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Nice one, but don’t push it too far...
AH, the Seventies, the decade that good taste forgot – or so it seems 30 years on. A sharp reminder of that came in the garden of the Fallen Angel Hotel in Durham’s Old Elvet, in the shape of a vintage Rolls-Royce.
Now, when can a Rolls-Royce be anything but the epitome of motoring style and elegance?
When it’s orange, that’s when.
I’m sure the colour of this Roller was never described by the manufacturer as orange – probably Autumn Bronze or Russet Sunburst – but that’s what it is: orange, and that enables the Rolls to be dated pretty precisely to that benighted decade when an orange Rolls-Royce could be deemed desirable and sellable.
The four-wheeled garden feature is also a reminder of the businessman who, three years ago, converted the Fallen Angel from student accommodation into the boutique hotel it is now.
That man, the Durham Pine furniture creator, John Marshall, has moved on – leaving the Rolls behind – and the Fallen Angel is under new ownership with a wholesale refurbishment imminent. For now at least, there are still plenty of other examples of Mr Marshall’s eclectic tastes still evident – the crazily-themed bedrooms among them.
What has changed is the name of the hotel restaurant.
Gadz Grill sounds more like uptown Manhattan than downtown Durham, but the look is still Fallen Angel, a not unpleasant mix of fin de siecle frippery, (drapes, candlebras and Philippe Starck Perspex chairs) and Hugh Heffner mansion (where did you last see an ocelot-patterned carpet?).
The menu is rather more conventional. Starters include soup, “classic” king prawn cocktail, fishcakes, crispy duck spring rolls and griddled Toulouse sausage and fois gras.
Mains major on steaks – ribeye (£17.50) to Porterhouse (£25) – but there is also a range of other grills – saddle of lamb, pork chop, chicken, burger, and one fish dish (grilled lemon sole). Lip service is paid to vegetarians in the shape of a forest mushroom pancake (£10.50).
The prawn cocktail (£7.50) was not quite a classic, but pretty damn good, Sylvia thought. A mound of mixed salad leaves and tomato was topped with five truly king prawns and marie rose sauce. The prawns were fat and juicy, but it would have helped to have had their tails removed as well their heads.
My Durham cured “loch” salmon (£6.50) was served on those vogue-ish slabs of slate and looked very pretty; slivers of smoked salmon topped with little pieces of citrus fruits (pink grapefruit included) and a blob of green salad with shaved fennel.
The salmon was subtly, sweetly cured, but that subtleness was rather lost in the sharpness of the citrus fruits. Both the starters came with buttered, fresh brown bread.
Sylvia’s rib-eye was cooked to a (medium) T, and a was lovely mix of flavoursome lean and sweetly tenderising fat. Her steak knife went through it as if it was butter.
She had skipped the chips that would have normally accompanied the steak in favour of one of the menu “add-ons” (£2-£5 each), which included three sauces – peppercorn, Diane and blue cheese – surf (sautéed king prawns) and the intriguingly described “two deep-fried free-range hens eggs”.
How do you “deep-fry” an egg, we wondered? Well, you don’t (and don’t try it at home). It was just a fried egg. And as Sylvia just asked for one, for research purposes so to speak, there was no charge. Nice touch.
My calf’s liver (£15) was also cooked well to a medium, still pink-ish state. It was really very good, slightly crisp on the outside, velvety soft on the inside. It was served on a dollop of dry-ish mustard mash, a little spinach, crisp bacon and a deeply rich shallot jus.
Sylvia skipped dessert, as is her wont, leaving me with a classically-prepared and very large vanilla crème brulée. Nicely burnt-brittle top with an albaster smooth custard beneath, it was accompanied by what I thought was rather unnecessary lump of vanilla ice cream on the side. Very nice, said Sylvia, nicking a taste, but in what way did the ice cream compliment the brulée?
Service was top-drawer.
With two glasses of excellent quality house wine, one red and one particularly good white, the bill came to £64.
Steep-ish but despite the occasional flavour clash, the meal was very well prepared with top quality ingredients.
The kitchen can clearly cook. They just need to avoid over-egging things. Let those ingredients speak for themselves. Now, can they get the decor spot on in the forthcoming revamp?