Oddly, perhaps, restaurant reviewers rarely mention their mood when assessing a meal. Mood though may be pertinent here since DH1, the Durham restaurant under consideration, only opens in the evening. In consequence, my wife Alison and I spent the afternoon getting increasingly soggy as the soft, refreshing rain fell in abundance on the city of prince-bishops. After admiring the soaring Norman cathedral, we successively sought sanctuary in Bill's restaurant, the Flat White coffee shop (commendable orange and marmalade cake) and the Market Tavern. By 6pm, we were replete inside and super-saturated outside – so the cards were stacked against DH1.
Moreover, we had some trouble finding it after being dropped off by taxi. Having missed the sign in the rain, we roused the manager of a grand B&B, who directed us to the back lawn. Occupying a large garden-basement, the dining room of DH1 proved to be a curious combination of past (Victorian sash windows) and future (a spherical purple chandelier and a screen of artificial flames flickering high on the wall). It was as if the room had fallen into a time machine. I was not transported by my pre-dinner cocktail. In "a slight twist on a classic", the DH1 negroni substitutes Aperol for Campari. It is a twist that should have been left unturned: negroni needs Campari.
Fortunately, this was the solitary false step of the meal. Sogginess, satiation and ennui were banished by the first nibble of the amuse-gueules. Lincolnshire Poacher cheddar on walnut tart was as tasty as it was evanescent. I could have eaten approximately 100. My wife declared a chilled confection of kipper and apple on beetroot tart to be "a most interesting melting experience". The basket of homemade breads, which included subtly tinged black pudding bread, also boded well.
Our starters proper confirmed the flair of 29-year-old chef-patron Stephen Hardy. My beef tartare took the form of a generous mound of cubed sirloin ("hung for at least 50 days") punctuated with smoked ox tongue and topped by a large oyster, deep-fried in panko crumbs. Matching this surf'n'turf, the traditional tartare enhancements of capers and shallots were augmented by wakame seaweed. Equally generous in scale, my wife's starter of dill-infused smoked trout was elevated by a sprinkling of salmon eggs and avocado creamed with "sea vegetables" (mainly samphire). After tasting a generously donated forkful, the potent flavours tingled on my tongue for minutes afterwards.
The arrival of my main course of "spring lamb cooked with hay, various alliums and anchovies" involved a coup de théâtre performed by Hardy's wife, Helen, who runs front of house. She opened a small wooden box, which released a genie-like puff of hay smoke that had been flavouring a neat piece of rump. This joined a plate bearing a small brick of anchovy-infused lamb shoulder, deep-fried sweetbreads, caramelised quarter shallots and a matchbox-sized piece of potato dauphinoise, its layers slender as mille-feuille. Alison's "tasting of middle white pork" consisted of braised loin and crisp belly with three varieties of beetroot, creamed green alliums, kale crisps, apple matchsticks, cubes of smoked eel and a small bowl of mash in which potato just conquered butter.
Though nothing fancy, this was cooking of extraordinary panache and proficiency. For once, the vegetarian menu looked equally tempting with dishes like "hot and cold pea soup with wasabi and lovage". (How? Two bowls.) It's a long time since I had a meal that was as good – and never at this price. £32 two-course set menu of such quality is a bargain that merits a long detour (though I imagine that the French speakers at the next table and the Japanese at the table beyond were linked to Durham University). Of course, few diners will manage to stick to just two courses. "At the end of term, a table of 10 students spent £90 each," Hardy told me when I called the restaurant a few days later. "One of them paid the whole £900 on his card. I couldn't do that."
It is certainly worth spending another £8 on dessert. Alison's choice of "sour cherries with cardamom and yoghurt" consisted of faux cherries, made of sorbet and mousse, flanking a more persuasive though unfeasibly gigantic fruit that was actually yoghurt enrobed in gleaming red jelly. My cheese course comprised five wedges of a size and interest – particularly a lemon-tinged goat's cheese from Lewes called Golden Cross – that would put most restaurants to shame.
I loved the profound, punchy flavours, the imaginative pairing of fish and meat, and the essential simplicity of the cooking. Hardy says, "I like customers to eat a plate of food and not have to think too hard about how it was done." The people of Durham are blessed. µ
DH1. The Avenue, Durham DH1 (0191 384 6655). Around £40 a head, before wine and service