1 August 2015

Vujon

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29 Queen Street 
Quayside 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3UG 

0191 221 0601 
www.vujon.com 

A few years ago I attended one of Maunika Gowardhan’s excellent Indian cookery classes at Blackfriars (Maunika’s first book, Indian Kitchen has, incidentally, has just been published; it’s a stunner). 

As Maunika explained to the attendees that most British curry house standards are in fact a sort of anglicized hybrid of Bangladeshi cooking, I noticed a split in the room. Half the guests nodded intently, their hard-won knowledge validated by a real expert; the others looked taken aback, the Indian rug swept from under their feet.  Surely their beloved tikka masalas and jalfrezis, previously thought the real deal, couldn't be just counterfeit inventions? 

Of course, in these days of authenticity and provenance, it creates a problem for the best restaurants. Do you stock your menu with the standards that so many of your potential customers expect to see, and which most of them are likely to order? Or do you offer genuine cooking from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’s varied regions and traditions, hoping to attract a clientele that cares, and educate some who don’t? 

Vujon, in Newcastle’s Queen Street, has attempted to square the circle by offering dishes that name-check a number of India’s regions - here a lamb from Kashmir, there a Pondicheery pheasant - and yet, also, there’s our old fake friend chicken tikka masala, ready to be ordered with vast jugs of Cobra, a beer as authentically Indian as Burton on Trent. 

The chef is from West Bengal, the state that shares a border with Bangladesh and whose capital Kolkata was one of bases of the East India Company, and which I still call Calcutta out of obstinacy and because I spent two of the best months of my life there. I remember the cooking as if it were yesterday, and I remember their sweets best of all. I was looking forward to dessert. 

I’d been to Vujon many years ago, in the mid-1990s. I wasn’t impressed. It had a reputation as the best curry house in the City. It wasn’t, by a mile. It was overblown, expensive and the food was muddy. That is, nothing tasted fresh and there was certainly nothing exciting or original on the predictable menu. 

It was also sitting next to Rasa, which really is the best curry house in the City. By a mile. So since then I thought there was no reason to go to Vujon, even to review it. Let those who don’t know go there, and I’ll stick with Rasa, with its wonderful Keralan fish and vegetables, or Haveli in Darras Hall. 

But I’ve been missing a trick. Vujon has transformed. Best of all, according to their website, they have modernised their menu. Poppadoms and chutney were still straight out of the regular textbook, but the three starters we shared had more distinction. 


Best was a scallop dish in which the lightly seared creatures were paired with fragrant fennel and star anise, and served on a lightly dressed grape and orange salad. Under £7 for four scallops is impressive value for such nimble cooking. 

Achari paneer boasted some unusually creamy and deliciously charred chunks of cheese, but the accompanying peppers and onions were jarringly undercooked. The whole thing was coated in a moreish pickle/spice mix. Don’t you hate the word ‘moreish’? But that’s what Indian cooking does for me. I just can’t stop picking at those bowls sitting in the centre when the food is fresh and the spicing balanced. 

 
 Clay oven-cooked chicken had been marinated in yogurt, garlic and a complex mix of spices in which chilli heat was given centre billing. That was moreish too.




I decided to try out their “modernising” by ordering Jaipur-style venison from the “contemporary” section. The maharajahs of Rajasthan loved their game. This was delicately spiced with cinnamon and clove before being cooked to a tender medium rare. A shame then that the accompanying “tomato and chilli jam” clobbered the subtle flavour of the deer into submission with a mean cayenne fist. Is that the modern bit? 

No such issues with a Parsi dish of Ghosht Salli Jardaloo. Tender lamb was anointed by a gravy of depth, clarity and complexity. Apricot provided a fruity counterpoint to the rich meat, while clove and, I think, Indian long pepper contributed sing-song top notes which kept calling us back for another forkful. 

Crunchy straw potatoes topped off a really superb dish. 

Proving the theory that the most humble plates can be elevated to zenith-level given the right treatment was an equally delicious dhal. Lentils, mung beans and chickpeas were cooked down with fresh coriander and what, given how astonishingly rich the thing was, I assumed to be a generous dose of ghee. 

“I never thought dhal to be as good as this”, Mrs Diner, ripping another piece of naan from the blanket that took up about half the table. 

A pilau didn’t offend, but struggled in such illustrious company. I enjoyed Begun, an aubergine side dish in which restrained spicing let the hard-fried vegetables flavour shine through. This could have come from the streets of Calcutta. 

Not so the wine – we chose a rather nondescript French sauvignon blanc from a list that would benefit from the inclusion of an Indian wine or two. Now that would have been modern. 

Sadly, that’s where the fun pretty much stopped. The jaggery, rossogollas and sondesh I had hoped our Bengali chef might have prepared were nowhere to be seen. 

My pistachio kulfi was at least the right shape, but lacked the caramel notes and chewy texture I’d expected. 

Mrs Diner’s chocolate and cherry cake was ordered more in hope than expectation. It tasted of frozen economy. These desserts are little more than an afterthought, quite out of kilter with the quality of the main event. 

Vujon was refurbished around a year ago and still has the restaurant equivalent of that new car smell. It feels like the kind of muted but plush dining room you’d expect to find in a decent hotel. Chandeliers, tablecloths and a thick carpet seal the deal. We were very well looked after by the charming and knowledgeable staff. 

Our bill for two came to just under £80, which is significantly more than your average balti, though we overordered to absurdity in order to try more dishes. £25-30 per head would do right by all but the most gluttonous. 

The last Indian meal I wrote about was at the excellent Zyka in Hexham. The chef there is the cousin of Mahtab Miah, who owns Vujon, and indeed used to cook here too. The meal we enjoyed at Vujon was of similar quality. A few mis-steps were more than compensated by some serious dishes, full of the depth of flavour that comes when skill, time, and freshly roasted spices are the main ingredients. Maybe not up to the level of Haveli and Rasa, but close.

25 July 2015

Seaham Hall (Byron's Bar and Grill)


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Seaham Hall Hotel
Lord Byron’s Walk 
County Durham 
SR7 7AG 

0191 516 4100 
www.seaham-hall.co.uk 

I love that bit in Masterchef when the most nervous chef-victim gets flung into service at a top London gastro-temple for a day. 

“You’ll be cooking the quail, with 17 components including three sauces and the quail brain mousse – it’s our signature dish, and we have five Hollywood celebrities who’ve flown in specially, so make sure it’s perfect,” says the head chef with an evil smile, raising a carefully rehearsed eyebrow for the closeup which the editor needs for the horror film music sequence. 

The contestant gulps, then with trembling hands clutching sharp knife, picks up the first tiny bird. 

“It’s OK, we have plasters,” says the smiling head chef, as the blood begins to flow from the first cut finger, “but you have just 30 minutes before the customers arrive.” 

More horror music; cut to mound of bloody raw quail. 

Sadly, this isn’t quite how it works in real top restaurants. No one person is responsible for an entire dish; the brigade de cuisine system has chefs working on stations - veg, meat, sauce, garnish and so on – and all their efforts are brought together at the pass. Teamwork is critical; but teamwork, and reality, don’t make for riveting television. 


Simon Bolsover, installed as executive chef of Seaham Hall’s two restaurants last year, has made a point of talking up his team in the catering press, and quite right too. It’s clear that they’re working well, for Bolsover was absent from the stoves on the night of our secret visit. 

When I last tested Seaham Hall, celebrity chef Martin Blunos’s name was above the door, but he hadn’t been seen at the pass for a long time, and it showed. For a 5-star hotel trying to regain its classy reputation, it seemed strange to be offering what amounted to a bistro in a bar. Now the operation has been handed to a serious chef that’s actually in residence, and it appears to be working. 

Mrs Diner was very relaxed about her repeat visit – not surprisingly after a couple of hours in Seaham’s Serenity Spa – and the hotel grounds look more kempt than before. Seaham Hall has had an expensive makeover, and it shows. 

Bolsover arrived with a ready-made reputation. Having plied his trade abroad, then in serious kitchens like Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir, he spent six years as head chef at Great Fosters, a splendid country house close to the M25. Hopefully he brings to a close the rather confused period in Seaham’s culinary history after Kenny Atkinson left the Michelin-starred White Room in 2009. 

Mrs Diner and I were certainly confused by the lighting. It was quite dark, and what light there was, was pink. What I had remembered as an opulent, warm room now has the feel of a bordello designed by Peter Stringfellow. 

“Poor Lord Byron doesn’t know where to look,” observed Mrs Diner, clocking the reproduction of Thomas Phillip’s famous portrait, now backlit in a gaudy shade of magenta. 

“They need a change of lightbulb,” I mumbled crossly. “It’s hard enough taking surreptitious photos in a dark restaurant, but getting the pink out will be a nightmare.” 

I then grumbled about the music, a kind of Balearic chill-out. 

“Yuk”. 

“Stop complaining. Look – there’s gin-cured salmon.” 

And very good it was too. 

There’s a market menu, at £30 for three courses, and an à la carte, roughly £40-45 for the same. Some dishes sound complex, others simpler, while there is a separate section for steaks. 

It’s a sensible mix for a good hotel, and we sampled both menus. 


The salmon had been expertly brined to a firm texture, with high notes of juniper working well against the fish, whose richness was cut through with a fair battery of pickled and fermented bits and bobs – caperberries, sauerkraut and a dill pickle came together to make a very good starter. 

It rather outclassed the duck leg cannelloni we chose from the more expensive list. There wasn’t enough fowl to sing through the cannelloni, which was a bit doughy. ‘Candied’ walnuts were in fact raw, while the promised endive decided not to show up at all. In the credit column, the cauliflower purée was velveteen, and some pickled chanterelles were delicious. 

We didn’t have to wait long for redemption. From a good selection of fish I had chosen lemon sole with a beurre noisette, matched by a glass of soft-fruity Viognier. 

 

On my previous visit 18 months ago I had questioned the provenance of the fish, but there was no such issue now. This was a stunning sole, treated with suitable respect, simply grilled on the bone and served with broccoli and Jersey royals. It fairly hummed of briny depths and classy cooking. If Chef Bolsover had been on the pass, he might have sent the butter sauce back to its stove to develop the nuttiness a touch more, but otherwise, this was a simple triumph. 

 
Mrs Diner’s more mundane fish and chips were enjoyable, if not as gilt-edged. Milky-white piece of pollack sat within an orb of crisp batter, on a mound of fresh crushed peas. Chips were the proper shade of golden. 

 
Desserts were complex plates of deliciousness. Mrs Diner’s lemon panna cotta was all richness and tang, garnished with an explosively good raspberry ice cream and dainty strands of candied lemon peel. 

 









A riff on in-season gooseberries matched a well-made parfait with semi-dried fruits and a gooseberry gel, some feather-light sponge and nostalgia-inducing honeycomb. 

Stirring stuff: whoever was on the pastry section that night can take a bow. Service was smart and informed too. 

While not quite up to the level of the very best our region now has to offer (how standards have risen!), it’s good to know that this handsome lump of a building once more contains a restaurant that cooks excellent ingredients with a confident hand. Even on the Head Chef’s day off.

18 July 2015

Solano's


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St Nicholas Chambers 
Amen Corner 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 1PE 

0191 232 4663 
www.solanospc.co.uk 

A well-written menu is like a shy love letter written at the very start of a secret relationship. It hints at intriguing combinations to come, and drops clues as to the manner of their preparation, but it holds something back. Hunger is best fortified by curiosity. 

At Solano’s Peruvian Cuisine, the menu is neither shy nor well written. It is a brazen hussy, boasting in advance that one dish “is a blend of unbelievable quality” and that another “will suit everyone”. Really? I’ll be the judge of that. A steak is helpfully described as “one for meat lovers”.

11 July 2015

Ephesus


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71 Bridge Street 
Morpeth 
Northumberland
NE61 1PQ 

01670 946 536 
www.ephesusmorpeth.co.uk 

I’ve never understood why Morpeth, an attractive town that appears to bloom even in the depths of winter, can’t support a few good local eateries. The place has an air of comfortable affluence, with sturdy villas, a cheese shop, a Marks and Spencer and even a Laura Ashley – surely it should also boast the odd decent restaurant? 

Yet, with very few exceptions, Morpeth remains one of the North East’s dining deserts. There’s one jolly Italian, a reasonable Thai, a couple of nice country gastropubs out of town, and that’s about it. 

A few weeks ago I endured a Greek tragedy at “Socrates at No 5”, where I hoped for some good Mediterranean cooking, and failed. This week I tried again, at a former curry house on Bridge Street which is now a Turkish place called Ephesus. We made the metaphorical trip across the Aegean, in reality the Wansbeck, and gave it a go.

5 July 2015

Colmans

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176-186 Ocean Road 
South Shields
Tyne & Wear
NE33 2JQ 

0191 456 1202 
www.colmansfishandchips.com
Daily 11am - 6pm only

1977 was a momentous year for South Shields. Not only did the Queen pop in during her Silver Jubilee tour, but the following month the King came too: Mohammed Ali was somehow persuaded by a local painter and decorator from Whitburn to make the trip from the United States to support his local boys’ clubs. 

There’s a lovely documentary called “The King of South Shields”, made by Bridge+Tunnel Productions, which documents the effect that Ali’s visit had on the town, particularly on the local Yemeni community after he had his marriage blessed in the local Al-Ahzar mosque. 

In the film you can see the crowds thronging the open topped bus as Ali glides down Ocean Road past Colmans fish and chips. 

I’ve always liked to think that Ali might have been momentarily distracted by the wonderful smell of frying and popped in for a catch of the day. “No visit to North East England is complete without tasting Colmans fish” says their website. So Ali missed a treat, and the Queen did too, but the walls of Colmans are covered with photographs of other celebrities who made it past the water sculpture and into the white-tiled inner sanctum.

27 June 2015

Oldfields

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18 Claypath
Durham 
DH1 1RH 

0191 370 9595 
www.oldfieldseatinghouse.com


It must tell us something about these post-everything times that nowadays everything we buy has to be described as “authentic”. Nowhere more so than in our restaurants. The words “real” and “proper” are plastered all over menus in the hope of convincing us that we’re getting – what? Something that isn’t fake?

“We’re proper cooks, serving real British food, cooked properly”: that’s the claim from Oldfields, or “Oldfields Noted Eating House” as it likes to be called. 

I wonder: what does “unreal food” taste like? Do other restaurants have pretend chefs, rather than proper ones?

20 June 2015

Baba Yaga

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70 Adelaide Terrace 
Benwell 
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE4 9JN

07739 068173 

Note: no credit cards at present 

Tomorrow there’ll be no Father’s Day celebrations in Warsaw. That’s because Polish Dads get their special day on Tuesday, two days after the rest of the world. 

I have no idea why this is, but I’m pretty sure it means there won’t be any spare tables in Baba Yaga come Tuesday night. It’s Newcastle’s newest, and only, Polish restaurant.

13 June 2015

Rockliffe Hall (The Orangery)

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Rockcliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa 
Hurworth on Tees 
Darlington 
County Durham 
DL2 2DU 

01325 729 999 
www.rockcliffehall.com 

In theory, people living in Darlington should have had two stellar fine dining restaurants to choose from for the last few years. 

To the north west of the town, James Close and his small team turn out dishes of pristeen and precise flavours from their tiny kitchen at The Raby Hunt. It continues to offer the very best cooking in the North East, earning it the region’s only Michelin star, and a solid 6 stars on my last two visits. Close is a genius; if you haven’t yet eaten there, you should book today. Meanwhile, immediately to the south is The Orangery, centerpiece of the formidable sprawl of hotel, golf course and spa that make up Rockcliffe Hall. Except that’s where, up until now, things have gone a bit awry.

6 June 2015

Sea Salt

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104 Queen Street 
Amble
Northumberland
NE65 0DQ 

01665 713 569 



Amble is only a couple of miles down the Coquet from Warkworth, but they could be on different planets. 

Like two unequal sisters, a pretty one that gets all the dates, and a plain one that does all the work, Warkworth has always eclipsed its neighbour on the visitor front, with its castle, riverside walks and more high-end holiday homes than you can shake a jar of WI jam at. By contrast, Amble has always seemed like a place where people actually live and work. 

However, recently Amble has blossomed. On a recent stroll along the harbour (I’ve already reviewed The Old Boat House there, with its excellent fresh fish), we happened upon “Amble Harbour Village”, a new development with lots of small businesses trading out of small wooden “pods”. Several even described themselves as “artisan”: this was not the Amble I knew as a child. 

They’re building a seafood centre, and I’m guessing there will soon be an overdose of gift shops as the visitors flood in. I hope Warkworth doesn’t get too jealous. 

Amid such a regenerative flurry, we were pleased to find another good eatery. Amble is almost becoming a food scene. Almost.

30 May 2015

Chez Mal Brasserie - Malmaison Hotel

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Malmaison Hotel 
104 Quayside 
Newcastle Upon Tyne 
NE1 3DX 

0844 693 0658 
www.malmaison.com 

Accessibility: Yes




Why is the quality of a hotel’s food invariably in inverse proportion to its size? 

I’ve never understood why Dinner, the one part of a trip that guests remember most, is so frequently bottom of the list of customer service priorities. Many posh London hotels have given up trying and handed over their best rooms to celebrity chefs. No wonder the first call to the concierge is always: “Can you recommend a good local restaurant?” 

If modern hotels put as much effort into their kitchens as they do their range of pay-per-view adult videos, no one would ever venture outside. Don’t they realise customer satisfaction starts with the stomach? 

I’ve had quite a few jabs at North East hotels of late: Hilton was the most ghastly, followed by its Doubletree offspring at the airport. But even the smaller, more boutique establishments have had their day of shame on these pages, the notable exception being Jesmond Dene House Hotel, which has 6 stars to show for it. 

I was even greeted by poor quality and worse value at the smart Hotel du Vin. After two disappointing meals, I checked out another branch down in Tunbridge Wells, which was just as bad. It looked like there was a systemic failing within the group. 

Now the manager of the Hotel du Vin in Newcastle has urged me to visit again: apparently they have a summer alfresco offering (inside when wet!). I might take him up on it, not because I’ve heard its kitchen has improved, but because last week I tried out the new menu at its sister hotel, the Malmaison, and was pleasantly surprised. Actually, surprised is an understatement: gobsmacked is closer to the mark.