22 October 2020

No 19 Close House


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No 19 Close House
Heddon on the Wall
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE15 0HT

01661 852 255

closehouse.com 

Accessibility? Yes
Gluten free options? Yes 

There have been some very tangible and objectively sensible reasons why some restaurants have felt relatively safe places to be over the last few months. Staff in face coverings, comfortably spaced-out tables, sanitiser at the entrance; that sort of thing. There are also strange and impalpable reasons why some of us might feel happier in one sort of place than another; reasons that probably don’t stand up to quite the same level of rational enquiry. 


I’ve always quite liked the look of golf courses. I’ve played a bit at various times, but there’s something else going on other than the fact that a golf course is the necessary precondition for a game of golf. There’s something about that lush green neatness, the reduction of nature - with all it’s wild and, frankly, dangerous unpredictability - to a comprehensible tapestry of grass, longer grass, sand and water.

Now, I’m no scientist, but Covid does at times feels like biology tapping us on the shoulder and admonishing us for thinking we had the upper hand, for assuming that we could pull it this way and that without creating some dangerous stretch marks. I think that’s what may be scariest about it. And that, I reckon, is why I found eating at Close House, with a lovely view out on to the manicured, orderly fairways, punctuated only by neat bunkers and pleasant water features to be such an oddly comforting experience. Does that make any sense? No? Ah well, not much does currently.


No 19, the restaurant at Close House is another on the list of places I’ve been meaning to get to for ages and am finally catching up with, in lieu of all the hot new restaurant openings that we’re not currently seeing. Those of you with a long memory may remember I did visit Close House once before, when there was an over-blown silver-gilt restaurant in what used to be the hotel. "Close, but not quite there yet," I concluded. It never did get there, because the whole place shut down. 
 
No 19 is a completely different kettle of fish or, more precisely, beer battered haddock. Under the normal run of things the menu features the favourite dishes of some of Close House’s “attached tour professional” Lee Westwood’s golfer chums. Want to bosh that golf ball like Sergio Garcia? Here, have an Iberico ham sandwich! An entertaining way of ordering lunch, however the ‘rona had resulted in a more limited menu when we visited. 


We still found things we wanted to eat, even if they lacked the endorsement of a polo-shirted superstar.


The No 19 scotch egg, for example, was a winner. Crisp crumb gave way to a thumpingly savoury forcemeat featuring a good whack of black pudding, and then a squidgy-yolked egg. Good scotch eggs may not be the novelty they once were, but I doubt I’ll ever tire of them. Saying that, No 19 could do with a sharper knife with which to make the “big reveal” cut. Ours arrived at the table looking like it had been exposed to the elements by a karate chop.


Tempura prawns were nicely fried, the batter being closer to tempura than to chip shop, which is always good, and the innards being sweet and fleshy. Thumbs up for accompanying these with some fried kale, another item I doubt I shall grow weary of. Thumbs down for the very odd “teriyaki” dip, which tasted like somebody had added a good shake of soy to a bought-n BBQ sauce.


There are few dishes so enjoyable when done right, yet so regularly trashed as the good ol’ Caesar salad. The No 19 version was nearly excellent, featuring a punchy, garlicky dressing, crunchy croutons and fresh gratings of proper parmesan. It all came a bit unstuck however via the inclusion of pickled boquerones rather than salted anchovies which was - for me at least - the culinary equivalent of driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Still, not bad, and the wodge of chargrilled chicken sitting on top of it all which made this a main course rather than a starter had picked up some nice smoky char from the grill.


Mrs Diner, feeling a bit flash, went for the fillet steak and was rewarded with a very tasty hunk of cow, cooked to medium rare and with a perfectly nice béarnaise. Why it is that in 2020 we still think a honking big mushroom and a whole, not-cooked-through-properly tomato are sensible accoutrements for the most expensive item on the menu is beyond me, but we knew what was coming when we ordered, so I guess it’s on us. The chips were a bit on the floury side, but nice enough when swooshed through the tangy béarnaise.

I took a wander out on the terrace while we waited for puddings to arrive, the better to admire all that neatness, the views towards the south side of the Tyne Valley and to catch some fresh air. Staff, smart in their waistcoats and cream fitted trousers ferried burgers to mostly men, and everything felt comfortable and comfortably well off. Apart from the face coverings it was easy to forget anything was amiss.
 
One of the efficiently friendly wait staff we spoke to told us that, yes, they had been unusually busy during August as everyone ate out to help out, but that there is always a solid cohort of diners who, like us, come here to eat without tonking little white balls all over the place. I can see why, especially at the moment. It’s a spacious venue, with nice views, outdoor space and a reassuring menu of familiar dishes which they can clearly - a few mis-steps notwithstanding - cook pretty well. A few tweaks here and there and this could be a really appealing spot to hunker down and pretend the world isn’t falling apart.


Puddings were - there’s a theme here - nearly really good. Mrs Diner’s crème brûlée was fine in the custard department, but sadly lacked the crisp burnt sugar which is pretty much the whole point of the dish. 


My carpaccio of pineapple with a mango sorbet was rather a lot of sugary exotica and could have done with some spice, or even something a bit savoury to contrast with the main flavours. Close, but not quite there. Our meal, with one glass of wine, came to £84.

9 October 2020

The Queens Head

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Queens Head Hotel
6 Sandgate
Berwick-upon-Tweed
TD15 1EP

01289 307 852

Accessibility? No
Gluten free options? Yes

We had been sat at our table for a few minutes when we were politely asked by the waiter to stand up, so he could squeeze round the back of us and into the cold store behind. Polite, but also somewhat urgent, as he bore a whole deer carcass, and the thing looked heavy. It’s not every lunch that starts with you having to dodge out the way of one of the main courses. On the one hand, it was an unsubtle reminder of the realities of carnivorous eating. On the other, a very encouraging sign that this is a kitchen keen to work with good quality raw materials. 

Indeed, there were a number of encouraging things about our lunch, things which I should certainly like to encourage. I would like to be slightly more enthusiastic than I’m about to be, and I would be too if it weren’t for a few hiccups on the execution side of things. We’ll get to that in a minute.


First, it’s worth noting that the nice folk at the Queen’s Head were entirely hospitable when we asked, in the middle of a biblical monsoon, whether we might take shelter in their dining room a good half hour before the lunch service began. So much for our pre-meal perambulation round the streets of Berwick. As indeed they were throughout, on a weekday lunch rendered unusually busy by being at the fag end of Dishy Rishi’s special bargain month. The meal was punctuated by more attempted walk-ins - all knocked back as the place was fully booked - than any meal I recently recall.
 

Happily we had booked, so got to choose from an intriguing menu that sought inspiration from far and wide. Along with some local-sounding game and seafood dishes were a parsnip and coconut soup, a Paella and a spicy braise of aubergine tofu. I’m almost a little ashamed to say that in the face of such exotica we played it relatively safe.


Mrs Diner’s scallop starter was simplicity itself, and none the worse for that. Three plump specimens had received enough heat to caramelise slightly, coming perched on wilted ribbons of courgette and topped by a lemon and basil-flecked butter. Very pleasant, although removing the roes and using them elsewhere would have been advisable, as they were chewy little bullets.


My own starter was one of a couple of dishes where good ideas were lost somewhere in the business of getting them to the table. The flavour of the “sorbet style” beetroot mousse was full and punchy, and the texture once it had melted was smooth. The problem was that the slice that arrived on the plate was full of whopping ice crystals which made eating it rather akin to chewing on a beetroot flavoured snowball. Some pickled carrots and beets of varied hues were fine, but could not redeem the main event.


There being Berwick Lobster on the menu, it felt churlish not to take the opportunity to have it, especially when part-funded by the good ol’ taxpayer. A slight shame then that the thing was overcooked, some of the claw meat having fused to the inside of the carapace and all the fun nooks and crannies inside the legs having dried out. The flavour of the tail meat was good, but the other pleasures of the beast were very much diminished.


No such issues with my venison burger, which was a well-seasoned puck of mildly gamey joy, on a wodge of soda bread that sucked up the meaty juices, and under a blanket of powerfully salty melted blue cheese. With good chips (admittedly in a silly mini-fryer basket, but whatevs) and red cabbage coleslaw on the side, this was a stonking, warming plate of food. The deer being brought into this kitchen didn't die in vain.


Desserts and cheese were less excellent. The Yorkshire parkin and berry trifle featured rather dry lumps of gingerbread in a dull custard that lacked any real flavour, vanilla or otherwise. While adding a dash of glamour to affairs, the fact that it arrived in a martini glass only underscored the fact that that was a boozeless trifle, or at least I couldn’t detect any. For shame.


We ordered cheese because the excellent Doddingtons was listed as their supplier. I’m as certain as I can be that none of the four we were served were from that producer. They may have run out, but I would have thought it polite to advise of this on ordering. In any case none of the two blues nor two cheddars we were provided with were much cop.


But despite an underwhelming cadenza, and a few hiccups here and there, I’d still say that the Queen’s Head, the most northerly meal I have ever eaten for these pages, is worth your visit. With starters hovering around eight quid (including those scallops, a relative bargain) and mains around fourteen, it’s fair value. The menu is rather idiosyncratic, and I’m sure that if you order well you could navigate it successfully, coming out with three fine courses. Service was necessarily brisk given the number of punters, but welcoming and friendly. The dark woods and brick of the dining room are not cutting edge interior design by any margin, but that’s fine by me. The Covid-related hazard tape that adorned the floor added a touch of colour in any case.

And, finally, anywhere that is getting whole caracasses of animals delivered just as the lunch service begins is alright by me. Someone’s going to have to break that thing down, which takes a bit of skill and effort. Skill and effort are things worth seeking out.

20 September 2020

Lezzet

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Lezzet
Front Street
Four Lane Ends
Benton
NE7 7XE

0191 266 2777


Accessibility? Yes
Gluten free options? Yes 

What with one thing and another, there haven't been many new restaurant openings across the North East of late. Fair enough, really. This has meant that since things started to open up again back in July, I’ve taken the opportunity to visit a few that have been skulking around my to-do list for longer than I’d like to admit. It has been fun and interesting and instructive to check out places that have been doing their thing for years, where the paint is entirely dry and opening week kerfuffles are but a distant memory.

I get to hear about restaurants in all sorts of ways. A press release here, a tip from a friend there. I get emails from nice readers very much like yourself, and I even mooch about on Instagram once in a while. The Turkish restaurant Lezzet announced itself to me in a rather more old fashioned and compelling way than any of the above.

My real life (yes, I am a real person) causes me to drive quite regularly along Benton Park Road, past Four Lane Ends Interchange. It is an entirely unremarkable bit of suburbia. However: head past Kwik Fit in the direction of the coast, and breath in. Should the wind be blowing in the correct direction you will be assailed by one of the most wonderful fragrances known to our species, as the impressive extraction kit of Lezzet restaurant belches the aroma of animal flesh searing over hot coal out into the Longbenton air. People around here must be permanently starving.


So finally, instead of muttering ”Christ, that smells good, we need to try that place” to Mrs Diner yet again, we actually pulled in, parked up and got ourselves mentally ready to attack mezze and grilled meat. The place is housed in a sturdy length of pale stone. The main dining room is large and spacious. More so than normal, since they’ve removed around a third of the covers. Tables were clothed, seats were comfy, the welcome was warm and Hüsnü Şenlendirici was showing his clarinet who’s boss on the stereo. Nice. 


The menu is large, spanning the canonical list of hot and cold starters, grilled meats and stews that you will be on first name terms with from any previous Turkish meals enjoyed in these Isles.


Patlican ezme was your smokey aubergine dip, tamed by yoghurt, but with a fair whack of garlic and tahini about it. This was delicious, as were the wodges of sesame-flecked breads which we used to demolish it, crisp without and steamy within. 



Sucuk, that brick-red sausage I’ve always thought of as chorizo’s cheeky younger sibling, was full of sumac, but could have been charred a little more over the grill. 


Elsewhere, hummus was fine, but a bit under seasoned and came topped with cubes of lamb which were oddly lacking in much flavour. 


A prawn casserole mezze was better, plentiful shellfish bobbing in a homely and comforting tomato-based sauce which seemed to contain an allotment’s worth of veg. 


The best thing we ate was a main course of chicken Iskender, in which chunks of breast meat had been kept miraculously moist despite clearly taking some ferocious heat from the grill. They came atop a tomato sauce that tasted clean and light and sweet and which was soaked up by some honking great croutons. An unfussy blob of strained yogurt sat at one end of this moat of rather heavenly food. We saw the last of the sauce away with the last of our bread in a moment of appreciative reverence. 


The wonderfully named Tif Tif Tandir, ordered from the separate specials menu was rather less excellent. Again lamb - usually a de
ad cert in the flavour department - was oddly lacking in, well, lambness. It had been cooked down to shreds along with “Anatolian herbs” which to my palate comprised oregano and sumac. It wasn’t terrible, but just a bit dull and samey. 



The house salad of chopped tomatoes, peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses was refreshing, but made me rather wish better tomatoes had been employed in its construction. 

Portions are large and so we debated getting a dessert, but were delighted we did as there was a flourish for a finish. 


A freshly cooked, unrolled pistachio pancake was brought to the table. This was slathered in clotted cream before being tightly rolled by our waitress and scattered with fresh pistachios. Phwoar and blimey. This, friends, was frigging delicious, if possibly diabetes-inducing. I commend it to you without reservation.

Service was friendly throughout, although on what was a relatively quiet night, we were abandoned to our own devices for a while, meaning I had to get up and track down a waitress to order that pud. Lezzet seems very much a family outfit, and some of those with whom we shared the room were clearly regulars. I drank a solitary glass of Öküzgözü, a red grape with which I will admit unfamiliarity, but which went perfectly well with the tomato-based sauces. Our bill came to £83. 

This was perhaps not quite the knockout flavourslam that the unbelievable aromas coming out of the kitchen had led us to expect. Perhaps we didn’t order brilliantly. However, Lezzet is still well worth your custom, doing a range of Turkish favourites in a room that feels like a very comfortable place to be in the current climate. What is more, it will continue to feel that way even as other places who have relied to some extent on their outside areas can no longer do so. 


The complimentary Lezzet-branded facemasks we got with the bill were a reminder that everything is still not right. But every good meal in a nice restaurant makes the world feel a bit cheerier, and that will do for now.

1 September 2020

Lobo Rojo

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Lobo Rojo
40 Fish Quay
North Shields
NE30 1HB 

0191 257 6986

Accessibility? No
Gluten free options? Yes

Until the end of August at least, Tuesday lunchtime was the new Saturday night. Based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve been able to gather over the last couple of weeks it seems like the Eat Out To Help Out (snigger) scheme has been a runaway success. I’m sure this will not have been experienced evenly - some of my own personal fave places aren’t even open Monday to Wednesday, and haven’t opted to do so during August - but there are sufficiently grim portents for the hospitality world for it to be impossible not to be cheered by a bunch of extra midweek bums on seats. Dishy Rishi - who seems to have the happy knack of being personally associated with some of the rare good news stories kicking around these days - understood one thing well enough; we all bloody love a bargain.

Some rare time off together on just such a midweek afternoon saw Mrs Diner and I take in the sea air during a very pleasant stagger along the coast, pitching up at rather gorgeous Irvin Building on the Fish Quay, the bottom floor of which now houses Californian-influenced Taco joint Lobo Rojo. We’d booked, the comforting certainty of which feels more important what with the ‘rona and everything than it ever did, and just as well too; trade was brisk.


The place has had a bit of a do-over since its days as Irvin’s Brasserie, which I remember being all open plan and light woods. Walls have been taken back to bare brick, the earthy tones of which now contrast nicely with soft greens and an enthusiastic quantity of on-brand vibrantly hued paintings. If you like Frida Kahlo then come on down. Here she is on the upholstery; over there on a portrait sporting boxing gloves, next to the loos on another portrait smoking a tab, like a right legend. The picture on the actual ladies toilet is of...you guessed it!



We kept our order taco-centric as most of the larger stuff - burritos, loaded fries and the like - seemed to consist of the same fillings scaled up to gut-busting proportions. 


Some introductory guacamole had a pleasingly uneven texture and came zhuzhed up with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds. Tortilla chips were clearly made in house and were excellent, a promising sign. 


Promise that was delivered on by some Yellowfin tuna tostadas which were just lovely; healthy chunks of pristine fish moistened by a soothing yet spicy chipotle crema, and a lime-spiked salsa, all heaped onto more crisped corn. Light, delicious and perfectly summery.

A whole flotilla of tacos swiftly followed. The basics are in good order. Tortillas are made in house from masa harina, and it shows. They had a lovely pronounced cereal flavour and were pliable little discs of fun, the better to grab and messily devour. For the most part the things that came perched on them were equally good.


Pick of the bunch were the fish tacos and the carnitas. The former featured crisp fried fingers of cod, the crunch of raw white cabbage and the zip and vim of a fresh pico de gallo salsa. 


The latter was all about the depth of flavour that can be obtained from pig, slow cooked down to a tangle of fibres, brightened up by vivid green sauce and more of that excellent chipotle crema stuff. 


We also enjoyed a shrimp job that featured thumping big prawns cooked in some sort of moreish blend of spices that I would be more specific about if I hadn’t I preceded my one of these with a healthy dip of some scotch bonnet salsa that had a kick like a luchador. There aren’t a whole bunch of options for you vegans, but some thought and care was evident in a cauliflower taco that accessorised fried nuggets of the titular veg with some bassy black beans and crisped kale. Not bad at all. 


The one slight dud was the chicken mole, in which the sauce lacked the trademark depth and breadth of flavour that comes from the painstaking process and cupboard full of ingredients needed to make a really great mole poblano sauce.


We had been talked down from ordering a steak quesadilla on account of us overdoing it somewhat, which was fine; it shows that the waiting staff are engaged and know the dishes. So anyway, we smashed through all the tacos and re-ordered it. It was a cheesy, meaty, bready mess of a thing. Delicious, in other words. 


Churros - you’ve got to really, haven’t you? - were hot, crisp, covered in cinnamon sugar and came with a bowl of nice chocolate sauce, so they absolutely hit the spot. Bonus points for arranging them in Jenga format. People don’t do that with chips any more, do they? I miss the 90’s.

It being the afternoon, and us having things to do, drinks were limited to one Modelo for me and some Jarritos for her. There were some interesting sounding wines, in particular a Californian bourbon barrel aged red. Next time, maybe.


And there will be a next time. Our bill came to a meagre £70, not including the August discount. Even without the taxpayer coughing for twenty of that, Lobo Rojo is still very good value. I had slightly cynically read the “lads go on road trip to California, eat great food, come home and open restaurant” spiel and suspected that Lobo Rojo might not necessarily be terribly good. 

Au contraire. Clued-up and enthusiastic service, a thoughtfully if enthusiastically done out room - which felt comfortably spaced out, by the way - and really, really tasty tacos done to a standard that you just didn’t see round these parts until Barrio Comida showed us what was what. It’s about as high a complement as I can give to Lobo Rojo to mention them in that esteemed company. I’d encourage you to keep helping out by eating out, even though Rishi’s August bargain season is but a memory.

17 August 2020

Meat:Stack (Bigg Market)

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Meat:Stack
41-43 Groat Market
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE1 1UG 

No phone number


Accessibility? Yes
Gluten free options? Yes 

One of the first things I ate from a restaurant once they opened up again after the you-know-what was a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese. It was a matter of necessity and convenience rather than lusty desire. There's a time and a place for everything - even McD's. Early July, during a long trek down the M1, for example.

Apart from being impressed with how Covid-19 had re-humanised the experience - A welcome at the door! Table service! - the flaccid, pre-digested yet still compelling burger-like matter in my hands reminded me just how much better the real deal is. I resolved to find a proper burger at the earliest opportunity. With almost eerily serendipitous timing, I clocked on Twitter that celebrated burger-slingers Meat:Stack were attempting to swerve the death-meteor that seems destined to collide with planet hospitality by opening up a new joint in the Bigg Market.


It’s nearly four years since I first raised an eyebrow at the quality of output from Meat:Stack, or The Grind as they were known back then, at Newcastle’s Quayside Market. I’ve been a bit of a starry-eyed cheerleader ever since, as they moved from pop-ups in pubs to premises in the Grainger Market, and now this permanent home. So much so that a visit to the loos for a spot of pre-meal hand washing brought me face to face with the review I gave them while they were at No28. They’ve even framed the thing. Excellent taste, this lot.


The menu for the Bigg Market restaurant comprises plenty of old faves with a few talented upstarts. The key offer - god-tier burgers, smashed and steamed and served with hectically good beef dripping fries - is mercifully unmolested. We ordered, were given a vibratey “food’s ready” thing, and took two of the 30 currently very well spaced out seats. Even with fewer covers than were initially planned, it’s pretty loud. No soft furnishings to speak of so music and chatter fairly bounces round the attractive bare bricks and polished floor. This isn’t somewhere you’re going to spend all night, so it's not a major issue.


The drinks game is pretty strong. From a small but decent range of cans I went for Hoults Yard brewery Full Circle’s excellent Repeater. Mrs Diner effectively had pudding before her burger by going for the full dairy onslaught of a peanut butter shake, which was excellent, although possibly not the most refreshing accompaniment to a meal majoring on rendered animal fat.


Our tray o’goodness arrived and all looked well. A portion of chicken tenders were an enjoyable overture, even if the batter could have been a little more crisp, but they succeeded in being a vehicle for a pot of sauce that was called Carolina Gold, and frigging delicious. Fruity, and tangy and yum.

Their fries are as epic as ever. Thin enough to have lots of crisped-up surface area, but thick enough so that there’s some fluffiness to their innards, even after they’ve cooled down. You know how the ones at the aforementioned multinational turn to regurgitated cardboard once their temperature decreases past a critical point? None of that here. Brittle and rustly all meal long, with a glorious bovine note derived from their being fried in beef tallow. We even ordered an additional portion of these beauties with cheese wiz and jalapenos on top; it turned out to be an excellent idea.

To the burgers: look, sorry to be dull, but honestly they’re still the best I’ve had in this town. The beef tastes of decent quality, the charring on the patties is great, steaming them makes the whole thing cohere correctly and the size is just right. The first bite is a meaty, cheesy, salty/sweet sniper shot to the pleasure receptors and they’re not so massive that you don’t want to finish the thing.


I went for the New Mexico, in which the tingle of griddled jalapeno worked a treat against the comfort blanket of a smear of cream cheese. I think this one may be new: it’s a fine addition to the range. 


Mrs Diner took on a more familiar quarry: the Yellowstone. The baconnaise and French onions in this one bring it close to being a bit sickly, but I still rate it pretty high. Plus, it’s got a hash brown in it. If in doubt, stick a hash brown in it. Whatever it is. You'll thank me for this advice.


We tried some blueberry meringue soft serve for completeness, rather than out of any need to consume additional calories. The ice cream was decent, but there was rather too much of it and not enough blueberry or meringue. Easy enough to fix.


I’ll mention the Covid-19 bit because, it’s part of the deal right now. If you're reading this in the loos at Meat:Stack sometime in the post-Covid future, just skip the rest. Tables were nicely spaced, there were markers on the floor to encourage social distancing and staff took orders from behind perspex screens. There was no hand sanitiser and no contact details were taken. This very last point came as a surprise, and had me scurrying off to Google to find that this is a guideline, rather than an absolute necessity. I say this without any particular judgment so that you can make your own.

Just a week or so after opening, the guys at Meat:Stack were already making the whole opening a new restaurant thing look easy. The quality and consistency of the food offering has been tip-top for years now, so it’s great to see them pitch up in their own place, somewhere I can visit whenever the mood takes me. The general upgrade and hipsterfication of the Bigg Market continues apace. Soon you might struggle to find a pint of terrible lager or an Iron Brew WKD for a couple of quid. But you can at least now bank on a shit-hot burger, and that’ll do for me.