Gourmet Spot, The Avenue, Durham
A spot of bother
At what stage did I realise that going to Gourmet Spot was a bad idea? Was it when the taxi left Durham's spectacular city centre to pull up outside the kind of suburban Gothic hotel the Addams Family would stay in if they retrained as travelling salesmen?
Was it when we saw the sign cheekily announcing that we'd arrived at "The G-Spot"? Or when we picked our way round to a hidden side entrance (in keeping with its nickname, the G-Spot is elusive) and plunged into a tiny black and red bar area that had the look of a granny flat hastily converted into an Eighties bachelor pad? Or when we hovered in that empty bar for several minutes, watching the flickering image of a fireplace on a flat screen TV, until a flustered young waiter emerged from the kitchen, then proceeded to ignore us?
No, at that stage, we still had hopes. After all, here on the walls were the framed certificates proclaiming Gourmet Spot as the originator of "Britain's Best Dessert" as decreed by Restaurant magazine. Publicity about that award, for a breakfast-theme fantasy featuring Earl Grey tea frozen with liquid nitrogen, and served with brown toast and marmalade purée – tipped me off to the curious fact that there was a Durham restaurant experimenting with molecular gastronomy.
When I was a student in the city, dining out didn't usually get more elaborate than a cheese toastie. Now a disciple of Ferran Adria was serving "deconstructed textures of Bloody Mary" and "morphology of lamb" and "warm yoghurt noodles with garlic chips and genetic basil". Surely worth making a 500-mile round trip for such an unlikely collision of the past and the future?
There was nothing futuristic about the food-spattered menu we were handed. No dishes containing grass, or rust. Just three starters, three mains, described with all the panache of a student shopping list. "Haddock, parsley, egg yolk, curry" – what, no Resolve? Confusingly, the menu promises most ingredients are sourced from within a 30-mile radius, while also offering a tasting menu labelled "Taste of the Marches". Yes, that's the Welsh Marches; not strictly within 30 miles of Durham, unless things have changed radically since I left town.
Gradually, it became apparent that the award-winning Adria disciple had packed his Pacojet and left old Durham Town, a fact Gourmet Spot's website doesn't mention. The sweet young waiter was the only member of staff we glimpsed all evening. As he put down our drinks he managed to stab himself in the wrist with a cocktail stick. Carefully, he plucked it out and replaced it with the rest. "Maybe I won't have an olive after all," whispered my friend Cathy. Her observation that our thin Spice Route Chenin Blanc from South Africa could have been colder was met with a cheerful "yeah, quite a few people have mentioned that, there must be something wrong with the fridge".
The 24-seat dining room, lit by a giant chandelier, would have been the height of grooviness when I was at university. The only other diners, a pair of students with visiting father, looked as bemused as we felt at finding themselves in this budget recreation of a Bond villain's lair.
Decent home-made bread, and an amuse of parsnip velouté with curried oil lulled us into a false sense of security. But the dishes that followed were Morse code cooking – all dots and dashes, occasionally conveying flashes of interest, but mainly whizzing past before you could catch the message. My notes are about as communicative as the menu: "breast of pigeon – overcooked – with snail (why?) – sliced beetroot – raw – cubes – quince??" is a typical entry.
Cathy's sea bass and scallop starter, with (I think) a watercress emulsion, raw slivers of baby carrot and (possibly) a cardamom purée, cost £12, and was gone in about six mouthfuls. "There's no story going on," as Cathy, an English graduate, pointed out. "It's just characters, no plot." Main courses showed flair in the case of venison, cooked rare with chocolate sauce, parsley root and baby sprouts. But the dish costs £23; more than most London restaurants charge. A slightly tired fillet of brill, partnered with oxtail, raised questions about the economies of sourcing ingredients when running an operation on this scale.
Our meal limped to a dispiriting end with variations on the theme of caramel and banana (£8.75), and petit fours recalling the chocolates that get left in the box on Christmas Day. We later learnt that when the original chef moved on, he took his prize-winning dessert with him. His replacement, Marc Hardiman, came from Fishmore Hall in Ludlow, which explains the Taste of the Marches menu. He's probably a decent enough chef, but saddled with the duty of creating something sensational, he is trying much too hard.
The G-Spot may have been set up as a sexy place for students with money to burn; now it feels like a passion project that has woken up the next morning, thinking "What have I done?" As I recall, students have enough of that in their lives already without experiencing it when they go out for dinner.
Gourmet Spot, The Avenue, Durham (0191-384 6655)
About £60 a head including wine and service
"Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary – all of it goes to the restaurant staff. All tips go to the staff"
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