We’re dishing the dirt on small neighbourhood restaurant Harissa in Sandyford, Newcastle. This is one hidden gem that everyone needs to know about.
It’s very rare that we see a general manager and head chef as in sync as Nick Smith and Michael Reid – or as passionate about what they are doing. They both took on their roles at Harissa in 2018 – and have never looked back.
“For me, I was attracted to Harissa because of the ethos of the business,” explains Nick. “It was something I hadn’t really seen before in this industry. It was the first time that I had thought I had found an organisation that had the balance right of not just wanting to be profitable and making money, but also a real care for people, the community, the environment and animal welfare. It was the whole package for me. And I really thought, this is a one-off opportunity.
“I had eaten in the restaurant several times. It’s got that small, neighbourhood restaurant feel, that personal touch. That’s the sort of restaurant I like working in. I like where you can have that real personal touch with the customers and be more creative,” he adds.
Harissa, in Sandyford, Newcastle, is a social enterprise – an organisation which applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being.
It’s the only restaurant in the North East to have three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and was Runner Up as Best Ethical Food Project in the 2018 Observer Food Awards.
It is also the sister company of Food Nation – another Newcastle-based social enterprise which was set up by Jamie Sadler to create learning experiences and environments that inspire people about healthy and sustainable food.
“I felt like I was working for a greater cause almost. There’s more to it than just the restaurant, and that really appealed to me,” says Nick.
Harissa opened its doors in July 2016, and the profits from the restaurant are used to fund Food Nation’s community education programmes and cookery skills classes.
“There are various different links between Harissa and Food Nation,” explains Nick. “One is that we run a social lunch club together every Tuesday at the restaurant. It’s for local residents of Sandyford to come in and get a free lunch or coffee where they eat good food, but more than that, it’s about getting people round a table talking and interacting with each other.
“We get people of all ages, but there are some elderly members of the community who come and say, ‘we wouldn’t leave the house if it wasn’t for this social lunch club.’
“We’ve got an allotment that we use as well,” adds Nick. “Basically, it belongs to Food Nation, but Harissa gets produce for our menus from there. We’ve got a lady called Anna who is the growing manager and she runs the allotment. Mike and I work closely with Anna to plan the growing cycles for the year.
“We’re really trying to revolve our menus around the allotment because the produce is absolutely phenomenal. We really want the allotment to be the base of what we’re doing, it’s such an amazing resource.”
As well as using produce from the allotment, Nick and Mike also work closely with local suppliers such as Block & Bottle in Gateshead. “They’re our absolute choice for meat and poultry. They take sustainability seriously as well and ethical meat, and that’s exactly the type of supplier we want to work with,” says Mike.
They also work with Estate Tea Co (also in Gateshead) and Pink Lane Coffee, as the roastery is two streets away from Harissa, and YMCA Urban Mushrooms. “They basically take our used coffee grounds from the restaurant and use them to grow their mushrooms on. Then they drop off the mushrooms for us. It’s full circle,” says Mike.
Inside the restaurant, there is also an urban grow station built by specialist grower Ken Holland (which has been fondly nicknamed ‘Baby Kenneth’) so customers can see produce growing first hand.
Harissa’s menu has Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences with shawarma, mezze, hummus, flatbreads and kofta featuring on it, but as Mike says, “that’s not all we want to be known for.”
“The specials we do are more seasonal and local. What I really want Harissa to be known for is good food, and that you don’t have to spend loads of money on ‘fine dining’ food to get something a bit more exciting.”
Looking to the long term, Mike says he wants the menu to be largely based around “what we’ve got coming in from the allotment.”
“We’re very seasonal anyway, and we’re going to focus on this by reducing the size of the Spring Menu and running a lot more specials.
“From a selfish point of view, as a chef, it’s better because we have beautiful produce – and hopefully our customers will think about where the food has come from. It comes down to quality, which I think goes hand in hand with the ethical side of things. I don’t know why you’d eat strawberries in December, because they’re rubbish anyway!”
As well as serving up food in the restaurant, Mike and his small team of chefs also offer outside catering for weddings, conferences and offices, as well as restaurant-standard takeaway options. We have a “three-tiered catering menu,” explains Mike. “There are different options available from shawarma to mezze (a selection of seasonal small plates), to big sharing feasts.
“Our style of food really lends itself to those kinds of functions,” says Nick. “It’s great for sharing, full of vibrant colours.”
Harissa has always had a takeaway option available, but both Mike and Nick think it needs to be shouted about more.
“I want to serve restaurant-standard food and change the perception that takeaways are just junk,” says Mike. “It’s in-keeping with our link to Food Nation – as they’re trying to educate people to eat better. But our takeaways are so different. You could have one of our takeaways every day of the week and it wouldn’t be bad for you. It’s hard in Newcastle to find any takeaway that’s guilt-free.”
We know where we’re headed on Friday night!
Check out Harissa’s menus for the restaurant, take-away and its catering options at harissakitchen.co.uk
All images by Marion Botella.