DARLINGTON seems to be buzzing at the moment with new restaurant openings.

Following Chris Lloyd’s trip to Bambudda last week, we stumbled into Saltfish @ Houndgate Townhouse.

Some may quibble over the description “new restaurant opening” because Houndgate Townhouse has been around for a few years now as a “boutique hotel” and it has always had a restaurant.

But this incarnation follows a closure of more than two years thanks to the pandemic and trading difficulties which pre-dated that. So that counts as new to me.

For those who didn’t come across it in a previous incarnation, it is one of the most beautiful Georgian buildings in Darlington and lovingly restored ten years ago by the Darlington builders Bussey and Armstrong.

They did a splendid job of it and the town was grateful – for its track record in making the most of its Georgian (and Victorian) heritage is not exactly first class.

That gratitude didn’t seem to extend to patronising the place in great numbers. We got the impression it was never a very profitable venture.

Now, post-pandemic it has new hands at the helm in the shape of Jack Bowles and his wife and business partner Ellie Richmond. Jack’s front of house and Ellie’s in the kitchen. They opened last October – not great timing with the benefit of hindsight.

Houndgate Townhouse and Saltfish Restaurant Pictures: TRACY KIDD

Houndgate Townhouse and Saltfish Restaurant Pictures: TRACY KIDD

They first made their name in these parts converting the Carlbury Arms at Piercebridge into the Fox Hole, a top-to-toe transformation that was generally well-received for the quality of the food, the modern up-scale interior and atmosphere. We never quite came to terms with the battleship grey exterior paint job but it certainly stood out.

The couple must have a thing about strikingly-coloured pubs (and foxes for that matter) because they next surfaced at the Fox Hall Inn on the A66 west of Scotch Corner which for many years previously was primarily noteworthy for its shriekingly-yellow colour.

That yellow has been toned down to a tasteful cream and you’ll be relieved to know the colour scheme at their new venture is certainly in keeping with the Grade II-listed building in which it is housed.

There’s a bit of bling in the shape of some neon-green lighting around the bar but in every other respect the look is might best described as “restrained swank”. It looks good.

As the name suggests the restaurant is big on fish and seafood. We can’t recall Darlington having previously had a specialist fish restaurant. And that’s also good.

Houndgate Townhouse and Saltfish Restaurant Pictures: TRACY KIDD

Houndgate Townhouse and Saltfish Restaurant Pictures: TRACY KIDD

Those who are really not keen on fish other than haddock and chips need not be put off. There are meat and vegetarian alternatives – and haddock and chips with mushy peas for those not keen on anything fishy without batter.

Sylvia was really looking forward to some lobster, recalling a particularly good experience with a classic thermidor at the Fox Hole a few years back. Sadly, the problem off our coast with algae bloom which has devastated stocks of both lobster and crab meant it wasn’t on the menu.

Her disappointment was brief thanks to the “magnificent” steak (£25.95) she settled for, a well marbled 8oz sirloin, chargrilled medium rare. Great flavour, very tender and a bucket of garlic butter to go with all the usual trimmings (onion rings, mushroom etc).

My T-bone halibut (£27.95) was almost as meaty. This king of fish, baked to perfection, had the texture and weight to cope with some powerful accompaniments – samphire, spinach, salsify and a brown shrimp and caper butter. The well-salted chips were excellent too.

We also had starters. A lip-smacking lobster bisque (I didn’t ask where the lobster shells came from – presumably not Redcar beach!) served with chunks of sourdough and for that Provencal touch a pot of rouille (a mayonnaise-consistency sauce/dip made with egg yolk, oil and lots of cayenne pepper) fully justified its £7.95 price tag. I can hear some of you saying: “Eight quid for a bowl of soup!!”

Even more pricey was the “luxury” prawn cocktail (£9.95). Ostensibly, the luxury bit was the addition of two crevettes (that’s king-sized shell-on prawns) perched on top of the standard prawns in Marie Rose Sauce but we thought these just as good as the fancy pair tasked with adding a bit of visual stardust.

The bill was £97 but it did include a rather special £25 bottle of cava which was good to see on the wine list instead of the usual, ubiquitous prosecco. Remember when, before our national obsession with Italian fizz, we drank the Spanish equivalent?

This was a reminder that we should reacquaint ourselves with a wine that’s a lot closer to the champagne we would probably prefer to sup.

Service was fine, led by the personable Jack and just one other. They are understandably running a tight ship until calmer waters are reached but it should shortly be full steam ahead.

Saltfish @ Houndgate Townhouse

11 Houndgate, Darlington DL1 5RF

Tel: 01325 486011 Web: houndgatetownhouse.co.uk

Lunch served noon-2.30pm. Dinner served 5-9pm

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Service 8 Surroundings 10 Value 8



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