Clear skies and a chill in the air signalled the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness and drove us along the A696 to a former coaching inn, four miles north of Ponteland.
Dating from 1700, The Highlander, with its bonny green and white exterior, makes a pretty picture in the soft-dying day of a September evening.
The Highlander prides itself as a traditional country pub offering a warm welcome and excellent food and drink in relaxed surroundings. Although retaining snippets of old world charm, the rambling interior makes it difficult to get a sense of character.
Bonnie Prince Charlie reputedly bathed on the premises in 1746. With a Polish mother and an English father there was little of Scotland in the Young Pretender and little of Scotland in The Highlander, with the exception of bagpipes and a sporran, and of course the Highland cow that adorns the sign outside.
A hodgepodge of maritime accoutrements suspended from the ceiling amid fairy lights, dragon flies and puffer fish – highly toxic when eaten – contrast with brazen statuettes of farmyard animals. A peeling price tag clings to a lantern hanging above our table.
Mugshots of manicured morsels in contemporary monochrome frames adorn the walls, each with their own description and source of origin. This strange descriptive practice, although unbecoming of the traditional setting, hammers home the menu’s message that local produce features heavily in all creations.
Singling out the Thai fishcake (£5.25) as a starter, I struggled to choose a main course. I prayed the specials board would offer something more tantalising. I opted for the pigeon and bacon casserole with a leek dumpling (£10.95), which was the most enticing.
My confederate chose black pudding with pepper and bacon sauce (£5.95) to start, followed by pan-seared calf’s liver (£9.95).
Despite notices advising that all food is cooked to order and forewarning longer waiting times, our starters arrived in no time and we were impressed by the swift service.
The fishcake, evocative of a Waggon Wheel biscuit, mighty in circumference but lacking in depth, sat aloft shredded lettuce, a slice of cucumber and tomato with a side dish of sweet chilli dip.
The pasty filling was tasteless, reminiscent of potted salmon paste I was given for sandwiches as a child and was the inverse of the overly-crisped coating, which left me debating whether the creation had come from a frozen food cabinet.
The black pudding, swamped in thick sauce, was purportedly good, but I politely declined.
I washed my food down with a small glass of Merlot (£2.50), which was harsher on the palate than I had hoped.
The main courses were generous.
An ungainly dumpling bobbed like a zeppelin on a stewed mass, which infiltrated the ranks of carrots, cauliflower, beans and new potatoes.
Gelatinous gravy could not disguise the dry dough of the dumpling which went against all the comforting stodginess I had come to expect from the British and Irish staple.
Slices of carrot and potato lurked in the casserole, increasing the probability of forking one of these rather than a piece of pigeon or bacon.
The menu stated that some vegetables are grown on site but the carrots, cauliflower, beans and new potatoes did not taste field-fresh.
The liver, which came on a mound of dry mashed potato flecked with pepper but surprisingly bland, was overcooked and came with the same vegetable combination as the casserole, however the slice of thick-cut bacon was lovely.
Not overly impressed with our lot, the dandelion and burdock cake seemed like a good choice to sweeten the pot.
But it was bereft of flavour and with a strange batter-like aroma, I had a sneaking suspicion that this cake was not handcrafted.
Only the topping was purportedly dandelion and burdock but the grittiness suggested that whatever substance lent the flavour had not been properly combined with the chocolate sauce. The cool cream and fresh strawberry were the saviours.
The uninspiring Highlander experience, not quite so inspirational as the action-fantasy films of the same name, left me deflated.
We left into the inky night that had driven the twittering swallows to their nests. ‘In the end, there can be only one’.
DOG BEER OFFERS QUIRKINESS
The bar offered a selection of real ales from Black Sheep, Westons and Wylam; probably best enjoyed in the attractive beer garden to the rear.
There was a limited vegetarian choice on the menu, but there was an extensive children’s offering, with dishes such as chicken breast with vegetables; chicken nuggets, chips and beans or peas; sausage, chips and beans or peas; fish fingers, chips and beans or peas; pasta bolognese with garlic bread; 4oz Aberdeen Angus beef burger, chips and beans or peas; plus a free ice-cream with every children’s meal.
A selection of dog beer provided quirkiness for canines in need of thirst-quenching.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Chef’s soup of the day......£4.25
Garlic and chilli king prawn......£7.25
Chef’s own steak and ale pie......£9.95
Mince and dumpling......£8.95
Broccoli/cream cheese bake......£8.95
8oz/16oz rump steak......£12.95/£23.95
10oz gammon steak......£9.25
Desserts (all £5.25)
New York cheesecake; lemon meringue pie; triple chocolate gateaux;
bread and butter pudding; sticky toffee pudding.
STAR RATINGS (out of ten)
Quality of food......5
Use of local food......10
Verdict: You might not leave elated but if you’re hungry you’ll be well fed.
Contact: 01661 881220 or visit www.thehighlanderbelsay.com
The previous Northumberland Gazette Eating Out column reviewed The Schooner Hotel, Alnmouth. and if you missed it, here is a link to the Gazette’s top tips of 2014.