9 October 2020

The Queens Head

Food ✪✪✪
Ambience ✪✪✪
Service ✪✪✪✪

Queens Head Hotel
6 Sandgate
TD15 1EP

01289 307 852

Accessibility? No
Gluten free options? Yes

We had been sat at our table for a few minutes when we were politely asked by the waiter to stand up, so he could squeeze round the back of us and into the cold store behind. Polite, but also somewhat urgent, as he bore a whole deer carcass, and the thing looked heavy. It’s not every lunch that starts with you having to dodge out the way of one of the main courses. On the one hand, it was an unsubtle reminder of the realities of carnivorous eating. On the other, a very encouraging sign that this is a kitchen keen to work with good quality raw materials. 

Indeed, there were a number of encouraging things about our lunch, things which I should certainly like to encourage. I would like to be slightly more enthusiastic than I’m about to be, and I would be too if it weren’t for a few hiccups on the execution side of things. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, it’s worth noting that the nice folk at the Queen’s Head were entirely hospitable when we asked, in the middle of a biblical monsoon, whether we might take shelter in their dining room a good half hour before the lunch service began. So much for our pre-meal perambulation round the streets of Berwick. As indeed they were throughout, on a weekday lunch rendered unusually busy by being at the fag end of Dishy Rishi’s special bargain month. The meal was punctuated by more attempted walk-ins - all knocked back as the place was fully booked - than any meal I recently recall.

Happily we had booked, so got to choose from an intriguing menu that sought inspiration from far and wide. Along with some local-sounding game and seafood dishes were a parsnip and coconut soup, a Paella and a spicy braise of aubergine tofu. I’m almost a little ashamed to say that in the face of such exotica we played it relatively safe.

Mrs Diner’s scallop starter was simplicity itself, and none the worse for that. Three plump specimens had received enough heat to caramelise slightly, coming perched on wilted ribbons of courgette and topped by a lemon and basil-flecked butter. Very pleasant, although removing the roes and using them elsewhere would have been advisable, as they were chewy little bullets.

My own starter was one of a couple of dishes where good ideas were lost somewhere in the business of getting them to the table. The flavour of the “sorbet style” beetroot mousse was full and punchy, and the texture once it had melted was smooth. The problem was that the slice that arrived on the plate was full of whopping ice crystals which made eating it rather akin to chewing on a beetroot flavoured snowball. Some pickled carrots and beets of varied hues were fine, but could not redeem the main event.

There being Berwick Lobster on the menu, it felt churlish not to take the opportunity to have it, especially when part-funded by the good ol’ taxpayer. A slight shame then that the thing was overcooked, some of the claw meat having fused to the inside of the carapace and all the fun nooks and crannies inside the legs having dried out. The flavour of the tail meat was good, but the other pleasures of the beast were very much diminished.

No such issues with my venison burger, which was a well-seasoned puck of mildly gamey joy, on a wodge of soda bread that sucked up the meaty juices, and under a blanket of powerfully salty melted blue cheese. With good chips (admittedly in a silly mini-fryer basket, but whatevs) and red cabbage coleslaw on the side, this was a stonking, warming plate of food. The deer being brought into this kitchen didn't die in vain.

Desserts and cheese were less excellent. The Yorkshire parkin and berry trifle featured rather dry lumps of gingerbread in a dull custard that lacked any real flavour, vanilla or otherwise. While adding a dash of glamour to affairs, the fact that it arrived in a martini glass only underscored the fact that that was a boozeless trifle, or at least I couldn’t detect any. For shame.

We ordered cheese because the excellent Doddingtons was listed as their supplier. I’m as certain as I can be that none of the four we were served were from that producer. They may have run out, but I would have thought it polite to advise of this on ordering. In any case none of the two blues nor two cheddars we were provided with were much cop.

But despite an underwhelming cadenza, and a few hiccups here and there, I’d still say that the Queen’s Head, the most northerly meal I have ever eaten for these pages, is worth your visit. With starters hovering around eight quid (including those scallops, a relative bargain) and mains around fourteen, it’s fair value. The menu is rather idiosyncratic, and I’m sure that if you order well you could navigate it successfully, coming out with three fine courses. Service was necessarily brisk given the number of punters, but welcoming and friendly. The dark woods and brick of the dining room are not cutting edge interior design by any margin, but that’s fine by me. The Covid-related hazard tape that adorned the floor added a touch of colour in any case.

And, finally, anywhere that is getting whole caracasses of animals delivered just as the lunch service begins is alright by me. Someone’s going to have to break that thing down, which takes a bit of skill and effort. Skill and effort are things worth seeking out.

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