Purple craze

Newcastle is well used to inviting big names to come and ply their trade, but does one of the latest imports live up to his reputation? Alastair Gilmour finds out

The eyes follow you around the room. Two huge monochrome portraits of Marco Pierre White hang in the eponymous Steakhouse Bar & Grill at Hotel Indigo in Newcastle; one of them the epitome of dude.

At first glance, the restaurateur, known as ‘the godfather of modern cooking’, appears to offer a guarded welcome, but actually the expression is one of amusement and a presumption that you’re about to enjoy what’s put in front of you. For a photo, it makes a sound judgment.

Hotel Indigo opened in June 2012 and has quickly established itself in the top tier of the city’s venues. The 100-seater Marco Pierre White (MPW) restaurant is opulent, stylish and anything but intimidating, despite the weight of expectation that the former three-time Michelin star winner carries.

A clever combination of tables ranges from intimate à deux to ten-seaters. Just behind ours, in the service end of the kitchen, the young staff graft away in the heat and glare, and under the stare. Their clatter and confab combine with the jazz-suffused background music in a tuneful, workaday layer.

The adjoining Grainger Room has a reputation for cocktails, but we’ve already spotted The Governor, a Manchester-brewed beer named after MPW’s greyhound. It’s a copper-coloured ale with a flourish of malt on the palate and a spicy sensation on the lips. And, purely for comparison, we also try local Grainger Ale from Hadrian Border Brewery, a perfectly well-balanced, finely-tuned beer with a light barley base and not too much hop influence. Despite the MPW eyeballing, the result is Newcastle 1 Manchester 0.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering a range of regionally inspired daily specials. The table d’hôte is particularly reasonable and already we’re impressed by the menu combinations.

Grilled butter-fried sardines with crab and raisin dressing is an elegant starter. This pair are flattened out and lightly done to reveal their sweetness complemented by the cooked raisins, while the tiny pieces of crab underline their fishy provenance. Am I allowed to mop up the remains with my bread? Oh yes. One hand obscures the sweeping action from MPW.

The slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, red wine-braised puy lentils, roast shallots and wholegrain mustard creamed potatoes is almost a work of art; the meat presented in a handsome and ultimately collapsible tower of fibrous delight. But it’s also unfussy and straightforward, the petals of caramelised shallot almost hogging the limelight. We’d ordered a side dish of real chips in beef dripping, which arrived in a tiny copper saucepan – huge, crisp on the outside, soft inside. There’s only one way to eat them – fingers. The biggest two are earmarked for mopping duties. Look the other way, MPW.

There’s an obvious desire here to get everything right, and judging by the reception many of our fellow diners get from the staff, they’re regulars who know something about quality and service. This, we decide, is affordable glamour, and we all need a bit of that from time to  time.

Hotel Indigo, we overhear, recorded almost full occupancy over the first two weeks of 2013; a period which followed what they called a “phenomenal” December. Not bad for a 140-room hotel in a city that’s reckoned by some to have close to a surfeit.

Marco Pierre White left Allerton High School in Leeds without a qualification to his exotic name. He began his kitchen training at the Hotel St George in Harrogate and later at the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Arriving in London as a 16-year-old, “with £7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes”, he began his classical training as a commis chef at Le Gavroche under the famed Albert and Michel Roux.

At 24, he became head chef and joint owner of Harveys, with a kitchen staff that included a young Gordon Ramsay. By the age of 33, MPW had become the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars and also had the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Eric Chavot working for him.

This shows at his latest outpost in Newcastle (there are Marco Pierre White Steakhouses in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Chester). Cookery and presentational flair of this standard aren’t learned overnight, and while it would be an overstatement to claim that the man has brought a culinary revolution to the city, the MPW operation is stylish and well conditioned.

A portrait’s intention is to display not so much an exact likeness, but the sitter’s character, personality and possibly their mood. The MPW image now looking over my shoulder seems to react to our pleasure. Is that a nod of approval, dude?

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