How appropriate that we have chosen The Joiner’s Arms to relaunch this series of culinary reviews.
When we walked through the door, it was unrecognisable from our last visit in 2008 – you may say the same of the Gazette.
Then, the Joiner’s was a typical Northumberland pub, with drinking bar, eating lounge and pool room.
The transformation has been pretty spectacular. Gone is the back pool room and in its place has arisen a smart, wooden-clad dining area with a real rustic atmosphere, complemented by shelves of flickering, church-style candles, proper houseplants, a hotch-potch mix of furniture and tasteful background music.
It was very relaxing.
I also liked the window onto the kitchen – we could see the cleanliness and professionalism without having to ask to inspect behind the scenes.
If the pub itself was welcoming on a quiet Sunday evening, the polite and efficient staff were more so. Even when we booked the table by phone, we were asked whether there were any allergies to take into account.
First impressions are so important and we knew the food was going to be good before it was even ordered.
The menu was classy, not the cheapest, but oozed quality.
For example, the half-a-dozen starters included soup of the day (sweet potato and herb on our day) with crusty bread for £4.95; cider and leek mussels for £6.95; mini Ploughman’s with local cheese, ham, pork pie, Sunnyhill egg, pickles fruit and bread for £6.95.
Among the choice of nine main courses was Bamburgh banger and mash for £9.95; the ‘biggest fish the boat could safely land’ and chips (£10.95); homemade 8oz beef burger with Joiner’s chutney and chips (£10.95).
Vegetarians have a couple of options – penne pasta with wild mushrooms in a white wine sauce, spinach, sun-blushed tomatoes and parmesan cheese (£9.95) and Moroccan vegetable tagine with cous cous, pitta bread and natural yoghurt (£11.95), which wasn’t marked as vegetarian but guessed it was.
We were particularly buoyed by the reference to local produce - top marks there.
On the drinks front, the wine list was impressive, with selections from Chile, South Africa, Italy, New Zealand, France, Argentina and Spain, ranging from the house wines at £13.95 to Dom Perignon 2002 Champagne at £150 a bottle.
I was happy with my customary pint or two of real ale – in this case, the very pleasant Workie Ticket and St Mary’s Ale from Mordue Brewery.
As a big seafood fan, I went for the mixed seafood starter, with pickled cucumber, horseradish cream and crusty bread at £7.95, followed by pan-fried sea bass fillets with olive oil mash and a tomato hollandaise (£15.95).
I have to say the quality and presentation of both courses was absolutely faultless. The combination of prawns, one super-jumbo-sized, crab, smoked mackerel and smoked salmon was as mouth-watering as it gets. The warm slices of crusty French stick were the ideal accompaniment, although could have been taken to the dizzy heights of perfection had the butter come in loose pats rather than wrapped in foil.
My wife looked on with envy in her eye, claiming she hadn’t seen it on the menu (not because there was envy in her eye!). But she also declared the soup delicious and just the thing to have after a walk on the beach on a cold day. The soup was smooth and tasty. Son also scraped his soup dish clean.
It was at this point that young daughter, who is notoriously hard to please, declared herself excited by The Joiner’s and wanted to return the following week. Praise indeed. She had just devoured the warm dough balls with garlic butter dip, cucumber, carrot sticks and tomato, which came free with a main course from the children’s menu. Even at this early point, there was a feel-good glow surrounding the Larkin family.
And so to the highlight of my meal – the sea bass couldn’t have been cooked any better, not overdone as is often the case, but deliciously moist, and the olive oil mash, green beans and hollandaise sauce were amazing. It was my turn to say I wanted to return!
Homemade Northumberland steak and ale pie (£9.95) was my wife’s choice and it went down equally well. Her chips arrived in a neat wire basket and sat alongside a classy combination of vegetables – mange tout, green beans and Chantenay carrots.
Son polished off his penne pasta with wild mushrooms, while daughter was pleasantly surprised that her homemade fish fingers (£4.95) were battered strips of fish alongside a wire basket of chips. Her day was complete.
The male side of the family decided it would be rude not to partake in desserts. My homemade sticky toffee pudding (£5.95) was to die for, while son must have enjoyed his Beckleberry’s strawberry ice cream – he didn’t utter a word until he was finished.
All meals were artistically presented and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
Our only criticism was that the toilets had not been modernised and stuck out like a sore thumb against the spectacular refurbishment elsewhere. But the addition of a disabled toilet and baby-changing facility earned this gastropub extra points.
So The Joiners is the benchmark for the venues to follow – good luck – it’ll be difficult to top that!