Gateshead, where The Bonny Comet lives, might be where my culinary journey began.
When I was a child, Gateshead became home, in 1986, to the first, vast, American-style shopping mall the north of England ever saw. The Metrocentre was 2,000,000 square feet of retail space with an indoor rollercoaster. Unfathomable joy. Although, more exciting than shopping, for me, was the Clockworks food court: a pastel-pink, multifloored, world-cuisine hub. This was the 1980s, so “world food” was largely Italian and American, although at the Wok N Roll I discovered the heady thrills of black bean sauce, Singapore noodles and lemon chicken. Life would never be the same again.
Thirty-five years later, I’m back in Gateshead, albeit five miles up the road in Low Fell, for lunch at The Bonny Comet, a fancy bistro also serving food from all over the world – though whoever wrote the menu here, in 2022, is certainly a little more ambitious. There are Thai rice balls with sriracha mayonnaise on the “nibbles” menu, alongside oysters and barbecued “graffiti aubergine” with ras el hanout. This elegantly positioned all-day bistro clearly wants to be all things, to all people, all of the time, so there’s a “things on toast” part of the menu offering devilled lamb kidneys or Newcastle Brown Ale Welsh rarebit, but also a section where north-Indian palak tofu corn sits next to braised pork belly with chimichurri and a vegan option of miso-roasted celeriac on butterbean mash.
The menu is imaginative, indisputably global and utterly delicious-sounding. Still, on a Thursday lunchtime, without a huge number of customers, there was an exceedingly long wait to order. Then a much longer wait – almost an hour – before any food appeared, regardless of how my eyes drilled on the doors of the dumb waiter, metres from my face, drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs at each ding.
Two starters eventually arrived: a plate of rare roast beef with pickled radish, a mild horseradish creme fraiche and some baby beets was decent, although the meat was well done, by anyone’s standards. Then the graffiti aubergines with ras el hanout, which were simply slices of grilled, softened aubergine with no evidence of a sojourn in Algeria or Morocco. A very subtle mint yoghurt livened up matters, but a liberal fistful of roughly chopped parsley chucked on top was merely mystifying.
By now, I suspected all was not right at The Bonny Comet. Another long wait began with no apology from the kitchen, which gave me adequate time to explain to my dining companion why I had taken them there. Specifically: The Bonny Comet is the kind of place, on paper, that I love and want to succeed. It’s a perkily named, elegant-sounding bistro on a northern high street that will make you a French 75 cocktail at twilight or huevos rancheros for breakfast, and there’s pineapple tarte tatin for pudding. As a small child in the north, my food horizons were so limited, that I feel joyous when I see “Lalpur to Low Fell Dehati Tangri marinated local chicken legs” on a trumped-up cafe’s menu next to the cod and chips or beer-battered onion rings. For these reasons, I could wait for my main course.
My palak tofu corn dish arrived. The rich, green, generously spiced and delicious spinach and sweetcorn sauce contained, for £14, six small cubes of silken tofu. The kitchen had clearly run out of the advertised paratha, so they sent it with a thick slice of what looked like toasted Asda tiger bread. There are indeed tigers in north India, in the eastern Himalayan region, so perhaps this was the chef’s idea. Another main of warmed-up Northumbrian lamb rump, on a lukewarm pea risotto with parmesan crisps, lacked finesse but was tasty enough. For dessert, we ordered a chocolate brownie, which had been baked until rather dry and came with a few smatterings of honeycomb and vanilla ice-cream.
It was one of those meals where one can send back whole plates of food almost untouched and no one enquires why. And one asks for the bill at the same time as placing a dessert order, as you can’t face another long wait. Halley’s comet appears around every 75 years, which is only slightly longer than I waited for food at The Bonny Comet. However, the tiger bread will keep me giggling a whole lifetime, so lunch was incredible value for money.
The Bonny Comet, 490 Durham Road, Low Fell, Gateshead NE9 6HU. 0191-816 2072; firstname.lastname@example.org. Open Weds-Sun, 9am to 11pm, (11.30pm Fri and Sat, 10pm Sun). From about £30 a head, plus drinks and service.