Dec
29

Review: The Sportsman, Kent

The eerily drab Kent coast on a moist, cold November day with the last few leaves dropping from the trees. It’s gloriously Dickensian. The Thames estuary is a huge grey blanket the same colour as the sky and you can’t see across to the other side. The Sportsman doesn’t look like much from the outside; an old white-painted redbrick building in stark isolation with a muddy car park at the front and a cluster of caravan chalets out the back. Inside it’s quite different. A big, airy pub interior painted in warm antique tones with scrubbed wooden tables and comfortable chairs. It’s one of those well-balanced places that hasn’t lost its identity as a pub in spite of being a top-notch dining room.

We went with the tasting menu, and tuck away three delicious oysters to begin with, then a couple of smashing pre-starters. There’s a neat stack of chewy mackerel, glistening bright apple jelly and

an almost treacly dark rye bread. Then there’s a hen’s eggshell filled with smoked eel, poached yolk and topped with horseradish foam. MmmMMMmmm. We settle next into a delicate dish of crab and carrot. A bit unmemorable, to be honest; I always want more of the brown meat in these delicate crab salads. The next starter was delicious pieces of roast partridge, served up with crispy skin on top of a celeriac risotto that tasted exactly – exactly, mind you – of the best kind of cheese and onion crisps. By accident or design, it was one of those charming reminiscence dishes.

Next we enjoyed two very good and very different fish dishes. The first was the bravest of simplicity; a single fillet of slip sole on a plate with a little seaweed butter. The seaweed gave us a strong estuarine tang and the slip sole proved to be pleasantly more dense than the more commonly served varieties. Luverly. The second dish, of brill braised in sherry with local hedgehog fungi, was very good though verging on too rich. That might be me, though – I don’t like my fish too rich (see Gamba, for instance!).

The main was foreshadowed with lovely nuggets of deep-fried lamb neck in breadcrumb, to be dipped in vinegary miny sauce. WANT MORE. The mint sauce stays for the main of roast local lamb, a well-executed dish but (ssh… don’t tell chef) not a patch on the lamb neck nuggets! Our pre-dessert was a little quince lolly with some “cake milk” to dip it in (single cream with, yeah, a distinct cakey taste). I love quince, but for it’s fragrance, and they hadn’t captured that. The bramley apple souffle to finish was delicious, a jolly good and very bright souffle with a blob of salt caramel ice cream to deposit in the top.

I enjoyed the menu at The Sportsman, and I particularly enjoyed the surroundings. At £65 it’s good value for sheer quality of produce and cooking. The wine list is good too; in spite of the Michelin-quality food, the wines are pub priced. If I lived near here, I’d be down far too often!

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Dec
21

Review: Spring, Somerset House

We never tried Skye Gyngell’s beloved lunch spot at Petersham Nurseries, despite living in Richmond for three years. I could never make the dishes as written on the menu match up to the prices next to them and had the distinct impression that this was more a place to be seen to be seen, a bastion of the ladies-who-lunch. Certainly Petersham Nurseries was, and is, probably the most artistically old-fashioned nursery in the country, a delight to browse around. Anyway, roll forward a few years and we’re trying her first new permanent dining room; Spring, at Somerset House.

The room we get is suitably lovely and woodsy, like a winter forest. The staff float around in outrageously whimsical Hampstead Heath hippy outfits, but for all that the service is perfectly pleasant. The menu matches the outfits: my chosen starter is “goat curds, puntarelle and spinach” and you can have a side dish of “slow-cooked chard and lentils” for £9. Yes, for a side dish. Yes, chard and lentils. Yes, I guess this is the middle of London… but still!

So, my starter is lovely and pleasant. Puntarelle is a kind of chicory. Maureen’s salt cod croquette is scrumptiously salty with earthy roast garlic in the aioli, but it is just a couple of nice croquettes. For £12.50. My main of slow-cooked paprika lamb with chickpeas is gorgeous, a heart-winning dish which would make anyone smile. Maureen’s squab with girolles is even better, a delicious and meltingly livery pigeon, beautifully cooked indeed. I finish cleanly, on meringue with a smart clementine sorbet. The pear tart is also good, served with a muscat ice cream (somewhat drowned out by the nice glass of sauternes we enjoy with it – the sommelier is a top chap, by the by).

Spring. The style of food is Italian-influenced gastropub. The execution is basically faultless – that’s what you’re paying for. You’ll pay over £50 for three courses. As our friend Tim says: this would be a great place to take a business lunch when you want to impress. Personally I can’t think of any other use for it at that price. I feel so provincial. : )

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Dec
13

Review: Svea, Cheltenham

Svea is to Scandinavian cuisine what Rules is to British cuisine – a dose of the traditional. I like the dining room. It’s on the ground floor of a quirky Victorian building just around the corner from the High Street, and is decorated in classically soothing Scandinavian colours with the occasional Swedish flag to remind you that it’s a Swedish restaurant. It feels as though a cable-knit jumper should be part of the dress code.

We tuck into a trio of pickling herring to begin. One is a beetroot cure, one is a juniper cure and one is a dill and mustard cure. All three are very good, with plenty of flavour and a beautiful texture to the translucent fish.

My main course of Tjälknöl is a dish of slow-cooked slivers of beef, sticky with marinade and a heart-warming sauce flavoured with junipers and a scatter of chanterelles. It’s a good dish, plenty of flavour if not exactly fireworks. Maureen settled on the classic meatballs, just to ascertain

whether they are better than Ikea’s. Of course they are, a country mile better. The creamy sauce coating them is good and punchy, the meatballs themselves are well flavoured with herbs and hefty without being dense. Lingonberry jam, of course. Mashed potato from the sensible-amount-of-butter school, and pickled cucumber.

I don’t have room for the Princess Cake, apparently a deeply traditional Swedish pud that I can imagine homesick Swedes flocking to devour. I’m not sure how big the Swedish ex-pat population is in Cheltenham, but with or without them I think Svea deserves to thrive – it’s a brave and different cuisine to be offering in a provincial town, and it’s all done well. Starters around the £6 mark, mains either side of £15, it’s in the same price range as a lot of good pubs I know and so is the quality of cooking. It’s up to you to come along and find out whether traditional Swedish food floats your particular longboat.

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Nov
03

I don’t usually review the service…

I don’t often say much about service in my restaurant reviews. “Good” is usually about it, maybe stretched to a whole sentence, nothing more. Why? Because I believe the quirks and hiccups of good and not-so-good service are so random that whatever I say in my review, your experience will probably be different. I’ve found this to be true plenty of times: I’ve enjoyed good meals and wondered why the review I read thought the service was “dodgy”, or been fed up waiting to be served at a place beloved of reviewers for it’s “warm, friendly service”. My opinion of the food is much more often in agreement with previous reviews. So if I write more than a sentence about service, it’s going to be at one extreme or the other! Two other points I want to make…

Firstly, cock-ups happen now and again in a live environment, that’s life. So if you’re going to judge customer service, don’t judge the cock-up – judge how they respond to the cock-up. I’ve got zero problem at all with an over-cooked piece of duck, if it’s taken back to the kitchen with an apology and replaced in good time. I may well not even mention it in the review. I do have a problem if the waiter tries to deny that the duck is over-cooked. I don’t mind a late dish, if it arrives with an apology. I do mind if it just arrives with no acknowledgment that something has gone wrong.

Second point, you really do get back what you give out. If this isn’t true, then I’m the luckiest diner on earth. Because I eat out at least once a week and yet I’ve never once had truly bad service. I mean, truly bad, worth kicking up a fuss about. So given how often I read reviews of dire service, I must either be stupendously lucky… or perhaps my attitude when dining out is somehow making the staff treat me decently? Which is more likely? I don’t arrive late (at least not without phoning ahead), I don’t get picky about where we sit, I’m polite, I don’t order off-menu, I don’t send dishes back unless they’re badly cooked. If I have to complain I do it clearly but friendlyly. That’s a word, I promise. If you regularly get bad service at restaurants, have a look in the mirror. Or buy a rabbit’s foot.

All this preamble brings me to my favourite Brighton restaurant, The Chilli Pickle. Review here. Because we’re no longer in the south-east, the last time we visited was more than a year ago. That time, the spiced lassi was somehow not spiced at all. When we said it wasn’t good and ordered something else, the waitress just took the unfinished drinks away, brought the replacements, and left them all on the bill. Bit miffed. The Chilli Pickle are keen enough on customer service that they leave a feedback form with the bill, so I left some feedback and my Twitter handle. The next day I got a tweet apologising and offering to recoup the drinks when we next visited, which was friendly.

Bringing us forward a year, to last night, when we were in Brighton again and so of course went for The Chilli Pickle. I was astonished – after we ordered a couple of cocktails, our waiter declared that they were on the house, and sorry about the poor service last time. Seriously, I’d actually forgotten all about the incident, couldn’t even remember what we had complained about. And when we ordered spiced lassis later, he brought a couple of samplers out to check that we were happy with the flavour this time!

I should mention, while I’m here, that we had some punchy and wonderful pani puris to start, along with fantastic pieces of deep-fried spiced skate. And for main I enjoyed a crispily superb masala dosa, while Maureen actually had the best ever tandoori lamb chop ever in the history of ever. Ever. Seriously. And as if it wasn’t good enough, it was served with a stunning star anise-scented curry gravy.

This is my testamony to The Chilli Pickle. I’m a food blogger. I usually visit Brighton a couple of times a year. There are loads of interesting places to eat and review in Brighton. But I never do, because I have to eat at The Chilli Pickle. It’s unashamedly my fave. : )

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Oct
25

Review: Silo, Brighton

Allow me to rave a bit about Brighton’s North Laine. I can go shopping for something inspiring in a half dozen different places – maybe Cheltenham, Birmingham, Gloucester, Bath, Oxford, Stow – and then eventually I happen to visit Brighton and take a wander through the North Laines and the Lanes, and I find exactly what I want. No, I find something that exceeds my expectations. And then I find a half-dozen other things that I love beyond any possibility of not owning, so I buy them too. Happens every time. There is nowhere better to shop on this green island.

The other thing about the North Laine is how often it changes. Visit once a month and you will spot a shop that has closed and another that has opened. Visit once every six months (like us, these days) and you’ll find whole swathes of brand new places you’ve never snooped in before. Mind you, Snooper’s Paradise will never disappear. By the by, this is a recommendation. Yes, yes, for Londoners too.

So at random we happened upon Silo for lunch. It hadn’t been there a few months ago. In fact, it has only been there for two weeks. And they’ve got a very clear and simply stated concept: zero waste. Nothing ever leaves the restaurant, except hopefully happy customers.

Inside, it’s stripped-back industrial. Sets the mood perfectly, though they may have gone a bit too far with the “don’t mind the wires hanging out, or the cider kegs behind ya, just sit on these chipboard chairs and the food’ll be along” sense of it. To be fair, only two weeks in and some of these bits might just be temporary while they sort themselves out. The service was friendly, and chef Douglas McMaster was on hand to bring over our plates and explain some of the ethos and sourcing to us himself. Given that I wasn’t wearing my “I’m A Blogger!” badge I think he must just be friendly and earnestly involved in his rather cool project. Infectious guy.

So I can say that the fresh, clean, salty curds that gave a lift to my risotto were made in-house using the leftover bits of milk from making cappuccinos. How awesome is that? The risotto itself was brown rice, given hugely funky depth with a fermented brown rice paste, and zing from a salsa verde whose make-up I didn’t quite attend to. Too in love with the risotto. Oh, and it had mushrooms on it. The mushrooms were growing in a rack across the room, in a medium made up from the used espresso grounds and recycled cardboard.

I’m usually a cynical bugger, but this was just cool!

Maureen’s fish was a quite deliberately uncool piece of rock salmon. It was good and powerfully marine, with a shredded meaty texture, cooked on the bone for max flavour. Their source is Catchbox – a small fishing co-operative that sets out nets and then sells whatever happens to swim into them, no targetting of prestigious species, no by-catch. Blobs of slippery oyster emulsion went beautifully with the fish, along with plenty of cubed pickled cucumber and seaweed.

Maureen washed her fish down with a great beetroot and pear smoothie, while I had a punky fermented nettle cordial. These were grown-up soft drinks that actually partnered properly with food. That’s worth some applause by itself, though they’ve also got local ale and ciders on offer. Our drinks were served in jam jars of course. Not purpose-made jam jar lookalikes for the trendy faux eco-warrior. Just jam jars.

So, that’s Silo. They’re doing something very cool, and doing it in exactly the right town. I wish them well. And you can’t dismiss it as “worthy” if the food is actually really good. It is exciting and original, but the strength of flavour won’t hit everyone’s palate. If you like to play a bit safe, you’ll probably find Silo’s dishes scary. I doubt that all restaurants will become this way, but I hope a few of the ideas being tried at Silo get spread further afield. Our planet rather needs them.

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