RECENTLY I received a letter from a reader from Hexham asking, a little indignantly I thought, when was the last time we reviewed a restaurant outside London and could we be persuaded to venture north? Rather than feeling the usual shameful mix of guilt and irritation, I rang him. 'Is there anywhere round you that you would recommend?' I asked cheerfully. 'Oh no, there's nowhere round here.'
A week or so later he thought better of his blanket condemnation of the culinary offerings of the North-east of England and wrote again, this time recommending the Stile in the former mining town of Willington, County Durham. I rang back asking whether he would like to join me for dinner there: my eagerness to please on this one knew no bounds (and I wasn't absolutely sure my expenses would run to taking a friend from London).
The Stile is, as my correspondent described it, welcoming and friendly. The proprietor, Michael Boustred, greeted us warmly and asked after my companion's wife and new baby. (He is a doctor and used to be a partner in the town practice.) Mr Boustred seemed to know most of the other people in his restaurant that night. Of course, he didn't know me, although I suspect the good doctor may have alerted him to my intentions in advance because this is not the sort of place where a chap has dinner with a woman who is not his wife.
Such a warning would also explain his slightly self-conscious performance as he took our order. As a starter I chose Hot Basque Crab. 'Oh yes, all red satin and black lace,' he said. Strange pictures of dressed crab, dressed as a flamenco dancer, flitted through my mind. 'I was in women's underwear for 14 years before I got into this.' Oh I see, basque. Was this a joke too? I laughed nervously.
The Stile is the kind of restaurant you find in every small town in France but rarely here. It is run by a couple, one of whom cooks while the other looks after the cellar and customers. It serves good clean food at very reasonable prices, and interesting wines. And like its French counterparts, it offers fixed-price menus (from pounds 14.95 including half a litre of house wine for two) which change regularly. This is no coincidence. Les patrons, Michael Boustred and Jenny James, are practising Francophiles.
Our visit was on the first day of business after a month-long closure while they were in the Lot, Bordeaux and the Dordogne, buying wines and sampling the local fare. When, in order to get copies of the menu, I revealed that I was reviewing the restaurant, Michael produced his holiday notebook. It contained loving descriptions of the meals they had eaten, along with rough sketches of how some of the dishes were presented -'So that we can copy them,' he confessed. They go on one of these fact-finding trips to France at least once a year.
Along with the dishes of French provenance, Jenny's menus contain the cross-cultural influences that no self-respecting chef ignores. For example, the menu of the day included chicken satay with peanut sauce, halibut with ginger, spring onions and soy sauce, and spiced aubergine and couscous. And her weekly theme menus are sometimes British or Italian.
Our choice from the a la carte was fairly conservative. We started with the Basque crab and a leek and cheese crepe, both of which were OK but nothing special. Our main courses, however, were very good. I had cassoulet which was creamy and very tasty. My companion's filet of venison with red wine sauce, which came with a walnut-whip of tagliatelli, was also delicious. The vegetables - new potatoes, pureed swede, roast parsnips with sesame seeds, and mangetout - were wonderfully fresh.
For pudding my companion had ginger and treacle sponge with custard, which he said was all a pudding should be with the added bonus of chewy bits of stem ginger. I had cheese, hoping to sample the local Tynedale or Catherstone, but the choice was pretty ordinary - perhaps because they'd only just got back from holiday.
Michael recommended a Saumur Champigny 1991 from the Domaine des Troglodytes in the Loire valley at pounds 11.95. This wine, from a region not much associated with reds, is made with Cabernet Franc and is sharper and lighter than a Bordeaux with a pleasing grassy flavour. Altogether the meal came to pounds 54, excluding tip but including two coffees.
The venison, we later learned, was from a supplier in the village whose two uncles are local gamekeepers. Talk of gamekeepers, and my thoughts go straight to The Archers. Here, in this slightly spartan L-shaped room, with polished wooden floors and eight tables, we had practically the whole cast: my companion, the doctor, who knew the game supplier as one of his former patients; Nelson Gabriel, who ran the place; the solicitor and his friends in the corner; a lively young foursome, one of whom even looked like the actor who plays David Archer; and the two prosperous looking couples in their early sixties from Chester-le-Street, which from the way Michael described it is a bit posher than round here; no Jo Grundy, but I bet he's brought here on his birthday. 'The Xs aren't here tonight,' said Michael, 'because they've gone to London.'
Sad that my only image of a community comes from a tired radio soap opera. Tony Blair probably has a better idea: his constituency is just across the River Wear.
Michael explained that the Stile wasn't the kind of place that attracted much passing trade. Most of his customers come from Durham, nine miles away to the east. 'We also get a few from Newcastle - because at least no one steals their cars when they're parked here.'
If there's an 'us' there must be a 'them' - and it would seem in this case that 'they' ram-raid with other people's cars in Newcastle. However, from the top of Durham Cathedral the following morning I couldn't help noticing tyre tracks describing a sharp 30-degree angle on Palace Green, the patch of otherwise immaculate grass below. A spot of exuberance perhaps?
(Any axe-murderer reading this should note that there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that this paper has re-invented the successful sales promotion from the Thirties: I will not be parading in seaside towns up and down the land with a copy of the IoS under my arm waiting for readers to claim their free meal. And letters may be redirected to Lobby Lud.)Reuse content