24 May 2013

Hotel du Vin

Food ✪✪
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 

Mon-Fri 12 – 2pm, 5.30 – 10pm (Fri 10.30pm) 
Sat 12.30 – 2.30pm, 5.30 – 10.30pm 
Sun 12.30 – 2.30pm, 7 – 10pm 

Allan House 
City Road 
Newcastle Upon Tyne 
NE1 2BE 
084473 64259 

The waitress who led us to our table was ever so friendly, but immediately took us by surprise. 

“Are you on the zoo deal?” she asked. 

“What does that mean?” 

“You get a free glass of bubbly”, she said cheerily. 

My friend and I glanced at each other, then said in unison: “We’re on the zoo deal, then.”

She bounced off but soon came back, apologetically. 

“I’m sorry, you’ll need a voucher.” 

She’d teased us with free booze and now was taking it away. Couldn’t we have the free bubbly anyway? 

Off she went to ask someone higher up the food chain, then returned with more regrets – no, we couldn’t have the freebie because we weren’t on the zoo deal. 

Now this was bit of an own goal for the Hotel du Vin. Not because I’m The Secret Diner – I don’t ever expect anything for nothing. But the mere fact that we hadn’t arrived with a Groupon-type voucher from Travelzoo, which offered 249 diners a 2 course lunch for 2 people (including bubbly) for just £30, meant that we about to pay the hotel more than double that for precisely the same meal. Surely this was reason alone for the management to celebrate our arrival with a free glass of fake champagne? Instead, we were just handed menus. 

There’s a daily menu and an à la carte version. As prices were broadly similar (averaging around £7 for a starter and £16 for mains), we chose from the full shebang. As a result, our two-course lunch was about to cost us £100, including a glass of wine, some water and service. We expected great things. 

My friend ordered dressed crab. It arrived completely unclothed – a large lonely round of meat in the middle of the plate, dark layered with white, the product of neither artifice nor imagination. You had to like crab a lot to like this: fortunately, my friend did. 

Meanwhile, I confess I’m rather partial to foie gras. So I was rather disappointed to find that £7 only bought me a tiny cigar butt of ballotine, like a tiny sausage finger, topped with a spoonful of pear chutney. Nevertheless it was properly creamy, and came on top of a roundel of spicy bread, which was a smart touch. Except the roundel wasn’t quite round, more an eclipsed moon. 

My main course was more exciting: a generous piece of stone bass wrapped en papillote. It arrived neatly tied up in both paper and foil. The idea is that, as it’s opened in front of you, a wonderful aroma should flow from the package. 

But despite the presence of fennel, garlic, artichoke and olives, which together should have staged a real assault on the nostrils, this sauce lacked fragrance, though the fish was good.

Meanwhile my friend had half a Normandy chicken. Now I love French chicken. One of Mr and Mrs Diner’s great treats is to share a whole Poulet des Landes at The Ivy in London. The bird comes with its legs stuffed with foie gras and truffle, and they pour truffle jus all over it alongside truffled dauphinoise potatoes. It is an exciting event of a dish, carved at the table, which costs £44 for 2 people. 

My friend’s Normandy bird, only £6 per person cheaper, was a very poor relation. Sure, it was roast chicken, and juicy enough, but that’s all it was, ungarnished, just as the crab was just crab. We had to pay extra for chips, and also for broccoli, which came eccentrically and unnecessarily smeared with hollandaise. 

At the Hotel du Vin, it’s clear you only get what you pay for, and right now what you pay is rather too much for what you get. 

Unless, of course, you’ve arrived with a ticket from the zoo.

[There's a sequel to this story:  see the report of my visit to the Tunbridge Wells branch of the Hotel du Vin]

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