Restaurant review: Brunel's
20 Down Road. Newcastle. Tel: 028 4372 3951
The greatest English language food columnist who ever lived and who wrote for the Sunday Times, the late AA Gill, was based in London. Gill loathed travelling outside the capital to review restaurants in the country, because he believed they were invariably inferior.
Jay Rayner, the Observer columnist and broadcaster, who now loves coming here after his inaugural Northern Ireland review (of Made in Belfast) left him trolled, ridiculed and generally beaten about the head, does the opposite and uncovers fabulous restaurants all over the place. He even found a good bistro in Paris last year.
The situation in city/country divide in Northern Ireland is a bit different. This is primarily a rural society and our attachment to the land goes back to the fact that many of us who might now live in Belfast grew up in small towns and villages, or on farms, all over the north.
Growing up in Armagh, half my friends were farmers' children, so we knew what good food was from early in life. If you look at our near-obsession in the 21st century with local produce (I know other parts of the world celebrate their terroir, too, but nobody does it as fervently as we do), you can tell it's because we are far more sophisticated as consumers and well-versed in country ways and quality produce.
Occasionally, restaurants out in the country will match the produce and deliver a knock-out punch to remind any smug city slickers that quality is as readily available outside Belfast as it is in it. With this happy thought in mind, I set off with adviser and teen to Newcastle, to Paul Cunningham's recently re-established Brunel's restaurant.
Formerly perched above the Anchor Bar at the eastern end of town, Brunel's always punched above its weight. Would this level of quality transfer to its new home?
Not quite. Chef Cunningham is very ambitious and his cooking is meticulous, forensic and formal. The server gave us a full, one-minute lecture on the subject of his precision to explain why Paul would not consider serving plain toast with his duck liver parfait, rather than the sweet sultana brioche which the adviser otherwise fancied as a starter. The lecture went on long enough to dissuade the adviser from having a starter at all.
The same, decent seafood chowder is on the menu, as is the goat's cheese mousse served with yellow man. Sweetness is a recurring theme here and, while I love a bit of sugar as much as the next man, there comes a point at which the red line is reached.
And this is the issue with Brunel's. Front of house staff are pleasant and attentive, but perhaps a bit browbeaten. No room for flexibility is the opposite of the concept of hospitality. It used to be that the menu was a guide to what a restaurant could offer you; if you wanted anything not listed, just ask.
That's not to say that some of the dishes aren't excellent. The one vegetarian option, rigatoni with chestnut mushrooms, is very good, fresh, plentiful and wholesome. There are shards of something crispy, which I cannot identify, but which turn out to be garlic tuile. There is honey, asparagus and a parmesan emulsion in there, too, something with which some vegetarians would take issue.
The adviser's roast beef dinner is outstanding, the beef perfectly medium rare, the size of a car seat cushion, let down only by a stone-cold, but otherwise perfectly executed, Yorkshire pudding.
The sugar pit pork chop has all the hoped-for elements, a bit of char, blackened fatty bit and meat which shreds away from the bone. The accompanying apple fritter (not a cider caramelised apple, as advertised) provides a great counter-balance and the wholegrain sauce is so good I wanted more. But the bed of buttered leeks was too bitter.
The chocolate and hazelnut brownie is a masterpiece, surprisingly salty and savoury, and the deconstructed apple crumble is delightfully light.
Chef Cunningham tries too hard. His food is often over-wrought. He has great talent and ability, but perhaps is thinking it through too much: ensuring that textures vary, that saltiness and sweetness meet and that the unexpected appearance of features such as yellow man with the goats cheese and sultanas in the brioche is desirable. Better pay more attention to getting the roast potatoes crisped-up (they were worse than mine, edible, but disappointing).
The dining room is pleasant enough, although when booking ask not to be close to the front door. Tables at the back are largely along banquettes and look very comfortable.
2 x 3-course lunch ............................. £50
1 x 2-course lunch.............................. £20
Five glasses wine ........................ £25.50
Total .............................................. £97.50