Bistro 21 has the key to the door in Durham
Posted: 31 Jan 2010
Bistro 21 is just ab fab for food
LATEST: Bistro 21 has welcomed back a couple of old friends who have been in Australia for a year freshening up their food and hospitality skills.
Robbie Bell from Gateshead is new head chef of Bistro 21 in Durham after a year working in two of Sydney’s most popular and prestigious restaurants. Girlfriend Rebecca Tofield is assistant manager.
Robbie said: “I want to use my experience to refine flavours and subtly introduce some modern techniques that I have picked up on my travels, while at the same time keeping the hearty, locally sourced favourites on the menu.”
Robbie is pictured here with leading restaurateur Terry Laybourne who heads the 21 Hospitality group of which Bistro 21 is a part.
First, a home truth about my home town: Durham, for all its centuries-old wonders, has no history as a gastronomic paradise.
The number of good quality restaurants has always been – to use a weasel word – limited. Any eating-out guide to Durham would be (if you discount the chains) a very slim volume.
Down the years you could always find maybe two or three good places: readers with long memories might recall The Brothers near Framwellgate Bridge – a brave attempt to bring a range of dining options in one building, now long gone.
But such innovative outfits are the exception rather than the rule. Run-of-the-mill pizza/pasta joints, burger bars and decent but unexceptional ethnic outfits have traditionally predominated (and, to be fair, they never seem short of business).
The scene is starting to change now, though, as investment and development in the city is leading to a flurry of new eateries, many of them in the area between the Gala Theatre and the River Wear (more about which in future issues) and others opening on the outskirts of the city.
Star of the show
But the star of the show, in my opinion, is no brash newcomer. It’s Bistro 21 at Aykley Heads which has been around for over ten years.
It is part of uber-chef Terry Laybourne’s eclectic stable which includes the fabulous Jesmond Dene House and Café 21, both in Newcastle.
I love both of those places, but Bistro 21 is the first place I head for when I’ve been away for a while and my first choice when entertaining people from out of town who assume that Durham will have nothing to rival their favourites in their home areas (Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton included).
How wrong they are.
To start with, the fabric of the place is impressive. The restaurant is housed in a converted 17th century farmhouse and has a rustic yet chic décor with hints of its agricultural past still present in the shape of its heavy wooden floors and huge open fireplaces. But the food and service are firmly fixed in the 21st century.
First the food. As is becoming increasingly customary, major efforts are made to source food locally and to have seasonally-driven menus. I always particularly enjoy the asparagus season in the spring when those green spears come in various guises. There are definite nods towards Mediterranean and Asian cuisine in terms of influences, flavours and spices, but these are generally subtle and never overwhelming.
Soups here are invariably terrific and a reliable starter.
Other favourites (apart from asparagus) have included salads of Craster kippers, poached egg and endive or black pudding and bacon. Squid with crème fraiche and chilli jam also scored highly.
Mains enjoyed this year have been locally-bred lamb, slow-cooked pork belly with green lentils and chicory, steaks and that bistro classic of fishcakes done here with spinach, parsley cream and chips.
Puddings are invariably delicious, and the crème brulee and chocolate mousse are always simple, beautifully presented and irresistible.
The portions aren’t huge –many people in these parts expect plates to be groaning with food – but they aren’t stingy either and a two-course meal here is, I think, just right.
Service a strong point
The service at Bistro 21 is also a cut above most places in Durham. The trained staff, immaculately turned out in French-style white aprons and ready with advice if asked, are the epitome of helpfulness and unobtrusiveness. This professionalism shouldn’t be that difficult to master, but anyone who eats out a lot will know that it’s far from ubiquitous.
House red wine is around £13 and pre-dinner drinks can be expensive.
But if you order kir royale I suppose you should expect to pay the best part of nine pounds.
The place has tweaked and adapted its offering down the years and now has an early dining special menu of £14 for two courses and a set lunch menu as well as a la carte and regular ‘bring your own bottle’ special eating events when chefs get a chance to stretch their repertoires and indulge customers in Californian, Tuscan or South East Asian cooking.
There are also a couple of private dining areas – I know some of football’s best-known local faces have taken advantage of these options – and the upstairs room was just perfect for a friend’s recent birthday dinner for twelve.
It’s one of those places you can nip into and have a quick bite and a glass of wine, getting away with under £20 a head or you could spend hours – and spend £50 a head or more.
The point here is, it’s your choice and there’s no pressure. Bistro 21 somehow manages to be classy without being intimidating, professional yet friendly – and the food’s just fab.
Bistro 21, Aykley Heads, Durham DH1 5TS, tel: 0191 384 4354