30 March 2019

Taco Bell

Food ✪ 
Ambience ✪ 
Service ✪ 

84 Grainger Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5JQ 

0191 230 1309 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? No

Sometimes, after dishing out a bunch of stars to the worthy, or more often withholding them from places that think their customers are mugs, I’m asked about my judging criteria: how can I review both upscale Michelin-starred restaurants and down at home diners? Am I biased against chains and faster food in favour of fine dining and independent restaurants? 

Well, to be honest, I do prefer my meal to be cooked by a real chef, rather than arrive pre-prepped in a catering van; a homemade scotch egg of runny yolk and loose, well seasoned forcemeat will always trump one of those tight, orange-crumbed supermarket jobs. But to my mind, if a place calls itself a fish and chip shop it ought to be able to offer good batter and fresh fish; a burger place should stand or fall on its burgers; and when a place calls itself a taco house, it ought to really know how to make tacos.

8 March 2019

Jesmond Dene House

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Jesmond Dene House Hotel 
Jesmond Dene Road 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE2 2EY 

0191 212 3000 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

So – this is a bit awkward. 

If only for reasons of civic pride, I’ve no interest in having a pop at any of our more venerable and venerated restaurants. On the other hand, the same rules apply to every review, be it a fresh new opening or an updated assessment of an old fave: one meal, unannounced, and I’ll pay my own bill. 

I’m quite certain that middling reviews were not what anyone envisaged when Jesmond Dene House moved to replace Michael Penaluna by installing Danny Parker as Executive Head Chef. Parker arrived last October from a head chef role at Kenny Atkinson’s House of Tides, in a move that caught the attention of the trade press, helped by positive showings on BBC’s Great British Menu. 

It looked from afar like a great move for everyone: Jesmond Dene got a young, hungry chef with knowledge of what is required to get the attention of the Michelin folk; Parker could step out from the shadow of Atkinson, taking over the reins of a more varied and wide-ranging food operation. It still might turn out that way (I really hope it does - I think he’s a very good chef). It just didn’t seem like it on the weeknight of our visit.

15 February 2019

Kimchi Planet/Proven Goods

Kimchi Planet 

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24 Wretham Place 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE2 1XU 

07366 066546 

Accessibility? No 
Gluten free? Limited 

Proven Goods 
Food ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
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Hoults Yard
Walker Road
 Newcastle upon Tyne

No phone number
Accessibility? N/A
 Gluten free? GF doughnuts

Here’s how it was meant to go: Mrs Diner and I would take advantage of a rare free afternoon together to visit a couple of plucky upstart independent food businesses which had recently found permanent sites. I’d make some tired observations about how neither offered the level of comfort to which we - crashing snobs both - are accustomed to, but hey, who cares because the revelatory quality of their product and the sheer force of personality behind their ventures won us over completely. Hurrah! 5 stars! We’d go home, I’d bash out a thousand or so words about how chains are awful, independents are brilliant, proclaim it spiffing that there are so many in Newcastle, and everyone would be happy. Well, it didn’t quite go like that.

5 February 2019

Cook House

Food ✪✪✪✪✪ 
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Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 

Foundry Lane 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE6 1LH 

0191 276 1093 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes

Just so this doesn’t come over like one of those puff pieces you might read in our less critically-minded local food publications and blogs, let me start at the very end, with the one thing that wasn’t completely great: the espresso I necked just prior to leaving Cook House was towards the fruity/astringent end of the caffeine spectrum, whereas I’m a bit more of a rich/smooth kind of guy, at least where coffee is concerned. 

That’s it. Criticism over. Now let me spend the rest of this post telling you why Cook House is such a wonderful place to eat.

28 January 2019

Chadwicks Inn Maltby

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Service ✪✪✪✪ 

High Lane 
TS8 0BG 

01642 590 300 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes

They say that in the restaurant trade, the better the food quality, the tighter the margins. Good ingredients, talented chefs and reliable equipment all cost money. It’s not easy to make economies of scale at the highest level of cooking. And the fickle public can be weirdly reticent to shell out much more for a complex, multiple-ingredient plateful of real quality than they will for a burger. Not that I’ve got anything against a good burger of course, but you get my drift. 

Which is why many chefs are faced with a dilemma: focus on the serious stuff that shows off their skills, or bring in the punters with a few sure-fire crowd pleasers? At the very lovely Chadwicks Inn in Maltby, just south of Middlesbrough, they’re doing a good job of both. On the one hand, this is definitely still a pub, with an actual bar where you could happily have a pint without feeling weird, so perhaps the fact that they serve burgers and fish and chips is fair play. On the other hand, they’re also offering delicious, appealing dishes of some ambition, as evidenced by their brace of AA Rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand.

15 January 2019

St Mary's Inn

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Service ✪✪✪✪ 

St Mary’s Lane 
St Mary’s Park 
NE61 6BL 

01670 293293 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

Walking through the doors of St Mary’s Inn recently gave me an odd feeling of déjà vu. 

When the place closed in May 2017, the company behind it (which also owns Jesmond Dene House), cited issues with the Bellway development that was growing around it, and for which it had been envisaged as a community hub. Well, it reopened in August of this year, and while there may be a new chef and general manager, pretty much everything else is just as I remembered it.

3 January 2019

The Cheviot

Food ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 

The Cheviot Hotel 
NE48 2AU 

Accessibility? No Gluten free? Yes

01434 220 696 

Taking a right at the roundabout where the B6318 meets the A68, and heading north toward Kielder and Scotland, light immediately seems to get a good deal scarcer. 

At this time of year, travelling at night, there is a strangely hypnotic quality to this section of highway. Headlights pick out the straight white lines on asphalt which stretches, without the interruption of a bend, for miles ahead. The only variety is provided by a series of dramatic dips and peaks. The pitchy darkness to each side of the car is disorientating, making it hard to tell whether you’re hooning up or down a slope, other than by the feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s like being on a long, dark Tron-inspired rollercoaster. 

My latest trip to these parts served as a slightly depressing reminder that it isn’t just light that this area around Kielder lacks. Good cooking is in as short supply as photons. While the world-class gloom brings visitors from all over the world, keen to peer into the infinite murk of deep space, there continues to be nowhere of truly stellar quality for them to eat. It is a mystery of intergalactic proportions.

11 December 2018

The Holy Hobo

Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 

Jesmond Three Sixty 
Newcastle upon Tyne 

0191 281 3010 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

Anyone who spends a bit of time writing about restaurants will quickly find themselves the target of press releases declaring this or that new opening to be the hottest thing since sliced hype. You soon become inured to the over-familiar and breathless tone of these communiqués, with their exclamation marks and awful words like “tantalising” and “fully-loaded”. 

Off the top of my head, precisely none of the greatest meals I’ve ever eaten came after having reading PR blurb. A number of the most awful ones did though. Funny that. 

Nonetheless, every now and then I stumble across some release that is so vibrantly bonkers I find myself drawn to check out the place it purports to describe, like a sick moth to a roaring flame. Which explains why my friend and I recently found ourselves in what used to be Mr Lynch, but has recently been rebranded as, ahem... The Holy Hobo.

1 December 2018

Bistro Citron Vert

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1 Wellington St 
High Pittington 
County Durham 
DH6 1AZ 

0191 372 0564 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

I’ve been reworking my way through the best episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” as a sort of personal memorial to someone I never met, but who had the most wonderful gift for finding connections in and between food, people and places. 

He also had a great influence on my own cooking: his Les Halles Cookbook, which I bought in 2004, remains one of the most thumbed in my kitchen. It’s wonderfully funny and as outrageous as its author – in between the classic brasserie recipes it’s brimful of anecdotes of behind the scenes antics at the restaurant in Manhattan where he was head chef. His passion drips off the page like the juices of a medium rare côte de boeuf – I like to think he was a hopeless romantic about French cooking. 

It stands to reason, of course. Bourdain’s own childhood food epiphany was the consumption of an oyster while on a family holiday in the Gironde - “It tasted of seawater...of brine and flesh… and somehow...of the future”. 

For many of us, when classic French dishes are prepared and served well they can indeed raise the spirits. They taste of comfort, familiarity and reassurance. Nowadays this world can seem ablaze with division and fury and the future seems anything but certain. To enjoy a simple but delicious plate of food that has been prepared with skill and diligence, in much the same way as it has been since who knows when, is somehow to reject all the nastiness and look to a more stable world where, just maybe, things will turn out all right. Maybe. 

That’s the feeling I had anyway, as Mrs Diner and I set about our starters in Bistro Citron Vert. To be clear, this wasn’t high end French cuisine: nothing was flambéed, the sauces weren’t complex, there was no deft removal of bones at tableside. But sometimes a skilled rendition of the mundane can be more satisfying than stiff formality.

22 November 2018

Carter & Fitch

Food ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

Stone Cellar Road 
High Usworth
Tyne & Wear 
NE37 1PH 

0191 202 2404 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes  

So here we were on Wearside for the latest installment of the as-yet-unsuccessful “Operation Find Somewhere Nice To Eat in Central Sunderland”, a toilsome undertaking that a lesser reviewer would have jacked in ages ago. I am, however, possessed of both optimism and unwavering obstinacy, and so on I trudge. 

Mrs Diner and I had with us the pal, who had with her a very Junior Diner. Fine, I had thought; if I’m struggling for word count I can bang on about the baby change facilities. People eat out with young kids all the time. The pal does, anyhow. I foresaw no difficulties. More fool me. 

We pitched up at El Nido Mexicana at the advertised opening time of midday looking forward to what I had been told were some thoroughly decent tacos and a good list of mezcals, but the lights were off and nobody was home. I rang to see what the score was. No answer. 

With Junior getting restless in her pram, we hot-footed it over town to Mexico 70, set up by Neil Bassett of the excellent band Hyde and Beast, only to find the doors locked, some twenty minutes after Google suggested they ought to have opened. 

While I began to mutter swear words under my breath a delivery man was trying to get access, at which point a chef poked his head out of the kitchen and let us in, only to advise that they don’t have high chairs. Ikea flogs them for nine quid, guys. We would have spent an awful lot more than that. Just saying. 

Flustered, hungry, and with Junior on a one way journey down meltdown street, I abandoned the idea of doing any kind of review and sought the nearest sustenance. The Engine Room was just over the road. They had a twenty minute wait for tables. This was not good news. Junior was now doing actual yelping, and things had gotten visceral. 

Mrs Diner shot me a look. “We need to get out of Sunderland” she hissed. 

We hightailed it back to the car and headed north, to safety. At which point I remembered that I’d been meaning to try Carter and Fitch, near Washington. 

10 minutes later we were seated, crayons and wine had been distributed appropriately by friendly staff and all calm was restored. The food turned out to be mostly terrible, but did we care? Not much.