5 April 2013
David Kennedy at Vallum
Tues-Sat 12-2.30pm & 5.30-9pm
01434 672 406
You know the phrase “middle of nowhere”? Perhaps it was first coined by some miserable Roman footsoldier, stuck in a never-ending Northumbrian winter at Milecastle 18, close to the Roman Wall.
“Ad vallum horribilis aportet prandium calidum,” he might have shouted at the March snow, “ubi Davidus Kennedi est?” – which is an appalling translation of “This fortification is hell on earth – I need some decent hot grub: where’s David Kennedy when you need him?”
Sadly, he was 2000 years too early for Mr Kennedy’s arrival, bringing some seriously good cooking to this middle of nowhere. And there’s nowhere quite like his new restaurant called, simply, David Kennedy at Vallum.
Vallum Farm, named after the Roman fortification on which it sits, is home to some cows and a small collection of specialist artisan producers. Vicky and Peter Moffitt have farmed and championed good local produce there for years, with their friendly pine-clad tea room and ice cream parlour with products churned from the Moffitt’s own herd of brown Swiss cows.
They’ve been joined by the Bywell Fish and Game Smokery, North Country Growers, which has sprouted a reputation for excellent salad leaves and vegetables, and a talented florist called Hannah Price – her business is called Wildflower.
This creative little community is to be found on the Military Road, around five miles from Corbridge and even further from Heddon-on-the-Wall.
The North side of the Tyne Valley has been desperately short of a good restaurant since John Calton left the Duke of Wellington pub at Newton. Now there’s a place that holds up its head with the best in the North East.
David Kennedy, former north east chef of the year, cooks there most nights, and it shows.
Mrs Diner and I arrived early for dinner, inspired by the recommendation of David Seymour of Ponteland, who wrote to me recommending the £10 lunch. Although that’s probably the bargain of the year, I wanted to give this place a sterner test, so we went for dinner.
The restaurant is housed in a converted milking shed, together with a shop that overlooks the kitchen. Although the dining room seems to have been furnished from the catalogue of a brown furniture auction, it’s comfortable and friendly, with a view across the valley.
The atmosphere is café rather than fine dining, which is not a criticism – the prices match the understated ambience. However it’s a mistake to use paper napkins – fine for lunch, but not what you’d expect at night.
The menu is small (often a sign of quality) yet sufficiently varied, though perhaps not as ambitious as we might expect from the man behind the Black Door. The main course offerings were coley, monkfish, chicken breast, risotto primavera, sirloin steak and rump of lamb.
After very good bread, which comes a bakery on site and which is sold in the shop, we started with salmon mousse and pressed ham hock. My hunch is that Kennedy spurned the salmon from the Bywell Smokery (whose fish is rather oaky), for the more delicate version from Swallow Fish of Seahouses. It was very delicate, served with delicious pickled fennel and proper mayonnaise infused with lime juice. The ham hock was also very good, accompanied by crunchy piccalilli.
A generous sirloin steak came from a genuine Vallum bovine – you could see them avoiding our gaze in the fields below – with perfectly charred crust and the most tender rare flesh. My lamb was as good a chump as I’ve tasted anywhere. It was perfectly pink, though it lay shivering on a bed of chilly hummus, the evening’s only culinary error. Big fat chips and bashed neeps would have made a centurion cry, though our skinny fries, sprinkled with parmesan and rosemary, were cut too short to be worth the effort.
Desserts were more than fine: almost bitter caramel on a sticky toffee pudding and a very nice pineapple carpaccio with passion fruit pannacotta.
This place is a find: and very reasonable, at around £25 a head for 3 courses. There’s a comprehensive and interesting wine list.
The £10 lunch (£12.95 for three courses) could be the best value meal in the north east. This is a real destination restaurant, so if you want a meal fit for an emperor, book quickly before the plebeians find it.
Certainly there’s nowhere as remotely good in the Tyne Valley. Or quite as remote.