20 December 2014

2014 Secret Diner Awards

Secret Diner 2014 Awards - plaques donated by CCS


What a difference a year makes. 

At last the North East is catching up with the rest of Britain when it comes to dining out. The old jibe that our region is a culinary desert (made by Southerners with more than a little justification) is finally dead and buried, or should be. 

The proof: of the 20 or so new openings since our last awards, several have achieved a 4 star rating, equivalent to a couple of AA rosettes. That’s a huge improvement on last year’s scores. 

The national food guides and critics haven’t caught up yet. Why would they? They’ve always assumed that we live in the culinary dark ages, so many of our new venues have passed them by. But those of us who eat out a lot have noticed a real improvement in standards, particularly on Tyneside. 

Sure, the region still has only one Michelin star (The Raby Hunt, where James Close’s extraordinary talent continues to shine), but what’s most exciting is the general improvement in the kitchens of our pubs, bars and cafés. I now have over 80 recommended establishments on this website – maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to try them all in 2015? 

Many establishments have made waves this year, so it’s impossible to include them all. 

On North Shields’ fish quay John Calton’s The Staith House has added impact to the already buzzing culinary scene. In Morpeth, where it’s been hard to find any cooking of note apart from Italian and Thai, residents have welcomed The Northumberland Arms at Felton, which is now packed out most evenings and Sunday lunchtimes, and even North Northumberland has a destination restaurant with Holystone Lodge. Hexham has a superb Indian in Zyka, and there’s a great new pizzeria called The Wood Oven in Wylam. 

In Newcastle’s city centre, the dead hand of pre-made, bulk-bought catering that used to arrive in early morning vans is finally being replaced by carefully sourced local ingredients and a passion for excellence in the kitchens. 

We’ve seen this in places like Lane7, which might have become just another café within a bowling alley, but is actually a real find for anyone who likes real American-style burgers and chilli dogs. They’re not alone: DatBar has great burgers and pizzas, and even the enormous Harry’s Bar has a surprisingly ambitious menu. 

Also in Teesside, Marcus Bennett, winner of this year’s Gastropub Award, has added another good Yarm eaterie with Cena, and even Middlesbrough has gained some good cooking with its Brasserie Hudson Quay. 

In Jesmond, Dave Coulson’s Peace & Loaf has managed to combine really good cooking with a relaxed, local vibe and well deserves its Journal Readers’ Award for Best Restaurant. It was in the running for our top gong too, but the top prize this year went to Kenny Atkinson’s House of Tides

Congratulations to Kenny on winning this year's North East Restaurant of the Year award, which is chosen from all the winners of the ten awards categories.  It's presented to the restaurant that has made the most significant contribution to the North East's restaurant scene in 2014, an incredibly difficult choice, given The Raby Hunt's consistently brilliant cooking and success in getting national recognition, and the innovation and popular appeal of some of the other winners that offer great food in genres other than fine dining.  


Next year I suspect there’ll be even more competition: Rockliffe Hall has just announced that they’ve appointed Michelin-starred chef Richard Allen to run their Orangery restaurant. 

Most of the time I’ve had to trust my own tastebuds and judgment in making these selections, but I’m grateful for the help of several local bloggers and foodies whose opinions I respect. 

And I’ve also taken serious note of the comments from my 2,300 Twitter followers and all the emails I’ve received from countless others. They, after all, represent the community that really matters: the customers. 

The fact that this year only a couple of restaurants have closed, and so many good ones have opened is a sign of a vibrant regional restaurant industry. Long may it continue.  Have a great Christmas and great dining in 2015.

6 December 2014

Eslington Villa

Food ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 
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8 Station Road 
Low Fell 
Gateshead 
Tyne & Wear 
NE9 6DR 

0191 487 6017 
www.eslingtonvilla.co.uk 

There’s something rather solid and comfortable about Eslington Villa. A sturdy, late-Victorian red-brick property overlooking the Team Valley, it’s the kind of place Fawlty Towers might have become if it had decent staff, a trained chef, and someone other than Basil Fawlty running it. 

This is a proper family-run hotel that’s been kept well, nurtured and improved over the years (it’s been around since the 1980s). Set back from the main drag in Low Fell, I suspect it’s too far from Newcastle to attract many tourists, yet it’s a cut above the travelling salesmen places you usually find in the suburbs. 

Originally two houses built for the Victorian well-to-do, the décor is conservative rather than stylish, and though some of the bedrooms have rather idiosyncratic colour schemes, you can tell it has caring, passionate owners and enthusiastic, efficient staff. 

There’s an airy, tiled conservatory overlooking the large lawn and the valley beyond. That’s where Mrs Diner and I were seated, looking forward to one of the best value lunches in town, with three courses for £16.95.

29 November 2014

St Mary's Inn


Food ✪✪✪✪ 
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Ambience ✪✪✪ 

St Mary’s Park 
Stannington Park
Morpeth 
Northumberland 
NE61 6BL 

01670 293293 
www.stmarysinn.co.uk 

I guess you’d call this a work in progress. 

'We’re creating a thriving community in the great British countryside,' runs the online blurb from Bellway, the developers of Stannington Park. 


'Inspired by the best of English village life,' it goes on, over a shot of a couple dressed in black tie getting into an open topped sports car, presumably off to the opera. The lady is wearing her partner’s heavy coat to protect herself from the spray on the A1. 

Elsewhere in the same brochure, the couple is dressed more appropriately for village life, complete with spaniel and green wellies, then wrapped in jumpers as they cycle, without a care in the world, or even cycle helmets, down a wintry lane. 

Built on the sprawling site of the old St Mary’s Hospital, or Asylum as it used to be called, like every self-respecting country village, Stannington Park will have its own cricket pitch, community hall and, of course, village pub. 

 

Not any old pub, this is a gastropub. And better than that, one owned and run by Newcastle’s best hotel, Jesmond Dene House. 

22 November 2014

Fratello's

Food ✪ 
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Ambience ✪✪ 

Doubletree by Hilton Hotel 
Newcastle Airport 
NE13 8BZ 

01661 867020 
www.fratellosrestaurants.co.uk 



What a difference one letter can make. 

Fratello, which means ‘brother’, is a group of three Italian restaurants housed within hotels managed by Newcastle-based Cairn Group. Fratelli, which means ‘brothers’, is also one of three restaurants, but in this case the brothers are from Sardinia: Fabrizio Saba and his brother-in-law Paul Bernardelli, who have been running Sabatini, Prima and Fratelli for many years. 

If I were Signori Saba and Bernardelli, I’d have been pretty upset when Fratello’s opened at the airport, right on Fratelli’s doorstep. After all, they’d already successfully built up their popular Ponteland Italian and the locals seem to love it. Fratelli won Best Family Restaurant in the Secret Diner Restaurant Awards last year – they have a table magician at Sunday lunch. 

To have another Italian brother infiltrate their catchment area ought to have kickstarted a new Godfather movie. But aside from the name, they’re as different as chalk and cheese, or, in this case, cheap catering mozzarella and spicy soft Pecorino. One calls itself an Italian restaurant; the other actually is one.

15 November 2014

Electric East


Food ✪✪✪ 
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St James Boulevard 
Waterloo Square 
Newcastle Upon Tyne 
NE1 4DP 

www.electric-east.co.uk 
0191 221 1000 

Lunch: Fri only 
Dinner: Mon to Sat 6 - 9.45pm 

Nearly three years ago Electric East emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of a Newcastle institution called Barn Asia, which I’d only managed to visit once before it fell into administration. 

Based on that one experience, which thankfully I was never called on to chronicle, I reckoned they only got half the name right – it was a bit of a barn, but I could detect little of Asia in its cooking. I found much of it bland, and some actually rather unpleasant. 

That has been my lame excuse for not reviewing its successor until now. However Electric East is well thought of by some, and has even managed a listing in the Michelin guide, so this secret visit was long overdue.

9 November 2014

Holystone Lodge and Restaurant

Food ✪✪✪ 
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Low Farnham 
Morpeth 
Northumberland 
NE65 7AQ 

01669 640140 
www.holystonelodgeandrestaurant.co.uk 

If there’s one thing you’ll need out here, it’s a satnav. Set somewhere between Rothbury and the Outer Hebrides, this restaurant is not just out of the way, it’s located behind the back of beyond. 

It was a chilly Tuesday. We were sure we’d be the only guests, and were glad we’d invited a few friends to join us. There’s nothing worse than an empty restaurant in the middle of nowhere on a dark Tuesday night. 

“Are you sure you put in the right postcode?” moaned Mrs Diner, as TomTom confidently rejected Holystone village, and instead directed us along a series of long, ever-narrowing lanes. 

When we ended up in a farmyard, we decided TomTom had messed up. We’d reached the end of the road and were about to turn the car round, when we spotted the little sign. It led us to a large, bright restaurant, already packed with diners, and a welcoming maître d’ holding open the door.

1 November 2014

The Fat Hippo


Food ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 

35a St George’s Terrace 
West Jesmond 
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE2 2SU 

0191 340 8949
www.fat-hippo.co.uk 

Ever since I described the North East as a burger desert, I’ve received a steady stream of recommendations, for which I’m grateful. 

Until I discovered Lane7, a pretty authentic American diner disguised as a bowling alley, I’d despaired of ever finding a decent burger in the region. Afterwards I declared, with some confidence, that Lane7 has the best in town. 

Despite some strong competition from DatBar next to the Theatre Royal, where the meat from Peter Hannan’s Himalayan-salt-infused beef is first class, I have yet to be proved wrong. However there’s been a steady grumbling of disapproval from a few who say I hadn’t given the Fat Hippo a try.

Fat Hippo Underground



Food ✪✪✪
Service ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 

Fat Hippo Underground 

2-6 Shakespeare Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 6AQ 
0191 447 1161
Accessibility: No


www.fat-hippo.co.uk 


Ever since I described the North East as a burger desert, I’ve received a steady stream of recommendations, for which I’m grateful. 


Until I discovered Lane7, a pretty authentic American diner disguised as a bowling alley, I’d despaired of ever finding a decent burger in the region. Afterwards I declared, with some confidence, that Lane7 has the best in town. 

Despite some strong competition from DatBar next to the Theatre Royal, where the meat from Peter Hannan’s Himalayan-salt-infused beef is first class, I have yet to be proved wrong. However there’s been a steady grumbling of disapproval from a few who say I hadn’t given the Fat Hippo a try.

25 October 2014

Zyka


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

44 Priestpopple 
Hexham 
NE46 1PQ 

01434 600333 
www.zykahexham.com 
Accessibility: Yes 

There are several Indian restaurants in Hexham’s Priestpopple. I’m using Indian in the loosest sense, of course, because 80% of British curry houses are actually Bangladeshi. 

We should be extremely grateful to the nation of Bangladesh for giving us our national curry craving. Except that, of course, to describe any dish as ‘curry’ is pretty meaningless: the word on its own gives no indication of a dish’s origin, taste or recipe. We use it as a generic word for a thousand different sauces. 

One of the problems of having so many curry houses in every town in the land is that everyone is a curry expert.  People get hung up on their favourite local vindaloo or korma, and judge everyone else's against it.  Which is crazy.

18 October 2014

Blyth Boathouse


Food ✪✪ 
Service ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 

Quay Road 
Blyth 
NE24 3PA 

01670 369052 
Accessibility: Yes 



Last week I received a plaintive tweet from someone called Lee Gibling, asking simply, “Nothing listed in Blyth?” 

This website may be the North East’s most comprehensive guide to eating out, but the town of Blyth hasn’t yet appeared on its culinary map. That’s because, up to now, I haven’t received a single recommendation for one of its eateries. 

Two weeks ago Blyth Boathouse opened its doors to the public. Of course I waited the obligatory seven days to let it iron out any teething problems and get some feet under its brand new tables, and I also chose a quiet lunchtime, to give the kitchen a fighting chance. Perhaps I should have waited a bit longer.