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.

21 May 2016

Lake Road Kitchen

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

Lake Road 
Ambleside 
Cumbria 
LA22 0AD 

01539 422 012 
www.lakeroadkitchen.co.uk 

“Don’t believe the hype”, said the popular hip hop combo Public Enemy in 1988, and quite right they were too. I think Chuck D was inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky when he took out his quill and parchment, but he might just as well have been writing about restaurants. 

Despite more years of eating out than I’d admit to, I still get sufficiently excited about visiting a hyped up restaurant to all too easily forget Mr D’s dictum, often leading to post-nosh disappointment. 

This was very much the case as, just a couple of hours out of Newcastle, we wound our way down through the almost cloyingly pretty scenery of Troutbeck, Ullswater and then over The Kirkstone Pass, en route to dinner at Lake Road Kitchen. 


This dinky little 9-tabler has been the subject of much breathless veneration since it opened in 2014, garnering big love in the blogosphere as well as an almost unheard of 10/10 from The Guardian’s guru Marina O’Loughlin. 

Chef James Cross has managed to pack stints at some of this planet's very finest restaurants into his 34 years, including a lengthy stay at the world’s current number one, Noma in Copenhagen. The foraging, fermenting, ageing and pickling that have become the hallmark of René Redzepi’s “New Nordic Cuisine” are very much in evidence at Lake Road Kitchen, whose website exhorts the reader to “come and taste the food of the North”. 

I thought I would show my solidarity with the recently-flooded Lake District by doing just that, booked weeks ahead to try their tasting menu, then, like a kid before Christmas, started counting down the days. 

All of this preamble gives you some sort of context to a much-anticipated meal that, although certainly enjoyable, left me very much not blown away, and even a bit nonplussed. Some of this may simply have been a matter of preference, but I would maintain that some was down to execution too.

14 May 2016

Nadon Thai (Newcastle)


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

32-34 Mosley Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 1DF 

0191 374 1157 
www.nadonthai.co.uk 



I have found that locating good Thai food in Newcastle is as elusive as the Higgs boson. More so, in fact; apparently the latter has now been found, while my search for somewhere that can approximate to real Thai cooking has gone on in vain. 

On each of the last two episodes of this quest, disaster struck. First at Mantra, and then at The Old Siam, my hopes were dashed on the rocks of inept cooking and duff ingredients.  

My one-star review of The Old Siam resulted in a raw convulsion of rage on The Chronicle’s Facebook page. Apparently, a lot of people like this place and took the review quite personally. Bless. I only wish I could have reviewed the meals they had all enjoyed so much, or that they could have seen how abject mine was. 

Anyway, it gives me no little pleasure to bring better tidings this week. Thanks to a new incarnation of an old friend, things are looking up on the south-east Asian front.

7 May 2016

The Dirty Bottles


Food ✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 

Narrowgate 
Alnwick 
Northumberland
NE66 1JG 

01665 606 193 
www.thedirtybottles.co.uk 

Of all the places where I might have expected to find a vision of the future of dining, Alnwick wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top of the list. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like the town a lot. When the weather is fine, The Gardens are a lovely way to spend an afternoon. When inclemency strikes, many a happy hour can be whittled away amongst the aged tomes of Barter Books. But groundbreaking? Not the Alnwick I know. 

I’ve always thought of it as a genteel, antiquated kind of place, stuck somewhere in the 1950s; it’s the last place on earth you’d expect to find a hi-tech gadget-filled eatery. So when I heard rumours of a pub that had introduced “iPad self-service ordering booths” and a craft beer “tasting wall”, I was intrigued. What does it feel like to ask for food from a screen rather than a person? Does it improve the quality? Reduce the price? I had to find out.

30 April 2016

Cal's Own

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

1-2 Holly Avenue 
West Jesmond 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE2 2AR 

0191 281 5522 
www.calsown.co.uk 

Usually I go, eat, write the truth as I taste it, and that’s about it. My job is simply to judge each restaurant on a single meal, just as any customer would. 

Sometimes the owners and chefs are happy with what I write, and sometimes they are upset, but the world continues to turn and, as Del Amitri said, the needle returns to the start of the song. 

However some of my reviews, I confess, come with a side order of apprehension. These are the places which, privately, I really wanted to be good, because I know the story behind the menu, about the sweat and tears that have been invested by an owner or chef committed to perfection. But you can’t review a chef’s dream, you can only report the reality. So you just sit at your table, pick a few dishes, and hope for the best. 

Cal’s Own falls squarely into this latter category.  Here is someone who is not just fanatical about what he’s doing, he has committed his life acquiring the knowledge and skills to create a product that’s up with the very best in the world. That’s a tall order, when that product is as ubiquitous as pizza.