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Paprika's a hot spot for eating.

Byline: By Geoff Laws

Geoff Laws goes from cobblestones to contemporary cuisine in 100 yards.

It's interesting the way cities evolve. Once upon a Victorian time the fashion was for huge, rambling houses with imposing facades overlooking broad streets ( and servants tucked up in the attic rooms.

Before that, the Georgians created elegantly balanced exteriors to their beautifully proportioned buildings on either side of cobbled carriageways, with the servant deal being pretty much the same.

If the city had been blessed with planners with vision and respect for history, the best examples would have been championed and not bulldozed in the 1960s and covered with concrete monstrosities.

Sunderland has held on to some great buildings and treasured them into the 21st Century. In the heart of the city there are some grand Victorian/Edwardian houses standing right alongside modern glass and chrome, and plenty of greenery too.

There are even some wonderful cobbled streets, and that is where, teeth tap dancing to the rhythm of the trundling tyres, I found myself.

As you may remember, the chauffeuse has a perverse response to navigating new places, speeding up as she becomes increasingly unsure of where she is, and this was no exception.

The combination of speed and cobbles made my directions sound wobbly, but eventually she slewed on to a surfaced road and I was able to speak clearly. "Park here!" came out a bit louder than intended, but did the trick and she stopped the car abruptly. We'll gloss over the next 30 seconds of huffy, wounded silence as we strolled the 100 yards or so back to the restaurant.

Paprika is tucked away in the basement of an elegant terrace and on this night, in the hush of early evening, it was easy to imagine how life had been years ago when broughams and hansoms clip-clopped up and down.

The restaurant's low-slung ceiling, contemporary decor and relaxed jazzy music establishes its informal atmosphere. All the hallmarks of bistro-chic are here. Polished wood floor with matching furniture; blackboards, wiped clean of lunchtime menus, displaying evening specials; softly lit white and warm-brown walls; silver cutlery, gleaming glasses and linen napkins. I had a good feeling about the place right from the start, and it continued to the espresso end.

Baked asparagus and goat's cheese wrapped in Parma ham on a roasted vine tomato and rocket salad kicked things off for the chauffeuse and she was soon enthusing over the bold character of this dish.

A creamy cushion of cheese enfolded slender spears of asparagus, all neatly wrapped in wafer-thin ham. A great mix of textures and flavours, with the roasted tomatoes' warmed centres bursting into the sweet balsamic/olive oil dressing that corralled the crunchy salad. Brilliant!

My chilli and citrus spiced crispy duck breast on a mango salad was just as good. Softly seared breast meat wedged across the salad, with slices of honey mango fanned beneath.

The pair's sweetness was spiked with the chilli and tangy citrus dressing that zipped along at a cracking pace. What a taste coup!

Our choice of wine, a Cabernet-Tempranillo grown at high altitude to make the most of the grapes' darkly sweet black cherry and slightly tart plum sugars, blended perfectly with both starters. What better way to start a weekend?

The girl from Ipanema sashayed into the room with Astrid Gilberto, one of my favourite singers. Her tantalisingly husky voice and edgy version of this classic number is definitely my favourite.

Now that we were assured of the calibre of this restaurant, we beamed contentedly at one another, confident that more good stuff was to follow, and we weren't wrong. Astrid left and Nina Simone stepped into her place, bemoaning her faithless fella, as entrAes came into view.

My beef fillet, layered with creamed forest mushrooms, fresh tarragon with roasted shallots and thyme jus was as good as it gets. A generous slice of succulent, tender meat was draped over a creamy seam of mushrooms, oozing musky juices into the fragrant jus. A good example of how to balance richly cooked ingredients without overloading the palate.

My companion's fillet of seabass on a warm chorizo and potato salsa with garlic king prawns was another. The seared skin of the fish amazingly hadn't dried the flesh one jot. It was as pale as a blanched almond and just as moist. A gentle tomato sauce soothed the hot chorizo and the bonus of two burly prawns meant that sharing was unavoidable.

A bowl of broccoli, glazed carrots and boiled potatoes, all steaming hot was, sadly, more than we could manage.

A brief rest between courses was essential. The place was buzzing, with a great party atmosphere building by the minute and chef Chris Clark was clearly happy in his kitchen.

Although pretty full already, it would have been churlish not to have dessert ( so we did. Paprika warm crepes with summer berries and ice cream for her, and warm chocolate fondant pudding with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream for me. Glossing over the ice cream, which was thinly flavoured and more ice than cream, the rest was a delicious finale. Her freshly made pancake curled around berries of every hue, with roasted plums and a sweeter-than-sweet sauce to boot.

My chocolate-saturated sponge, with a hint of runniness in the centre, amazingly moved of its own accord across the table, proving that auto kinesis does exist. We happily paid the bill of pounds 64.35.

Pete Zulu, of the Black Horse Inn, in Boldon, South Tyneside, had recommended we try Paprika. He's a good chef and, as the saying goes, it takes one to know one.

Paprika, 46 Frederick Street, Sunderland, (0191) 564-0606.

Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-2.30pm; Saturday 5pm-whenever; Thursday-Saturday 5pm-7pm twilight and tapas menus.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 14, 2005
Words:961
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