I justified a trip to Newcastle as essential travel last weekend to take a closer look at chef Paul Cunningham whose restaurant Brunel's has been boxing up dinners including a six-course tasting menu for heat-at-home consumption. A six-course takeaway shows the kind of ambition last seen a century ago when the Mourne Wall was built by a handful of Down men sustained by buttermilk, jam sandwiches and 20 Woodbine.
And at the foot of the Mournes lies Brunel's, part of Newcastle's fabric ever since it first appeared upstairs above the Anchor Bar ten years ago before moving to its magnificent seafront position more recently. Chef Cunningham has always pushed the boat out. He's for ever trying new flavour pairings and complicated dishes which in the past have featured foams, deconstructions and straw.
Paul reaches high and low in his never-ending pursuit of new flavours and textures and you're as likely to find him foraging along the shoreline for samphire as he is climbing the slopes for wild garlic. Most of the food he serves is sourced within 30 miles.
He made it to the Great British Menu Northern Ireland heats largely because of his boundless energy and talent and willingness to take risks. His adoration of Scandinavia and the culinary revolution unleashed by chefs such as Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson inspire him to remain seasonal. And sometimes he will try things out which don't work. The yellow man and goat's cheese stands out in memory. But this week he nailed the heat-at-home tasting menu from start to finish.
A smoked bacon brioche, pea and crab tartlet with scurvy grass, pigeon three-ways, short rib of beef backed up by a full orchestra including pureed carrots, potato gratin layered with braised oxtail, lovage and bone marrow crumb and lovage mayo, leek butter and much more besides, a white chocolate parfait with rhubarb paper and some petits fours, were all flawless, exciting and there in vast quantities too.
The maturity of Paul's work shines through now, yet the excitement and danger (what's he gonna do next?) are still there. Which means that this six-course taster was as astonishing as it was entertaining. From start to finish, this was a self-assured performance, made all the more impressive as I had stored it in the fridge for a night.
Probably more important than anything was the ease with which everything came together.
I have two left feet where my hands should be and still managed not to destroy anything. No need to do anything for the bread (other than heat it up in the oven), the crab tartlets and the pigeon starters which were beautifully jarred up, featuring orange jelly and little slivers of firm pigeon ham and confit of leg rillettes, ready to eat.
The simmer-in-bags ribs and carrot puree could be left alone in the pot while the potato gratin and carrots (hay-baked and glazed in bone marrow) crisped up nicely in the oven too. This was one of the easiest heat-at-homes in a while. Appropriately glamorous and colourful, the rhubarb, white chocolate and rose fudge delice came with an entourage of white chocolate soil, rhubarb paper and a rhubarb and rose sorbet.
Making six courses as easy as putting bread in a toaster takes a lot of forward planning. Brunel's have made this bomb proof with clear instructions and remarkably little packaging.
And one more thing: do not be alarmed by the potential of "tasting menus" to translate into tiny portions. Those short ribs and the rest are colossal.
Available once a fortnight, make sure you're on the list for next week.
6-course tasting menu for two people £70.00