Sometimes, when worlds collide, it’s chaos. Other times, it’s magical. At Restaurant Hjem – Northumberland’s new fine-dining spot – it’s the stuff of foodie dreams.
Under its effortlessly-chic roof, simple Scandi-style cooking, hearty Northumbrian produce and warm and welcoming North East hospitality combine and clash in the tastiest of ways.
You’ll find it in the teeny village of Wall, just north of Hexham, surrounded by rolling hills and lush Northumbrian countryside. Housed within The Hadrian at Wall – a popular pub around these parts – it’s the brainchild of Swedish chef, Alex Nietosvuori, and his partner, Ally Thompson, who hails from Northumberland.
After years spent managing and working in big-time restaurants, some Michelin-star, in the likes of Copenhagen, Sweden, Chile, London and Australia, the pair fell in love with the idea of opening their own place.
The dream was to create a unique foodie destination that celebrated both their backgrounds, bringing together the finest and freshest North East produce and traditional Scandinavian cooking techniques. That place opened just a few months ago. Hjem – pronounced “yem” – which means ‘home’ in both Scandinavian and Northumbrian dialect. A clever and fitting nod to the pair’s roots.
Inside, it’s typically Scandi. Clean, bright, minimalistic. Stone-coloured walls, views of the sweeping Tyne Valley, wooden tables, bowls and pots (all handmade by a local craftsman), clay tableware (made by a local potter) and rustic centrepieces made out of tree branches.
Simple. Comfy. Effortlessly stylish.
It seats 24 diners, all of whom are treated to tempting bites from its small, but mighty, open kitchen. Instead of your standard starters, mains and desserts, I discover it’s more about enjoying a little bit of everything here. Once seated, you can indulge in either a six or 12-course tasting menu, showcasing the best local ingredients Ally and Alex can get their hands on.
“Instead of just a typical meal out, we want everyone’s visit to Hjem to be an exciting, memorable experience. And the tasting menu is a great way of achieving that,”
“Not only does it give our guests a real flavour of Alex’s style of cooking, it also allows us to showcase the many different ingredients we’re working with. “Northumberland is an amazing place for sourcing top quality produce and I’ve loved using it all to develop a whole range of dishes,” says Alex.
“Just to give people an insight as to how close our suppliers are to us, our vegetables, beef, pork, lamb and dairy all come from farms, gardens and farm shops right here in Northumberland.”
And when they say close, they mean it. It’s all tantalisingly near. A farmer in the next village provides the chicken, duck, guinea fowl and turkey. The pork and dairy come from North Acomb Farm – a 10-minute drive from the restaurant – and the eggs come from chickens that roam free in next door’s field. A chap called Jeff Hogg, who lives at the bottom of the restaurant’s garden, drops off freshly-laid delights each morning. He also tends to Alex and Ally’s small rooftop garden, where all the restaurant’s herbs and plants are grown. The veggies come from a nearby patch in Gunnerton.
“It wasn’t until I left the North East to work elsewhere that I started to appreciate just how beautiful Northumberland is,” says Ally. “Now that I’m back where I grew up, I really want to make the most of our surroundings and show off the amazing produce that’s right here on our doorstep.
“People keep saying it must’ve been hard to find so many small, local suppliers nearby, but it really wasn’t. While the building work was going on, we took the time to get out and about and really explore our surroundings, uncovering the best growers and farmers we could find.
“We’ve built up great relationships with some really talented people – people whose philosophies are in line with our own – and we’re really happy with what they all bring to Hjem.”
Whichever menu you go for, expect a mix of small, field-to-plate morsels and slightly bigger plates. It’s fancy, fine-dining fare; beautifully-constructed and brimming with colour and the most imaginative flavour.
“My style of cooking is typically Scandinavian – very simple. There are only two or three components to each dish and they’re all quite light. It’s easy to make our food look beautiful as we have so many fresh and vibrant herbs and flowers at our disposal. They have the power to elevate a simple plate of food into something quite special.”
You can also go down the wine and juice-pairing route, I learn, which really tops off the whole dining experience. If beer’s your thing, ask for a bottle of the stuff – it’s brewed just down the road.
Alex tells me the menus are changing constantly and that he’ll continue to switch things up as the months and seasons roll on, but current culinary standouts include melt-in-the-mouth cod head with chicken skin and garden herbs, pink fir apple potato with blackcurrant, quail egg and pickled pork, plus Northumbrian beef, cooked ’til it melts in the mouth. For something sweet, go for the horseradish ice cream with apple caramel (far nicer than you might think), or buttery singing hinnies.
“The minute a new cut of meat, a type of fish, or a particular vegetable comes into season and starts tasting really good, I’ll incorporate it into the menu somehow. Making the best of – and celebrating – the ingredients around is our whole ethos.”
12-course tasting menu – £75 per person. Six-course tasting menu – £45 per person. Wine and juice pairing from £40 per person. Open Wednesday – Saturday. Reservations from 7pm.