We were in critical need of some gastronomic therapy after a couple of weeks back from treats galore in the south of France In September.
Mrs L definitely required an emergency Merlot transfusion and my fine-food deficiency was acute.
So where better than a former Edwardian hospital turned top-class restaurant to cure our pains?
We needed a reminder of those balmy evenings gorging on French cuisine.
In late September Northumberland, we knew that such temperate climes were out of the question, but we had high hopes of an injection of culinary delights.
St Mary’s Inn, near Morpeth, belongs to the same stable as the renowned, two-AA-rosette Jesmond Dene House.
The restaurant, which is actually sited in the ex-administration offices of the hospital, has recently reopened after being closed for a year to allow the completion of work on the surrounding housing development.
Its new head chef, Newcastle-born Chris Cheek, has promised creative dishes as well as much-loved pub staples, with the focus on flavour.
Our visit, accompanied by our daughter, started with our usual magical mystery tour of the area – it’s not the easiest place to find, so allow plenty of time and take a good navigator.
The building is grand and imposing but inside seemed more homely and less clinical than we remembered it from our last trip before the closure. After collecting a drink at the bar – mine a fine house ale –we were shown to our table by friendly staff and given menus to peruse.
There was a neat balance between haute cuisine and good, old-fashioned pub grub, with some enticing combinations and great detail.
The butcher’s steaks, for instance, were 65-day aged and a traditional prawn cocktail starter was described as ‘prawn salad, pickled cucumber, crispy fennel and watercress, with Marie Rose dressing’.
Pickles and salsa helped add a new dimension to the dishes, which numbered just enough to offer a decent choice but not too many to make cooking them from fresh impossible.
So we plunged straight into the starters, with mackerel pâté, pickled fennel and orange on toasted sourdough (£6) for me; wild mushrooms on toasted sourdough, with soft poached egg (£8) from the specials menu for Mrs L; and crispy battered king prawns, with mango salsa and siracha sweet chilli sauce (£8.50), also a special, for Miss L.
We tucked in and all agreed that it was a great way to set the ball rolling. My pâté was deliciously light, subtly fishy and worked so well with the delicately pickled fennel and orange.
Mrs L is still talking about her wild mushrooms and the delicious mango salsa was the highlight of the battered king prawn dish.
Our main courses soon followed – I had plumped for chalk stream trout, mussel, whelk, leek and sweetcorn chowder, heritage potatoes, samphire and sea purslane (£15), while Mrs L took a gamble on salt and vinegar battered haddock and chips, mushy peas, tartar sauce and lemon (£12.95), knowing that the quality of our national dish from fish and chip shops is hard to beat in a restaurant environment.
The young’un went for roast chicken breast, potato gnocchi, braised baby onions and button mushrooms (£14.50) from the specials board. She was also brought a side selection of perfectly cooked vegetables.
My dish combined two of my favourites – fish and chowder – I was in heaven! It was divine, the chowder sauce thick and creamy and the fish delightfully moist, yet with a crispy skin. Everything about it hit the right notes on by taste buds.
The haddock and chips, or should I say whale and chips, given the size of the portion, was tasty, although the batter was a tad heavy. The hand-cut chips were a joy.
Opposite us, the chicken breast went down a treat, a similarly creamy sauce making daughter purr with delight. The promise on flavour had certainly been kept.
ONLY JUST ENOUGH ROOM FOR DESSERTS
It was touch and go whether there would be enough room for desserts, so we hedged our bets and shared two between the three of us – strawberry cheesecake, with Champagne sorbet, and lemon posset, with fruit and honeycomb (both £6). The cheesecake came in a preserve jar and the battle to extricate it was very much worthwhile. The lemon posset was equally delightful.
Food is served Monday to Saturday from noon to 3pm and 5pm to 9pm, and Sunday from noon to 6pm, and includes home-made cakes, lunches, evening meals as well as traditional family Sunday lunches.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Tomato, tapenade, basil cream......£6
R & J signature beef burger......£10.50
Roast rump of lamb......£18
Bacon loin chop......£12
10oz bavette steak......£14
8oz sirloin steak......£24
Smoked cheese polenta......£9.50
Roast haunch of venison......£22
Sticky toffee pudding......£6
Dark chocolate brownie......£6
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......8½
Use of local food......8
Value for money......8
Access for disabled......8
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: Standard pub cuisine, plenty of choice at sensible prices.
Contact: 01670 293293 or visit www.stmarysinn.co.uk