With just four tables, could Meze - a Turkish bistro in Darlington - be the smallest restaurant in the North?

IT may be the north's smallest restaurant - four tables, 16 chairs and a coat hook. The night we were there - me and Mr John Briggs, a husband temporarily abandoned - seven-eighths of the chairs were unoccupied.

Described as a Mediterranean and Turkish bistro, Meze is in Parkgate, Darlington, a road that's nowhere near the park. It used to be the Bishop of Durham's parkland, apparently.

A wholly unappealing thoroughfare, it may be the very antithesis of what Mr Charles Forte supposed about location, location and location. In the 200 yards between the ring road roundabout and the station bridge are three pubs (one closed), three pizza places, two Indian restaurants, a Thai, an Italian, a little English café and, for dramatic effect, the Civic Theatre.

It's a crowded, not to mention a critically competitive, market place.

Meze's next door to one of the pizza parlours.

On the other side there's a monumental mason's with an invitation in the window to ask for a free colour brochure and - quite often it's said - a note on the door reading "Gone to the cemetery, back soon". It may give new meaning to the phrase about "graveyard shift."

Most curious of all is the colour photograph of Liverpool and England footballer Steven Gerard which stands amid the stones. Whether Mr Gerard is in on the plot (as it were) or simply the owner's second cousin twice removed, we have been unfortunately unable to ascertain.

Meze is run by Cem Eskia and his partner Pauline Robson, who's from the Teams area of Gateshead. "The Turkish doctors call me a posh Geordie," she said.

Both are wholly charming, ever anxious to please.

We'd last encountered Cem at the Istanbul in Northgate, another approach road to the town that's commercially overcrowded.

As well as cooking, he read the coffee cups, forecasting that we'd soon be having a change of neighbour.

First thing next morning, the folk next door were round to say that they were moving.

Despite the additional allure of an occasional belly dancer from Manchester - and, mind, she was awfully bonny - Istanbul is now closed. Grounds for concern, Cem may have seen it coming.

Olives and hot rolls arrived, unasked, as we contemplated a menu that's entirely inexpensive save for those silly little bottles of foreign beer, £3.

John started with grilled Turkish garlic sausage and salad. I had sigara boregi, apparently translated as cigarette pies. They're fried pastry filled with feta cheese, a bit like cheese straws but without the Government health warning.

Other starters, both hot and cold, included "Albanian-style lambs' liver", stuffed vine leaves and imami bayildi, which translates as imam's delight - stewed aubergines, tomato and peppers cooked in olive oil.

Left with a house full of cats while the lady's in America, John had been over-indulging on the African Cup of Nations on television, impressed by the players' willingness to take the knocks, get up again and get on with it.

He's a Sunderland fan. "It was like watching Len Ashurst all over again," he said.

He followed with kulbasti - grilled noisettes of marinated lamb with oregano. The izmir kofte was minced beef and lamb patties cooked with potatoes and tomato sauce. It didn't travel alone.

There were more spicy potatoes, two bowls of salad, a cucumber yoghurt dish and a large bowl of stupendous mixed pickles, pickles to blow your brains out by.

Home-made baklava - filo pastry, pistachio nuts, lots of syrup - followed that. So did Turkish delight, a couple of glasses of a Pernod-like substance and some good, strong Turkish coffee. For all that, including a total of three beers, the total bill was £36.

Another fine Meze? Worth a walk along Parkgate, anyway - and you know what they say about small beginnings.

■ Meze is open every evening from 5pm. Takeaway service, too.

THE death of the colourful Abdul Latif, long-time owner of the Rupali restaurant in Newcastle's Bigg Market and Lord of the Manor of Harpole, warranted a characteristically anecdotal obituary in the Telegraph - none does death better - and an inch or two in the Guardian.

Though the great publicist claimed the world's hottest curries, the Telegraph reckoned he preferred fish and chips.

Latif, who bought the manorial rights for £6,000, was also an enthusiastic Liberal Democrat, once reprimanded - as the column reported in 1991 - for sending out "Eat at the Rupali" leaflets with his "Vote for Latif" literature. He blamed over-enthusiastic campaign workers.

On another occasion, he discussed offering free meals to everyone who voted for him, until persuaded that it wasn't (usually) how Western democracy worked. A wholly engaging character, he was in the Good Food Guide six years running.

As Eating Owt observed at the time, you don't get that for cooking tatie hash.

DURHAM now has a Slug and Lettuce bar, one of a national chain of around 100. A pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord was an astonishing £2.75: someone must have put the rent up.

We lunched on tempura prawns, long beached, followed by falafel and tzatziki.

One's little chickpea balls, the other a yoghurt- based dip.

They were OK but the accompanying, limping, salad tasted so thoroughly odd that it was possible to wonder if the kitchen had confused lettuce with slug.

We'll not be back to find out.

LAST week's column wondered about panga, said to be an alternative to cod. Paul Dobson tried it at Clem's in Bishop Auckland - "perfectly OK and £1.50 cheaper" - but decided against a large one, a giant panga.

"The huge black patches around its eyes put me off a bit," he says.

Mervyn Beattie, a horse dentist from Richmond, revisited the Mermaid fish bar in Willington, thought the panga very tasty and was quite taken by the blondes behind the counter, too.

Though the dictionaries disown it, Wikipedia records that panga - "the common South African name for pterogymnus laniarius" - is otherwise called the torpedo scad, though it doesn't sound quite the same with chips and scraps.

The fish, at any rate, is said periodically to change sex and to have both sex organs - "though it is thought unlikely that both are active at the same time".

Thus dissected, pangas and mash may not after all replace cod and chips in the nation's affections.

OFFERING 70-plus real ales, perries and ciders. Cleveland CAMRA's Stockton beer festival takes place at the Arc on Dovecote Street from February 7-9. Since the Arc's an arts centre, it's called Ale and Arty. It's open from 11am-5.30pm and 6.30pm-11pm on all three days. Entertainment on Thursday evening is by the Wildcats of Kilkenny, on Friday by the Foundations and on Saturday by new Age Jam and BeatleManiacs. Daytime admission is 80p, evenings £4 or £10 including music. Advance evening booking on 01642-525199.

and finally, the bairns wondered if we knew why birds fly south in the winter.

Because it's much too far to walk.