Feb
04

Review: Midsummer House, Cambridge

Quail liver on toast

Quail liver on toast

Daniel Clifford’s Michelin 2-star dining room in Cambridge has been on our hit-list for aaaaaages.

It’s one of the stealthiest restaurants in the country. You walk across Midsummer Common and then stand there in faint bewilderment. There’s a pub. There’s a small detached Victorian house alongside. And there’s nothing else this side of the river. Has Google Maps failed us? On closer inspection the house does have “Midsummer House” carved into the lintel over the door in nice, solid Victorian capital letters. But surely they can’t shoe-horn a Michelin starred restaurant into the living room of a Victorian villa? Maybe Google Maps has found the wrong Midsummer House? Closer inspection still, and we spot a menu in a discrete case near the door. As further proof, a taxi pulls up and disgorges two ladies whose heels couldn’t possibly have walked across the Common. Phew!

Raclette

Raclette

And of course the trick is that the walled garden conceals two very large conservatories that give plenty of room for a dozen or so tables. We are warmly greeted, and really treated very warmly and well all through lunch – which rolls majestically from 1pm to 5:30pm before we roll less-than-majestically back across the Common in our coats.

After some spiffy amuse bouches and a zingy palate cleanser of celery sorbet, we are treated to eight or so courses of really sublime cooking, plenty of invention and very satisfying flavours and textures. The exploding flying saucer of creamy raclette cheese on top of a disc of braised pork knuckle is a great hit, with cubes of white wine jelly to complete the perfect Alsatian taste experience. There is my favourite ever quail dish, made up of so many delicious components; smoked egg in a crisp case, toast with a stunning liver parfait and sweet relish, and a perfect pink quail breast covered in slices grapes and served alongside a stingingly good shallot puree.

Sweet scallop

Sweet scallop

The signature scallop dish is excellent, but not quite to my taste – the granny smith apple and sauce is astonishingly sweet, swallowing up the natural sweetness of the (perfect) scallop rather much. It does bring out the taste of the fresh grated truffle though, I’ll give it that. Actually the other seafood dish is also my least favourite; the roast monkfish is great, the confit pork belly slice isn’t unctuous enough, and together they just don’t offer any wow.

The piece of Yorkshire venison is back on track, just cooked to absolute perfection. Love the little venison sausage roll with a dollop of tart sloe mousse to dip it in. The roast veggies with the venison are good, ‘specially the chervil root.

Venison sausage roll

Venison sausage roll

Mmmm… desserts. Where a lot of tasting menus deflate into the desserts, Midsummer House elevated. The first was a great example of stuffing an unexpected veggie into a dessert and it actually working. Lychee… rose… and jerusalem artichoke! The candied chunks and flakes of j’choke with their dirty, earthy flavour paired up beautifully with the fragrant lychees and rose. This dish also included a great theatre element; one of the roses that had decorated our table from the outset, plucked out and dunked in liquid nitrogen so that it could be scattered in fragrant shards over our pud! The final dessert married passionfruit and chocolate beautifully, the delicate disc of chocolate being just enough to add sumptuousness to all the sharp fruity goodness.

Loved my meal at Midsummer House, it has to slot in there as one of my very favourite lunches along with the Manoir, the Waterside and Noma. It’s very classical combinations, with just enough flights of fancy to make it memorable. The menu was £110 each when we visited but I believe it’s gone up since. We enjoyed doughnuts and chocolates in the lounge, drank too much wine, and ambled back to town very happy.

Passionfruit and choc

Passionfruit and choc

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Dec
17

Review: The Red Lion, East Chisenbury

Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand

This is country pub meets Michelin. Having got so stuffed we couldn’t finish our chateaubriand, the plate clearer asked if we had a dog who would like the remainder wrapped up for them? We didn’t. However, the two pooches curled up quietly under the adjacent table pricked their ears up. So we donated our left-over steak to our neighbours and everyone was happy. Saturday lunch at The Red Lion in East Chisenbury.

Although it has collected a Michelin star, the Red Lion is still very much pub inside, with space given over to the bar and dining tables not crammed in cheek by jowl. It can be found hiding in the little village of East Chisenbury on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Looked like the local vicar was in for lunch at a nearby table. That kind of place. Nowhere better on a wet Saturday in December.

Arnold Bennett risotto

Arnold Bennett risotto

My starter of chestnut capelleti with roast sprouts and parmesan was pure seasonal perfection, really beautifully toothsome pasta. I have to admit to being a bit envious of the Arnold Bennett risotto though. Spot-on risotto shot through with flakes of smoked cod, topped with a confit egg yolk, bathed in a hollandaise sauce, lightly scorched on top. Wicked.

As noted, I shared a chateaubriand with my dad. I think there must have been more than 12oz each, wonderfully flavoured meat. The inky, glossy gravy was superb – I could have wished for more than the little puddle it arrived with (to be fair, service was so warm and friendly I’m sure they’d have fetched some if I’d asked!). There was a very fine side of little gem lettuce with a refreshing dressing; an absolutely ideal balance to the rich beef. Big fat chips were very good too, especially to scoop up the bearnaise sauce – just a tad lacking in punch, that sauce, good texture though.

Maureen had a wild mushroom pithiver. The dome of golden brown pastry was a feast for the eyes, and inside it delivered on the promise with deep, rich, earthy mushroom flavours. One of those vegetarian dishes that needs no apology for being meat-free, I almost wished I’d ordered it.

Pithivier of mushrooms

Pithivier of mushrooms

My pudding absolutely kicked butt, and seasonal butt at that. Pumpkin rice pudding. All the glorious silky richness of proper rice pudding but with the pronounced autumn flavour of pumpkin. To this were added bitter/sweet notes: an espresso syrup drizzled over it, and a scoop of praline parfait in the middle along with nuggets of caramelised hazelnuts. Haven’t enjoyed pud so much in a long time.

This is a great pub. At about £40 for 3 courses before drinks, it’s not what you’d call a bargain, in fact I’d say it’s about bang-on for the sheer quality of food as well as the great ambiance and service. And being a pub, they were proper reasonable on the wine list. Both bottles under £30 and both better than wines I’ve paid three times that for recently (cough, Hedone, cough).

Pumpkin rice pud

Pumpkin rice pud

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Dec
17

Review: Grillstock, Bristol

If you fancy a filthily good bit of BBQ in Bristol, then Grillstock have been doing it longer than most. Doing it longer than most places in London, for that matter. And just as with their slow-cooked smoked brisket: the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Oh… man, is their brisket good. It is so astonishingly mouth-wateringly soft, so packed with flavour, so very good. Inna bun, and just a proper ol’ bread bun, none of your buttery brioche nonsense. Their BBQ sauces are about the best I’ve ever had too, so I just kept dousing my brisket bun with it every other mouthful (they don’t dish you out a poncy portion of BBQ sauce, they just have big bottles of the stuff in the middle of the long communal table). I doused my fries with the sauce too. Their fries are bloody excellent, by the way.

Maureen had a burger topped off with chilli brisket. Beef on beef action! The chilli was splendid, you could really taste all the smokey, freaky, dried up chilli peppers that had been slowly cooked into it. The burger was a good’un, though of the cooked through variety.

All their burgers and buns are around the £8 mark. I can report their home-brewed pale ale is a great easy-drinking brew. I can’t imagine that there is a better BBQ to be had anywhere west of Pitt Cue.

Brisket inna bun!

Brisket inna bun!

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Dec
17

Review: Hedone, Chiswick

Hedone

Hedone

Other restaurants have no trouble putting up a sample menu on their website, even if it almost certainly won’t be what you eat on the night. It just gives you an idea of the kind of thing you might find. The clue is in the word “sample”. That’s too forthcoming for Hedone. They don’t even give you a menu at your table because – this is neat – you may not actually be served what the table next door is served, if a particular ingredient were to run out for example. This is either pure spin (in which case, well spun Hedone!) or it’s a practice that other fine dining places should pick up, as it must be avoiding a lot of waste. I couldn’t tell, I didn’t pay much attention to what the other tables were served.

Umami custard

Umami custard

We were served a pretty brilliant 8 course tasting menu. The dining room is modern, warm wood and cool taupe, with artwork from the my-five-year-old-son’s school. The service was great, the wine list long on French and high on price; nothing came in under £50 that I could see. We had a good bottle of Chablis – although in my book an £80 Chablis ought to be more than “good”! Anyway, let’s clear that to one side and eat.

There is some really wonderful cooking going on at Hedone. Amuse bouches were good, including a spendid bite of ham and foie gras with peppy pimento jelly on top. The first little starter was a fish-chip, a single baton of very firm monkfish wrapped in a singularly crispy potato wafer. Somehow it managed to include that unique chip-shop flavour. I was bowled over by the second starter, a bowl of parmesan custard topped with a very umami broth with toasted chia seeds suspended in it. When you’ve eaten a hundred-and-one variations on the classics, unexpected (and bloody delicious!) combinations are hard to find.

The scallop

The scallop

Jaded, moi?

The next dish was crab, and another knock-out. Very unusual to see unrefined pieces of crab claw meat on a fine dining plate. These were topped with blobs of awesome hazelnut mayonnaise (I’m gonna make me some hazelnut mayonnaise!) and bathed in crabby broth with parsley oil and apple. Top notch.

Loved the single-mindedness of the next dish. It was a scallop, just barely blow-torched, then halved. A few leaves, tiny drizzle of innocuous (yuzu?) dressing. This dish lived or died by the quality of that scallop and it was an absolute beauty.

Salty lamb

Salty lamb

The main fish dish was a piece of cod with green olive sauce and fennel on the side. By now I don’t really need to say that the cod was a beautifully cooked piece and the sauce sang like a drunken shepherd on the hills of Crete, you get the idea – the kitchen at Hedone only puts out faultless dishes. Hmm. Then again, the splendid chunk of lamb for our main course was arguably just a little on the salty side. Lovely though, with artichoke and sea aster accompaniment. And I have to say, neither pudding knocked my socks off. The main pud was a warm chocolate mousse with a praline-dusted biscuit on top, and trendy though warm chocolate mousse is right now I’ve not had one yet that I would really call a mousse. Thick soup is more like it.

So, Hedone. Absolutely cracking cooking, loved it to bits. All the real whiz-bang star dishes were earlier in the menu, which is no real surprise to a jaded Michelin-fatted gastronaut like myself. But at £85 without drinks Hedone really stands toe-to-toe with the best in the country, and knocks spots off a bunch of old dogs around the same price. I’ll be going back.

Magic crab at Hedone

Magic crab at Hedone

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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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