AS befits an up-market new hotel and restaurant, the claims in the literature are as effusive as a testimonial on vellum. "Art deco atmosphere," it says. "Champagne and oyster bar, unashamed elegance, fine dining experience, gourmet cuisine, unique, unforgettable."

You get the picture, if not quite the "Monet themed ambience". (Monet, in any case, is the root of all evil.)

As regular readers will know, however, there are only three real tests of whether a place is on its mettle, and the first is to ask the waiter/barman/chief general manager if he can find out the Arsenal score - and as luck would have it, they were playing the night we dined at the Kingslodge Hotel.

Though the restaurant isn't the sort of place to have Radio Five Live chattering away in the corner, the waiter remained entirely unflustered, returned five minutes later with the bad news and was joined by his immediate gaffer, the one in the masterful waistcoat.

The gaffer proved an Arsenal man, too. "Sick as a dog," he said, his hitherto Middle English accent suddenly betraying a touch of the Tottenham Court Road.

We bonded forthwith. Unlike the Arsenal, this was going to be a winner.

The second test is whether a place is smart enough, or caring enough, to serve real ale; the third is in its use of apostrophes.

The real ale was Richmond from the Darwin Brewery in Sunderland and they were properly proud of it; the apostrophes were another matter. Before leaving university with their BAs in bubble and squeak and bed making, hotel and catering graduates should be required to complete an additional course in where to stick their apostrophes.

Still, you can't win them all, as doubtless they say at Highbury N5.

The Kingslodge Hotel (and Knights restaurant) is in Durham, the former Rose Tree hotel in Flass Vale, top end of Waddington Street, opposite (yet more prosaically) the bus garage.

Its directors include Mike Williams, a Spennymoor lad whom we knew when he had nowt, or comparatively little, and who now not only has the letters ACIOB after his name (translations welcomed) but whose company also owns the Uplands at Crook, the Red Well in Barney, the Vic in Witton-le-Wear and the Top Hat club in Spennymoor, where doubtless he misspent many a youthful hour.

The two "non-executive" directors are also locals lads made very canny indeed - Lord Mackenzie of Frawellgate, the ex-polliss, and former Durham college principal Sam Stoker - a Browney boy, memory suggests. Sam may care to arrange a few punctuation tutorials, whilst Brian Mackenzie can lock up repeat offenders and feed them a diet of husks.

It wasn't only The Boss's birthday but our anniversary, married on the same day. The elegant pianist refrained from Knights in White Satin (Moody Blues, was it not?) and played Can't Help Falling in Love, instead.

Nor, happily, does the restaurant go in for tin-pot, tuna tin suits of armour and similarly militaristic sabre rattling. It is not only very swish, not only attended by Britain's most beautiful waitress but by the second most beautiful as well.

They are called Emma and Lorna, it transpires, though not necessarily in that order.

The daily changing table d'hote menu is £15.95 for two courses, £19.95 for three, including coffee. A starter might have been voilette of pork with walnut salad and toasted ciabatta or salmon prepared three ways; main courses like roast monkfish with tomato fondue or goats cheese and puy lentil pithivier, puddings that included Bakewell tart with blackberry sauce, sticky toffee with clotted cream or a cheese board with chutney.

The occasions demanded the carte, however, if not the great pageant of staff who attended our first sitting. Artistic impression ten out of ten, necessity three.

The chap dining alone on the next table left in a hurry soon afterwards. He looked like a Russian spy, or at least like him in The Railway Children who they thought was a Russian spy but was a dab hand at fixing toy steam engines.

Champagne and oysters being to neither taste, we started more predictably: mussels for the birthday girl, black pudding opposite - "Knights very own black pudding" it said, served with buttered pink trout and a mushroom and watercress sauce.

The column is among the world's leading authorities on black pudding, and this was from the champions' league.

She followed with a whole lobster with garlic and parsley butter, served with what were termed "Northumberland chips", enormous things piled high in a sort of grid.

Were Railtrack to order a few tons, the several landslips now assailing them might more quickly be made good. Very tasty, for all that.

The Malaysian chicken - breathlessly "filled with banana, wrapped in parma ham, flaked with toasted coconut, gently sauted, enhanced on a mild curry sauce with a rice pilau" - was fine without being particularly distinctive. The service, after the little pantomime at the start, was exceptional in every respect. Absolutely spot on.

The menu had warned that the hot souffle would take half an hour, and the wait was worth it. The "tropical fruit salad" seemed rich in English apples and pears, but highly enjoyable for all that.

We finished with excellent petit fours, good coffee and an anniversary pint in the bar, where a less expensive menu looks well worth further exploration. The Arsenal, and the apostrophes, were the night's only disappointments.

l Kingslodge Hotel and Knights restaurant, Flass Vale, Durham City. Open seven days; access for the disabled. 0191 370 9977.

HOT off the presses, as it were, the 2001 Good Curry Guide is out today - and with neither County Durham nor Cleveland restaurants among the oddest "Top 100" in history.

Odd because the "100" amounts to 163. Top 100's a trade mark, they say - a moveable feast, as it were.

The Last Days of the Raj in Gateshead is in the hundred and however-many, at least, with Sachins, Vujon and Valley Junction 397 in Newcastle and the Jinnah Balti in Micklegate, York.

Other entries range from "brilliant" (Shapla, Darlington) to the almost grudging "formula curry house, marginally better than the rest" Royal Bengal in Stockton. The once awash Ocean Road in South Shields manages just two entries; the new curry capital of the North-East appears to be Whitley Bay.

The guide's edited by Pat Chapman and sponsored by Cobra Indian beer, relies almost entirely on readers' reviews, manages only a "handful" of inspections itself and admits the familiar danger of self-praise.

Among other reasons, the Balti House in Yarm is included because Chapman used to fly over Yarm to RAF Middleton St George, now Teesside Airport. In those days there wasn't a curry house for 50 miles; now, he reckons, there are over 8,000 in Britain, of which 1,000 (or so) are listed.

There's also a very helpful guide to the "Indian" menu, aloo to zeera, which adds considerably to its value.

l The 2001 Good Curry Guide, edited by Pat Chapman (Simon and Schuster £8.99).

THE British, it's reckoned, eat an annual 200 million popadoms and 21 million kilos of rice in curry houses and drink 84 million pints of cold, gaseous alcohol. The average spend is £14.50, including drinks, the favourite dish remains chicken tikka masala followed by mild korma curry and jalfrezi in third place. Vindaloo just makes the top ten.

Oh, and of which great artist is "vindaloo and rice" an anagram? An answer at the foot of the column.

AN interest to declare: the Whitworth Hall Hotel near Spennymoor, owned by former Boro footballer Bill Gates and his wife Judith, now has a small sponsorship agreement with the Albany Northern League magazine (Editor: M Amos).

It was from family finances, however, that we marked the mother-in-law's birthday in the Silver Buckles conservatory brasserie - and, unannounced and uninfluenced, thoroughly enjoyed it.

The menu's imaginative, the cooking sound. Two course lunch £7.95, three courses £9.25. Bit pricier at night.

Lunchtime customers may also see the deer trotting eagerly towards the large and very jolly chef as he ambles out with their own bread pudding. A lovely picture, a lovely lunch.

....and finally, the bairns wondered if we knew what's yellow and swings from cake to cake.


The artist of whom "vindaloo and rice" is an anagram is Leonardo da Vinci.