“ 18 Claypath, Durham, DH1 1RH. Tel: 0191 370 9595 „
I'd wanted to eat at Oldfield's Noted Eating House for a while but for various reasons had managed to avoid doing so. Although there's a branch locally in Newcastle, it was the Durham branch where I ate this weekend. I had considered booking in advance but the itinerary for our day trip changed slightly and we weren't sure that we'd be eating out in Durham at all; fortunately when we decided on the day that we would have lunch out, we arrived near the beginning of service so we managed to get a table for two. Most people had made a reservation and, if you are desperate to eat at Oldfield's after reading my review, you should book in advance to avoid disappointment.
The restaurant is situated just off the main market square in the heart of the city; the road it's on does look a bit run down but you can see from the other businesses on this stretch of road that there has been attempt to gentrify the area and clearly Oldfield's is part of this. To be honest, if I hadn't already heard of Oldfield's I probably wouldn't have been that excited by its visual appearance - it looks a lot like a faceless chain like All Bar One or the Slug and Lettuce. The menu has been posted, not in the front window but in the side window beside the door; I think more people would stop to look if the menu was in the front window because it's more than likely that having got as far as where the menu is, you've probably already decided to go to the restaurant.
The restaurant interior is pretty dull: wooden floor, simple wooden tables and chairs, severe metal lampshades and those ubiquitous pigeon holes painted matt black covering the wall behind the bar.
Only a couple of tables were occupied and we were offered one by the door, however, this was right beside a couple with a young child. We asked if we could sit somewhere else and several tables were offered reluctantly, which irritated me straightaway. As it happened we ended up at a table beside an uncomfortably hot radiator so God (or whoever) punished us in the end for not wanting to sit next to a whining toddler.
We were given menus straightaway and advised that everything was available and that the soup of the day was beetroot. At lunchtimes and for the early evening session the restaurant offers two courses for £11 and three for £14 which sounds reasonable given that at full price mains start around £12.50 but average around £16. However, there is no price listed for any dishes on their own, which is a nuisance if you just want a main course (and in these straitened times, you might just want a main course).
The menu is a little contradictory in that the emphasis is meant to be on local produce (the paper "table mats" highlight their suppliers, with a black and white photograph and a few lines about what they do and where they are based, and there are similar photographs of the restaurant's suppliers on the walls too). This works pretty well until you find that the cheese of the month is a Cashel Blue from Ireland, and the evening menu features Carlingford oysters: there are just some things you can't source locally. There was a choice of five starters, five mains and five puddings at lunchtime. From what I understand, the soup option is always a vegetarian one; there was vegetarian-friendly beetroot and spiced onion salad; pork loaf with pickles and toast; smoked salmon, lemon and cucumber; and an egg salad and watercress which, oddly I thought, was not denoted as vegetarian. Of the mains, two were fishy, two were meaty and the last was suitable for veggies.
After more deliberation than you might imagine a choice of five starters and five mains would necessitate, we were ready to order. A young waitress came over and asked if we'd like to order drinks; we did so and said we were ready to order our food too but she would only take the drinks order. Only after we'd been presented, several minutes later with our drinks - a pint of Golden Tankard which is a locally made ale, and a glass of the house white wine - did the waitress come back to take our food order. Now, I did realise that this waitress was fairly new but it would have been a good idea if she had taken the time to really get to know the menu inside out; it was rather tedious to repeat our requests each time we mentioned a dish. The final item that was ordered - a fish stew containing Scarborough woof - wasn't even written down and we saw the waitress sidle off to look at the menu to find the dish herself. Side dishes are suggested but not all dishes require one; the £11 deal is rather misleading as some dishes really do require a side dish, however, all of the them were priced at a reasonable £1.50 (except for Yorkshire puddings which are 50 Pence).
We didn't have to wait long for our starters to come but my excitement was slightly diminished when I saw that my magenta coloured soup had slopped around the white bowl, making the dish look somewhat less dramatic than it should have. The soup has been described as coming with "Trotters bread" and a chalk message on the black wall above the bar announced that today's bread was sun-dried tomato and rye. Two sizeable chunks of bread had been brought over several minutes earlier, along with a little dish of butter. We were unsure of whether this bread was complimentary and for us to share, or whether it was the bread to go with the soup; as not bread materialised with the soup, I can only assume that it was the latter.
Anyway, it was rather tasty bread and it contained just the right amount of bread for picking on, but I would have preferred something a little heavier on the rye to go with the beetroot soup, which I usually associate with Russian or eastern European cuisine. The soup wasn't bad at all but, while I love the earthy taste of beetroot, this soup needed something tangy to balance the earthy flavour (if I may say so myself, it wasn't a patch on the sour beetroot soup I made at home a couple of weekends earlier). A tiny heap of finely chopped green herb had been neatly placed in the centre of the soup - there was so little of it I couldn't discern any particular flavour. There was also a scattering of orangey-red powder which proved to be very hot - chilli or cayenne; now I do like spicy food but this didn't really add anything to the dish other than heat; and wouldn't you mention to customers that the soup was a spicy one? This soup had quite a fiery kick and I think it would be only fair to issue a warning.
Himself ordered the pork loaf, pickles and toast which looked attractive, if a little insubstantial. The pickles were not at all like I'd imagined - they were actually a couple of tiny silverskin onions and a little pile of a warm tomoato chutney and I had imagined something a bit more interesting, perhaps some homemade piccalilli or pickled gherkin. There was a single slice of the pork loaf; it was perfectly pleasant but lacked a bit of oomph. The toast was actually a piece of fried bread and this was met with disapproval from Himself who said that while the toast would have worked with pate, it didn't go with the pork loaf which was very like the filling of a pork pie (but a very good one!)
For my main course I had chosen the smoked haddock fishcake topped with a poached egg and served with "straw fries". As soon as I saw this dish I was disappointed. The fishcake was just too big, the top was slightly golden but clearly the fish and potato mixture had been spooned into rings and so only the top and the underside had been browned; when the ring was slipped off, the sides were pasty white and the overall look was unappealing. Two smaller cakes would have looked better and been less stodgy than one enormous one. The egg was nicely done and oozed yolk beautifully when cut open. The pile of fries was too big and they were really too thick to be labelled "straw fries". I would not have ordered this dish if I'd known that it would consist mostly of potato because a fishcake containing mashed potato needs only a few fries to go with it. The plate was strewn with a few pea shoots which tasted nice and fresh and looked pretty too. I had ordered a side of minted peas which were distinctly average. Although there was the runny egg yolk, this dish lacked a dressing or sauce and quickly became hard going.
Himself had gone fishy too; he ordered the Scarborough woof, gurnard and tomato stew. The stew contained sizeable pieces of fish and it was good to know some of the less commonly encounters fish varieties were being used. The fish was nicely cooked but the stew lacked flavour. The portion size was a little mean, particularly so because there wasn't a side dish that seemed appropriate (still he did manage to assist in the disposal of my surplus fries and helped himself to some of my peas).
Happily for the purposes of reviewing, the tables are placed quite close together and we were able to sneak a look at the meals being presented to other diners. A lady sitting near us started with the smoked salmon which looked colourful but was stingy in terms of the amount of salmon on the plate. The venison sausages were probably tasty but looked boring and too school dinner-ish when stuck unceremoniously on a pile of too wet mashed potato.
Unfortunately (for both my conscience and for those readers who would like vicariously to consume two desserts), I could not persuade Himself to partake in the final course. I wanted to try the rhubarb and stem ginger fool but it came with an Anzac biscuit and I had a feeling that these contained nuts. When I asked my suspicions were confirmed but the waiter immediately suggested that it could be served instead with shortbread. Coffee was offered but we declined.
My dessert was served in a slightly curved tumbler with a piece of melt in the mouth shortbread sticking in the top (this shortbread was perhaps the very best thing I ate at Oldfield's). It was presented very simply and looked appealing. However there was rather too much cream and not enough fruit. The bottom of the glass had a small layer of deliciously tangy rhubarb, then there was an enormous mountain of very thick cream, and a tiny dollop of the gingery rhubarb mixture on the top. More fruit and less cream would have been better for me but the combination of sharp fruit and rich cream was excellent.
A line in tiny print at the bottom of the menu told us that a 'discretionary' service charge of 12.5 per cent would be added to be bill but that if we didn't think the service was good enough we could ask for it to be removed. And we did. To me 12.5 per cent is just too much. Oldfield's say it goes to their staff which is all well and good but, especially in the current economic climate, demanding so much for just taking orders and serving food is excessive. Nobody gives me a tip or a bonus simply for doing my job. Now, before you think me mean, I should say that the service was on the whole pretty average. Staff shouldn't be taking orders unless they are familiar with the dishes and as the menus are seasonal and are in effect for a couple of weeks at a time (this one was for 10th February to 3rd March) so staff should be able to familiarise themselves quickly with what's on the limited menu.
It was also disappointing that there was no enthusiasm for the food; I don't look for American style over the top excitement but the occasion "good choice" or "that's delicious" wouldn't go amiss. We found that the staff talked among themselves and with friends eating in the restaurant on a few occasions, and when they were moving around the restaurant, the heads were down with no regard for anything but the particular task in hand. It took nearly fifteen minutes to get the bill. We did tip but for just less than ten per cent which was generous given the level of service we received.
Finally, before leaving I visited the ladies toilets which are situated upstairs and found the level of cleaning to be quite poor. We had arrived at the restaurant shortly after it had opened for the day and I doubt whether the toilets could have been made so dirty in that space of time. Things like chipped toilet seats and patched up locks were little details that added up and gave an overall impression of neglect.
It must be said that I found my introduction to Oldfield's more than a little disappointing. I appreciate that Oldfield's aim is to create traditional British fare using locally sourced quality ingredients, but it seems like they are forgetting the details while any excitement has gone out of the window (my fishcake dish was really quite amateurish and the lack of a sauce or relish was unforgivable). It is simply a case of trying to hard to be earnest and sincere, and in the process forgetting to have some fun. The service needs to be friendlier and much more enthusiastic - the staff could have been working in a burger joint or a pub - and I'd expect more from a place like this.
I might yet consider visiting the Newcastle branch, I wouldn't like to write off Oldfield's completely. However, I'll wait until the summer in the hope that some fresh new ingredients might inspire them to better things.
We paid approximately £33 for two starters, two mains and a dessert, a side order of peas, a glass of wine and a pint of ale. A jug of iced tap water with lemon slices was provided free of charge upon request.
18 Claypath, Durham, DH1 1RH
Having read an excellent review of Oldfields and planning a mini-break to Durham, I decided that this would be the perfect place to go out for dinner.
It was conveniently situated in the center of Durham, near to the Gala theatre, although from the outside it looks rather nondescript and has nothing to pick it out from the rest of the street. Inside, the decor was slightly nicer, although nothing about it really sticks in my memory, so I imagine that it must have been fairly basic.
However, the dull decorations were more than made up for by the food, which was superb, and rightly so, as the food should be the best part of a restaurant! For a starter we had smoked salmon with new potatoes, which was lovely to share, but I feel it would have been too much if we had had one each. Then for a main, my partner had roast chicken with venison stuff and leek pudding, and I had venison sausage and mash, served with bacon and onion gravy.
The chicken was done to perfection, tender and delicious, and the leek pudding was an unusual but tasty way of complementing the meatier flavours in the dish. The venison sausages were wonderful too, corsely ground (the way I like my sausages) and filling, along with the creamiest mashed potatoes I have ever tasted.
For pudding I had Pimms and lemonade jelly, served with fresh strawberries and vanilla cream, and my partner had a butterscotch and cinder toffee sundae. The jelly was just right after what had been a fairly heavy and meat-laden meal, but the sundae was a little too much, and a bit too heavy on the cinder toffee, which I always feel you really don't need too much of.
The service left something to be desired, which was a shame, but is always something that me and my partner pick up on, as we both work in the service industry and value customer service pretty highly. The waitress who seated us and served us mostly was pretty brusque and for some reason seemed slightly affronted when we didn't want to see the wine menu. Several waitresses were also within clear sight of our table when we were waiting with dirty dishes in front of us, and although my partner caught their eyes a couple of times, they just continued to ignore us and chatted to each other.
This poor service aside, the food was delicious and not outrageously expensive - the whole bill came to about £50 for 1 starter, 2 mains, 2 puddings and a glass of amaretto. Mostly a good experience, and perhaps we just had bad luck with the waitress. Overall a reasonable experience.
When we first moved to the North East, one of the places everyone mentioned as being somewhere good to eat was Oldfields. For various reasons, it never really appealed to me and it was only recently (when I was invited to a lunch there) that I went along and found that they hype outweighs the reality.
Oldfields has branches in Durham and Newcastle. This is a review of the Durham branch, but I would assume that the experience at either branch is pretty much the same.
In common with increasing numbers of websites these days, Oldfields has its own website where, amongst other things, you can look at the menu. There are two menus: lunchtime and early evening menu (served until 7pm Sunday-Friday and 6pm on Saturdays) and an evening menu. The main difference between the two appears to be that the evening menu has a greater variety of dishes and is about twice as expensive!
In terms of both location and décor, Oldfields is really nothing special. Although conveniently situated on the edge of Durham City centre (near to the theatre), it's also in an area which has a slightly run-down feel to it, with quite a lot of empty or boarded up shops. It's not a bad area in the sense that you fear for your safety, and there are a number of excellent restaurants in that district, but equally, it's not somewhere you'd expect to find one of Durham's most recommended eating places.
The restaurant was pleasant enough, but really had nothing to make it stand it and left to my own devices, I wouldn't have given it a second glance. From the outside it's pretty anonymous and has nothing to set it apart from the many other eating places in the city. Inside, it's the same story. It has a functional, slightly clinical feel to it. There are two levels to the restaurant and the lower level which we were on felt quite cramped. Although the tables weren't on top of one another, the overall impression I got was that there was not much space separating either the various members of our party, or our table from the ones surrounding it.
The lunchtime menu does represent reasonable enough value for money when compared with other places. A two course meal (starter and main course) is available for a fixed price of £10, whilst a 3 course meal (starter, main course, dessert) costs £12.95.
What I found disappointing was that the choices were severely limited. Whilst the set menu offered around 4-5 dishes, which might sound reasonable enough, in reality choice is more circumscribed than that. The main problem from my perspective was that all the courses were very heavily fish and mushroom-based. Whilst I am not a fussy eater, these are two things I cannot eat. In practical terms, this meant I was reduced to a choice of one starter and two main courses. I don't think this state of affairs was peculiar to the one day I went, because Oldfields does have a reputation as a very fish-based pla(i)ce.
Anyway, the sole starter available to me was soup, which turned out to be carrot and fennel. This was very nice, but incredibly peppery and hot. This was fine for my taste, as I like things to have a bit of a kick to them, but far too fiery for people with milder tastes. The soup for one of our party arrived only partially heated and had to be sent back, but this was dealt with quickly and efficiently by the staff and with a minimum amount of fuss. Indeed, it was possibly dealt with rather too efficiently. When the soup returned a couple of minutes later, it was like molten lava and had to be eaten with extreme care! This combination of events meant they were left rather self-consciously eating their starter long after the rest of the party had finished theirs!
The main course was easily the highlight of my Oldfields' experience. I ordered sausage and mash in an onion gravy (again partly because it was one of the few non- fish dishes available) and it proved to be an excellent choice. The dish came with three sausages sitting on top of a bed of delightfully light, fluffy mash. There was just enough gravy to allow you to taste it properly and play "dunk the sausage", without the whole dish swimming in it. The sausages were locally produced they were far tastier than standard supermarkets (this is another good feature of Oldfields - most of their meats are locally sourced, making them far tastier, as well as supporting local producers). Certainly, this is a dish I would happily eat again. If you were being hyper-critical, you could argue that the sausages were quite crisp and well done. This is not a criticism from me - that's how I like them - but some people prefer them less well done.
The Service at Oldfields was excellent and could not be faulted. Staff were attentive, but unobtrusive; always on hand if they were needed, but not constantly interrupting to check everyone was alright. Orders were taken promptly and food arrived pretty quickly considering we went during a typically busy lunchtime period. Similarly, dishes were cleared away quickly when finished with and courses served without long delays between each. The one problem we had (lukewarm soup) was dealt with in a friendly and helpful manner, so there's no quibbles over the staff.
Ever since I arrived in Durham, people have been extolling the virtues of Oldfields. Having been, I don't really see what all the fuss is about. Sure, I've eaten at worse places... but I've also eaten at far better - even within Durham itself. Unless the evening menu is far superior to the lunchtime one (and for the difference in price it had better be!), then I really don't understand the buzz. I admit, I've only been once and only tried the lunchtime menu, so maybe my experience was atypical but the point is I have no incentive to return to see.
Put simply, the whole experience was adequate - neither good enough to rave about, nor bad enough to rant over. There was simply nothing to make it stand out from other places I have eaten and I struggle to see why it warrants its reputation as "the place to go."
Tel: 0191 370 9595
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