WHEN Terry Laybourne’s Bistro 21 closed at Aykley Heads in late 2015, its departure was much regretted, particularly as it was followed by the exit of Oldfields from Claypath three months later.
But for Sarah and I, the much greater loss to Durham’s restaurant scene was the sudden closure of Finbarr’s when the Kingslodge Hotel was sold that February.
Given free choice of fine dining in Durham, Finbarr’s would undoubtedly have topped our list. Plus, owner Barry O’Leary is one of the most pleasant chaps one could wish to meet.
So we were very pleased to hear Finbarr’s was to reopen in the former Bistro 21 premises last summer – and even more chuffed to have the opportunity to visit for the purposes of these pages.
Its new home, Aykley Heads House, retains all its former charm, but has been redecorated in traditional Finbarr’s style, with rustic surroundings and stylish furnishings; tables stationed close together but not uncomfortably so, brown leather chairs and sparklingly white, crisp linen tablecloths.
It was Barry that greeted us (warmly) on arrival, leading us past the bar on the right, private rooms on the left and into the main dining area, which has a large downstairs, where we were sat, and a smaller upstairs.
Bottles of red wine pack the space under the stairs; striking photographs of the best of Durham are spotted around the walls; and a large mirror on the wall facing the entrance creates a spacious feel.
The atmosphere is one of relaxed sophistication. We instantly felt valued and welcomed and were looking forward to our meal.
The wine menu grabbed our attention first, however. It is lengthy, with a good choice of varieties available by the glass, half-bottle and 500ml. As I was designated driver for the evening, Sarah settled on the Les Templiers Pinot Noir, Pays D’Oc (£6 per glass, £14.50 per half bottle, £23.50 per bottle), which is described as a ‘Classic Pinot Noir from the Languedoc’.
The A la Carte menu, presented to us in a lovely wood-ended booklet, offers ten or so starters, about the same number of main courses and a three-strong choice of steaks.
Sarah chose the Salad of Beetroot, Goats Cheese and Toasted Walnut (£7.50), which she was very pleased with – praising the beetroot in particular.
I chose a Cheddar and Spinach Souffle (£9.50), which was simply superb. A steaming snowball of a starter, every mouthful was a pleasure. A real triumph.
For the main course, Sarah continued with her vegetarian theme, choosing the Homemade Ravioli with Butternut Squash and Goats Curd (£14.50). A great lover of butternut squash, she enjoyed the dish greatly – though did feel it was a little drowning in buttery sauce.
I opted for the Fillet of North Sea Cod (£22.50), mainly because in addition to marsala salt and cauliflower veloute, it came with onion bhaji, which for some reason grabbed my fancy.
It was delicious – the light, near-melt-in-your-mouth fish sitting perfectly atop its accompaniments; each contributing to an excellent dish overall. The bhajis, in case you were wondering, did not disappoint.
We had been planning to order sides of Hand Cut Chips and Rocket and Parmesan Salad (£3.50 each), until our excellent waitress advised us that, although the menu did not make this clear, our dishes already came with potatoes and salad, respectively. It was a nice touch, and much appreciated.
Service as a whole was spot on – friendly, warm and attentive without being oppressive; and we never felt rushed – a flaw of far too many restaurants, I feel.
The dessert menu is a chocaholic’s dream, with at least five of the options including it in some form. There’s also a lot of cheese to choose from – and a good range of post-match coffees, too.
Having consulted our waitress, who once again was most helpful, Sarah and I decided to share a Chocolate Tasting Plate (£12.50), which included milk chocolate panna cotta, white chocolate mousse, chocolate brownie, dark chocolate tart and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. The tart was wonderfully rich but the brownie just beat it in my book. It was perfect: light, crumbly, yet rich and filling. Again, a triumph.
As we relaxed and enjoyed the ambience, we were baffled to overhear the increasingly loud conversation from the next table suddenly and unexpectedly erupt with one lady exclaiming: “I love Iggle Piggle!” Having gone to some lengths to arrange an evening without children, it was quite bizarre to be reunited with CBeebies’ In The Night Garden, but more a humorous moment than anything that threatened our enjoyment of the meal.
As we waited for the bill, we reflected on what has now been ten years of reviewing restaurants for the Durham Times. We have seen good, we have seen bad. But we struggled to think of anywhere we had enjoyed more than Finbarr’s. If anything, Mr O’Leary has bettered the previous, city centre incarnation.
It is not a cheap night out. A discretionary 10 per cent is added to everything; and our bill, with only one of us drinking alcohol and having shared a dessert, came to nearly £100.
But for a special occasion, or just a really top-class dining experience, my opinion is: Finbarr’s is once again Durham’s best offer.
Finbarr’s, Aykley Heads House, Aykley Heads, Durham, DH1 5TS
Tel: 0191 3077033
Open daily from 12pm to 2.30pm, 6pm to 9.30pm
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 10, Surroundings 9, Service 9, Value 7