It can be found in the heart of Newcastle, down a narrow close, past a Hare Krishna centre, overlooking a small courtyard. The barn reference makes sense when you see the place: originally, it must have been one. The previous tenants apparently went bust. Hence Barn Again. As for bistro, I reckon the new owners simply thought it sounded good. Bistro, a Franco-Russian word, translates as 'quick'; during my visit, Barn Again was dreamily laid-back.
So much for etymology. Barn Again is a friendly, homely restaurant. Deanna Lagun, one of the owners, was playing in reception with her nine-month-old baby when we arrived for Saturday lunch. Her husband, Mark, a congenial person with long black hair, a bright mustard-yellow shirt and a rich, blustery accent, was acting as host.
Last Saturday, Mr Lagun was a bit agitated. Someone had come to take pictures for the Independent; it was his birthday, and he half-suspected a prank. ('Yer takin' the piss, man]' he had exclaimed to the Irish woman who rang from our picture desk.) We kept quiet as he wondered aloud who in the earth had tipped off a newspaper. However, it was instantly clear why the lady from Gosforth had written.
Barn Again was closer to empty than full, but this can and should change. Not least among its charms is a large, sunny dining- room and the infectious Northumbrian cheer of Mr Lagun. We can help to fill the place up, but the Laguns have to buckle down, too. For example, while their baby is bonny indeed, restaurateurs should be ga- ga-goo-gooing at the little tots of customers, not the other way around. Stepping into a family scene in a toy-strewn reception can leave the customer feeling subtly like an intruder. This is bad for business.
The restaurant itself has large wooden tables and spaces them generously. The arrangement, which allows plenty of elbow- room now, could eventually cramp essential turnover. And given the idealism and effort that goes into the cooking, those seats should soon be in demand.
According to Barn Again's business card, its two chefs, Phil Reed and Andy Grant, have trained at Kensington Place, the most trend-setting of London restaurants. They appear to have come away enamoured of eclectic, stylishly presented food. Their challenge, however, is to avoid hapless imitation and to start to develop their own styles.
Just now, their food shows a faltering thoughtfulness. Even top chefs in London are listing different tempuras (battered and fried vegetables and seafood) as side- dishes. This is folly because they go greasy and lank on salad plates as diners tuck into their main courses. The cooks at Barn Again, by contrast, have the wit to offer prawn tempura as a starter, where it commands full and instant attention. The 'prawn' I pinched from a friend's plate tasted more like a slice of courgette, and was just a shade greasy, but basically fine. It was accompanied, curiously, by capsicum salsa. Thai-style dipping sauce, which would have suited the tempura, was served instead with beef curry.
This sort of cooking is less a case of delicate eclecticism than pure smash and grab. It is intent on delivering big flavours, especially with bruschetta (basically toast in Italian fancy dress). Toppings can be as simple as olive oil, salt and a rubbing of garlic. Smart restaurants tend to run to all sorts of gear, including foie gras. Barn Again contents itself with grilled courgettes, roast bell peppers and tapenade.
The best starter was, to my mind, a simple carrot and dill soup.
An adventurous instinct cropped up again in the main courses. Only one dish looked far better than it tasted, though it may yet serve as a hat at Ascot. Strangely flaccid and watery sea bass was served on spinach, and topped with segments of what appeared to be peeled orange and grapefruit. This was encircled by a ring of bright yellow new potatoes which had been cooked with saffron - not enough to impart its dusky flavour and aroma, just enough to dye the spuds, which also desperately needed salt.
To judge by this, what these promising young chefs must ask themselves about every dish they concoct is what - if anything - the respective ingredients do for each other. In the case of those in the bass dish, the answer is: no favours.
Simpler and better, lamb's liver was served with rashers of salty bacon. The liver appeared to have been sliced a mite thinly and recklessly, and was somewhat overcooked, but tasted earthy and good. Pepper steak was partnered, curiously, with braised red cabbage. Chips were excellent. I asked for ketchup with them, which was cheerfully produced.
Puddings - a chocolate truffle cake, creme brulee and lemon tart - were good. Top marks to the loose, luscious setting of the lemon tart and its fresh citric zing; half marks for the pastry.
As wine, Mr Lagun recommended Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc. It is good, fresh stuff and affordably priced at pounds 9.50. Choice of lager is between draught Heineken and bottled Holsten Pils. The Heineken was colder. Bitter is Wards from Sheffield. Mr Lagun plans to expand the beer range as and when he can afford to. I get the feeling that, once locals cotton on to this place, they will wait for the judicious laying in of goodies.
During our lunchtime, taped music washed over guests in a whimsical progression, from West Side Story to what sounded like Appalachian barn dance fiddling.
Barn Again Bistro, 21a Leazes Park Road, Newcastle upon Tyne (091-230 3338). Vegetarian dishes available. Approximately pounds 20 per person for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT; there are 20 per cent discounts at lunchtime. Open Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. Access, Visa.
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