MEAL REVIEW: The Sanctuary Restaurant, Alnwick Castle

Assiette of fish  halibut, sea trout, monkfish and king prawns, with saffron potatoes, braised fennel and bouillabaisse sauce
Assiette of fish  halibut, sea trout, monkfish and king prawns, with saffron potatoes, braised fennel and bouillabaisse sauce

“It’s really mean of George to go off to Scotland without us,” grumbled Anne. “What on earth shall the four of us do without her?”

As usual, Julian had a good idea: “Let’s go to the Sanctuary at the Castle for dinner.”

North Sea crab cakes

North Sea crab cakes

“That restaurant closed years ago,” said Dick dismissively.

“Ah,” said Julian. “It opens very occasionally for dinner and it just happens to be open this Friday.”

“Oh how exciting,” we all said at once. “Let’s go and try it out.”

First impressions were very good indeed; the room was spectacular, it had a baronial feel, candlelit with a spectacular wooden ceiling.

Cream of asparagus soup with crispy hen's egg

Cream of asparagus soup with crispy hen's egg

Our table, neatly tucked into a corner was particularly nice. We settled in and picked up the menus feeling very happy. It is a fixed-price menu, three courses at £35 per person, and the menu is limited, just four options for each course (one of which was vegetarian).

After just the right length of time to sip our pre-dinner drinks and ponder the menu, our friendly waiter came to take the dinner orders. As adventurous as ever, Dick ordered the crispy pig’s head with fig purée and apple salad, even though he wasn’t at all sure what would be served – he needn’t have worried – it turned out to be a coated ball of shredded pig’s cheek served with the most delicious, rich and nutty black pudding he had ever tasted.

Dick said if he was going to be picky (which he is), he would have asked for slightly more fig purée.

Anne and Julian started with North Sea crab cakes with garlic and saffron aioli, pickled radish and watercress. They quickly announced that these were the best crab cakes they’d ever had, light and well flavoured.

Peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake

Peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake

I started with cream of asparagus soup with a crispy hen’s egg. It was smooth, creamy and flavoursome; the crispy egg was an unusual touch but did enhance the dish and the egg was well cooked with a still-runny yolk.

Our mains were equally good; Dick and Julian had the Taste of the Sea – an assiette of fish served with samphire.

They both enjoyed it – as critical as ever, Dick thought the halibut was slightly too firm, but Julian thought it just right. Anne had the Chicken Dinner and, once again, she said she had never had better! Anne has a light appetite so we all got to try her chicken and it was beautifully cooked. I had the warm summer vegetable salad with Jersey royals, mint and courgette beignets. The vegetables (gorgeous baby turnips, leeks and potatoes) were excellent, but the beignets were buried underneath them and had become a little soggy.

Then onto puddings and they were absolutely delicious.

Banana sandwich

Banana sandwich

Dick had the Banana Sandwich, which was roasted banana with caramelised puff pastry and Horlicks and Maltesers ice cream and he wolfed it down. Anne had the Strawberries and Cream; this was a vanilla panna cotta with flavours of Eton mess; the panna cotta was creamy and firm and the flavour of the strawberries was beautifully enhanced by a mint-like herb, which we later found out was Thai basil.

I had the peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake, with peanut brittle and baked blackberries, and every mouthful was heaven – I had to restrain Dick from finishing it for me!

Julian had the Posh Tart which was a fig and almond tart and though he said it was nice, it was a little dry and not in the same league as the other puddings.

A wonderful evening was slightly marred when we got the bill, which Julian thought seemed pricy at £251.20.

The fixed price for food for four was £140; had we really ordered drinks to the value of £111 when Anne wasn’t even drinking alcohol?

Ever practical, Julian realised that we had been charged for six meals. Once he pointed this out to the waiter, our bill was quickly adjusted but it is a good job that Julian was so vigilant.

The Sanctuary at the Castle had a real sense of style. The food was beautifully presented; each meal was a delight to look at. We didn’t find out who the chef is but our advice is – do all you can to hang on to him or her!

HIGH-QUALITY DINING EXPLOIT

The Sanctuary is in the process of testing the market to see if there is demand for a high-quality dining experience in Alnwick. They have tried a range of different dining events – and so far they seem to be proving successful. They held a taster night, a dinner combined with a talk about the history of the Percy family and dinner with wine tasting. They opened for Mother’s Day lunch recently and are now testing the water with fine-dining evenings – one each month. We thought the food and service outstanding and wish the Sanctuary very well in this endeavour. Alnwick needs a restaurant of this quality.

SELECTION FROM THE MENU (three courses for £35)

Starters

Cream of asparagus soup with crispy hen’s egg

Crispy pig’s head, fig puree, apple salad

Main Courses

Pistachio-crusted cannon of lamb with lamb samosa, spiced lentils and aubergine, cardamom yogurt and coriander

Roasted breast of corn-fed chicken, potato puree, baby veg

Assiette of fish – halibut, sea trout, monkfish and king prawns, with saffron potatoes, braised fennel and bouillabaisse sauce

Desserts

Crème fraiche and vanilla panna cotta, with flavours of Eton mess

Warm fig and almond tart, with honeyed ricotta

RATINGS (out of 10)

Quality of food......10

Presentation......10

Choice......8

Vegetarian choice......8

Atmosphere......9

Use of local food......8

Service......8

Overall rating......9

Verdict: We would all recommend visiting this restaurant. It was a grown-up dining experience; the menu is quite inventive, the flavours work well and on the whole the food is cooked to perfection. We absolutely loved it. The next evening is August 13. Just make sure you check your bill at the end!

Contact: 01665 511086; www.alnwickcastle.com/events/123/summer-dining-in-the-sanctuary

The previous Northumberland Gazette Eating Out column reviewed The Cross Inn, Paxton, near Berwick. And if you missed it, here is a link to the Gazette’s top tips of 2014.