Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery, Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Hurworth

1:13pm Friday 14th January 2011

By Malcolm Warne

Star man turns on the magic again.

THERE must have been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in East Durham when the king of Seaham Hall, Kenny Atkinson, was lured away to establish a new tradition of culinary excellence at Rockliffe Hall, near Darlington.

Mr Atkinson left his Michelin star behind him and Seaham Hall promptly lost it last year.

Now Mr Atkinson and his new boss at Rockliffe, the Middlesbrough Football Club owner Steve Gibson, are on tenterhooks waiting for the 2011 Michelin star awards due out any day now. They are understood to be quietly confident.

Justifiably so. Mr Atkinson’s reputation is stratospheric.

He trails those elusive stars in his wake and he’s also a TV celebrity chef as well, having featured successfully in a reality TV series Great British Menu, and become almost a regular on shows like Saturday Kitchen. He was on again only last week.

So, Mr Gibson’s successful transfer operation has to be seen as something of a coup.

And Rockliffe Hall has not been slow to show off their star asset. The hall, which Mr Gibson is rumoured to have lavished £50 squillion on, has named its top-end restaurant, the Orangery, after him. So it’s Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery.

Which is also quite brave because Kenny Atkinson’s not a very cheffy name in the way of, say, Marco Pierre White or Alain Ducasse. With all due respect to the genius from Newcastle, Kenny Atkinson sounds like he should be playing centre forward for Glasgow Rangers, not turning out £50-a-head meals at what is now one of the North of England’s most luxurious hotels.

The Orangery, with Mr Atkinson at the helm, has been open almost a year and we have heard mixed reports. It goes almost without saying that it’s expensive. Some have said the food is sublime but the service doesn’t match, others have been more damning.

When we arrived in the restaurant’s bar on Monday, we took it as a good sign that the boss, Mr Gibson, was there and turned out to be dining too. Nursing a bottle of continental lager (drinking from the glass, I might add, Rockliffe’s not the sort of place where one drinks from the bottle) and a mobile phone, he didn’t look like he wanted to engage in small talk about the Boro’s FA Cup woes. So we contented ourselves with the menus, expertly- made pre-prandial drinks, and an appetiser/ amuse bouche of cauliflower veloute and langoustine.

We chose from the seasonal, local produce Winter Market menu (£35 for two courses, £45 for three); the Winter Prestige menu was seven courses for £65 (a stonking £115 with paired wines for each course).

Sylvia selected Yorkshire pheasant – a terrine of pheasant, ham hock, Savoy cabbage, Braeburn apple, parsnip, chestnut mushrooms and walnuts, followed by Neasham pork – loin, cheek and belly with pease pudding, baby onions, carrots and cumin.

I went for black bream – panfried fillet with leaf spinach, Shetland mussels, coriander shoots and curry, followed by Yorkshire venison – venison with a “lasagne” of wild mushrooms, butternut squash and chanterelles.

We also decided, perhaps a little mischievously, to upset the order of things by ordering a small dish of new potatoes with our main courses.

The maitre’d, Amar, who was graceful, solicitous service personified, noticeably winced at the request, cruised away to the kitchen and returned to say that this was not the sort of thing they would serve, new potatoes not being in season. They would, however, provide some fondant potato, instead, if that was acceptable.

It was, and that was that, or so we thought.

We found the restaurant surprisingly busy for an extremely wet Monday in January.

The Orangery is the hall’s old conservatory, substantially restored, and the glass and soaring ironwork makes for an almost eerily atmospheric ambience. The piano player tinkling away in the corner added to the gentility.

But it didn’t feel too precious.

One of our waiters, clearly a local lad, was happy to chat about the previous night’s staff party – a good time was had by all – and we felt relaxed and at ease.

The food was 100 per cent first class, no ifs, no buts. We couldn’t criticise a single morsel. It will live long in the memory. The meltingly soft venison, the almost pungently savoury pig cheek, the rich and gamey terrine, the plump and juicy mussels, every mouthful was ram-packed with an intensity of flavour we had never previously encountered in one meal.

We were also surprised to have delivered to our table the requested bowlful of new potatoes. Amar said they always tried to please, as he placed it precisely before us with a certain ceremonial flourish. Had they sent the third commis chef down the road to the Spar to pick up a bag, we wondered?

And there was also another amuse bouche, served before the starters, the exact component parts of which we can’t now remember, but it was supercharged flavourful espresso cup of soup with a piece of saucisson or chorizo nestling in the bottom.

I felt unable to deny myself the opportunity of a dessert and the Granny Smith apple vanilla rice pudding, apple sorbet and pecan nut praline did not disappoint, particularly the sorbet element which was simply the very essence of fresh zingy apple.

Sylvia finished with a latte (£4.95) which came with “treats” – the very best little truffles, Turkish delight and lemon meringue tartlets with brulee-type toppings.

The bill was a whooping £119 – comfortably a D&S Times Eating Out record. The food was £80. The other £39 was for the coffee, the two predinner drinks with mixers, a bottle of still water, a glass of Malbec with my venison and Sylvia’s two glasses of a beautifully smooth-moussed Prosecco with her meal.

Altogether lovely; our money (well, what’s left of it) is on another Michelin star for Mr Atkinson.

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