries, was pretty impressed by the menu’s scope and authenticity.
We soon realised that choosing either Set Menu A at £23.50 or Set Menu B at £25.50 would be easier – the extra £2 buying you an additional soup course and a few different main course options. We opted for Menu A and weren’t disappointed. For starters it was a choice of crispy aromatic duck with steamed pancakes or the Fat Buddha deluxe platter, which consisted of four chicken satay skewers, four salt and chilli prawns, four veg spring rolls and four duck samosas.
The lure of more variety swung it. As soon as our sizzling platter arrived, the aroma of peanuts from the chicken satay skewers got our tastebuds going. Each dish was bursting with flavour. I only wish the portions were a bit bigger as it was demolished in five minutes.
A minor niggle was the lack of complementary prawn crackers, something most diners are used to in the vast majority of Chinese restaurants. They’re on the menu at £2.90, whereas my local Chinese will happily replenish them endlessly. Of the eight main course choices, we could pick two, so shared the wok-fried Sichuan Mu Dan king prawns with red pepper and the pan-fried rib-eye steak rolls wrapped round asparagus spears in a black pepper sauce.
The latter was our best choice. It was beautifully presented, flavoursome and very, very moreish.
Although the king prawns were large, juicy and clearly good quality, this dish was a little too hot and spicy for us with an over-abundance of red pepper. Also included were two side dishes – ours being egg-fried rice and some lovely fat udon noodles – as an upgrade for an extra £1.
At this point I was feeling nicely satiated rather than over-stuffed so was pleased to have room for dessert.
My friend chose the caremelized banana, which was a more refined dish than the sometimes stodgy banana fritters you get in many Chinese restaurants. The batter was banished for a lighter dish with more of a creme brulee flavour.
My chocolate cake was pretty run of the mill, though, and I soon realised most of the flavour was coming from the sauce rather than the cake itself.
Fat Buddha is clearly the antithisis to the ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ happy hour bars and restaurants of Newcastle. You won’t find discounts – or indeed free prawn crackers – here.
It’s a great place to take visiting friends and family or clients to show off our fair city, but I can’t help feeling it’s a little over-priced as set banquets tend to start at around £16 in Stowell Street.
However, for a new experience, for the stunning location and surroundings, and for the mix of influences from so many countries, it might just be worth that little extra.
Address: Fat Buddha Bar & Asian Kitchen, 55 Degrees North, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, NE1 6BG. Tel: 0191 261 1066.
Open: Lunch from noon-2.30pm in the bar area. Open for dinner in first-floor restaurants from 6pm with last orders at 10.15pm.
First Impressions: A restaurant on a roundabout might seem odd and the frontage makes it seem smaller than it is. However, it’s a Tardis inside with great city views.
Welcome: Slick and professional, but friendly.
Style, design and furnishings: Stunning and finished to a high standard. It certainly has the wow factor.
Cuisine: High-end Asian fusion with influences from China, Thailaind, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Service: Attentive without being overly intrusive.
Value: Over-priced in my opinion, especially considering the portions. However, the lunch menu is better value with tapas at around £3 each and main dishes at £5.75. There’s also a 220-seat bar serving dim sum and other Asian snacks downstairs.
Disabled facilities: Fully accessible.