St Mary’s was once a place you’d do your best to avoid paying a visit. It was built at the beginning of the 1900s as the county asylum for Gateshead and housed 2,000 patients at its peak.
But the hospital closed in 1996 and was taken on last year by the owners of the high-class restaurant at Jesmond Dene House – one of my favourites in the North East, incidently. It has only been open for a couple of months, after a £1.5million renovation, and I had been itching to go.
My birthday (those occasions you try to forget at my age) gave my wife the perfect excuse to book a table for an evening meal. The venue is so new that its postcode wasn’t recognised by our sat nav, which, admittedly, hadn’t been updated for a while. So we set off in the dark (in both senses), with the nearest postal address programmed in.
After doing a U-turn in a farmyard somewhere along a dirt track and another in someone’s driveway (apologies to both), we decided to follow our noses and found our way there via Whitehouse Farm, the nearby visitor attraction.
The area round about is best described as a work in progress. New housing estates are springing up as part of the hospital site development.
The inn itself is located in the former administration building and is spectacular, if a little clinical.
Despite our tardiness, due to the unguided tour of the nearby countryside, the staff couldn’t do enough for us – they were most accommodating. Our table was next to a glowing wood-burning stove, an ideal antidote on a chilly night. The room itself, while chic, was plain and the lack of soft furnishings made it echoey. That, coupled with large, chunky tables that kept us quite a distance apart, meant that we found ourselves shouting to be heard, albeit in a busy restaurant.
While we perused the menu, our drinks order was taken and duly delivered. I had fancied the St Mary’s Ale, specially crafted by Wylam Brewery in the Tyne Valley. I’d like to congratulate both the inn for having the imagination to commission its own beer and Wylam for producing a delicious, light ale with a hint of sweetness – it really was amber nectar, enough to resuscitate the spirits of any diner.
There was also a choice of keg beers, ciders, speciality lagers and more than 15 by-the-glass wines.
The bar was splendidly decked out – a striking welcome.
On the gastro side of this gastro-pub, the menu was surprisingly more pub than gastro than I has imagined. I hadn’t prepared for being offered mince and dumplings (£12) or Aberdeen Angus cheeseburger (£10.50) or beer-battered fish and chips (£13.50).
The choices were varied but not extensive – just the way I like it for a greater chance of the food being freshly prepared. For vegetarian practitioners, a couple of meat-free dishes might seem scant but in the context of only a dozen main courses in total, the picture is not as grim.
I took the plunge with a squid starter – charred Asian-style with green chilli paste, puffed rice and raw vegetable salad (£7). I was mightily glad I had – it was out of this world!
The squid had been scored, making it resemble the pattern on a winter tyre, but there was nothing rubbery about it. Subtle seafood flavours jostled with the kick of the chilli, with the latter ultimately taking control. But the journey to that oral glow was exquisite. I take my hat off to the chef – it was a splendid starter.
Opposite arrived black pudding, crispy potato and duck egg (£6.50). That, too, was received very well indeed. Both salads were suitably crisp with sumptuous dressings – quite the dream way to start our meal.
Our main courses were delivered promptly and with very little fuss. The staff were professionally attentive and friendly without being in your face. I went for chicken, tarragon and leek pie (£9.50), a safe choice, a colleague pointed out, but I wanted to see what a celebrated chef could do with a relatively run-of-the-mill dish. Again it was top notch. A towering puff pastry lid lifted to reveal a gorgeous conglomeration of largely non-breast chicken, which gave it extra flavour, leek, sauce and a not-too-overpowering aroma of tarragon. The accompanying honey-roast carrots and parsnips, cabbage and smooth, buttery mash completed a fine course.
My wife really did push the boat out (well, it was my birthday!) and plumped for the rib-eye steak with peppercorn sauce with chips and vine tomatoes (£24), from the lumpwood charcoal grill. It was cooked to the requested degree but encrusted in a layer of salt that masked its flavour. I appreciate the need for seasoning, but this was in cardiac-arrest territory.
That aside, it was another tasty experience, with homemade chips to die for, if you pardon the expression.
Our desserts completed the picture – sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice-cream (£6.50) and warm apple and almond tart with ginger ice cream (£6). They weren’t spectacularly imaginative but served the purpose of wrapping up a very pleasant meal.
I have to make mention, too, of the luxurious loos – if nothing else, it’s worth making the journey to Stannington just to spend a penny.
To use modern parlance, our visit was ‘sick’ (that means it was great) and I won’t have to be patient to pay a return visit.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Mushrooms, toast, poached egg......£6.50
Spiced squash soup......£6
Heritage beetroot salad, goat’s curd & pickled walnuts......£6
Smoked mackerel, house pickles & rye crackers......£6.50
Potted chicken liver pâté, onion jam & truffle brioche......£7.20
Smoked haddock fishcakes......£9.50
Beer battered fish & chips......£13.50
Roast onion tart, Devonshire blue & bitter greens......£9.50
Parsley & spelt barley risotto......£10.50
Kansas-style barbecue chicken......£11.50
Chocolate brownie & ice-cream......£6
Chocolate fudge cake with caramel ice-cream......£7
Rhubarb and custard pavlova......£6.50
STAR RATINGS (OUT OF 10)
Quality of food......8
Value for money......8
Use of local food......8½
Access for disabled......9
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: Early days, but a good start in a competitive area. Great food but the venue lacks cosiness and home comforts.
Contact: 01670 293293 or online at stmarysinn.co.uk