Nov
03

I don’t usually review the service…

I don’t often say much about service in my restaurant reviews. “Good” is usually about it, maybe stretched to a whole sentence, nothing more. Why? Because I believe the quirks and hiccups of good and not-so-good service are so random that whatever I say in my review, your experience will probably be different. I’ve found this to be true plenty of times: I’ve enjoyed good meals and wondered why the review I read thought the service was “dodgy”, or been fed up waiting to be served at a place beloved of reviewers for it’s “warm, friendly service”. My opinion of the food is much more often in agreement with previous reviews. So if I write more than a sentence about service, it’s going to be at one extreme or the other! Two other points I want to make…

Firstly, cock-ups happen now and again in a live environment, that’s life. So if you’re going to judge customer service, don’t judge the cock-up – judge how they respond to the cock-up. I’ve got zero problem at all with an over-cooked piece of duck, if it’s taken back to the kitchen with an apology and replaced in good time. I may well not even mention it in the review. I do have a problem if the waiter tries to deny that the duck is over-cooked. I don’t mind a late dish, if it arrives with an apology. I do mind if it just arrives with no acknowledgment that something has gone wrong.

Second point, you really do get back what you give out. If this isn’t true, then I’m the luckiest diner on earth. Because I eat out at least once a week and yet I’ve never once had truly bad service. I mean, truly bad, worth kicking up a fuss about. So given how often I read reviews of dire service, I must either be stupendously lucky… or perhaps my attitude when dining out is somehow making the staff treat me decently? Which is more likely? I don’t arrive late (at least not without phoning ahead), I don’t get picky about where we sit, I’m polite, I don’t order off-menu, I don’t send dishes back unless they’re badly cooked. If I have to complain I do it clearly but friendlyly. That’s a word, I promise. If you regularly get bad service at restaurants, have a look in the mirror. Or buy a rabbit’s foot.

All this preamble brings me to my favourite Brighton restaurant, The Chilli Pickle. Review here. Because we’re no longer in the south-east, the last time we visited was more than a year ago. That time, the spiced lassi was somehow not spiced at all. When we said it wasn’t good and ordered something else, the waitress just took the unfinished drinks away, brought the replacements, and left them all on the bill. Bit miffed. The Chilli Pickle are keen enough on customer service that they leave a feedback form with the bill, so I left some feedback and my Twitter handle. The next day I got a tweet apologising and offering to recoup the drinks when we next visited, which was friendly.

Bringing us forward a year, to last night, when we were in Brighton again and so of course went for The Chilli Pickle. I was astonished – after we ordered a couple of cocktails, our waiter declared that they were on the house, and sorry about the poor service last time. Seriously, I’d actually forgotten all about the incident, couldn’t even remember what we had complained about. And when we ordered spiced lassis later, he brought a couple of samplers out to check that we were happy with the flavour this time!

I should mention, while I’m here, that we had some punchy and wonderful pani puris to start, along with fantastic pieces of deep-fried spiced skate. And for main I enjoyed a crispily superb masala dosa, while Maureen actually had the best ever tandoori lamb chop ever in the history of ever. Ever. Seriously. And as if it wasn’t good enough, it was served with a stunning star anise-scented curry gravy.

This is my testamony to The Chilli Pickle. I’m a food blogger. I usually visit Brighton a couple of times a year. There are loads of interesting places to eat and review in Brighton. But I never do, because I have to eat at The Chilli Pickle. It’s unashamedly my fave. : )

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Oct
25

Review: Silo, Brighton

Allow me to rave a bit about Brighton’s North Laine. I can go shopping for something inspiring in a half dozen different places – maybe Cheltenham, Birmingham, Gloucester, Bath, Oxford, Stow – and then eventually I happen to visit Brighton and take a wander through the North Laines and the Lanes, and I find exactly what I want. No, I find something that exceeds my expectations. And then I find a half-dozen other things that I love beyond any possibility of not owning, so I buy them too. Happens every time. There is nowhere better to shop on this green island.

The other thing about the North Laine is how often it changes. Visit once a month and you will spot a shop that has closed and another that has opened. Visit once every six months (like us, these days) and you’ll find whole swathes of brand new places you’ve never snooped in before. Mind you, Snooper’s Paradise will never disappear. By the by, this is a recommendation. Yes, yes, for Londoners too.

So at random we happened upon Silo for lunch. It hadn’t been there a few months ago. In fact, it has only been there for two weeks. And they’ve got a very clear and simply stated concept: zero waste. Nothing ever leaves the restaurant, except hopefully happy customers.

Inside, it’s stripped-back industrial. Sets the mood perfectly, though they may have gone a bit too far with the “don’t mind the wires hanging out, or the cider kegs behind ya, just sit on these chipboard chairs and the food’ll be along” sense of it. To be fair, only two weeks in and some of these bits might just be temporary while they sort themselves out. The service was friendly, and chef Douglas McMaster was on hand to bring over our plates and explain some of the ethos and sourcing to us himself. Given that I wasn’t wearing my “I’m A Blogger!” badge I think he must just be friendly and earnestly involved in his rather cool project. Infectious guy.

So I can say that the fresh, clean, salty curds that gave a lift to my risotto were made in-house using the leftover bits of milk from making cappuccinos. How awesome is that? The risotto itself was brown rice, given hugely funky depth with a fermented brown rice paste, and zing from a salsa verde whose make-up I didn’t quite attend to. Too in love with the risotto. Oh, and it had mushrooms on it. The mushrooms were growing in a rack across the room, in a medium made up from the used espresso grounds and recycled cardboard.

I’m usually a cynical bugger, but this was just cool!

Maureen’s fish was a quite deliberately uncool piece of rock salmon. It was good and powerfully marine, with a shredded meaty texture, cooked on the bone for max flavour. Their source is Catchbox – a small fishing co-operative that sets out nets and then sells whatever happens to swim into them, no targetting of prestigious species, no by-catch. Blobs of slippery oyster emulsion went beautifully with the fish, along with plenty of cubed pickled cucumber and seaweed.

Maureen washed her fish down with a great beetroot and pear smoothie, while I had a punky fermented nettle cordial. These were grown-up soft drinks that actually partnered properly with food. That’s worth some applause by itself, though they’ve also got local ale and ciders on offer. Our drinks were served in jam jars of course. Not purpose-made jam jar lookalikes for the trendy faux eco-warrior. Just jam jars.

So, that’s Silo. They’re doing something very cool, and doing it in exactly the right town. I wish them well. And you can’t dismiss it as “worthy” if the food is actually really good. It is exciting and original, but the strength of flavour won’t hit everyone’s palate. If you like to play a bit safe, you’ll probably find Silo’s dishes scary. I doubt that all restaurants will become this way, but I hope a few of the ideas being tried at Silo get spread further afield. Our planet rather needs them.

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Oct
24

Dinner with Thomasina Miers

Sounds jolly intimate, but in fact this was a Cheltenham Literature Festival event, held in a rather splendid Spiegeltent, and we totted up and figured out that the number of covers was around 270. The evening consisted of a three-course chilli-inspired dinner with an interview with Thomasina between main and dessert. The audience turned out to be a mixture of punters like us who had bought tickets, and corporate invites from the main sponsor – HSBC.

The interview was interesting, the creator of Wahaca and first winner of the current incarnation of Masterchef has had an interesting and varied life and career, in and out of the catering industry. She’s had some lucky breaks and clearly moves in circles that are full of connections, but also quite obviously has the kind of outgoing and entrepreneurial personality that grabs hold of opportunities without some of the lip-chewing and not-sure-if-I’m-qualified hesitancy many of us would have. She talks about the epiphany of discovering real Mexican food and then wanting to bring it back to the UK, to challenge the assumption that it’s all cheese-and-jalapeno Tex-Mex stodge. I remember thinking exactly the same thought, easily ten years ago; “why hasn’t someone done anything imaginitive with real Mexican food, like some of the top places are starting to do with Indian?” The difference, I guess, is that I had no idea what to do with that thought; the courage to think “why not me?” is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the entrepreneur.

But enough soul-searching, how about dinner? Interestingly, in her interview Thomasina mentioned that the food tonight “wasn’t as hot as I’d have it.” And frankly, it was a bit of a let down. I’m sure they were her recipes, but the event wasn’t catered by Thomasina or even by Wahaca, it was a catering company out back cooking up her menu. Perhaps that’s unavoidable for 270 covers, but given her comment about the heat (or lack thereof) it does leave me wondering if we weren’t sold a pig in a poke. If you went to an event that advertised Rene Redzepi’s Scandinavian Cuisine only to find it was a UK catering company cooking up some of his recipes, would you feel the advertising somewhat mis-representative?

Anyway, starter was prawn tostadas. Juicy prawns, cooked just right, and very good corn tostadas. The chilli peanut oil actually seemed to be a mildly spiced mayonnaise. The whole thing tasty, but packing little punch. For main course, a beautifully braised piece of beef in a pasilla chilli and prune jus. Again, the fruity pasilla was discernable… but if I have to use the word “discernable” you can see we’re not exactly punching our weight in Mexican authenticity. Sweet potato mash was good, savoy cabbage was just boiled and also completely the wrong accompaniment for the chilli beef. For dessert we had treacle tart with a vanilla cream on top. The tart was insanely sweet, the pastry case really was a case – it might have survived the luggage handlers at Heathrow. And on this course I’m not sure if the word “discern” is even delicate enough for the slightest hint that some chilli might have been left near the tart at some point in its creation.

Yeah, so, the meal was what it was – a corporate lunch in the evening in a tent. I’d still like to try a Wahaca some day, because this clearly wasn’t it, and I’d certainly vote for a branch in Cheltenham – the town sadly has no Mexican options as all (unless you’re counting Chiquitos?).

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Oct
22

Review: Number Seven, Cheltenham

I have an irrational dislike of bars, restaurants and cafes who oh-so-cleverly name themselves after the house number they happen to occupy. Gosh! What clever! How imagination! Simple yet style! There’s a whole bunch of them in Cheltenham alone; Hotel 131, 288 Bar & Wok, 81 The Prom, and the cleverly named Number 7. Because it’s at number 7 St James’ Square, see? Tch. They could have come up with a name more relevant to the food on offer… perhaps “East/West”, or “The Globe”, or maybe “Pot Pourri”?

It’s a wine bar restaurant in a very quiet corner of town, very friendly and very local. I picked a starter I’ve never seen on a menu before: chilli con carne. This turned out to be a very rich and warm little bowl of the best kind of English chilli con carne, a nostalgic stab of the 80’s, served with a hunk of bread. Maureen tucked into two neat fishcakes, well constructed and nicely breadcrumbed.

I set my sail for a sirloin steak. Nicely charred it was, but I ordered rare and got medium-rare verging on medium at the ends. The peppercorn sauce with it had zero pep, the vegetables accompanying were cooked well but as plain as veg could be. Maureen’s plate of noodles topped with roast duck in a sweet chilli sauce was much better; good slick duck with plenty of tasty crispy bits, the sticky tang of sweet chilli and noodles beneath. It was a good thing to eat, I’d be happy to have a local Chinese that served this up.

The apple pie with toffee sauce that I finished up with was frankly a bit stodgy and unloved, though at least the sauce was properly done – not sickly. The glasses of wine we had persuaded us that Number Seven is just a wine bar, not a wine-lovers bar (which are so much harder to find!). So, a very reasonably priced meal, nothing wrong with the cooking at all, but simply too uninteresting – the risque chilli con carne starter aside! – for me to want to come back. If you like simple and un-ironically retro then Number Seven might well float your boat.

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Oct
11

Review: Onyx, Budapest

Our trip to Budapest was thoroughly gastronomic; breakfast, lunch and dinner every day we looked for Hungarian cooking both modern and trad, and washed it down with plenty of Hungarian wine. That’s a thing that definitely ought to break into the UK market. Tokaji Aszu aside, the same region produces some fantastic, big dry white wines using the same Furmint grape. There’s a lot of good reds too, we had some great specimens made from grapes I’d never heard of like Kekfrankos and Kadarka, generally low on tannins but still plenty complex.

Naturally enough we also add an awful lot of paprika, including wildly varying examples of goulash soup and catfish paprikash. They like their cakes in Budapest too, some good patisserie and in particular sour cherries and plums got used a lot. Apart from our meal at Onyx we didn’t plan any of it, and so naturally we had some great good luck and some duff picks.

Good: a year-old wine bar restaurant called Zona that wouldn’t look out of place in Notting Hill and served up some exciting plates of food; I really loved my slow-cooked wagyu beef neck with parsley sauce and raw ceps. Bad: a fine dining restaurant called Aszu that catered squarely for the well-heeled older tourist and totally failed to execute dishes that lived up to the attractive sounding menu. Onyx was our culinary high point.

Tucked behind and belonging to the venerable Cafe Gerbeaud, Onyx has a pair of nicely dramatic dining rooms with plenty of black and plenty of chandeliers. Our table included two rather incredible hooded black thrones for the ladies. We plonked for the “Hungarian Evolution” menu with a half-dozen courses for about £70. It started with a beautifully clean little dish of pumpkin carpaccio doused in an equally fresh pumpkin-y broth. Never been given raw pumpkin before, so straight away they get

a tick in the “serve me something new” box. And then we were offered bread from a breadboard so magnificently replete with good things that I’ve forgotten most of them. The apple and oat bread was very good, though.

Six great dishes followed, not a duffer among them. The goose liver encased in sour cherry jelly was beautiful, with scrunchy salted almond bits in the other piece. Raw water buffalo was a full-flavoured meat that went exceptionally well with lightly pickled cucumber and a bright vinegary cucumber broth. Brook saibling is a new fish on me, obviously trout-ish, very delicate and with oddly green roe. Their take on goulash soup was a beauty, a stout-dark but crystal-clear consomme with a pronounced dash of paprika over a beef ravioli. The main course of venison was more obvious, with black pudding and beetroot. Good though.

Pudding on the menu was a “21st century Somlo sponge cake” which the table concluded to be a tasty enough concoction but nothing to light a fire with. I went off-piste with an a la carte dish of Brillat-Savarin cheese served with pain perdu and salted almond ice cream. Lovely ice cream, but the tasty chunk of brie-ish cheese felt like it had just leapt off the cheese trolley onto my dessert rather than a thoughtfully integrated element. Wrong cheese for the job, I reckon.

We enjoyed Onyx immensely. The deluxe decor and excellent service made for an occasion, the food lived up to it in top-drawer style, and the Hungarian wine flight was a proper showcase of the country’s best plonk. Service charge and all it was about £120 per person, which compares perfectly well with the same quality back in the UK. Mind you, it’s worth noting that further down the price scale you can eat out very well in Hungary for peanuts. Big thumbs up for Onyx though.

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