Malcolm Warne revisits an established Darlington institution on a difficult day for hungry reviewers

THIS week I can introduce with no little fanfare the Darlington & Stockton Times Eating Out Good Times Index – a measure of the state of the local economy based on the booking levels at pubs and restaurants.

Unlike its predecessor – the short-lived D&S Times Eating Out Austerity Index – this is not based on the subjective whim of your reviewer but hard, not-to-be-argued-with empirical data – the sort of intelligence Treasury economic forecasts are based upon. Yes, that good.

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The key metric is the number of restaurants or pubs your reviewer has to call after noon on a Saturday to get a table for dinner that same evening. The index is carefully weighted to take account of, among other things, end of month pay days and bank holidays, England on the telly etc. Dead scientific then.

What the index is looking for are signs of the downturn that the Brexit pessimists have been forecasting for nine months but has stubbornly refused to arrive. With inflation soaring and incomes being squeezed, it’s only a matter of time before we start pulling in our horns, isn’t it?

And yet last Saturday, the index hit a record six. Yes that’s right. Six establishments were fully booked. No room at the inn. Indeed, one North Yorkshire pub said it had no availability on Friday or Saturday evenings for two weeks. That’s pretty much unheard of for this part of the world.

Paradoxically, this happened in the same week that the highly-rated (by me at any rate) Haynes Arms at Kirby Sigston closed its doors. Owner Peter McCoy is reported as saying he had customers but couldn’t make any money from them.

Well, we all like a bargain - like the a la carte offering at Oven in Darlington, the seventh restaurant I rang that afternoon which thankfully could accommodate us.

That a table was available was something of a surprise because for many years Oven was the most popular destination in town for cooking that was a cut above the very average Darlington average, under the guidance of the charismatic Tarek Thoma.

For all large-than-life Tarek’s charisma, I can’t say I shared the enthusiasm for the original Oven. While the food was good, the service was take-it-or-leave-it arrogant and the tables were rammed together like a school canteen.

Things changed in late 2015 when Tarek open another Oven in Middlesbrough and the Darlington one closed suddenly and mysteriously. Rumours were rife about the reasons but it did finally reopen last year but with Mr Thoma no longer involved.

The revamped Oven has drifted down market, certainly in terms of price. The evening a la carte menu is £12.95 for two courses and £15.95 for three. There’s even an optimistically-titled “pre-theatre” menu (Darlington doesn’t have a theatre at present) for just £9.95 (two courses) and £11.95 (three).

While obviously not fully booked, trade was brisk last Saturday and we found ourselves in the upstairs dining area which is clearly considered second-rate in comparison with downstairs but we actually preferred because the tables were less cramped.

There’s a real mix of contemporary styling going on. Quietly funky is the best I can do to describe it, unlike the music which was loudly funky or, perhaps more accurately, modern RnB or hip hop. Whatever, it was pretty insistent and made conversation difficult. Clearly, we are getting old.

The beat was putting Sylvia in the party mood so a bottle of Prosecco was summoned. Dogarina (£21.95) was a label we’d not come across – and hopefully won’t do again. This was second rate Italian fizz lacking in that light freshness that we Brits have developed an almost insatiable thirst for in recent years.

But our starters were okay. Sylvia’s prawn cocktail was a scattering of salad with a spoonful of the usual prawns in a Courvoisier Marie Rose sauce. There can’t have been much brandy in the sauce but it was in all other respects perfectly acceptable.

My spicy Egyptian stew was a little pot of aubergine, onion, garlic and roasted peppers in a mildly chillfied tomato sauce with a chunk of braised lamb and was really rather good. What was daft about it was the artful smear of aioli on the plate which was impossible to mop up with the crisp slices of bruschetta so I resorted to my fingers.

Sylvia liked her marinated chicken breast served with tiger prawn fritters (battered) and a tiger prawn cream sauce and a few chunky chips. The chicken was plump and juicy, the sauce delicate and fragrant.

My slow roast belly pork was decently piggy and fell apart but the red wine and onion sauce was on the gloopy side. There was no crackling on top of the pork so some aerated pork skin took its place. It was surprisingly tasteless as were the parsnip crisps.

We shared a very ordinary “home-made” tiramisu which, judging by the icy cold sponge interior, was not long out of the freezer.

Still our bill was only £50 and that included the bottle of fizz. Service was fast if a touch over confident at times. We couldn’t help but snigger when our waiter – a bonny young man Sylvia thought – tried to remember our order without writing it down. He had to come back and grovel because he’d forgotten one of the starters.

FOOD FACTS

Oven, 30 Duke Street. Darlington DL3 7AQ

Tel: 01325 466668

Web: www.ovendarlington.com

Open: Tuesday to Thursday noon-2.30pm and 5-9.30, Friday to Saturday noon-3pm and 5-10pm, Sunday 11am-5pm.

Ratings

Food quality: 3/5

Service: 3/5

Surroundings: 3/5

Value: 4/5