IN lockdown, we got a little lazy. This was the life, we thought, slobbing half-dressed in front of the TV, waiting for a knock at the door to say that the evening meal had been delivered direct to the step.

Why would you ever eat out again when eating in was so cheap and easy?

But we forced ourselves out of our lethargy on Saturday night, to test the new normal at Barnard Castle in the way that Dominic Cummings once tested his eyesight there.

To be a part of our new, pandemic-riven times, The Red Well Inn has arranged itself into a one-way walk-through, with hand sanitizer at every turn and a Cummings opticians’ eye test chart prominently displayed on the wall – Barney is a town which is going to make the most of this unexpected brush with fame.

All the staff wore black uniforms with turquoise-blue masks strung across their faces. It does make communication a little tricky but, in these strange times, it is reassuring.

The Red Well is in a little chain of pubs which includes the Bridge Inn at Stapleton – which was once renowned for its zebra, crocodile and kangaroo – and the Pennyweight in Darlington town centre. The Well and the Bridge (which was fully booked when we tried on Saturday) share a menu which revolves around their Himalayan Salt Ageing Chambers: steak is stored in a chamber with walls of salt which makes the meat more tender and flavoursome.

Or so they say.

Unsurprisingly, the menu is skewed towards meat, with vegetables being drafted into replace it in vegetarian options like vegetable stroganoff, vegetable lasagne or vegetable wellington.

The menu also has a world feel to it: Singapore beef sits alongside Malayan seafood curry, German snitzel and Yorkshire chicken.

Petra, my wife, started with a presentable basket of deep fried cheese sticks and garlic mayonnaise (£5).

The Northern Echo:

I had a bowlful of garlic mushrooms (£6) which was crammed with tastes. The creamy sauce itself wasn’t especially garlicy but there were large pieces of garlic bulb in it which produced a very good kick. Smoky saltiness of thin rashers of bacon went nicely with the soft taste of the mushrooms and the soggy baguette, but I thought the sweet droplets of cold red grape were perhaps one taste too many.

The Northern Echo:

Theo, our son, had the sizzling salt and pepper chicken wings (£6), which came with prawn crackers and chopsticks. Quite how even the most proficient chopstick user is able to handle heavy and unbalanced chicken wings smeared in slippy sauce is difficult to say, so Theo used his fingers.

The Northern Echo:

He had three large wings, covered in a sticky sweet sauce which had a peppery heat to it. He loved them.

In fact, he loved the sauce so much he ate all the peppers and onions that were also covered in it.

For her main course, Petra opted for the vegetarian version of the Chicken Spit (£12). It was five or six pieces of peppers, onions and mushrooms unadorned on a skewer, served with a timbale of rice and a wire basket of chips. It was ok, but she called for ketchup and mayonnaise to give it some accompaniment.

But the Trio of Steak that Theo and I shared was much, much better. For £30, we got 20 ounces of meat, which for steak is a very fair price. We each had a piece of fillet, ribeye and sirloin, and it really was good. The chargrilled meat had a smoky side to it, but also a powerful steaky taste – perhaps there is something to be said for those chambers.

The Northern Echo:

And it was tender: I had had a large molar extracted just four days earlier, and yet the remainder of my ageing teeth were able to cope easily with the dish before them.

The steaks were accompanied by a good peppercorn sauce, half-a-tomato and a sky-scraping pile of onion rings – if there is a gargantuan creature somewhere in the world that lives solely on onions, it could not possibly have consumed the entire mountainous mound of rings.

We ate everything else, though.

For dessert, Petra opted for a coffee, but Theo and I – the boy is of an age where he is becoming quite useful for me – shared a Melting Sphere (£13).

It arrived in a moment of great chocolatey theatre – the sort of culinary drama that you cannot replicate when slobbing at home with a takeaway.

The Northern Echo:

It was a dome of Easter egg chocolate in the middle of a large plate surrounded by blackberries, strawberries and brownies, edible flowers and Cape gooseberries. It was set down on the table between us and the waiter, with a dramatic roll on an imaginary drum, poured hot chocolate sauce on top of it.

Slowly, the sphere softened. Then it sagged. And then it slumped in upon itself, revealing its goey heart of ice cream and chocolatey goodies.

Theo, who doesn’t understand the concept of the word ‘share’, set at it with his spoon which became a continuous conveyor to his mouth.

Not the most sophisticated of dishes (or, indeed, dining companions), it was not overly sweet, and the brownies and biscuits added a bit of ballast to the melty mixture while the fruits cut through the chocolateyness of it all.

It was a bit of fun, and it was probably more memorable than all the takeouts we shared in front of the TV during lockdown.

Service was very friendly and relaxed, although perhaps could have been a little faster, and the bill for three of us came to £94, which even Dominic Cummings would see as pretty fair value.

The Red Well, Harmire Road, Barnard Castle DL12 8QJ


Phone: 01833-908255

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 7 Service 7 Surroundings 7 Social distancing 8 Value for money 8