Sampling The Finest Food In The North - Taste of the North East, Rockliffe Hall*

18 Feb 2020

If there's one thing that you guys know for certain about me is that I'm a mega foodie. I love trying out new spots to eat, putting my fussiness aside and trying new foods, and chatting to all of you lot about where I've been eating. But one thing that I haven't really explored is fine dining. In fact, I think the only time I'd had a fine dining experience was for my grandad's birthday, so when Rockliffe Hall invited me along to try their Taste of the North East event* out, I couldn't say 'yes' any quicker!

Rockliffe Hall is a bit of a hidden gem up here in the the North East. Set in a quiet village on the outskirts of Darlington, this is the perfect place for a peaceful retreat. This 5-star luxury hotel boasts a beautiful spa, an extensive golf course and a wide range of restaurant options to suit a host of palates, so there's something for everyone. In 2019, the hotel also kicked off their first ever Festival of Food, an eight-day event that encompassed all things foodie, which was such a hit that it returned for February 2020!

As part of the Festival of Food, there were a massive variety of foodie experiences to indulge in, including an artisan food market, afternoon teas, food workshops and the Taste of the North East dinner. This extravaganza of an event features a four course fine dining dinner, with each course created by different chefs from across the North East. It's the perfect way to discover new names in the foodie game, and if you're me, try something totally new!

Hair curled, heels on and feeling totally glammed up, myself and Matthew headed to Rockliffe Hall for our evening. We were greeted with champagne and I was referred to as 'madam' - I'll admit, I felt a bit out of my depth, but my gosh, did I also feel pretty darn fancy! We checked the seating plan and headed to our table where we awaited the first course.
Kicking off the night was Gareth Rayner from The Forge restaurant at Middleton Lodge. This chef works in the Georgian country estate in Richmond, where local seasonal produce is served and much of the food is sourced straight from the estate itself. The grounds boast courtyard gardens, filled with lavender, rose, apple and rosemary, which make their way on to hungry attendees plates. The estate have also been restoring their 2.5 acre kitchen garden and orangery, which will provide produce for the restaurant.

With this idea of nature and earthyness in mind, Gareth prepared a delicious starter of charred broccoli, pickled broccoli stem, broccoli and artichoke puree, artichoke crisps and aged Parmesan*. The plate was packed with gorgeous shades of green and brown, emphasising the 'garden' aspect of the dish. At first, I was a bit nervous about the amount of broccoli because while I like broccoli, too much of it is a bit samey-samey. However, with all the different textures from the charred broccoli, the stem and the puree, it was almost like eating a whole variety of veg at once. Plus, with the generous helping of Parmesan on top, I almost forgot that I was eating a purely veggie dish all together.

I surprised myself by enjoying this dish, and even Matthew, the most avid of broccoli haters, actually polished his plate off. We both particularly enjoyed the purees and the crunchy artichoke crisps, and would quite happily have the starter again!
The next dish was a fish course created by John Calton of The Staith House. This award-winning gastropub can be found on the North Shields Fish Quay, and proudly serves fresh, exciting and different dishes from its kitchen. A lot of the ingredients are sourced as locally as possible - even seaweed from the nearby beach - and plenty are crafted from the kitchen, such as the bread, charcuterie and ice cream. It's no wonder that this coastal restaurant is pulling in the awards year on year!

Echoing the restaurant's Fish Quay location, John Calton served up raw hand dived scallop, lovage, celery, fennel pollen, honey and meadowsweet vinegar*. I'll be honest, I was a bit nervous for this dish. I'd only recently started eating fish and scallops hadn't crossed my radar yet, so I wasn't entirely certain about what to expect. Again, hand on heart honesty, this wasn't the dish for me. There were plenty of 'mm's and approving nods from around the table, but I just couldn't get past the texture. I did eat the whole plate, but I'm not going to be eating scallops again any time soon. Despite the texture being a bit iffy for me, I really enjoyed the flavours of the lovage and celery, which had been beautifully infused with the honey and meadowsweet vinegar, so it wasn't a total downer.

I was proud of myself for giving scallops, a totally new food to me, a go, but I was definitely ready to try the main course, which included food that I was a little more familiar with.
Our scrumptious-looking main course plate was created by Tony Renwick of Broad Chare, part of the 21 Hospitality Group. This Newcastle Quayside restaurant is a new kind of 'old' pub, featuring all the traditional touches that you'd expect, like well-kept beer and honest food, but with a fresh, modern twist. Nothing fancy, nothing fussy, just a genuine, proper pub experience! 

For Tony's dish, he cooked up nose to tail of old spot pig, day boat squid, chickpea, pimento and macaron almond*, which definitely looked a lot different to what I was expecting, based purely on the name alone. What was placed in front of me was a beautifully colourful plate with breadcrumbed pork, pork belly, squid and squid ink, peppers and delicious chickpeas. It was a very Spanish-themed dish, which I definitely wasn't mad at! The breadcrumbed pork was my favourite bit, which tasted so gorgeous with the peppers and chickpeas. It also went really well with the squid ink - again, this was something I had never tried. The pork belly was beautifully soft and perfectly flavoured, and I actually ate the squid without any qualms too. It was just a lovely dish all round!

By this point, I was feeling pretty full, which surprised me because in my mind, fine dining was all about eating tiny portions at extortionate prices. But with Taste of the North East, I was eating four courses that weren't shy on size, plus the champagne arrival drink, all for what would have been £60 each. If you were to interested in trying out a fine dining experience, this is a pretty reasonable price!
Thankfully, the dessert was a fairly light one, and it was created by Luke Taylor from The Cleveland Tontine. Provenance is at the heart of their menu, so you can expect lots of lovely Yorkshire produce, like Yorkshire beef, which is hung and aged on site. With a huge open fire and a grade 1 listed ceiling, this bistro restaurant is the perfect place to relax, unwind and enjoy some of the most fantastic food and wine.

You guys know me, I'm a dessert person, so this was the course that I was the most excited about - especially when I saw what it was that we were going to be eating. On the plate was forced rhubarb, thyme ice cream, caramelised hazelnut and white chocolate*... basically, a match made in heaven. Usually, I can't get along with the texture of rhubarb, but I love rhubarb flavoured things, however, the forced rhubarb was so yummy and tangy, which paired so deliciously with the smooth white chocolate mousse-style accompaniment. It was airy, light and sweet, contrasting against the sharp tang ever so nicely. I even enjoyed the hazelnut, despite being someone that can't stand hazelnuts (yep, even in Nutella), but it just added a fun crunchy texture to an otherwise smooth dish.

The one thing that really stood out to me was the thyme ice cream. Yes, this was an ice cream with a savoury flavour, which is something that I don't think I've ever had before, but my gosh, it was delicious. I would start with a little in my mouth, enjoying the cool and creaminess, then my brain would be like, 'hang on a minute, is that a herb I can taste?' and it would sort of confuse me, but in a really good way. It's hard to explain, but trust me, it was superb!

After this elegant, but pretty darn filling dinner, the pair of us left with happy tummies and a whole lot to discuss. This was also Matthew's first time trying out fine dining, so it was interesting to hear what he had to say, but he also enjoyed the night, especially the main course. The breadcrumbed pork had his heart!

I'm so pleased that I went along to try the Taste of the North East* out - it's definitely opened my eyes a bit more to fine dining and it's spurred me on to try other similar events in the future. 

Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for Rockliffe Hall's Festival of Food next year and let me know which dish you think you would've enjoyed the most!

All items that are marked with a * have been sent to me or gifted by a PR company for review purposes.

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