Tarek Thoma is the man behind Oven, a restaurant that opened in Middlesbrough late last year with the lofty ideal to offer luxury at an affordable price. I talked with Tarek on a rare sunny day and asked about his concept for Oven, and why he has put a green sward onto Linthorpe Road. Then we had a chance to taste the food. What would our verdicts be? Photos by Tracy Hyman
Tarek: Yes we have had a restaurant in Darlington for ten years. It is not the same, not this kind of scale, it is a lot smaller. And then I had the idea when I saw the empty building especially with the University behind us and the evolution Middlesbrough seems to be going through at the moment. I thought it was the right time to come and do something a bit different, unique in fact.
The idea was to offer something that was luxurious but affordable at the same time. Many people would do nice food but charge a lot for it. Or you will go and have a bowl of pasta somewhere and it will be cheap enough. What we wanted to do was give the best of both worlds where you can come and have fantastic A La carte food but then you don’t necessarily have to pay that kind of price for it. So you can come and see us more often. Then it becomes more accessible to as wider population as I can. The response has been tremendous. People are discovering it and telling other people. We have exceeded all our expectations. So we are very pleased to be in Middlesbrough.
Q: You have a very eye catching display of plants outside and you are on this prominent corner site of Linthorpe and Southfield Road.
T: That was a very conscious decision. We had a boundary outside and the first thing you think is whatever everybody else does stick a wooden boundary or a metal one with tables and chairs and a couple of umbrellas. I thought it is a tremendous opportunity to do something outside that wasn’t necessarily safe. Take a bit of risk. Despite the warnings I had, people said this wouldn’t survive a day outside, well believe it or it has been over six months now and not even a leaf has been disturbed. If anything people have almost taken ownership of it because they like it, it looks nice and we generally just look after it and there is no littering and there is no abuses to it. It is tremendous.
Funny you should say about it because today is the very first day we have had customers outside (nice, sunny day). We are going to put out a bit more outside. We will put out the big canopies with outdoor heaters. From next week. So, it will look different. It will look a lot more accommodating to sit and eat and have a drink.
But yes we are absolutely chuffed with the outside; people like to look at it as well as the inside. It is doing tremendous.
Q: It was a real welcome flash of green in town through winter wasn’t it?
T: Andy why not and hopefully others in the street will follow suit and try to be more adventurous when they are planning what to do with the outside because I think it is a lost opportunity not to use it.
It is a great boundary. Tremendous footfall. The University is near by and to be honest the community has been fantastic to us. Lots of support for us and I think the town deserves it. Hopefully it is part of something that Middlesbrough can be proud of and also love.
T: I think you are absolutely right. When I saw it first I thought there is nothing different between here and somewhere like Edgware Road in London. Or any other road in London that is famous for food and drink and famous for sitting outside and having a drink in summer. For instance just next door to us Creams has just opened. They have sixteen outlets country wide in London, Scotland etc. It is something completely different to us and is complimentary to everything else around. But there are more investments coming to the road and hopefully that will generate even more and it will chain react to hopefully the better quality restaurants will chose to come here as a location. I see Linthorpe Road in the next 5 or 6 years to be one of the most prominent food streets in the north east.
Q: It is certainly heading that way.
T: I think it is, I really do. Investment coming here is fantastic. We are doing what we do and other people are upping their games. And we respond and up our games and it is only benefiting the town and the customer. For healthy competition to exist in the town we live in can only be to the benefit of the customer. Better food and cheaper food than ever.
T: I know. I didn’t realise but I was made aware.
Q: Exciting for the town.
T: It is tremendous. Even the likes of cocoa cola approached me just yesterday about using the brand on a canopy outside. These people are into investing big money into building this tremendous canopy outside because they are feeling the change as well. It can only good for the town.
Q: Are you looking forward to restaurant week?
T: Yes it will be good for us to introduce new customers. We will give a really good offer. We need to make it clear that it is really good food to introduce people to the restaurant and it is no gimmick. It will be a week for us where I think we can win a lot of people over.
Q: It will be a good week with lots of visitors into the town for the Tour and also the final Boro game that has been sold out for several weeks.
T: We are all holding our breath. They like to keep you on your toes with these late goals.
Q: You are talking about a la carte menu for affordable prices. I suppose some restaurants deliberately want to be exclusive and high end.
T: Absolutely. We are not that expensive but it does feel exclusive when you come in on a night. So you get that feeling still.
Q: It is a lovely environment. Do people feel well looked after when they come in here?
T: Absolutely. It is going to always be a challenge to get things perfect, especially at the beginning. They do need a lot of training. We didn’t have a big pool of people to pull from when we came here. When you go to somewhere like Leeds, Manchester or London what you maybe have is 40 or 50 restaurants of your type existing and having existed for maybe 20 years. So when you advertise for chefs or front of house you have that pool to pull from. When you come to a town that is smaller and less numbers of restaurants of your type. They are also keeping hold of their staff to be able to recruit is almost impossible. There aren’t that many hotels and restaurants existing. We have more fast restaurants, which are very nice but just not of our type. So, that is where the challenge is. Therefore when you do pull people from here you end up with a group of people that you do have to work really hard for at least 3 or 4 or 5 months to develop this group. In the process, you are going to get rid of a lot of people. We are quite specific about who we and thankfully for the last 3 months and they have developed much better place than we were in the first 2 months when we opened I couldn’t see how we would possibly have a team in here.
The differences were tremendous about what we wanted and what was there but we have bridged the gaps and it is fantastic now. So now is a great time to see us what we are about.
Q: Tell us more about the food, please.
T: I have cooked in 1 and 2 star restaurants in London prior to coming here and the food we cook is derivative of their standards. It is the same principles. But we then make it affordable by using more neglected cuts of meat.
So if you were to use for instance cod when you cook. What you are actually doing is you are using a nice well known piece of fish but you are not doing the environment any good. It is not a sustainable fish, it has massive issues. But you can use for instance things like silver hake, you get much better texture in the fish, it is much more popular on the continent, it is in London now, it is much more sustainable, it is cheaper to buy and you can achieve much better results than you could with cod for instance. So then you draw back on your experience and your knowledge to be able to provide something that has very high quality cooking methods and a final finish but without necessarily having to spend a lot of money doing it. Therefore the customer will come and benefit from a tremendous dish that is cooked really, really well. That is good for the environment and also gives the customer better, cheaper products.
So all our food is based on these principles. So we use cuts of meat that are neglected. For instance one of our steaks, flat iron steak. This is something that you now get in London in one or two restaurants but that is a neglected cut of meat that has traditionally been used for pies or mince. We have water baths in the kitchen and we tenderise the flat iron steak in the water bath for two days without actually cooking. So you still have a rare steak that is very tender like a fillet steak but it costs you to buy in about half the price so you can afford to sell the steak for half the price that you would sell a fillet steak but you have much better quality food than even a fillet steak. That just comes from technology that exists for the last 7 or 8 years. It hasn’t necessarily existed in this part of the world because nobody brought it in here. That is what we are bringing in very advanced cooking techniques and methods and vast, vast experience in cooking between Lisa my wife and myself and my fantastic team in the kitchen.
So, the dishes that we have are all what you would call signature dishes. So we do Tagines and a lot of people come back for that. We do the steak that I was just describing for you; a lot of people come for that. The Shin of Beef, again a neglected cut of meat, used in 1 or 2 star restaurants in London because of the water bath technology. It is all very advanced ways of cooking but there is a reason why we use these things. It is not just because it is there and we can use it. It is actually the result which well surpasses anything you can do yourself. You just wouldn’t be able to achieve this kind of result and this kind of flavour and the versatility of what you can do with it in the end is just second to none. That is why the likes of Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay use this technology in their cooking now and use these cuts of meat because it achieves much better, deeper results when you cook.
Therefore all our dishes are what I would call signature dishes and you would not be able to get them anywhere else as there is nobody that does a single dish that we do and that is purely because of how advanced it is the methods we use.
Tracy and myself were invited to take a table on an evening last week to sample the atmosphere and the back lit wall posters and most of all the food. And the vote from everyone around the table was big thumbs up it really is delicious, full of subtle flavours and you know even after a three course meal it was light enough on the digestive system for me to be able to run a park run first thing the next morning.
For the record I had the spicy French soup, beautifully but not over fussily presented. Then a really succulent chicken dish in a Diane sauce with a baklava to finish off. Perfect. Dave reported that his steak was every bit as good as promised in the text above. He also said his starter, garlic mushrooms were the best he had ever tasted. You can’t get better praise than that. Gill raved about her “posh fish’n’chips” and her basket of tiger prawns were the best she had ever tasted.
Which brings us to the Oven Restaurant Week Offer – and this really is a bargain.
Monday – Thursday, 5pm-7pm
2 courses for £10
Friday – Saturday, 12noon-2.30pm
2 course lunch for £10
2 course Sunday Lunch for £10
Monday – Friday
12.00pm to 2.30pm
5.00pm to 9.30pm
12.00pm to 2.30pm
5.00pm to 9.30pm
12pm – 8pm