THE café at the Bowes Museum has been revamped: new menu, new décor.

The décor is the cutting edge of interior design fashion. This must be the case because amid the on-trend greys, with screens between tables featuring greyed out characters from the Canalettos that you can see in vibrant colour upstairs, there are new cushions made from exactly the same grey heron pattern that the designers at chez Lloyd have just employed in their newly decorated front room.

Mrs Lloyd spent the meal basking in the very public vindication of her soft furnishing taste.

Aided by the cushions, the restaurant, in the dramatic setting of the chateau museum, has a feeling of refined class. It doesn’t taking bookings and entry is free – you don’t have to be a paying visitor to the museum. It serves plenty of sandwiches, scones and tea cakes as well as six main courses.

The main course menu had not changed as much as the décor – it still included the Smoked Haddock Chowder (£9.50), which I remember as a great chamber pot of fishiness from a visit many years ago before my clam and mussel allergy developed, and also still there is the Bowes Rarebit (£8.95), which I remember as plenty of beer-soaked Wensleydale cheese toast with a couple of rashers of strong, dry cured bacon.

It being Sunday, our son Theo chose a traditional roast beef diner (£9.50). Loads of pink – I’d say very pink – beef, easy to cut, with nice gravy, a crispy Yorkshire pudding and plenty of good veg. He was very content.

Roast beef Sunday dinner at Cafe Bowes

Roast beef Sunday dinner at Cafe Bowes

I chose the Pan Fried Bacon Chop (£9.75) which was an explosion of powerful saltiness in my mouth. However, the chop was sitting on a bed of creamed cabbage and leeks in which the creaminess worked really hard and calmed the extravagant saltiness and so created a balanced dish.

Pan fried bacon chop, with heritage potatoes

Pan fried bacon chop, with heritage potatoes

It came with “bambino heritage potatoes”. A heritage potato is one that was bred before about 1950 when the supermarkets began decreeing that potatoes had to be a uniform colour and shape and had to grow so as to be easily harvestable. The oldest heritage potato is called Fortyfold and it dates from about 1800. There are more than 300 varieties of heritage potato and bambino looked small and dark tuber when it turned up in my bowl, perfectly potatoey and but definitely not enough of the little tubers to go with my bacon chop.

But then, I could have done with more of the cabbage and leeks, and of the bacon, so as you are always advised to leave them wanting more, this was a very successful dish.

Petra was not so convinced by her dish, the Wild Mushroom and Walnut Pate (£8.25), which was one of two vegetarian options. Neither of us could taste much mushroom or, for that matter, walnut. The pate was just a cold but pleasant presence on some nicely toasted olive and rosemary bread.

Wild Mushroom and Walnut Pate

Wild Mushroom and Walnut Pate

It came with a celeriac remoulade topped with a pumpkin seed granola. The seedy things were nice and crunchy, but the remoulade was a little too gentle to lift the pate.

We’d ordered a side of pickled red cabbage coleslaw (£1.65), which was a good coleslaw but didn’t have much oomph of pickle to it.

To follow, Theo opted for a great slab of carrot cake (£3) from a very impressive cake cabinet, while Petra and I ordered from the dessert menu: chocolate and almond pudding, and a lemon posset (£5.95 each).

The desserts were served on old fashioned, elegant china, the sort your grandma had put away for best and never dared to use. In fact, it is worth saying that every dish was quite beautifully presented.

Chocolate pudding at Cafe Bowes

Chocolate pudding at Cafe Bowes

My pudding was great, the almonds just about tasteable to subdue the richness of the chocolate. It came with juicy sweet strawberries to finish it off.

Similarly, the lemon posset had a citrusy punch to it and it was topped by a fruity compote so the two tastes worked in tandem.

The posset came with a distinctive shortbread. Petra couldn’t place the main ingredient, which I thought it was black peppercorns – partially right, as when we consulted the menu again, it told us they were pink peppercorns.

Pink and black come from unrelated plants, but taste very similar. I was very intrigued by it, and fortunately, Petra had left a scrapping of posset for me to pair with a crumb of shortbread. I thought the vivid sharpness of the lemon combined well with the aromatic pepper, but a debate about the place of pepper on the dessert menu lasted much of the journey home.

Certainly, we agreed, it was unusual.

Given all these great experiments and combinations with flavours, the pate’s plainness was perhaps just an aberration, although obviously, the museum’s greatest taste is in its choice of cushion covers.

Some very tasteful new cushions at Cafe Bowes

Some very tasteful new cushions at Cafe Bowes

Café Bowes,

Bowes Museum,

Barnard Castle


Phone: 01833-690606

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 8 Surroundings 9 Service 8 Value for money 8