18 February 2017

The Duck House

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2-3 Town Hall Buildings 
Princes Street 
NE45 5AD 

01434 634 368 

How long does it take a dish to travel from the best restaurant in the world to Corbridge? Thanks to my recent meal at the Duck House, I can tell you precisely: 14 years. 

In 2003 chef Ferran Adria and his team of molecular maestros at the now-defunct El Bulli created the first of many dishes that would involve their new “spherification” technique. It was a liquid pea “ravioli”, a small green ball that exploded in the mouth with pea liquid. Thus was born unto the world a whole new experience of creative esoteria masquerading as food.

To say that I was surprised to be served this famous and revolutionary dish on a dreary February night in a sleepy Northumbrian village, is putting it mildly. There it was, sitting on a spoon as a pre-starter amuse bouche. I’m ashamed to say my snarkometer went into overdrive. 

“Ha! Look which chef got a molecular gastronomy kit for Christmas,” I muttered, all arch and superior. 

Mrs Diner quickly put me in my place: “Don’t be pompous, taste it,” she said.  

The explosion shut me up. It was perfectly made, and perfectly delicious. 

Alongside it, a coal-black cracker of squid ink carried the oceanic funk of a blob of cod roe, while a delicate croquette was fairly stuffed with confit chicken. As a statement of intent, these pre-dinner nibbles worked perfectly. I sat up straight, and prepared to give whatever followed my fullest attention. 

I can happily report that the majority of our meal was excellent. Even where it wasn’t, the flaws were born of ambition rather than timidity, which makes them all the easier to accommodate. But when it all clicked, there were moments of real triumph. 

Mrs Diner’s starter was one. Its title - “Northumberland vegetables and pickles” - was a grand understatement. What arrived was a dainty assortment of so many cubes of this, leaves of that and pickled strands of the other to mention, the whole thing covered in a powder of dehydrated beetroot. 

“This is so complicated, but just so tasty,” Mrs Diner murmured, as the last of it disappeared. 

My own starter was scarcely less impressive. A brace of chubby scallops had been cooked with sympathy and total precision before being napped in a foam of buttermilk, hidden under a drape of pickled mooli and topped with both real caviar, and “caviar”, the latter being pearls made from juiced orange. That mooli, which was so brazenly pickled as to taste like nothing so much as a bag of salt and vinegar Discos, was an honourable blunder. Honourable, as the salt and vinegar brought a touch of seaside nostalgia to proceedings. Blunder, as it very nearly high-kicked the rest of the dish into tangy oblivion. 

I stayed with fish for my main course, and again there was just a teensy bit too much going on. The seasoning on a handsomely cooked tranche of halibut either was, or was very like, the chilli and sesame-based Japanese togarashi. On the accompanying cod cheek was what tasted like Chinese five-spice. Asian seasonings and fish can be best of pals, but here they masked rather than lifted some excellent natural ingredients. 

Across the table, no such issues for Mrs Diner, whose simple sirloin steak was cooked as requested, and full of deep beefiness. 

“Sometimes I just want a steak,” she had shrugged defensively when I complained about the choice. I long ago ran out of novel ways to describe sliced cow, so she knows I hate it when she orders one. The same goes for chips, but these were crisp and rustly and, I have to admit, delicious when mashed into the steak’s glossy red wine jus. 

All of this top-flight food action went down in a cute white-clothed room that was thoughtfully lit and punctuated by colourful blasts of pleasant art, which is for sale should the need to invest grab you. It was a lovely spot to spend an evening. Both waiting staff were disarmingly charming, as well as being impressively clued up on what was happening in the kitchen. 

There was a very decent wine list, of which - hurrah! - 14 selections are available by the glass, including the cherry and herb silkiness of the “Roaring Meg” Kiwi Pinot Noir I tried. 

Puddings witnessed a last blast of creative verve. Mrs Diner’s, all swirls of caramel and rubble of blood orange crumb, gave the impression that Jackson Pollock may have been at the pass. The blood orange jelly at its heart didn’t quite capture the racy tartness of that most wonderful of citrus flavours, but a doughnut on the side was a lovely orb of deep fried nostalgia.

My parsnip sponge, eerily light and presumably microwaved, gave lie to those who insist vegetables - and indeed microwaves - have no place at pudding time. A white chocolate crumb and a fine caramel of, I think, yuzu and miso, helped it on its way.

Make no mistake about it, there are complex and delicious plates coming out of this kitchen. Given the intricacy of it all, I was most impressed by the consistency of execution. While a few dishes need some refinement, others would sit quite happily at just about any of our region’s best restaurants. 

The name of the chef who may or may not have got the molecular gatronomy kit for Christmas is Ray Hunter. His is a name to keep an eye on. This meal was a very enjoyable mix of solid classic cooking with just enough modernist whizz and pop to make it fun. 

Pea spherifications in the old Corbridge Town Hall – whatever next? I don’t know, but if it’s from this kitchen, I’ll have a plateful.

11 February 2017

Central Oven & Shaker

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8 Neville Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5EN 

0191 349 9187 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Pre-booked only 

The development of the area bang opposite Newcastle’s Central Station has raised many an eyebrow and furrowed no shortage of brows over the last couple of years. August figures of no lesser standing than Dame Vera Baird and the Reverend Nicholas Buxton voiced concerns that the planned opening of a “Gentlemen’s” club (were air-quotes ever more justified?) would give visitors to the city, fresh off the train, the wrong idea about our fair city. 

As it happens, their fears have gone unrealised. The entrance to the basement dwelling called For Your Eyes Only is, to use a word that I imagine was extensively deployed in planning applications, discreet. Making a far louder noise about itself, and of rather more interest to this column, is what is on the ground level: a shiny new Neopolitan-style pizza and cocktail joint called Central Oven and Shaker

Unless Aperol spritz and soupy pizzas are going to give people the wrong idea about Newcastle - and if so, I’m not sure what constitutes the right idea - then the City’s image is intact.

4 February 2017

The Patricia

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139 Jesmond Road 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE2 1JY 

0191 281 4443 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes – but pre-book 

At the beginning of these reviews, I usually try to only hint at the verdict, keeping full disclosure to the end. It probably comes from some vain idea that if I’m going to spend time writing it down, I’d quite like you to actually read all the way through. It’s what TV people call “jeopardy”. But then there are times when the restaurant in question is either so wildly good or honkingly bad that there’s just no point in beating about the bush. This is one such occasion. 

The Patricia, Jesmond’s latest addition, recently served me the most flat-out enjoyable meals I’ve eaten for... well, for ages. It was brilliant. I loved it. We had a great time. If that’s all you needed to know, fine, you’re done. If you want to know why, you’re welcome to spend the next 800 words in my company while I shout about it.

28 January 2017

Red's True Barbecue

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Unit 6, Grey’s Quarter 
Intu Eldon Square 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 7AP 

0191 673 0073 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

In these troubled times of #cleaneating, #gettheglow and who knows how many other wheezes designed to inspire guilt and remorse, especially in January, there’s something delightfully transgressive about sitting down with the sole intention of eating as much meat and fried food as possible in a single meal. And then ordering dessert. Through this prism, our recent trip to Red's True Barbecue can be seen not just as a meal, but as a politically informed act of resistance. So come brothers and sisters! Man the barricades! Comrade, pass me the hot sauce! 

That’s my only excuse for the sheer gluttony we indulged in over a couple of hours in this recently opened outpost of the small but growing barbecue chain – 8 restaurants at the last count. Newcastle doesn’t lack home-grown protein-centric joints, with Longhorns and Bierrex doing very capable things with their smoky lumps of cow and pig. So what does Red’s bring to the table? 

A whole liturgy of mock-Christian branding, for one thing. 

“The pearly gates of your new church of worship have been flung open in Eldon Square. Come forth and worship at the altar of meat,” preaches the website. 

This branding, from Warm, a design company housed in a decommissioned church in Gateshead, features a knife and fork formed into a cross. The menu is referred to as “The Good Book” and a popup on the web page urges you to “join the flock (enter email address to receive updates and offers)”. 

This theme-park approach to catering gets very annoying very quickly when the food isn’t good enough to distract you from it. I’m sure some may find it offensive. Fortunately, what turned up on our trays almost justified it. Almost.

21 January 2017

Barrio Comida

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Wesley Square 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3DE 

No telephone number
No bookings 


As Mrs Diner and I wandered along the Quayside, reflections of the Sage Gateshead and the Millennium Bridge all twinkly in the ink-pool Tyne, I must admit I was genuinely excited. Over the last few years, the fates and my diary had somehow conspired to prevent me from visiting any of Shaun Hurrell’s Barrio Comida pop-ups, so the news that he was moving into Adam Riley’s fish shack on the Quayside was very welcome indeed. 

This is the converted shipping container with the second best view in the world (the best being the outlook from Riley’s fish shack in Tynemouth). Anticipation can be the enemy of enjoyment, but in this case it was well placed.

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.

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.