Stuart Forster interviews chef Ruari Mackay of Coarse restaurant Durham City’s new and independent dining establishment serving an affordable tasting menu.
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Coarse opened in September 2022 in premises that can seat up to 38 diners just off Durham’s North Road. Standing between barbers and next to The Head of Steam pub, the restaurant is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Durham Cathedral.
Chef Rauri Mackay
“This is something we have wanted to do forever. When we walked in, instantly we said this is a good space and it’s a good location,” says Rauri, one of the three co-owners of Coarse. It’s an informal dining venue and artworks by local artists are displayed on the walls.
His wife Gemma Robinson is responsible for the front of house while his friend Craig Lappin-Smith has management and finance roles.
“We know how each other works, each other’s moods and when to stay apart,” says Rauri of working with his wife and laughs.
“Just after the first lockdown, Craig got in touch with us. I’d worked with him years ago, when we were both a Bistro 21 in Durham. He basically said, ‘listen, I’ve got a proposal for you, we’d like to open a restaurant.’ So we met and went through everything,” explains Rauri.
Tasting menu restaurant
They decided to offer affordable tasting menus for lunch (£20) and dinner (£40).
“We don’t want to come in at too high a price point. That might scare people off, particularly when they don’t know us,” says Rauri of Coarse’s affordable tasting menus.
“A tasting menu has got a bit of a funny image. People think it’s expensive and they can’t possibly do that. But we want to make it a bit more accessible to people and a bit more fun,” he explains.
Rauri recalls visits to an upscale fine-dining establishment with Gemma and a meal in a less expensive, more modern restaurant: “We enjoyed the cheaper one much more because it was more ‘us’. It was more accessible, more fun and you didn’t feel like you couldn’t move or that you might knock on glass over.”
“It felt relaxed there and that’s what we want people to feel here. Anyone can come in. There’s no dress code; you don’t have to dress up in a suit and tie. Equally, we want it to look good and we’re serving people nice stuff,” he adds.
Locally sourced food
“We want to focus on fruit and vegetables. We’re not moving away from meat but nowadays a lot of people aren’t eating as much meat. I’m a big fish fan. I love cooking fish and I love eating fish…there’ll always be good fish on. We use a good supplier who I’ve known for years…we’ll be using the best seafood we can get,” says Rauri.
“We’re looking at rolling with the seasons. We’re looking at changing the menu every four to six weeks,” says Rauri of menus that allow Coarse to showcase locally sourced ingredients.
He will consider adapting menus when seasonal produce is available.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this. I’ve worked in pubs for like the last eight years. You do a menu and that’s it for three months – you can’t change it. As a chef, you want to be flexible. You want to be using the best ingredients you can get. You want to be putting certain things on the menu that don’t necessarily work in a pub environment,” he reveals.
Rauri enjoys reading about cooking and cuisine. Chef Terry Laybourne is also one of the main sources of inspiration.
“He champions local produce, uses good ingredients and doesn’t mess about with them too much. I think that’s essentially what has always stuck with me,” says Rauri, who admits that he isn’t comfortable with the idea of molecular gastronomy.
Coarse is sourcing its ingredients from more than 20 local businesses and suppliers. Everything sold in the Durham restaurant is made within 100 miles or sourced from a small company within 100 miles. That includes the likes of Durham Gin, the S43 Brewery and Marlish Water.
The concept behind Coarse restaurant
“I like to do good food with simple ingredients. Not too many ingredients on a plate and doing the best that you can to each one. You get a really good chicken and you don’t need to do that much to it. You just got to cook it well,” says Rauri, explaining his approach.
“We want to do things with a little bit of a twist. So we’re looking at good ingredients but making them a little bit different to what people would expect. We have purposely undersold the menu a little bit. The first menu has venison, leek and potato and one of the desserts is cookie and milkshake. We play around with people’s perceptions by giving them things they know but slightly different,” he adds.
Rebel and Peace and Loaf in Newcastle are two of the restaurants where Rauri enjoys dining. “There are so many influences and good restaurants. You look around and take a bit of inspiration from everyone. I love Ynyshir, run by Gareth Ward in Wales. I love everything that he does but that’s a two-Michelin-star restaurant.”
Food and wine pairing
The team at Coarse are collaborating with Daniel Jonberger, the sommelier of Raby Hunt, James Close’s two Michelin-starred County Durham restaurant.
“We’re doing a wine pairing. He offered help so we’ve got him to do our wine pairing for this menu. He’s recommended loads of really cool, different wines for the wine list,” explains Rauri.
The wine pairing costs £30 per person for five wines. Facts about the vineyards and the families that operate them are conveyed at tables so that guests learn about the stories behind them.
New restaurant in Durham
Opening a restaurant at a time of soaring price increases is by no means ideal. “It’s a bit scary…we’re taking it as a challenge and are mindful of it,” admits Rauri. Yet with a good team, he feels confident that Coarse can meet the challenges that lie ahead. The team includes Niall Watson, a chef that Ruari previously worked with at Bistro 21 and the Garden House Inn.
“We work well as a team and that’s important. It’s a team thing. The whole team works together and you need that in a restaurant,” says Rauri. “We want to do something a little bit different. There are chains opening up every day in Durham. They’ve redeveloped the whole Riverside area, which is really cool, but there’s no independent stuff going on.”
Dining out in Britain
“There’s not that many places that we would look at and think ‘we want to go and eat there.’ We enjoy eating out and have to go to the likes of Newcastle, Leeds or Edinburgh to find places. We wanted to do something where we live for the local people that we’ve had so much support.”
“I’ve been a chef for years. I’ve worked for other people and I’ve seen what they’ve done right and what they’ve done wrong. As a chef, you are only one part of it. You need people who can serve the food and talk about it confidently. We want to do the. This is the first time I feel like I’ve ever been able to do my food exactly the way I want to do it. There are no restrictions and no rules. That’s where I think we’ll thrive. We’ve got the freedom to do what we want,” says Rauri.
“Hopefully we’ll inspire other people to have a go,” he concludes.
Course restaurant Durham
Course (tel. 0191 374 1123) is at Reform Place, North Road, Durham, DH1 4RZ. See the restaurant’s website for opening times, to see the lunch and dinner menus, and to reserve a table.
Map of Coarse restaurant
The location of Coarse is marked on the map of Durham City below:
Hotels in Durham
Make a reservation at Coarse and stay in Durham City for a short break. Search for accommodation in Durham via Booking.com:
I dined at Coarse about a month after it opened and enjoyed the experience. Three of us took the wine pairing while one preferred to drink local craft beer alongside the food that was served. Each of the courses was attractively presented and packed with flavour.
The food and exterior photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography. The photo of the team was supplied courtesy of the Coarse restaurant.
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