Monday, 9 October 2017

The Rat Inn, Northumberland

Being a restaurant fan is, for the most part, being a restaurant critic fan as well. It's how I got into this blogging business in the first place, and the broadsheet restaurant reviews are still a huge influence on where I decide to eat. I followed Marina to Where the Light Gets In, and fell in love. I followed Jay Rayner to the Parkers Arms, and it was wonderful. Grace Dent told me to go to Jamavar, and I did, and by golly I'm glad I did. These people are professionals (and, it has to be said, have other professionals telling them where to go). I am merely an amateur.

But the Rat Inn is mine. All mine. There's nobody significant outside of the occasional unhinged Tripadvisor report that's covered it, and because I'm not a Marina or Jay the chances of me completely ruining the place by recommending it wholeheartedly (because I do) are far reduced. With any luck, you'll have a good while before the rest of the country catches on and you can grab a table for 2 on a Friday night without too much bother.

I can't promise that will last, though. Once the word gets out, they may have to start charging in advance and reserving places in the public bar. But till then, bloody hell, just go.

I found them on Twitter - Twitter's had a hard time recently, what with you-know-who threatening nuclear war and the Nazis being given a bit of a free run, but for finding likeminded food lovers it's still second to none. I knew I'd like the Rat because conversations with the owners always ended the same way - with us agreeing, and me wishing I could eat there.

So, eventually, I did. Here's how the evening started - home made focaccia, unbelievably buttery and lovely, an instant assurance we were in good hands. Of all the places that make their own bread, I'd say about half would do better to buy in from elsewhere - and there's absolutely no shame in doing so. But the Rat know exactly what they're doing.

Rock oysters came dressed in what I think was a kind of cucumber jelly - very nice anyway, the oysters nice and lean and briney and complemented well by the dressing.

Shetland Mussel broth was hearty and comforting, containing plenty of seafood and perfectly seasoned. It was also a remarkably generous portion size for a starter - a theme that would continue throughout the evening.

The Kimchi Scotch Egg was the Rat's entry in the Young's Scotch Egg Challenge in the Canonbury back in February, and though they didn't win, this is still a beautiful thing, expertly timed runny yolk and surrounded in a punchy, chilli-spiked layer of sausage meat.

Last of the starters, chicken & morcilla terrine was another deeply generous amount of food, an inch-thick slab of nicely seasoned charcuterie and two softly-toasted slices of brioche. Apologies for the dim photo, lighting at the Rat on this autumn evening was rather "romantic" but if I ever turn into one of those people who brings their own offset lighting rig, feel free to slaughter me in my sleep.

One of the clever things about the Rat Inn is how they've managed to hold onto the spirit and atmosphere of a traditional, unpretentious country pub while still offering ingredients and preparations that you don't often see outside specialist restaurants. Grouse, for example, tricky to persuade the average pub-goer to shell out for in its fancier preparations, here was served as a rustic Wellington on a bed of creamed cabbage, and felt quite appropriate. It helped that it tasted great, too - soft, flaky pastry containing a neat medallion of pink game.

It's probably down to nothing more sinister than the inconsistency of British cattle that my peppered local steak was a teeny bit on the chewy side. It had plenty of beefy flavour but was rather lean, meaning despite being cooked quite accurately to medium-rare it required a bit of jaw-work to get through. However, I'd take the character of British beef, where one steak can be mediocre and another extraordinary, over the consistent-but-consistently-dull USDA standard any day of the week. Plus, chips were brilliant - great big golden brown crunchy things with bags of flavour.

This is a roast parsnip, stilton and red onion tart, and though I couldn't bring myself to try any of it - the portion sizes at the Rat Inn were defeating - I was told it was great. And huge. The wimpy Londoner in me wishes that the plates of food generally could be reduced by 30% but I was told in no uncertain terms that in this part of the world, that would be signing your own death warrant. So full marks, really, to these guys for keeping extremely reasonable prices and offering genuinely exciting cuisine whilst also loading up the plates with enough chow to keep all but the most rabid TripAdvisor user quiet.

The problem - I know it's not really a problem, but still - the problem with being quite so obsessive about restaurants as this food blogging thing makes you, is that you end up with a rather skewed opinion of the state of dining generally in the country. I know, at the back of my mind, that places like the Rat Inn and the Parkers Arms and the Sportsman represent a miniscule percentage of the food pubs in the country and that most people do not have the time or the resources to seek them out.

But then, if you lived in Canterbury and weren't aware of the Goods Shed, or lived in Bristol and had never come across Bell's Diner, how much more wonderful would your life become if someone pointed them out to you? Well here I am, now, pointing out the Rat Inn - and if it brings you half as much joy as dinner there brought me, it's still well worth the journey to this lovely part of the world. You're welcome.


The Rat Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As at the Parkers Arms, the lovely people at the Rat Inn knew I was coming and I think a round of drinks and a plate of oysters wouldn't turn up on everyone's table. However, you can't fake cooking as good as this and even at full price most dishes are a bargain.


Anonymous said...

Lovely review hits the nail on the head and its special when someone seeks a little gem out travels from London and then shares the experience. The rat is quite special X stosie

Alicia Foodycat said...

They are excellent on twitter - if I ever get up to that part of the country they are on my list!

Tabitha said...

Wow, looks lovely - definitely time to pay them a visit before they get a little too successful! Great review - that scotch egg looks amazing.

James Cowin said...

This place is great. Visited two years ago and every thing is spot on. If you are ever in the area again try to visit my restaurant Mrs Miller's ( We were the 2017 good food guides local restaurant of the year for the north west. Or if you don't want a trek out to the middle of no where try our second venue Four and Twenty in Penrith ( Would be great to have you in for lunch or even better dinner. All the best, James. P.S love the blog.

Lizzie said...

Did you not drink any booze??!?!?!?

Chris Pople said...

Lizzie: We did, but, er, they didn't appear on the bill (I alluded to this in the footer)