You know, one of the most interesting things about that league table of the British cities with the fastest-growing independent restaurant scenes wasn’t that Newcastle came joint-top with Leeds; it was that Sunderland actually outpaced it, growing by 23.4 percent in the last three years compared with Newcastle’s 12.8 percent. That’s a landslide. It’s such a hammering of the Geordies that you’d think the council’s business development scheme were being helmed by Paulo di Canio, who’s currently doing knee-slides around the office.
Not that that’ll be cause for much carping from Sunderland’s gourmands: the reason it didn’t feature on the league table is that there just weren’t enough restaurants to make it a workable comparison. Plus, the jump in independents does rather hide the fact that while there are loads of good, solid family-run Italian places around, and No 2 Church Lane’s drawing nods of approval with its hip-burgers-and-beers schtick, there’s no headline act on the Sunderland food scene.
So, the opening of City Bistro’s a big boost. It’s at Sunderland College, though the kitchen’s anything but amateurish: Kelvin Linstead, formerly of Baltic, Pan Haggerty, Slaley Hall, Peace and Loaf and Jesmond Dene House, is driving things in there.
Expectations were high. First up was chilli salt squid with a sweet chilli sauce and Asian slaw. Now, I’m not sure red onion, lettuce, red pepper and spring onion quite earns that title, but the pop and crunch of the fried squid was impressive. The on-the-bone pork, with cubes of black pudding and apple and a cushion of mash was even better: there was no ostentation or look-at-me gymnastics, just a carefully tended bit of quality meat which spoke for itself.
Finally, there was a cheese plate featuring a particularly hefty nettle-infused wedge of the Northumberland Cheese Company’s finest, and I nabbed a bit of my friend’s rich chocolate delice with sharply sweet cherries. It was all relatively simple stuff, but both were very tidily, unfussily done.
It’s not perfect – there’s very little to be done about it, but the fact you come in via the college’s sliding doors makes it feel a bit like you’re in school for a parents’ evening, which set off terrifying memories of a particularly lacerating critique of my command of long division, the new-build interior has all the character of a mid-range chain hotel bar, and the name’s roughly as evocative – but it’s by some distance the best place to go out for a meal in Sunderland which doesn’t come with side orders of beardy young blokes and phrases like ‘MASSIVELY STACKED’ and ‘MIND-BLOWING HEAT’ on the menu. It’s an altogether more demure, quietly persuasive presence, and it’s one that the city’s food scene needs.
Sunderland College, City Campus,
Park Lane, Sunderland
0191 511 6000
What we expected:
British standards from asafe pair of hands.
What we got:
Demure, unpretentious plates with just the right about of polish.
What we wish we’d tried:
The duck breast with smoked aubergine purée, charred cucumber, granola and yoghurt.