Mar
27

Review: Kyoto Kitchen, Winchester

Kyoto Kitchen

Kyoto Kitchen

I’ve used the Hardens Guide as a bit of a bible for years now. It’s very handy when you’re heading somewhere unfamiliar and wouldn’t mind finding something half-decent to eat. In theory it’s a clever half-way house; they are crowd-sourcing reviews which means they can have much better coverage than a purely professional guide like Michelin, but it’s curated crowd-sourcing which gives it a lot more meaning and value than bleedin’ TripAdvisor. Of course it’s not infallible, but the fallibility is usually one of degrees – I’ve never had a bad meal following a Harden’s recommendation, but I have had a couple of disappointments.

Have I set the scene? : )

Kyoto Kitchen is tucked away down a Winchester side street and has a distinctly non-descript feel; a generic dining room with generic furniture and some Japanese decor to show what ethnicity of restaurant you have wandered into. And indeed, they have two sister restaurants in Winchester: an Indian and a Thai. Hm.

Tuna and poppy seed

Tuna and poppy seed

The food is generally good. You know, competent, with a couple of mis-steps and a couple of nice bits. The mackerel sashimi is a mis-step: so very pickled that it has the texture of cooked fish and tastes like they’re experimenting with Scandinavian-Japanese fusion. There’s an original house-special roll; rice around smoked trout wrapped in wasabi leaf and served with fresh wasabi that you grate yourself (they’re lucky enough to have one of the UK’s only wasabi growers nearby). Fresh wasabi is a revelation, not as fierce as the green paste but amazingly bright, fresh and fiery. The roll is a jolly good eat. Mind you, that’s a sliver of fish for a £20 roll.

There’s a nice dish of wafer-thin tuna sashimi dusted with poppy seed and a mustard sauce. The miso soup is good, lovely deep flavour. Likewise the dashi that comes with our yasai tempura. It’s not bad, the tempura, though a little oily. Vegetable gyoza are pretty good, almost as nice as the ones at Zheng. Almost. We order a simple tuna sashimi too, just to check the basics. Four pieces of dense ruby-red fish, but sadly too cold from the fridge.

So, y’know, if this was my local Japanese restaurant I might be fairly content. Though at £80 for two people without drinks (and we certainly weren’t full afterwards), I might wince if this was my only local Japanese. Which apparently, if you live in Winchester, it is. This might help explain why it scores so well in Hardens? And the mighty high score in Hardens might explain why I have reviewed it so hard. Was disappointed.

Fresh wasabi, very lovely

Fresh wasabi, very lovely

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Mar
26

Review: Woodfire, Stockbridge

Quickie this, and no photos, totally forgot. Well, all we were looking for was a bite of lunch on our way down to Winchester. Stockbridge is a postcard-perfect little town in the Test Valley in deepest Hampshire. For me, the Test Valley is perhaps the most beautiful bit of rural countryside in the whole south of England. It is magical and the villages are all a delight – they accomplish with old red bricks, thatch and flint what the Cotswold villages manage more effortlessly with their golden limestone.

Anyway, Woodfire is billed as pizza & mezze, and has a great little riverside location right in the middle of the high street. They’ve got a bright front room, another back room, and a few tables on the terrace for those sunny days. You will fight for those with hikers and cyclists, though. Did I mention the Test Valley was quite picture-skew?

Pizzas are the order of the day, and we split a daily special – nduja, mozzarella and turnip leaves. They’ve sourced some great mozzarella, always a good start. The pizza base was thin, with a glossy and crisp-edged crust. The spicy nuggets of nduja explode with the cheese and bread so much more than a slice of pepperoni or chorizo, and the wilted and slightly salty turnip leaves, with their lovely turnip-y taste that make you start thinking about kimchi, were a smart companion. Great pizza.

We ordered a couple of mezzes to go with. Baba ganoush was lovely, managing to be both fresh with the juicy aubergines but also carrying that lovely burnt smoky taste without which lesser specimens are just meh. The scattering of pomegranate on top was an absolutely spot-on addition. The other dish was a smooth and creamy (and garlicky!) hummus with a pile of slow-cooked shredded lamb on top. This was very lovely too, though a bit of a big bowl of hummus to attack without any bread.

Pizzas are around £11-ish depending which you order, big enough for one for dinner. Oh, and they make a dang good cup of coffee to boot! So rare. So especially rare in small country towns where you’re much more likely to find earnest salts-of-the-earth serving up delicious local produce and scorched crap in a cup with it. Woodfire’s coffee is excellent. Woodfire is excellent. Lucky Stockbridge!

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Mar
26

Review: The Dogs, Edinburgh

The Dogs, indeed!

The Dogs, indeed!

The Dogs is one of those great little finds, someone cooking good food without pretension in a kinda ramshackle and unexpected corner of a city. I’m reminded of Strathvagin in Glasgow. Dogs are a very literal theme, from the front door all the way up the old staircase, and into the bar and dining room overlooking Edinburgh New Town, there’s a truly eclectic mixture of canines in 2D or 3D form. The dining room still gives the strong impression of someone’s old front room, converted into an eating space for thirty or so punters tucked in fair cosily (though not so cosy as to be uncomfortable).

My starter was a wonderful little dish of devilled ox kidneys. Ox kidneys aren’t quite as nice as lamb’s kidneys, and I couldn’t give a stuff because the devilled sauce was absolutely magical; hot, spicy, creamy, boozy, sexy goodness. Maureen had a little salad of pulled lamb; shreds of meat with a powerfully sheepish flavour and cleverly scattered with pomegranate.

Lamb n stuff

Lamb n stuff

Mains were truly heart-warming. I ordered roast lamb but was served the mutton stew. It smelled so good that I was half-way through before remembering that it wasn’t what I’d ordered. Lovely mutton, good dish for a blustery winter’s evening, it’s hard to find words to wax lyrical about a nice stew so I’ll fall back on: mmmmmmm. Maureen’s spelt risotto with beetroot and crowdie cheese was delicious, although to be honest it was such a single-minded dish that it might’ve been better as a starter or – as we enjoyed it – split pretty much 50/50 with another main (my stew). Nice combination of the nutty grain, grainy cheese and earthy beetroot flavours.

Pudding was the only disappointment; an orange posset that was too stiff with gelatin/agar and also lacked enough punch to its orange flavour to be very interesting. I’m going to damn it with faint praise and call it innocuous.

That aside, we enjoyed our meal at The Dogs very much. Even more so as the price is rock-bottom for the very centre of Edinburgh, many of the mains just a tenner and 3 courses being only about £20. We had a couple of decent glasses of wine for equally slight money. Go on, go to the dogs!

Loved these devils

Loved these devils

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Feb
28

Review: Eat Wild, Cirencester

Clown Killer

Clown Killer

Oh wow, that was a good burger. No, it was a great burger! And just for good measure, it came with great fries. Oh, and Maureen’s pulled venison lasagne was super-great too, with star anise to give it whumph. And then for afters I scoffed a stick toffee pudding with so much (oh so very good) sauce that you’d have to be a positive sugar junkie to manage it all. So, yeah, Eat Wild gets a big thumbs-up from me! You should go!

You want more? Okay, well, it’s decorated in the spartan, industrial, found-items style that is getting kinda common, though I must admit I like their approach more than most – impressive stags spray-painted onto one wall, our table made from a huge wooden cable spool, the bottle shelves behind the bar actually an eviscerated grand piano. The guys were friendly and clearly passionate about their food and drink. The name is a clue, by

Eat Wild

Eat Wild

the way – though my burger was beef, much of the concise menu is given to game. Even though they take bookings (and you probably need one – Eat Wild is getting popular!) this is very, very, very casual dining.

Bit more on the food too. I’m not the kind of burger aficionado who could write an entire blog titled “Burger Me!” about my passionate search across the UK for the perfect filthy burger. So I’m really only qualified to say that this was (a) beautifully flavoursome beef, (b) cooked to a pitch perfect pink-within-but-seared-without, (c) tucked in a deliciously soft bun that was still strong enough to hold together once soaked in meat juice, and (d) splendidly paired with excellent streaky bacon and just the right amount of cheese, caramelised onion, ketchup and mustard. They call it a “Clown Killer” presumably because if Ronald McDonald tried one he would simply have to give up and put a bullet in his brain.

Bambi in a blanket

Bambi in a blanket

And then… pulled venison lasagne! How stunning does that sound? Well, it tasted as good as it sounds. Like someone had gently tucked bambi into bed under a couple of cosy sheets of pasta, bathed him in bechamel sauce and bunged him in the oven for an hour. There was no mistaking this for beef, it held the distinct game taste of deer (the chalk on the wall said today’s venison was fallow) given depth by judicious spicing.

The sticky toffee pudding was a great one: when the pudding itself is moist and delicious enough without the sauce, you know you’re onto a winner. I don’t think I’ve ever had one with so many dates stuffed into it. Positively fruity. The toffee sauce, super-sweet with just enough bitter edge to stop it cloying, was gleeful. They make a good cup of coffee too, and all the plates are perfectly sensible prices; around a tenner.

STP

STP

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Feb
28

Review: Castle Terrace, Edinburgh

Skate yawn

Skate yawn

At some point I just got bored and stopped eating my skate. Which is, really, one of the worst things you can say about a restaurant when you’re forking out over a hundred per person.

This was my main course, “seared skate grenobloise with crushed pink fir apple potatoes and sea kale”. Seared implies flame-kissed, right? There’s gotta be some blackening somewhere if you want to call a thing seared? This wasn’t, it was floured and pan fried like any other good ol’ bit of skate. And that’s all it was – neither the greatest nor worst piece I’ve ever had, ho hum. Plenty of it, served atop a thick swathe of crushed potatoes so thoroughly buttered that there wasn’t the remotest taste of pink fir apple left. And some caper butter. So, a nice Friday night fish supper.

Venison pate en croute

Venison pate en croute

The dining room at The Castle Terrace is kinda uninspired as well, a bit starchy and unfortunately ’round the corner from the actual castle terrace so there’s no splendid view. It’s one of those cool, restrained rooms with nothing about it to remember or fall in love with. These impressions feed off each other though; if I’d loved the food I’d probably have something better to say of the setting. Service was good, and our sommelier picked out some decent glasses to match the food.

Maureen’s main was pheasant with seared foie gras and Perigord truffles. Well, I guess it certainly was all those things. Big lump of pheasant breast. Nicely seared foie gras. Lots of slivers of black truffle. It can’t really not taste good with those ingredients, although that amount of solid white meat became a bit… ahem… boring after a while. Theme developing.

Wandering back to starters, mine was a venison pate en croute; sturdy texture and good taste with decent pastry and an inoffensive bit of stewed pear on the side. Maureen’s starter of gurnard tartare involved a large amount of lovely fine-diced raw fish, nicely citrusy, with a few bits and blobs of rhubarb far too discrete to have any impact on the dish.

Sesame snaps

Sesame snaps

Forward again to dessert, and my millefeuille of apple and sesame seed was dominated by the (admittedly good) sesame snape. Those are sesame snaps, right? I really had to search for the apple flavour. Maureen’s concoction of rhubarb was good.

You could accuse us of having chosen “safe” menu options. But that’s half the fun at this kind of level of fine dining: to pick something seemingly familiar off the menu and discover what wonders the chef has conjured with it. This was just a whole meal of “oh, yeah” and shrugs. I felt as though I’d taken an amiable wander back into the fine dining of the 90’s and perhaps that’s exactly what many people want – certainly all the cooking itself was tip-top, just uninteresting. Anyway, for about £65 per person a la carte before drinks, that’s what you’ll get.

Truffle monster

Truffle monster

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