Legend has it that there was once an imam, whose wife served him a dish of aubergines stuffed with onions, garlic and tomatoes, simmered in a vat of olive oil. When he tasted it, he was so overwhelmed by its wondrous flavour, he fainted. Or maybe it was the cost of the ingredients that made him swoon, the folklore’s not totally clear.
Imam bayildi means “the imam fainted”, and it’s a classic staple of Turkish cuisine. I have to admit that this restaurant, conveniently close to St James’ Park (I was on my way with a friend to watch our team being beaten by Manchester United) did actually bowl me over. But not in a good way.
It’s a barn with big glass windows, like an enormous café, and an open grill kitchen in one corner. Aside from a few bazaar lights hanging from the ceiling, and some tiles on the pillars, you couldn’t really tell it was Turkish, but Red Flame had been recommended to me by a very reputable source: the waitress at Fez Food in the Grainger Market, which I enjoyed so much last week.
She told me that Red Flame had the same owners, which wasn’t strictly true, as in fact they’re only good friends. Red Flame is the big sister of Red Mezze, in Leazes Square, which had been recommended to me by several readers, so I decided to strike while the grill was hot and take in a sumptuous Turkish banquet before the match. I feared this would be the only highlight of my evening: I was right, for we lost one-nil.
We arrived early, and didn’t manage to leave until the crowd in the stadium were roaring the teams’ entrance. It wasn’t the scale of our banquet that took so long – we scarcely reached our main course – it was the exceptionally slow service.
It took an age to order the wine. Despite my friend’s protestations on behalf of a safe Sauvignon Blanc, I was determined to try something Turkish. Unfortunately the waitress had no idea which wine was from where, and eventually found us a bottle of something from the back of the fridge called Angora, which wasn’t on the menu.
I suspect it might have belonged to the manager, for it had just enough resin to remind me of the Aegean, and enough body to enliven any spirit. The grape was sultana, which is fairly close to chardonnay, so it was a cross between Chablis and retsina. Welcome to Turkey.
Then came the swoon. Having ordered our food, I went to inspect the facilities below. Two steps later, my heel stood on something that wasn’t step and I tumbled downstairs on my back.
My dignity was hurt more than my spine, although I am writing this with a twinge of whiplash. After retrieving me, my friend inspected the offending step and found that the rubber protector was loose. He pointed it out to the staff, who did nothing about it. Later, we watched fearfully as waiters carried huge trays of food up the same stairs, but I guess they must be used to it. Visitors with heels: beware.
We’d ordered four starters, of which three arrived and one was a substitute: the requested broad beans had been replaced by a perfectly good hummus that really tasted of chick pea. Saksuka was a garlicky, tomatoey dish, with potato, peppers and aubergine. I very much enjoyed the muska boregi, warm, light pastry parcels of feta and dill.
But by far our favourite was patlican esme, with a fantastic hit of garlic. This is aubergine, chargrilled till the skin falls off, its pale flesh mixed with yoghurt, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. The garlic, combined with strong wine, helped ease the pain from my suspected broken neck.
Meanwhile there was a kerfuffle at the next table. A party of four, who had been there when we arrived, were most put out by the appearance of our starters. Apparently they’d been waiting an age and hadn’t even been brought bread. We sympathised, and offered them some of ours, for the flat bread was very good indeed.
They waited another ten minutes, then began to rise huffily. Whereupon, as if by magic, their table filled with food.
Then it was our turn to wait. I heard a lot of shouting downstairs, and I think I caught the word “kleftiko”.
Time passed, and the restaurant began to empty for the match, until it was our turn to throw a wobbly. Quite why they filled tables beyond the kitchen’s capacity is beyond me, but the two grill chefs were overwhelmed.
We were about to make a choice between food and football, when finally our kleftiko arrived, with a shepperd salad (their spelling) in tow, together with the dish that felled the imam. The kleftiko was actually delicious, melt-in-the-mouth, falling off its shank, but it was also stone cold, and its accompanying carrots and rice were very dull. Meanwhile, the imam’s dish, swimming in a watery tomato sauce, wouldn’t have made a starving man faint.
Which shows you shouldn’t believe old legends. Or waitresses in the Grainger Market.
Secret Diner’s verdict (out of 5 stars)
Food 2 *
Service 1 *
Ambience 2 *
Newcastle upon Tyne
0191 447 6226