31 The Quay
0191 257 5310
Gluten free options? Yes
I’m tapping out these words shortly after having had my first meal out since before you-know-what. Not in the restaurant that's the subject of this review, but in a place that, for now, will remain nameless.
We were among the first through the door on the Saturday when restaurants were finally allowed to reopen. For me, the whole thing felt a little bit like an
awkward first date; we and the staff were all smiles and
politeness, but also just a bit nervous. It’ll take a while for things to settle in I think, for the rituals to feel natural again.
The food there was underwhelming too, but I
have no intention of slating
the first meal that some chef had prepared for a paying customer in nearly
four months. That wouldn't do anyone any favours. For now I’ll only be
pointing you towards places that I think are really worth your custom. Things are
difficult enough for the hospitality trade without a chancer
like me using whatever online presence I have to whinge about unseasoned
chips or a collapsed soufflé. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the snark
and the grump soon enough.
For now, I'm only writing about the good places, and this one really is a cracker. Or it was four months ago - it's actually the last restaurant I visited before everything went kaput. The meal was everything that makes eating out something I’ve missed so much: excellent ingredients, precise and considerate cooking, and charming service from lovely people. They’ve all been furloughed throughout the lockdown, but they say they’re back to work on July 31st, which seems apt given the restaurant in question is called 31 The Quay.
Occupying the ground floor of a new development at the south end of North Shields Fish Quay, the place is large, light and airy, with tables nicely spaced. That feels important to mention right now. It also benefits from the stewardship of chef Andrew Wilkinson, formerly of Artisan at the Biscuit Factory. The menu in March felt very seasonal, with wild garlic and Yorkshire rhubarb to the fore. It was also superbly cooked.
A steamed lasagne of scallop and crab was a triumph of technique, layers of delicate shellfish mousse barely held in place by excellent pasta. Many langoustines had given the goodness of their carcasses to a fine terracotta coloured sauce, perked up by the subtle thrum of ginger.
Meanwhile, from a bargain set lunch menu - 3 courses for £20 - I enjoyed a cauldron of goblin green wild garlic soup, a perfect poached egg bobbing in its depths, accessorised by a rather lovely homemade cheese scone.
Perhaps sensing that this could be the last dining table other than our own that we would see for a while, we pushed the boat out, and ordered two really fine fish main courses from the a la carte. Sat with a fine view of the Tyne, and of the boats moored up at the quay, it felt appropriate.
My halibut (£24) was well seasoned, tasting clean and ozoney and pure. It’s accoutrements - steamed broccoli, some crushed spud, a dod of excellent tartare and a rather luxe langoustine scampi - did not distract from its excellence. It may have got out of the pan just a few seconds too late, which is as close as I’ll get to a criticism here.
Mrs Diner’s cod (£17.50) was similarly first rate, skin roasted to crisp, coming on a plate strewn with vivid green wild garlic (hello again!) and sea vegetables, raw and charred cauliflower and a zippy sauce of apple and brown shrimp. It was light, well balanced and very, very tasty.
Puddings, with a median price of £7, involved far more cookery than anyone can reasonably expect to receive for that sort of outlay. A baked vanilla cheesecake was a triple-layered looker, all cutesy in its pinks and whites. Rhubarb appeared stewed, as a layer of jelly, in a swoosh of sauce and - most impressively - in a delicious rhubarb and ginger ripple ice cream. Like I say, a lot going on, and all of it done admirably in house.
A chocolate fondant oozed in all the right places, and was given a kick up the backside by a zingy blood orange purée. Another fine ice cream - marmalade and sourdough this time, tasting like a blitzed, frozen breakfast - and some terrific honeycomb sealed the deal.
We drank nice wine, admired the view, chatted to the staff, tried to identify the tunes on the stereo and did all the other things that you do when eating out. It was lovely. We paid up - £94 not including service, which was very good value for what we had - and got on with the rest of our day. Things were moving quickly, however. We were all learning a new and rather grim language, and soon pretending to be expert epidemiologists. Then Boris did his speech on the telly and that, for a while, was that.
I’m not entirely sure what the menu at 31 The Quay will look like when they reopen. Wild garlic and Yorkshire forced rhubarb certainly aren’t in season any more. But I am confident that as long as Wilkinson and his team are around you’ll eat very well indeed and be looked after with calm and friendly efficiency.
We talked about this meal for a while into lockdown; it became a reference point for all that is good about the dining scene in this region and what we missed about it most. Now our favourite estaurants are finally opening their doors again, they need all the support they can get. I wish them all the best.