Sep
30

Review: Pi Shop, Bristol

My pi

My pi

Quick one, this. Pi Shop is the pizza place just opened up next door to Casamia. It’s the second piece in the new Sanchez Brothers culinary empire! Couldn’t be more different to Casamia, though. It’s a clean white space, with rustic Italian ingredients sitting alongside bare wood, plaster and metal. Seating is simple and built for a quick bite to eat rather than a lingering lunch. Perfect pizza setting, then.

Maureen’s pizza was the best muddle of toppings: lamb, courgette, blue cheese and rosemary, prettied up with a sprinkling of petals and citric nasturtium leaves. The lamb was very good, deeply tasty slow-cooked shreds. My topping was simpler; tiny firebombs of n’duja sausage and an egg in the centre. But what about the basics? Well, the tomato sauce was lovely and fresh, but that did give us a bit of a problem. The edges of the pizza base were great, chewy and crispy with that lovely burnt flour taste that makes a pizza great. The middle of the base was just too soft and uncooked.

Now, I’m no expert… (oh hell, did I really just say that?) …but I think the problem was the tomato sauce, which was too wet. Whenever I’ve made tomato sauce for pizza, I’ve always left it simmering until pretty much all the water is driven off. Maybe they wanted a much fresher taste than the deep ruby spread that I end up with? But if you’ve got free water in your tomato sauce, surely it’s gonna make the dough soggy?

Good coffee, and I most certainly enjoyed my pizza – but I’ve had better, and I think that’s down to the dough.

Pretty pi

Pretty pi

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Sep
30

Review: Two Cats Kitchen, Birmingham

Wagyu beef and coal oil

Wagyu beef and coal oil

What is “New Baltic Cuisine”? Well, one answer is: it’s the tag line that’s meant to intrigue you into eating at Two Cats Kitchen. Another answer might be: it’s a themed menu that sticks pretty rigidly to the idea of only using things grown or found in northern Europe, with a couple of nods towards traditional Baltic dishes thrown in. A third answer could be: proof that a splendid meal can be had without resorting to tropical or even mediterranean ingredients.

The dining room is stylish industrial-urban, with a bit more character than most such places. Staff are friendly, a young team still getting used to the fine dining schpiel, which was fun. We took the drink pairing with the tasting menu – I can’t really say wine pairing because it included a vodka, a beer, three wines and a sake! So we were looking forward to some interesting cooking to go with that lot.

Crab hiding under a leaf

Crab hiding under a leaf

The amuse was a little crispy potato nest with a quail egg, scrunchy and good. It was dusted with black trumpet mushroom powder which sounds marvellous but did absolutely nothing for me. Either I have faulty tastebuds, or black trumpet powder is better off cooked. Loved the “haladnik” that came after: a ready lurid cold beetroot soup, max flavour and nice choice of summery salad in the bottom.

Goat cheese pelmini were little tortellini-like dumplings, in a sweet onion broth with lovage oil. Those flavours were great, but the pasta was a bit too sturdy for these tiny pelmini. Still good. Next up, wagyu beef tartare dressed smartly with coal oil, cured egg yolk(!) and crutons of a dark Baltic rye bread. De-licious. Next up, crab! I can honestly say I’ve never had hot shredded crab with ancient grains (spelt and whatnot) draped with a sheet of sea lettuce in a dashi broth. Like a weird prehistoric crab risotto by way of Japan. In fact this was my favourite dish, it really took me back to the completely alien flavour/temperature/texture profiles of kaiseki meals in Japan, so different from classic fine Western cuisine (even when it uses Japanese ingredients). I’m waffling.

Good lamb!

Good lamb!

There was a lovely lump of lamb for the main course, pink and juicy and tasting like it was up on the hills yesterday chewing on herbs and hay. Blob of oyster emulsion was a good touch, along with broad beans and samphire, another clever combination with the lamb. Loved it.

Dessert was whacky, and probably not one for your sweet-toothed chocoholic. A big sorrel leaf sandwich full of sorrel and apple sorbet, a hilarious mess to eat! The reprise of sorrel and elderflower under scorched meringue was more dainty and just as tasty. Final dessert was a choux bun with white chocolate, dusted with more black trumpet powder! It still did nothing for me, alas.

I couldn’t help but enjoy my meal at Two Cat’s Kitchen. It’s a cool dining room, and a really inventive menu with a good theme. The food is generally really well executed but even the couple of mis-fires were still perfectly tasty. Loved the original drinks pairings too. For £45 this was very good value, a great evening out. I’d go back.

Bonkers leaf pudding

Bonkers leaf pudding

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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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