John Calton’s food offer at the Staith House gastropub in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, has matured to a level he is clearly very excited about.
By his own admission, when the pub opened its doors to paying punters just three years ago, MasterChef: The Professionals finalist Calton offered a menu that was too varied and not as structured as he would now want.
One element that has remained through the gastropub’s various menu incarnations is a focus on seasonal and fresh ingredients.
Calton, whose pub was placed 33rd on the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list this year, changes the pub’s menu daily to reflect what the fishermen land on the quayside, just metres away from the venue.
The chef-patron’s latest challenge to himself was to develop a dramatic tasting menu based on seasonal and daily changing produce.
From chefs to paying diners
And what began as an evening for top chefs at the Staith House has turned into a sell-out event for paying diners.
The pub’s fish and shellfish tasting menu showcases the finest seasonal produce from the local Fish Quay. The menus give guests the opportunity to sample some of the pub’s favourite dishes alongside some fresh ideas.
For £70 for nine courses, diners can choose whether to have this special option at lunch time for the 2.30pm sitting or dinner for the 8.30pm sitting.
Calton tells The Morning Advertiser: “We offer nine courses for £70 and customers get a really good selection of the best that the Fish Quay has to offer.
“There’s always Lindisfarne oysters, we also offer local crab, hand-dived scallops, turbot, monkfish and lemon sole, but it just depends what is in season. It’s a real fish-heavy, seafood tasting menu.”
The Top 50 Gastropub circle is tight knit and Calton originally got the idea from fellow listee Stephen Harris – chef-patron of the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent.
Calton adds: “A couple of years ago, I went down to the Sportsman and worked with Harris for a few days. His track record and his pedigree is great, but what I found really interesting was his ability to showcase the best of the produce available in his area in a tasting menu format.
“He said it was quite slow to start but now, about three quarters of his sales are from the tasting menu, which is epic. In the time I was there, few people just ordered off the blackboard menu, they were ordering off the tasting menu.”
Calton originally offered his tasting menus to fellow chefs before he took the plunge to offer it to customers too.
He adds: “We were doing these tasting nights where different chefs were coming in to eat with us such as Andrew Pern from the Star at Harome in Yorkshire; Stephen Smith from the Freemasons at Wiswell, Clitheroe, in Lancashire; and Dominic Chapman from the Beehive in White Waltham, Berkshire.
“Josh Eggleton from the Pony & Trap in Chew Magna, Somerset, had a tasting evening too and cooked a load of fresh fish that had been landed for
him. It ended up being about seven or eight courses.
“He said we should do it more because of the great selection of fish and we thought, why don’t we start to offer it as something that is available all the time?”
From January this year, the pub began to offer the tasting menu to customers. It started with about two to four a week, but Calton says it has since risen significantly to about 15 to 20 over the past two weeks.
“We chose 2.30pm because you don’t normally have many covers because lunch time is finished but, with the tasting menu, you have a couple of people sitting down, drinking nice wines and you can do the menu all through the afternoon for them,” he adds.
“It’s going really well, the feedback we get is great and it takes around two and
a half hours in total to do.
“Going from doing none to 20 a week isn’t too bad at all. It’s like an extra spend in the day time. I love cooking like this, where you have got the total focus on just those diners and though it is a small plate, the fish is so fresh,” he adds.
“The shellfish is such good quality and we will keep doing it because it’s not any extra hassle to us. If you don’t do any that day, it doesn’t really matter.
“We only ever ask customers for 24 hours’ notice so we can get the ingredients the next day to ensure freshness.”
It also adds another element to the menu, meaning customers get the opportunity to find out what else the pub and its chef has to offer.
Calton says: “Though it isn’t the most ‘pubby’ concept, it’s a great idea because you get to do something more refined, which is a great option to give diners.
“We do have a great Sunday lunch trade because our roast dinners are big portions with great-quality beef, lamb and pork, but it’s really nice to have an alternative.
“That is especially the case when you have something that is delicate and refined, where you can really showcase the best of what the local area has to offer, and for us, that is the Fish Quay.”
Offering a tasting menu can increase trade and is a fairly simple, yet effective, way of pulling in more punters, especially during quiet periods.