As a rule, I am not a lover of restaurant chains. Generally, I find their fare too predictable and too plastic, but I’d heard good reports emanating from the new Sambuca eaterie in Embleton.
For me, it had broken the mould even before I’d stepped across the threshold. I mean, it’s unusual to see an archetypal English country pub in a tiny village in north Northumberland, a mere field and a fairway away from one of the finest beaches in the world (in my opinion), largely swallowed up by a slice of Italy.
A miniscule bar area at the door is all that remains of tradition, and when we arrived at Sunday lunchtime, a few locals were huddled there, but the rest has succumbed to Mediterranean influences. Whitewashed walls are peppered with exposed bricks and tiles, an ornate chandelier hangs imposingly and plaster busts and Italian masters, including Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, adorn the walls. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Mona Lisa’s glare burning a hole in my neck.
Add some Euro sounds, a dash of Shakira and the odd Barry Manilow track and you could be forgiven for thinking you were on vacation in a taverna – well, almost!
Bringing me back to the chilly May afternoon by the North Sea, I ordered an extremely palatable ale called Shuggy Boat Blonde from Cullercoats Brewery, while Mrs L plumped for a house red, which turned out to be a smooth Merlot – a little too smooth, judging by the volume put away!
The set menu will be the same one you will be given at Sambucas all over the North East. It struck me that if you stick to the standard pizzas or pastas (£4.95 to £6.95), had minestrone soup to start (at £1.80, surely the cheapest broth you’ll find) and round it off with one of the £3.95 desserts, you could devour a three-course meal for not much more than £10.
Indeed, the three-course Sunday lunch is an ultra-bargain at £7.95 (soup or potato skins; roast beef, chicken or lamb, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and fresh vegetables; and ice-cream or coffee). Amazing value – a glance across the room revealed quite hearty portions too.
The starters boasted mainly Anglo-Italian standards – king prawns with lemon or garlic (£6.95); garlic bread with cheese (£3.20); crispy potato skins with dips (£2.50); garlic mushrooms (£3.40); homemade liver pâté (£3.20); prawn cocktail (£4.20). At these prices, we weren’t expecting the earth, but when my deep-fried squid, with garlic mayo (£4.95) and Mrs L’s bruschetta, with tomato, garlic, basil and olives (£2.50) landed within a blink of Mona Lisa’s eye, we were pleasantly surprised. The Sambuca chefs must be given artistic free-reign or drilled to perfection as both dishes looked spectacular – all swirls, drizzles and dabs, a dashing mix of olive oil, pesto and herbs. The bruschetta (essentially toast with a tomato-based topping) was refreshing, tangy and a surprisingly enterprising appetiser. The calamari starter partly confirmed my chain-restaurant theory, with the breadcrumbed squid being lightweight and a bit bland, probably due to being originally frozen, but the chef’s inventiveness amply bridged the quality gap.
We were torn when it came to main courses, there were so many tempting offers. I veered away from the menu and hit the specials board with my choice, spigola (sea bass served with crunchy greens and Jersey royals, drizzled with thyme sauce, £11.95).
Across the table, the order was made for fillet steak Diane, with onions, mushrooms, brandy, red wine and cream, at £14.95. Both dishes were delicious.
My fish was splendidly cooked, not too dried out, and the bed of cabbage, courgettes and leeks were delicately sweet, with a strong, but not too overpowering, aromatic twist from the thyme, sprigs of which were laid on top. The buttery sauce added a touch of decadence. It was a mellow, pleasing combo.
I enjoyed watching Mrs L eat her steak. It was obviously going down well. A quick taste confirmed why – the sauce was creamy and you could taste the zing of alcohol. The chips were splendid – I’d wager hand-cut and double cooked.
We shared a strawberry cheesecake (£3.95) for dessert, which just about did the job. It was served in a shallow trifle glass, so that lovers of the biscuit base might be disappointed that the glass tapers to a point, reducing the bottom layer.
But it was light, sweet and tangy - more home-constructed than home-made.
The service was excellent, friendly and attentive, and we vowed to return, despite my early reservations.
IDEAL VENUE FOR THE KIDS
Youngsters (12 years and under) also get a great deal at Sambuca. Most of their meals cost £2.50 – spaghetti bolognese, cheesy pasta, margherita pizza, pepperoni pizza and garlic bread with cheese, while chicken nuggets and chips are £3.95. The Sunday lunch offering of a main course plus ice-cream will set you back £4.95.
The restaurant is open seven days a week, noon to 9pm on Monday to Saturday and noon to 8pm on Sunday.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Garlic breads......from £1.50
King prawns + lemon or garlic......£6.95
Crispy potato skins......£2.50
Pizzas, various toppings......£4.95-£6.95
Pasta, choice of spaghetti, tagliatelle or penne, with various sauces including carbonara & marinara......£4.95-£6.95
Pollo alla crema......£8.95
Fillet steak stroganoff......£14.95
Mediterranean chicken risotto......£10.95
Spaghetti gamberoni (prawns)......£13.95
Bistecca (rib-eye steak)......£15.95
Eton mess, amaretto cake, tiramasu, milk or white chocolate profiteroles.
Quality of food......8
Value for money......9
Use of local food......no references
Access for disabled......7
Toilet for disabled......No
Verdict: Sambuca could become very popular with families looking for good food at great prices. No local food mentioned though.
Contact: 01665 576639 or visit www.sambucarestaurants.co.uk