23 July 2016

The Granby Inn

Food ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

Longframlington 
Morpeth 
Northumberland 
NE65 8DP 

01665 570 228 
 www.thegranbyinn.co.uk 

When can a pub legitimately call itself a gastropub? Is it when it starts offering roasted cauliflower and panfried kale as side dishes instead of boiled carrots and broccoli? Is it when food tourists outnumber the locals in the public bar? Or, as in the case of The Granby Inn, is it when your young chef comes home with a North East Chef of the Year award?

16 July 2016

Hawthorns Brasserie

Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 
Service ✪ 

Crowne Plaza Hotel 
Forth Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3SA 

0191 562 3333 
www.hawthorns-ncl.com 

Which is more important: the food or the service? It’s an age-old conundrum. My own usual answer is a cop-out: it depends. 

For the most part, I’m on Team Food. Good service is a real skill, of course, and one not frequently taught in our country. However, for me an excellent dish normally trumps a dodgy server. A good waiter is a bit like the ref at the Tyne-Wear derby: if you don’t notice him too much then he’s probably had a decent game. 

And so to Hawthorns, the bistro offering at the still-shiny Crowne Plaza Hotel behind Central Station. You might be thinking that my preamble about service doesn’t auger well for the waiting staff there: well, I’m afraid you’re right on the money.

9 July 2016

Cabana


Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

117 Newgate Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5RF 

0191 261 2425 
www.cabana-brasil.com 

As I tap out these words, we find ourselves bang slap in the middle of a hefty old summer of sports. The English football team outdid themselves, managing to fall well short of even our most modest expectations; Andy Murray kept us on the edge of our seats (you can tell I’m writing this before he either fails or triumphs this Sunday); and, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, the Olympic Games are just a month away. 

Mrs Diner and I decided to try and get ourselves in the Olympic spirit by having dinner in Rio. Well, actually the Secret Diner’s budget is a bit stretched this month, so we made do with a new “Brasilian Barbecue” restaurant called Cabana, in the former Co-op building on Newcastle’s Newgate Street. It’s a chain – they’ve opened ten of these places across the UK. Based on this experience, I have no idea why.

4 July 2016

Manchester House


Food ✪✪✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

18-22 Bridge Street 
Spinningfields 
Manchester 
M3 3BZ 

0161 835 2557
www.manchesterhouse.uk.com

I was determined to write this review of Manchester House without mentioning the “M” word. However, they said it first. 

“Yeah, this place is a one-off; Tim Bacon opened it up specifically to try and get the star,” said our waiter, just as we were settling down at our vast four top. 

Tim, the owner of this and several other leading Manchester restaurants, died of cancer just a few weeks before my visit. The star which he craved is, of course, the one that a certain French tyre company hands out to restaurants serving food considered to represent “very good cooking in its category”. 

The contrast between those six prosaically unimpressive words, and the drastic effect they can have on the lives of chefs and restaurateurs is stark. The Michelin star is, to some, the ultimate goal. 


Since Manchester House opened in 2013, two editions of the little red book have been published, and neither included that all-important symbol alongside the description of Manchester House. So what? Well, so more fool the Michelin Guide’s inspectors, at least on the evidence of our lunch.

25 June 2016

Hinnies

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

10 East Parade 
The Promenade 
Whitley Bay 
Tyne & Wear
NE26 1AP 

0191 447 0500 
www.hinnies.co.uk 

Of all the comments and mutterings that readers post about my reviews, I think the most common is a shocked response to the cost. 

“Sixty quid? Wor Margerie puts dinner on the table for less than a fiver! Who’s this flash idiot?!” 

That kind of thing, although perhaps with a more generous use of the CAPS LOCK key. 

Well, never let it be said that this flash idiot doesn’t respond to his critics. And they do have a point: a quick check back through some of my most recent reviews (and those to come – brace yourselves for maximum fury next week) reveals a dearth of anything you could possibly describe as a real bargain. 

Just as I resolved to remedy this, the early evening menu for Hinnies in Whitley Bay popped up on my Twitter feed: £15 for 3 courses. Serendipity.

18 June 2016

Branches


Food ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 

3 Brewery Lane 
Ponteland 
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE20 9NZ 

01661 822 951 
www.branchesrestaurant.co.uk 

Why did restaurant diners suddenly become so obsessed with photographing their own meals? 

When I started these reviews, back in the dark ages when my smartphone’s picture quality was even worse than some of the food I was writing about (hence my readers’ frequent complaints about the grainy images), I always felt very self-conscious when taking a picture. Not wanting to blow my cover, I would wait until a waiter’s back was turned, before furtively snatching a memory of a dish or a menu card. Now everybody in the room is at it, so I can just relax and snap away without raising suspicion. 

Restaurant pics are crowding out the cute cats on Facebook. It’s the latest subset of that modern phenomenon whereby no moment of our lives can pass without being committed to digital history and shared: “I was here, and this happened – please Like me.” 

Were you indeed? Well done. How impressive. 

There’s something else at play here.  Food is essential and enjoyable, but also ephemeral. It stimulates all the senses (and sometimes more), but before we destroy it by eating it, we hope our phones can capture the moment. Sadly, all that comes through the lens is the plating: the taste must be imagined later. Maybe they'll bring out a new version of Android or iOS with taste and smell buttons. That would be an innovation worth the upgrade. 

I had good cause to think about this as we were seated in the not-so-shabby chic dining room of Branches in Ponteland, because on the next table the chef’s food was being photographed within an inch of its life. Works of art were emerging from the kitchen and being placed under a lighting rig while a chap with a massive DSLR honed in on his prey.

11 June 2016

Riley's Fish Shack


Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

King Edward’s Bay 
Tynemouth 
Tyne & Wear
NE30 4BY 

0191 257 1371 


If I arrive early at a restaurant, I’m usually rather glad of my iPhone. I know I should really be people-watching or menu-checking, but I confess I suffer from the common malaise of smartphone addiction. 

Here, however, as I waited for Mrs Diner and her friend to join me, with only a glass of excellent Almasty APA for company, the phone stayed firmly in my pocket. I didn’t need a companion, for I had the view.

4 June 2016

The Potted Lobster

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

3 Lucker Road 
Bamburgh 
Northumberland 
NE66 3QH 

01668 214 088 

Amongst the rugged gorgeousness of the Northumberland coast, few sights are so singularly impressive as that towering heap of a castle at Bamburgh. 

Visible from miles around, there are no prizes for guessing why such an imposing site was chosen as a seat of power of the Angles, Bernicians and those other Northern powerhouses. When I take friends from the South around our region, Bamburgh is one place I particularly enjoy showing off, although until recently it wasn’t somewhere I’d consider taking them for a meal. A cheese sandwich on the beach was always the best bet. 

Then, a couple years ago, I discovered, enjoyed and recommended The Mizen Head. Now I think I’ve found somewhere even better.

28 May 2016

Truffle

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

20 Grange Road 
Darlington 
County Durham
DL1 5NG 

01325 483 787 
www.trufflerestaurant.co.uk 

There is something wonderfully defiant and old-fashioned about a restaurant with a proper cheeseboard. 

To me, it shows that the place really cares for its produce (maintaining a good cheese board is both a science and a labour of love); it forces front of house staff to really swat up on the subject (you can’t just invent the names on the board – well, you could, but one day you’ll be caught out by a real fromage-fancier); above all, it offers customers like me a serious treat at the end of the meal, a journey of adventure with unexpected flavour bombs enroute. 


As an unreformed cheese addict who finds himself rather underserved in our region, this board was the first thing I spotted as we sat down to dinner at Truffle in Darlington. I took it as a very good sign indeed. I was mostly right.