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Little Italy shuttered


One of the most welcome additions to Newcastle's Grainger Market food scene closed down in December, after 18 months of trading. In May 2017 I wrote "each forkful we tried contained the flavour-memories of Italian holidays". Sadly missed.

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All change in top hotel kitchens


Danny Parker, Kenny Atkinson's former head chef at Michelin-starred House of Tides, has replaced Michael Penaluna as executive head chef at Jesmond Dene House. The Masterchef: The Professionals runner-up, is also in this year's Great British Menu on BBC2, which starts tomorrow night (he was a contestant last year, but eliminated in the regional rounds).  He's currently hiring staff and creating new dishes for the hotel. Danny's new menu, team and ambition can be tested from October. I'm also very much looking forward to seeing what chef Penaluna will do next, as I hear on the grapevine that he's off to transform Wynyard Hall. Good luck to both.


Arrivederci Scalini's - Hola El Paso


The Jesmond branch of Italian restaurant Scalini's is to close on Sunday February 4th, and the space will be transformed into a 100-cover Mexican/Spanish place. El Paso will serve "dishes with a Mexican and Spanish influence". 

It's part of the plans for the refurbishment of the New Northumbria Hotel site by Malhotra Group, which includes installing 13 apartment rooms and suites. 

Director of Operations Atul Malhotra said: "We have spent several months conducting focus groups and gathering feedback and we are confident El Paso will be a welcome and successful addition to Jesmond’s thriving hospitality scene.” 

I hope they will be looking forward to my secret visit after it opens at the end of March.


Restaurant Week is back


Over 100 Newcastle restaurants will be taking part in NE1 Newcastle Restaurant Week, which returns again on January 15th 2018.  For one week (until Saturday 21st) you can enjoy special menus for only £10 or £15 per person.  It's a great way to try new places.  Restaurant Week is hugely popular with both customers (book early) and the restaurants themselves, for January is traditionally the industry's quietest time of year.  See the full list of restaurants and download your vouchers here.


Dosa Kitchen reopens in Jesmond


I've heard a rumour (now confirmed) that the much-missed Dosa Kitchen is to reopen in a permanent space: the old Longhorns Smokehouse building in Jesmond.  Dosa Kitchen was a very successful pop-up in the cafe of The Beacon, a nondescript business centre on Westgate Road.  I recall great chilli paneer and wonderful dosa.  Watch this space for more details and dates. 

The restaurant has confirmed that it will open in late November - the address is 7 Osborne Road. As before this "South Indian canteen" will be offering dishes inspired by the Tamil Nadu region of India.  

Said Mathen Ganesan, who founded Dosa Kitchen (with Sudharsan Murugavel):  We'd change our 'Sunday Spaad' menu each week, which was part of the fun for our customers, so they'd have a different experience each time.  This also acted as a great live testing ground for new dishes."  

Ganesan is a native Geordie, who went to Newcastle's RGS. 

Murugavel, who has served as head chef in many international hotels and restaurants, added: "We wanted to create a menu that's genuinely authentic.  You won't find tikka masala here!"  

Expect simple, healthy, largely vegan cooking - and great dosa.

Dosa Kitchen was nominated for my Best Newcomer Award in 2015. They now have a website:


Longhorns Smokehouse: in more financial trouble?


I see that Longhorns Barbecue Smoke House appears to have hit another financial crisis. A petition for the winding up of the company under the Insolvency Act has been filed by its former Jesmond landlord, Zara Commercial, which claims to be a creditor of the business.  The case will be heard in Newcastle's County Court next Thursday 24th August.  

Longhorns, which pulled in its horns back in March by closing the Jesmond business, shutting its kitchens in five Camerons pubs and focusing on its original Mosley Street branch, filed for a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) at the same time.  The restructuring followed the resignation of co-founder and MD Michael Dixon. 

Watch this space. 

Irvins Brasserie gets the chop


After 7 years of trading, North Shields restaurant Irvins Brasserie has closed its doors. Owner Graeme Cuthell, the former personal chef to celebrities like Andrew Lloyd Webber, took the decision to wind up the business last week, after enduring tough trading conditions since the new year. 

Tait Walker partner Andrew Haslam, who is acting as Irvins’ liquidator said: “The restaurant has ceased trading, the business has closed and we are in the process of selling off the company’s assets. 

“Turnover had fallen since the turn of the year. People just don’t have the money to spend. The owner had no option but to close it.” 

The Irvin Building on North Shields' fish quay has now been put up for sale with a £350,000 price tag. 


Newcastle restaurant week returns in August


Newcastle's popular NE1 Restaurant Week is set to return on August 7th, with more than 100 city centre restaurants taking part, including several 4 and 5 star Secret Diner recommended places.  

The event runs for a week, during which you can enjoy a special menu for either £10 or £15 per head (depending on the restaurant).  This August's initiative is expected to beat all records for the number of diners, beating even January's success, which attracted more than 45,000 people. 

As well as old favourites like Blackfriars, Marco Pierre White's Steakhouse Bar and Grill, Hei Hei, and the various restaurants in Terry Laybourne's 21 Hospitality Group (21, Cafe 21, The Broad Chare, Caffe Vivo and Saltwater Fish Company), the week offers a great chance to sample some of the new places that have recently opened in the city, including Spanish tapas bar Kaltur, which I raved about just a few weeks ago, and Zucchini Pasta Bar, which I reviewed last week. In addition, Terry Laybourne's newest venture in Fenwick's Food Hall, Porterhouse Butcher and Grill (see next story), is planning to open in time for the event. 

As usual, anyone wishing to enjoy the week's special offers in any of the participating restaurants must first register for coupons on the NE1 site here.



New Laybourne grill for Fenwick - as Ko Sai closes


Terry Laybourne is closing his Ko Sai Asian restaurant in Fenwick Food Mall and instead opening a new butchery and grill called Porterhouse.  

The new venture will mirror his highly successful Saltwater Fish Company project, which offers fresh produce next to a team of chefs cooking directly in front of customers.  I understand that Porterhouse Butcher and Grill will open in August right next to Saltwater Fish Company, with Saltwater chef Chris Eagle overseeing both kitchens.  The new space is currently occupied by The Blagdon Farm Shop.

Beef will be supplied by Hannan Meats of Northern Ireland, whose Himalayan Salt chamber-aged steak is highly sought after - it's the first time Hannan's meat will be available to the retail market in Newcastle.  Northumbrian Quality Meats of West Woodburn will also be supplying its Northumbrian Wagyu beef, and Middlewhite pork will be supplied by Ravensworth Grange Farm near Gateshead - both currently supply Laybourne's Cafe 21. 

Ko Sai will close this weekend.  My new review of Saltwater Fish Company is published today (see Reviews).


St Mary's Inn closes


St Mary's Inn near Morpeth, the popular gastropub offshoot of Jesmond Dene House Hotel, with a 4* food rating on this site, has closed with immediate effect.  

According to the owners, the ongoing construction works around the pub, and continuing lack of promised sports and community facilities,  all of which were expected to have been completed by now, are likely to continue for a further two years.  The owners say they hope to reopen once the building works are complete.  

During its three years of opening, the hotel has both garnered excellent reviews, including several national accolades. It was a runner-up in the Best Hotel Restaurant category in last year's Secret Diner Awards.

Here's the full text of St Mary's Inn's press release, published on its website this afternoon:  

Following a detailed review of the current situation, it is with great regret that a decision has been made to close St Mary's Inn with immediate effect.
The pub has been a source of great pride to everyone involved in making it happen, a team who worked so hard to bring to life something that – in retrospect – was perhaps ahead of its time.

When St Mary's Inn opened in late 2014 it was expected that the construction work taking place around the property would progress steadily and in a timely fashion towards completion. It was also expected that the infrastructure necessary to create a community at St Mary's Park, including community centre and sports facilities, would be completed soon after the Inn opened, giving the pub the opportunity to flourish in the growing environment around it.
Unfortunately, progress has not been as great as anticipated by everyone involved in the project. Even more concerning is that construction work is likely to have an additional impact over the next 24 months as it comes much closer to the property and for many weeks will be immediately adjacent with unavoidable disruption.
This decision has been taken very reluctantly and with particular concern for the loss of amenity the local community will suffer. Everyone involved in St Mary's Inn would like to express their gratitude for the patronage of people living locally both in St Mary's Park and the adjacent areas. The owners would also like to thank the staff, all of whom have shown great commitment and enthusiasm. There will inevitably be adverse effects on people employed in the business in a situation such as this, but the company will look to support those affected wherever practicable.
We will revisit this decision from time to time and it is our ambition to reopen when the surrounding construction work is substantially complete. We remain confident that the business can prosper when conditions at St Mary's are more favourable than they are right now or in the immediate future.

Bellway, the developer of the Stannington Park complex, this afternoon denied that there had been delays.  Sasha O'Neill, Bellway's Group Head of Marketing, told The Journal: "We are disappointed to hear of the closure of St Mary's Inn, however... we are firmly on target with our building programme.  This includes the upcoming handover of the community centre, which is due following completion of a set number of units, and the continuation of the landscaping works.  We have increased the original number of homes at the development from 172 to 284.  Building works continue both to plan and to timescale." 

However, Bellway's Stannington Park website still refers to St Mary's Inn as "the heart and soul of the existing and new communities."  Quite how the new development will continue to grow without its "heart and soul", Bellway has yet to say. 

Owner of The Mizen Head dies suddenly


Popular Northumberland restaurateur Alex Watson died suddenly in a Bamburgh pub in the early hours of Sunday morning. 

The 30-year-old owner of The Mizen Head Hotel in the village, died at the nearby Castle Hotel, which is owned by his publican father Ronnie Watson. Northumbria Police confirmed that they were called to the pub and were probing Mr Watson’s death. 

A police spokesperson said: “Emergency services were called to the Castle Hotel, Front Street, in Bamburgh, at 1.36am, the early hours of Sunday, November 27, after a man was unwell. But sadly the man, aged 30, was pronounced dead at the scene. 

“At this stage, the matter is being treated as a sudden death and inquiries are ongoing.” 

Tributes were paid this week to Mr Watson, who purchased the Mizen Head Hotel in 2011 and successfully developed it into one of the area's best restaurants. 

Kenny Atkinson, owner of Michelin-starred House of Tides, tweeted: "So sad, Alex was a great guy. We went to Italy recently with him, he will be sadly missed". 

I awarded The Mizen Head, which specialises in seafood, Bamburgh's first 3-star rating back in August 2014. 

Along with his father, Mr Watson was also co-director of a wine business, Half Cut Wines Ltd, and he was also director of an events company, Northumberland Coast Events Ltd.


The Ten (Food) Commandments are coming to Newcastle


Jay Rayner, the award-winning food critic,  and broadcaster, is donning the cloak of the prophet Moses and bringing his one-man foodie standup show The Ten (Food) Commandments to Newcastle this Autumn. 

Based on his book of the same name, Jay will be appearing at The Stand comedy club on 9th October. He will be revealing his own set of commandments for food-obsessed age, dealing with questions like 'is it ever okay to covet thy neighbour’s oxen?' (it is), 'the importance of eating with your hands' (very important indeed) and whether 'you should cut off the fat' (you shouldn’t). 

He gives guidance on ‘worshipping leftovers’ and why ‘you should not mistake food for pharmaceuticals which can cure you of all known diseases, especially cancer’, revealing: ‘There is not a single foodstuff the eating of which will protect you from cancer. Not even a little bit.’ 

Other commandments include: ‘thou shalt cook while also not running from the stinkiest of foods even if they smell of death - after all, the best foods in life smell lightly of death'. 

Jay says of his book and show: “The fact is, we need a new set of hand-tooled, food commandments, custom engineered for the modern food obsessed age. Which in turn means we need our very own culinary Moses; someone with the scholarship, dignity, insight and teeth to stand in judgement on everyone else.” 

With grey-flecked beard, shaggy hair, flowing robes, and his own (not very good) teeth, Jay seems to fit the bill perfectly. 

I suspect tickets for his show will sell out fast. The Ten (Food) Commandments is published by Penguin, and the show is at The Stand at 7pm on October 9th at 7pm – you can book tickets through this link here or phone 0191 300 9700.

Finbarr's back in Durham


Finbarr's, the restaurant I awarded 4 stars to in February, and which shut a few weeks later, is to reopen in the Bistro 21 building in Durham.

After protracted negotiations (see story below), the lease on the Aykley Heads House building was signed last week and the staff are currently at working preparing the restaurant for its opening on Saturday 11th June. Finbarr's sent out an email to its regular customers today: "We hope you haven't missed us too much.  With our new location and new menus on their way, we hope you're as excited as we are!"  

This will bring the number of my recommended restaurants in Durham to three.  

Finbarr's is already taking bookings on 0191 3867626.



Another blow for Durham...


Just four weeks after I awarded it 4 stars for its food, service and ambience, Finbarr's restaurant in Durham has suddenly closed its doors.  The restaurant's website announced today that it has moved out of the Kingslodge Hotel and was currently "seeking new premises with the view to being open again in Durham as soon as possible."  

There were rumours in the city that they were trying to take over the former home of Bistro 21, Terry Laybourne's restaurant that closed in October last year, however we understand from industry sources that a prospective deal has fallen through and Finbarr's is now homeless.  This follows news last year that there were plans to turn the Kingslodge Hotel, which housed the restaurant, into yet more student accommodation.  

Finbarr's told me today that they were given just 24 hours' notice to leave by Kingslodge Hotel. The hotel was still featuring Finbarr's, with its "superbly managed kitchen", on its website. We, and the residents of Durham (and beyond) really hope the team at Finbarr's finds some new space soon.

In the meantime, we hear that former Bistro 21 head chef Ruari MacKay has re-emerged at the Garden House Inn in Durham with two of his best chefs.  I'm told the specials menu is really good (and familiar!). Not surprisingly they have been swamped with reservations since the closure of all the other decent restaurants in Durham.  Oldfields also closed last year.


And the oven is lit...


First shots of Cal's Own's new pizza oven in Jesmond (see below).  Calvin is hoping to open to the public by the end of March.  Today Calvin told my office: 

"This oven has been made to the exact geometry of a 2000 year old oven uncovered by archaeologists at the site known as Pompeii. The oven was preserved in volcanic ash and even had bread inside it when excavated. My oven is made from volcanic stone from the cliffs of Sorrento, Santa Maria bricks, Neapolitan clay and finished with mosaic tiles to my specifications. The oven weighs an enormous 3 tonnes and was solely constructed by Stefano Ferrara, one of two craftsmen in Napoli still making these ornate forno by hand. The oven is its self a historic artifact ‎which is needed to produce true Neapolitan pizza also known as Vera Pizza Napoletana. 

"Vera Pizza Napoletana is one of the only fully completed products in the world which is recognised by European legislation as protected to the highest standards known as DOP or Denominazione di Origine Protetta.‎ There ‎are strict guidelines ‎governing the creation of DOP products such as ingredients used, the area where the ingredients come from and the preparation methods used. I have been in contact with the governing body of VPN known as the A‎ssociazone Verace Pizza Napoletana in Napoli. We both believe I am entitled to receive full enrolment in to their organisation due to my serious dedication to the art of Neapolitan pizza making. From my S.Marzano DOP tomatoes I have sourced from Salerno Campania at the foot hills of Mount Vesuvios, the buffalo mozzarella DOP I have sourced from Batapaglia and Caserta in the wetlands of Campania, the dough making process using 00 flour from Napoli and the 90 second cooking process in my 450C + brick oven."

OK, sounds amazing - but stop teasing us.  When are you actually going to open?


World's most exclusive pizza oven on its way to Jesmond...


It’s taken a month to build in Naples, and two weeks to transport to its new home in Newcastle. This is the Ferrari of wood-fired pizza ovens, or, to be precise, a Stefano Ferrara, hand built specially for Cal’s Own’s new restaurant in Jesmond. 

Last week Calvin Kitchin’s old pizzeria in Heaton closed its doors for the last time. It had built itself a fantastic reputation, both locally and nationally, since I first gave it four stars back at the end of 2013.  It was shortlisted for Best European restaurant in this year's Secret Diner awards.

As well as universal praise from local amateur bloggers, Cal’s Own has been put in TripAdvisor’s list of top 20 UK pizzerias, and Buzzfeed ranked it in their “top 17 pizzas to try before you die”. Personally I’d put a Cal’s Own pizza right at the top of my bucket list, for Calvin, a former joiner, is a pizza fanatic and now makes them as good as the best in Naples. Which is why he’s turned to the world’s most famous pizza oven manufacturer for his new oven. 

Stefano Ferrara makes not only the best ovens, coveted and used by almost all the world’s genuine “Neapolitana” pizzerias, but also the most expensive. 

Weighing 3 tonnes, these huge caves of Italian brick and soil are a nightmare to negotiate into restaurants, which usually have to remove the front of the building to get them inside. 

Fortunately, Cal’s new place is already undergoing major renovation work, with builders stripping the interior back to steel and bare brickwork. The restaurant will be housed in the old Colts Western Steakhouse in Holly Avenue, which used to be Nino’s, and before that the Mandalay. I predict Cal’s Own will survive longer, and be much more successful, than any of its predecessors. 

There will be at least 60 covers, compared to the present 35, and, most significantly, this will be a proper restaurant rather than a takeaway with seats. There’ll be a much larger menu, and a full bar service. 

Cal told me exclusively: “We’ll be serving a menu built principally around Vera Pizza Napoletana, but also specials including up to four styles of New York pizza.” There will also be a few non-pizza dishes. 

The new pizza oven has a floor of biscotto di Sorrento and a dome of Santa Maria bricks, decorated in mosaic tiles. Capable of reaching 500 degrees centigrade, it takes three weeks to fully heat up, and can cook a pizza in less than 90 seconds. ‎ Each pizza will have different types of dough, be topped with different ingredients and be baked in one of five different pizza ovens, including the new Ferrara. 

Calvin explained: “We've spent a lot of time trying to understand why pizza is made in certain ways depending on where you are in the world. We love to give people as good, if not better pizzas than they would expect if they were to travel to one of the destinations themselves.” 

I think by this he’s also aiming at the New York market – his Brooklyn-style pizzas already match the best that you can find on the East Coast. 

Calvin and his brother Kerry are very much looking forward to the move to Jesmond: “We believe Jesmond is more of a restaurant destination than Heaton - both for evening meals with drinks and for lunch time. Kerry and I both grew up in Jesmond and continue to live here. We know the area well and we understand what people here are looking for.” 

Calvin is particularly excited about his gluten free offering: “One of the five ovens will be dedicated to stone baking gluten free pizzas. We love to make the best possible products without pulling the wool over the eyes of people,” which means that all the pizzas will be authentic. 

He recently spent a week trying to perfect the ultimate Chicago pizza pie. Whether it will appear on the new menu remains to be seen. 

Pizza lovers in Newcastle are going to have to wait another six or eight weeks before the Ferrara oven heats up and the pizzas started to hit Jesmond. The new Cal’s Own, which will employ around a dozen staff, is scheduled to open during the second week of February. 

Expect serious queues.


And the nominations are...

The Secret Diner Awards shortlist is published today.  For full details, see the 2015 Awards section of this site. The winners will be announced on Boxing Day.

Blow for Durham foodies as Bistro 21 closes

One of my favourite North East restaurants, one of only two in Durham to have been awarded 5 Secret Diner stars, has closed without warning.  Terry Laybourne's atmospheric Bistro 21, which won Best Bistro/Brasserie category in my latest Restaurant Of The Year awards, abruptly shut its doors after service yesterday.  It's been a feature of Durham gastrolife since 1996.  

Owners 21 Hospitality Group say it's because they want to focus on growing their Newcastle business, which last week expanded with two more restaurants (within Fenwick department store - see story below, and reviews of Ko Sai and Saltwater Fish Company on this site).  

Bistro 21 has been up for sale for some time, however the decision to close was only taken last Wednesday when, I understand, a shortage of staff made it impossible to maintain standards.  Customers with bookings, including wedding parties, have been offered alternative reservations at the group's Newcastle restaurants, Café 21, Caffè Vivo, and the Fenwick venues.  

Terry Laybourne told restaurant trade magazine The Staff Canteen: "I’ve been there for 20 years, it was incredibly hard for me, it doesn’t normally end on that basis. you’ve just got to move on though. Particularly with these two new ventures happening right now, it just makes sense."

That will be cold comfort to Durham residents, whose only other SD Recommended restaurant is the tiny, but excellent, DH1.  All other Durham city restaurants I've reviewed have received 2 stars or less. 


Laybourne brings fish and fizz to Fenwicks

The North East’s restaurant guru Terry Laybourne is to open a new fish bar and fishmonger within Newcastle’s new-look Fenwick store. 

Saltwater Fish Co, which will be part of a multi-million pound revamp for the store’s Food Hall, will offer “fast, casual seafood dining”, with counter seating for 23, and an open kitchen. 

As well as freshly prepared fish, there’ll be oysters, fruits de mer platters, salt and pepper squid and crab sandwiches, together with a “fish focussed wine list”. 

Laybourne says of the new venture, which opens in October: “Our chefs will work hand in hand with the fishmonger, taking a ‘we cook what we sell, we sell what we cook’ approach. Fish is seasonal so both our fishmonger and menu will be constantly on the move, reflecting the rhythm of the season. 

“Due to our network of suppliers and producers that’s been developed over many years we will only select the best of seasonal seafood and go wherever it takes to find the best. Our fishmongers will ensure we consistently offer the finest, highest quality seafood that comes from the fabulous larder off the North East coastline as well as other ports around the UK.” 

Saltwater will be open daily from 11am -7pm, and there’ll be a Happy Oyster Hour (actually, the oysters won’t be happy, but I will) offering oysters and fizz. 

[Saltwater Fish Company is now open - see my review next Saturday (31st October 2015)]


NE1's restaurant week

In the first week of August most Newcastle restaurants should be packed out. It's bargain time again.

Twice a year since 2011 NE1’s fantastic Restaurant Week has been packing out our eateries just when they need it most: the dry mid-January period when payday seems so very far off and during the quiet early August season. 

Thanks to this imaginative American import (lots of American cities are doing the same), for one week only dozens of Central Newcastle restaurants will be offering menus for £10 or £15. You need to download a coupon and mention it when you book, but from August 3rd to 9th some of our best (and pricier) places will become the hunting ground for bargain-hunting grazers. It will give you the chance to try out new places and menus (I’ll be there – spot me if you can), or even take friends and family out for special treats. 

I sincerely hope you try some. Apart from anything, you’ll be supporting one of our most valuable assets: our vibrant restaurant industry. 

Of the 75 Newcastle restaurants offering 2- or 3-course set meals for £10 or £15 sixteen have high Secret Diner recommendations (3 stars or above). 

These are (with my ratings and links to reviews): 

Broad Chare (✪✪✪✪) 
The Bridge Tavern (✪✪✪✪)  
Sabatini's (✪✪✪✪) 
The Earl of Pitt Street (✪✪✪)
Tyneside Bar Cafe (✪✪✪✪)
Malmaison (Chez Mal) (✪✪✪✪)
Harry's Bar (✪✪✪)
Datbar (✪✪✪)
Vujon (✪✪✪✪)

But there are scores of other choices too, and this summer the regulars have been joined by a number of Asian restaurants including Little Asia, Thai Siam, Mantra Thai and Saigon Café. The Painted Elephant, tucked away in the city centre courtyard of Princess Square is the first vegan restaurant to join the NE1’s Restaurant Week throng. An unlicensed venue, the restaurant is a ‘bring your own’ and specialises in local seasonal produce. 

To see them all, and download a coupon (for your whole table), go to NE1’s Restaurant Week website - but book early.


Indian Prince arrives in Sunderland

Sunderland gets a new Indian restaurant this week with the opening (this Thursday) of Yuvraaj in Ashbrooke. 

The Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Barry Curran, will cut the ribbon at a VIP reception to celebrate the launch of the restaurant, which will create 17 new jobs. 

Owner Monwar Hussain from Sunderland has invested £160,000 in a complete refurbishment of the venue, which he hopes will turn over more than half million pounds in its first year of business. 

Monwar told us: “We’re in the best area of Sunderland as far as restaurants go, easily accessible from the city centre. 

“At Yuvraaj, which means Indian Prince, we’re going to give people a different class of authentic food, wonderful surroundings and the best level of service in the area. We're also planning to introduce cocktails and mock-tails which is something no other Indian restaurant in the area has ever done.” 

Yuvraaj promises traditional Indian cuisine with western fusion influences and is opening in the shell of another former Indian restaurant, Cafe Spice. Monwar says they can succeed where others have failed.


Holystone Lodge restaurant closes

The Holystone Lodge restaurant, which boasted some of the best Greek food in the North East (thanks to its chef Socrates Giazitzoglu), has closed.  This week a notice appeared on the property's website announcing the closure. 

In November I awarded this restaurant 3 stars for its cooking and 5 stars for service (it also served grills and other dishes, but the kleftiko was magnificent:  I described it as "melting, minty, lamb shoulder cooked forever in an Aga").  

We're waiting to find out where Socrates will be appearing next, but this will be a great loss for people in North Northumberland.

[Socrates has opened a new restaurant in Morpeth.  For my review, see here]


Chefs of tomorrow join Restaurant Week

Newcastle College’s Chefs’ Academy restaurant has been added to the list of restaurants taking part in this year’s NE1 Restaurant Week, which runs from 19th to 25th January. 

This is the first time the Chefs’ Academy has been involved, a measure of the important role Newcastle College is playing in training our young chefs and front of house staff for the rapidly growing number of venues across the North East. 

Many of the college’s students are recruited directly to work in our City's restaurants and hotels. 

Andy Brown head of department at Newcastle College said: “It’s an honour to be involved in NE1’s Restaurant Week and it will give our students the chance to step up and display their collective talents. We have worked hard to establish strong and workable industry links and I’m sure Restaurant Week customers will be impressed with the quality of the food and service delivery. It will be great exposure for the students and I’m sure it will be a great experience for diners.” 

For more details of this year's Restaurant Week, in which 80 Newcastle restaurants are taking part, see here.


Michelin-starred chef comes to Rockliffe Hall


The chances of the North East gaining another Michelin star have increased dramatically now that Richard Allen, who has held a Michelin star since 2011, is to take over the running of The Orangery restaurant at Rockliffe Hall.

He says he hopes to make The Orangery “the region’s flagship restaurant, offering a mix of informal yet informed dining.” He added, “I have so many ideas that I am really looking forward to sharing.The team in place is so enthusiastic.”

Formerly Executive Chef of the Michelin-starred Tassili restaurant at the 5* Grand Jersey Hotel, Richard Allen has worked with Martin Blunos, Cheong Liew and Michel Roux Junior.

As well as its Michelin star, Allen’s previous restaurant held three AA Rosettes for eight years, and he also has won two of the industry’s most prestigious awards, the Cateys Head Chef of the Year and the Craft Guild of Chefs Restaurant Chef of the Year, both in 2012.

As Executive Head Chef from next month, he will also work with the teams in the hotel’s two other restaurants, The Clubhouse and the Spa Brasserie.

Win a meal for two - write a review 

The Secret Diner 2014 North East Restaurant of the Year will be announced on December 20th - you can see the Finalists here.  

This year, as well as the usual range of awards, from Best Fine Dining to Best Gastropub, I’ll be awarding one restaurant a special Journal Readers’ Award. 

This was open to everyone (at least those who read the Journal or this blog) to nominate their favourite restaurant – hundreds of people have written in, and I'll reveal the winner here on Saturday 20th December.  

Also, I'll be revealing the winner of my review competition, where the prize is a dinner for two in a restaurant of my choice.  There have been some fascinating entries!



Another national award for Raby Hunt


The North East Restaurant of the Year will be given another accolade this weekend when it becomes the first restaurant in our region to be included in the Sunday Times 100 Top Restaurants list.

Published this Sunday (19th October), the newspaper will place The Raby Hunt in the top 30 restaurants in the UK, making it one of the highest new entries in its list, which is based on reviews from 6,000 readers of Hardens restaurant guide. 

Earlier this month The Raby Hunt, which is in Summerhouse near Darlington, retained its Michelin star for the third year and in September it was included in the Good Food Guide's Top 50 UK Restaurants.  It remains the North East's only Michelin-starred restaurant, an incredible achievement for its head chef, 33-year-old James Close, who has only been cooking for the last five years.  A feature on James will appear in The Journal's Taste supplement in the next few weeks.

For my two reviews of The Raby Hunt, see here.


Gastropub Wars - let battle commence! 


I was delighted that the 2015 Good Food Guide, published earlier this week, listed The Broad Chare, my 2013 Gastropub of the Year, as 20th best gastropub in Britain. 

Suddenly gastropubs are all the rage in the North East. Last year I added The Bridge Tavern on Newcastle's quayside to my ‘highly recommended’ list, and already this year I’ve added three more: The Staith House in North Shields, The Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland and The Northumberland Arms in Felton.  

Today I publish the latest - a 4-star review for The Blackbird in Ponteland, run by chef Glen David Robson (ex Caffè Vivo) and Danny Diver (sommelier of Jesmond Dene House).  

However, we shouldn't forget all our other gastropubs that have been around for years. They all have terrific local support, but they should also be destination venues. They include the rightly popular Rat Inn at Anick, the ever-reliable Feathers Inn at Hedley on the Hill near Stocksfield, and Tony Binks’s Barrasford Arms near Hexham, plus the Duke of Wellington Inn at Newton and Harbour Lights in South Shields. Not forgetting The Bay Horse in Hurworth-on-Tees (soon to be reviewed here).  For the full list, click here.

However, over the next couple of months the stakes in our gastropub wars are being raised to a new level. Shortly after Electric East opens its Earl of Pitt Street (formerly The Greyhound), there’ll be a big November unveiling for Jesmond Dene House’s new venture St Mary’s Inn, in Stannington Park near Morpeth. 

JDH’s head chef Michael Penulana has already devised the menus, and they’ve recruited Shaun Hurrell as head chef. This appointment could give us a clue to the cuisine: Shaun was formerly at London’s One Leicester Place and St John Hotel, both known for their offal, and was also head chef of Farr’s School of Dancing, which is a quirky gastrobar in Dalston. 

Whether the menu will run to devilled pigs’ skin with cod’s roe or ox heart with dandelion, remains to be seen. But I bet they’ll have very good pork scratchings.


4 North East eateries in Good Food Guide lists 

The 2015 Good Food Guide has included 4 North East establishments in its list of Top 50 British Restaurants and Top 50 British Pubs, announced today.  

James Close’s Raby Hunt in Summerhouse, near Darlington is listed as 47th best restaurant, while Terry Laybourne’s Broad Chare on Newcastle Quayside is 20th best pub, with The Bay Horse at Hurworth-on-Tees, County Durham, and The Black Swan at Oldstead, near Thirsk, being listed as 36th and 42nd best pubs respectively. 

Britain’s top restaurant, for the second year running, is Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cumbria.  There was also sweet revenge for Rogan's Manchester eaterie The French, which inexplicably failed to win a star in this year’s 2014 Michelin guide, but was awarded 14th place in the Good Food Guide's best restaurant category, placing it above a host of multiple-starred competitors including Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn at Bray (3 stars, but only 23rd place), Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester (3 stars, 25th place), Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche (2 stars, 15th place), and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (2 stars, 21st). 

For the full list, see the restaurants here and the pubs here. The Raby Hunt won my 2013 Best Restaurant in the North East Award and The Broad Chare is Best Gastropub (see 2013 Awards here).  Earlier this year, The Black Swan received 6 Secret Diner stars for its cooking - I'm surprised it's not in the Top 50 Restaurants list alongside The Raby Hunt.  There's a secret review of The Bay Horse at Hurworth on the way!


Another Masterchef finds a new platform

Hard on the heels of Masterchef runners-up Dave Coulson and John Calton, who now have their own North East eateries, Leon Dodd, who was second in the television culinary contest in 2008, is getting up steam in his own career by becoming head chef at the revamped Pullman Hotel in Sunderland. Up to the beginning of this year Dodd was at Calton's old haunt Harbour Lights.

The Pullman, named after the classic Pullman carriages parked up at the hotel, hopes that the appointment of Dodd as head chef will put the restaurant on the map as a destination eatery. Rosalind Leisure, which owns the hotel, is aiming to have both a casual and more formal dining experience at the hotel. 

The casual is already there: it’s a bar menu offering in the ‘Platform 5’ bar, featuring “real bar grub”. Leon reveals that he is now working on a second menu with the aim of offering a fine dining style experience focusing on seafood. 

“When I was in MasterChef I became known for my fish dishes and Michel Roux offered me a job working on the fish section at Le Gavroche,” he says. 

“Given the great location – right by the sea – and my passion, it makes sense for fish to strongly feature on the menu I’m currently creating.

"This is a great challenge and very exciting for me.” 

Mrs Diner and I like the sound of this. 

Meanwhile, Harbour Lights continues to flourish under chef Michael Dodds and landlord/chef Craig Shelmerdine.



The Blackbird goes gastro – and Diver comes too!

The talented head chef of award-winning Caffè Vivo, Glen David Robson, has left Terry Laybourne’s 21 Hospitality Group and taken over the kitchen at The Blackbird Inn in Ponteland. He is to be joined shortly by Danny Diver, the friendly and knowledgeable sommelier at Jesmond Dene House. Diver will be responsible for all the front of house, including the task of revamping the pub’s wine list. 

I hear this is just part of a much more ambitious scheme to upgrade other Newcastle venues, including Rosie's Bar in Gallowgate, where Robson will also be in charge of the food.

He is hoping to launch a limited menu at the Blackbird later this week, and expects to be fully operational when Diver arrives at the end of August. He told me: “It’s going to be a massive challenge, and a lot of fun.” 

I can’t wait to book my table.



Why It's Great To Dine Up North

[The Guardian caused outrage in the North East last month after a writer claimed the region was “on the brink” and could become “the UK’s Detroit”. The newspaper is clearly wrong - and there's no end of reasons to prove why. 10 Years ago The Journal published a supplement called ‘100 Reasons Why It’s Great Up North’, and it repeated the exercise in a special edition this week. The Secret Diner was asked to contribute a page on why he thinks it’s great up North. Here’s his article:] 

The old image of the North East as a culinary desert is fading quickly, even though it will probably take us a few decades to convince the cynics down South. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been slowly creating an oasis of good food – if you know where to find it. 

Our detractors will point out that at the moment we still only have one Michelin-starred restaurant in the entire region, The Raby Hunt, near Darlington (or maybe two, if you include The Black Swan near Thirsk). This isn’t a misrepresentation or a dastardly plot by the tyre people – there really haven’t been any other serious contenders for their judges’ specific criteria until recently. 

The Raby Hunt continues to excel, and may even be a contender for a second star, but soon I hope the inspectors will seriously consider Kenny Atkinson’s presentation and imagination at House of Tides, which ticks every foodie box, and also recognise the colourful and inventive plates Dave Coulson is presenting at Peace and Loaf in Jesmond, or Stephen Hardy’s good work at DH1 in Durham. They may even consider the fine dining at Haveli, which has brought this modest Darras Hall establishment in contention with some of the finest Indian restaurants in London. 

But, while the North East’s ‘fine dining’ is still in its infancy, there are many other place that eschew the label, but to which I’d happily escort any Guardian writer – I’d even offer to pay the bill, for North East restaurants cost far less than their inflated southern cousins. 

Take the Laybourne empire, for example. Terry may no longer offer the sort of Michelin-starry complexity that shone in his 21 Queen Street heyday, but he offers our region something much more valuable: high quality cooking from Durham’s Bistro 21 and Newcastle’s Café 21 that easily matches the overblown brasseries on the Brompton Road. 

Laybourne has also brought two places to the North East that would have London foodies fighting for tables: the Broad Chare gastropub, which has already inspired the excellent Bridge Tavern nearby, and the Venetian cicchetti bar-inspired Caffè Vivo which, on a good day, can match most Italian food in the capital. 

There are others, all new to the North East restaurant scene: John Calton’s The Staith House on the Fish Quay at North Shields brings first class cooking to simple local ingredients, and always offers very good value; you don’t have to travel very far to find exciting reinventions of traditional dishes from Simon Hix at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland; or you can find great fish in the most modest location at The Old Boat House in Amble

In Newcastle our best Asian food is still hard to beat: sure, Rasa may be a London chain, but our branch on the Quayside offers superb Keralan cooking that’s a must for anyone who pretends to enjoy Indian food; meanwhile Hei Hei offers hot, spicy layers of mainland Chinese tradition that I’d defy anyone to better in the tourist trap of London’s own Chinatown. 

What I've found remarkable is the speed of improvement. My Secret Diner verdicts have improved from an average 2 ½ stars out of 5 to 3 ½ in just 18 months, and we now have four 6-star restaurants. There are now 70 recommended restaurants on They’ve even started making good burgers on Tyneside (at Lane7), and we have probably the best pizza outside Brooklyn, in Cal’s Own, a modest café in Heaton. 

Sure, there are still the dinosaurs, places that serve dry salad without dressing, overcooked steaks, frozen chips and ingredients from warehouses rather than the fresh produce of our local farms, fields and fishermen. There are places that think a measure of quality is the size of the portion, or the number of items on the menu, and there are occasional lapses of service and old-fashioned overpriced mediocrity. 

But the good now outweigh the dross, and the region’s diners are welcoming the transformation. 

So spread the word – and enjoy our region’s great cooking.




Masterchefs cook up May Day banquet

Jesmond chef Dave Coulson is teaming up with the woman who beat him to the Masterchef: The Professionals 2010 title for a special fine dining banquet at his restaurant Peace & Loaf

Claire Lara, from Merseyside, who won the title over Dave and the other North East finalist John Calton (of The Staith House), is joining Dave to cook a selection of the dishes they created during their time on the television show.  Since winning Masterchef, Claire has been head chef at The RiverHill Hotel and Restaurant in Birkenhead, Wirral. 

The one-off event, which marks the 6-month anniversary of Peace & Loaf, is on Thursday 1st May and costs £65 per head, with an 8-course set tasting menu. Bookings are now being taken on 0191 281 5222, with a £10 deposit. Peace & Loaf already has 5 Secret Diner stars – see the review here. The banquet's menu will be announced on the weekend of 19th April.


New head chef at Seaham Hall 

Simon Bolsover has been appointed Head Chef of 5-star Seaham Hall. 

He joins the hotel from Great Fosters, in Egham, Surrey, where he was Executive Chef for 5 years, raising its Oak Room restaurant to 3 AA-rosette status before, in 2013, it became the more relaxed Estate Grill, which currently has 2 rosettes. 

Before that Bolsover was head chef for 15 years at 3-rosette Linthwaite House on Windermere. 

As head chef, he will be responsible for both of Seaham Hall's restaurants: the hotel’s recently launched Byron’s Bar and Grill, and its Ozone restaurant within the Serenity Spa.  It's unclear whether how Bolsover's appointment will affect the hotel's relationship with Martin Blunos, who is culinary director.  Byron's Bar and Grill currently has 3 Secret Diner stars.

“Seaham Hall has a vast amount of potential,” said Simon, "and I am looking forward to developing that potential, sourcing the finest regional ingredients and building on its already excellent reputation.” 

“We are delighted to welcome Simon to Seaham Hall, said general manager Ross Grieve. “Not only does he bring a wealth of experience but his creativity and skill will make him a crucial part of the team.” 


Rare burgers back on the menu

In a legal ruling that could have implications for all restaurants in the UK, a landmark legal victory by a chain of London wine bars has brought rare burgers back onto menus across the country. 

Last month, after two years of legal wrangling with Westminster City Council, Davy’s Wine Bars and Restaurants won the right to serve its burgers rare. 

Davy’s had appealed against a hygiene improvement notice in 2011, which had cited the restaurant’s burger preparation, claiming that: 

1. there were inadequate measures in place to control risk related to pathogenic microorganisms and their toxins in burgers served medium rare or rare; and 
2. there were inadequate documented procedures in relation to the safe preparation and cooking of burgers. 

Davy’s argued that the Food Standards Agency and Westminster City Council had failed to acknowledge the role played by provenance, quality and transparency in sourcing policies. 

They sourced their mince from an award-winning and royal warrant-holding butcher, Donald Russell in Scotland, which prepares its mince freshly each morning from offcuts of prime aged beef. As this is the first product prepared each day, the equipment is bound to be clean, and the mince is then vacuum packed and chilled for delivery to Davy’s, where it is stored in its original packaging until required. 

Davy’s also prepare their patties first thing each day, wrapping them in cling film and storing them in the fridge until needed. 

Westminster Council had argued that rare burgers should only be prepared using a “sear and shave” method, where a cut of beef is seared to a high temperature, then the outer surface of the meat is shaved off and the central part minced for the burger. 

The Judge dismissed this method as not “reasonable or necessarily safe in itself”. 

Davy’s won their appeal against the ban in June last year, and the final part of the health improvement notice collapsed on December 17th after the council offered no evidence in court. Costs were awarded to the restaurant. 

In her judgment, District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe said “There is a balance to be struck between ensuring the safety of the public and allowing them the freedom of choice that they would wish and have a right to expect.” 

At last, sanity has prevailed over a ruling that was threatening to make Britain the laughing stock of the culinary world. Burger lovers across the UK should be grateful to Judge Roscoe for allowing reason, and consumer choice, to prevail. 

I expect all good restaurants (and butchers) in our own region to take note. 

[With thanks to @ArtisanFoodLaw and The Grocer]


2013 Secret Diner Awards - WINNERS Announced


The winners of the 2013 Secret Diner Awards are announced in a special double-page spread in today's The Journal and in the 2013 Awards section of this website.

For more details, see here.


Jesmond Dene House to open gastropub


Newcastle's leading hotel Jesmond Dene House is creating a new gastropub near Morpeth.  

St Mary's Inn will be housed in the administration building of the former St Mary's Hospital, at the centre of the new Stannington Park development.  It is expected to open its doors next September.  

Although plans for the pub are still being finalised, and construction does not formally start until January 1st, I've learned that it is likely to have 4 bedrooms, and that the menus will be created and overseen by Jesmond Dene's Head Chef Michael Penaluna.

Jesmond Dene's Nicky Sherman told me, "It will not be a restaurant or a mini-Jesmond Dene House, but a gastropub serving simple, quality food at reasonable prices.  We will also be serving afternoon tea." 

Jesmond Dene also has an orchard and fruit and vegetable garden at Stannington which will be developed to supply both the pub and the hotel's restaurant, which I recently awarded 6 stars for its new tasting menu.

Stannington Park is a new development by Bellway Homes of 2,3,4 and 5 bedroom houses and apartments.  Set on a 136 acre site of open spaces, gardens and woodland, it's effectively a new community set within open countryside, with the new "landmark gastropub" at its centre.

I've already booked my table. 


Michelin inspectors snub North East restaurants


Once again, the world’s most famous food guide has bypassed the North East’s restaurants, with just one star awarded by the 2014 Michelin Guide across the entire regionIn the latest edition, which was published yesterday, only The Raby Hunt, in Summerhouse, near Darlington, has retained the star it was awarded last year. By comparison, London’s restaurants now have 78 between them, and Edinburgh has 5. Even Cumbria has 4 stars, including the 2-star L’Enclume in Cartmel. 

So why does the North East lag behind the rest of Britain in culinary excellence? 

In fact, over the past year the standard of cooking in our region has actually risen, with a growing number of restaurants focusing on fresh, local ingredients. However most of our chefs, and possibly their customers, don’t aspire to Michelin’s exacting standards of complexity and presentation. 

Multiple courses of “tasting” plates, with exquisitely beautiful but time-consuming preparations, are hard to find north of Yorkshire. 

There are exceptions. Jesmond Dene House’s tasting menu, which I awarded 6 Secret Diner stars a few months ago, could easily match the offerings from many starred establishments in this year’s guide. However, chef Michael Penaluna is also running a busy kitchen that has to supply weddings, bar snacks and room service 7 days a week, whereas almost all the establishments listed in the Michelin Guide focus on a single restaurant. 

If you are in Newcastle, and you want to sample Michelin-standard food, give Jesmond Dene a try, or take a short train ride to James Close’s fabulous Raby Hunt. 

They’ll soon have competition: later this year, former Michelin-starred Kenny Atkinson will be opening a new restaurant on Newcastle’s Quayside called The House of Tides

As the standard rises, I confidently expect the region’s eateries to have rather more success in the 2015 Michelin Guide. 



  1. Socrates cafe bistro opening in Morpeth on 1 May in former Pepperpot

  2. Is this the same Socrates who was the chef at Holystone Lodge? In which case I hope he has the moussaka and the kleftiko on!