Tucked away under the overpass to Queen’s Wharf is the latest eatery to give the Hunter Street mall a go: The Basement. It’s hard to pigeon-hole this place; it’s part bar, part tapas joint. Just when you think it might be Mediterranean, you look at the menu and see ceviche and sushi on offer. It’s best not to formalise things, just go with the flow.
And that’s certainly the vibe that they seem to be going for. It's open with windows and doors on two sides. It's intimate, but without being pokey. The colours are muted and dark with wood tables, candles and exposed brick. The space is small – only around 50 would fit with tables inside and out. And really easy going. It’s definitely got that tapas bar feel – don’t come here for formal dining. But that doesn’t mean you can’t expect great food, because the Basement has it in bucket loads.
A main feature of the space is the bar. It’s also where you order your food – no table service here. Two ceiling-high Roman columns along with an inbuilt wine rack that takes up one wall, covered in ivy leaves, definitely lend itself to a Mediterranean feel. That and the fact that the Gypsy Kings are playing on the stereo.
Despite it being a Monday night, there are plenty of people around. It’s summer so we all become morning and night people all at once. To celebrate making through a Monday, I try a Coconut Key cocktail with spiced rum, peach brandy and lychee liqueur with agave, pineapple, mint and lime, all served in a fresh young coconut. It’s delicious and refreshing and the idea of the coconut is quirky until I have to hold it and my hands become all slimey. I think it would work just as well in a glass. But maybe with a little umbrella.
To feed starving bellies, a quick request of polenta chips with shaved manchego and a creamy mustardy aioli are ordered pronto. The chips are crispy and fluffy and much lighter than the potato variety, but still as hearty. Beef carpaccio served with toast is creamy and bold. Pickled artichokes, Manchego and whole cloves of confit garlic make it a delicious way to graze. Garlic prawns come with toasted baguette slices and have an almost nutty flavouring. The shaved toasted coconut may well be the culprit. With big slices of garlic and a hint of chilli they are super tasty.
A lazy sushi dish packs a punch. Raw kingfish is tossed with vegetables and avocado and served with crispy rice paper, seaweed and fruit. The fresh fish is sweet and succulent. Lots of fresh and crispy vegetables in a creamy sauce provides texture and the toasted sesame adds an earthy flavour. The strawberries are a bit weird though and don’t really add anything to the plate but colour.
Avocado tartare is a take on a classic ceviche. The fish flesh is firm and robust. Peanuts, red onion and avocado add creaminess, nuttiness, and zest. It’s not the best for sharing, but it provides a lovely bite for each. A big plate of hummus with minced meat and flatbread arrives. It smells meaty but there’s no tomato salad accompanying it as advertised. Super hot bread straight from pan is sweet and yeasty, like a doughnut.
Portions are small, but satisfying for two, and since we have a party of three there’s room for dessert. Arabic knafe is basically cheese baked in kataifi (a vermicelli-like pastry). It’s drenched in hibiscus syrup (which tastes quite lemony) and is covered in pistachios. It seems like such an odd thing for dessert but it works so well – with crunch, sweetness, creaminess, sourness and saltiness all in one.
The Basement has come along at the right time – it’s summer, the days are longer and Novocastrians are ready to venture into the more exotic when it comes to cuisine.