Nov
26

Review: &samhoud places, Amsterdam

Riiiiiiiiiight

Riiiiiiiiiight

Some people just want to watch the world burn. Why else would you start the name of your restaurant with a piece of punctuation? There’s a word for that, and it begins with “pre-” and ends in “-tentious”. I was actually amazed that websites like Google Maps and Trip Advisor were quite happy with the “&” and searching for it didn’t crash the whole internet or set my phone on fire.

It goes without saying &samhoud places is a thoroughly modern restaurant, with big glass walls overlooking part of Amsterdam’s harbour. The staff are swift and professional and informative, friendly too. I should probably have stopped to find out whether the sommelier made a genuine mistake in bringing us the 100 Euro bottle of Chablis instead of the 69 Euro bottle I asked for, but since my wallet had already been thoroughly vaccuumed by the meal I didn’t want to spoil a pleasant evening with a fracas.

Langoustine

Langoustine

We chose the blow-out 8 course tasting menu for 170 Euros, rather than the 130 Euro for 5 courses. At that money we were anticipating gastronomic wizardry exceeding even our favourites like L’Enclume and Casamia. Especially given the hyperbole of the little “message from the chef” that we were given along with our first pre-starter. “For me, nothing is as spectacular as reaching a point where I realise there’s something bigger than myself. That may sound incomprehensible. But at &samhoud places, you can taste it.”

I tell you what, with my pretentious-bullsh*t-o-meter going into the red zone, chef really needed to pull something special out of the bag!

The hot Thai-spiced infusion that cleansed our palate was a good start, light and bright with basil and lemongrass. Then came three amuse bouches, tasty bites of flavour and texture but none of them visually awesome enough to stick in my mind a couple of days later. Next, a golden eggshell

Damien Hirst?

Damien Hirst?

filled with soft yolk and a punchy anchovy hit. Two more starters followed. Langoustine tartare with a dashi goop and a spoonful of Anna Gold caviar was a wonderfully silk and velvet texture but surprisingly subtle on flavour. Autumn vegetables “inspired by Damien Hirst” was some nicely arranged discs of root vegetables. Mainly I tasted beetroot. This dish needed some oomph from somewhere. “With the help of my bright flavours, I hope to be able to move you” the cheesy memo had said – I was unmoved.

Almost dish of the day: the cod, a beautifully cooked piece, which I never expected to go so well with apricot and Jerusalem artichoke. Followed by duff dish of the day: braised cabbage, parmesan and nutmeg with a lemony broth. The sturdy cabbage leaves used to structure the dish just overwhelmed the rest. Followed by actual dish of the day: wonderful hay-smoked sweetbread in a light broth with a dollop of perfect confit lemon chutney to make it sing. The oddly gooey veg accompaniment didn’t add much. Wine note: the sommelier provided a wicked glass of barn-flavoured gamay that went perfectly with this dish.

Smoked sweetbread

Smoked sweetbread

The first pud was a plate scattered with various chocolate things, all very tasty but nothing outstanding enough to stick in the mind for longer than it took to eat it. The second pud was much better, a towering millefeuille with pina colada elements of pineapple and coconut cream sandwiched among the leaves. Beautifully crisp pastry with nut-brown butter flavour, very good.

And so we did have a lovely meal, with scarcely a missed step or bum note, and a couple of decidedly splendid dishes. But I need to be more blown away for an eye-watering price like 170 Euros before drinks. The wine list didn’t deign to stoop below about 60 Euros either, so two people aren’t going to keep the bill under £300 even if they go for the 5 courses.

Gilded egg - metaphor?

Gilded egg – metaphor?

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Nov
26

Review: The Plough, Kingham

Salt cod croquette to start

Salt cod croquette to start

Our latest destination for a Sunday lunch. Since autumn had properly begun, and the day was moist and grey with dazzlingly red and gold leaves on the ground, it felt like the right kind of Sunday to find a really proper wellies-by-the-door fire-in-the-grate kind of country pub. So the Kingham Plough was a great choice, all flagstone floors and scrub-top tables. There was a big fireplace with logs a-crackle in it, and a cheerful publican in shirtsleeves with ruddy cheeks behind the bar. The Cotswolds at their cheesily bucolic best.

My starter was salt cod croquette, served up in crunchy panko with a good citrusy salsa verde, a gleaming sliver of crispy fish skin and a daub of amiable smoked cod roe. Very nice dish. Followed up with roast venison, as a bit of a change. These were lovely slabs of pink meat, with good gamey

Roast venison!

Roast venison!

flavour to them. The dark poached pear made a very good relish. Cavelo nero, bread sauce, red cabbage, all very good and starting to make me think of Christmas. And I must make a special mention of their roast potatoes – if you like ‘em crunchy, then these were the king of crunchy roasties.

Pud was good. Mine was a perfect milk and honey panna cotta, scattered around with bits of fat blackberry and raspberry. I wanted something light and this hit the spot. Maureen’s apple charlotte was a much better pub pud, deep in delicious warm cooked apple flavour and served up with a very good cinnamon ice cream that crowned the Christmas theme perfectly. I could hear the sleigh bells in the distance – it’s less that two months away now, after all!

We had a really good country pub Sunday lunch at the Plough. Then again… you’ll be paying £42 for three courses before drinks, so it really did have to be absolutely tip-top nosh. To my mind it doesn’t quite merit its price tag.

Milk and honey for pud

Milk and honey for pud

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Nov
05

Review: Riverstation, Bristol

Splendid soup

Splendid soup

Bristol is working really hard to be as hip as London, and there are very cool eateries and drinkeries popping up all over the place. We ended our evening with cocktails at The Milk Thistle, a taxidermy-strewn private cocktail bar that must surely have been teleported from Shoreditch.

And in complete contrast, for lunch we stopped at Riverstation, a restaurant that has been serving modern British food since 1997 in the old River Police Station building overlooking the harbour. And actually, to be honest the clean modern decor and furniture (somewhat unforgiving seats) are looking a bit worn and in need of a spruce up. Nothing needs sprucing up about the food though.

My starter of garlicky sweetcorn veloute with outsized crunchy corn grains on top was monstrously good. Just full of warm, generous flavours, really splendid. Having polished the bowl off, I can’t imagine ordering anything different the next time I come for lunch.

Lovely bit of chicken

Lovely bit of chicken

Things got even better for mains, with a truly succulent quarter of roast chicken on top of a bed of cavelo nero and seeded freekeh. What now? Think of freekeh as a soft grain, like bulgar or quinoa, with a really beautiful nutty/earthy taste. The dollop of plum compote on top of the chicken was a really worthwhile addition, a great relish, rather than the hardly noticed afterthought such things often are. And with a really clear, rich gravy to boot I just can’t find anything to fault about this lunch.

Pudding was simply excellent too. A beautifully translucent piece of white wine poached pear, still holding a firm texture and having a warmly spiced taste. That would have been good enough, but it came with a scoop of bay leaf ice cream. Bay leaf! Ice cream! Why can’t I buy tubs of this stuff? Magic.

I didn’t have giant expectations of Riverstation. It doesn’t appear in any of the hit-lists and top-tens from all the hip blogs and articles about the dining scene in Bristol. But I’m willing to bet you won’t find much better for about £32 a head (three courses without drinks), especially not in the middle of the city. I’ve found my local favourite for Bristol city centre.

Poached pear, bay leaf ice cream

Poached pear, bay leaf ice cream

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Oct
25

Review: The White Hart, Somerton

Crispy pig cheek salad

Crispy pig cheek salad

Deep in the Somerset countryside, surrounded by villages glorying in such names as Curry Rivel, Westonzoyland, Butleigh Wootton, Long Load, West Camel and Muchelney Ham (honestly, all within 5 miles!), the sleepy little town of Somerton seems to have gotten off lightly. It was actually once the ancient capital of Wessex and gave its name to the whole county. Can’t accuse me of being light on the research, I have most definitely read the Wikipedia page! Anyway, it’s a lovely spot and the more so for having a good dining pub – The White Hart.

We stopped in for a Sunday lunch, basically at random. It’s got a nicely welcoming dining room, scrubbed tables and stone floors, definitely a restaurant first and pub second (I think they have rooms upstairs). Service was friendly and swift.

The starters looked appealing, so I tried a crispy pig cheek salad. This was a really colourful plate; some big leaves of red and white raddichio with disks of crispy golden breadcrumbed pig cheek along with a vivid amber aioli scattered with deep green capers. The combination worked very well, I’d like all pub starters to be like this. Maureen’s ham hock and Dorset Blue Vinney croquettes were good, the ham and blue cheese combining into a gently funky flavour, with an apple and fennel slaw to lighten it up.

Crummy photo, good roast beef

Crummy photo, good roast beef

We both punted for the roast beef. And we got two generous slices of perfectly roasted beef, pink and soft. The red wine gravy was rich and deeply flavourful, and their horseradish cream was punchy. Nice little Yorkshire pud, very light with a good burnt taste. Greens, roast and boiled carrots, mashed parsnip, all good. The roast potatoes were apparently done in rapeseed oil, and I think I caught the taste. Nicely crunchy outside, but a bit heavy within to be called perfect. Just good.

No room for pudding! List looked good, though. About £22 for two courses without drinks, and I’d say that’s just about right – for what is really jolly good pub cooking and a menu more interesting than many. So if you find yourself somewhere beyond Curry Rivel, near Mudford Sock or Chilton Cantelo, you’ll know where you can stop for a bite to eat.

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Oct
25

Review: Rofuto, Birmingham

Edamame over Brum

Edamame over Brum

There’s a lot going on in Birmingham. It’s gradually London-ising. Started with a couple of decent coffee shops. Then some better casual dining options and some street food. Next thing you know, they’ll even get some interesting independent shops. Of course it’s not going to match London – 8 million people are always going to get more choice and quality than 1 million people. But in just the three years I’ve been working here Brum has upped its game enormously. It even seems to have developed a couple of good Japanese options. Top of the heap would be Rofuto.

Literally top of the heap, on the 16th floor of the Park Regis hotel. It’s a large and spacious dining room, and although nicely furnished it does betray its hotel pairing a bit. Service was young, friendly and not very informed. When I asked for some help with the sake menu he kindly explained that there are various sized flasks and this “umeshu” one is sweet and all the others are… more dry. And that was it. He was dry too. I was actually too embarrassed to ask “sooo… is there anyone that can actually help me?” and just ordered at random.

Black cod nigiri

Black cod nigiri

I only mention this just to banish a notion: don’t expect Rofuto to be a hallowed temple of Japanese cuisine like some of the tiny jewels with the eye-watering prices in London. It’s a restaurant above a hotel, and the kitchen produces good Japanese food. Job done.

Our first sushi was of black cod, with a beautifully scorched taste and a powerful miso glaze (dengaku) on top. This was sushi with a bow tie on. The two maki we tried were also very good; nicely crabby and crunchy California roll, and unctuous eel with its own char-grilled aftertaste. Very good nori, nothing chewchewchewy about it at all.

Next up, a skewer of bright pink cherry-smoked salmon off the grill. Hefty on the sprinkled salt crystals in places. Made better by the lemongrass microherb scattered on it (at least, that’s what it tasted like to me). There was also some good asparagus off the grill too. Probably the best cooked dish was the tempura “Japanese fish and chips” consisting of some nice chunks of white fish in a light and scrunchy batter, no sense of oiliness, and some crispy fried strips of yam. It came with a colourful dish of wasabi mushy peas, and a passion fruit tartare sauce, though I couldn’t detect any fruit over the sharp sauce.

Grilled salmon skewers

Grilled salmon skewers

The one dud dish was a salad of config duck and raspberry sunomono with watercress. This was just some ingredients in a bowl, the oily/dirty flavour of the duck clashed with the delicate vinaigrette on the leaves and the halved raspberries were brief sweet bombshells.

They deserve a bonus point for some tasty desserts though. Pineapple off the robata grill with lemongrass sorbet was good, and my lemon and yuzu tart was tangy and delicious with a decent pastry.

On the evidence of our meal, Rofuto does sushi best, and if I came back I’d probably focus on that side of the menu. Only the black cod sushi reminded me of Japan, Rofuto was otherwise the better end of the kind of Japanese restaurant generally found in the UK. We paid about £40 each for what was a complete meal without drinks. That’s verging on the pricey, for the quality, but then again it’s always very fine to be dining with a view.

Eel maki, v good

Eel maki, v good

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