6 December 2014

Eslington Villa

Food ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 

8 Station Road 
Low Fell 
Tyne & Wear 
NE9 6DR 

0191 487 6017 

There’s something rather solid and comfortable about Eslington Villa. A sturdy, late-Victorian red-brick property overlooking the Team Valley, it’s the kind of place Fawlty Towers might have become if it had decent staff, a trained chef, and someone other than Basil Fawlty running it. 

This is a proper family-run hotel that’s been kept well, nurtured and improved over the years (it’s been around since the 1980s). Set back from the main drag in Low Fell, I suspect it’s too far from Newcastle to attract many tourists, yet it’s a cut above the travelling salesmen places you usually find in the suburbs. 

Originally two houses built for the Victorian well-to-do, the décor is conservative rather than stylish, and though some of the bedrooms have rather idiosyncratic colour schemes, you can tell it has caring, passionate owners and enthusiastic, efficient staff. 

There’s an airy, tiled conservatory overlooking the large lawn and the valley beyond. That’s where Mrs Diner and I were seated, looking forward to one of the best value lunches in town, with three courses for £16.95.
In the evening, this same concise menu, with hot smoked salmon, ham hock terrine, slow-cooked beef or coley with parmentier potatoes, becomes an earlybird special for just a pound more. Except in December, sadly. 

The evening menu is broader and pricier (still good value at £27.50 for three courses) and offers braised pigs cheeks, pheasant, venison, stone bass: all solid, British and reliable – a bit like the building itself. 

The lunch menu was fairly new the day we arrived, so the maître d’, efficient in every other way, could neither recommend nor advise. Why do kitchens start service without fully briefing the waiters? It leaves the customers all at sea. 

Some diners are easy to please, though: I heard one elderly lady at the other side of the restaurant saying loudly that she just wanted something she could eat without taking her teeth out. She wasn’t the oldest person in the restaurant by a long way. That might explain the lack of seasoning. 

Vegetable pakoras, though pretty enough in their curry yoghurt pool, surrounded by fresh young beet leaves and thin sticks of Granny Smith, contained no Indian spices that I could detect. Mrs Diner’s Auntie Nell, who believes curry is a nasty invention brought from overseas just to destroy good honest English tastebuds, would have approved of this dish. I didn’t. 

However, my tongue was immediately ambushed by a piccalilli sitting under Mrs Diner’s ham hock terrine that was so acidic as to be painful, far too tart to be counteracted the honeyed peanuts that were sprinkled on top. 

We ordered a fresh Pinot Grigio to restore the balance in our mouths. I felt a wave of nostalgia when I saw that the house whites included Niersteiner Domtal, a drink I haven’t seen on a wine list since the 1970s. And which I have no intention of ever drinking again. 

I haven’t had a fishcake on spinach topped with a poached egg for a while either. It was fine, though its tarragon sauce was a touch salty. 

Roast chicken breast came with sauté potatoes and green beans, and a bland grain mustard sauce. Moist enough to eat, even with dentures. 

Crème brûlée was classic, with excellent texture. We also enjoyed Yorkshire blue cheese with some red wine jelly. 

It was all very good value, and I liked the presentation and service, but there was nothing remotely adventurous about this cooking. You only have to look at the hotel’s website to understood why: head chef Jamie Walsh says he is focused on “giving value for money while cooking to a 1 rosette standard”. 

If that’s his goal, he’s made it, together with the majority of small hotels in the country. 1 rosette is ordinary, solid, predictable, dull, what the food guides call “reliable” cooking. I’m convinced he could aim higher, because there’s certainly talent in the kitchen. It just needs a little more ambition.

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