The lineup is certainly impressive. Glen David Robson, one of Terry Laybourne’s most senior lieutenants, who was head chef of Caffè Vivo (my Best European Restaurant for the past two years), has been paired with Danny Diver, the sommelier of Jesmond Dene House (Best Hotel Restaurant).
Two culinary heavyweights in a Ponteland pub? This has got to be a serious attempt on the Best Gastropub in the North East crown.
The setting is terrific: it’s a very attractive conversion of an historic inn dating back to the 16th century. It even has the original fireplaces to prove it. The bar is open and large, whilst the formal restaurant is to the side in a kind of vaulted cellar, with a vast fireplace. There’s another attractive room upstairs, complete with minstrels’ gallery.
Above all, this is a real pub. When we arrived, it was full of regulars and very large dogs: I like that. The welcome from the bar staff was effusive and warm: I like that even more. There’s a great selection of real ales (even better) and a huge choice of wines by the glass – seven whites and seven reds (perfect).
There’s actually nothing I didn’t like about The Blackbird. If I lived in Ponteland, I’d probably move in.
Diver and Robson have only been paired a few weeks, so it’s still bedding down. Diver is general manager, but as you expect from a trained sommelier, his passion is the wine. So Mrs Diner and I enjoyed an unusual experience: a wine-pairing in a pub. We just let him get on with it, and let the kitchen surprise us with its food.
Robson’s menu is very different from the offering at The Broad Chare. Earlier in the week I’d hugely enjoyed Laybourne’s Venison and Pigs’ Trotter pie – an enormous Desperate Dan dish, which I devoured with two friends and a good bottle of Malbec.
But, as well working with Laybourne in his Michelin-starred days at 21 Queen Street, Robson was sous chef at Georgio Locatelli’s Michelin-starred place in London, and he’s also worked at Claridges, and in New York and Australia. As a result, he’s brought to The Blackbird a lighter, more international twist to British pub food. It’s very good indeed.
He’s actually attempting what I’ve always wanted in a local gastropub: regular dishes combined with seasonal surprises. That way the locals keep coming for their favourites, but can also use it for special nights out. The menu changes every month, and there are different specials every day. That’s incredibly ambitious for a small pub kitchen.
The September menu offered salt-baked beetroot, fish pie, monkfish skewers, spring chicken, and starters of chicken broth with horseradish dumplings, potted shrimps, garden vegetables with homemade salad cream and pan fried king prawns. Regular dishes include burgers and flat iron steaks from Peter Hannan’s aromatic Himalayan salt-aged beef in Northern Ireland. Specials included pickled mackerel, scallops, watermelon salad, lamb cutlets, meatballs…it was quite a list.
I started with ancient tomatoes, goat curd and olives (all regular starters were £6). The creamy, sweet curd was delicious. The tomatoes were stripy green zebras (I’m guessing here), yellow perfects, and a black variety I didn’t recognise, topped by crunchy green beans and black olives. Mr Diver insisted I had a glass of something pink from Alsace, which made sense, while he brought Tio Pepe dry sherry for Mrs Diner’s mackerel, which was lightly pickled, contrasting with much sharper marinated red onions. It was fresh and very good.
We had a sort of entr’acte at this point because Mrs Diner said she liked salt baked beetroot, which we’d seen on the menu, and I wanted to know what a “lobdog” was, so they brought us starter portions of both. An intense baby golden beet (with all the hallmark of Ken Holland) came with braised fennel and curd, while my lobdog turned out to be a lobster hot dog.
This dish, straight from New York, was sublime – melting and buttery, with great brioche from Geordie Bakers, one sharp jalapeño and one sweet one, served with straw nest of fried beetroot and a little pot of coleslaw. If Glen Robson promises that this dish will always be on his menu, I’ll become a regular. I can’t believe this plate is £13. Plus the glass of Alsace crémant that Mr Diver brought alongside.
Mrs Diner ordered a whole lemon sole (again, £13 for a generous specimen, fully garnished). Sadly, here the kitchen made its only error: it was perfectly cooked, but overseasoned. Less of the sea salt, chef: try saying that a few times after The Blackbird’s in-house sommelier brings you yet another glass, this time pinot noir for my gorgeous belly pork, sous-vided ever so slowly in garlic butter, with savoy cabbage and pancetta, and great potato wedges.
For dessert, tiramisu was bought in and only just acceptable, and the ice creams were all from Blaydon. Not a bad thing in itself: Beckleberry’s ice cream is very good, especially their liquorice and blackcurrant sorbet, but I was rather looking forward to something crumbly and fruity to go with it. Maybe homemade desserts will come in due course.
Once it gains confidence, this place could be superb – possibly my first five star gastropub. That is, if the other North East contenders don’t get there first.
Secret Diner’s Verdict (out of 5 stars)
North Road, Ponteland
Northumberland, NE20 9UH