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Gastropub Wars - let battle commence! 
 SATURDAY 13TH SEPTEMBER 2014


I was delighted that the 2015 Good Food Guide, published earlier this week, listed The Broad Chare, my 2013 Gastropub of the Year, as 20th best gastropub in Britain. 

Suddenly gastropubs are all the rage in the North East. Last year I added The Bridge Tavern on Newcastle's quayside to my ‘highly recommended’ list, and already this year I’ve added three more: The Staith House in North Shields, The Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland and The Northumberland Arms in Felton.  

Today I publish the latest - a 4-star review for The Blackbird in Ponteland, run by chef Glen David Robson (ex Caffè Vivo) and Danny Diver (sommelier of Jesmond Dene House).  

However, we shouldn't forget all our other gastropubs that have been around for years. They all have terrific local support, but they should also be destination venues. They include the rightly popular Rat Inn at Anick, the ever-reliable Feathers Inn at Hedley on the Hill near Stocksfield, and Tony Binks’s Barrasford Arms near Hexham, plus the Duke of Wellington Inn at Newton and Harbour Lights in South Shields. Not forgetting the Bay Horse in Hurworth-on-Tees (soon to be reviewed here).  For the full list, click here.

However, over the next couple of months the stakes in our gastropub wars are being raised to a new level. Shortly after Electric East opens its Earl of Pitt Street (formerly The Greyhound), there’ll be a big November unveiling for Jesmond Dene House’s new venture St Mary’s Inn, in Stannington Park near Morpeth. 

JDH’s head chef Michael Penulana has already devised the menus, and they’ve recruited Shaun Hurrell as head chef. This appointment could give us a clue to the cuisine: Shaun was formerly at London’s One Leicester Place and St John Hotel, both known for their offal, and was also head chef of Farr’s School of Dancing, which is a quirky gastrobar in Dalston. 

Whether the menu will run to devilled pigs’ skin with cod’s roe or ox heart with dandelion, remains to be seen. But I bet they’ll have very good pork scratchings.

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4 North East eateries in Good Food Guide lists 
 WEDNESDAY 27TH AUGUST 2014

The 2015 Good Food Guide has included 4 North East establishments in its list of Top 50 British Restaurants and Top 50 British Pubs, announced today.  

James Close’s Raby Hunt in Summerhouse, near Darlington is listed as 47th best restaurant, while Terry Laybourne’s Broad Chare on Newcastle Quayside is 20th best pub, with The Bay Horse at Hurworth-on-Tees, County Durham, and The Black Swan at Oldstead, near Thirsk, being listed as 36th and 42nd best pubs respectively. 

Britain’s top restaurant, for the second year running, is Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cumbria.  There was also sweet revenge for Rogan's Manchester eaterie The French, which inexplicably failed to win a star in this year’s 2014 Michelin guide, but was awarded 14th place in the Good Food Guide's best restaurant category, placing it above a host of multiple-starred competitors including Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn at Bray (3 stars, but only 23rd place), Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester (3 stars, 25th place), Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche (2 stars, 15th place), and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (2 stars, 21st). 

For the full list, see the restaurants here and the pubs here. The Raby Hunt won my 2013 Best Restaurant in the North East Award and The Broad Chare is Best Gastropub (see 2013 Awards here).  Earlier this year, The Black Swan received 6 Secret Diner stars for its cooking - I'm surprised it's not in the Top 50 Restaurants list alongside The Raby Hunt.  There's a secret review of The Bay Horse at Hurworth on the way!


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Another Masterchef finds a new platform
 TUESDAY 19TH AUGUST 2014

Hard on the heels of Masterchef runners-up Dave Coulson and John Calton, who now have their own North East eateries, Leon Dodd, who was second in the television culinary contest in 2008, is getting up steam in his own career by becoming head chef at the revamped Pullman Hotel in Sunderland. Up to the beginning of this year Dodd was at Calton's old haunt Harbour Lights.

The Pullman, named after the classic Pullman carriages parked up at the hotel, hopes that the appointment of Dodd as head chef will put the restaurant on the map as a destination eatery. Rosalind Leisure, which owns the hotel, is aiming to have both a casual and more formal dining experience at the hotel. 

The casual is already there: it’s a bar menu offering in the ‘Platform 5’ bar, featuring “real bar grub”. Leon reveals that he is now working on a second menu with the aim of offering a fine dining style experience focusing on seafood. 

“When I was in MasterChef I became known for my fish dishes and Michel Roux offered me a job working on the fish section at Le Gavroche,” he says. 

“Given the great location – right by the sea – and my passion, it makes sense for fish to strongly feature on the menu I’m currently creating.

"This is a great challenge and very exciting for me.” 

Mrs Diner and I like the sound of this. 

Meanwhile, Harbour Lights continues to flourish under chef Michael Dodds and landlord/chef Craig Shelmerdine.

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The Blackbird goes gastro – and Diver comes too!
TUESDAY 15TH JULY 2014

The talented head chef of award-winning Caffè Vivo, Glen David Robson, has left Terry Laybourne’s 21 Hospitality Group and taken over the kitchen at The Blackbird Inn in Ponteland. He is to be joined shortly by Danny Diver, the friendly and knowledgeable sommelier at Jesmond Dene House. Diver will be responsible for all the front of house, including the task of revamping the pub’s wine list. 

I hear this is just part of a much more ambitious scheme to upgrade other Newcastle venues, including Rosie's Bar in Gallowgate, where Robson will also be in charge of the food.

He is hoping to launch a limited menu at the Blackbird later this week, and expects to be fully operational when Diver arrives at the end of August. He told me: “It’s going to be a massive challenge, and a lot of fun.” 

I can’t wait to book my table.

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Why It's Great To Dine Up North
WEDNESDAY 25TH JUNE 2014

[The Guardian caused outrage in the North East last month after a writer claimed the region was “on the brink” and could become “the UK’s Detroit”. The newspaper is clearly wrong - and there's no end of reasons to prove why. 10 Years ago The Journal published a supplement called ‘100 Reasons Why It’s Great Up North’, and it repeated the exercise in a special edition this week. The Secret Diner was asked to contribute a page on why he thinks it’s great up North. Here’s his article:] 

The old image of the North East as a culinary desert is fading quickly, even though it will probably take us a few decades to convince the cynics down South. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been slowly creating an oasis of good food – if you know where to find it. 

Our detractors will point out that at the moment we still only have one Michelin-starred restaurant in the entire region, The Raby Hunt, near Darlington (or maybe two, if you include The Black Swan near Thirsk). This isn’t a misrepresentation or a dastardly plot by the tyre people – there really haven’t been any other serious contenders for their judges’ specific criteria until recently. 

The Raby Hunt continues to excel, and may even be a contender for a second star, but soon I hope the inspectors will seriously consider Kenny Atkinson’s presentation and imagination at House of Tides, which ticks every foodie box, and also recognise the colourful and inventive plates Dave Coulson is presenting at Peace and Loaf in Jesmond, or Stephen Hardy’s good work at DH1 in Durham. They may even consider the fine dining at Haveli, which has brought this modest Darras Hall establishment in contention with some of the finest Indian restaurants in London. 

But, while the North East’s ‘fine dining’ is still in its infancy, there are many other place that eschew the label, but to which I’d happily escort any Guardian writer – I’d even offer to pay the bill, for North East restaurants cost far less than their inflated southern cousins. 

Take the Laybourne empire, for example. Terry may no longer offer the sort of Michelin-starry complexity that shone in his 21 Queen Street heyday, but he offers our region something much more valuable: high quality cooking from Durham’s Bistro 21 and Newcastle’s Café 21 that easily matches the overblown brasseries on the Brompton Road. 

Laybourne has also brought two places to the North East that would have London foodies fighting for tables: the Broad Chare gastropub, which has already inspired the excellent Bridge Tavern nearby, and the Venetian cicchetti bar-inspired Caffè Vivo which, on a good day, can match most Italian food in the capital. 

There are others, all new to the North East restaurant scene: John Calton’s The Staith House on the Fish Quay at North Shields brings first class cooking to simple local ingredients, and always offers very good value; you don’t have to travel very far to find exciting reinventions of traditional dishes from Simon Hix at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland; or you can find great fish in the most modest location at The Old Boat House in Amble

In Newcastle our best Asian food is still hard to beat: sure, Rasa may be a London chain, but our branch on the Quayside offers superb Keralan cooking that’s a must for anyone who pretends to enjoy Indian food; meanwhile Hei Hei offers hot, spicy layers of mainland Chinese tradition that I’d defy anyone to better in the tourist trap of London’s own Chinatown. 

What I've found remarkable is the speed of improvement. My Secret Diner verdicts have improved from an average 2 ½ stars out of 5 to 3 ½ in just 18 months, and we now have four 6-star restaurants. There are now 70 recommended restaurants on www.secretdiner.org. They’ve even started making good burgers on Tyneside (at Lane7), and we have probably the best pizza outside Brooklyn, in Cal’s Own, a modest café in Heaton. 

Sure, there are still the dinosaurs, places that serve dry salad without dressing, overcooked steaks, frozen chips and ingredients from warehouses rather than the fresh produce of our local farms, fields and fishermen. There are places that think a measure of quality is the size of the portion, or the number of items on the menu, and there are occasional lapses of service and old-fashioned overpriced mediocrity. 

But the good now outweigh the dross, and the region’s diners are welcoming the transformation. 

So spread the word – and enjoy our region’s great cooking.

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 THURSDAY 17TH APRIL 2014

Masterchefs cook up May Day banquet

Jesmond chef Dave Coulson is teaming up with the woman who beat him to the Masterchef: The Professionals 2010 title for a special fine dining banquet at his restaurant Peace & Loaf


Claire Lara, from Merseyside, who won the title over Dave and the other North East finalist John Calton (of The Staith House), is joining Dave to cook a selection of the dishes they created during their time on the television show.  Since winning Masterchef, Claire has been head chef at The RiverHill Hotel and Restaurant in Birkenhead, Wirral. 

The one-off event, which marks the 6-month anniversary of Peace & Loaf, is on Thursday 1st May and costs £65 per head, with an 8-course set tasting menu. Bookings are now being taken on 0191 281 5222, with a £10 deposit. Peace & Loaf already has 5 Secret Diner stars – see the review here. The banquet's menu will be announced on the weekend of 19th April.



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New head chef at Seaham Hall 
MONDAY 7TH APRIL 2014

Simon Bolsover has been appointed Head Chef of 5-star Seaham Hall. 

He joins the hotel from Great Fosters, in Egham, Surrey, where he was Executive Chef for 5 years, raising its Oak Room restaurant to 3 AA-rosette status before, in 2013, it became the more relaxed Estate Grill, which currently has 2 rosettes. 

Before that Bolsover was head chef for 15 years at 3-rosette Linthwaite House on Windermere. 

As head chef, he will be responsible for both of Seaham Hall's restaurants: the hotel’s recently launched Byron’s Bar and Grill, and its Ozone restaurant within the Serenity Spa.  It's unclear whether how Bolsover's appointment will affect the hotel's relationship with Martin Blunos, who is culinary director.  Byron's Bar and Grill currently has 3 Secret Diner stars.

“Seaham Hall has a vast amount of potential,” said Simon, "and I am looking forward to developing that potential, sourcing the finest regional ingredients and building on its already excellent reputation.” 

“We are delighted to welcome Simon to Seaham Hall, said general manager Ross Grieve. “Not only does he bring a wealth of experience but his creativity and skill will make him a crucial part of the team.” 



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Rare burgers back on the menu
 THURSDAY 16TH JANUARY 2014

In a legal ruling that could have implications for all restaurants in the UK, a landmark legal victory by a chain of London wine bars has brought rare burgers back onto menus across the country. 

Last month, after two years of legal wrangling with Westminster City Council, Davy’s Wine Bars and Restaurants won the right to serve its burgers rare. 

Davy’s had appealed against a hygiene improvement notice in 2011, which had cited the restaurant’s burger preparation, claiming that: 

1. there were inadequate measures in place to control risk related to pathogenic microorganisms and their toxins in burgers served medium rare or rare; and 
2. there were inadequate documented procedures in relation to the safe preparation and cooking of burgers. 

Davy’s argued that the Food Standards Agency and Westminster City Council had failed to acknowledge the role played by provenance, quality and transparency in sourcing policies. 

They sourced their mince from an award-winning and royal warrant-holding butcher, Donald Russell in Scotland, which prepares its mince freshly each morning from offcuts of prime aged beef. As this is the first product prepared each day, the equipment is bound to be clean, and the mince is then vacuum packed and chilled for delivery to Davy’s, where it is stored in its original packaging until required. 

Davy’s also prepare their patties first thing each day, wrapping them in cling film and storing them in the fridge until needed. 

Westminster Council had argued that rare burgers should only be prepared using a “sear and shave” method, where a cut of beef is seared to a high temperature, then the outer surface of the meat is shaved off and the central part minced for the burger. 

The Judge dismissed this method as not “reasonable or necessarily safe in itself”. 

Davy’s won their appeal against the ban in June last year, and the final part of the health improvement notice collapsed on December 17th after the council offered no evidence in court. Costs were awarded to the restaurant. 

In her judgment, District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe said “There is a balance to be struck between ensuring the safety of the public and allowing them the freedom of choice that they would wish and have a right to expect.” 

At last, sanity has prevailed over a ruling that was threatening to make Britain the laughing stock of the culinary world. Burger lovers across the UK should be grateful to Judge Roscoe for allowing reason, and consumer choice, to prevail. 

I expect all good restaurants (and butchers) in our own region to take note. 

[With thanks to @ArtisanFoodLaw and The Grocer]


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2013 Secret Diner Awards - WINNERS Announced

SATURDAY 21st DECEMBER 2013

The winners of the 2013 Secret Diner Awards are announced in a special double-page spread in today's The Journal and in the 2013 Awards section of this website.

For more details, see here.

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Jesmond Dene House to open gastropub

THURSDAY 10TH OCTOBER 2013

Newcastle's leading hotel Jesmond Dene House is creating a new gastropub near Morpeth.  

St Mary's Inn will be housed in the administration building of the former St Mary's Hospital, at the centre of the new Stannington Park development.  It is expected to open its doors next September.  

Although plans for the pub are still being finalised, and construction does not formally start until January 1st, I've learned that it is likely to have 4 bedrooms, and that the menus will be created and overseen by Jesmond Dene's Head Chef Michael Penaluna.

Jesmond Dene's Nicky Sherman told me, "It will not be a restaurant or a mini-Jesmond Dene House, but a gastropub serving simple, quality food at reasonable prices.  We will also be serving afternoon tea." 

Jesmond Dene also has an orchard and fruit and vegetable garden at Stannington which will be developed to supply both the pub and the hotel's restaurant, which I recently awarded 6 stars for its new tasting menu.

Stannington Park is a new development by Bellway Homes of 2,3,4 and 5 bedroom houses and apartments.  Set on a 136 acre site of open spaces, gardens and woodland, it's effectively a new community set within open countryside, with the new "landmark gastropub" at its centre.

I've already booked my table. 

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Michelin inspectors snub North East restaurants
 

FRIDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2013 

Once again, the world’s most famous food guide has bypassed the North East’s restaurants, with just one star awarded by the 2014 Michelin Guide across the entire regionIn the latest edition, which was published yesterday, only The Raby Hunt, in Summerhouse, near Darlington, has retained the star it was awarded last year. By comparison, London’s restaurants now have 78 between them, and Edinburgh has 5. Even Cumbria has 4 stars, including the 2-star L’Enclume in Cartmel. 

So why does the North East lag behind the rest of Britain in culinary excellence? 

In fact, over the past year the standard of cooking in our region has actually risen, with a growing number of restaurants focusing on fresh, local ingredients. However most of our chefs, and possibly their customers, don’t aspire to Michelin’s exacting standards of complexity and presentation. 

Multiple courses of “tasting” plates, with exquisitely beautiful but time-consuming preparations, are hard to find north of Yorkshire. 

There are exceptions. Jesmond Dene House’s tasting menu, which I awarded 6 Secret Diner stars a few months ago, could easily match the offerings from many starred establishments in this year’s guide. However, chef Michael Penaluna is also running a busy kitchen that has to supply weddings, bar snacks and room service 7 days a week, whereas almost all the establishments listed in the Michelin Guide focus on a single restaurant. 

If you are in Newcastle, and you want to sample Michelin-standard food, give Jesmond Dene a try, or take a short train ride to James Close’s fabulous Raby Hunt. 

They’ll soon have competition: later this year, former Michelin-starred Kenny Atkinson will be opening a new restaurant on Newcastle’s Quayside called The House of Tides

As the standard rises, I confidently expect the region’s eateries to have rather more success in the 2015 Michelin Guide. 


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