Unexpected pleasures at Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth

PUBLISHED: 08:33 18 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:33 20 February 2013

Unexpected pleasures at Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth

Unexpected pleasures at Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth

From a bright blue cocktail to a crackling crumble crust - it was an evening full of surprises at Rockliffe Hall

I like surprises - nice ones of course. And our evening meal at the relatively newly-opened and luxurious Rockliffe Hall near Darlington was full of them - delightful, unusual and tastefully delicious surprises.
Sitting in the cocktail lounge beforehand, overlooking green and pleasant parkland, my dinner partner and I perused the drinks menu. But as well as those on the list, we were offered a special - a Blue Margarita.
Now Im a Margarita fan, so I couldnt resist and was presented with a bright blue drink, which included Blue Bols and lemon juice. Not quite as tart as a proper Margarita, but a worthy substitute. Nice surprise number one.

Nice surprise number two was an amuse bouche, which was a pea panacotta with a spicy tomato dressing, which was absolutely fantastic - smooth and full of taste.
We were lead into the dining room, the splendid Orangery, run by Michelin star chef Kenny Atkinson. In fact the 70 cover fine dining restaurant is actually called Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery, which sounds a little cumbersome, but is a treat for the eyes. Glass roofed, airy and beautifully proportioned.
And then came nice surprise number three. Real music, played well on a real piano and - nice surprise number four, the pianist was actually a former colleague of mine from a previous life - Dean Stockdale - who I hadnt seen for some time.
Kenny came out to say hello. Hes already building up a great reputation at Rockliffe, having only opened the restaurant in February.
I am responsible for everything here, including the menu and the staff, and its important we keep up the
quality of the food and service.
And its great to wave the flag for the North East.
The Orangery has gone all out to make the experience enjoyable. Home made bread, stylish cutlery, plenty of room and very good knowledgeable staff. Id single out our waiter, Robert - who really knows his stuff - and our charming, smiley wine waitress, Grace for special praise.
The next surprise, number five, was an unannounced veloute of carrot and star anise, with smidge mushrooms and seared fois gras and ginger. Sumptuous - but would I have room for my meal at this rate?
Well, yes, I did. Accompanied by an acceptable Daniel Dampt 2008 Chablis, we were served with our starters. We ate from the a la carte menu - three starters, three mains and four desserts if you include cheese. But there is also an eight course tasting menu, with wine pairing if you wish.
My starter was Shetland salmon - a ballontine (new word to me - apparently a kind of ball) of organic salmon, poached, with a jelly of Scarborough lobster, caviar and spiced tomatoes. The salmon was beautiful and the tastes complementary. If I had any criticism it was that Im not a great fan of dill and the ballontine was rolled in it. Just not to my taste.
My partners North East Atlantic Scallops, plump and fresh, with confit of chicken wings and chicory, parsnips and smokes bacon was declared just perfect.
Also faultless was my main course - Yorkshire venison. Slow roast loin and braised shoulder with beetroot and cauliflower, savoy cabbage and new season morels. I love venison, but only if its cooked well and this was cooked perfectly. It melted in the mouth and I could have gone home happy at that point.
My dinner partner had Cornish Turbot, herb roasted, with young leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, grated truffle and hollandaise. He said: Its one of the best fish you can get and this was perfectly cooked, with a great balance of flavours.
And on to surprise number six. An unexpected kind of pre-dessert dessert. A lemon posset with ginger candied crumble crust. And it produced surprise number seven. The crust was partly made with I what used to call space dust - that sherbet-like substance which explodes and crackles in your mouth. Now that was a surprise!
For desert wed plumped for the Valrhona Chocolate and Pear - dark chocolate pave, with textures of pear, pistachio and red wine - and a cheese board to share. The dessert was rich and full of chocolaty taste and the selection of five British cheeses served at just the right temperature (although two goats cheeses might be one too many for me.)
It was the end of an excellent meal in lovely surroundings. The food is complex - even complicated - full of taste and Id say great value. The staff - from the barman to the restaurant manager - were courteous and attentive, but not obsequious, and that makes such a difference to any dining experience.
There were shortly to be a number of changes in the offering, as the Orangery moves to its spring menu and you will have seen Kenny in the BBC series, Great British Menu. A special six course Kenny Atkinsons Great British Menu is also available.
So well be back for certain. No surprises there.

Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery, Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth-on-Tees, Darlington, County Durham DL2 2DU. Call 01325 729999 for reservations.

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