Monday, 12 May 2014

Kenny's House of Tides balances history with cutting-edge cuisine

There’s nothing like a 16th Grade 1 listed building if you’re looking to create the right atmosphere for a fine dining experience: ask Ludlow – it has both in spades. 

Chef Kenny Atkinson – whose House of Tides restaurant opened in a former merchant’s town house on Newcastle Quayside earlier this year – now knows all about the warts-and-all nature of living with English Heritage, which is charged with ensuring that new uses for old buildings do not compromise either their fabric or their historic essence.

When Kenny told the world on BBC's Saturday Kitchen more than a year ago that his new venture would be open in August 2013, he never thought for a moment that the reality would be an opening in early 2014. During that time, newcastle's eager diners have anticipated with baited berth the most eagerly awaited restaurant opining in the region for years.

“The thing with English Heritage,” Kenny told me, “is that they want to see life in the building, which is great, and they are really enthusiastic that we have opened a restaurant. From that point of view they are really supportive. But getting permission to do things is a bit more difficult, because they only meet three of four times a year…

What had prompted this conversation was a comment by a waitress when four of us joined the throngs of eager Geordie diners anxious to sample this “Michelin Star elect” venue back in February. Kenny was hoping to open a cookery school on the top two floors of the four-storey building, she said.

Yes, says Kenny: a cookery school would be Plan A. “We have taken the bottom two floors for 20 years and to expand upwards is our easiest option. I really want to take the whole building on, with complete control, and the landlord has taken it off the market, but we are waiting for English Heritage to get back to us.”

At issue is whether the venting that would be required to establish a cookery classroom can realistically be achieved without compromising the building’s structure.

If it doesn’t happen, then watch out for Plan B – a private dining facility with its own bar and a programme of guest chefs drawn from the ranks of those Kenny has got to know as a regular on the likes of The Great British Menu, Saturday Kitchen, and Sky TV’s Perfect… Tom Kerridge, Sean Rankin, Nigel Haworth et al. “We all get on really well,” says Kenny, who expects to be back on Saturday Kitchen soon, maybe September, “now the business is running well”.

Kenny’s ethos at House of Tides is fine dining, but without the stuffiness. It’s not the easiest of tricks to pull off, but Kenny’s Michelin Stars were won at locations as diverse as the Isles of Scilly and Durham’s Seaham Hall and if anyone can do it, it’s Kenny. Indeed, his intent is evident the moment you walk through front door, beneath the grandeur of Robert Stephenson’s Grade 1 High Level Bridge.

Kenny is kitchen, front of house, souciant host, making sure his new venture is on track to become a well oiled machine that will (if he’s not there) run nicely for his carefully chosen team. Cocktails and amuse-bouche are taken downstairs and set the tone: lamb and baby leeks with the whiskers left on – great idea!

Then it’s up the steps to embark on the nine-course dégustation for £65 – a wonderful evening’s journey through butternut squash soup, mackerel, sea bass, duck, beef, rhubarb, chocolate and cheese. On this foodie scaffold, Kenny has sculpted a creation whose detail is its triumph. That detail ranges from local touches, like pease pudding, to challenges to conventional ideas of what will “go”, such as smoked eel fennel and orange with the mackerel. Oh, and let’s not forget the “sand carrots” preserved underground in a field near Corbridge. I loved it, though some confess to being almost “flavoured-out” by it all.

The secret I’d like Kenny to share with me is how to make rhubarb al denté: his inhabits an elusive Shangri-La between hard and mush, that shall never be visited by us mere mortals.

House of Tides joins successful Quayside ventures by Terry Laybourne (Café 21, Caffè Vivo) and exciting new gastro pubs, such as the Bridge Tavern and Broad Chare, and its arrival may yet herald more new life for an area now forsaken by stag and hen parties, which have migrated to the city centre. On the cards is a new venue from the ashes of the popular cocktails and bistro, Popolo, while there’s talk of a boutique hotel at The Cooperage, one time unplugged venue of rock stars like Mark Knopfler.

“I’m surrounded by five big hotels that aren’t foodie hotels and on a Saturday night it’s a brilliant atmosphere down here!” 

Indeed, it is all change on Newcastle's Quayside, once the destination of choice for stag and hen parties. Some may have seen a lamentably poorly researched article on the North East in Saturday's Guardian magazine, in which the writer, Andy Beckett, likened the region to Detroit, a city that his witnessed its own near death. Beckett spoke of the closure of bars on the Quayside as evidence of the region's malaise, but those of us who live here know that the stags and hens have simply moved on to a new district around Central Station, leaving the Quayside open to a move upmarket, as epitomised by Kenny, who is part of the vanguard.

Keep up the good work, Kenny!

A version of this blog is appearing in Eastern Airways Magazine's June issue.