29 August 2015

Longsands Fish Kitchen


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27 Front Street 
Tynemouth 
Tyne & Wear
NE30 4DZ 

0191 272 8552 
www.longsandsfishkitchen.com 
(Closed on Tuesdays) 

My first encounter with fish and chips was in Front Street, Tynemouth. As a child I was sent there every Friday night to fetch the family’s three fish and two chips (salt, no vinegar) from Marshall’s Fish Restaurant. 

I think I still remember a long queue and some wornout black and white floor lino in the long takeaway corridor. There was a window through which you could see the privileged people in the eating-in part, with their white triangles of margarine-buttered Sunblest and cups of tea. 

I can’t actually recall the quality of the fish (a career in food criticism not being on the agenda back then) but I do remember being served by a prodigiously large woman with a short-sleeved blouse, giant flabby wings flapping as she folded up sheets of Evening Chronicle to envelope our meal. 

“Batter, pet?” 

“No thanks, Miss”. 

The smell of frying oil mixed with stale female sweat was a heady combination that probably affected me for life. 

I doubt that Marshall’s, which is now nothing like my childhood memory and I'm told is actually a very good chippy with lovely staff, would have put out the bunting for last month’s opening of Longsands Fish Kitchen, just up the street. 

It’s the brainchild of Simon Walsh, who was formerly head chef of Close House, until its owner made it a closed house last year. 

The restaurant is on the site of what used to be Roy’s Bakery, on the corner of Hotspur Street. There’s a take-out section, but the focus is on a small but cool restaurant, with brown leather banquettes and wooden tables, whitewashed walls and dark-grouted white tiles. There’s a tiny marble-topped bar and, compulsory in all cool restaurants these days, filament lightbulbs. 

It all makes sense, of course. Fresh fish, landed within almost walking distance of the stoves and fryers, cooked simply, served with good wines in a nice light room – what could be nicer? 

For old time’s sake, we visited on a Friday night, took a friend to make three, and I made us walk past Marshall’s, which now has smart green doors and calls itself ‘The Fryery by the Priory’. 

In Longsands we found all the small tables occupied, so we were invited to join a communal bench in the middle of the room. 

“What do you make of communal tables?” I asked our friend, as we were forced to perform a limbo dance to sit down. A witheringly raised eyebrow was the reply. 

I instantly liked the ambition of the place. This could transform life in Tynemouth: open from 9am, it serves Craster kippers and smoked salmon eggs Royale for breakfast, and it has an upmarket fish and chip takeaway menu, where tiger prawns with chilli jam share billing with Whitby scampi, and the haddock still has its skin on. I was relieved to see that chip stotties make it onto the list. 

Simon Walsh says he wants Longsands to be the kind of place where you can pop in for a glass of wine. If so, I suggest he expands the list beyond three reds and three whites. We ordered Prosecco. 

I’m very glad we went early, for it closes at 8pm. Dinner hasn’t reached Tynemouth, then. But it has everything else: a full bar, with The Lakes gin from Cumbria and, joy, Lindisfarne oysters. 


These were fresh, plumptious specimens, and Longsands offers them three ways, so naturally we tried them all. There was classic mignonette, the traditional red wine vinegar and shallot sauce, and we also had one “hot and crispy” in a light tempura batter; finally, there was a well-judged chilli and cucumber dressing, which was refreshing, and didn’t overpower the ozone slap of the oyster. 

However, the first hint that not everything might be perfect came with my langoustines starter. 


I was surprised, and just a little suspicious, when so many arrived for £7.50. Then I tasted them: the tail flesh carried little flavour, and bore the texture of cotton wool. Tellingly, the gut tract was still present. 

The result was an unpleasantly gritty eating experience. I mentioned the gut issue to our waitress, who seemed concerned, but we didn’t hear of it again. 

 
Mrs Diner’s starter of brandy-cured salmon put us back on track. We struggled to detect much boozy influence, but the cure rendered the fish firm, its richness offset by a refreshing tangle of fennel, apple and cucumber. 



The wheel of fortune turned 180 degrees again with our main courses. Mrs Diner’s monkfish and king prawn curry provided lots of fish but a dull, one-dimensional sauce, lacking any depth or complexity. Rice was equally boring, and the flatbread tasted bought-in. 


My chalkboard special of wild sea trout with cockles was far better. The beurre blanc sauce would have made a French trawlerman swoon – this was Walsh’s fine-dining background shining through. The cockles were tender, but still with bite, while tiny strips of crisped ham, shaved chives and the odd nasturtium leaf all maintained interest. Ironically, the only disappointing thing about the dish was the fish, which was overcooked. 


Our friend, a creature of simple habit, went for traditional cod and chips. Although skinny, it was well cooked, with crisp batter and good chips. I used the last of these to clean my plate of that beurre blanc. Chips and beurre blanc – now that would make an excellent takeaway. 

We ordered two desserts, and both hit the sweet spot. Chocolate delice was delightful – dark and yielding, with Doddington’s sensationally good banana ice cream. 

Similarly brilliant was the raspberry sorbet which accompanied a slice of custardy, if slightly over-set, vanilla cheesecake. 

Service was friendly and keen – everyone seemed to know the menu well. Starters and puds are around £6, with mains at £13. Cod and chips is £7 if you must. 

If we hadn’t tried the langoustine or curry I might be showering superlatives on Longsands. Sadly for them we did, and both were clangers. However, it’s early days, and I get the sense that there’s the heart of an excellent restaurant here, so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt. Three stars puts it in the Recommended class. And that doesn’t happen very often in Tynemouth.

22 August 2015

The Jolly Fisherman


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Haven Hill 
Craster 
Northumberland 
NE66 3TR 

01665 576 461 
www.thejollyfishermancraster.co.uk 

The stark beauty of the Northumberland coast is one of our region’s true jewels. However, eating out in these parts has sometimes been a less than beautiful affair. 

It’s almost as if the nicer the scenery, the worse the food. Mrs Diner and I are resigned to expecting a duff meal the moment we pack the beach umbrellas in the car. Sorry, Northumberland. 

But I’m happy to report that that’s all in the past.

15 August 2015

The Joiners Arms


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Newton-by-the-Sea 
Alnwick
Northumberland 
NE66 3EA 

01665 576 112 
www.joiners-arms.com 

One member of our family absolutely adores The Joiner’s Arms. 

He discovered it a few years ago, shortly after it opened, after a long run on the beach at Embleton. There’s nothing finer, after a Northumbrian beach romp, than rinsing off your sandy tongue in a big bowl of water under a pub table laden with fish and chips. Those chips never fall far from the table when Diner Dog’s around. 

If they gave stars for pooch-friendliness, this place would have five. They even welcome dogs into its 5 star bedrooms. But The Joiner’s Arms has greater claims than being a dog-loving pub serving excellent fish and chips: it also calls itself a gastropub. You can’t judge a gastropub by fish and chips alone; it took us a while to get round to it, but on a warmish Summer evening we returned for a proper test.

8 August 2015

Chilli Padi


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3 Leazes Lane 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 4LW

0191 230 1133 
No website yet, no credit cards or alcohol 

At the risk of over-generalising, I’d say that Newcastle’s Asian restaurants could be divided into two categories. 

The first, and largest group, serves up a grim cornucopia of Anglo-Sino standards in which any one of four or five protein ingredients can be draped in any of twenty interchangeable sauces, each tasting much like the last. Newcastle’s Stowell Street is the ground zero of this disastrous cuisine. 

The second category is a bit more interesting. The menu, if in English, is likely to have similar gloop-centric offerings, with perhaps a few more interesting dishes. But this is only half the story, for if you look closely, or ask, there are actually two menus. However, unless you’re Chinese, you’ll be spared the one with all the interesting stuff - dangly bits of animals, steamboat soups, punishing quantities of chilli and sichuan pepper, that type of thing. 

Is it because Asian restaurateurs think we Westerners are gentle creatures who can’t take the heat? Are they worried about our reaction when served meat with a bit of bone attached? Or is this just a cunning culinary revenge for England’s role in the Opium Wars? Let’s deny them the really good dishes, and let them think that sweet and sour chicken is real Chinese food. 

Either way, it has to stop. This is a matter of diplomatic significance: I’ve had enough beef in black bean sauce to last a lifetime. Bring me the proper stuff. 

If you agree, then I have good news for you. Chilli Padi only has one menu. There is a “western” section which neither you, nor I, need pay any attention to whatsoever. The rest of it is chock full of the kind of dishes I’ve longed to see served in Newcastle, by turns comforting, intriguing and arresting. And all cooked really well.

1 August 2015

Vujon

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29 Queen Street 
Quayside 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3UG 

0191 221 0601 
www.vujon.com 

A few years ago I attended one of Maunika Gowardhan’s excellent Indian cookery classes at Blackfriars (Maunika’s first book, Indian Kitchen has, incidentally, has just been published; it’s a stunner). 

As Maunika explained to the attendees that most British curry house standards are in fact an anglicized hybrid of Bangladeshi cooking, which would be largely unrecognisable in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, I noticed a split in the room. Half the guests nodded intently, their hard-won knowledge validated by a real expert; the others looked taken aback, the Indian rug swept from under their feet.  Surely their beloved tikka masalas and jalfrezis, previously thought the real deal, couldn't be just counterfeit inventions? 

Of course, in these days of authenticity and provenance, it creates a problem for the best restaurants. Do you stock your menu with the standards that so many of your potential customers expect to see, and which most of them are likely to order? Or do you offer genuine cooking from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’s varied regions and traditions, hoping to attract a clientele that cares, and educate some who don’t? 

Vujon, in Newcastle’s Queen Street, has attempted to square the circle by offering dishes that name-check a number of India’s regions - here a lamb from Kashmir, there a Pondicheery pheasant - and yet, also, there’s our old fake friend chicken tikka masala, ready to be ordered with vast jugs of Cobra, a beer as authentically Indian as Burton on Trent.

25 July 2015

Seaham Hall (Byron's Bar and Grill)


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Seaham Hall Hotel
Lord Byron’s Walk 
County Durham 
SR7 7AG 

0191 516 4100 
www.seaham-hall.co.uk 

I love that bit in Masterchef when the most nervous chef-victim gets flung into service at a top London gastro-temple for a day. 

“You’ll be cooking the quail, with 17 components including three sauces and the quail brain mousse – it’s our signature dish, and we have five Hollywood celebrities who’ve flown in specially, so make sure it’s perfect,” says the head chef with an evil smile, raising a carefully rehearsed eyebrow for the closeup which the editor needs for the horror film music sequence. 

The contestant gulps, then with trembling hands clutching sharp knife, picks up the first tiny bird. 

“It’s OK, we have plasters,” says the smiling head chef, as the blood begins to flow from the first cut finger, “but you have just 30 minutes before the customers arrive.” 

More horror music; cut to mound of bloody raw quail. 

Sadly, this isn’t quite how it works in real top restaurants. No one person is responsible for an entire dish; the brigade de cuisine system has chefs working on stations - veg, meat, sauce, garnish and so on – and all their efforts are brought together at the pass. Teamwork is critical; but teamwork, and reality, don’t make for riveting television. 


Simon Bolsover, installed as executive chef of Seaham Hall’s two restaurants last year, has made a point of talking up his team in the catering press, and quite right too. It’s clear that they’re working well, for Bolsover was absent from the stoves on the night of our secret visit.

18 July 2015

Solano's


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St Nicholas Chambers 
Amen Corner 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 1PE 

0191 232 4663 
www.solanospc.co.uk 

A well-written menu is like a shy love letter written at the very start of a secret relationship. It hints at intriguing combinations to come, and drops clues as to the manner of their preparation, but it holds something back. Hunger is best fortified by curiosity. 

At Solano’s Peruvian Cuisine, the menu is neither shy nor well written. It is a brazen hussy, boasting in advance that one dish “is a blend of unbelievable quality” and that another “will suit everyone”. Really? I’ll be the judge of that. A steak is helpfully described as “one for meat lovers”.

11 July 2015

Ephesus


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71 Bridge Street 
Morpeth 
Northumberland
NE61 1PQ 

01670 946 536 
www.ephesusmorpeth.co.uk 

I’ve never understood why Morpeth, an attractive town that appears to bloom even in the depths of winter, can’t support a few good local eateries. The place has an air of comfortable affluence, with sturdy villas, a cheese shop, a Marks and Spencer and even a Laura Ashley – surely it should also boast the odd decent restaurant? 

Yet, with very few exceptions, Morpeth remains one of the North East’s dining deserts. There’s one jolly Italian, a reasonable Thai, a couple of nice country gastropubs out of town, and that’s about it. 

A few weeks ago I endured a Greek tragedy at “Socrates at No 5”, where I hoped for some good Mediterranean cooking, and failed. This week I tried again, at a former curry house on Bridge Street which is now a Turkish place called Ephesus. We made the metaphorical trip across the Aegean, in reality the Wansbeck, and gave it a go.

5 July 2015

Colmans

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176-186 Ocean Road 
South Shields
Tyne & Wear
NE33 2JQ 

0191 456 1202 
www.colmansfishandchips.com
Daily 11am - 6pm only

1977 was a momentous year for South Shields. Not only did the Queen pop in during her Silver Jubilee tour, but the following month the King came too: Mohammed Ali was somehow persuaded by a local painter and decorator from Whitburn to make the trip from the United States to support his local boys’ clubs. 

There’s a lovely documentary called “The King of South Shields”, made by Bridge+Tunnel Productions, which documents the effect that Ali’s visit had on the town, particularly on the local Yemeni community after he had his marriage blessed in the local Al-Ahzar mosque. 

In the film you can see the crowds thronging the open topped bus as Ali glides down Ocean Road past Colmans fish and chips. 

I’ve always liked to think that Ali might have been momentarily distracted by the wonderful smell of frying and popped in for a catch of the day. “No visit to North East England is complete without tasting Colmans fish” says their website. So Ali missed a treat, and the Queen did too, but the walls of Colmans are covered with photographs of other celebrities who made it past the water sculpture and into the white-tiled inner sanctum.

27 June 2015

Oldfields

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18 Claypath
Durham 
DH1 1RH 

0191 370 9595 
www.oldfieldseatinghouse.com


It must tell us something about these post-everything times that nowadays everything we buy has to be described as “authentic”. Nowhere more so than in our restaurants. The words “real” and “proper” are plastered all over menus in the hope of convincing us that we’re getting – what? Something that isn’t fake?

“We’re proper cooks, serving real British food, cooked properly”: that’s the claim from Oldfields, or “Oldfields Noted Eating House” as it likes to be called. 

I wonder: what does “unreal food” taste like? Do other restaurants have pretend chefs, rather than proper ones?