15 January 2017

Dobson & Parnell

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21 Queen Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3UG 

0191 221 0904 

Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? Yes 

Some addresses come with a whole bain-marie full of history. For anyone with a passing interest in Newcastle’s restaurant scene, 21 Queen Street is the most famous location of all. 

It was here that Terry Laybourne held a Michelin Star for most of the 1990s, and from where he sowed the seeds of his 21 Hospitality Group. Many of the North East’s most successful young chefs began their careers in this kitchen. After Laybourne made the shrewd decision to relax his dining offering, and moved to Trinity Gardens, I was always pleased that he kept the 21 moniker. 

The building came alive again for a while with Pan Haggerty, which turned out some pretty good cooking until it went into liquidation in early 2014. Now the doors have swung open once more and I’m pleased to report that the ghost of fine dining past still lives inside the old place. 

To the credit of owner Andy Hook and chef Troy Terrington, they have embraced the building’s culinary history rather than shrink away from it. In naming the place after the architects (John) Dobson and (William) Parnell, and in doing it out in a way which yells “Victorian era, yeah?” - banquettes are sage green, while tiles and waiters both come in sharp black and white - this reboot is given classic substance from the get-go. What arrives on the plate is considerably more modern, but equally classy. 

Hook’s other two restaurants, Blackfriars and Hinnies, feature menus that look back rather than forward; he must have been tempted to do likewise here. However Chef Terrington’s food feels very much of this age, featuring complex assemblies of ingredients treated in all manner of zeitgeist-surfing flavour-generating ways. 

Take my starter of venison tartare. The meat itself was rather mild, perhaps coming from a farmed rather than wild specimen, but it had been given a boot up the rear by the inclusion of niftily pickled plums, and lent depth by deftly smoked beets, which had been reared, of course, by Ken Holland. The dish was a restrained but rather lovely study in clarets and purples, lacking only, perhaps, a few thin slices of toast on which to pile it all.

Mrs Diner, as is her rather irritating wont, picked out a stunner: a vegetarian dish featuring a deeply caramelised hunk of cauliflower supported by nutty fried mushrooms and a clever sort-of duck egg in which the slow-cooked yolk was surrounded by a circle of cauliflower purée masquerading (fooled you!) as its white. Raw cauliflower, a slice of sourdough toast and deep fried kale provided texture. I struggled to find the sorrel, but who cares: this was a triumph with or without it. 

The quality of the lamb rump on my main course was without dispute, with a rich and almost gamey flavour that I usually associate with hogget. Squash was presented in three different cheffy formats, the best of which was a chunk, still bearing its skin, that appeared to have been barbecued. It tasted deep, and deeply of the earth. A smear of black garlic and a sauce so reduced that it shone provided umami thump, while samphire seasoned everything neatly. A glass of Arnold Holzer’s unusual Zweigelt from the Wagram region of Austria was perhaps a bit of a light choice for this dish, but its availability did at least speak of a wine list with intrigue. 

Mrs Diner’s tranche of halibut had been cleverly butchered in order to allow it to be served on the bone, although it had sadly spent a few crucial moments too many in its pan of sizzling butter. Consolingly, it came with some gloriously rich oxtail, a cylinder of the criminally underused salsify and more crisp-fried kale to round out a thoughtfully put together plate. 

All of this was ordered from the à la carte, which took our eventual bill to just shy of £92, including drinks and service, although I should say that the dishes being enjoyed all around us from the early evening menu (£25 for three courses) looked just as neat, complicated and tasty as our own. 

The pudding we shared was in fact available on both menus. It also provided the only serious clanger of the evening. 

I’m going to give Terrington his “we’ve not been open long” free hit here, because this thing was a total shocker. Dull, dry triangles of malt loaf were paired with cream that was supposed to have been soured, but just tasted faintly off in a blue cheese sort of way, and with nubbins of caramel that were so salty to be almost emetic. A raspingly tart apple purée completed the horror show. 

It was, to my taste, weird. Mrs Diner used the word “rank”. 

A couple of other flies in the proverbial: service was friendly enough, although I’m still none the wiser as to what smoked clam “frumenty” comprises. 

“It’s the style of cooking,” offered our waiter. Right you are then. 

Pro-tip: if you don’t know, don’t freestyle it, just ask Chef. That’s what I was taught to do, anyhow. Frumenty is a kind of medieval porridge. From ‘frumentum’, Latin for grain. But of course you all knew that. 

Also, they might want to look at how the tables are set up. The two of us were crammed between another two and a four-top. Every time food was delivered or removed from the latter I had to move my chair to let the waiter squeeze through. This got old pretty quickly. 

These are details that can be put right as quickly as the recipe for that hellish dessert can be lobbed in the bin. The big news is that there is once again some serious cookery going on at 21 Queen Street. A venerable address has been nicely tarted up and given a chef with the skills to honour the past, but also to strike out in his own direction.

I enjoyed returning to what used to be a favourite haunt. Once it gets comfy in its own skin, it has the potential to become a cracking addition to an already stellar Quayside scene.

8 January 2017

The Raby Hunt

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Nr Darlington 
Co Durham 
DL2 3UD 

01325 374 237 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes, but call in advance 

[WINNER: North East Restaurant of the Year 2012/2013/2016]

The paradox of perfection is what makes high-end restaurant cooking such a unique challenge. Every day a chef has to turn up for work and plate up hundreds of dishes, aiming for flawlessness each time, yet knowing deep down that there is really no such thing. The chef is, in a sense, doomed to failure before he even ties his apron: yet it’s only in the trying, over and over again, for that mirage-like moment in which you know that a dish couldn’t be improved by a single grain of salt, that you can really succeed at the very highest level. 

I had cause to reflect on all this as we left The Raby Hunt after a spectacular lunch, trying to figure out why this meal, which I’m happily and easily awarding 6 stars, was better than previous visits I had also pegged at that level (which is the maximum number of stars that will fit comfortably on my Secret Diner window sticker). Ultimately I concluded that chef James Close’s secret is the gentle evolution of dishes, the search for better raw materials and the slow but steady refining of techniques. It makes sitting down in his plush dining room a joy. 

24 December 2016

Review of the Year 2016

Phew! 2016 was quite a year, eh? 

While other more erudite writers are employed to take stock of the tectonic shifts and epochal upheavals in the wider world, my task is rather simpler and happier. I'm aware that I've been saying this for each of the past few years, but that that doesn't make it any less true now: there has never been a better time to eat out in the North East. 

We are currently blessed by impressive quality at every level, from the street to the starchily-clothed, and an increasingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable restaurant-going public is loving it. A number of trends that felt new and shiny only a year or two ago have now matured and bedded in.

20 December 2016

La Yuan

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7-9 Gallowgate 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 4SG 

0191 432 4421 

Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? Yes 

How has 2016 been for you? 

Perhaps you think that Brexit and Trump were good ideas, while Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Wogan, Rickman et al were not, in which case you’ll have yomped merrily through the last 12 months. Personally, I have endured most of this year through gritted teeth and clenched eyelids, bracing myself for the next disaster. 

This was supposed to have been the Chinese year of the monkey; for me it was more like the year of the steaming heap of dung. 

I have tried to make myself feel a bit better by actively seeking out signs that things, anywhere, are getting better. One meagre crumb of comfort I can share with you: I am pleased to report that there’s been a deepening of the pool of restaurants in Newcastle that can prepare a decent Asian meal.

10 December 2016

The Feathers Inn

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Hedley on the Hill 
NE43 7SW 

01661 843 607 

Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? Yes 

Often the most promising harbinger of a good meal is a menu, on real paper, with the date printed on top. It suggests that the kitchen is basing its dishes on the very best produce the market can offer that day, rather than buying ingredients to service a fixed, and often laminated list. 

Another reason to relax when entering a new dining room is the sight of an eclectic collection of cookbooks. It not only indicates that the chef is literate, it demonstrates an interest in the history and techniques of proper cooking. The Feathers Inn scores on both counts. 

I’ve written about its changing daily menu before. Last time, admittedly several years ago, it didn’t quite work for me. With such a large menu in a relatively small room, the execution couldn’t match the ambition. This time, however, it all came together gloriously. And they also seem to have added to their cookbook collection.

3 December 2016

The Running Fox

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2-4 Riverside 
NE65 9EA 

01670 787 090 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

This site has been a bit light on cafés in recent months. Truth be told, I’d take a starter over a dessert any day of the week. While I can admire the science and skill that lies behind a perfect risen sponge or a cunningly crafted mille-feuille, they don’t excite me half as much as a properly reduced sauce or a bit of glassy crackling. 

What’s more - and I realise that some of you might consider this heresy – I don’t really get “afternoon tea”. It’s not a meal; just a bunch of disparate bits and bobs, served on a cutesy stand. I’m not into cutesy, whimsy or dainty. Give me heft, depth and a decent glass of red every time. 

So what enticed me to the Running Fox, a self-confessed café, on a startlingly bright Saturday afternoon?

26 November 2016

Al Buco

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4 Eldon Square 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 7JG 

0191 261 6646
Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? Yes 

On a wet early winter afternoon, as the Christmas shoppers were turning their collars up in defiance of the elements, Old Eldon Square could hardly have felt less Italian. And yet, down just a few steps, and with one greedy forkful of pasta, I was whisked straight off to Bari, deep in the warmth of Italy’s heel. Such is the magic of good food.

19 November 2016


Food ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 
Service ✪ 

97 Osborne Road 
Tyne and Wear 

0191 281 8161 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

Dear Reader, 

Thank you so much for taking the time to post your tweet to me. 

“@secretdiner1 - have you tried Sohe in Jesmond?” you asked. “I went for lunch today and thought it was excellent”. 

Forgive me, dear Reader, but I’m puzzled. You see, I don’t recall ever having insulted your mother, enjoyed an illicit liaison with your sister or run over the sweet little white dog you have as your Twitter profile picture. 

So what I have done to upset you so much that you would suggest I should spend nearly three hours of my life eating some of the most upsettingly bad food I’ve come across in all my years as the Secret Diner? I can only assume that you genuinely liked this place. In which case, I am truly amazed.

13 November 2016


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39-41 Low Friar Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5UE 

0191 261 5531 

Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? No 

"It must be good. Look: everyone inside is Chinese."

In the great pantheon of Daft Things You Hear People Say, this is one of my favourites. A number of “reviews” follow this formula on Inoodle’s TripAdvisor page. It’s a peculiar kind of positive racism which assumes, without any foundation, that an ethnic group of nearly 1.5 billion are all gastronomes. Surely a good portion of the Chinese, just like the rest of us, have terrible taste in food? 

I always wonder if it works the same the other way round. When a group of Asian people walk past a greasy spoon heaving with Brits, do they sagely nod and say to each other "Look at that, it must be a really great British restaurant"? 

Giles Coren reckons that the best way of discerning a quality Chinese gaff is to clock the number of Jewish patrons, citing the similarities between the cuisines (you say dim sum; I say kreplach), and the extreme fussiness of the latter ethnic group. I tend to find that the best Chinese restaurants are the places that all my Jewish friends book on Christmas Day (I have a feeling this criteria may be more reliable when observed in North London than in Newcastle). 

All of this ethno-preamble is a longhand way of noting the fact that as my friend and I grabbed an end-of-the-night table in Inoodle, we were indeed the only patrons of non-Asian extraction. However, this isn’t why the meal was such a joy. That comes solely down to the skill of the cook, who prepared us a range of simple but unerringly delicious dishes. And the wondrous treat of proper, hand-pulled noodles.

6 November 2016


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Wark on Tyne
nr Hexham 
NE48 3LS 

01434 230 209 

Accessibility: Yes 
Gluten free options: Yes 

If you ever needed an excuse to get out into the Northumberland countryside, there’s none better than right now. As we drove up the North Tyne valley from Hexham, the dramatic palette of golds, browns and ochre reminded us that we were bang slap in the middle of the most glorious Autumn. 

This valley is one of the most beautiful parts of one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And nothing shows it off better than a mantle of multicoloured leaves. For once, we had made a plan: we wanted a walk by the river before lunch, short enough not to be tired out, but long enough - just long enough, mind - to justify the three-course feast we were looking forward to. We timed it perfectly, arriving at Battlesteads full of fresh air and hunger. 

A half pint of something hoppy by Allendale Brewery in the pleasingly old-fashioned pub lifted the spirits still further. Today was going to be special; until we went through to the restaurant, and then everything went slightly off-kilter.