JANUARY: a time of regretting how much we ate, drink and spent over Christmas and tightening our belts, physically and financially.
A hard time, then, for those in the entertainment trade, particularly the restaurant sector, as the mid-winter festivities make way for short-lived diets and penny-pinching.
Not at Clarence Villa.
We arrived at the former Kicking Cuddy in Coxhoe (try saying that a few hours into your New Year’s Eve party) on the first Friday night of 2014 to be greeted by a packed dining area, full of celebrations as food flowed and glasses clinked.
“This is my kind of dry January,” I thought, having already broken what was, I’ll admit, a fairly halfhearted pledge to forego booze for the calendar’s first page.
The Clarence, I’ll call it that to prevent me slipping into Jasper Carrot impressions by reference to “The Villa”, is the homecoming eatery of the Sonnet 43 leisure venture, best known for its increasingly popular and critically acclaimed ales, which are brewed next door.
Having reopened in November with the creation of around 50 jobs following a 14-month refurbishment project, it was the firm’s third new pub of 2013, following Chester-le- Street’s The Lambton Worm, which made these pages last July, and Hebburn’s The White Lead.
The new title is, apparently, in fact the old one – the venue having originally been named, on its founding back in 1857, after the neighbouring Clarence Railway coal line, which was itself named after the Duke of Clarence – later King William IV.
But you probably didn’t turn here looking for a history lesson.
Escaping the January cold, we were given a very warm greeting by our host and escorted through a raised dining area, down a few steps above which reaches a teepee-like glass ceiling, and into the main seating area, which then stretches away left and right.
As usual, my wife and I were given a table as far away as possible from the general public for their own protection, which on this occasion happened to be by the window into the rear car park.
The interior of The Clarence Villa, in Coxhoe
First impressions were good. The decor was deliberately busy: richly patterned wallpaper and oversized menu boards filled the walls, solid built furniture the floorspace.
At the far end of the room was a huge picture I guessed to be Coxhoe Hall – birthplace of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, after whom the business is named.
The Victorian wordsmith is best known for her Sonnet 43 (the love poem, that is, not the brewery), which begins: ‘How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways’.
But now we’re straying into English literature. Let’s talk about some food.
The Clarence’s offer is finely prepared traditional British dishes with a modern twist, as much as possible made with locally sourced ingredients.
Its menus and wall boards celebrate its ‘food heroes’ including Trimdon Village’s Dropswell Farm – and its butcher Paul Craddock – and Robin Hirst’s Neasham Grange Farm.
Sarah and I had pledged in advance to adopt a 1-2-1 strategy of sharing a starter and dessert, while choosing our own main courses.
Tempted though we were to abandon the restriction, we remained faithful, sharing, to begin, Parlour Made Cheddar and Northumbrian Leek Fritters (£4.95), which were wonderfully crisp and nicely offset by the wholegrain mustard mayonnaise.
For mains, I chose from the Classics menu the Hall’s Chicken, Northumbrian Leek and Grain Mustard Pie (£9.95), which I realised only in retrospect was perhaps a little repetitive, because it was thoroughly enjoyable – the thick but fluffy crust comprehensively insulating the deep and steaming hot pot pie.
It was perhaps a little light on chicken, but overall a most enjoyable choice.
The sign of The Clarence Villa, in Coxhoe
Having been tempted by Charlie Hird’s Three Little Pigs (crispy pork belly, pulled pork shoulder and pan fried tenderloin served with an apple and sage jus, £12.95), Sarah in fact went for Roasted Gressingham Duck Breast, served with roasted shallot and sweet potato and thyme mash (£15.95).
It was also served with vegetables but as we had been told there were no accompanying greens Sarah had already ordered a side of braised red cabbage (£2.50). A minor point, but staff should know the menu.
The duck itself however was, I’m told, excellent – well cooked, as had been requested.
After a break to allow ourselves a breather and enjoy the warm and familiar surroundings, we accepted the dessert menu. At seven options it is, unlike the starters or mains, somewhat brief, but in Triple Chocolate Fudge Brownie (£5.25), we were onto a winner.
Served with white chocolate ice cream and rich chocolate sauce, it was firm – even crunchy – and delicious.
My only criticism would be the ice cream was quite melted by the time it reached our table.
Being next to a brewery, I couldn’t resist trying a couple of the ales. I thoroughly enjoyed the American Pale Ale and while I didn’t finish the Bourbon Milk Stout, that, I’m sure, was more a personal taste than a general quality issue.
With a couple of large parties in, the atmosphere was lively – apparently too lively for a nearby couple, who left very sharply. But I enjoyed the hustle – it added to the busy farmhouse feel, alongside the hay and harvest produce ornaments, antique books and odd plates.
The music was an odd mix, ranging from light pop to experimental jazz.
But all was quiet enough, given the company, to ignore if desired.
Another view of the interior of The Clarence Villa, in Coxhoe
With our bill reaching £55.53, it was not a cheap night out. But with bar food also on offer, a three-course dinner and a drink special available for £9.95 until 6.30pm and a £30 meal-for-two on even more extensive hours, we might well be back.
We had a very pleasant evening. I might even be tempted to write about it. How to begin? Of course: Clarence Villa – how do I love thee?
Let me count the ways….
Food Quality: 8/10