The guides love it. The critics love it. But what makes 21 Queen Street remarkable is that the public loves it at a time when many similarly swanky restaurants are sitting near empty.
Queen Street's old-town setting helps. It lies just off the quayside and rises majestically up the steep banks of the Tyne. Lunch trade floods in from the law offices and courtrooms; the evening crowd includes cultivated types talking about the arts, romantic couples and revellers.
While Susan Laybourne and her staff nurture the mood in the dining room, behind the swing door Mr Laybourne, a rather self- effacing man, cooks bold food. Basically it is, as the French say, 'correct'. Sometimes it is more correct than others. A mussel soup, advertised as having 'dill pesto', was excellent, but the dill was imperceptible. I inquired.
The head waiter came out with a fresh bowl and apologised. A finishing touch had been forgotten. I wouldn't be charged. I ate it and asked to be charged. It was superb. Chock-a-block with shellfish, the liquor was creamy and contained so much saffron that its dusty fragrance registered immediately. Floating on top, perfect leaves of baby spinach cut the richness, and that elusive blob of dill pesto introduced a higher, clean note as it swilled into the soup.
A main course of turbot was perfectly cooked, and irreverently served with a clump of noodles and a suave whole-grain mustard sauce. The perfect accompaniment was provided by an unusual German house white, St Johanner Abtey Cabernet 1991, fresh and sweet but balanced by a terrific acidic bite.
MR LAYBOURNE'S success has helped to attract more talent to the quayside, such as Michael Carr, a veteran of Le Caprice and, briefly, the Quality Chop House in London. The influence of both on Mr Carr's young Newcastle restaurant, Courtney's, is vivid in dishes such as salmon fishcakes with spinach and sorrel sauce.
The Chop House and Courtney's are both small, but here the similarity ends. The former crams its guests on to wooden settles, with good service but no wasted ceremony. The latter gives them linen and sweeps up bread crumbs between courses.
This is tender attention, but slightly more of it should be paid to other important details. I was served an oxidised Australian shiraz as house wine; an odour of some sort of disinfectant lingered in the dining room; and the coffee was not good, nor would it get better sitting on a hot plate.
Enough nitpicking: the overall feeling of Courtney's is soothing. Ella Fitzgerald sang Gershwin, and service was warmly solicitous, thanks to Mr Carr's partner and wife, Kerensa Courtney.
Blackboard specials included exotic fish. A 'blackened' piece of meaty yellow fin tuna came with a crust of spices, including pepper, chillies, paprika, coriander and cumin. It was hot, but very good. As an accompaniment, there was something more akin to jam: a slick of mango sauce. This was good again, but too sweet on its own. A cooling tomato salsa, or even a raita, would have hit the mark.
Mr Carr picked up the habit of blackening things when he cooked in the United States. But why the exotic fish? Why carry fish to Newcastle at all? Mr Carr explains that, first, he likes fish such as mahi mahi; second, they sell; and third, they make a good resource when the weather is bad and the catches landed at North Shields are low.
By way of vegetables, the chips are great. Others include perfectly cooked broccoli florets and mangetouts. And Courtney's is just the spot for a superb pear and Armagnac syllabub, served with delicious shortbread. The shortbread they buy from a lady in Rochester, Northumberland, who wins prizes for it at local fetes.
Horton Grange is a contradiction in terms: a 'country house hotel' within Newcastle's city limits. Granted, it is not on the quayside, but is situated past a place called Wide Open, between Ponteland and Seaton Burn.
The building, which was originally a farmhouse, was converted 3 1/2 years ago. Most importantly, however, Horton Grange is near the airport, and offers the visitor a relatively characterful alternative to the chain hotels.
A large lounge is crammed with sofas, and decorated in enough shades of green for a forest floor. Here, by a gas fire, amuse-gueules are served: perhaps salmon mousse in a pastry shell, marinated French beans on bread, and a dinky samosa. Mine were good.
Next door in the dining room, classical music spills from the kitchen. It accompanies cooking that is not 'correct', at least not yet, but it is certainly promising. The menu is written in rather florid language for the food it describes.
'Fresh white crab bound in a lime mayonnaise with ribbons of lettuce and a cucumber and tomato salad' was little more than a decent crab salad. Shredded iceberg or cos heart was lousy (why not the lovely cos greens?). The cucumber had been 'turned' ('carved' to laymen) but also tasted as if it had been cleverly marinated, and was accompanied by a dice of under-ripe tomato.
In an awkward stab at formality, this place is serving up a palate- cleansing course. A chicken consomme was salty and over-reduced. To follow, 'saute of pheasant set on a chestnut risotto with poached pear and a ginger wine sauce' amounted to tough- ish meat in a cloyingly sweet sauce.
Yet the vegetables, or 'panache of fresh market vegetables and potatoes', spoke of care and balance: there was a spicy little ratatouille of young courgettes and fresh tomato sauce, lightly cooked; plain carrots and cauliflower; and a neat little pile of gratineed potatoes.
For dessert, haute cuisine met nursery food. The sweet fruit of the 'hot banana and whisky souffle served with a warm butterscotch sauce' sat at the bottom, all sweet and mushy. The body rose nicely enough to swallow a lava flow of delicious warm butterscotch from a sauce boat.
Lastly, not only was the cafetiere coffee some of the best in Newcastle, but Horton Grange presents a lovely house red: Ochoa Navarra. Somebody, or lots of bodies, care.
NORTHUMBRIANS, generally a proud lot, may cringe at my final two suggestions. The first is to venture into Co Durham and the beautiful countryside around Barnard Castle. Traditionally the pub food has been pretty awful. A proud exception is the Rose and Crown at Romaldkirk.
Here, in a carpeted dining room, four-course set meals are served. We opted for a light meal in a tiny bar containing a blazing fire and a cluster of gossiping locals. Lamb soup tasted wonderfully of lamb (an obvious, but elusive effect), and was studded with barley, meat, carrots and so on. Duck confit was from lean, gamey bird, the fat well rendered. Never mind that it was served with over- cooked, perfectly awful rice.
Fried scampi will come with a light batter and decent tartar sauce. The steak and mushroom pie has a good, home-made pastry, and the stew tastes Old Peculiar beery.
It is no coincidence that after Saturday dinner at 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, I found the staff having Sunday lunch at McCoy's Restaurant at the Tontine, just over the border in North Yorkshire. Many praises have been sung to this old coaching inn just off the A19, run by the three McCoy brothers. But more are deserved: it is dazzling.
The bistro downstairs buzzes. Last Sunday, dishes included mussels in a liquor that had an aniseed-like kick (probably from Pernod), crab cakes with coriander sauce, fish soup with garlic mayonnaise and croutons, a dry game pie, mostly of venison, good sausage and black pudding with excellent apple sauce, and a garlicky potato galette spiked with what tasted like sage.
After a six-month closure for refurbishment, the dining room upstairs reopened last week. The parasols are gone, but the fittings remain eccentric and seductive. If you want something romantic, comfortable and slightly silly - preferably all three - it is there. The McCoys are born hosts. They rouse us to forget our cares and enjoy the moment.
21 Queen Street, Newcastle upon Tyne (091-222 0755). Children welcome, special portions. Vegetarian meals. Lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat. Three-course lunch with wine, coffee, service and VAT from about pounds 25; dinner from about pounds 35. Credit cards.
Courtney's, 5-7 The Side, Dean Street, Newcastle upon Tyne (091-232 5537). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome; special portions. About pounds 25 for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon- Sat. Amex, Access, Visa.
Horton Grange, Seaton Burn, Newcastle upon Tyne (0661- 860686). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome, special portions. No smoking in dining room. Wheelchair access. Set three-course dinner, pounds 29.90. Open to non-residents, dinner Mon-Sat. Credit cards, not Amex.
Rose & Crown, Romaldkirk, Teesdale, Co Durham (0833-50213). Children welcome; special portions. Wheelchair access, also wc. Bar meals, lunch (12pm- 1.30pm) and dinner (6.30- 9.30pm) daily. Bar meals pounds 10- pounds 15. Four-course set dinners in restaurant, pounds 22. Access, Visa.
McCoy's Restaurant at the Tontine, Staddlebridge, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire (060982 671). Bistro open lunch and dinner daily. pounds 20- pounds 30 per person for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Restaurant set-price three-course meal, pounds 29. Major credit cards.
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