Mar
30

Review: Harry’s Place, Grantham

Blatant list-following: we only went to Harry’s Place because they got themselves into the top 10 of the annual Times 100 Best Restaurants in the UK list. And it was a unique and delightful experience, a lovely evening out, with some exceptional cooking. But I can see how your enjoyment could depend upon both you and your fellow diners.

The dining room is the front room of a Georgian house on Great Gonerby high street, and so it has just three tables and ten covers. Yes, only ten. And the menus are hand-written and they don’t have a website! The decor is comfortable and informal, deep red walls and rustic tables with pale green tops. This is a family business, just Caroline as front of house and Harry Hallam in the kitchen. And they’ve been here since 1988, a time when my idea of dining out was a birthday trip to the Beefeater with my parents. So, with Caroline’s serene attention and only a handful of other diners whose conversations you cannot help but overhear, you’ll have to decide whether it’s for you. For ourselves, we felt very much at home, and on a mid-week in cold February we had the room to ourselves by the time starters were cleared.

Oh, short menu too: two starters and two mains, so if you have dietary requirements then phone ahead! We both chose the scallops to start, and the lamb to follow. The scallops were magnificent specimens from Orkney, thoroughly caramelised on the outside but very toothsomely translucent within. They were dressed with a thoroughly delicious Thai-inspired concoction and garnished with (from memory) tomato and chive. Corals intact, of course. These were simply some of the best scallops I’ve ever enjoyed.

The lamb was roast loin, the delicate slices a beautiful pink inside and packed with flavour. Not half as packed as the gloriously boozy armagnac gravy, though. This had a deep, rich, sweet flavour with a shameless kick of booze on the end. I can count the number of sauces I’ve enjoyed this much on my fingers. On the side were cracking roast spuds and a delicate little salad of all my favourite veggies.

Puds were good, though low key after the great courses preceding. Maureen had a cherry brandy jelly absolutely brimming with great flavour and balanced with a clean cream. I got a big scoop of some very rhubarb-y rhubarb ice cream on a tangy puree. Comfortably full after all that, we chatted a while with our hosts while waiting for the taxi.

Three courses is somewhere just over £60 at Harry’s, and it’s exceptional cooking in a very personal setting. The wine list is short, but the four glasses we enjoyed were all excellent selections, including a luverly Sauternes. Now I just need to find another excuse to visit Grantham… any suggestions?

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Mar
16

Review: Turners, Birmingham

I thought Alimentum had an odd choice of location, on a main road out of Cambridge near a trading estate. But Turners has it totally beat for “least likely place to expect fine dining”, squashed between hairdressers and carpet retailers in a drab parade of local shops with a squat row of 1970’s flats above. Who cares though, right? It’s all about the food. And to be fair, Harborne looks to be an up-and-coming area of Birmingham. I would have been tempted by the retro ice cream parlour up the road, if it hadn’t been 2 degrees and a biting wind outside.

Inside Turners things are more tranquil, decorated in modern masculine grey and black. The walls are covered in mirrors, to open up the narrow dining room, and all the mirrors say “TURNERS” in huge letters as a helpful reminder to those who eat out so often that they lose track of which restaurant they’ve wandered into. Service was a bit on the starchy side, only relaxed by one of our waiters being a bit new and making a couple of little cock-ups that he was unsure how to fix. Guys, just lighten up a bit.

I really enjoyed our lunch menu, though. Three little canapes, including a well tasty brown shrimp cracker, were followed by an oyster amuse. Maureen’s starter was a bright scallop ceviche, with plenty of zingy citrus in the luminous scallops and a nice horseradish snow on top. The cubes of pickled apple looked great but were really pretty vinegary. My starter, a plate of quail, was definitely my dish of the day. Confit leg, breast stuffed in cabbage leaf, liver parfait and a smokey quail egg with a runny yoke, all bound together with a splendid truffled jus and accompanied by crispy cabbage and very good cubes of salt-baked celeriac. Balance of flavours: perfect.

They pulled a cheeky number on the main course: lobster tortellini on the menu, langoustine tortellini when served at the table (and that mumbled pretty quiet). Served with sea bass and pronounced good. My main was beef, the usual pairing of a piece roasted pink and a slow-cooked element. The

slow bit was cheek, in a reasonably crispy potato tube, and jolly good. The other piece was sirloin, quite a dense piece and not particularly well chosen for flavour. Nice bourguignon-style accompaniments and jus.

Hm. Actually, pud was another contender for dish of the day. A really glorious prune souffle, full of flavour, with some very naughty armagnac ice cream and an earl grey caramel sauce poured in for good measure. Filthy good, when souffles are so often meekly angelic. That said, Maureen enjoyed the heck out of her rhubarb souffle and a neat brick of apple cheesecake was praised by our friends. And it wouldn’t be right to leave without mentioning the veritable regiment of petit fours that marched out with coffee, all good.

So we enjoyed dining at Turners and while a couple of dishes were good enough, a couple of others were really excellent. The three course a la carte we had was £55 at lunch and that’s about right. Richard Turner’s cooking is interesting enough that I’m happy to put him up with Purnell’s and Adam’s in the list of “fine dining places in Birmingham worth your time”. The wine list was a bit low on cheaper options, and the wines we had by the glass also weren’t quite up to what I’d have hoped. We may just have picked wrong.


Pedantic Postscript: why is it “Turners” restaurant? If this is the restaurant of Richard Turner, then it should be “Turner’s” as in “Richard Turner’s restaurant”. But it’s not, it’s “Turners”. So perhaps it is actually a restaurant where you might hope to find several Turners. Hence the plural, “Turners”. Perhaps it is actually owned by someone else, and employs a number of members of Richard’s family? Who can say.

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Mar
16

Review: Marmalade Bistro, Birmingham

This is the new restaurant attached to the REP theatre, right in the middle of Birmingham. We stopped for a quick meal of small plates after a performance at the Symphony Hall next door. Sorry, no photos – way too dark for my phonecam.

I like the decor and ambiance, slightly mad hatter with the jaggedly scrawled quotes on the wall and all the bare cable lighting strewn about, with big velvet curtains framing the windows. Service was young, friendly and still learning the ropes. We ordered a few small plates between us along with some chips.

I’m really unconvinced by the triple-cooked chips. They were very chunky and not even remotely crispy. If they were on the menu as “saute potato chunks” then I’d feel that I got what I ordered, cos that’s what they were.

My main problem was the garnish. On two of our plates we had a little pile of yellow, spotty, wilting watercress. That betrays real lack of basic thought. If I pulled that out of the fridge at home to have with our dinner, I’d say to Maureen “oops, the watercress has gone” and throw it in the bin. Putting it out on a plate in a restaurant says to the diner: “hi there, I’m happy to be serving you food I wouldn’t want to eat myself!”

Blech. Wonder what else is on our plates? How old is the fish in these crispy fried nduja fish bites (a bit overwhelmed by their spicy mayo dip)? What about the white pudding served with this pig cheek (nice enough plate, this one)? And are these thin sliced of grilled honeydew melon unripe enough to give me indigestion? They were served with sesame seed coated halloumi and a big blob of black olive tapenade, and might have been a nice idea but the melon was too unripe to have any flavour.

The menu is quite inventive. I don’t think it was written by the guy in the kitchen. And I don’t think he or she is yet up to delivering it properly. Maybe they’ll improve?

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Mar
11

Review: Nut Tree Inn, Murcott

I like my DSLR camera. I’m a keen (if decidedly amateur) photographer when travelling the world, but I could never bring myself to pull it out in a restaurant. It surely just screams “food blogger!” and I never want staff to guess I’m a blogger. I’d love to say that this is a highly principled position, that I don’t want to receive special attention or free treats and have my unbiased review in any way compromised. It’s not that at all, I just feel too embarrassed by the whole thing. They might ask me difficult questions about food! They might smirk into their aprons if I can’t recognise an ingredient! They might assume I am read by thousands rather than… er… dozens? Maybe a dozen?

This is an introvert thing, by the way. We think far too long and hard about how other people perceive us, and often end up missing out on some really interesting interactions because we don’t want to put ourselves forward and end up saying something daft. Better to say nothing. On the other hand, this does mean I’ve only been picked out as a blogger on one or two occasions and my reviews are otherwise 100% unbiased. High principles achieved through social awkwardness – ta-da!

The Nut Tree Inn is a few miles out of Oxford, and although a pub it has given most of its rambling rooms over to dining, along with the white tablecloths and decent cutlery required for the tasting menu.

Beautifully firm tablet of smoked salmon to begin, with whipped horseradish cream. Good stuff. This followed by a piece of good chicken liver parfait and a dense but perfectly acceptable brioche. The apple chutney wasn’t strong enough company. Nice piece of hake for the fish course, the strong fish paired well with bourguignon onions and panchetta.

Our main course was Charolais beef: roast fillet and slow-braised shin. Mmmm… good beef. The fillet was a very flavour-packed specimen, roast to perfect pink. The shin gave a good contrast, all meaty grey fibres of umami. This was a plate of meat, the swipe of potato puree and sprig of watercress nothing more than incidental garnish. Good gravy.

The pre-dessert was an eggshell full of gooey salt caramel topped with milk chocolate mousse and popping candy. I really loved it, a proper grown-up easter egg (and this from someone who hates milk chocolate). It was followed by a passionfruit souffle with matching sorbet. The souffle was a cracker, perfectly risen with the flavour running right through it. The sorbet was good too, but I’m not sure that what I needed with my passionfruit was more passionfruit!

So, good meal. Everything very well cooked. It’s £55 for the tasting menu, which I’d count good value. But for me the style of cooking wasn’t ambitious enough for a tasting menu: three courses of these classic dishes would be a perfect posh pub lunch, but when I sit down to a tasting menu I’m looking for some kind of culinary journey. Still, a good place to know just a stone’s throw off the M40 near Oxford.

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Feb
01

Review: East India Cafe, Cheltenham

Anyone who reads this blog knows that my favourite Indian restaurant is The Chilli Pickle in Brighton. And this is because it is not just a curry house. It’s not a good local curry house, it’s not a curry house with fine dining pretensions, it’s not an actual fine dining curry house. It’s a modern Indian restaurant, trying to bring some of the authentic flavours of India – muddled up with a few modern British ingredients – to a happy south coast audience. And there’s far too few of them. So I’m really delighted that something a bit similar has popped up in Cheltenham.

The East India Cafe is easily missed, tucked away in a basement on the Promenade. Through the doors there’s a bijou 24 cover restaurant with furniture and decor to conjure up the idea of the Raj, and an eclectic looking little bar with a few seats for cocktails. It’s a brand new venture from completely first-time restauranteurs, and it looks good. I felt perfectly chilled (especially after a decent negroni) and the service couldn’t have been more friendly.

We started with a plate of phuchka – another regional variation on the pani puri – very good mix of flavours with a strong buzz of chilli, and the puri shells were interestingly bubbly in texture, like pork crackling. Wikipedia tells me there are at least eleven names for these: Gol Gappa, Pani ke bataashe / Patash, Pani puri, Phuchka, Gup chup, Pakodi, Phulki, Tikki, Padaka, Phulki, Pani Ke Patashe. I know I’m going to like a restaurant if they serve them, whatever name they happen to pick.

Next up I had a couple of lovely little grilled lamb chops, while Maureen picked out keema chicken; two small fritters with a nice texture, a strong curry leaf flavour and a surprise garlic mayonnaise accompaniment. Hey, it worked. My lamb chops came with a “lasooni chutney” which was a smooth, spicy, garlicky paste I hadn’t tried before. Also delicious.

For main course I ordered a cardamom roasted guinea fowl. This was a beautifully cooked piece of bird, still juicy, and the cardamom was there too (it better be, ’tis my favourite spice!). The sauce was creamy and almost there – just a tiny bit unbalanced, perhaps the cream not cooked out. Maureen’s allepey sauce with her sea bass was spot on, though; sweet, sour, fishy, and with a heat that built up. The crispy sea bass was nicely presented, but just a tad over. Both dishes came with good pilau rice.

Apart from decent cocktails to begin, we drank down a glass of ghol and a masala chai. The ghol is like a light, refreshing version of a salt/spice lassi. Refreshing? It was so refreshing it refreshes the meaning of the word refreshing! Their masala chai was good too, not over-sweet, and with a very savoury spice mix in it.

Apparently chef has never cooked in a commercial kitchen before. For me, that instantly explains and forgives the couple of dropped notes during an otherwise delicious meal. Give it another six months and I’ll bet those dishes will be perfect. In the meantime, I reckon the sense of hospitality and authenticity at the East India Cafe make it well worth a visit any time. Expect to pay £25 for three courses.

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