|Before the makeover|
101 Lawe Road
0191 456 0124
[Note: This restaurant was original given a ✪✪✪✪ rating (based on this review in November 2011) but, as happens all too frequently in this region, the chef has moved on, and the place is now (2013) an above average gastropub. John Calton's latest enterprise is to open a gastropub on North Shields Fish Quay called The Staith House, in the former New Dolphin pub. It's scheduled to open in the Autumn of 2013. Book now! Harbour Lights, upon re-review, is now ✪✪✪]
Residents of South Shields would be the first to admit that their town is no gastronomic paradise.
It has arguably the world’s best fish and chip shop – Colmans. If you haven’t been there, you haven’t lived, though it’s only open in daytime. Up to now it’s been the only reason for foodies to venture east beyond Gateshead.
But all that’s changed, for, as I exclusively revealed last month, John Calton, the BBC Masterchef runner-up, has upped sticks from The Duke Of Wellington, near Corbridge, to South Shields.
Harbour Lights is a small pub with fantastic views of North Shields fish quay and Tynemouth Priory. In recent months it had a facelift, which has just about brought it into the 1980s (you should have seen it before), and it now has a tiny restaurant in the back (with the view of a wall). Opulent it ain’t.
It hasn’t been open that long, so I need to be forgiving, but the staff, though exceptionally friendly, didn’t have much of a clue when Mrs Diner and I visited. The wine list is tiny (just four choices of red), but they still managed to bring us the wrong bottle. No bread was offered, then a girl plonked a couple of slices of white on the table with a single pat of butter. It was clearly meant for one, but we were two. Grimly I tried it, and my eyes lit up. Freshly baked, with a hint of caraway. Delicious.
As was almost everything we tried that night. We started with moist black pudding and duck liver with the texture of foie gras and the wonderfully bitter kick of real, unforced offal. Then a plate of scallops arrived, seared on only one side – Calton correctly guessed that we’d appreciate their freshness at room temperature. They lay on wafer thin pancetta, with an excellent celeriac puree, garnished with tiny red amaranth leaves.
Then on walked a duo of lamb: absolutely perfect shoulder on fabulous truffle mash accompanied by two cutlets from a medium rare rack. Mrs Diner ordered fish: not sea bass, but stone bass, that fabulous greyish meaty fish that some call wreckfish (there have been plenty of wrecks on the Black Middens just below the restaurant, but this is a deep water resident). This was a rare treat. It came with an extraordinary vanilla-laced parsnip puree, some wilted cos lettuce and a fondant potato.
Puddings were less successful: the lemon posset hadn’t set, so we made do with a sundae glass full of chocolate mousse and strong espresso jelly and a rather clumpy sultana sponge.
At the next table, some people had decided to accompany their food with a lime and lemonade, half a pint of Fosters and a diet coke. This was sacrilege: Mr Calton is probably the most creative cook in the North East and his food deserves better treatment. I had the Houghton Bandit 2008 Shiraz/Tempranillo. At only £13.95 a bottle, this is half the usual restaurant price. We had to open it ourselves, though.
It’s a small, thoughtful menu: I only hope this rather eccentric venue works for an extremely talented chef.