Review: Cottage in the Wood, Cumbria

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.

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.

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.

Review: Menu Gordon Jones, Bath

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Wine tasting in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a wonderful city, with plenty of lovely looking shops and a limitless number of eating options. And with the most significant wine AOCs scattered around it like spokes on a wheel (Graves/Sauternes to the south, St Emilion/Pomerol to the east and Medoc to the west) there couldn’t really be a better base for a wine tour of the region.

If you’ve read about our other wine trips, you’ll know the general drill; it’s good to find an organised visit or two, as that’s how you’ll learn about the wines and taste some great specimens, it’s better still to hunt out a few little independent makers whose target market are locals rather than tourists.

However, there were three little letters that kept popping up in Bordeaux that put a bit of a fly in the ointment: RDV. Which stands for rendez-vous. Which means that most of the winemakers want visitors to make an appointment to visit their vineyard. Naturalement! After all, if they allowed you to just show up at any time between 9 and 5 you might be left with the sad impression that they were, pffft, trying to sell wine or something! Oddly enough this doesn’t seem to be an issue in the Loire… the Rhone valley… in Alsace… or even in Champagne. Yes, you could be mistaken for thinking the Bordeaux region is a bit up itself.

Equally, you could be thinking that I’m a bit up myself. But just cogitate a moment: a day out touring and tasting wine, you might want to stop at 4 vineyards, spending anywhere between twenty minutes and an hour at each. Somewhere in there you’ll need to find lunch (no easy feat in rural France), oh, and maybe you pass a beautiful chateau or a bucolic village with a fascinating church to explore. Basically, you’re meant to be on holiday. But pre-booking 4 vineyards for, let’s say, 10:30… 11:45… 14:30… 16:00… and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn regimented day. Stop to photograph a pair of goats on a tractor and your whole schedule is out the window.

Happily, the wodge of brochures we got from the Tourist Information showed that about 20% of the winemakers will greet visitors without an RDV, and we were more than happy to give our time (and Euros) to them. We did strike a balance, and made one appointment each day at recommended places where we could take a proper tour and try the wines of a more famous house. These were all good, so I’d happily recommend on to you: Chateau Girauld in Sauternes, Chateau Soutard in St Emilion and Chateau Gruaurd Larose in St Julien (Medoc). You pay at all three of these for the tour and tasting, but frankly unless you’ve got a big budget you won’t be buying many bottles from them anyway. E82 for the most reasonable bottle of Gruaurd Larose grand cru. These are learning experiences, and cooing-at-lovely-chateaux experiences.

Still and all, my favourite visits are those independent winemakers who welcome us to their less grand operations. There was a nice chap in Sauternes who paused in his DIY activities, renovating his centuries old farmhouse, to dust off his hands and introduce us to his beautiful sweet wines aged in (sacred bleu!) acacia wood or American oak barrels, rather than the traditional French oak. In the Medoc we met a fellow who seemed dispiritingly dour at first, but turned out to just be French, and was more than happy to try and answer our questions. He even made a SatNav joke, that I embarrassingly failed to get. I bought lots of his fantastic wine instead (grand cru Bordeaux for £12!). Domaine De La Gauche and Chateau Biston-Brillette respectively, if’n you’re interested.

Bordeaux itself is worth a longer mention before I finish. From online and guidebook descriptions, I thought it would be fairly ho-hum. But it’s not. It may well be lacking in world-class unique attractions, no Sagrada Familia or Collosseum, but it is just a very handsome city, awash with stylish shopping and delicious looking places to eat or drink. It felt very liveable, and I’d like to have had a couple of days just moochin’ around it. Bearing in mind the weather was crap for most of our visit and this is high praise indeed.

Bordeaux Wines

Here’s where I show off the soupcon of knowledge I gleaned on our trip to Bordeaux.

Apart from Sauternes, the renowned wines of Bordeaux are all red. But what an exception Sauternes is! The most famous dessert wines in the world, you don’t have to pay £500+ for a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to find out why; we found lovely ones for under £15. Made with the semillon grape, usually with some sauvignon blanc added, their sweetness and funky complexity come from botrytis – the noble rot which affects the grapes naturally and dries them out on the vine during the mists of autumn. Sauternes has a perfect micro-climate for this, and semillon is the grape variety that holds up best under the rot. Barsac, very nearby, produces wines just as lovely, perhaps a bit less powerful, and less expensive.

The dry white wines of Bordeaux are just about okay, usually sauvignon blancs and at least of higher quality than the pub plonk back home.

The red wines of Bordeaux use a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In St Emilion, Pomerol and Graves the Merlot is dominant (wines might be 70% to 100% merlot) and so more fruity. In Medoc the cab is more often dominant, often 60% and often in combination with other oddments of Malbec or Cabernet Franc. This brings out more leathery, herbal or earthy flavours. But when I say fruity, don’t for a minute think it will be like drinking the grown-up Ribena that you might get if you ask for a Chilean Merlot at your local Pizza Express. All of the “premier” wines here are aged in oak, often over a year, and so they have a tannic and woody complexity that balances the fruits. These are also the wines that are best at least 5 years old and can keep for much longer. If you like it simpler, look for “second” wines. Every chateau (Bordeaux-ese for winemaker) produces a premier wine with their best vines, which is oaked and pricey, and a second wine from their younger vines, which is usually unoaked and cheaper.

Finally, it’s really well worth noting this point: many Bordeaux reds are meant to be drunk with food, and go instantly from quite difficult to immensely delicious when you do. And that’s it. We learned all sorts of interesting stuff about pumping over and pressed wines, but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself!

Review: Septième Péché, Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a delight for foodies of a certain stripe. If your idea of pleasure runs to chocolate, macarons, cheese, patisserie and fine wine then this is the place pour vous. It also has oodles of interesting looking places to eat, once you get over the standard set that appear in all the “Top 5 Places To Eat in Bordeaux” articles scattered over the internet. The one that we found, with a Michelin star to its name indeed, was Septième Péché. Whose name translates as the seventh sin, not the seventh fish as I had assumed.

This is a small restaurant tucked away on a big street. The two dining rooms are simple with some bold photographic art on the walls, and the service was friendly and pleasantly informal as French Michelin’d places go. Needless to say there was some pricey Bordeaux on the wine list, but there was plenty at the more reasonable end too.

Our five-course menu started really well with a shot glass of hot and deep crab bisque. A little too hot, actually, we had to juggle the shot glasses gingerly by the base. First starter was a salad of very toothsome squid and herbal greenery, topped with a disc of squid ink pasta. Then the speciality of the house, a gently coddled and breadcrumbed egg served with various fungal goops. Och, actually it was a very pretty plate of food, and fully fungal in taste too, but it was essentially four purees attended by an almost liquid egg and a little bowl of mushroom broth on the side. I’m glad I hadn’t scoffed all my bread as this needed a mop rather than a fork.

For main I chose the cod, a well cooked piece of fish with a very sprightly accompaniment: oysters, celery and sauce bearnaise all tied together with a warm oyster sauce. This bounced around on the palate really well; salt from the oysters, butteryness from the sauces, fresh green crunch from the celery. The other main was a good plate of pigeon, including breast and leg and a tiny cigarette of offal. Tasty. It was presented under a glass cloche full of bonfire smoke, and I do rather like my dramatic touches so I can forgive the watering eyes.

Pre-dessert I liked; lime sorbet, vanilla espuma and a shot of tangy lemon in a test tube. Proper-dessert I didn’t like; a plate of chocolate that was all about presentation. The chocolate mousse was perfectly good, but the white chocolate globe was contained in a ridiculous and rubbery spherification that we all enjoyed chasing around my plate with forks until it was finally pierced. Inside? Melted white chocolate goop. There was a curl of sugar and a decent passionfruit sorbet too. To be fair, the other dessert, a dramatic looking precipice of bright orange tuile with an intriguing white spaghetti fuse, was a very tasty mango affair with a zingy sorbet, although the coconut spaghetti was more fun than flavour.

It’s a small restaurant with an ambitious chef, and I think the odd miss-hit in the balance of textures and flavours was forgivable for the E60 price tag. To my mind it’s one of those roulette restaurants – go along on another day, and the chef might nail five perfect dishes. Worth a visit.

Review: Le Gabriel, Bordeaux

Look, this is just getting ridiculous. Here’s a general request to all the fine dining restaurants I’ve tried in France over the last couple of years: pop out, buy one of the delicious little gateaux from any of the fine patisseries within a few yards of your restaurant, pop it on plate and present it to me for dessert. Seriously, in the last four Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to in France I haven’t had one dessert to match a nice bit of patisserie. Le Gabriel turns out to be no different.

Le Gabriel is the “old standard” of Bordelaise fine dining; it’s been there for years on one side of the grandiose La Bourse square, bistro beneath and bastion of white linen above. Old guard it may be, but the menu boasts that innovation is one of their hallmarks, so is the food still relevant?

We didn’t really love our dining room; it was a side room with only two tables, the other being occupied by an octet of septegenarian American cruise ship passengers. Except for the vividly twee chandelier the decor was starched and uninteresting, and the service was pretty starched too. Not cold, just exceedingly professional. If the Americans were here to “experience French haute cuisine” then they must have been delighted.

Pre-starter of asparagus foam on a pea puree was seasonal and tasty, though it was rich rather than bright and fresh. This set us up nicely for the obligatory foie gras dish (it’s so ubiquitous on French fine dining menus that they might as well formalise it as “The Foie Gras Course” in the same way you’d have “The Fish Course”). This was a flippin’ excellent specimen, though. The shard of smoked black tea caramel on top was super, so was the smoked duck mousse beneath and the base of wild mushroom duxelles. Nice foie gras in the middle. Final starter was extremely dramatic: a sea urchin, hollowed out, filled with a sea urchin risotto and topped with vanilla foam.

Two fish courses followed. A pungent piece of red mullet paired with asparagus, would have been better balanced with more of the sharp sorrel pesto that came as a single pathetic dot. The langoustine tail was underdone for my taste; I like it cooked almost opaque and meaty rather than gelatinous in the middle. Vivacious and colourful accompaniment of grapefruit, carrot and peas though.

The main course was an absolute star. Veal sweetbread, beautifully cooked, and accompanied by a bitter coffee sauce. The bitterness was balanced by a variety of sweetcorn things; a rich veloute, a polenta chip, popcorn, fried polenta cubes and some fine dice of baby corn. Definitely one of those never-had-this-combination-before dishes, and a great one at that.

We squeezed in some well kept cheese, and then a bright and zippy pre-dessert. But dessert itself was a disaster. Chocolate and carrot sounds like a brave combination. The carrot and cumin sorbet on top was great, and the thin tempered chocolate cylinder was beautiful and crisp. But inside there was essentially some barf. Some kind of mild milk chocolate mousse with some carrot creme and a fine dice of raw carrot. Essentially, barf. It’s not often that all four diners leave some pudding on the plate. Which is a shame as the rest of the meal was delicious.

So: some truly great cooking, one terrible dish, some innovative combinations that worked very well, somewhat starchy surroundings. The menu was E120 per person, and really that’s a bit too much for the food we enjoyed. But then again, maybe I’m just bitter about the pudding?