In the last crazed days before Lockdown 3, I chucked a camera and a small bag into the car and set off to review some interesting places before they closed. In many ways, it was a mistake — I remember a waitress quietly wiping away tears somewhere in the Lake District. As I left each restaurant, there was a kind of downbeat of the door slamming shut behind me. Except one — last on my list and furthest away. I left feeling I’d had a properly inspiring meal. And I wasn’t alone: during lockdown, Michelin awarded it its first star.
Regional stereotypes are odious but if welcomes do get warmer the further north you travel in England, Restaurant Hjem is the Ultima Thule of hospitality. It’s run by Ally Thompson, a local, but also alumna of the Galvin group in London, and her partner Alex Nietosvuori, a Swedish chef. It’s pronounced “yem”, meaning “home” in Northumbrian dialect, and it’s hidden behind a curtain in a hiker’s pub in the village of Wall — so named because of Hadrian’s being there.
Though I’m not an enthusiast for a tasting menu, Hjem, a 12-seat theatre of delights facing a tiny open kitchen, forced me to take things uncharacteristically easy and consider each mouthful. The first jewel was a tart of delicate pastry topped with slices of fresh-picked raw chanterelle. Beneath was a layer of last year’s chanterelles, pickled, and an evanescent underscore of lovage. It may have been the healthiest and purest thing I’ve put in my body for more than a year, so it was fitting that it should be followed by a chicken-liver doughnut.
I’ve been following the chicken-liver doughnut since I was eight. In Fantastic Mr Fox, Roald Dahl wrote with immense feeling about food and used liver-filled doughnuts as an exemplar of disgust. I was fascinated. Chicken-liver parfait? With a slightly sweet bread . . . fried? What’s not to like? I’ve since tried a few, but none quite so amazing as the Hjem version, which takes the whole idea a step further, making the intensely flavoured parfait as smooth and liquid as doughnut jam.
A finely shredded langoustine claw was served on a piece of grilled bread the size of a sim card but infinitely enlivened by pickled rose petals and followed, in short order, by a tiny croustade formed of cheese. The filling was “roasted” yeast, an ingredient that frankly sounds unhygienic. In fact, it was the texture of set custard and had a wholly novel flavour somewhere between cheese, meat and miso. In the base hid smoked trout eggs — big popping pearls of them, like Japanese salmon roe but closer to home . . . joyously Geordie ikura.
Two small courses passed in a happy blur of smoked cod belly, pickled rhubarb, Mangalitza fat and pickled onions before our chum the langoustine reappeared. This time his tail was grilled to perfection on a Japanese “Konro” and served with his brains and other juicy head-parts emulsified with brown butter.
Yes, I’ll reiterate — langoustine brain and brown-butter hollandaise. Possibly one of the greatest mic-drop moments in my gastronomic experience. I could stop the review right there and let that rest with you . . . eternally happy. Because it came without tools, I was forced to take the last smears from the bottom of the bowl with my tongue.
Perhaps not so life-changing, but nonetheless superb, an Inverness scallop turned up; seared, sliced into a smoked scallop broth with a thick smear of artichoke purée in the bottom of the bowl. If Nietosvuori has a leitmotif, it is “something delightful, lurking in the depths”.
Space forces me to gloss over a pearlescent slice of cod floating on a mussel broth with unbilled submerged tapioca, a fresh-baked brioche with lavender butter, and roast bone marrow served in a cep tea and smoked at the table with torched juniper. This time, celeriac was hiding in the shallows.
I haven’t done proper justice to more than half the food I ate at Hjem, but I’ve picked out the things that made me sit up straight in shock or surprise. Jaded hack that I am, I expect this sort of feeling a couple of times in a good year.
To experience it about eight times in a single meal is, honestly, hard to process. I just wish it was closer to my Hjem.
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