Bistro 23, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth

ON the Gazette's journey round the gastronomic outlets of north Northumberland, the bus stops this week at an award-winning restaurant. Editor Paul Larkin discovers whether the accolade was justified.

JUST last week, Bistro 23 was named as the top restaurant on the Alnwick Food Trail for 2006.

It was some accolade when you look at the other establishments on the list – the likes of The Treehouse at Alnwick Garden, The Sanctuary at the castle and the Cook and Barker at Newton on the Moor.

The competition, part of Alnwick Lions Club's annual food festival, was judged by a voting clientele, so it was down to ordinary folk to select their favourite. It was designed to reward those pubs and restaurants that support local food producers.

Bistro 23 topped a selection of 20 eateries, beating Grannies, of Alnwick, into second and the Percy Arms at Chatton into third.

It was a remarkable story for owners Alistair and Anna Ridley and their chef Iain Inkster.

For the most part, 23 Northumberland Street in Alnmouth is a day-time tea room, but on two nights of the week – Saturday and Wednesday – the lighting is dimmed and the place takes on a whole new ambience.

With only a dozen or so tables, it offers an intimate experience. Two steps down into the restaurant makes it awkward but not impossible for disabled diners.

My wife and I joined Food Trail sponsor Neil Robson (of Craster kipper fame) and his wife Rosie to sample the delights of the newly-crowned big cheese of evening dining.

The menu is concise – a sure sign that what you are about to receive is freshly cooked and has not been pre-prepared for pinging in the microwave.

There are only five starters, six main courses and five desserts from which to choose, but the spread is good – one vegetarian and one fish in each of the first two courses.

I am painful when it comes to selecting from a menu, so the narrower the choice, the better for all concerned!

Local foodstuffs get their due prominence – Northumbrian Estates game sausage, slow-cooked Northumbrian beef and baked Amble cod.

The other noticeable aspect of the menu is the price. At this point, I expected to call for the bank manager, but far from it, the prices are very reasonable. Starters range from 2.95 for home-made soup to 4.95 for smoked chicken risotto, poached fillet of salmon or the game sausage; main courses are all 8.90, with no hidden extras for veg or chips, and desserts are all 3.95.

The wines are equally conservative and simple – five of each (red or white), from house at 8.95 to a Rioja Reserva 2000 or Sauvignon Blanc 2005, each 14.95. We enjoyed a couple of bottles of the Rioja throughout the evening.

The bread – wholemeal stottie slices – to accompany our starters was worthy of mention. I think we would have been happy to munch on that for the rest of the night!

We each decided to choose something different from the menu. I started with the poached salmon and moved on to the Northumbrian beef main course.

The salmon was cold and served with a small salad and delicious lemon mayonnaise, a smashing combination of subtle tastes and left me wanting more.

My wife had the smoke chicken risotto starter, which was very tasty and just sufficient without blowing her appetite apart.

Neil's Northumbrian game sausage looked like a meal in itself and was devoured with relish! Rosie's tomato, red onion, basil and olive salad with Northumbrian cheese was also declared a success.

I would not normally choose beef and I am even less likely to choose anything with red cabbage, but for some reason, I was drawn to both on the same plate!

It was an interesting combination but one that worked, if the dish was slightly heavy on the red cabbage for my taste. The beef had benefited from the slow cooking in red wine sauce and simply fell apart under the weight of the knife. And there was certainly plenty of it. The blend of mushrooms, smoked bacon, onion, garlic and thyme was complementary.

There was only praise and satisfied mutterings about the other main courses – roast leg of English lamb on rosemary fondant potatoes and blackberry sauce; baked Amble cod with Thai-spiced prawns on herb couscous with lime and ginger relish; pan roast cut of Gressingham duck breast with confit of the legs, spiced roast pears, port and orange sauce and Dauphinoise potatoes.

The sweets were a real treat. I had the oaty apple and plum crumble with absolutely beautiful, creamy, cinnamon custard, a perfect foil for the sharp fruit.

Again, it was thumbs up all round for the sweets – chocolate fudge brownie and steamed orange marmalade pudding.

We finished with coffees and were landed with a bill of 106, which was very reasonable for the quality of food we were served, plus two bottles of top wine. On a tighter budget, you could have an excellent meal for under 15 a head. One word of warning – credit cards are not accepted!

Alistair and Anna manage to keep their overheads down and their prices low by working the restaurant themselves and employing the minimum of staff.

They do not want to extend their opening hours and get greedy, fearing it would spoil their enjoyment and bump up their prices.

Catch it while you can – I can envisage a long waiting list for tables.

STAR RATINGS (out of five)

Quality of food: 4.5

Choice: 3

Vegetarian choice: 3

Value for money: 4.5

Atmosphere: 4

Service: 4

Children catered for: 3

Disabled access: 2

Overall experience: 4

Verdict: Worthy of the award!

Contact details: Bistro 23, 23 Northumberland Street, Alnmouth. Tel: 01665 830393.

Click here for an A4 printable version of this review.

(Published in Northumberland Gazette, February 8, 2007)