If you think you know what to expect from a bowling alley then think again. On opening its doors in St James’ Boulevard, Newcastle, late last year, Lane7 surprised many with its stylish “boutique” venue take on the popular game and head chef Chris Finnigan is intent on keeping those surprises coming.
Already Lane7 is proving so popular that you have to book early to get a slot and some people aren’t coming to bowl at all which tells you all you need to know about the food that Chris and his staff are cooking up in the busy little kitchen.
Father-of-two Chris is the former 16-year-old catering college student from Birtley whose palate so impressed Raymond Blanc at a food event in Newcastle that he ended up training under the top chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons for four career-forming years.
Now 29, and having worked as a head chef at various venues since he was 21, Chris says of the time: “What a guy. It was a really great start and taught me everything I know.
“My background is French cooking. I’ve only ever worked with French cooking and was also interested in Italian.”
So what persuaded a classically-trained chef, who admits American food had never been his thing, to turn to US staples such as burgers and fries?
Lane7, it seems, was a perfect opportunity, not only to work on home turf (he wanted his two children, Toby, two, and six-month-old Rex, with partner Helen to grow up as Geordies) but to use his skills to create something truly imaginative, unique and high quality.
And it was a meeting of minds with owner Tim Wilks, who was behind the concept and has big ambitions for a business in which more than £700,000 has been invested.
The two floor warehouse-style venue, with its wood, stripped-back brick walls, curved turquoise booths and bars featuring bowling bowls and quirky fixtures amongst the bottles, certainly offers Chris space to spread his wings.
And in the open kitchen, in view of diners who may or may not be taking up a bowling slot at one of the eight available lanes, his team is making American food the way you imagine Americans wish they’d served it.
The burgers and hot dogs are “packed with flavour”. And those flavours, multi-layered through mix-and-match ingredients, are what they work on, talk about and try out all the time.
An smoker and indoor BBQs are heated for hours for their role in adding the essential smokiness to what are fast becoming signature dishes, then it’s a matter of the right sides and relishes from their selection of specially-created sauces, mayonnaise and toppings.
Chris, who certainly did his research about American cuisine and gained, he admits, weight in the process, says a great deal of thought has gone into everything on the menu, from the best hot dog available (Big Apple Dogs in London apparently, with Lane7 now the only other place in the UK serving them) to every dollop of home-made relish. It’s “fast food” that has taken a lot of time in the planning and execution phase.
And the result is a perfectly judged little medley of flavours and textures, from the chilli pimp dog with short rib chilli, jalapenos and house nachos to - one of Chris’ favourites - a chicken burger which comes with smoked black pepper mayo, soured red onions and cheese. And I can vouch for the hickory smoked pulled pork starter with kimchi slaw (a Korean touch) and delicious cheddar cornbread which is like a soft cheese scone.
It’s not fine dining, points out Chris, but it is about fine ingredients, including lamb from County Durham and vegetables from Northumberland, while his treacle-covered bacon comes from a supplier in York.
“I try to keep as much as I can local but if I can’t get the very best produce locally I’ll look elsewhere. It’s about flavour and flavour comes from good ingredients.”
He talks about treating them with respect and love and still follows the “nose to tail” training he had under Blanc to make proper use of what he has.
And, says this classically-trained chef who wears a baseball cap, he wants this to be a fun place to be for both customers and his chefs.
Those customers, who take a seat at tables lain with check napkins and sauce bottles, shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t get a plate,
Food is served up on a little canteen-like tray. Ok, you may have seen chips presented in a little bucket before but probably not the cute mini milk bottle that accompanies a coffee.
Or the wipes on the tray. This can be messy food.
Says Chris: “The visual side is very quirky in the presentation - we like to bring quirky into our day!
“With the burger, and it’s hard to make a burger look good, we leave it open, de-constructed and dress the bun.”
He adds: “I genuinely believe we are the best in the UK in terms of food and bowling at this moment in time.
“I think we are at the top of our game.”
And that includes, he says, with the bowling, whose lanes are the first in the UK to feature a walnut finish.
Pool tables and table tennis tables too are available upstairs and there are big plans for the basement. Chris can’t say too much at present but it will work on the changing lines of a pop-up venue and, he says, “some of the themes will be unbelievable”. So, keep your eyes out. For more on Lane7 visit lane7.co.uk and to book call 0191 261 6161.