No 19 Close House
Heddon on the Wall
Newcastle upon Tyne
01661 852 255
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.