Restaurant review: Brunel's, at the Anchor Bar
Nautically-themed Newcastle landmark is going from strength to strength, but could still be a bit more generous with the starters. Tel: 028 4372 3951
Brunel's, the restaurant above the Anchor Bar in Newcastle, should have been included in the recently published Good Food Guide, a Waitrose publication. Mysteriously, it wasn't.
Chef Paul Cunningham has been plugging away at his first-floor operation in recent years, making it more comfortable as a place to sit in and constantly improving the food offered through his bold and ambitious innovations.
Brunel's used to look like a place built by a decent DIY amateur handy with a drill. There was a fair amount of stripped pine and bare floorboards. It has since upped its interior and now boasts a more upmarket environment featuring facsimile butcher's tables and good chairs.
Adding to the look, young servers are in waistcoats. They have all the charm and good manners, as well as the youthful and unrehearsed vigour of X Factor contestants at the auditions stage.
The restaurant will soon close to be rehoused at a new address in Newcastle, so there is still a chance to eat upstairs before the move this autumn. It will keep its name, but we can expect it to have a very different and more urban vibe altogether, according to the maitre d'.
In the meantime, the three of us made the most of Paul Cunningham's ambitions and innovations above the Anchor Bar.
Paul is a restless kind of chef and dishes which appear recognisable on the menu come out looking and tasting quite unexpectedly different.
So, a poached and pan-roasted quail dish arrives with a very generous array of beautifully moist and tender little breasts, broad bean puree butter, minced girolles and madeira jus. The total is wonderfully rustic and gamey, luscious and well balanced.
The minced girolles are an acquired taste, sharing the bitterness of mustard seeds and the rich, velvety mushroom smoothness in a marriage perhaps not made in heaven.
The chargrilled mackerel is, by contrast, an outstanding hit, the sweet acidity of the mackerel mixing well with the soused cucumber, tart gooseberry and elderflower.
Mussels from Strangford, so delicate they can be destroyed in seconds, are plump and packed with briney flavour, that beautiful dark mustard colour shining through the black shells and cider and scallion cream.
A poached langoustine starter featuring fermented blueberry, miso gel, watermelon, buttermilk paste and sea veg is a journey into the Far East where the kitchen may have taken a wrong turn.
The three langoustines are a bit miserly for £9. They are overdone and the miso gel, or dashi, trailed along the top of the composed prawns, watermelon and sea veg is as unsightly as a snail trail, rather than reminiscent of the ocean which was Paul's intention.
The adviser raves about the chicken breast with charred baby corn, parmesan polenta chips, black garlic puree and broad beans. Normally she avoids chicken breast on the basis that it is bound to be bland and dry, enlivened only by whatever sauces and condiments are in reach.
Yet this is very good, she says. Loads of chicken flavour and the accompanying support act is perfectly balanced with sweetness and savouriness and that oddly addictive woody and nutty taste from the polenta.
His desserts of fondant chocolate and lemon thyme creme brulee are both triumphs, beautifully made and finished and effectively perfect. The creme brulee is particularly brilliant, as the thyme supports rather than dominates the creamy custard beneath the golden brittle.
Cunningham is clearly a very good chef. Cooking quail and chicken like that requires skill, judgment and experience. But looking at that langoustine dish (up the road in Annalong's Harbour Inn, his friend, chef Trevor Orr, is a bit more generous with them!) it may be that he needs to spend more time test driving his new dishes with honest family and friends, so that he can avoid the minor, but nonetheless memorable, visual upsets which make a dish succeed, or fail.
Newcastle is a transformed town since the promenade was refurbished and the main street cleaned up.
There are good little restaurants there, too, including Vanilla, Linenhill and Seasalt. Brunel's move closer to this lot will help the town move towards a new culinary reputation.
Quail x 2 £43.90
Desserts x 2 £11.90
Espresso x 3 £6.30
Sparkling water x 2 £3.80