20 September 2014

Windows On The Tyne (Hilton)

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Hilton Newcastle Gateshead 
Bottle Bank 
NE8 2AR 

0191 490 9700 

Mon-Sat 6.30am to 10pm 
Sun 7am to 9.30pm 

Accessibility: Yes 

It does have the most incredible view. 

Straight over the river, with the cityscape framed by the huge sweep of the Tyne Bridge, it’s a breathtaking panorama. Though the Hilton stands high on the Gateshead bank of the Tyne, the hotel’s website places it in Newcastle, which must irk everyone south of the river. 

This is a flagship hotel for the whole of Tyneside, a first choice for putting up posh guests and VIPs. It hosts big conferences and banquets – and, although catering for hundreds is a tough call, I can attest that they do it very well. 

But this wasn’t a meal for hundreds – it was just me and a business colleague, power lunching in what the hotel calls its “casual yet elegant” restaurant. We wanted to sample its “modern and local cuisine”, so we went à la carte, which means we were paying nearly £20 for a main course, plus £7 each for starters and desserts. The bill for two came to £78 with two glasses of house wine each - that’s London pricing, so we expected a lot. 

I’d love to be able to tell you that Windows on the Tyne offers our city’s visitors a showcase of regional produce and recipes. But aside from a cursory reference to “local” cheese, there was no mention of provenance. 

Seafood linguine and scotch egg salad sat alongside steaks, braised ox cheek and seared tuna: this menu could have been found in any big hotel in any provincial town. A “healthy options” section offered ‘lime and chevil marinated chicken on ozro rice’, by which I assume they meant chervil and orzo. We decided to be un-healthy. 

I asked the waitress, whose badge declared her a ‘Team Leader’, if she could recommend a starter. She couldn’t. 

‘How about the spicy crab cakes?’ I asked hopefully. 

‘They’re very popular,’ was the reply. 

‘Yes, but do you recommend them?’ 

She couldn’t, because she hadn’t tried them. Or anything else for that matter. She could endorse neither food nor wine. We were on our own. 

My colleague ordered quenelles of chicken liver with beetroot relish, whereas I risked the crab cakes on “dressed leaves with mint and coriander yoghurt”. 

Now I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that a restaurant this expensive would buy in its pâté and relish. But I can report that it somehow managed to make both taste as if they’d arrived on a van. 

The pâté was bitter and cloying, rather than smooth and homemade, whilst the relish could have come from a jar. Presented clumsily with a few undressed leaves, a couple of large slices of white toast and garnished with two cherry tomatoes, this dish would have been laughed off the table in the conference hall next door. 


My two spicy crab cakes contained no discernible spice and very little crab: virtually hollow balls of fishy nothingness, perched on baby gem that had been drizzled with a milky minty liquid and garnished with two more cherry tomatoes. 

Our mains were salmon steak with grilled sweet corn, béarnaise sauce and loin of lamb with roasted vegetables. The Team Leader had no idea if the “roasted vegetables” would be sufficient without an additional side dish, so I paid an extra £3 for chips that I didn’t need. 

The lamb would have graced a Sunday pub lunch, piled on roast potatoes and other winter favourites. The meat was tender and pink, but let down by asparagus that had lost its green and a “redcurrant jus” that suspiciously resembled granulated brown liquid. 

Even more disappointing was my colleague’s salmon. An anaemic slab, it lay next to a gravy boat of acidic béarnaise, with half a cob of corn hiding in embarrassment under a veil of pea shoots. 

It was right to hide: it had been billed as grilled, but any crunchiness had been boiled or steamed away; it had no more colour than the sad fish beside it. 

By now we had almost lost the will to eat, but decided to share a “selection of mini desserts.” 

This turned out to be a cube of brown sponge aspiring to be sticky toffee pudding, a little ramekin containing a piece of hard meringue, a blob of cream and some strawberries (a mess that had never been to Eton), and, bizarrely, a slice of Victoria sponge that had lost its way to afternoon tea. 

As I tried three times to pay the bill – the Leader’s team had been replaced by another group of disinterested staff – my colleague gazed wistfully at the view. 

“Look, isn’t that Kenny Atkinson preparing dinner in House of Tides?” he said. 

I growled as I got out my credit card.

Windows on the Tyne Restaurant - Gateshead on Urbanspoon

13 September 2014

The Blackbird

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North Road 
NE20 9UH 

01661 822684 

Mon-Sat 12-8.30pm 
Sun 12-5pm 

The lineup is certainly impressive. Glen David Robson, one of Terry Laybourne’s most senior lieutenants, who was head chef of Caffè Vivo (my Best European Restaurant award for the past two years), has been paired with Danny Diver, the sommelier of Jesmond Dene House (Best Hotel Restaurant). Two culinary heavyweights in a Ponteland pub? This has got to be a serious attempt on the Best Gastropub in the North East crown.

6 September 2014

Rosa Twelve

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580 Durham Road 
Low Fell 
Tyne & Wear 
NE9 6HX 

 0191 487 8257 

Mon-Fri 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-10pm 
Sat 11am-10pm Sun noon-8pm 

Accessibility:  Downstairs only (full menu)

This place started out life as a little coffee shop called the Lugano. Then in the 1970s it became Restaurant Italia, a North East institution that just about kept itself alive until the end of 2012. 

By then a weary lasagna-and-minestrone joint, with red carpets, chairs and tablecloths, green and brown patterned wallpaper and wooden ceilings with fake fishing nets, the Italia was the sort of place that should have been humanely put to sleep in the 90s, but had somehow managed to survive through the loyal support of an ageing clientele, comforted by a familiar, unchallenging menu and low prices. 

Thankfully, Italian food in Britain has moved on since then. Step forward Rosa Twelve.

30 August 2014


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Aspers Casino
The Gate 
Newgate Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5TG 

0191 255 0400 
5-11.30pm daily 
Accessibility: Yes

Sadly you won’t see Freya in here. The daughter of TV presenter Donna Air and Aspers owner Damian Aspinall turns 11 in a few days’ time, but children aren’t allowed into casinos until they’re 18, even if they have restaurants named after them. 

It’s on the first floor of The Gate: past the slot machines, roulette wheels and poker tables. 

“Where on earth have you brought me this time?” said Mrs Diner with a heavy sigh. “It looks like one of those cafés at the airport.”

24 August 2014

Cena Trattoria

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85 The High Street 
TS15 9BG 

01642 780088 
 Mon-Sat 12 noon - late 

Yarm is a town that wants to move. It’s been part of Stockton-on-Tees since the 70s, but earlier this year 1,465 residents voted to move it into North Yorkshire – that’s 89% of those who voted. 

A principle cause of discontent is the parking. Yarm, which is as attractive as most Yorkshire market towns, has very nice shops and cafés in a lovely Georgian High Street, down the centre of which is a marketplace that doubles as a car park. 

I tend to measure parking time in courses. If you want a starter and dessert you need at least an hour and a half. Parking here used to be free for the first two hours, allowing enough time for coffee and petit fours, but back in April Stockton Borough Council imposed charges – the first hour is free, but after that it costs £1. No wonder the locals are complaining: Cena, which sits right in the centre, has excellent pannetone bread and butter pudding.

16 August 2014

Brasserie Hudson Quay

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Winward Way 
TS2 1QG 
01642 261166 


Accessibility: Yes 

Breakfast (Sat/Sun): 9-12pm 
Table d’Hôte lunch: 12-2.30pm 
Dinner: Mon-Sat 5-10.30pm 
Sunday: 12-5pm 

You don’t need to travel the continent to taste a slice of Europe – come to Middlesbrough. “Brasserie Hudson Quay”, according to its own publicity, “is a European style destination restaurant, designed to recall the Grand European Cafés of France, Spain and Italy”. Really? 

OK, I may sticking my neck out, but, on the international culinary scale, I reckon the town of Middlesbrough is about level with Gdansk.

9 August 2014

The Mizen Head

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Lucker Road 
NE69 7BS 

01668 214 254 
Accessibility: Yes 

I must congratulate owner Alex Watson. The pure white sand of Bamburgh has always been a desert for foodies. His restaurant with rooms now offers a decent meal after a long walk on Britain’s best beach. 

I love Bamburgh, and the lack of good food has always been an embarrassment when I recommend the area to visitors. Now it can have a Secret Diner Recommended sticker on its door.

2 August 2014

The Town House Durham

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34 Old Elvet 
DH1 3HN 

0191 384 1037 

Lunch 12-2.30pm 
Dinner 5-9.30pm 
Accessibility: Yes 

Take a deep breath before you enter – nothing can prepare you for the interior. 

It’s as if Boy George and Elton John had set up home together in Durham and opened a B&B. Camp doesn’t begin to describe the combination of red, gold grey and black, faux pillars, statues and fake leopardskin carpet. Chandeliers, purple chairs with tassels: chintz and kitch clash in a triumph of absurdity over taste. It’s hysterical.

26 July 2014


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The Biscuit Factory 
Stoddart Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE2 1AN 

0191 260 5411 

Mon - Fri 12-2pm, 5.30-9pm 
Sat 12-2pm, 7-9.30pm 
Sun 12‐2pm 
Accessibility: Yes 

This is art without a capital A. I assume they named it artisan (note the creative underline in the title) because it’s now been integrated into its Ouseburn gallery home The Biscuit Factory, which shows some excellent artisan craftwork. 

In fact, the blurb boasts that the restaurant is “influenced by its cultural location, with creative flourishes of originality in the furnishings”. I rather hoped for creative flourishes of originality in the food.

20 July 2014

Café Lilli

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83-85 High Street 
TS20 1AE 

01642 554422 

Closed Mondays 
Tues-Sat 11am-11pm 
Jazz Sundays: 
1st Sunday of the month, 2-6pm 

Norton village, in Stockton-on-Tees, is a pleasant surprise. 

It’s a bit like a rural market town, with a duckpond, village green, Victorian memorial cross, pretty almshouses and a long wide tree-lined high street – a contrast to sprawling Stockton and the stark industrial Teesside landscape surrounding it. 

It almost has the feel of a French village, with its shaded villas and rows of cars parked either side. Maybe that’s why the owners of Café Lilli chose this spot to open what is a very continental café.