A Return Visit To Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth
After the long journey ‘ooop north’ to see the Geordie Bird (His Nibs’ mum) we were feeling a bit frazzled and definitely in need of food and chill time. Enter the rather unique comfort of Riley’s Fish Shack located on the sand at St. Edwards Bay in Tynemouth; granted, there is the obstacle of THOSE steps to navigate (steep is an understatement!), but trust me, it’s worth the effort.
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on this already bijou business; usually there is seating inside the shack but it’s narrow so there was no way around its confines for social distancing, so dining literally has to be on the sand sitting in deckchairs and this is dependent on the weather. Not the greatest position to be in given the caprice of the British summer! However nothing stops this tight-knit team and, in the main, the weather has been playing ball – as was the case for The Man and I when we visited.
We’d already paid the deposit of £25 per deckchair (a nifty way to counter any no-shows), and this is refunded against your final bill total. We made our way to the front row of deckchairs and plonked ourselves down at the sturdy cable-reel table, took a deep breath and felt the tensions of the day float away. I ordered a Sea Salt Negroni (£8) made with Hepple Gin, Campari, Vermouth Rosso, Sea Salt and an Orange wheel garnish, and The Man had a pint of Allendale lager to wet his whistle. Glasses of water were also offered and brought out to us within a couple of minutes.
Thanks to the posh cocktail I was feeling more ‘Coastal A La Carte’ than ‘Scran Au Surf’ so I splashed out (no pun intended!) and had a Lindisfarne Oyster (£3.20 each) with a Coriander, Thai Basil, Lime and Chilli Chutney as a treat, much to His Nibs’ disgust! The Ozonic tang of the Oyster really popped against the clean herb and citrus notes and really got my juices flowing.
From the Wood Oven section of the menu, we ordered Bacalau (Portuguese for salted Cod, fresh Cod should be called Bacalau Fresco, technically) Croquettes with Watercress and Aioli (£6.50) and Chilli Fish Empanada (£6); although they’re not strictly starters, we treat them as such and had Bang Bang Monkfish Kebab and BBQ Halibut chop with buttered Black Trompette mushrooms, Parsley and grilled Lemon as our mains from the Grill and Hot Plate section of the menu, priced at £20 and £32 respectively. For whatever reason the Croquettes had been changed to Fishcakes that evening, and the lovely young man apologised for this as he informed us (it wasn’t a problem at all).
There’s no airs and graces at Riley’s Fish Shack: when the food’s ready, it comes out, so there’s no strict differentiation between starters and mains – you gets it when you gets it! The only strict condition (and it is being tightly adhered to at the moment due to high demand but restricted capacity) is the timeslot of 2 hours that diners are allocated; you must turn up promptly too, as the kitchen is so structured at the moment in order for food quality to remain high that timings are crucial.
Our servers for the evening were Matt and Sam and despite them wearing natty masks and face coverings, you could tell that there were huge smiles behind them! Nothing was too much trouble for this fantastic pair of chaps, and it wasn’t long before our food was being placed on the large circumference of the circular table. Again, the plates and cutlery weren’t fancy (they were deliberately single use) but the attention to detail with the food was superb; colour and texture play a massive part in the appeal of Riley’s food and the quality of the local fish and seafood is second-to-none. This was truly the definition of Al Fresco dining, with the sound of waves crashing on the shore, seagulls meandering by the tables in search of an opportunity to pinch a scrap or two (no chance at our table, fellas!) and the waft of smoke from the kitchen drifting to our nostrils occasionally.
We were both impressed with the Bacalau Fishcake; it was a great size (we were both starving!) and the crispy outer gave a lovely sound as the knife broke through it and into the pillow soft fish and herb centre. There was lots of flavour to enjoy and the simple accompaniments of peppery Watercress and Garlic notes of the creamy Aioli really were all that was needed to make this a delicious dish.
Eager not to let our mains cool down too quickly (and having had the Empanadas before), we moved on to the stars of the show: Monkfish Kebabs and Halibut chop. Not at lot shocks me, but I was floored by the size of my Halibut Chop! The magnificent fish ‘chop’ was a good 1.5 -2” thick and was about the size of a man’s palm - I was certainly going to have my work cut out eating this and the mixed side of flatbread, Potatoes, Caper berry salad, Lime-pickled Fennel, Smoked Chilli Relish, Aioli and Green sauce that came with it.
The first mouthful of the white flesh had me sighing with joy as its velvety texture and creamy, gently fragrant taste hit my taste buds. Although this was head and gills above the other menu items in terms of price, it was definitely worth the outlay in my opinion. Chef clearly knows how to cook Halibut and the skin was nicely charred and crisped without the delicate fish being at all blemished; there wasn’t a single hint of char or colour besmirching the Alabaster Halibut chop. The buttered, earthy mushrooms, clean notes of the Parsley and mellow tang of the grilled Lemon provided the perfect bed fellows for the Halibut, emphasising its natural flavour excellently.
In contrast to the smoothness of the fish was the crunch and colour of the side salad and you can’t help but notice the zingy Lime-pickled Fennel; the thin slices of the anise tasting herb absorb the clean citrus juices and certainly make the palate take notice, as do the slightly briny Caper Berries. Every taste is catered for, with the heat in the Smoked Chilli Relish, Garlic-laden Aioli or the brightness of the sauce Vierge (green sauce) to delight in, whether combined and then having Potato dunked in them or used singly. I used the sourdough stick to mop up all the juices and butter surrounding the Halibut, determined not to leave any behind!
The Man Bird was happily chowing down on the compact flesh of his Monkfish kebab and it is precisely the firm nature of this particular fish that makes it so fantastic to cut up and use in kebabs; it doesn’t fall apart or flake easily. His Nibs liked its mild creamy flavour, although if I told him Monkfish is called ‘poor man’s Lobster’ he might like it less – oooh I missed a trick there didn’t I? Doh! The inoffensive taste of the fish allowed the heat and spice of the Vindaloo paste smeared on it to come through strongly on the palate. Cooling Raita, sour Tamarind and bright Spring onion and Coriander helped assuage the fire of the Vindaloo element and the mixed vegetable Pau Bhaji came in handy to scoop up any vestiges left on the plate. This morsel comes with a Potato side: Rosemary and Garlic pimped, steamed Waxy redskin spuds – proper comfort food, ramped up the Riley’s way!
With the mains safely dispatched, we turned our attention back to the Empanada. Here, the Cod is cooked with kicking Kashmiri Chilli, Fennel and Pernod then wrapped in a sourdough, pasty-like case and topped with vibrant Green sauce and creamy Aioli. This may be a relatively small dish compared to some others on the menu, but by golly it will keep anyone’s mouth busy with its symphony of flavours! The sourdough shell had cooled a little in the open air, but the filling had remained lovely and hot, so we found ourselves blowing furiously as its heat caught our tongues off guard somewhat.
Before us, an assortment of empty dishes laid testament to our enjoyment and satisfaction of all the fresh fish we’d eaten and we smiled happily at each other. Fresh fish seems to swirl briskly around the mouth like the sea air does around the body, reviving and delighting the senses simultaneously, and Riley’s Fish Shack only uses the very best of the day’s catch. I always think that fish and seafood are a bit of an enigma, in that the fresher the specimen is, the less ‘fishy’ it smells or tastes; Riley’s fish treats had whispered rather than shouted as they caressed our taste buds with that unique clean, pure aura that it has.
Matt and Sam had kept a close eye on us during the evening, clearing away surplus plates and making sure we were ok for drinks. As the temperature dropped with the setting sun, log filled fire pits were being lit for those who wanted them and we found ourselves basking in gentle warmth as the hypnotic flames leaped around. The Man and I drank in the picture perfect, dreamy dusk, listening to the waves’ musicality and watching the twinkling lights of the ships out at sea.; this was certainly one of those soul-soothing moments. As we lazed in the deck chairs’ confines we put the world to rights in our own way, and one of the things we said was that we hoped people wouldn’t take it for granted that niche businesses like Riley’s (popular though it is) would survive the pandemics economic effect. What I will say though is that if you see a small business’ post on social media, please like it and share it; this promotes their posts to a wider audience and keeps their dream alive.
Riley’s will be closing for the season early, shortly; they aren’t taking bookings for October or November and are currently thinking up ways to offer something for Christmas opening. They will be back next year though, so keep your eyes peeled and support them if you can.