Blagraves House, The Bank, Barnard Castle, County Durham - Restaurant review
PUBLISHED: 00:09 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
BY SUE CAMPBELL<br/>Chef Ken Marley says it's like owning a little bit of history. Blagraves House in Barnard Castle sits halfway down The Bank, a steep road leading from the famous circular butter market
Blagraves House, 30-32 The Bank, Barnard Castle. Telephone 01833 637668
It's a Grade 1 listed building, with parts of it 500 years old. Ken smiles when I ask if it takes a lot of upkeep. 'I get asked that a lot. Actually, it's the newer stuff that needs maintenance. The structure is very solid - the walls and foundations don't really need touching.'
Blagraves is the oldest house in the town. It takes its name from the family who lived there in the 17th century and there is a crested ceiling on the first floor - above where we dined - with a panel dated 1672 and the initial WIB, commemorating a family wedding. Ken, who acts as head chef, and his wife, Elizabeth, who makes wonderful desserts (more of that later), fell in love with Blagraves and bought it 20 years ago.
It maintains a refined atmosphere - low beams, impressive stone fireplaces, soft lighting and a relaxed and unhurried feel. We entered through a wooden doorway into a fairly small, warm and plushly-furnished room, where we had an aperitif and chose our meal in front of a comforting fire.We were brought an appetiser, a wild nettle and Cotherstone cheese tartlet.
What a wonderful and unexpected way to start the meal - and delicious. The menu wasn't extensive - six starter dishes and six mains on the a la carte, and four of each on the fixed priced (24.95), which includes dessert and is available Tuesday to Friday. But they were excellent and varied selections, which only goes to show you don't need a menu with scores of dishes to provide good choice. Starter choices included terrine of lamb with lavender jelly (doesn't that sound good?), oysters, a salmon and a Stilton mousse, duck breast and two kinds of soup.
We were taken up to the intimate first floor dining room to eat. The restaurant only has 24 covers, but can sometime turn over more, and the room is elegant and restful, with another of those huge open fireplaces.
I ate off the a la carte menu and for a starter, went for a tartlet of crab (one of my favourite foods) with a thermidor sauce.When it came, I thought it looked a bit substantial, and wondered if I would finish it. However, one bite quickly lead to another and before I knew it, it was gone. The subtlety of the taste of the crab and the gentle crunch of the pastry was heaven.
My dinner partner declared the sauted mushrooms with cream and Cognac, from the set price menu, equally more-ish and also cleared his plate with alacrity.
The two waiting staff gave us a few moments to relax before bringing the main course. Hilary has been at Blagraves for 10 years and Helen for a year, and they are an example to all waiters - attentive, but not intrusive, pleasant but not familiar, knowledgeable and efficient.What a pleasure.
Despite there being just 10 dishes to choose from, the main courses all looked so good it was hard to plump for just one. There was sea bass, salmon and cod, individual beef Wellington, chicken breast cooked two different ways, and two vegetarian options, with red pepper and asparagus. I chose a dish from the a la carte that I find a lot of restaurants can get very wrong - lambs' kidneys, which are easily over-cooked. However, I found those presented to me at Blagraves just right. Slightly pink, in a Dijon mustard sauce - very tasty. The only minor criticism is that there were so many of them, I hardly made an impression despite a valiant effort.
My dinner partner chose braised shoulder of lamb from the set menu with rosemary and garlic, which he said was extremely tender and flavoursome - and which he easily finished. Both meals were accompanied by a selection of vegetables - cauliflower, carrot, a rather nice ratatouille, and new potatoes. Very acceptable, without being adventurous.
The choice of desserts was mouth-watering - chocolate torte, raspberry brule and lemon posset among them, and there was also a cheese board. But I went for ginger pudding with lemon and ginger sauce and vanilla ice cream. And it didn't disappoint - a deep, dark ginger and the light lemon combined wonderfully - I'd recommend it to anyone.
My dinner partner's apple and raspberry tart with crumble topping and vanilla sauce got an equally enthusiastic approval rating. As well as making the desserts, Elizabeth also makes her own ice cream. If Ken hadn't have married her, I'm sure she'd have been snapped up by someone else...
We accompanied the meal with a good Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, at a very good price of 16.50 a bottle, and from what looked like a comprehensive wine list.
Relaxing for a moment after service, Ken said he'd worked and travelled quite a bit as a chef - from Leeds to Switzerland - before making Barnard Castle his home, and describes his delicious food as 'modern British'.
'We like to use as much local produce as we can and we have an allotment in the town and a herb garden. Everything is cooked from first principals and it's important to have a balanced menu.' Ken and Elizabeth live 'over the shop' and says they still get a buzz out of living in and owning a building steeped in such history. It also has a banqueting hall which seats just 40 and vaulted cellars, in which it is said there is a (now inaccessible) passageway to either nearby Eggleston Abbey or the castle itself.
It is said that in 1648 Oliver Cromwell once dined here on 'burnt wine and oat cakes'.We ate a bit better than that - and at 75.95 for the meal we probably laid out a bit more too. However, for a little bit of North East history, that's not a bad price to pay.