The popular venue would never have won any gastronomic gongs – and the decor needed a serious makeover. But it was cheap and cheerful – and you always knew what you’d get – good wholesome pub grub.
So what a transformation the place has undergone. Its next incarnation, Hooked, took it up a notch, and the latest rebirth has been spectacular.
But then you wouldn’t expect anything less from one of the men behind the project, renowned Alnwick chef Richard Sim, who runs the Michelin Guide-featured Potted Lobster in Bamburgh. Alongside Kelso-based entrepreneur Tom Leslie, they have created something special.
The minute you walk in the joint, you can see this is a place of distinction. Good looking, so refined.
The sleek olive-grey, brown and blue hues, minimal clutter and the combination of soft bench seating, wooden farmhouse chairs and stylish armchairs give it a relaxed, eclectic feel.
A quick glance at the specials board as we were shown to our pre-booked table revealed we’d likely become a big spender this particular evening.
It boasted just one starter – pan-seared scallops and crispy ham (£14) – and one main course – king prawn and monkfish katsu curry with braised rice and greens (£26).
The à la carte menu did offer a few cheaper options, including soup of the day (£5) or duck liver parfait (£8) to start; and Northumbrian pan haggerty (v, £14) or pea and broad bean risotto (£13) for mains; even the unexpected fish and triple-cooked chips looked decent value at £14.
But at the other end of the scale, the signature dish, 28-day dry-aged fillet of beef with ox cheek Wellington with truffled cheese potatoes, charred shallots, glazed carrots and Bearnaise sauce (£29), might break the bank for some, however delicious it sounds. Likewise the roast darne of halibut with chicken fat potatoes, mussel and caper beurre blanc and chives, at £25.
The menu itself isn’t hugely extensive, but I prefer to know that my food is more likely to be freshly prepared than among a catalogue of ready-made choices. It also valiantly boasts an emphasis on local produce and ingredients.
A lighter bite selection was also available for starters and would provide an ideal lunch-time taster for anyone visiting the restaurant for the first time. Chargrilled Merguez sausages (£8), scampi (£8), Lindisfarne oysters (three for £9, six for £15) and a cheese and charcuterie board are among the dishes gracing that menu.
Wines started at £21 a bottle, rising to £85, and we opted for the Terres d’Azur Merlot at £25 to accompany our menu browsing. It was a delightfully smooth wine served at just the right temperature.
That ‘special’ starter was a no-brainer for me, while Mrs L gave in to the charred mackerel, with fresh oyster mayonnaise, fennel, apple and cucumber salad (£8).
We were drooling at both – the presentation was immaculate, even the crockery seemingly chosen to match the food – impressive. But it was the combination of flavours that really took our breath away. For me, the tanginess of the piccalilli was the perfect foil for the subtle taste of the scallops and the flakes of ham in a crispy coating –heavenly.
Next to me, the mackerel was also going down a treat. It was essentially raw, with the most divine salad drizzled in oil and dabs of oyster mayo. It was almost tempting to stop there – could anything be better?
But plough on we did. I found it hard to look past the intriguing Chalk Stream Trout Nicoise (£18), with new potatoes, fine beans, confit tomatoes, olives, anchovies, soft boiled eggs and baby gem lettuce.
You do worry when you see vegetables as extras on the menu, fearing meagre pickings on your plate when it arrives, but I had a proper dishful – and it was surprisingly filling, with the anchovies a special treat. The warm slab of trout was deliciously seasoned and seared. What a lovely combination that I vowed to replicate back at home.
The highlight of Mrs L’s main course, apart from the melt-in-the-mouth 10oz sirloin steak (£26), was the delicately battered and fried onion shards. The thrice-cooked chips also brought a smile!
We topped off a fabulous visit by sharing a sticky toffee pudding (£7), which took that particular dessert to another level, adding cinder toffee and salted caramel.
Also on the dessert menu was elderflower jelly (£8), dark chocolate delice, with brandied cherries, pistachio and orange mascarpone (£9), baked yoghurt and poached strawberries (£8), Whittling House ice-cream sundae (£7) and a selection of British cheeses (£12).
Such friendly and efficient staff made our visit all the more pleasant and we vowed to return for the next available special occasion.
Restaurant details: The Whittling House, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth NE66 2RA; tel 01665 463001; web https://thewhittlinghouse.co.uk