Chef Alex Nietosvuori is serving up a taste of Scandinavia while making the most of Northumbrian produce. Lisa Jenkins reports
The film Stardust, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Claire Danes and Robert de Niro, is a love story set in the fictional town of Wall. But in the real town of Wall in Northumberland chef Alex Nietosvuori and his partner, Ally Thompson, have set about creating their own sprinkling of stardust.
Tucked inside the Hadrian hotel, which offers 11 bedrooms and a pub serving traditional fare, Hjem, pronounced ‘yem' and meaning 'home' in Norwegian, provides a fine dining experience to both hotel guests and the general public. The restaurant has a central open kitchen and offers 24 covers, while the menu combines the flavours and style of Nietosvuori's early Scandinavian career with the produce of the Tyne Valley.
Head chef Nietosvuori started his career at the two-Michelin-starred Daniel Berlin restaurant, near Southern Skåne in Sweden, and went on to work at Bror in Copenhagen. He has also spent time staging at numerous restaurants in Scandinavia, including Frantzén in Stockholm and Fäviken in Northern Sweden, before moving to Oslo to continue his career at three-Michelin-starred Maaemo.
Thompson, who originated from the north east, met Nietosvuori while travelling, and when the opportunity arose to take over the management of the Hadrian hotel, she jumped at the chance to showcase Northumbrian produce and northern hospitality.
The chef likes to keep his dishes simple, using a few key ingredients, but with lots of techniques to bring flavour to the dish. "There are, of course, some elements of my cooking that are influenced by being Scandinavian," he says, but adds that he's drawn inspiration from work and experiences all around the world.
Nietosvuori cites chef Daniel Berlin as a huge inspiration, saying he owes his discipline and focus to him. He still uses some of his techniques, but also takes inspiration from what's around him, particularly if it's an ingredient he can really "show off."
Heritage grains and flour from nearby Gilchesters Organics feature in the restaurant's bread selection, with butter and some meats sourced from North Acomb Farm. Carroll's Heritage Potatoes are a supplier, while other produce comes from grower Ken Holland. During the game season, the kitchen makes use of venison and other meats shot on land nearby.
"We want our produce to be sustainable, ethical and personal," the chef explains. "It's vital that we know where the produce has come from, who has grown it, why they've grown it and what else they can grow or source. I don't want produce with thousands of miles behind it – that's just not excusable any more."
We want our produce to be sustainable, ethical and personal
The restaurant also uses foraged ingredients from different parts of the county. "We're lucky to have some great spots nearby," says Nietosvuori. "But I always make sure I'm respectful of the environment. I never take anything that isn't in abundance or do anything that could be damaging for the wildlife."
The yeast croustade is one of Nietosvuori's own innovations. The batter is made using cheese from a local dairy, which is then fried to a perfect crispy case and filled with smoked trout roe and yeast that has been baked and turned into a foam. The popular one mouthful "has lots going on," he says, and many contrasting textures: "the crispy croustade, then the pop of the roe and the silky foam. It's full of umami."
One of the best-selling dishes on the tasting menu just before lockdown was cod rolled and baked with a sauce of mussels and nettles. "It's so few ingredients and the sauce really elevates the cod," Nietosvuori explains.
"The dish represents me because it's how I love to cook and it uses techniques I learned early on in my career. I love using as few ingredients in a dish as possible – it leaves you with no room to hide, so everything has to be perfect."
The small front of house team is managed by Thompson. "The team know the menu well and where the ingredients have come from," she explains. "I work closely with Alex tasting his dishes and talking through his ideas, so I have a good understanding of what the dishes are about when presenting them to the guest."
Hjem has had some rave reviews in the press, including an early one from Marina O'Loughlin, who described the stardust they're sprinkling as "real magic".
Hjem, the Hadrian hotel, Front Street, Wall, Hexham NE46 4EE
From the menu
- Lindisfarne oyster, smoked lamb heart, preserved blackcurrant
- Chicken liver, brown butter, plum
- Brown crab, dill, fennel
- Roasted yeast and smoked trout roe
- Langoustine claw, sourdough, oregano
- Langoustine tail, chamomile, langoustine glaze
- Hot and cold mackerel, crème fraîche, mustard leaves
- Quail egg, fava beans, pink fir potato broth
- Gilchester's wheat sourdough, North Acomb Farm butter
- Beef tartare, tarragon, rye
- Dry aged Northumbrian lamb, broad beans, juniper, lamb sauce
- Rapeseed oil ice-cream, raw milk, fermented blackcurrant
Tasting menu, £85. Wine flight (six glasses), £65
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