24 February 2014

Seaham Hall (Byron's Bar and Grill by Blunos)

Food ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 

Byron’s Bar and Grill
Seaham Hall
Lord Byrons Walk
County Durham
SR7 7AG 

0191 516 1400 
Wed to Sun: 6.30pm – 9pm 
Accessibility: Yes 

Poor Martin Blunos has been relegated to second billing. 

Until last week the nearly-celebrity chef (he’s the one with the walrus moustache who used to be on Iron Chef UK, and had two Michelin stars for his restaurant Lettonie in the West Country) had his name over the main restaurant at Seaham Hall. 

The Blunos Sea Grill was housed in the former White Room, where Kenny Atkinson flourished and gained a Michelin star for the region. I remember having had a spectacularly good tasting menu in this room before Kenny went south to Rockliffe Hall. Later the entire hotel, particularly its restaurant, went off the boil, before being sold and restored. 

Thankfully the building is now looking glorious again, and I was looking forward to trying Blunos’s Grill, even though I suspected that, as Culinary Director, he merely wrote the menu. However, between booking and arriving, they’d shut the restaurant and moved the food into the bar.

To add to Blunos’s woes they’ve taken away his top billing and given it to Lord Byron. It’s now called Byron’s Bar and Grill by Blunos, which is a bit of a mouthful. Rather more of a mouthful than some of the dishes, of which more later. 

On the wall there’s a reproduction of Thomas Phillips’s famous portrait of Byron dressed as an Albanian. It’s strange that Seaham Hall should be so proud of this poet. By all accounts he didn’t much like the place. Shortly after his marriage at Seaham Hall to the daughter of the local landowner, he wrote to a friend: 

Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales.” 

The marriage didn’t last long. 

I hoped Blunos’s fish would be a little more inspiring. 

It’s actually a nicely styled room, warm and inviting, with plush banquettes and candles. It has brass and chrome flower lights on the wall, which makes up for the lack of flowers on the tables. It’s modern and chic, which is unusual for a stately home conversion. 

Still, as a restaurant it doesn’t really work, for it’s still a bar at heart, with around ten marble-topped tables down one end, not really fitting for a double-Michelin starred chef. 

It does have some incredibly well-drilled, friendly staff offering some of the best service I’ve encountered in our region. I was mulling over the extensive wine list, looking down the list of whites, when the waitress spotted my dilemma in finding something Germanic and dry and cleverly pointed me in the direction of Little Beauty, a fine New Zealand Dry Riesling. Spot on for fish. 

The menu is very simple, with just six choices of starter, mains and desserts, all named, as is the current trend, by a single word – Crab, Scallops, Cod, and so on. There’s also Beef (fillet steak) for carnivores. Thankfully the days of gushing menu descriptions have gone. 

Now it’s Halibut – peas à la francaise, chive mash £27.00. £27 for fish, peas and mash? This had to be special. 


I started with scallops (Cauliflower, apple, curry oil), while Mrs Diner had crab (avocado salad, lemon, caper). While the crab was no more than its description, apart from some rather nice apple jelly, the scallops were a surprise. 

The curry oil was red, not yellow. That’s because it wasn’t curry oil at all, but harissa. Quite why the menu was changed without notice was never explained, but, although the chilli worked well with the scallops, it completely overpowered the poor cauliflower, which lacked any marinade to compete. 

Presumably the heat of the oil had been used a substitute for the flame of the grill, for my scallops had only just waved at it in passing. They were almost completely raw. That would have been fine – I’d much rather have raw scallops than overcooked chewy ones – but the flesh ought to have exploded with flavours of the sea. Instead, it was pretty tasteless. 

Sea Bass
Likewise the seabass, though perfectly well cooked, lacked quality. I don’t know where they source their fish, but I’ve had much better in our region. 

The menu promised it would come with hazelnuts. I expected some clever little nutty concoction to accompany the fish. Instead, out of the plain green vegetable bed popped – a few plain hazelnuts. They weren’t even properly roasted: very disappointing, though the brown butter hollandaise was very good.

£27 halibut without chive mash

But the biggest disappointment was the halibut. For £27 I had anticipated a masterpiece. What arrived was the smallest tranche, set on a single bed of leeks, little gem lettuce and some shredded parsley. And that was it: no inspiration, no surprises, no originality, and no sign of the promised chive mash. 

It was the sort of food you’d expect in a health spa. What’s better than a piece of steamed fish and a few green vegetables? Well, almost anything, really. 

It was like being on an enforced diet. The portion was minuscule, the taste simply bland. This was possibly the worst value main course I’ve been offered in the north east. 

Afterwards, I alerted the kitchen to its mistake over the mash and it immediately sent its apologies and a free lemon tart. This was the highlight of the meal, sharp and fresh with good pastry and a sprinkling of dried fennel pollen, with very good fennel pollen ice cream. Mrs Diner and I also shared an excellent caramel and apple soufflé. 

A lot of the cooking is perfectly competent here, and the food is certainly fresh and light (rather too light in fact). But I suspect the kitchen is bored with the menu’s lack of ambition. Why else would they leave the mash off a main course, or substitute harissa for curry? 

I would gladly eat here again if I were in Seaham and someone else were paying, but sadly this place is no longer the destination restaurant it used to be.

[NOTE:  Simon Bolsover has now been appointed Head Chef at Seaham Hall.  I suspect he will make a difference]

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