Aug
16

Review: The Man Behind The Curtain, Leeds

Glamour and delight at TMBTC

Glamour and delight at TMBTC

Okay, look, if your tasting menu is described as “12 courses” and two of those courses are the petit fours, you’re actually grasping a bit. I’m just saying. Felt a bit silly ordering a second glass of dessert wine in anticipation of another dessert, only to have it put in front of us and then be asked “and would you like a coffee?”

I’m picking holes. We basically loved our meal at The Man Behind The Curtain and would go back. But there’s an important caveat for those of you with a healthy apetite: even I was tempted into a bag of crisps when I got back to our hotel after the meal. The portions are modest, but boy are they packed with flavour. Flavour and pizzazz. Lots of pizzazz.

Beautiful akee hake throat

Beautiful akee hake throat

You can see this in the first dish out of the blocks, a glistening oyster on the shell with a vivid green mojito dressing and a big fake pearl sitting on top. As well as the lime and oyster being a winning combo, the cocoa butter pearl filled with oyster emulsion made the whole thing a terrific statement. Setting the stage, kinda thing. Among our next bites were a vivid red oriental-style bun filled with some beautiful veal sweetbread and XO sauce, really eye-opening. But just in case you’re thinking it’s all show: the next bite was of hand-massaged octopus, a technique followed by only the most diligent sushi restaurants to get octopus of just the right texture. Really scrumptious with caper, lemon and a paprika emulsion – one of those “skip the rest of the menu, I’ll have a plate of this please” moments. And just to emphasise chef Hare’s winning originality: the third bite was raw wagyu beef with gordal olive juice, which turns out to be just a genius pairing of flavour and texture.

Black cod, inky shadow

Black cod, inky shadow

The next three courses were all fishy and all superb. Salted hake throat – yeah, hake throat – had the taste and texture of raw prawn, and was slavered with a wonderfully spicy akee sauce. Raw langoustine was pepped to superbness with an intense green curry sauce. The black cod had been baked to perfection and topped with crispy potato dramatised with black squid ink and vinegar powder. The vinegar a bit relentless for me, but then Maureen loved it so it’s all to taste.

This was one of those meals where most of our conversation was about the food we were eating. That’s a good meal.

More dramatic plating of the main course; four or five tiny bites of ox cheek with little dollops of truffle, parsley and mustard sauce to dip them in, all served on dark ceramic with twelve little dips in it (surely intended as an escargot dish originally?!). This was just a bit tiny for me, and those three spare dips in the dish were crying out for maybe three cubes of roasted turnip or something else bitter and vegetal to balance the sticky loveliness of the meat.

Tiny space-age main course

Tiny space-age main course

Loved the pudding. Chocolate cunningly disguised as a crumpled bit of silver foil, hiding a wicked violet ice cream and scattered with delicious potato puffs. There are far too many tasting menus that can’t carry the sheer invention and balance into their puds – either too insubstantial or too sickly – nice to find one that’s just right. There was a little after-pud which I enjoyed even more: a sorbet-based muddle of flavours that all sang a chorus of summer together; cucumber, strawberry, lychee, lime and basil. The petit fours were good too.

There’s no way you’ll find another tasting menu with this level of invention and skill for the knock-down price of £75! No wonder bookings are running months in advance. And the wines by the glass are terribly reasonable too. Hm. I haven’t even mentioned the bonkers punk-graffiti interior or the quirky location above a clothes shop, have I? The food was too distractingly good.

The Man Behind The Curtain

The Man Behind The Curtain

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Aug
16

Review: The George, Alstonefield, Peak District

Epic pie at The George

Epic pie at The George

If you’re staying in that charming part of the Peak District between Dove Dale and the Manifold Valley, don’t whatever you do waste your time and money with the Royal Oak in Whetton. My steak was just horrible, almost textureless and it tasted… boiled?! “Ah yes,” our B&B hostess reliably informed us, “they keep their steaks frozen and then defrost them under the hot tap.” It all makes horrible sense!

You should go instead to The George, in the neighbouring village of Alstonefield, where the food is splendid and they care just a tiny bit more about everything they do. It’s a proper pub though, through and through; tables don’t get made up for dining until you sit at them. There’s a good range of local beer on and the wine list is pretty decent, if our Marsanne/Viognier and Merlot were anything to go by.

My starter was a beautifully fresh chilled pea and mint soup, quite hard to spend too many words on but basically exactly the right starter for a

The George, Alstonefield

The George, Alstonefield

sunny summer evening, flawlessly tasty. Maureen opted for a heritage tomato salad with goat curds, and crucially the tomatoes had a really robust taste. There was a coarse green olive tapenade that really helped the dish sing.

On to mains, and I am very proud to declare The George winner of that most prestigious prize: Best Chicken & Mushroom Pie In The World. From the sturdy, sinful pastry casing to the slippery little fibrous pieces of delicious chicken, the mushrooms imparting a deep and funky flavour of their own and the sprinkles of crispy onion on top. All perfect. The summer greens and red wine gravy were perfect accompaniments. So big and gorgeous was this pie that I didn’t need any of the (very decent) accompanying chips.

Maureen’s Sunday roast starred an amazingly deep-flavoured piece of beef, pink perfection. Almost eclipsed by the best supporting actor: a dish of roasted root vegetables. Baby carrots with sugar, salt-baked beetroots, and small onions stained with balsamic, all slowly roasted to earthy beauty.

Tomato salad to start

Tomato salad to start

The other veg dish was equally distinctive; marrow & squash, roasted in a tangy tomato sauce. There were a couple of minor twinges: not enough of the very good gravy, and a Yorkshire pud that looked brilliant but had maybe been cooked at lunchtime (we were eating in the evening, and frankly very happy to find such a great pub still open on a Sunday evening).

Somehow we squished in a pudding. The oblong slab of rhubarb bakewell tart looked heavy, but was by some strange alchemy almost as light as air. The rhubarb sorbet with it was sharp and clear, but I’d have taken a second slab of that stunning tart in an instant.

Really great pub cooking. Some good wines by the glass as well. Not cheap pub cooking, you’ll pay maybe £32 each before drinks. But look at the attention to detail in that Sunday roast. And the pie. So very well worth it!

Feather light bakewell

Feather light rhubarb bakewell

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Jul
31

Review: Montpellier Lodge, Cheltenham

Montpellier Lodge, in the park

Montpellier Lodge, in the park

Just a quickie, this. The Montpellier Lodge is a relatively new opening in Cheltenham, up in the top corner of the Montpellier Gardens. It’s a nice spot, and they’ve got a glass-walled outer dining room and a cosier indoor room beyond the bar. Modern decor, nicely done.

My first problem is the service. We’ve been in once for brunch, once for dinner, and both times the service staff have been… huh. I guess “laid back” is the only way of putting it. All the urgency of a cat deciding whether it feels like moving out of a sunny spot in the hall. This seems to be backed up by the kitchen, which was also pretty slow on both occasions. Neither time was the restaurant anywhere close to full. Haha… and this time when our meals arrived 30 minutes after ordering the waitress was nice enough to add “chef apologises for the delay, it was the slow cooking of your short rib.”

So now I’ve waited half an hour just to be told that I look stupid enough to believe that awful excuse? Ugh. And also, with the restaurant near empty maybe one of the service staff could have sparked up the wit to come and apologise for the delay some time during the half hour?

Config duck leg

Config duck leg

I do tend to prefer to stick to reviewing the food, but the Montpellier Lodge is zero-for-two on service so it needs mentioning.

Foooood. Maureen had a confit duck leg with oriental noodles. It was a nicely config leg, very softly yielding meat. Good noodles. Though the overall flavour of the dish was “generic oriental” rather than having any distinct flavours. Meanwhile I had the slow-cooked short rib in a bourbon gravy. Wow. I could actually hear my arteries snap-crackle-and-popping with all the salt. Okay, that’s hyperbole. If it wasn’t edible I would have said something. But it was far too salty to be the joyful plate of food it deserved to be. Because the meat was very good, and through the salt there was some deep flavour in the gravy. Fries alongside were pretty good, little pot of coleslaw okay.

But this just wasn’t £20 worth of plate, which they seemed to think it was. Maureen’s duck much more reasonable at £12.50. But with that serious over-salting and two occasions of poor service with zero excuse for it, you won’t find me visiting the Montpellier Lodge again in a hurry.

Seriously salty sticky beef

Seriously salty sticky beef

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Jun
23

Review: Purnell’s Bistro, Birmingham

Purnell's Bistro

Purnell’s Bistro

I’ve already reviewed Purnell’s and it definitely still stands up in my top ten fine dining experiences in the UK for inventiveness and deliciousness. So it seemed worth a punt at his lower-end Purnell’s Bistro just around the corner when we were needing a pre-show bite to eat one evening.

The place is stylish, long bar area mixed up with a large dining area, very quiet early on a weekday evening and yet even with no-one there the service managed to be patchy and inattentive. Wasn’t a great start. Still, I don’t want to overdo this – it wasn’t too bad, certainly not enough to annoy us.

Bon bons? Really?

Bon bons? Really?

My starter was pear and blue cheese bon-bons, which sounded rather sticky and nifty. It wasn’t really, as the bon bons were just tiny round cheese croquettes and the cheese inside lacked any punch. So then it’s just some pieces of pear with a bit of generic salad garnish and scattered walnuts. Maureen’s mackerel fillet with beetroot on a galette was better.

Better still was her splendidly sticky slow-cooked piece of beef cheek, bourguignon-style with tiny onions and a very clear jus. Yeah, this is a perfectly good opportunity to use the word “unctuous” and really mean it. Mmm. For my part, I went strangely veggie and chose the aubergine rotolo, which turned out to be a sort of roulade of aubergine and pasta baked with a mildly cheesy bechamel sauce, then served on an amiable tomato passata. Eating it was a very soothing experience. It was gentle, nice, innocuous, mild, and to my great surprise I really quite liked it.

Prices were not bad, about £24 for these two courses without drinks. I can’t say we were blown away by the food; it was one of those meals where we talked about other things instead of talking much about what we were eating. And I wouldn’t go expecting any of Glynn Purnell’s culinary pizazz on show at his main restaurant – the inventiveness is more in the naming of the dishes than their actual execution. But, s’no bad either.

Rotolo

Rotolo

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Jun
23

Review: Wild Garlic, Nailsworth

The Sunday lunch you're looking for

The Sunday lunch you’re looking for

Ah, the unplanned Sunday lunch! An opportunity to spend the morning phoning all the best local pubs and restaurants to the resounding reply of “sorry, we’re fully booked!” Or perhaps to live even more dangerously and drive out into the countryside? Stopping at all the good looking country pubs to be told “sorry, we’ve got no tables left.” The thrill of finally finding somewhere at around 2pm, only to walk in and discover that in fact all of their tables are empty. Oh dear lord what is the beef going to be like? Exciting times.

So I was a bit worried when the Wild Garlic in Nailsworth admitted to being able to seat four at 12:30. Perhaps even more worried to walk in and find only a couple of other tables occupied. And now, with lunch on the inside, I’m frankly baffled; because if any restaurant deserves to be full to bursting on a Sunday lunchtime it’s this one.

Mackerel with style

Mackerel with style

The dining room at Wild Garlic is a bit of a surprise. From the outside you’re expecting either rustic Cotswold dining-pub or chic modern bistro, but they’ve wobbled a bit in between and, if I’m honest, ended up with a look that I might call “1990s small town bistro”. Luckily I’m here to tell you that the service will be friendly and helpful and the food will be awesome, so don’t worry about the look.

We started with a mackerel tartare, beautiful slivers of pinkish fish served with a sharply citric “jam”, capers, samphire, a dribbling of coal oil and some pretty well pickled shallot. The shallot was a tad over-the-top but the nice use of coal oil and the tangy jam worked a treat with the fish. Homemade hake bacalao croquettes with a startling orange aioli were very good too.

The roast beef was the dreamiest piece I’ve had melt in my mouth in a long time, beautifully full-flavoured too. Yorkshire pud was smack on, roast veg were excellent and the potatoes were spectacularly crunchy. So a brilliant roast. Just to be different, I actually had the veggie main course myself: salt-baked jersey royals, wild garlic marinated goat cheese, rainbow chard and a smoked aubergine puree. This was fundamentally and in all ways exactly my kind of thing and totally scrumptious. When potatoes are packed with this much flavour, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them being the star of the dish, and a well-tended goat cheese is absolute magic with a funky wild garlic flavour.

Potatoes for main

Potatoes for main

For pud I stuck with the smoky theme and had a pistachio mousse with spiced chocolate and smoked potato doughnuts. Magic little sugary/smoky doughnuts! Lovely spicy chocolate soup too. I guess the pistachio mousse was a little drowned out, but I’m not minding. There was also a great big baked apple with a rosemary custard and hazelnut crumble, as delicious as it sounds, and a similarly good meringue and ice cream concoction that came with a little jug of the most wicked minted cream sauce. I could have just drunk it from the jug. Admittedly, eventually I did just that.

Saturday had been a boozy evening, so we had a bit of a tee-total Sunday lunch and luckily the Wild Garlic takes the trouble to put some decent soft drinks on the menu. If you dine out, three courses comes in around £35 and for the quality of the cooking that is absolutely top-notch value. I’m really pleased to have such a top restaurant only a few miles down the road, for food it beats the socks off of a lot of much prettier country gastropubs.

Smoked potato donuts

Smoked potato donuts

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