There are many benefits of using local ingredients and produce, from the environmental (cutting down on food miles and thus pollution) to the economic (supporting local businesses and suppliers), but there really is no excuse to not ‘cook local’ when your larder is the coast and countryside of Northumberland.
Until last week, I was unaware of the bistro at the St Aidan Hotel in Seahouses, which serves evening meals on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but a quick look at the website led me to expect very good things and I quickly nabbed a table for Saturday night.
It has a dedicated section providing details of its local suppliers – the likes of R Carter & Son butcher in Bamburgh, Swallowfish in Seahouses, eggs from R Ord & Hens at Chatton and Doddington Dairy.
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The outside of the hotel is familiar to anyone who has driven along the seafront in Seahouses, but the interior of the bistro has been revamped with original stripped wooden floors, matching tables and old maps and local artworks on the walls.
To be honest though, even if the décor inside was horrible, it wouldn’t matter that much as those in the front area of the dining room have a view out to sea and across to the Farne Islands and those in the back have a panoramic view up the coast towards Bamburgh Castle.
When you’re sitting so close to the sea that you can practically smell the ocean from your table, you have to opt for seafood for at least part of the meal.
As it was, three-quarters of our dishes were fishy with both starters coming from the water; I had fresh crab on rye toast with homemade black pepper mayonnaise (£7).
The crab was excellent, the rye toast added a decent crunch and a little flavour without detracting from the shellfish and the mayonnaise was definitely homemade, which you could tell just by looking it, but also by the pleasant tang on the taste-buds.
Across from me was another top choice – pan-roasted scallops with sauce vierge and crispy basil (£9.50).
Luckily, I was afforded a taste and can confirm that the scallops were cooked superbly and that while the classic accompaniment was adapted slightly from the traditional recipe, its fresh, Mediterranean combination of tomatoes, red onions and olives was a winning enhancement to the delicate flesh of the shellfish.
My wife stuck to the seafood theme for her main, opting for the baked coley with a herb crust, served with sautéed leeks, roasted vine tomatoes and salsa verde (£14.50).
The concept was very similar to the scallops starter – allow the fish to be the star while dressing it with simple, fresh and vibrant extras; cue the tomatoes and the likes of the garlic, basil and parsley in the punchy sauce.
I was tempted by the special main – hake with red pepper and chorizo stew (there was also a special king prawn cocktail starter) – but was drawn back towards the roasted rump of Northumbrian lamb (£15.50).
Served pink – my choice, as opposed to well-done – it was a delicious piece of meat and when you have such a brilliant base ingredient on your doorstep, it’s important not to swamp it with needless extras.
Head chef James Ash, who has previously worked in kitchens at Hotel du Vin and Malmaison hotels, obviously knows his onions and partnered the well-cooked lamb with just a sweet potato mash and a mint jus.
The mash was creamy and well-seasoned and while I wondered how it would go with the mint sauce, I was pleasantly surprised and it ended up reminding me a little of carrot and coriander soup.
The mains were accompanied with seasonal vegetables – a small bowl of peas and carrots. They tasted quite pleasant, but weren’t the most interesting of side dishes. Having said that, both dishes were well-crafted in their flavour combinations and did not really require anything else.
WELL-EQUIPPED WITH WINES
The savoury courses were the main event, but the dessert menu offered a decent selection, all priced at £5.75. We decided to share the lemon tart with raspberry, which was a nice, palate-cleansing way to end the evening.
For a small bistro, the wine list is extensive with prices ranging from £16.50 to just under £40 a bottle. The sweet menu also includes two dessert wines. Two reds and two whites are available by the glass and bottles of lager, ale and cider are also on offer.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Beetroot-cured smoked salmon with horseradish cream......£7.50
Grilled venison sausage, puy lentils and jus......£6.50
Soup du jour......£5
Mushrooms on brioche toast......£6
Slow-cooked Northumbrian beef with bacon & mushrooms......£15.50
Fish pie, creamy mash......£12.50
Pea and shallot artisan tortellini, red pepper gremolata, pea shoots......£11
Desserts (all £5.75)
Stewed plum and cinnamon crumble
Profiteroles, vanilla ice-cream, warm chocolate sauce
Affogato – vanilla ice-cream and espresso with a liqueur
Selection of Doddington Dairy ice-creams/sorbets
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Use of local food......9
Value for money......7
Access for the disabled......6
Toilet for the disabled......No
Verdict: It does what it says on the tin – classically-inspired dishes based on top-quality local produce.
Contact: 01665 720355 or http://staidanhotel.co.uk/bistro/The previous Northumberland Gazette Eating Out column reviewed Sea and Soil, Queen Street, Amble. And if you missed it, here is a link to the Gazette’s top tips of 2014.