Alright, so this isn't exactly a restaurant, and therefore it's maybe not entirely accurate to call this a restaurant review, but what else to call it? Hut review? Pod review?! A brief explanation:
David Kennedy has been cooking excellent food in Newcastle for as long as I've been interested in eating it, firstly at the Black Door restaurant, and then at the more informal Food Social at the Biscuit Factory. He's also got a place down at the Fish Quay and latterly, a restaurant at Vallum Farm. Anything I've eaten in any of David's places has always been noticeably accurately cooked, and often downright delicious. Thusly, when I noted from the Twitter that he was cooking some lunches in what is basically a very nifty wooden shed (or #ChefsPod if you prefer), nestled among the polytunnels of Vallum Farm, using some of the produce grown there by veg man extraordinaire Ken Holland I thought "Yeah, I quite fancy that", and duly booked a couple of spots.
Vallum Farm seems to have self consciously turned itself into a bit of a food destination. As well as David's regular restaurant, we noted a tearoom and ice-cream parlour, a smokehouse and a food shop which was hawking a decent range of comestibles, both local and otherwise. We got there a bit early, so went for a wander. The views in all directions are none too shabby.
The ChefsPod is a really cool bit of construction, all reclaimed timbers I think. If Kasia looks unimpressed, blame it on a moderate-to-strong second day hangover, and not on any sense of being underwhelmed by the dining location.
Extra loveliness comes in the form of flowers and herbs protruding from various nooks and crannies of the thing.
But onwards to lunch. The Pod contains one large communal table to seat around 12 guests, and a chefs' station at which David prepped and plated the food, occasionally nipping out to retrive items from the barbecue. It turned out we were at a mostly hospitality-industry sitting, which made for some very restaurant-centric chat, but it was nice to meet some chefs from North Eastern places and hear what they thought about various scran-related matters.
First up was a visually stunning board to share of crudites, chicken and pork crackling, crispy kale and hazlenuts.
This pic nowhere near does it justice, only covering about a quarter of the length of the thing. Crispy kale was a revelation, apparently cooked on a plate over a barbecue. This will be happening, in large quantities, the next time I fire up some charcoal. I bloody love pork scratchings, these being excellent specimens, and if there's anything tastier than crisped chicken skin... well, there's not, is there? This was a fine start; only misplaced politeness preventing me from hoofing down more of it.
A chilled One Ball Courgette (a dinky yellow variety) soup followed which was nice, although not a knock-out. A grilled courgette with its flower, some broad beans and more hazelnuts pepped things up in both the flavour and texture departments. We've got a total overload of courgettes ourselves, but I tend to think that you really need to roast them to get sufficient flavour to render them soup-worthy, but what do I know.
I really enjoyed the tomato salad, flaked cock crab and avocado smoothie. The crab was beautifully fresh, the tomatoes, of which there were at least a couple of varieties, had some punch and tang to them while the smoothie was exactly that; ridiculously smooth. It had been enhanced with elderflower, which made for an unusual and interesting combo. Lightness and summer in a bowl (and cute little mini-vase), I could've happily eaten, and drank, a lot more of this.
A really satisfying lamb dish for mains brought together a healthy wodge of belly, a filo parcel of off-cuts, a marmalade of (I think) shallots and sultanas, a couple of seriously flavorsome golden beets, kale and a slice of lamb crackling. United by a properly sticky and deep sauce, this was just a great plate of food, with contrasting textures and flavours all over the place. It's bloody daft how infrequently you see lamb belly, or breast available, the depth of flavour on this specimen was top-notch. Having grown beets for the first time this year, the difference in depth between fresh picked and supermarket-knackered has been really apparent, as it was here. To be really picky, the crackling could've been a bit crisper, but other than that this was more or less perfect.
Also delicious, and a lovely way to finish was a soft meringue with strawberries in both jam and fresh format, creme fraiche and Russian tarragon. The tarragon flowers packed a really assertive savoury punch which I thought worked great against the sweetness of the meringue and strawbs, although Kasia wasn't so keen. Looking out from the ChefsPod over the fields and distant hills while chasing the last few alpine strawberries round the plate; what a farcically pleasant way to spend the dying embers of a weekend.
It's worth noting at this point that all of this lot, for 10 guests was cooked and plated by David on his todd, ably assisted by a waitress, so a triumph of menu planning, prep and execution in a small but unique space. The price of £35 per head is pretty reasonable I think. Some of the other lunches they've done here have gone for £25 each, which, given the singularly idiosyncratic venue, has to go down as a total bargain.
There are a few pretty great sounding events going off in the Pod over the next few weeks, including one with north east culinary royalty Terry Laybourne and another with the region's only Michelin starred restaurant, The Raby Hunt, in charge. James Close, head chef of that restaurant, was among the guests at Vallum Farm today; it sounds like guests for his event are in for a treat.