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 remarkably 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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Aug
04

Review: Curry Corner, Cheltenham

Curry Corner. Red is the colour of curry. Curry Corner is just around the corner from the famous Cheltenham Banksy. Okay, famous in Cheltenham at least – there’s a gallery near us that offers canvas prints of the clever stenciled image of two shady GCHQ operatives apparently listening in on a telephone box, and get this, they’ll even photoshop in a picture of you inside the phone box! That’s an heirloom. An almighty furore kicked off recently when the owner of the dilapidated terrace house on whose gable end the Banksy was painted set out to have specialists remove the entire wall to sell for a no doubt six-figure sum to a collector somewhere. Interestingly the scaffold and boarding that he had put up around the work had itself attracted numerous expressions of fury and frustration in the form of more street art. I’m sure Banksy is chuffed that his own protest art has the capacity to generate its own protest art. Wheels within wheels!

Yeah, so about Curry Corner. It’s set innocuously in a residential side street well away from the middle of Cheltenham, but through the doors there’s a nicely brick red painted interior with mood-setting carved stonework art in niches and low lighting. Everything we’d seen and read, at least from the restaurant’s own material, suggested this would be fine dining Indian cuisine; closer to Lasan than Asha’s.

Yeah. Bit of an odd one, my omelette-burger starter We began with a couple of lassis; mango and coconut, and raspberry. Both were tasty, though very sweet. We chose starters from the street food section. Mine was the Mangshor Kebab. This struck me as being a nicely seasoned lamb burger patty with a sweet tomato-y sauce and a small tomato and onion omelette draped over the top. A nice supper, but a bit big and a bit plain for a £7 starter. Maureen’s Roshun Gusht Luchi was better – a crispy cigar of shredded lamb with sharp, vinegary green relish and perhaps the same tangy tomato sauce.

I went for the signature main; the 48 hour lamb shank. This was a big lamb shank in a mighty curry. The meat was super. The depth of flavour in the sauce was nowt short of excellence, absolutely packed and with a rapidly growing heat on my tongue to testify to the chillies. I would have liked the cardamom and cinnamon to stand out more clearly but I was dead happy. An unusual accompaniment of mashed potato was okay but bread would’ve been better. And it was huge. Maureen’s was also a large dish, the duck Khatta Meeta Titol Haash. The sauce was very sweet, though the tamarind flavour was clear and strong. My biggest problem was the duck. Big, dense cubes of thoroughly cooked duck breast. BIG cubes. DENSE. What’s the point? Any inherent duckiness was pretty much gone. Great sauce though, and good rice.

Lamb shank in epic sauce. They should call it that on the menu - epic sauce Despite being stuffed I held out for a pudding of gulab jamun. This was a beauty, sticky and cardamomy with a very nice scoop of ice cream (so wish I’d tried their kulfis). We took a cup of masala chai, and I could taste the interesting addition of bay leaf but it was basically too weak in both spice and tea. Pity, as at least the milk was properly boiled which isn’t often done.

I struggled out, holding my distended stomach off the pavement and reflecting on a couple of things. Firstly, if Indian restaurants are going to start styling themselves as fine dining and thus persuading me that I should order three courses then they bloody well need to reduce their portion sizes! Secondly, at £21 for a typical main course (forget not the price of the rice!) this is actually an expensive meal. We’re talking £35 for three courses. And what this is definitely is not, is fine dining. It’s just a good curry with more of a nod to authenticity than most. So if you want to spend a lot of money for a good curry in Cheltenham, then may I propose to you: Curry Corner.
Gulab Jamun, sticky satisfaction

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Jul
20

Review: L’Enclume, Cumbria

L'Enclume In Cockermouth we ate in a “fine dining vegetarian restaurant”. I won’t embarass the Quince & Medlar by naming it, but this was fine dining like an earnest attempt at a dinner party by your vegetarian student friends. A couple of days later we had an amazing dish of potato and burnt onion ash that had not a speck or drop of meat in it and so was perhaps the best vegetarian dish I’ve ever had. This was at L’Enclume. Maybe the problem is that (with one or two exceptions) vegetarian cooking is too small a niche and has too many worthy connotations to attract really top notch chefs?

L’Enclume holds a special place for me – it’s the first meal I ate outside the Fat Duck that was exciting, original, entertaining and delicious from beginning to end. This was nearly ten years ago, mind you. We enjoyed a “razor clam reversal” and a “deconstructed Lancashire hotpot” among other Did you ever see such a fine scallop tartare. delights and I vowed to return (you have to vow to return, because it’s in the Lake District which, for a poncy southerner, is pretty much the farthest place from anywhere without accidentally ending up in Scotland). Now that I have, I can actually review it on da blog. So is it still all that good?

Yup.

Okay, okay, I’ll say some more.

The dining room really evokes Cumbria, with white-washed walls of blocky stone and black slate floors, warm mid-century Scandinavian inspired furniture and some restrained ceramics on the wall. I keep my blogs short, so you’re not getting all twenty courses of the menu described. The first – a little grey meringue pebble filled with an amazingly clean concoction of oyster – was magic and it only got better from there. The scallop dish with strawberry puree was another of the best pre-starters, as was the crispy beignet of smoked eel and ham hock.

Stunning. Venison. Fennel. Magic. Special praise for the venison tartare served with charcoal oil and fennel, including a couple of tiny poppers of candied fennel that I would have gobbled by the bucketful. The punch of flavour from the charcoal oil stands in contrast to its dramatic but fairly flavourless use at Story. There was a stunning double dish of langoustine – a delicate tartare on a crisped cracker on top, and a meaty chunk beneath covered in a deeeeeply flavoured glazed sabayon. It was like Scandi-above, French-below. Whatever that means. Actually if I give a special mention to all the memorable dishes I’ll basically do all of them.

Instead I’ll just linger on what I think is most special about Simon Rogan’s cuisine, something I recognised first at Roganic last year. It’s the proper, positive and effective use of foraged ingredients. Not the “look how clever we are, we garnished your dish with something green from a Tiniest ice creams ever. Loads of flavour hedgerow!” of most modern restaurants. Simon picks wild ingredients with flavours that really sing, that stand in their own right and centre a whole dish, and it’s kinda unique. One of the desserts was a meadowsweet cream, and it had the most wonderfully sun-soaked and delicate barn-straw and meadow flavour. One of the tiny ice creams at the very end was flavoured with pineapple weed, a sort of super-floral chamomile hit. Elderflower brought something new and bright to the delicious main duck dish.

Over twenty courses and a couple of very good glasses of wine the sommelier picked out for us we enjoyed our favourite meal of the year (so far). For the adventurous foodie I can’t recommend L’Enclume highly enough, there’s probably only two or three other candidates in the country for pushing the Meadowsweet cream. Only Simon Rogan does this with foraged stuff boundaries this far while remaining faultlessly delicious throughout. Then again, it’s also in the small club of restaurants whose tasting menu has gone over £100, so it’s unlikely to become a local favourite. More a place of pilgrimage, convenient for being at the gateway to just about the most beautiful part of the country to boot.

Postscript: just a note-to-self really, about service in these bastions of modern fine dining. The room at L’Enclume was quite hushed, and the tables quite intimately close together. As such it was actually really easy to hear the staff introducing all the dishes with exactly the same rehearsed phrases and little bon mots as they introduced them to us. Somehow what was intended to feel personal and unstuffy instead felt very rehearsed and artificial. Not that you could expect busy staff to find new and different ways to introduce twenty complex dishes to twelve different tables! I’m just saying. : )
The menu calls them Crab Sacks and they are indeed

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Jul
13

Review: Cottage in the Wood, Cumbria

Nifty crab salad - never expected to enjoy a lettuce foam! It looks like red squirrels are making a comeback – we saw signs up all over the Lake District telling us to watch out for the little nut-munchers as we drove about, although the only place we actually saw a red squirrel was in the garden of The Cottage in the Wood. That’s because this little restaurant with rooms is exactly what it says: a cottage in the middle of the Whinlatter Forest, described as England’s only true mountain forest. It’s a beautiful setting, with views of the brooding Skiddaw mountain across the valley and the nearest village back at the bottom of the mountain. That view, through big terrace windows, is the only thing the dining room particularly has going for it – on a nice summer evening that’s all it really needs. Service was attentive throughout.

Sturdy piece of duck terrine with apricot puree We tried the tasting menu. It began with a very smart little “crab caesar salad” with a surprisingly flavourful lettuce foam to go with the quenelle of delicate white crab meat. Next was a sturdy terrine of duck with a neatly matched apricot and vanilla puree. Nowt wrong with it, but nowt to really fall in love with. Seared scallops were bound to be in here somewhere, but I’ll admit I’ve never had them in a satay sauce before. It worked, though other flavours work better. Perhaps if the satay had been sparkier?

Next up, the main event: a piece of belted Galloway fillet served pink with a caper puree and some pieces of local blue cheese (the name escapes me, but in the same ballpark as Stilton). Not the greatest ever bit of beef, but it did the job. I think it might have scored more flavour cooked the old fashioned way rather than water-bathed, but I admit I’m no expert! Good sauce, good gravy and the cheese paired well with the meat.

A solid plate of beef n stuff We cleaned our palates with a rum and mango trifle pre-dessert, tasty stuff, topped with a mint granita. But then finished with a pud that involved a coffee-flavoured marscapone mousse that scored nil points for flavour or texture accompanied by a block of aerated chocolate that was in effect a petit four. The bitter chocolate brittle was good.

I always have to be carefully of my conclusions when the final course is a bit disappointing – it really colours recollection of a meal. But really, this was good cooking, just nothing spectacular. For £60 I’d definitely like more fireworks in front of me. If I found myself staying here again – and I would stay here again, it’s a lovely B&B and the breakfasts are fantastic – I’d probably just eat a la carte. I don’t think I’d ever make a special trip to eat up here in the mountains if I wasn’t already coming to see the squirrels.
Red squirrel!

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Jun
23

Review: Menu Gordon Jones, Bath

I basically just stood up at our table to take this “Make sure you don’t complain about anything,” offered our Bed & Breakfast owner helpfully when we told her we had dinner booked at Menu Gordon Jones. “He’s got a bit of a reputation…”

This came as a surprise to me, as I knew nothing much about Gordon Jones except that he’s been impressing diners at his tiny 15 cover restaurant in a quiet corner of Bath for about a year. Over the course of the meal I learned a bit more, as the kitchen is so “open” that Gordon can take literally one step away from his pass to whisper conspiratorially in his rum Glaswegian accent “that’s garlic stem, that is – it’s only in season for a couple of weeks so I’m using it on everything!” Gordon is working hard (or effortlessly?) at being a new breed of knowingly-informal-yet-casually-excellent chef, and because it’s still an unusual thing to find it’s actually a lot of fun. If you’d find the casual intimacy of the chef asking you how you’re liking your bread a bit much, as Gordon himself might put it: you should get yourself back to flippin’ Bath Priory.

Sea trout, popcorn and crisps. Late night fridge buffet? So what did we have? Well, a smashing bread course to start. Nice and hot and sweaty in a bag, with lightly creamed humous, basil oil, chorizo oil and balsamic to dip it in. Couple of neat little onion and beetroot bhajis on the side. First starter was a right old fridge buffet concoction of ceviche sea trout, popcorn, lettuce, crisps and gooseberry – nice kick of citrus and a clear statement of intent. This was followed by the bestest presentation of devilled kidneys that I’ve ever had. Helped along by crispy proscuitto and chorizo and an indelibly tangy sauce with nifty touches like candied hazelnuts and fat white currants on purple carrot puree.

Give me devilled kidneys and I'm yours So, no surprise the fish course was punchy. A lovely piece of John Dory with crab, pickled shitake, a rich swede mash and scorched garlic seed heads. Frankly I’ve always got time for a chef who introduces me to something new! The whole dish was wicked flavourful, my favourite so far. But then the main rocks up. Chef describes it as being like a deconstructed pastilla (as he grates a huge truffle onto it at the table), but it’s just as fair to call it a highly refined cassoulet, especially as he’s taken the trouble of including a piece of the finest French smoked pork sausage I’ve ever tried. The quail is a star, especially the tiny leg on the bone. To be eaten like a very refined caveman. Yum. The borlotti beans at the base are delish, as is the little stick of sweet onion-seed coated pastry that stands in for the pastille.

Mighty good John Dory Pre-dessert was awesome. Why haven’t I been fed sweetcorn sorbet before? Honestly. Yum. The main dessert was a lovely peach tart tatin, a very satisfying close.

Our meal at Menu Gordon Jones goes straight into my top-three for the year. You could argue that the powerful flavours Gordon uses are always going to be delicious, but there’s some great magic here in presenting them in a beautiful and balanced menu. There’s a lot going on, and yet there wasn’t a single mis-step. If I lived in Bath I’d be here every other week, after all the tasting menu is a mere £50 and the wine pairings an extra £35 (a good selection shared with real passion by the sommelier, Italian and Spanish this time, and mostly organic). You’d be a muppet to complain about any of it.
The dining room at Menu Gordon Jones

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