Air travel has a lot to answer for. In the years since the Wright Brothers first demonstrated we can fly, the world has telescoped so that you can get on a plane in the morning and end up eating in a Hanoi café that same evening. But frankly, it’s not worth the airfare when you’ve got somewhere like OMNI Café on the Tyne and Wear Metro line.
This unpreposessing brunch and dinner place takes Vietnamese and South East Asian cuisine as its inspiration and plonks it down in a former sandwich shop. It’s a family affair: Susanne McGarry does the books, her son Louis runs the front of house, and Louis’ partner Corrie Thomas is in the kitchen. Since September 2015 it’s been a local secret, turning out Instagram-ready plates of food that pack a punch.
‘Yeah,’ you say: ‘I know south east Asian food.’ But really – reeeeally – you don’t. Thai and Vietnamese places are rare up in this part of the country, and they’re all much of a muchness – a pad Thai here, a pork satay there. They’re sanitised, Westernised and (whisper it) a bit bland.
Less so OMNI Café. From the second you walk through the door, you realise it’s different. For one thing, the blast of humidity immediately transplants you to a Phnom Penh street. The fire of fried chilli and garlic hits your throat, hanging in the air – and immediately kickstarts your hunger pangs.
But the food too is different; it’s more accomplished. That is, in large part, thanks to happenstance. While they lived in Vietnam, Louis and Corrie got to know a neighbour in their block of flats, a silent and stern older lady. Somehow she ended up spending more time in their flat than hers. Slowly, she started teaching Corrie how to prepare traditional dishes, imparting the knowledge of generations before her to Corrie.
Now Corrie (with Louis) is back home, using the tips and tricks she learned in Vietnam in OMNI’s small kitchen. All the classics you’ve seen on South East Asian restaurant menus are here, just done better. Steamed dumplings filled generously with tender pork are served in an astringent broth that leaves you digging in for another slurp. The black sesame seeds they’re topped with pop in the mouth. The pad Thai is laden with prawns (though chicken and tofu versions are available) and comes with a generous heaping of chopped peanut chunks and dried chilli. When combined with the beansprouts and noodles, it matures into a moreish meal.
But the best dish is an occasional special that disappeared from the chalkboard halfway through service, a fleeting food memory. Lemongrass and chilli chicken wings come in a crisp battered shell, the spicy, salty, gossamer-thin layer cracking and giving way to tender, juicy meat. When dipped in the tart, vinegary sauce, it warms your entire mouth and does what all great food does: it brings an involuntary smile to your face.
By this time the queue was out the door, as it is every night. We started to feel guilty that other people couldn’t experience what we had. So we left, but we’ll be back, queueing for another taste of Vietnam that doesn’t involve the 12-hour flight.
12 Front Street,
Monkseaton NE25 8DF
0191 251 2819
What we expected:
A perfectly serviceable Instagram-friendly brunch spot.
What we got:
The best Vietnamese food you’re likely to get this side of Ho Chi Minh City.
What we wish we’d tried:
The pho, a beef bone broth, served on the brunch menu between 10am–4pm.