Reviews and other bits & pieces
May 10, 2016 – Secret Diner enjoys a ‘stellar feast’ at The Garden House Inn in Durham
When Terry Laybourne’s Bistro 21 suddenly closed last year, Durham mourned the loss of one of its few good restaurants. Of all the places in the Laybourne empire, this was probably my favourite, with well-prepared bistro cooking in an attractive, calm atmosphere; in 2014 it won my Bistro/Brasserie of the Year award. In February I tried to fill the gap on my Durham listings page by reviewing Finbarr’s, whose food I also enjoyed. A few short weeks later, it also shut down without notice.
What is going on in Durham? To misquote Oscar Wilde: to lose one good restaurant may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.
It left a city in crisis, with only one serious eatery left: DH1, the excellent but tiny fine dining place. Or so I thought.
Because, without fanfare, and just in the nick of time, the head chef behind Bistro 21’s success, Ruari MacKay, is cooking in Durham again. It may only be a modest-looking pub, but the kitchen of The Garden House Inn is humming, and turning out dishes of culinary gold.
It so happened that the closure of Bistro 21 coincided neatly with the desire of the pub’s owner, Adrian Grieves, to improve his food offering. He couldn’t have found a better partner to man the kitchen. MacKay is a talented cook, with a light touch, classic technique and a sense of humour. And he brought with him two of his brigade’s most talented chefs to help him. As a result, the place is heaving.
It’s a lump of a building, 10 minutes’ hike up the hill from the train station. Whilst a few standard ales and lagers are on offer, most people appeared to be there for the food. They sat in all the various nooks and crannies of this cosily candlelit space, a younger crowd than Bistro 21’s, and seemingly very happy with what was on their plates. Rightly so.
The menu is beyond tempting: there’s a dish of monkfish and nduja, the chilli-spiked sausage of Calabria. Squid is offered not in dull “tempura” format, but partnered by blood orange, mint and chilli. Wild garlic, of which the Durham riverside fairly reeks at this time of year, made a couple of appearances, and who could resist a dish simply entitled “lobster sandwich” (spoiler alert: not me). Sure, it’s still a pub, so you can get fish & chips or a burger if you really want to, but why on earth would you when there’s such intrigue elsewhere?
The first sign that this was going to be a stellar feast came, as it often does in good gastropubs, with a superb scotch egg from the bar snacks menu. Delicate crumb, fine haggis shell and, natch, a softly cooked egg. Even better was a plate of Korean fried pork, in which crisp nubbins of pig belly had been slathered in, I think, gochujang and ketchup, then sprinkled with sesame seeds and scallions. This may have been the best and most addictive bar snack I have ever tasted.
The fireworks continued with our actual starters. My lobster sandwich was a riotous wonder: perfectly cooked tail meat bound in a decadent creamy dressing, served between triangles of toasted buttery brioche, with a whole claw as a garnish. At ten pounds, this was luxury dressed up as good value.
Mrs Diner spotted a chalkboard special of langoustines in butter and wild garlic, which proved to be very special indeed. The pearly white tails were from Scotland’s finest specimens — the meat was so good, we attacked the claws down to the very fingernails. When you have the best produce, a good cook knows that his key ingredient is restraint. This was a restrained triumph.
I risked a vegetarian main of gnocchi in order to see how much attention a less obviously popular dish would receive. Beautifully browned pillows of spud arrived swimming on a dreamy creamy wild mushroom and leek sauce. Seasoning here, as elsewhere, was aggressive, but not violently so.
Mrs Diner attempted something healthier with her dish of seared tuna, properly purple at the centre — yet more well-judged cooking. Her broccoli had been charred rather than boiled, which raised the vegetable’s status from also-ran to thoroughbred. It was joined by samphire, whose salty snap was an equally good companion for the fish.
I should pause from lobbing superlatives all over the place to note that the service could do with sharpening up a bit. I had the sense that they may be victims of their own success, the quality of the cookery already bringing the masses through the door (and wait till the rest of Durham reads this review). Some training around the menu and a bit more organisation would help, as would a finger bowl to go with those langoustines. That said, there was warmth and charm from everyone we spoke to, and that’s a more important asset than a knowledge of nduja.
We finished by sharing a chocolate brownie that demonstrated a perfect trade off between crisp top and fudgy innards. A swoosh of blowtorched soft meringue on the plate demonstrated the attention to detail that elevates a good repast to a great one. The slightly granular fact that the sugar hadn’t melted properly into the egg whites is as close as I can get to a genuine criticism of anything that we ate all night.
The wine list is short, but includes some worthwhile entries at reasonable prices. I enjoyed a glass of MOKOblack Sauvignon Blanc to cut through my lobster. Later, a French Mourvèdre was just the thing to see off a wild mushroom sauce.
£70 for two people with drinks and service may be more than some people would want to spend on an evening out at the pub, but this was a bargain for food of this quality.
I just hope I’m not putting the hex on the Garden House Inn with these words, as I apparently did Finbarr’s. I’m excited to see what comes out of this kitchen as we move through the seasons. It might look like just a pub, but it has the potential to be so much more than that. Aside from DH1, it is already the best restaurant in Durham by a mile. If Ruari and his team can push on and really settle in, it could become one of the best destination restaurants in the North East. Book now.
Korean pork belly, Anglo-Indian lamb, lobster sandwiches… Jay relishes big flavours and huge portions in Durham – The Guardian, Jay Rayner
On the pavement outside Durham’s Garden House Inn is a blackboard sign. It reads: “Food now being served.” It’s a very quiet way by which to announce the noisy, muscular, sometimes thrilling cooking to be found inside this pub just outside the city centre. God knows the people of Durham need to be made aware of it. I found out about the things going on in there courtesy of the rather brilliant Secret Diner, the restaurant critic for the Newcastle-based Journal newspaper.
In a recent review of the Garden House Inn they – I don’t know their gender, and the English language is unhelpful in these situations – bemoaned the lack of good restaurants in Durham. This saves me the hassle of doing so. Blame the Secret Diner. Apparently the worthwhile possibilities numbered just two: DH1, which has the light sheen and gloss of fine dining about it, and Bistro 21 – part of the 21 Hospitality Group belonging to chef and restaurateur Terry Laybourne.
The greedy of Newcastle and Durham ought to erect statues to Laybourne. He’s a grafter whose businesses have provided a benchmark for informal quality in the region for years. One of the first restaurants I reviewed for this column almost exactly 17 years ago, 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, was Laybourne’s, and he has continued feeding the area well in the years in between – not merely by supplying good restaurants but also by training up chefs. Which in a way is what he has done here. Because Bistro 21 closed not long ago, reducing the city’s choices to one, and the head chef Ruari MacKay turned up here with his colleagues at this low-ceilinged pub.
It has cosy nooks, country house furniture and soft furnishings. There’s a large conservatory out back, but upfront is where the charm has been punched up to maximum. Depending on your point of view the menu is eclectic, restless or just plain bonkers. It’s a bunch of things they like to cook, few of which have any business being corralled together on the same piece of paper.
When the dishes have little in common with each other like this, they each have to make a case for themselves. It’s a mark of the kitchen’s chops that almost everything, from the hardy, man-of-the-people chicken pasty, through the Russian-oligarch-slumming-it luxe of a lobster sandwich to the bang-on-trend cool of Korean pork belly, finds its target. The latter is listed as a bar snack at just £3.50, but I could well imagine slipping in here by myself and ordering three portions of this and hoping nobody noticed. Then again I do have a filthy imagination.
The pork belly is in squares and has been cooked long and slow until it is almost falling apart. Yet somehow it has a crisp shell which has been then drenched in a deep red glaze of umami and fire with a hint of Sriracha sauce in its depths, which is an amiable slap around the chops. Don’t get that sauce down your shirt; it will never come out. The pork belly is crunchy and soft, sweet and savoury. A dice of spring onion is added to make you feel good about yourself. Other bar snacks include a haggis scotch egg, all crumbly offal and pepper, served warm with a yolk making a bid for freedom, and breaded monkfish cheeks with a coarse-cut tartar sauce.
Among the starters there are lobes of ham hock that break with the push of a spoon, in a limpid hammy broth with fresh peas bursting sweetly between the teeth and another soft boiled egg. It’s a soothing and, most of all, generous plateful for £6. Everything here is generous. They are on a mission to feed. Nobody gets to leave the Garden House Inn complaining about the portion size. This is Durham. They do things properly here.
A Thai prawn and mussel broth, the fire soothed with coconut milk, is a passable effort as are three cheese croquettes. The star, though is that lobster sandwich, at £10 the most expensive starter. For that you get at least half a lobster and enormous attention to detail. The bread element is sweet, toasted brioche. The shells have been roasted and a broth made which has been reduced down then used to loosen the mayo, until it is the essence of the shellfish it is binding. I run my finger around the pot of extra mayo on the side to check, then check again. Next to the two sandwiches is a lump of claw meat because, well, why not? The lobster sandwich has serious class. Make that two portions of Korean pork and one of these. Yours for £17.
A vast main course of lamb shoulder, the strands of meat spoolable on to a fork like spaghetti, have been given the Anglo-Indian treatment. The lamb has been put in its place by a broad-spectrum garam masala in the best of ways so that it is sweet and fiery and cries out to be scooped up into the accompanying flatbreads. That chicken pasty is a whole breast, inside a crimped and glazed shortcrust pastry shell, on chive mash. It could be heavy and relentless, but somehow manages to be light and finishable.
The most expensive main, at £15, brings sizable pieces of monkfish, which have been taken down a back alley and given a proper beating by ’Nduja – the salty, chilli-boosted soft salami of Calabria, which melts unto a crust under heat. (Try it on cheese on toast. No really. Do.) This should be an unbalanced dish. The poor fish should be crying out for mercy. But there are roasted new potatoes for those looking for respite and, anyway, it turns out monkfish rather likes a bit of rough trade. Only the one non-meat dish, wild garlic gnocchi with mushrooms, leeks and a parmesan cream, is a miss. It slips from rich to heavy to an unwelcome challenge, just a little too quickly.
Still, there is a solid selection of serviceable wines at prices in the teens which make every London wine list look like an act of extortion. And to follow that, there’s a sticky toffee pudding in a lake of caramel. They make their own ice creams and shortbread biscuits to go with them – ones that both crack in the hand and melt in the mouth. The sign outside the pub does not lie. They are indeed now serving food at Durham’s Garden House Inn. And how.