Sep
13

Review: The Oyster Shack, Devon

I love me a cheerful bowl of crispy whitebait Our three day walk along the SW Coast Path held an unexpected treat to go along with the stunning views of cliffs and seas and sailing-boat speckled estuaries – some really bloody good food. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, the South Hams are renowned for soaking up the money of the rich and famous who want a little country retreat not too far from a yacht mooring. But prosperity doesn’t always pair well with good food, so it’s probably more to do with the strong locavore foodie movement down here – let your eye wander across the map and you’ll spot names straight from your local deli-cafe like Luscombe and Sharpham.

We booked a table at the Oyster Shack for our last night as a little celebration, but let me give you a quick whip around of some other good places to eat along the south Devon coast.

Cream-heady trifle at The Journeys End The Journey’s End Inn, run now by a chef from the famous Burgh Island Hotel, served us up some no-nonsense big flavours. My courgette fritter was more of a spicy bhajee, but it was a very good one with a neat touch of ricotta whipped with honey. Maureen’s burger was a fantastic specimen – the meat had come from somewhere within a few miles and it was obvious that the lush grass and sea air does the beef cattle some good, the flame-kiss was envy-inducing and they’d kept it properly rare (sssh… don’t tell the health police). My whole grilled mackerel was drop-dead gorgeous, paired up really smartly with crispy bacon and pinenuts. Bit disappointed with the trifle; mountain of whipped cream with some boozy jam sponge below. Note: if somewhat random service gives you a nervous tick, maybe steer clear. And you’ll have spotted by now that I scarcely ever mention service, so.

Sailor V, bringing London to Devon Sailor V in Salcombe is a new cafe and kitchen (perhaps only doing evenings in the holiday season?), and they do a great coffee. Maureen’s evening meal was a pan of scallops, black pudding and chorizo; dead simple, well done, and corals still on the gorgeous local shellfish. My pulled pork was “olde English style” – no sign of barbecue sauce, this was just juicy fibres of pork served with sweet apple sauce, sauteed new potatoes and a creamy slaw.

And a cheerful shout out to the Rose & Crown in Yealmpton – a 100% catalogue-furnished modern family dining pub, but entirely independent, and they put out a really mean lemon sole with sauce bearnaise and an even meaner battered cod and chips with seriously good tartare sauce and a great pea puree (when I say “mean” I mean good by the way, just in case you ain’t hip like me).

Oysters, a good place to start at the Oyster Shack Finally, the Oyster Shack! We’d been before. It’s a deliberately ramshackle little joint, cheerfully painted and decorated in strong seaside colours, at the end of a tidal road. Very eerie when we drove away at the end of the night to find the road had vanished beneath the inky black waters… luckily there is an alternative route. They’re here to provide simple seafood and plonk to the jolly tars of the yachting community and they do just that, with smiles and good service.

Maureen started with crab soup, garnished with a Fresh-style crouton (“take ze slice of cheese on toast, drop eet in ze zoop”) and veeeeery good. She also snaffled two fine, small, sweet oysters. I gobbled up an entire bowl of crispy whitebait, disappointed that there wasn’t quite enough aioli. My main course was a whole John Dory, very smartly accompanied by a sauce vierge of fresh tomatoes and capers. Maureen’s was a fillet of sea bass with clams on top of a John Dory, never pretty but always tasty creamy wild mushroom risotto. What both dishes had in common was an absolutely perfectly cooked bit of lovely fish. And I have to big up the risotto – made with a selection of some of the species we’d seen growing wild on our walk, rather than the boring default “wild mushroom = dried porcini” that most places fall back on.

We slurped some appropriately crispy white wine, and finished with a tasting plate dessert that included a frisky elderflower jelly with a fat frozen gooseberry on top but was otherwise just a light and forgettable sweet ending. The whole meal was about £35 per head without drinks. It’s a great spot for a seafood supper – tucked out of the way and totally suited to a summery Devonshire holiday. I wouldn’t have minded if we really had been cut off by the tide.
The Oyster Shack, unashamedly cheerful

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Sep
09

Review: Zucca, Bermondsey

Burrata with other good stuff There’s something about Italian cuisine. Those who are attracted to it seem to invariably be attracted to the idea of “peasant cooking”, of taking raw ingredients and doing simple things to them. The price differential in modern Italian restaurants seems to be dictating more by the price and provenance of the raw ingredients than by the degree of culinary dexterity on display.

This is just an observation, not a judgment. Something simple done well can bring so much more pleasure than something complicated that doesn’t quite work. At the same time, I often find myself comparing the bill from an Italian restaurant with the bill from a modern British gastropub where I’ve enjoyed food of similar complexity and deliciousness and noting that the Italian seems to be marked up 20-25%. Presumably because some of the ingredients had to come from Italy?

Anyway, Zucca is one such place. It’s a stylish dining room on Bermondsey High Street, bearing a smart industrial look paired with clean tables and contemporary dining chairs.

Simple but squidy pasta The tapas-style starters are simple fayre; tasty deep-fried vegetables, and a dish of braesola and gorgonzola that was a tad disappointing in that the cheese was in the form of a thin dressing on salad leaves. The most successful was a sharing plate consisting of a very fine salty burrata mozarella surrounded by garlicky bruschetta, fine pickled fennel, cumin roast carrots and crisp lettuce soaked in a very spicy/creamy dressing. All good, all simple.

Maureen picked a pasta main; big curled of it with heritage italian tomatoes and squid sauce. The seafood flavour was pronounced and delicious, the pasta had good bite, but it was a very simple dish. My pork shoulder was cooked slow and full of flavour, with beans and almonds and rainbow chard. It was a deeply satisfying bowl of food, the kind of supper you’d want your dear old Italian grandmother to make on a rainy autumn day. If you had an Italian grandmother, of course.

We reached a pretty clear consensus between the four of us. We all enjoyed our meal, and would probably come here again if we found ourselves living in the area, but it was hard to tie up the simplicity of the menu with the prices.
Pork shoulder, slow cooked

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Sep
06

Review: Magdalen Arms, Oxford

That's some beautiful Dexter beef A while ago, before the days of this blog, we took a weekend break to dine at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. That definitely registers as my favourite lunch ever. We arrived at 12 and wandered out around 6 when they were starting to lay for dinner. Aperitifs on the sunny lawn, a wander around the grounds and kitchen garden to digest, and obviously not forgetting the splendid cuisine that was the main event. Our budget didn’t quite stretch to staying at the Manoir so we spent the weekend in Oxford. Which is how I came to discover that Oxford is a bit rubbish for food.

Strange, such a beautiful city, apparently the most expensive place to live in the country outside of London, but unable to offer anywhere worth going back to twice. Other bloggers seem to agree that it’s tricky, even today. Maybe it’s the unholy combination of students and tourists? Two big populations that are unlikely to inspire much effort from the catering trade.

Artichoke main course... very nice! So I’m very glad we happened upon the Magdalen Arms when we needed to stop for a bite to eat on our way through last week. It’s a big, handsome pub, a short drive (or long walk) from the centre. Inside they’ve two rooms; the first most definitely a bar with none of the tables laid for dining, though you’re welcome to eat in there; the second a dining room, still basic pub furnishings with dark walls and eclectic bric-a-brac to decorate. The noise level on a Thursday evening was loud – even a table of two NEEDED TO SPEAK UP A BIT TO HEAR EACH OTHER.

That said, the food was brilliant. Maureen’s smoked haddock cakes with aioli were full of fresh smokiness and hit the right balance of fish and potato. Thick, creamy, tasty aioli – I accidentally had to finish it off with the bread. My thinly sliced Dexter beef was just as grin-inducing as it looks in the photo, good horseradish cream too.

The paprika gravy on this rabbit was enlightening My main of artichokes a la Grecque was an outstanding dish for a rainy summer evening. I’d just been talking to a cousin earlier about how hard it is to find good vegetarian food in vegetarian restaurants, and here was an epic feast that no meat-eater could find wanting for flavour. The artichokes had been cooked with beans, carrots, olives and a few other worthy greens, along with buckets of rosemary and parsley. The whole dish has a warm lemony-olivey depth that was both fresh and hearty at the same time. Good trick. The grilled chevre slice topped it off beautifully.

Maureen’s Italian rabbit almost knocked it into touch. The gravy was a stunner, deep but with a really vibrant paprika hum. The rabbit was gently meaty and moist, which is all it needed to be in that gravy, along with soft braised fennel and a touch of the same aioli for a bit of garlicky creaminess.

This was a pit-stop supper, so we didn’t have room or time for puddings. Based on the first two courses, I can guess how good they’d be. Around £7 for starters, £14 for mains, this is great gastropub cooking at just the right prices. The atmosphere is buzzy/noisy (delete as you prefer) and unless someone wants to recommend an alternative, this is where I’ll be eating whenever I happen to be in Oxford and needing a meal.

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Sep
04

Stockholm in July

Stockholm is a handsome city BLOT: foodie, don’t go.

This needs two explanations. Firstly, “BLOT” for those not indoctrinated in business jargon means “Bottom Line On Top”. In other words, I’m putting the conclusion of this post at the very top so that if you have no time to spare you’ve got the essence in one sentence. Secondly, don’t go because all the most interesting restaurants are closed in July.

Okay, so now I’ve given my conclusion twice. If you’re still reading then you probably are thinking about a trip to Stockholm in the summer. And it’s certainly a beautiful city, very worth a visit, and July has the great advantage of warm (boiling!) weather and long (loooong!) days. But the Swedes like to go to the countryside for their summer holidays and the really interesting restaurants know full well that most of the tourists who are thick in Stockholm in the summer are more interested in an “authentic moose steak” at a cheesy beerhall within spitting distance of their city centre hotel than in real gastronomy. So they all close up and go on holiday too.

No, really, pretty much all of them.

Actually, scratch the “pretty much”. All of them.

Smoked praws and aioli A couple of places are kind enough to leave open the lower bracket gastropub version of their restaurant, and we chose to eat at Svinet – a summer pig barbecue put on by the owners of Djuret and Pubologi (both closed). Yeah, in case you’re wondering, we chose and booked the flight and hotel before we started seriously deciding which restaurants to book. Honestly, what kind of idiot books his flight before he’s secured his restaurant reservations? : )

Svinet takes place in the courtyard of the Victory hotel, and it’s a buzzing cocktail bar along with a Spanish themed menu of gazpacho (goooooood gazpacho, awesome dusty burnt flour bread) followed by a platter of flame-smacked pig. I could take issue with the “whole pig” claim here, because ribs and neck and loin is hardly the whole pig. But I certainly couldn’t take issue with the pig. Absolutely blinding ribs, juicy and flavour-packed spicy neck, great. And whoever came up with anchovy mayonnaise as an accompaniment is a rare genius. Enjoyed the heck out of this evening. The cocktails helped. Good creme catalan too.

What on earth is a Groda? So what else did we eat in Stockholm? Stuff. It felt a bit like picking random cafes and small restaurants in London; likely to be half-decent these days, but nothing to write home about. Nice smoked prawns and aoili at the Urban Deli in Sodermalm. Cheap and cheerful tapas at Mamas & Tapas in Kunsholmen. Hm. Actually, if there’s a theme to dining out in Stockholm it’s this: mayonnaise. On reflection we didn’t actually have a meal without some.

But yeah. Loved our weekend break in Stockholm, just not especially for the food. Except for Svinet. If you’re into food, don’t go to Stockholm in July. That’s my final word.

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Aug
11

Review: L’Artisan, Cheltenham

L'Artisan. Vraiment French Zut alors! Zis restaurant is outRAGEously French! From the lace curtains in the window to the peppering of French words scattered into our interactions with the staff (“Bon soir, would Madames et Messieurs like to seet down?”), L’Artisan feels like a glorious throwback to the time when eating French food was a special novelty for the middle classes back from their summer hols in the Dordogne and small restaurants sprang up throughout the provinces to meet this desire with coq au vin and crusty french bread without a side plate (“it’s just like being back in Perpignan!”).

I was particularly intrigued by a young waitress bearing a name-badge labelled “French trainee”. Was she a trainee waitress who happened to be French? Or a waitress being trained in how to be French?

Tomatoes done in various ways, most of them ho-hum So what was the food like? Maureen went for the straight-up bistro staples; snails to start, tartare for main. The snails were a good size with proper garlic butter (though I was sadly informed that Brasserie Blanc does ‘em better). The tartare was attractively presented, well dressed with the right accompaniments, and was a good bit of beef. My starter was a lighter “variation de la tomate”, with tomatoes presented a few different ways. The bloody mary sorbet in a dark brandy-snap basket was great, very punchy and a clever combo. The rest were tasty, though hardly dizzying gastronomy. For main course I picked a classic parillada of five fish fillets with saffron aioli. It’s a testament to the cleverness of French cuisine that this was a delicious and satisfying dinner, because in reality the mackerel and salmon at the very least were terrifically overcooked. Saffron aioli apparently makes everything okay! Worth noting: the vegetable accompaniments, shared around the table, were very A pretty good specimen of steak tartare good; a set courgette mousse, a little filo basket of ratatouille, sweet fennel, etc.

For pudding I pushed the classic French theme to bursting with a creme brulee. Well, I had to. It was a good one with a nice crisp caramel top and no sign of splitting inside. Maureen’s sorbets were clean and tasty, being most remarkable for coming accompanied with a marzipan spoon. Normand tradition?

So, L’Artisan. A competent bit of outrageously French cooking in the middle of Cheltenham. Actually, Cheltenham is exactly the town I’d expect to find a place like this, and I’m sure they’ll do well here. The prices are a little more than Brasserie Blanc up the road, the food of a similar quality. If I’m honest then I was probably expecting a bit better before I went in.
Parillada. Overcooked fish, but dang it was satisfying

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