When I reviewed Irvin’s Brasserie on North Shields Fish Quay last year, one of my few real complaints was the terrible view. The big picture windows overlooked the rubbish-strewn car park of a rundown old boozer called The New Dolphin.
I’m sure the owners of Irvin’s were delighted when The New Dolphin was transformed into The Staith House; what might make them less happy is that their new neighbour brings some serious competition.
I’ve written about John Calton before. In 2010 he was a finalist of Masterchef: The Professionals, along with Dave Coulson, who recently opened Jesmond’s excellent Peace & Loaf.
John has been a bit of a butterfly since his television experience. He was the chef at the Duke of Wellington near Corbridge, which I raved about. He moved on to a pub in South Shields called Harbour Lights, which I also raved about. He then disappeared to London. Now he’s back on Tyneside with his own place.
Calton is a really good chef. I like his food – it has honesty, clarity, simplicity, and only uses local, seasonal ingredients. It’s not as ambitious or fanciful as Coulson’s fine dining experiment, but it has some witty twists.
The Staith House, which he’s running with his wife and a former colleague James Laffan, is a big undertaking. Keeping a large pub open and staffed seven days a week is hard work; cooking to a high standard at the same time must be daunting, even for someone as talented as Calton.
Refurbished in a modern pub chain way (it’s owned by Heineken), it has understated green and tartan upholstery, stripped wood, ships lamps and old photographs of the Tyne. I liked the ambience: there were tables of regular drinkers among the diners. The music was piped too loudly for a restaurant, but about right for a pub. It mixed Keane with Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Very friendly (perhaps a little too ebullient) staff offered fast service and ready advice. A chalkboard recommended pheasant Kiev, sea bass straight off the boats, or steak and ale pie with a pint of beer for just £10, while the actual menu was short and very sweet.
There was leek and potato soup, mussels, scotch egg, smoked salmon, steak, fish and chips, haggis and tatties, a lamb burger. So far so pub.
Except that everything had a twist. The soup had mascarpone and truffle, the mussels had “ale and kale”, the scotch egg was beef and onion rather than pork, the salmon came two ways – beetroot cured and hot smoked – and so on. It was interesting and inviting – typical Calton.
There were no vegetarian options, but the waitress recited a separate list to the sole vegetarian on the next table.
One disappointment was the paucity of house wines – only two of each colour by the glass, though the list was intelligently structured. We chose a bottle of nicely balanced Liberty Fairtrade Shiraz from South Africa.
Then came a masterstroke – doorsteps of toasted crusty bread arrived with a pan of hot beef dripping. The smell took me back half a century, to the big bowl of dripping sitting beside our Sunday joint. It was indulgent and gorgeous.
Mrs Diner had salmon, cured in beetroot as well as hot smoked, with a nicely sharp apple, horseradish and parsley dressing, and I had the scotch egg on red cabbage coleslaw. The egg was properly runny and the meat was aged and aromatic. Very good.
For the main course we had ribeye steak and pheasant Kiev. I last had chicken Kiev the last time I dipped bread in dripping. Pheasant breast is drier than chicken, and the good garlic and herb butter compensated, but it rather overpowered the bird, which was offered in goujons. An efficient way to use up sporting carcasses from the Netherwitton estate, but not totally successful.
However, the steak was magnificent. From Frank Robson’s herd in Ryal, this was aged, succulent, outstanding. It came with a fried egg and a sweet sauce laced with sharp green peppercorns.
Desserts were a definition of comfort food. Oat crumble held spicy caramelised pear and tart gooseberry, with excellent vanilla ice cream.
Then there was the rice pudding. This was the highlight of my last Calton meal: rich, buttery, as reliable as an old pair of slippers. However this time Calton added a layer of “honey crumble”. Big mistake.
Cut the crumble, John, and I’ll be back for more.
Secret Diner’s Verdict (out of 5 stars)
The Staith House
57 Low Lights
North Shields Fish Quay
0191 270 8441
Open: Every day 11am - 11pm