Hull’s restaurant scene is hotting up, but in a crowded market only the fittest will survive says Dave Lee.
There are two forces converging in Hull at the moment which are having a huge impact on the city’s culinary offering. The first – and most significant – is the unstoppable surge of independent bar and restaurant openings, mainly centred on the Avenues area. The other is preparation for 2017, when Hull becomes City of Culture and many thousands of hungry sensation seekers will be arriving to spend money in whichever eateries have the best reputation at the time.
Down Princes Avenue and Newland Avenue, the rush to turn every available building into a trendy bar or enticing restaurant means that people with (at best) marginal experience of restauranteering are taking over former launderettes, slapping up some MDF, picking a cuisine and opening up their own entrée to the gastronomic scrum. For the lucky punters this mainly means more choice and a different, enticing smell drifting from every other doorway. For the restaurant owners it means that they have to be on tip-top form right from day one or they risk bad word-of-mouth and wavering returns.
Into this heady atmosphere of relentless competition steps Gin Gin, a smallish “modern Thai” restaurant run by novice chef Charlie Wride. A builder by trade, Charlie has a passion for Thai food and so, with backing from dad Simon, he’s realising his dream of sharing his love of the cuisine with a public already over-faced with choice. If I sound a little reserved about the wisdom of such a venture, it’s not that I don’t like Gin Gin, it’s that I’m not sure it’s yet special enough to stand out from the crowd.
Some things are right; the location (south of the bridge on Newland Avenue) is spot on, the interior is intimate, the waiting staff are efficient and knowledgeable and the menu is well-designed with some popular classics and some intriguing little-known dishes. Some things aren’t quite right – the food, for instance.
When I’m presented with my starter of hot and sour soup, I’m informed by the waitress that the kitchen can make it “more sour” for me, if I wish. Eh? I don’t want to season the dish myself, I want the kitchen to present me with their version of this classic soup without compromise. As it was, the soup was not only not sour enough for my liking but it was little more than a pleasant-tasting broth. I’d expected more ingredients, maybe some shallot or other veg. As it came, there wasn’t much more than a few rubbery prawns and a kaffir lime leaf that I had to fish out.
Then I hit a chilli. Of course you have to expect chillies in Thai food, but the sudden and seemingly indiscriminate use of them at Gin Gin repeatedly left me reaching for a mouth-cooling beer. More than once a dish went – nice, nice, nice, FEARSOMELY HOT, beer until I can see again. Some people may enjoy this experience, but not me.
Another starter of Son-in-law eggs proved less enjoyable than the story behind the name. Apparently, the moniker derives from a mother’s advice to a soon-to-be son-in-law that any mistreatment of her daughter will result in not hard-boiled eggs in the dish but something much more intimate. Here, two eggs are served with crispy fried onions and a sweet tamarind sauce. They are nice enough but a little bland. Until I hit another undercover chilli. Then hit the beer. Maybe it’s a ploy to sell more booze.
Best dish of the night is steamed sea bass curry. It’s a bit fiddly to eat, being served in a dish in a steamer with veg fritters and rice crammed in as well, but it’s fragrant and light and fresh and (thankfully) doesn’t burn your mouth out.
Kanom jin nahm yaa is cod with wild ginger, soft boiled egg, noodles and star fruit. I found the taste so subtle that I simply couldn’t find it. It wasn’t in the noodles, or the star fruit, the egg tasted of egg and the fish needed some sort of seasoning. The micro herbs provided the only discernible flavour.
When I ask if there is a dessert menu I’m told that Gin Gin don’t do puddings but they will knock us something up if I like. How could I resist the temptation of improvised afters? Here, the skill of the chef will finally be given the chance to shine. What will he find in the fridge to turn into a dish full of spur-of-the-moment wonder?
What arrived had a long name that included the words “passion” and “fruit” and “mousse”, I think. What I ate was basically Angel Delight and a shortbread biscuit. I’m sure it wasn’t, I’m sure it was a carefully crafted, artisanally whipped labour of love but it looked and tasted like everyone’s favourite 70s powdered pud. Come on, lads. If you’re going to offer desserts then do it properly or not at all.
The good news is that none of this is expensive. We spent £50 for three courses each and a few drinks, which is excellent value. Where Gin Gin falls down is the lack of experience of the owners. The public fronting, the quality control of the dishes, the relatively ill-defined offering and the overall feeling of naïve optimism all mask huge potential. It may be early days for Gin Gin, but if they are to survive in the increasingly stuffed foodie thoroughfares of Hull, they need to sharpen up. And put some warning signs on the chillies.
Gin Gin, 18 Newland Avenue, Hull HU5 3AF. 01482 346222, www.gingin.co.uk; open Tuesday to Saturday, 6-10pm, Sunday, 3-10pm.