Sometimes, says MARINA O’LAUGHLIN, I get a kind of tingling in the fingertips that suggests there might be something truly special in store. And the tingling is off the scale with this one…
So here we are in the middle of the ravishing countryside, breathing great gulps of sweet, clean, woodsmoke-fragranced air somewhere on the hikers’ trail near Hadrian’s Wall. Our destination looks exactly like the thing it still is: a pub stop on that trail. We check into what looks almost entirely unreconstructed, with tartan carpets, shiny leather furniture, dubious oil paintings of dogs. The bar has a pool table and groups of people in waterproofs. Are we in the right place? An old chap takes pity on us, smiling “You’ll be here for Hjem, then” before leading us through a side door and into a small culinary Narnia where the couple who have taken over the hotel, Swedish chef Alex Nietosvuori and his local partner Ally Thompson are creating magic.
Here, int a corner room with windows onto the rampantly green gardens, source of many of the herbs and flowers that end up on our plates, it’s light and open. There’s no demarcation between kitchen and dining area, nor a menu, with a choice of just twelve courses. Each small course is so elegant and light there’s never a suggestion of a grande bouffe, even with the accompanying wines, chosen by the brilliant Russian sommelier Anna Frost. This is food to make you beam with delighted surprise. Eel-like strips of mackerel, the sparkling sweet-sharp gel of gooseberry or glassy-crisp chicken skin sandwiching smoked cod’s head. And there’s a sense of fun too, with a flurry of little taco-type items and tiny flatbreats topped with mushrooms and new peas.
“Each small course is so elegant and light there’s never a suggestion of a grande bouffe, even with the accompanying wines, chosen by the brilliant Russian sommelier Anna Frost. This is food to make you beam with delighted surprise.”
The couple’s background in big-name Scandinavian restaurants informs a lot of the technique, but produce is firmly local. Presentation is austerely pared back, each dish manages to look satisfyingly luxurious. Our favourite dish of the evening seems almost contrarily stark: heritage potatoes, roughly crushed and dressed with slivers of frozen butter and blackcurrant leaves, some fresh, some pickled. Half the butter melts through the leaves while the other half melts in your mouth, a homage to simplicity and the beauty of Northumberland.
Call me an irredeemable sap, but it’s time since a restaurant has moved me as much as Hjem. I try to avoid using ‘passionate’ as a description, abused as it is by the kind of corporate communications that are the very antithesis of the word. But there really is no escaping it here. The duo go about their work, humming along to an endearingly eccentric soundtrack (Elton John, Lynn Anderson…), then they’re up at 6am for the breakfast shift. It’s the sort of restaurant that makes me remember why I love this job and makes me believe that all is right with the world.
MARINA O’LAUGHLIN is a food critic.
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This article has also been published in The Times.