It's been a big week for Durham, what with the Ashes and all. The head chef of Bistro 21, Ruari MacKay, tweeted an open invitation to England fans, adding that Aussies would also be welcome. I doubt they needed encouragement: anyone with a restaurant guide will see that there aren’t too many restaurants of quality in Durham, and that this is by far the best on offer.
I’ve already visited Bistro 21 once or twice before, in a former life before I went undercover. But someone pointed out that it wasn’t listed on the www.secretdiner.org website, and it really ought to be there. They’re right, but I only review what I eat, not what I remember, so I waited for Ashes fever to die down, and drove to Durham for lunch.
The restaurant is more yellow than I remember. It’s a sort of dusty ochre – a bit like English mustard when it’s been left out for a while. It’s designed to look like a place you might encounter somewhere off the N7 near Orange, except that to find it you almost have to drive through the front door of Durham’s police headquarters. Just trust your satnav and look out for the garish orange sign.
Inside is a nice little courtyard, presumably to keep you out of the oppressive Durham heat, a little bar and a small but comfortable dining room. Pine floors and tables, white walls, on which they’ve hung old chairs, a painted dresser, an open fireplace: it’s rustic chic, with reasonably spaced tables and a warm welcome from well-trained staff.
It’s only when you study the blackboards on the walls that you realise this is no ordinary bistro. Instead of the bargain menu du jour, they advertise Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1999 at £148 a bottle. This is bistro posh.
There’s a good-value lunch menu at £15.50 for two courses (or £19 for three), and even the à la carte won’t break the bank, with mains at £16.50. I was about to order when I spotted some specials hidden away on the back, including scallops and stone bass. No contest there.
My friend started with pea salad, French Aura potatoes, and soft-boiled egg. The egg was actually too soft, but the peas were sweet and firm, and all different sizes, a sign of fresh podding.
But, oh, my scallops: diver-caught and seared without any hint of crust, they were as milky and melting as pannacotta. They came with equally tender belly pork soldiers, standing proud in a shallow lake of chilli, ginger and lime caramel. I don’t write these next words easily: the scallops were possibly as good as any I have tasted anywhere.
I really appreciated the fact that none of the mains needed add-ons. Don’t listen to the arguments about side orders being a way of reducing the price of mains, or of giving customers choice. Side orders are only there to create a bigger margin for the restaurant, and to make life easier for the chef.
You can’t guess in advance what complements a dish you haven’t seen. I want the chef to have put as much thought into the greenery as the rest of the plate to make everything work together.
Ruari Mackay and his boss, Terry Laybourne, evidently get this: the excellent stone bass fillets lay on a bed of sea beet and samphire. Sea beet, or sea spinach, is a fantastic wild vegetable, with a much firmer texture than ordinary spinach and just a hint of salinity. With samphire to support the leaves, it was a great combination with this fish, which was also ringed with a few potatoes.
It had a spoonful of nicely sharp salsa verde, as did my colleague’s farm salmon, which was generous and moist.
We shared two excellent desserts: unmessy Eton mess – a roll of soft meringue filled with rose-flavoured cream with syrupy succulent strawberries, and a pannacotta with baked peaches and almonds. The cream was as scented as an English garden at sunset (that is, just a little too much for me) and the peaches were a touch too tart, but the simple pannacotta had great texture. Milky and melting; like a perfectly cooked scallop.
Secret Diner’s Verdict
(out of 5 stars)
Aykley Heads House
0191 384 4354
Opening times: Mon to Sat: 12am – 2pm and 5.30pm - 10pm. Sun: 12am – 3.30pm