Fine food on a freezing cold day; TABLE FOR 2 KATHARINE CAPOCCI Wellington Restaurant, Wynyard Hall.
THE opulent Wellington restaurant at Wynyard Hall country house hotel is a welcome sight for sore eyes any day of the week.
But it is especially inviting on a freezing February day when a toasty table by one of the blazing log fires beckons.
Dining in such grand surroundings makes for a memorable evening. It's not just the setting of the 19th Century mansion house - now in the hands of Sir John Hall - and the grand restaurant itself with its plush furnishings, oil paintings and sense of history.
It's all of that, of course, but top of my list was sampling the imaginative dishes coming out of executive head chef Alan O'Kane's kitchen.
The restaurant received a third AA rosette in January, putting it in the top 10% in the country.
And Alan, who is known for his bold and clever modern cooking, has long been an advocate of the support local ethos.
He has been at Wynyard Hall for two years now and is fast making a name for himself and the hotel.
So it was with some anticipation my friend and I perused the menus.
There's a market menu offering two courses for PS24.50 and three courses PS31.50, and a seasonal menu of two courses for PS42 or three courses, PS55.
The seasonal menu offers starters such as hand-dived king scallop and salt-baked artichoke and mains of curry-scented sea bass, pot-roast wood pigeon and saddle of venison.
We ordered glasses of bone-dry, minerally Picpoul de Pinet Beauvignac 2011, PS6.95, and took our time choosing.
Once ensconced in the restaurant, named after the Duke of Wellington who was a regular visitor to the hall in the 1800s, we awaited our dishes from the seasonal menu.
It is on the pricey side, but we reckoned our dishes would be served up with a big side ordering of surprise. And we weren't wrong.
The restaurant is a formal, fine dining venue - the sort of place you dress for dinner. It seems only fitting for such a dramatic setting. But far from feeling stuffy, it is warm and inviting. Especially by that fire.
Our gastronomic journey started with canapes of macaroons with savoury fillings of beetroot and foie gras, pea and ham, and carrot and fennel. These brought a smile to the face.
Amuse bouche of maple syrup and foie gras ice cream with beetroot snow kept the smiles going. This was clever stuff.
My starter of Whitby crab with micro carrots with their tops on and walnut variations was exquisite. A delicate dish, the crabmeat was as sweet as can be.
My friend's terrine of duck, Morteau sausage and foie gras, all in neat slices, was all bold flavours, the chamomile tea and Sauternes jelly cubes, bordering the terrine, a lovely touch, and the bitter almond tuile, show-off stuff. Both dishes looked so artistic in presentation.
We liked the fact that the staff were well-trained and smartly turned out. Slick and professional, but with a friendly manner too.
My main of sweet, grassy fillet of Dexter was a posh and clever take on surf and turf. It came with compression of shin, which was fall-apart gorgeous, chunk of meaty halibut with roasted quinoa topping, Lyonnaise potatoes, salt-baked carrot, monk's beard and punchy chervil root and garlic puree. No stinting on the garlic either!
Across the table, my friend's witty take on shepherd's pie was deemed delicious. Saddle of lamb, beautifully pink, with scrag end parcel, pea mousse, peas and shallots, and strong flavour contrast of sheep's milk and red dulse curd, had my friend in raptures.
Pre-dessert of a twist on apple crumble - apple and brandy espuma served in a cocktail glass - was both sharp and sweet with crackling popping candy topping. Decadent too being a pud before desserts proper.
My pistachio dessert consisting of rich malt cremeaux, candied pistachio and grapes, and dusting of pistachio powder looked an absolute picture. The cremeaux was a little too rich for me, but the plate was an interesting fusion of flavours.
My companion's pineapple, coconut and tapioca cannelloni tube complemented by variations of pineapple, fresh coconut strips and stems of coriander, was fresh and exotic. She's never tried a dish quite like it - but loved the exotic pairings.
This was skilful cooking, all beautifully served up with flair.
We may only have the one Michelin star in the North East but Wynyard Hall is certainly one to watch.
FACTFILE Address: Wynyard Hall, Billingham, TS22 5NF. Tel: 01740 644811 Open: The restaurant is open for dinner, seven days a week, from 7pm. Afternoon tea from 1-4.30pm. Lounge menu, 12-9pm, in the lounge. First impressions: Grand 19th Century mansion house housing elegant Wellington restaurant.
Welcome: Warm. Style, design and furnishings: Dramatic setting with rich red colour scheme, oil paintings and huge windows. Cuisine: Modern British Service: Slick and professional, but personable too.
Value: Pricey, but excellent. Disabled facilities: Accessible.
Amuse bouche of maple syrup and foie gras ice-cream with beetroot snow kept the smiles going
BIG CHEESE Alan O'Kane, executive head chef at Wynyard Hall
LUXURY SURROUNDINGS The Wellington restaurant at Wynyard Hall, plus Grand Reserve beef, below