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No game? Shame. The North East's most candid food critic - now writing every Saturday in The Journal.

"IQUITE enjoyed it. The first time at least," said Mrs Diner wearily, waving a fork in the general direction of the piped music. Jamie Lawson's 'Wasn't Expecting That' was doing its second lap of the dining room's CD player.

The music wasn't the only thing that gave me a sense of deja vu. Our whole meal was turning into the kind of underwhelming, old-fashioned dining experience I've encountered all over North Northumberland. The standard of restaurants in this part of the county, with a few notable exceptions, is now light years behind Newcastle, and I simply can't work out why. Most Northumbrians I know are much more sophisticated and modern than the restaurants that serve them.

Of course I accept that not every kitchen can dazzle with imagination; most just have the relatively simple task of feeding lots of people well, without fanfare. I'm guessing this is the role of the Cook and Barker which, as their website has it, is "a real traditional Northumbrian Country Inn". Set back from the A1 just south of Alnwick, the restaurant's menu is a list of safe and familiar dishes, the type of things lots of locals must really look forward to on a Saturday night out, for the large dining room was packed.

It actually took us an awful long time, and several Jamie Lawson tracks, to figure out what on earth we were going to eat. Across the table d'hote (PS29) and a la carte menus we had to wade through ten starters and twenty-six (yes, really) main courses.

There was seafood, lots of steak, lamb, grills and even, bless it, baked gammon and fried egg (I wondered if they served it with a ring of pineapple). This place doesn't appear to welcome vegetarians - their one token main course offering was penne with pine nuts.

Despite the absurd length of this menu, none of it suggested any originality or ambition; how any kitchen could be expected to cook food of quality from a list this long is just the kind of problem that Sweary McGordon gets so exercised about on his TV shows.

As a result, nothing of real note made its way to our table. Take my five-spiced roast duck main course (I rather wish I hadn't): the breast had been overcooked to an uncompromising shade of ashen grey, and yet the skin remained uncrisp. Alongside this slumbered an exhausted block of dauphinoise, the discolouring of the potatoes hinting at the length of time they'd been hanging around waiting for someone to order them. A shame all round, as the duck retained decent flavour, if not texture, despite its manhandling. I struggled to detect any of the advertised hedgerow and elderberry notes in the jus.

Mrs Diner's sirloin suffered exactly the opposite fate, being cooked so rare that some of the sinewy tissue hadn't broken down. The Cook and Barker source their beef from their own Hope House Farm, so we were expecting a first-rate steak, but this lacked depth of flavour, perhaps due to scantness of seasoning.

Our starters had been a little better, but were still nigglesome. A lobster and crab bisque was rich and packed some proper umami depth, but while the crunch of cracked shell at least proved it was home-made, I'd rather the bits had been sieved rather than forcing me to filter them out with my teeth.

A tender and flavoursome piece of belly pork came with a sweet scallop, a swoosh of pea puree and some decent black pudding. This would have been rather good had the skin of the pig been crisp as advertised. Instead, it stuck gummily to the teeth. Not a dish for dentures.

Mrs Diner, who ordered from the table d'hote, was given a weird glass of tequila sunrise as a palate cleanser between courses (it had the opposite effect on her palate), whereas I, eating from the more expensive a la carte, was offered none. A stingy omission. Otherwise, service was cheery and brisk, as it had to be with so many customers.

The dining room in which these dishes were served is an attractive part of an old building featuring exposed stonework, bare wood floors and some serious timber beams. Apparently it used to be a blacksmith's, which explained the well in the middle of the room. I don't often comment on chairs, but these, let me tell you, were very comfy indeed. The Ancient Diner would have approved.

Here and there were hung the tools of the hunt, which made me wonder why, bang in the middle of the season, there was no game on the menu? No fewer than eight main courses featured beef: where was the pigeon salad, the roast grouse, the game pie? It's almost impossible to drive here without running over a pheasant or two - and they surely could have cadged a few haunches of venison off the Duke of Northumberland's estates just up the road. I consoled myself with a plate of excellent cheese, including Doddington's admirable first attempt at a blue, Darling, and a tangy threeyear-old Gouda. The former perfectly matched a glass of treacly Pedro Ximinez sherry, but as ever there was a catch: the cheeses were almost fridge-cold. Mrs Diner finished with meringue and cream. I adore chewy meringue; this one wasn't.

Despite my whining, this wasn't a truly awful meal; it was just frustrating. It's clearly very popular, so maybe I've just got it wrong, and this is exactly what people want. They are clearly being served exactly what they expect, and this place has been around forever so maybe I should just let them get on with it.

Through the mediocrity, though, there were flashes of what might have been so much better. A shorter, far more focussed menu, including something that someone has shot, proper care of decent ingredients, and attention to detail - is that too much to ask? Particularly as our bill came to just under PS72, including just a couple of glasses of reasonably priced wine.

That's not completely outrageous, but it was enough for us to expect something better. As Jamie Lawson would say: I wasn't expecting that.

Secret Diner's verdict (out of 5 stars) Food .. Service ... Ambience ...

Cook and Barker Inn Newton-on-the-Moor Felton Northumberland NE65 9JY 01665 575 234 www.cookandbarkerinn.co.uk DEAR SECRET DINER I think it's misleading of Fuego (last week's review) to call their pizza "Napoli style".

The Woodstone oven used at Fuego is great for front of house applications and ease of use, but I don't believe they get hot enough to make Vera Pizza Napoletana.

The pizzaiolo that was there when I visited (about a week after opening) used a rolling pin to stretch the dough.

As soon as I saw him doing this and spied a pizza at another table, I decided not to order pizza.

Fenwick should have installed the Neapolitan version of the Woodstone oven, where you can elect to have the flame on the left or right side - not at the back. This brings the flame closer to the oven operator and allows pizzas to be placed at the back of the oven where it is hotter.

The dough is as important as the oven. Complexity is found in the fermentation method and time period. I start my dough with a sourdough (natural yeast) that I've been breeding for about 3 years.

I use a liquid dough which I ferment for 3 days (indirect fermentation) and prove the final dough for 3 days (direct fermentation).

This is the new style of dough making, which increases the flavours, texture and aesthetics of the final product ten fold.

It does however make the dough extremely difficult to work with and is the reason why no restaurant would do this that needs their products to be idiot proof.

Even the elite pizzerias of New York are going in an idiot-proof direction due to expansion (greed). If you look at the pizzas from, say, Grimaldi's, they are pale and lifeless.

It's no wonder that people in New York are turning towards small Neapolitan places for their fix.

Yours, Calvin Cal's Own Pizzeria, Heaton Do you agree with the Secret Diner's verdict? Do you have a favourite restaurant you'd like him to visit? Unless otherwise stated, the Secret Diner pays for his own meals and accepts neither bribes nor freebies, so his advice is always impartial.

Restaurants have a right of reply.

You can email him direct at secretdiner@secretdiner.org, or send a tweet to @SecretDiner1

While the crunch of cracked shell at least proved it was homemade, I'd rather the crab bits had been sieved rather than forcing me to filter them out with my teeth.

CAPTION(S):

The Cook and Barker is a traditional country inn near Alnwick, where the Secret Diner found an enormous menu containing few surprises and some <Bunderwhelming dishes, including five spiced roast duck breast, inset.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 21, 2015
Words:1487
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