Northern England
Southern England
The History section (closed restaurants)







Northern England

Ribble Valley:


Freemasons Country Inn, Wiswell Updated  March 2011
The Parkers Arms, Newton in Bowland New May 2010
The Inn at Whitewell New May 2010
The Duke of York, Grindleton
    The Three Fishes, Mitton
    The White Bull, Ribchester
    The Red Pump, Bashall Eaves
    Northcote Manor, Langho
Cassis Restaurant (Stanley House hotel)
Slice of Sicily, Penwortham, Preston New October 2010
The Italian Orchard, Broughton
    The Sparling, Barton, Preston
    The Olive Press, Preston
    Winckley Square Chophouse, Preston
The Red Cat, Whittle-le-Woods, Chorley
1066 Restaurant, The Hastings, Lytham New May 2010
The Cartford Inn, Little Eccleston
Kwizzeen, Blackpool
    Nigel Smith's Restaurant, Ribby Hall, Wrea Green
    Septembers, Blackpool
    Chicory, Lytham
    Twelve Restaurant, Thornton
Lake District:  
George & Dragon, Clifton, nr Penrith New May 2010
L'Enclume, Cartmel
Rogan & Company, Cartmel
    Cortez, Kendal
    Holbeck Ghyll, Windermere
    Punch Bowl Inn, Crosthwaite
    The Drunken Duck, Ambleside
North Lancashire:  
The Bay Horse, near Forton
    Hipping Hall, Kirkby Lonsdale
    The Highwayman, Burrow, near Kirkby Lonsdale
    Potts Pies, Lancaster
    Dalton Arms, Glasson Dock
    Artisan Café, Morecambe
    Mung Mee, Lancaster
East Lancashire:  
    Fence Gate Inn, Fence
Ramsons, Ramsbottom
Vnam Cafe New July 2011
The Easy Fish Company, Heaton Moor New July 2011
The Mark Addy, Salford, Manchester New December 2010
Aumbry, Prestwich New August 2010
The Ox New May 2010
The Angel Pub New May 2010
Michael Caines at Abode Updated May 2010
The Market Restaurant
    Yang Sing
    Restaurant Bar & Grill
    The French Restaurant, Midland Hotel
Van Zeller, Harrogate Updated February 2011
The Pipe and Glass, South Dalton New May 2010
The Pheasant at Harome New May 2010
The Star Inn, Harome Updated May 2010
The Box Tree, Ilkley

  Anthony's Leeds
Anthony's at Flannels, Leeds
Anthony's at the Piazza, Leeds
Fourth Floor, Harvey Nichols, Leeds
  The Weavers Shed, Golcar
  The Devonshire Fell Hotel & Restaurant, Burnsall, near Skipton
Salvo's, Leeds
Little Chef, Tadcaster
New May 2010
    The Angel Inn, Hetton
    El Gato Negro, Ripponden
Other:   Fischers, Baslow Hall, Baslow
The Monsal Head Hotel, near Bakewell
Rowley's, Baslow
Cabbage Hall, Tarporley, Cheshire

Aumbry, Prestwich, Manchester
Aumbry opened in October 2009 in a blaze of inattention. They'd done virtually no publicity, and still haven't, and they still haven't updated their website from before they opened.

I think I first came across it in a review on the Manchester Confidential website, but as much as it was highly praised there, I didn't really pay that much attention as I don't always agree with their self-important reviewer. Then it appeared in the Guardian (or the Independent?) in a list of good lunch deals. Then, one of the chef-patrons, Mary Ellen McTague was anointed best up-and-coming chef by the Good Food Guide 2011.

Bit of a bum deal for the other chef-patron, her husband Laurence Tottingham ... Apparently Mary Ellen McTague spent four years at the Fat Duck, rising to the position of sous chef, as well as having worked more locally for Chris Johnson (at Ramsons in Ramsbottom), who told me that she was one of the best things ever to happen in his restaurant's kitchen. Tottingham has also worked for Heston Blumenthal, in his case at the Hinds Head in Bray. Both also worked at Paul Heathcote's London Road restaurant in Alderley Edge (she was head chef, he was her sous chef).

Now the pair have opened up on their own on Church Lane, a quiet residential cul-de-sac leading to the old parish church of Prestwich. Just outside the restaurant, the parking is limited to two hours, but a few yards down the street, it becomes de-restricted. The restaurant itself is in a couple of small cottages, premises which used to be a bistro and wine-bar called Fetish for Food, that I have to say I'd never heard of till I found it on Google Streetview.

The interior of Aumbry is pretty simple and basic. Wooden café chairs painted white and distressed, some wall mirrors and and a sideboard from the 1930s/1940s (I'd guess - my grandparents had pretty much identical ones anyway). But the tables themselves are neatly covered with white cloths and there's good cutlery. Glasses are a little coarse. The tables are also quite close together, giving the room a slightly cramped feel, though there are only 20 odd covers. At the back of the room is a tiny open kitchen. I've seen passes bigger than this kitchen!

There were, I think, three in the kitchen (not including the absent Mary Ellen McTague, who is expecting a child, I understand) and two front of house. And then, unfortunately, there were just the two of us for lunch on Friday.

Service throughout was professional and friendly, but not over-familiar. They started off well by providing my companion with a textbook Dry Martini. I chose not to anaesthetise my taste buds.

At lunch, the à la carte is available alongside a 2-2-2 table d'hôte lunch for a very reasonable £15.50 for two courses or £18.50 for three. The tasting menu is also available by prior arrangement. We had arranged to have the tasting menu. This was nine courses for £50. Nine glasses of matching wines come in at £35, and as soon as the glasses started to come, it was evident that some real thought had gone into choosing these wines, rather than what seems to be the normal practice of taking what they happen to have open and forcing matches out of them. Each of the wines was clearly identified (not that I can remember every detail now) and introduced with a little (evidently rehearsed, but no less praiseworthy) spiel explaining why they thought each wine would match the dish with which it was paired.  £35 for nine glasses of wine is good value too, especially as only one was a little disappointing.

We started with two small discs of potted pork (Inglewhite pork the menu said in the only nod to the current fad for ostentatious local sourcing) with Cumbrian air dried ham, a small mound of pickled cucumber and a smear of piccalilli. This was paired with a glass of Deutz NV, the acidity of which did exactly what was described, and cut the richness of the meat. The pork was well seasoned and very tasty. We were slightly put off by what seemed a minimal portion style, but the waitress did describe it as an amuse, and, despite no portions being exactly massive, in terms of the overall meal, the amount of food was very well judged to be satisfying without overfacing. Very good bread was plentifully available, with two good butters in a somewhat oversized grand hotel style butter dish complete with cloched lid.

We then moved on to what I think was probably the best dish of the meal, some home smoked mackerel served on poached rhubarb with a light mustard sauce and some toasted rye bread. The mackerel was essentially raw, very lightly smoked and just worked so sublimely perfectly with the rhubarb. At first I thought the mustard sauce (half way to one of the Nordic mustard sauces you get with gravadlax) was a bit sweet, but when you combined all the elements onto one forkful, it worked superbly. Though it was difficult to resist just enjoying the mackerel and rhubard on their own.
This was matched with a René Muré riesling that was almost as perfect a match as the dish.

The next dish was what I think is probably going to be their signature dish: a Bury black pudding scotch egg with homemade mushroom relish and homemade tomato ketchup. Perfectly done eggs, sweet black pudding (Prestwich, incidentally is adminstratively in Bury, not Manchester) and a light crisp exterior. One egg was on a small, fried mushroom cap and the other on a cheek of mi-cuit tomato. I have to admit to both enjoying this dish, but not really being bowled over by it. It just felt a little too breakfasty to me I think.
Can't remember exactly what the wine was, but it divided opinion on the table. It was a red Italian served chilled to accentuate the fruit and reduce the tannins. It did, but maybe something with more fruit and less tannins might have been a better starting point? An interesting and thought- and discussion-provoking match though.

The next dish also split us a bit. I thought it was jolly good, but my companion thought it needed more depth. Possibly riper, sweeter tomatoes would have helped. The dish was a tea cup of chilled tomato water which had some shreds of tomato flesh in the bottom, while some spherified basil and goats milk yoghurt floated in it. A good use of the El Bulli/Fat Duck spherification technique, as it provided lovely little bursts of flavour, especially from the basil, without contaminating the clear "soup", if you see what I mean. Lovely fresh, clean, refreshing flavours. On the side were a couple of small hot potato cakes that I'm not convinced were necessary and didn't really eat that easily with a cup of soup and a teaspoon.
Nice wine match with this (a chardonnay I think), but there's still that big question over the wisdom and need to serve wine with soup.

Next came another absolutely superb dish. Poached (sous vide we presumed, but didn't ask) sea trout that simply could not have been cooked any better. This came with an interesting selection of accompaniments that caused a raised eyebrow or two, but turned out to turn a perfect bit of fish into a mighty fine dish of food. There were some gently pickled new potatoes, some thin slices of very earthy beetroot, some shredded raw chard and some crunchy walnuts in a light vinaigrette. Superb dish, but I think the mackerel just edged it.
Can't remember the wine. Or maybe this was the chardonnay and the tomato consommé was a sauvignon. Hmm, yes, I think that was it.

Next up was some more pork, here in quite a main course sized portion, combining the chargrilled loin with slow cooked leg, some carrot puree, some cabbage and little cubes of elderflower jelly on micron-thick slices of mushroom.
This was the only slightly disappointing wine match, but that was more down to it being a bit too ordinary a Côtes du Rhône than the thinking behind the match.

Next wine was a delicious Krohn Colheita (1970something). And yes, you guessed it, this was for the cheese course. Six cheeses I think, all in perfect condition, sourced from the cheese shop across the other side of the A56 in Prestwich's horrid 1970s shopping centre. Rosary Goat, Flower Marie, Berkswell, something else hard, Harbourne Blue, Stichelton.

Next came a gorgeous light, fresh dessert: strawberries, sliced and in a light strawberry syrup, served with an utterly glorious rosewater panna cotta and an olive oil biscuit that was shorter than a very short thing that's been cut in half to make it shorter. Fab. Served with a nice light, fresh Spanish moscatel.

Then, to round things off, a dish of lighter than average chocolate ganache sandwiched between some delicious almond crisp, a quick smear of a nutty vanilla sauce and a double cube of chocolate sorbet. Some chocolate desserts can be a bit heavy, I find, but this wasn't, and I have to admit to liking it.
Served with a glass of Maury - a fairly classic match, and certainly apt in this instance.

Espressos were a bit average and came with very rich chocolate truffles, of which we managed only a bite each.
(August 2010)

Van Zeller, Harrogate
This review has been moved to its own page: click here

The Parkers Arms, Newton in Bowland, Lancashire
The Parkers Arms occupies a commanding position on the road between Clitheroe and Lancaster, one of the old milk lorry routes, so handily always gritted.  For years it's looked increasingly neglected and forlorn, and just plain grubby, and that was the outside.  Not the sort of place that would entice you in, other than the (numerous) walkers who stop for a quick pint.

It's recently(?) been taken over by the two business partners behind the former Weezo's in Clitheroe, somewhere I never got to. 

I never went in before the pub was done up, but have seen some photographs on the internet, and they've clearly managed to make it so much more inviting, while retaining the character, and two open fireplaces that give a very welcoming air.  Lot of standard "gastropub" sage green.  Is there a special paint chart for dining pubs that features numerous shades of sage green and cream?  There is also a light and airy dining room with a great view.

The menus are short and constantly changing.  I've been several times now and enjoyed very good food each time.  Soups and pies have been strong points, but there's been no obvious weakness at any point. 

A non-vegetarian vegetable broth made with lamb stock was delicious - one of the best of that ilk I can remember.  A chestnut mushroom velouté was really smooth and creamy feeling, but packed full of mushroom flavour, topped with some confit mushrooms and a strip of crispy streaky bacon, served with really good bread. 

At an early visit, a parfait of Goosnargh duck livers was a huge portion, with some toasted bread, but I felt the parfait, while very well made and with a lovely texture, was just a bit lacking in oomph, probably not helped (at least visually) by the oxidation. Revisiting the parfait more recently, there was a marked improvement in flavour.

Some potato, garlic and parsley fritters were beignets somewhere between a fishless brandade fritter and dauphine potatoes, fried to quite a deep colour, but without any greasiness or flavour of the oil. They struck just the right balance of comfort and lightness, though a little more garlic and parsley would have done no harm, particularly if they ever served these as a bar snack, something they'd be really good at. On the side were a lightly dressed salad and a pot of tomato relish.  I couldn't quite make my mind up about the tomato relish, though it worked well with the potato fritters.

Beef and ale pie was a raised pie, and about the size of a medium pork pie, looking very attractive with its crimped rim and glossy glazing. Inside the particularly good and crisp hot water pastry, it was packed with good meat in a decent gravy, and there was also a jug of extra gravy (not the same gravy, I think, as the jug was lighter and thinner than that in the pie). The pie came on a nest of shredded savoy cabbage cooked with lots of bacon, some carrots, and in a separate bowl, some extraordinarily good chips. Very clean flavour, lovely and fluffy inside, lovely crisp outside. Chips how they should be, but how so many places fail to make them.

Venison pie is a raised pie with beautiful hot water pastry, and had a touch of orange in the rich gravy that worked very well.

On another occasion a hogget pasty was delicious - beautiful light pastry around an almost unctuous filling apparently made from de-fatted breast of hogget.

Wet Nelly was a delicious dessert - traditionally a Scouse dish with as many recipes and variants as there were people who made it, but typically including leftover pastry/bread/cake and fruit - here, it's made into a tart, with probably more fruit in it than you'd find in 19th/20th Century Liverpool, and served with lovely custard.
A pear and apple sponge pudding was a light sponge, on a bed of gently spiced pear, apple and sultanas. On top was some lightly whipped cream and on the side was a jug of really superb custard.

A small wine list is supplied by the renowned D Byrne of Clitheroe, but there's also a selection of really well kept local ales that repay the diner's attention.

What really stands out here is the passion behind the operation. Feedback forms are distributed to diners, and I know from my experience of repeat visits, that they're not just read, but also acted on.
(April/May 2010)

The Inn at Whitewell, Bowland Forest, Lancashire
I have to admit to having had a few doubts about the Inn at Whitewell, as most reports I hear and read tend to praise the setting (which is truly glorious, and the view up the Hodder and Hareden rivers to the Trough of Bowland is spectacular) rather more than the food and service. It's also a very popular wedding venue, which tends not to be a great indicator of good food. There was a wedding on tonight too, though apart from ladies in hats milling around the bar area the only impact was when we left, when the karaoke in the marquee outside was in full flow.

But my doubts about the food were largely unfounded. It's nothing particularly special, but it was all nicely done, and service was very good - not too intrusive, but there when needed. My starter of scallops with "with a little thai fish cake" were three good scallops, two pretty big and one small, accurately cooked. The fish cake was neither little nor Thai and served no purpose other than bulking out the dish. It was a bit like having two starters on the plate. A drizzle of sweet chilli sauce on the plate is a bit hackneyed, but like many hackneyed things it sort of works - with the scallops at least, though not so much with the fish cake. I didn't reckon much to the undressed shredded carrot and beansprout salad on the side, which didn't seem to provide the freshness that it was presumably meant to, as well as being a bit hard to eat (i.e. getting shredded carrot and beansprouts on the fork uses more calories than you gain by eating it).
Scallops and fishcake at the Inn at Whitewell

Loin of Lonk lamb was perfectly cooked and tasty meat, though I didn't really get what the scraggy bit of fat was left on for. The lamb came on a great aubergine purée, which, combined with a quenelle of decent if underpowered ratatouille, gave an air of the Mediterranean to the Lancashire lamb. The bacon and cabbage added to the accompanying polenta cake were a brave attempt to give polenta some purpose, but the bacon was the star of that little sub-dish, and was almost trying to upstage the lamb.

Carving the chateaubriand tableside (the waitress did not want her photograph publishing)
A chateaubriand of beef is offered for two and served with a little theatre, carved at the table. It looked beautifully cooked. Simply prepared and served, with a whole roast garlic, tomato, mushroom and game chips. One of our party had misread that as chips and was disappointed only to get the game chips, and quickly ordered a portion of proper chips. These took a bit too long to come, as the main courses were almost finished when they arrived, but they were well worth waiting for. Excellent chips.

My meal finished with three good cheeses, though for some reason one wasn't local: Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, Blacksticks Blue and Stinking Bishop, served with very good bread (much better than the bread rolls that came at the start of the meal).
(April 2010)

1066 Restaurant, The Hastings, Lytham, Lancashire
The 1066 restaurant is the "fine dining" operation at The Hastings, serving a six course tasting menu (for £45), I think just on three nights a week (Thurs-Sat). 
The room is a bit odd, though I'm finding it difficult to put my finger on what's wrong.  Lighting singularly misses the tables, which probably doesn't help, but it's got a bit of a cold atmosphere.  Another customer complained to the waiter that the room had the atmosphere of a doctor's waiting room, and could they not put some music on.  The waiter fiddled with a laptop in a cupboard which managed to produce some scratchy music over the speakers built into the ceiling which really sounded like a scratchy 78.  I'm not a great fan of background muzak in restaurants, but fortunately said customer was something of a whizz with computers and i-pods and in a trice had connected her own i-pod and managed to improve the atmosphere in the restaurant (there were just three twos in this Good Friday evening, so it did help).

The "fine dining" experience atmosphere isn't exactly helped by the toilets for the whole of The Hastings operation (a very busy bar and more informal restaurant) being right outside the 1066 restaurant. A cry from outside the dining room of "hurry up Shaz, I need to wee quick!" doesn't really set the best tone.

Fortunately the food is really top notch.  The 6 course tasting menu is supplemented by a couple of "freebie" extras, and so we started with a shot glass of asparagus velouté.
asparagus velouté at Hastings
 Lovely and creamy, but with a really good deep asparagus flavour.  The only thing wrong with it was that the British asparagus season had not really started yet.

crab and radish salad at The Hastings
Moving onto the printed menu, the first course was a light, well-balanced dish of crab mayonnaise and smoked salmon, beautifully presented with a halo of perfectly sliced radish.  The radish provided a good counterpoint to the creamy crab, and a further accent came from a hint of Japanese pickled ginger.  A really nice dish.

Next came a halibut dish, "Pan roast halibut with roast langoustines
halibut at Hastings
Served with butternut squash puree, crispy potatoes and a langoustine and tarragon essence".  The fish was thoroughly upstaged by the beautiful langoustines. The potatoes were quite clever - long thin strips formed into a sort of carpet beater-like form and deep fried.

The meal now switched to meat with some very tender wood pigeon breast served with good cep gnocchi and a smoked bacon, hazelnut and thyme sauce.
pigeon at Hastings
Last time I had this dish I found it too salty, largely because of an excess of bacon, and said so to the chef, Warrick Dodds.  That had been fixed this time and that allowed the dish to shine.

Another freebie next: a superb little shot glass of melon juice and the finest dice of melon, with a slither of jamon iberico draped over the edge of the glass.  A classic combination in a refreshing form.

Then came the main course: rump of lamb with a kataifi of shoulder (the menu didn't scare the horses by calling it kataifi, but did mention that the shoulder was marinated and confit). 
lamb at Hastings
The rump was the most tender piece of lamb rump that I can remember in a very long time, and with good flavour too. The truffled potato purée that came with it was very impressive too - perfectly balanced truffle flavour.

Next came the star dish of the meal: "Rhubarb and Custard".  But we didn't realise it when it arrived.  The waiter brought a wicker basket that contained a couple of jam jars, a voile bag apparently containing some sweets, and a some shortcake.  Is that it?  Is there something else coming? We realised that was it.  The jam jars contained alternating layers of an absolutely delicious, utterly perfect rhubarb jelly and what felt like panna cotta with a hint of elderflower.  The bag of sweets turned out to contain (of course) rhubarb and custard sweets.  The shortbread was expertly done, with a shortness measured in picometres.  This really was a superb dish, expertly conceived and presented with wit.

Unfortunately, the final course, a selection of "five Sandham's cheeses" ended the meal on a duff note.  I'm of the opinion that Sandham's aren't the best of the Lancashire cheesemakers, and this wasn't a great selection either.  Too many of them had a pasty, almost spreadable texture that just felt uncomfortable on the plate, and I'm sure the lurid green of a supposed sage derby was there merely for colour, as it scarcely tasted any different to the rest, though shared the pasty texture.  One cheese was so hot with chilli, it was inedible and could only ever serve as a macho exercise.  What on earth it was doing on a plate in a fine dining restaurant is utterly beyond me.

As well as the wine list, there are matched wines and matched beers with the tasting menu, £30 for six generous glasses of wine; £20 for six beers.  When I go again, I'll take the beer option, as the wines really smacked of being cheap, low end wines. Shame.
Service was pretty good, though "company policy" did not allow him to add a tip on the credit card machine, and as we had come out without cash, unfortunately we could not leave a tip.  Yet another twist is the lunacy of tipping.
(April 2010)

Freemasons Country Inn, Wiswell, Lancashire

This review has been moved to its own page: click here

The Cartford Inn, Cartford Bridge, Little Eccleston, Lancashire
A country pub, on the south side of the Cartford toll bridge over the River Wyre.
The immediate impression is of a nice, very clean-feeling place - quite big, with a log fire at one end.  A remarkably long bar suggests there is perhaps still some drinking trade, though everyone today seemed to be there for the food.
Some deep-fried calamari were good - strips not rings, and quite thick squid, though very tender.  This came with a good, though utterly mismatched tomato and Parmesan salsa.  There are some odd ideas on the menu here.  Like a starter of prawns on a slice of warm baby scallops loaf, with red pepper coulis and salsa Verde.  I nearly had that, just to find out what on earth a scallop loaf is, but instead went for "Bury black pudding and cinnamon apple wholemeal pancake."  I was expecting an American-style or scotch pancake, on the side.  But the pancake looked remarkably like a tortilla, and was wrapped around a dice of black pudding.  At first I thought they'd wimped out and just served the black pudding in a tortilla wrap, for the pancake was pretty tasteless, like a tortilla.  But it was too thick and the wrong texture for a tortilla.  Can't say I got any cinammon or apple from it.  Nothing wrong with the dish, just a bit odd.  Nice mustard creme fraiche on the side.
My companion had a slice of a well made chicken liver parfait, that was unfortunately just a little too fridge cold.  Maybe if it had been a little warmer it would have developed greater depth of flavour?  But better than many, and the accompanying fig and cranberry chutney was great.
Lancashire hotpot, with lamb off the local Pilling marsh, was a good example, and served in quite a quantity, sufficiently so that while I initially mourned the rather sparse potato topping, I wouldn't have wanted much more, especially with there being two mini loaves on the plate too.  Pickled red cabbage is traditional with hotpot in many circles, and no exception here, though it was a pretty horrid, over-acidic version that defied eating.
Oxtail and beef suet pudding was fab.  Remarkably thin suet crust with a rich, deep oxtail and beef filling.  Very nice mash on the side, and some very chunky beetroot salad.
Crème brûlée of the day was lemon and ginger, which were certainly evident in the dish.  Quite a thick brûlée topping.  Nice, but there was a very lemon curd feeling to the cream.
Black cherry Bakewell (actually a black cherry frangipane tart) was a real winner. 
Service is cheery and competent, though a little nervous.
In the past, they used to have their own brewery out back (and the sign is still there on one of the outbuildings), but the ales are now bought in, though all "real" - three local and one from Yorkshire.  The wine list offers no surprises, but is well put together, with plenty of choice and some interest, and a significant number of bins under £20.
(February 2010)

The George & Dragon, Clifton, near Penrith
A recently revamped pub close by the Lowther Estate near Penrith, and apparently in ownership somehow related to the Lowthers. Much is made of the local sourcing, including poultry and beef from the organic Lowther flocks/herds.

I arrived for lunch and my heart was immediately warmed by a blackboard by the front door stating that "The grouse season has begun! Delicious Dexter beef available. Try some today".

The heart sinks however, when the man (presumably the manager, as he was the only one not wearing black shirt and jeans) on the reception desk, singularly ignores me stood in front of him for a couple of minutes - he didn't even look away from his computer screen. Perhaps he was on for a high score? He looked one of those singularly gormless creatures who must be given good references by previous employers to get rid of them. Through the 90 minutes of my meal, nothing changed my impression of him, though other staff were pleasant and capable. I gave up with him and wandered into the bar, but again could find nobody to seat me. I wouldn't normally worry about not being officially seated, but there were no menus on the tables, nor visible anywhere, so I needed someone to show me to a table. Eventually I did manage to distract the manager from his engrossing computer and was offered a choice of restaurant or bar, though there really seemed to be little difference, other than that the restaurant tables already had place settings.

The revamped decor is the now standard sage green and magnolia with flagged floors. Furniture is large and chunky, and (in the restaurant at least) appears to have formerly served its time in churches. Some very big, long table in the restaurant give a slight impression of a school refectory.

There's a printed menu which, at lunch, features a selection of baguette sandwiches. The bread which comes to the table is also baguettes, and the toast which came with my starter was also baguette. Why on earth would a country pub, with its feet firmly rooted in the local region, and proclaiming loudly its local sourcing use French bread (even if it is made locally) so widely?

Disappointingly neither the printed menu nor the blackboard had any mention of the Dexter beef or grouse that had got my hopes up outside. When someone finally (after getting on for 10 minutes) came to take my order, I asked about the grouse or Dexter, but I was told that's only available in the evening. I get very irritated by this sort of thing, and having tried again, told the waitress that I hoped they ended up having to throw away a grouse. She appeared to sympathise, but could only shrug.

I ordered an organic chicken liver paté, which was fine, with a correct, faint hint of brandy, if a little underseasoned, despite being sprinkled with sea salt. Very nice little salad on the side. The toast (the aforementioned baguette) appeared to be half toasted, half fried.

My main course was the "pie of the day", off the blackboard: ham and mushroom puff pastry pie. As I had assumed, this was a bowl of pie mix with a piece of puff pastry on top. The pastry was a bit thick. The ham and mushroom mix was a bit disappointing: a creamy blend of wafer thin sliced roast ham (rather than the pieces of chunky gammon you might expect), virtually no mushrooms and lots peas. Very bland, with the dominant flavour being peas and cream. There was no salt and pepper on the table, but it came quickly enough when I asked for it. Really needed it, but didn't compensate for the lack of hamminess. Some simple veg (cabbage, carrot, french beans) came on the side.

For dessert I ordered a strawberry sundae from the small selection of desserts split between the menu and the blackboard. When it came the waitress pointed out that it was actually blackcurrant with a strawberry on top. There was a blackcurrant Eton Mess on the blackboard, so I presumed somebody had started off the wrong dessert and decided to chance their arm that it would be accepted. Curiously though, it was blackberries, not blackcurrant, and there were a few slivers of chopped strawberry in there too. There were also a couple of pieces of meringue in the mix of custard and whipped cream binding the fruit. Maybe it was just a one-size fits all dessert.

I came out with an overall impression that this was somewhere that would be useful in the area, and is close enough to the Penrith junction of the M6 to be useful for those travelling up or down the motorway. But probably not worth a major detour.

On my departure, I took the opportunity to correct their misleading advertising by rubbing out the words grouse, Dexter and beef on the blackboard. Petty. But satisfying.
(August 2009)

Cabbage Hall, Tarporley, Cheshire
I've followed Robert Kisby on his career trail around the North West's dining scene for many years, from the days he was an unknown-to-everyone junior chef in the brigade of Gilbert Lefèvre at the Midland Hotel's French Restaurant in Manchester. Lefèvre was part of that last generation of French chefs in Britain who had been brought up on, and passed on the traditions of Escoffier. Robert Kisby learned his trade from Lefèvre and is one of the few left who sticks to those traditions. For that alone, he probably deserves some sort of culinary  equivalent to listed building status.  Through all the years, he has been an employee; now he's pitched up at this roadside inn near Tarporley in Cheshire, he is for the first time chef patron. The experience has left him three stone and and a lot of savings lighter.I never went to Cabbage Hall before Robert Kisby took over, so I don't know how much of the front of house decor is down to Kisby. It's a bit flash with chairs that look like they came out of a black and white film of a Paris brothel. But it's not offensive and we'd gone to eat, not film Changing Rooms.

Once you're past the decor, the first thing that strikes you is the complicated menu structure, which surely can only mean harder work for the kitchen? There is a "designer platter menu" offering platters of attractive sounding selections of pub grub, regional specialities etc. "Designer" here picks up on the tailoring theme (cabbages are apparently a rag trade term for cloth offcuts) that runs across the menus: the "Bespoke" menu is an à la carte; the "Tailor's" menu is a 2-course prix fixe, the "One Piece" (quick lunch menu). But it doesn't end there. On Friday and Saturday evenings, the dinner menu is enhanced with further options.

The saving grace is that everything on every menu is very appealing. The food could perhaps best be described as not-entirely-modern British, with a strong emphasis on local sourcing, tempered by the spirit of Escoffier. Apart from the naming of producers and suppliers on the menu, there's nothing trendy here: there are no foams, no smears of sauces and the day any liquid nitrogen makes an appearance in Kisby's kitchen will no doubt be the day his demi-glace freezes over.

So, onto the food.

Scallops on a bed of cassoulet were really excellent scallops: beautifully sweet and perfectly cooked. The cassoulet was equally well done, but we wondered how well they two matched together.

A galantine of rabbit was nicely executed, with a marked rabbit flavour, and came with superb, really tasty pickled mushrooms. "Prawn and avocado hors d'oeuvre" was essentially a classic prawn cocktail, but it was the other elements of this "hors d'oeuvre" plate that really shone: a superb, very, very clean tasting quenelle of crab mayonnaise on a bed of subtly pickled cucumber; and some delicious Morecambe Bay potted shrimps that had been potted in a perfectly spiced lobster butter.

Some superb turbot, again perfectly cooked, had been wrapped around some crab and spinach and was then served with a delicious Dugléré sauce, that was so good that it was a real treat that some more came in a small jug.

Lobster thermidor was spot on, with a good mustardy spicy flavour that didn't overwhelm the lobster. The lobster was accompanied by some remarkably nicely flavoured rice.

Veal Suédoise was a very good rib chop of veal (a cut that, in my view, should be used more often than the more usual T-bone veal chop) liberally sauced with a classic mushroom and sherry sauce, and came with some simply cooked spinach and the rather less simple Berrichone potatoes. Quite how many of the customers would know what Berrichone potatoes are, I have to wonder, and copies of Saulnier's Repertoire de la Cuisine are not on every table. But having checked my copy when I got home, these were the real deal: cooked in stock with onions and bacon.

Cheese was a very good selection in good condition, including a notably good Cheshire from Mrs Appleby. Weakest of the selection was a very meek Comté.

Crêpes Suzette was another classic dish, though, not entirely a classic rendition as I'm pretty sure there were some pieces of kumquat zest in there too, along with a nice mandarin sorbet. Unfortunately, there was something not quite perfect about the pancakes - they felt a little, thick, blonde and underdone.

Bread was plentiful, but was one aspect of the food that could benefit from further attention: it felt a little commercial.

At first glance, the wine list looks a bit short and uninteresting, but a turn of the page reveals a Chef's Cellar collection of more interesting bottles, though here prices move quickly up to the Cheshire stratosphere. Moreover, looking at the list again later, on their website,
it's actually a bit more interesting than many similar restaurants, with the clear hand of Boutinot behind, I think: it's just a bit of a hard read, without any descriptions.  A bit of description of the wines (beyond the division into styles) would be helpful. They tried to push some sauvignon blanc onto us, and when we suggested that particularly with creamy sauces, we'd prefer something with more body, a blend of sauvignon blanc and pinot gris was recommended and sounded interesting. Tasting it, it felt more sauvignon like though there was a more florality and a bit more weight to it than a sauvignon - it felt a bit like Te Koko, in fact in terms of weight, but if the sommelier says it's a blend of sauvignon and pinot gris, you sort of assume he might know. Closer examination of the bottle revealed it to be Casa Marin's Sauvignon Gris from Chile. Pointing this out, the sommelier was still adamant that it was a blend of sauvignon and pinot gris and that there was no such grape as sauvignon gris. Hmmm ....

We thoroughly enjoyed this meal, and thought it well worth the hour's drive.
  Driving back, we were struck by just how difficult it was to find fault, apart from the minor, very picky comments noted above.  If they can keep up this standard, then I have a feeling we be back more than once!
(June 2009)

The Dalton Arms, Glasson Dock
This dockside pub offers simple, largely homely cooking.

Soups are good.  A starter of a black pudding salad wasn't particularly so: the black pudding was a good one with the slices not overcooked as they can easily be.  But the salad was completely undressed, and it really needed it to make it a complete dish.

A belly pork dish off the daily specials blackboard was decently cooked belly pork, but, although the skin had been criss-cross scored, there was no attempt to create any crackling.  It came with a huge bowl of good chips and an equally huge bowl of mixed veg: roast carrots and parsnips tossed together in burnt butter with some tenderstem broccoli.

Battered scampi is distinguished from your average pub scampi by being fresh langoustines. Good batter.  Good chips.

They make a great song and dance about their sticky toffee pudding (to the point of selling it retail): it was a very good example, but not worth-a-detour special.

Service is friendly and apparently family.
(May 2009)
: driving past in June 2009, I saw a sign on the road advertising burgers with the world cup on football.  Checking out their website, it seems they've changed hands since the above was written, so please be aware that my review dates from when it was under a previous management.

The Ox, Liverpool Road, Manchester
This is a busy pub, which advertises itself as a gastropub, but on the couple of occasions I've been, there seem to be more people having a (very good) pint than diners.  The food isn't startlingly good, but it's certainly very acceptable, and not just by Manchester's low standards.

Fennel and radicchio risotto was topped with a seared scallop and quail egg. Nice scallop, nicely cooked. Soft boiled quail egg. The risotto, however, was rather unevenly cooked - some of it was right, some of it was a bit underdone and chalky. My guess was that either they realised a bit late that they hadn't done enough (there were eight of us), or that they spoiled one panful and had to start a new batch. To be very picky, it would have helped (though not in the cooking of the rice obviously) if the plate had been warmer.

Chicken liver parfait, wrapped in foie gras butter, accompanied by loganberry jelly and brioche: this was a superb parfait, the foie gras in the butter just adding that little bit more richness, that was nicely offset by the jelly. Yum.

"Confit duck leg with dauphinoise potato, peppered balsamic strawberry sauce."
Peppered balsamic strawberry sauce sounds like some horrible car crash between 1980s nouvelle cuisine and a 1990s TV chef. But it was nowhere near as ill-judged as it sounds, and actually worked very well with the nicely done duck leg. Maybe if the skin on the duck had been crisped a bit more, that would have improved the dish? The potatoes weren't dauphinoise, as there was a layer of onions in there and there wasn't a huge amount of cream. Missed a bit of green (squeaky beans maybe?) on the plate.

A chocolate fondant came with "Uncle Joe's Mint Balls" ice cream. Decent fondant. Fab ice cream.
(December 2009)

The Angel Pub, Angel St, Manchester
We were out that side of Manchester and I had a memory of reading about the Angel Pub. Checking their website on my 'phone, I saw the name of Robert Owen Brown and realised that's obviously why I remembered hearing good things about it. Unfortunately the website - which I notice has now been updated to a holding page - misled us. If I'd googled further, I'd have realised that Robert Owen Brown had moved on well before Christmas, and that the Angel had in fact closed. But I didn't. So we went.

It's a horrible area of Manchester's centre - all derelict buildings and empty spaces. The Angel stands alone in a desert of demolition-turned-car-parks. Very unprepossessing from the outside, but we thought what the heck and gave the door a shove. Cold, damp, and a bit smelly. God this place is seedy, nasty, grotty. Should we just go? We've got here, let's see what there is. Opposite the entrance is a blackboard menu, that reads fairly well. Go on then.

We ask the man behind the bar, who appears to be a manager, if he can do lunch for two (the place is empty, save one table of drinkers). We might as well have asked him if he thought fermat's theorem had any relevance for 21st century interior design. It was like the staff had just woken up and found that they were, unexpectedly, running a pub, but hadn't yet fully grasped the concept. Eventually he "came to" a bit and we sat by a window, and were told he'd bring the menu, as the blackboard was wrong.

While we waited for the menu, we were able to take in the gloriousness of the interior. There's retro, and there's shabby chic. This place is beyond either. A lamp (unlit) sits on top of a pile of plastic beer crates. The furnishings appear to date from the 1960s, with all the lack of comfort that you would expect from 50 year old banquettes. The floor is wet. Is it the remains of the ice that had built up overnight, or had they just washed it?

Eventually the menus arrive, and we make choices, only to be told a few other things that are available. Hare terrine sounds good. Langoustines sound good. That's my companion sorted. I stick to the printed menu with chicken liver paté and roast pigeon with black pudding. A few minutes later, the chef appears, a personable chap. He explains that the hare terrine won't be ready till the evening, and he didn't think that even a double portion of langoustines would make a substantial enough main course. So my companion reverts to the photocopied menu with razor clams and a rib-eye steak with Béarnaise and chips.

We're still wondering whether we shouldn't have just left before committing ourselves, when the first courses arrive. And what a surprise. The razor clams are beautifully cooked (and they can be tricky), in a nice shellfish broth, though unfortunately there's no spoon, and we really don't think it would be a good idea to disturb the staff's slim grasp of reality by asking for one.
My chicken liver pâté isn't bad. Well made, a bit underpowered and underseasoned, but a very good texture.

There was then quite a long delay for the main courses, which makes you wonder how they cope when they've got more than one table in. But so many restaurants seem to manage must better when they're busy for some reason that I've never managed to fathom.
Eventually the steak and the pigeon arrive.

The pigeon looks a bit grey and overcooked, and curiously the breasts are half lifted off the carcase, as though the kitchen has suddenly panicked that it wasn't done and they needed to speed up cooking. Oddly, it didn't taste overcooked - maybe it had just been overrested a bit? The pigeon shares the plate with a pretty huge piece of black pudding and some very good mash. Nothing else. No gravy/sauce. Far too much black pudding in comparison to pigeon. It was more like black pudding and mash with a pigeon on the side.

The rib-eye steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare as requested and remarkably good meat. The Béarnaise was spot on, and the chips very good.

Whoever is in the kitchen now, clearly knows what they're doing. Front of house seem not to be entirely in the same reality as us, and the place is grotty almost beyond belief. I'm afraid to say that the food doesn't make up for the derelict location and grotty interior sufficiently to say I'll be back.
(Jan 2010)

Fourth Floor Café, Harvey Nichols, Leeds
A quick brunch. Well, I hoped quick, but service - or rather the kitchen - was so appallingly slow ... A short menu for brunch, all uncomplicated. Why did it take 30 minutes to produce my grilled black pudding with sauté potatoes and mustard crème fraiche? When it finally came it was very good black pudding. The sauté potatoes weren't sauté potatoes as we know them - they were new potatoes cut into wedges, and I think the only sautéing they'd had was when they were shaken when they came out of the deep fryer. The pool of crème fraiche on which it all sat was missing any mustard whatsoever. Which is a shame, as it would have been a good combination. I couldn't be bothered sending it back, as I didn't want to a) wait another half hour and b) order more drinks to fill in the time.
(May 2009)

The Piazza by Anthony, Leeds
This was my second meal here, this time dinner with a wine group (so we were in one of the private rooms and had arranged corkage). We had told them what wines made up our theme for the evening: riesling, red priorato and then back to some sweet rieslings, and asked them to come up with a menu. They came up with a very intelligently compiled menu: Seared scallop with cauliflower purée and elderflower foam Roast venison with chocolate and red fruit reduction Apple and rosemary tart tatin with vanilla ice cream.

Portions were not over generous, but by the end of the evening, I don't think anyone was hungry, helped perhaps by separate bowls of buttery mash with the venison. The cost was £40 a head including room hire and corkage.

The scallops (two medium sized ones) were perfectly cooked, but a little more elderflower presence would have been welcome (maybe in a different form than foam?), and perhaps a Jersey royal each, might have made the scallops look a bit less lonely on the plate. Again with the venison, just a touch more of the sauce might have been handy. It was beautiful venison (loin), nicely cooked. The combination of chocolate and raspberry didn't appeal to all, but down our end of the table, it definitely hit the right note, particularly with our wines. Some pommes purée was served separately, and fortunately they succumbed to sad eyes suggesting that one bowl between two wasn't quite enough. Very smooth and runny, but not especially buttery. Maybe they're using some flavourless Spanish butter? Plenty of salt in the potatoes though. And indeed throughout there was absolutely no need for any seasoning to be added at the table.
The tarte tatin was absolutely spot on. Perfect pastry; perfect caramelisation and just enough rosemary that you could notice it, but without it feeling in the slightest intrusive.

With a dedicated waiter for our room and Holly popping in and out throughout, plus the fact we were doing our own wine service, service was very good. But overall at Anthony's Piazza the service remains a bit of a concern of mine. There's just a lack of interest, apparent not least in the refusal of all of our offers to help themselves to a taste of any wines that they wanted. Maybe they thought they were being professional, but it actually smacked of a lack of professional interest. (I remember one London maitre d'hotel refusing our tip as he regarded the small pour of Latour 61 as the best tip he'd had in years.)
(May 2009)

Ramsons, Ramsbottom
Ramsbottom is home to Chris Johnson’s small restaurant Ramsons (both town and restaurant are named after the wild garlic that grows so abundantly in the damp climate that was so ideal for the cotton industry).
Chris is somewhere between enthusiastic and obsessive about Italian food and wine. The wine list runs to some 18 pages, arranged by type (dry white wines to sit and sip, dry white wines to go with food; white wine for wine buffs, pleasant reds, tasty reds, fine reds, posh reds, important reds etc.) Almost all the wines are available to take away for half price.  There are lots of unusual wines here, with the further idiosyncrasy that producers' names are generally not given (though fulsome tasting notes are), in an attempt to make people think more about their choices and seek guidance, which is more than willingly given.
Nobody here is Italian: Chris is from Durham, head chef Abdulla Naseem is from the Maldives, and the sous chef is from Tehran. Yet somehow Ramsons is, to be brief, a very fine Italian restaurant. Sometimes dishes can be more modern British, but are rooted in the Italian love of fine ingredients, and more often than not in fine Italian ingredients. The menu changes daily, and there's a rather coy indication on the Ramson's restaurant as to the best nights to come for the best choice. The food itself is very good, though perhaps not quite as good as Chris Johnson thinks.

An appetiser of smoked salmon mousse, melon and cucumber jelly was a lovely refreshing mouthful.
A chicken liver brūlée with beetroot jelly and toasted brioche was quite the most brilliant chicken liver dish that has ever passed my lips.
Lobster spring roll with a celeriac remoulade was ok, marred by some unecessary and over-chilled prawns on the side.
A home-made ravioli of prosciutto had excellent flavour, but slightly too undercooked pasta.
A main course of lamb, combining breast and loin was nicely cooked and presented, though a little ordinary.
Cheese, while a good selection, was served too cold.
A cocoa sorbet with mint granita was superb and an exceptionally fine finish to the meal. Espresso is excellent.
(March 2009)

The Box Tree, Ilkley
The Box Tree at Ilkley has been going longer than I have and is one of the grandes dames of the British restaurant scene.  It has seen fashions come and go; it's seen owners, chefs and chef proprietors come and go.  Originally opened in 1962 by Malcolm Reid and Colin Long, it quickly became the best restaurant in the north, and held on to its reputation for many years.  For Marco Pierre White, under Reid and Long it was "the most magical restaurant I ever stepped into."  When Reid and Long retired, some of the magic - and eventually the two Michelin stars - went.  In 2004, Simon Gueller, who had made his name at a string of restaurants in Leeds, took over the Box Tree (though the previous incumbent, the redoubtable and entertaining Mme Avis, still owns the building).  Initial reviews were a little mixed, but in time things settled down and Gueller won back a Michelin star.  On the basis of my recent visit, he must be on his way to regaining the Box Tree's second star.  It really was a superb meal, and so gratifying to see a dining room packed to the gills on a Saturday lunchtime.

The standard of cooking is set with drinks, when delicious canapés are served: a beautifully truffled jerusalem artichoke purée and some little tomato and goats cheese pastries, with a depth of flavour out of all proportion to their feather-lightness.  Once at the table, a demitasse of a perfect mushroom veouté was served as an appetiser.  A sort of seafood nage, healthily full of lobster and other shellfish was light and summery, while my starter of grilled quail was perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned.  My one criticism might be that in a restaurant as fine as the Box Tree, there were a few two many bones left in (the winglet attached to the breasts and the leg bones).  My one criticism of the service would be that no finger bowl was brought with the quail, even after I had started gnawing at the bones.  Our third starter, was a platter of some of the best Jabugo ham ever tasted, served with two crostini, one topped with deeply flavoursome roasted tomatoes, the other with an artichoke purée with truffle slices laid on top.  A dish that really couldn't have been bettered.

My main course was a sirloin of veal served with a separate cocotte of a spinach, girolles and very good gnocchi in a creamy parmesan sauce.  The veal was - strangely for Dutch veal - a bit on the fatty side, though that did lend some flavour.  Again the meat had been accurately cooked and seasoning was spot on.  The veal is explicitly advertised as Dutch on the menu: there really is no excuse for a restaurant of this calibre not to be serving some of the excellent British, outdoor reared, rose veal that is now coming to market - the meat was not as good as the sirloin of British veal I had had at the Duke of York at Grindleton (see below) a week or so earlier.  Our table also had a brill dish from the à la carte main courses, served on some excellent truffled mash and a textbook, almost perfectly spherical poached egg: this was described as the finest brill ever eaten, and having tasted it, I had to concur.  

An autumn fruit tart had a great autumnal topping of lightly stewed fruits on top of a quite superb glazed pastry disc: the accompanying Philadelphia sorbet (the processed cream cheese of that name) was fine and went well enough, though I couldn't help thinking that something slightly less cheesy, maybe a mascarpone sorbet, might have worked better.  Our other desert was a sort of deconstructed Sachertorte: two baby loaves of not overly chocolatey, nor especially light chocolate cake, were served on a bed of apricot purée and topped with shards of delicious chocolate, the whole being illuminated by two balls of superb sorbets, raspberry and passion fruit, of an almost day-glo brightness.  It doesn't particularly sound it, but it was a delicious, perfectly balanced dessert.  We didn't have one, but we couldn't help noticing the procession of raspberry soufflés going to all the tables who were eating off the excellent value table d'hôte menu: all identical, and all perfectly and toweringly risen. Coffee was pretty good, and served with excellent home-made, interesting, chocolates, which are presented in a retired Davidoff humidor.  

The wine list has lots of interest and, while the markups are pretty standardly steep at the lower end, there is some good value at middle and top ends: it definitely pays to trade up on the wine here.  Possibly the selection favours reds over white, but eventually we noticed a Pinot Bland Spätlese Trocken from Willi Opitz in Austria that worked very well indeed with our food.  With the one exception of not noticing that a finger bowl might be needed with the quail, service was otherwise absolutely excellent throughout.
(October 2008)

The Duke of York Inn, Grindleton
"Food with flair by Michael Heathcote" goes their catchphrase.  This is no relation to the other Lancastrian Heathcote, former chef, now restaurateur, Paul Heathcote.
It's getting hard to move in the Ribble Valley for pubs that have become restaurants - and most are pretty decent too.  This one, however, seems a cut above the rest.
The menus read well, and the idea of having a "pie night" (Wednesdays) and a "game night" (Thursdays), as well as an extended fish specials list (on Fridays naturally) all appeal to me, as does the fact that there is a specials blackboard.  (Though when I went today, much of the blackboard was repeated on a printed "specials" section on the printed menu.)   Shame the menu on their website isn't kept up-to-date.  I like the Angel at Hetton's idea of a webcam on their blackboard.

Inside, it's split into two areas: the bar area and the restaurant area, both available for eating.  The bar felt a little bare and cold in atmosphere (at least it is, when they're not packed), but it's nice that the original rooms of the old pub appear to have been retained, rather than it all being knocked through.  The restaurant room is larger and more open with windows onto the village street on one side and mirrors on the other side giving a good sense of space.  Tables are bare in both bar and restaurant, but they do provide proper cloth napkins.

While the selection of ales left a bit to be desired, the wine list is very suitable for purpose: the dearest bottle - apart from vintage champagnes - is a £42 red burgundy from Roumier.  I don't think the producer would be too keen on the note attached to the wine, which says that it has a "Stella reputation" - ah, that'll mean it's rubbish, overpriced and an English invention.  Hmmm ... perhaps not too inaccurate ...

A starter of game terrine was absolutely superb, though not quite what I was expecting, nor quite a terrine.  This was a delicious livery parfait containing three fillets of game (rabbit, pigeon, partridge maybe?) with a very nice chutney and little salad on the side.  Beautiful dish: one of the best of the year.  Fish soup was also one of the best soups of the year: richly coloured and flavoured served with the proper accompaniments, though the croutons are a little unusual: very thin slices of bread dried/toasted, presumably in the oven: the disadvantage is that the croutons virtually dissolved very quickly, meaning you couldn't really load them up with the very good rouille and cheese and let the whole laden crouton soak up the fish soup.  Our third starter was a pigeon salad: a nicely cooked very tender breast, with a fine brunoise (tiny cubes) of the confit leg, served with a nice, lightly dressed salad and some baby beetroot. This was very nice, and the confit leg was particularly delicious and well seasoned, but there was a slightly off-putting element, in that, apart from the roast breast (which was lukewarm, everything else was cold.

My main course was a local veal sirloin with girolles.  Excellent veal, very tender, but with a good flavour, perfectly cooked.  And I mean perfectly.  Superb stock-based sauce with it, along with good girolles, some potatoes and a nice mound of cabbage with a fine brunoise of carrot and swede mixed through it.  A tiny criticism might be that the root vegetables would have been improved with just a little longer cooking.  Not a huge portion of veal either, which might make those with heartier appetites (of which there are plenty in these parts) look askance at the £14.50 cost - but the value seemed good to me, and the portion size entirely adequate.  By contrast, the steak pudding benefited from its eater having said hearty appetite: quite a large pudding, though the suet crust was lovely and light, filled with plenty of good meat and a real depth of flavour to the gravy, of which there was also a separate jug brought to the table.  The pudding was accompanied by some really good fat chips and the same cabbage with carrot and swede as with the veal.  A roast loin of very local lamb had a beautiful flavour, and we appreciated it being cooked medium.  I'm increasingly of the view that lamb should be pink, never red.  The lamb came with a quite gorgeous boudin of the shoulder, but also a rather large stodgy rösti.  I think the rösti must have included red onions, as it was a somewhat unappealing grey colour, and we found the outside of the rösti a little tough, though it was nicely crisped.

In contrast to the starters and main courses, where there's an abundance of choice, making decisions difficult, the selection of desserts was quite short and really rather uninspired.  Everything else had been so good, I thought I'd try a selection of home-made ice-creams.  Vanilla was decent; chocolate was heavy and curiously stodgy; and the third scoop, of sticky toffee pudding ice-cream, while not actively unpleasant, is not something I'll be rushing to eat again, being very heavy and dull.  A way of using up stale sticky toffee pudding (also on the menu), I suppose.  The sticky toffee pudding itself was a reasonable example: a large portion, reasonably light, but distinctly lacking in dates.  The quenelle of chantilly cream with the sticky toffee was nicely flavoured and gently whipped, though there wasn't quite enough of it to match the portion size of the pudding it accompanied.  Desserts seem to let the Duke of York down a little, I think.

We drank a very nice Ripasso Valpolicella, which while perhaps on the simple side, went with our food very well.

Bread deserves a special mention - slices of plain white and brown loaves, but clearly subjected to a long slow rise, as they were full of life and flavour.  I forgot to ask if they make it themselves.

4/10 (if the  desserts were up to the standard of the starters and mains this would be edging 5/10)
(October 2008)  

The Red Cat, Whittle-le-Wood, Chorley
This old whitewashed pub with a handful of extensions looks uninspiring from the outside, but inside it's nicely appointed with good table settings and proper napkins, even at lunch.  Unfortunately, the food is more in tune with the exterior than the interior.

I didn't think it was the most exciting sounding dish, but it was a fixture across all the various menus, so I assume it is something of a signature starter: Goats Cheese Hash Brown, apple puree, apple and walnut salad.  A medium sized, underseasoned, potato cake with a bit of goats cheese in it and some grated apple on top - lost in the middle of a large white plate, with just four small blobs of babyfood apple purée around it.  Quite nice actually, but somehow not really a complete dish.
My main course of Beef and Guiness Pie, wild mushrooms, potatoes, tarragon was a bit of a travesty.  A watery, very under-seasoned stew of admittedly good and well-cooked beef, with cubes of potato and mainly, I think, shitake mushrooms, which had that sort of sliminess that they sometimes develop.  If there were any Guinness in it, the bottle had been opened in vain.  The pastry top had been cooked separately, and although it had a lovely golden appearance (it had been well-glazed), the pastry was a bit underdone.  Just like the bread offered before the starter, which, though clearly home-made, was far too pappy and doughy for my taste.

I can accept I chose badly with the starter, but the beef pie really left a lot to be desired.

not rated
(September 2008)  

The Market Restaurant, Manchester
New owners at the Market, I believe.  Presumably new chef too, as the menu has a different accent now and the food feels a bit lighter and more modern, certainly with a more deft touch when it comes to presentation, though not all is as well executed as in the past.  The new owners have revamped the wine list, losing the new world bins in the process, but they have invested in much better glasses than the Paris goblets of yore.

Risotto of squid ink and crispy squid rings was the best of the starters: good, very inky risotto, looking like a slice of black pudding on the plate, with some very light battered squid rings, looking a bit like fried shallot rings.  It only needed a bit of smoked trout and it would look like Nigel Haworth's signature starter at Northcote Manor!  Bream and leek terrine fell into the trap of many fish terrines, of being bland a bit too cold; with a slick of thin tomato juice dressing on the plate, it wasn't the most attractive looking starter either.  Their own smoked duck salad was an altogether prettier starter, though the portion size was tiny, with the wafer thin duck being dominated by the small salad in the centre of the plate.
Sirloin steak with chunky chips and green peppercorn sauce harked back to the old Market's simplicity and was well executed, particularly the steak, which while not the best piece of meat, was pretty good and very accurately cooked to the degree requested.

Pavlova has long been a fixture among the desserts and so it continues.  But my cinamon and apricot pavlova was a light crisp meringue blob (not the gooey texture that I always think a real pavlova should have) topped with a gloriously unhealthy amount of gently whipped cream, with a few smears of apricot purée on the plate.  No trace of cinammon that I could detect, and you'd have been hard pressed to guess the purée was apricot without having read the menu.

(August 2008)  
I have withdrawn my rating, as in mid 2009 I had a very poor experience here, about which the less said publicly the better.

Michael Caines at Abode, Manchester

NB the following reviews are from when Ian Matfin was in charge of the kitchen: I have not yet been since he left.
A rather gloomy basement with a very industrial feel houses what is probably Manchester's best restaurant. Of course "best" is relative, and the Manchester bar is set so low that the "best restaurant" in Manchester could be a bit grim. But, thankfully, Michael Caine's at Abode really is pretty good. It is the only place I would recommend in Manchester.

The "Amazing Graze" remains one of the biggest bargains around: 3 (admittedly very small) courses for £12. With three choices at each course, one of these days I am going to go for all three options at each course and get myself a 9 course tasting menu for £36. But today, we went for the £12 lunch and added in an à la carte main course.
Cured mackerel with "textures of rhubarb" was by far the weakest dish of the meal. The mackerel felt a bit tired and lacked taste, as well as being a bit soft and mushy. The rhubarb was hardly thrilling either.
But then things picked up. Slow poached brill (sous vide presumably) was some beautiful fish that had really responded well to the slow poaching. This was served on a bed of spinach, with some roasted salsify and artichokes on the side and a hazelnut foamy emulsion. A really lovely dish.
A good sized piece of halibut had been accurately roasted and came with some watercress purée, and what were billed as "baby leeks à la grecque", but really didn't have a great deal to distinguish them from some lightly cooked baby leeks.
Then back to the el cheapo lunch for some confit pork shoulder which came with some mash containing some small cubes of black pudding mash and a remarkably good tasting beer gravy. Unusually the black pudding didn't stand apart as it often does, but somehow managed to pull the whole dish together.

For dessert, a ginger and lime souffle seemed at first to be rather lacking in both lime and ginger, but that was a false impression, as - somewhat surprisingly - the flavour came along later. On the side was a small quenelle of a sour confit lime sorbet that counterpointed the sweetness of the soufflé. We drank a very palatable bottle of a South African chenin-chardonnay-viognier blend. As well as the setting, the other thing that can let this restaurant down is the service. They have some really good staff, but unfortunately they can't be there all the time, so it's all the more noticeable when, as today, you get the B team. Nothing particularly obviously wrong (except for aperitifs taking far too long to arrive), but noticeably poorer than on other visits.
(April 2010)

older reviews:

I think this is probably the best restaurant in Manchester at the moment, certainly among the non-ethnic options. It's shame it's tucked away in a window-less basement really, as for me that just notches a couple of points off a notional overall final score. I particularly liked the way, having been very delayed on my train journey to Manchester, that I could go in at 2pm and still get a full lunch, without a moment's hesitation from the excellent staff.
The Amazing Graze table d'hôte lunch is one of the biggest bargains of culinary Britain - 3 courses for £12. Ok, they're smallish "grazing" portions, but if you want a 24oz steak and chips, you're not going to be coming here anyway, are you? What you get for the £12 are three pretty to look at and tasty, well conceived dishes. With the excellent bread, it's enough for lunch and I don't leave feeling hungry. But sometimes it's good to go à la carte, where you get two options: grazing portions or "full" portions, the grazing portions being about half the price of the big portions. You can mix and match the two portion sizes, but obviously going for small means you get to try more things, which is part of the fun. And you definitely need to leave room for desserts. At the moment (Sep 09) there's a peach tart on, that is simply exquisite. Of the savoury dishes, the real successes for me were a foie gras terrine (coyly called duck liver on the menu) served with pickled strawberries (no, really) and a fennel financier, and the raviolo of ham hock with crispy pigs ears (excellent pasta with a large golf ball sized filling). Not quite hitting perfection were the other two savoury courses: cod cheeks with belly pork (light on the belly pork, which also lacked the flavour needed to stand up to the cheeks and fennel sauce); and saddle of rabbit. The rabbit was stuffed, or rather rolled with a chicken mousseline, and both were just a bit underpowered and samey. The particular 'let-down' of the dish was the indigestible skin which held the rabbit loin and the mousseline together. The highlight of the dish was an excellent grain mustard sauce and some superb herby gnocchi. Coffee - at least the espresso I usually have - is excellent and comes with yet more food! Most recently some really nicely made chocolate truffles which had a hard exterior and molten interior, and a shot glass of excellent chocolate mousse topped with a banana cream.
(September 2009)

The former Rossetti Hotel near Piccadilly station has been made over and re-opened as one of the Abode chain.  In the basement, reached by walking some distance along anonymous corridors, is the restaurant, Michael Caines at Abode. Of course, it's not Michael Caines itself (how do they get away with that when it comes to the Trades Descriptions Act???), but Ian Matfin, the chef in charge of the kitchen, certainly knows what he's doing.  
For me, the room is a rather dingy basement that tries to be smart and trendy - how far it achieves that probably depends which way you're facing and whether or not you look up (if it does look smart and trendy to you, don't look up: there's a certain amount of petticoat showing on the ceiling).  Initially when it first opened, service left something to be desired but it has improved dramatically (and with the same staff!) on most recent visits.
The Amazing Graze menu at lunchtimes is good value at a tenner for three courses - but they are taster courses only, and really the best value comes from the matched wines at just £2 a glass.
A single raviolo (more tortellino-like actually) of goats cheese was lovely, but very single, and the tiny portion isn't really disguised by the tiny plate. The main course was well executed, but unmemorable to the degree that I've forgotten it. Raspberry soufflé for dessert was a technical exercise in miniaturisation which they pulled off perfectly, but I found the soufflé a little sugary, though the accompanying super-mini quenelle (though in perfect proportion to the soufflé) of chocolate sorbet was a cracker. No doubt the food at Michael Caine's at Abode is the best in Manchester - normally, you'd add a rider that that's not saying much, but it's so way above the quality of the rest of Manchester's grim dining scene, that it's now worth going back to Manchester.
(August 2008)

The Angel at Hetton, Hetton, Yorkshire
In the olden days you needed to be ready to rush through the door as soon as they unbolted it at 12 noon in order to get a table.

Because of delays (my butcher sawing up a cow's leg for osso bucco for me - much tastier made with beef than veal ...) we didn't get there till 12.25 and were thinking that if it was full, we'd go on to the Box Tree.  We needn't have worried: whether it's the impending recession, too many alternatives nowadays, or The Angel at Hetton simply isn't as good as in the past under the late, lamented Denis Watkins, I don't know.  But there were parking spaces right outside the Angel (unheard of in the past unless you were there around 11.30!) and lots of empty tables inside.  They never filled up completely and they no longer need the blackboard of names in the queue that existed in the past.

So much for the past.  The snug has had a little facelift making it a bit brighter, but the chairs are too big for the room; the rest appears unchanged.  The food's still very good.  The service much poorer than in the past (with the one exception of a young waitress, who clearly cared what she was doing).

We started with half a dozen oysters shared between us.  Not the most thrilling of oysters, but nothing wrong with them, and the right cutlery came for both of us, although despite us making a space between our placemats, the plate was put in front of just one of us.  A minor quibble, but symptomatic of the regrettably ignorant, unhelpful service.
A ham hock terrine was wonderfully coarse and rustic, though some toast would have gone well with it, and it cried out for some chopped gherkin on the side.  Angel's white pudding, allegedly with summer primo cabbage, grape chutney and red wine reduction seemed very much home made.  Though it also seemed more like a twice baked cheese soufflé without the cheese flavour.  Very subtly flavoured, to be generous, but a lovely light, airy texture.  The primo cabbage seemed to be more like bok choy to me and the single milliletre of red wine reduction artfully streaked across the plate was unnoticeable in anything other than artistic terms.  Though I have to say, for all the negativity I imply, I did rather enjoy the white pudding: with only a bit of a lift of flavour, it would have been a superb dish.

Our main courses were fish off the blackboard: always what The Angel was renowned for, though the selection today seemed smaller than in the past.  Perhaps that's just false memory though.  We had fillets of bream with a sort of mediterranean stew, heavy on the substantial chunks of chorizo, which managed not to overwhelm the fish, and turbot with truffled mash and lobster sauce.  "Who's having the bream and who's having the turbot" asked the waiter (though the waitress who brought our starters didn't need to ask).  We told him, and he put them down the wrong way round.  The bream was good, though perhaps didn't need quite so much chorizo.  The turbot too was good, but surprisingly small.  As I understand it, we're in the best season for turbot and one of the joys of turbot in restaurants is that restaurants can afford to buy the bigger fish which make for better eating.  These were very thin, halved fillets off a smallish fish (medium plaice size, maybe).  I wasn't 100% convinced that they weren't brill: the skin was quite dark for turbot and had none of the nobbly bits that to mind distinguish turbot from brill on the fishmonger's slab.  The truffle mash was superb - just the right balance of flavour.  The lobster sauce was a simple, apparently lobster-less beurre blanc.  Very good, creamy beurre blance, but without any noticeable lobster or shellfish flavour (or colour).
For dessert, my Peach 3 ways, peach raisin shortbread trifle, peach and basil sorbet, roasted peach with lemon and thyme was a really good dish.  Excellent trifle, astoundingly good sorbet, though I wasn't expecting the whole roast peach which sat on the plate alongside the dainty trifle and sorbet components of the dish.  Not sure how much lemon and thyme had made their way into the roast peach, but as it was there was certainly nothing to complain about.
Homemade mini scones with jam and clotted cream were good scones, but the kitchen had been very parsimonious with the clotted cream.  They'd make good petits fours rather than a dessert.

Good coffee.  The wine list is an excellent example: a good variety from the familiar to the unusual, from the trophy to the humble, all generously priced, all very well - and accurately - described.  The wine list also has various useful, informative notes in the margins.  I don't think there are many restaurant wine lists you come across with an explanation of how to spot a corked wine.
Unfortunately the passion for wine evident in the list, doesn't extend across the road to their wine shop, which was staffed by a young chap, completely ignorant about wine and utterly flummoxed when something didn't have a price on it.  Still, it saved us a couple of hundred pounds, which is what we've usually dropped in there previously.
(August 2008)

The Pipe and Glass, South Dalton, Yorkshire
The Pipe and Glass Inn lies in the picture postcard village of South Dalton, about 15 miles beyond the eastern end of the M62 (why does the M62 end in the middle of nowhere?). An unusual external chimney dominates the exterior, making me wonder if it might once have been a forge. The bar is still pleasingly pubby, while the restaurant is characterised by solid wooden tables, with some very large tables in a conservatory extension.

The superb service was immediately obvious right from the welcome. We ordered a couple of drinks and repaired outside to spend a few minutes in the sun while we read the menus and examined the rather interesting wine list that had clearly been compiled with enthusiasm and interest. While we read the menus we gazed with admiration on some fantastic looking sandwiches that were brought out to others sat in the sun. The menu reads very well, and in combination with a goodly number of additional dishes on the blackboard doesn't make a choice particularly simple.

We eventually determined the best approach would be a couple of starters and a main each, and almost immediately after we'd decided, one of the excellent staff obviously skilled in mind reading appeared to take the order, which she did with no questioning of our requests.

Bread was really good; butter was good. While it's not a white tablecloth establishment, the tables are properly laid and special mention needs to go to the water glasses (as visible in the picture below), which are some of the most comfortable glasses to hold that I've ever come across. They have them for sale, and despite the steep price tag, I'm regretting not having bought some.

Rabbit and ham hock terrine with a scampi fritter, pease pudding and pea shoots
This took our breath away when the plate was placed on the table - truly beautiful presentation, and real work of art, which is not something you'd normally expect of such a generous portion. But also a work of art matched on the palate: the depth of flavour in the terrine was remarkable. Londoners might currently be being wooed by the charcuterie of Bar Boulud, but I doubt any would be superior to this stunning terrine.

Chicken liver pate with sweet onion marmalade and walnut toast
The picture reveals one of the most significant aspects of this for a pub-restaurant: no oxidation - that just makes it so much more appealing, and although the effect is not as obvious as in wine, a fully oxidised fowl liver pâté always seems to me to have some scalping of flavour. As with the rabbit & ham hock terrine, the kitchen had managed to get a real depth of flavour into this, but a flavour predominantly of chicken livers, not of an identifiable marinade. Pretty damn perfect.

Fishy inters:
Crayfish Caesar salad with anchovy beignet
No picture of this, I'm afraid: it didn't have the sort of photogenic appeal of the starters, nor the wow factor. Though the impact on the mouth made up for that. Hallelujah - these were real crayfish, not those nasty, nasty, nasty brined crayfish that are all but ubiquitous, and immediately identifiable by the poor texture and excess saltiness. None of that here, immediately noticeable from the excellent texture. I didn't get more than a taste of one of the crayfish, but it was reported to be a very pleasant light dish.

Hornsea white crab meat, radish, fennel and cucumber salad, apple and dill dressing and brown crab beignet
Another dish as good as it looks. Beautiful, fresh, sweet crab, lightly dressed. very light salad. If there was one thing I might pick up on, it is that personally I would have liked more of the brown meat, as the beignet was so beautifully puffed up, it was mainly air! I'll never understand why chefs are so scared of brown crab meat - I love it, and much of the time would even prefer it to the white.

oops, a little too wobbly for the image stabilisation software in the camera.
Lowna goats cheese, leek and marjoram tart, roased beetroot and soubise sauce.
I was surprised my companion ordered this, as he doesn't particularly like either vegetarians nor goats cheese - and I didn't quite understand the rationale that he wanted something light - pastry? cheese? light? <shrug> Although it addressed one of the main complaints that one vegetarian acquaintance has about restaurant food - that it too often lacks edges, it seemed to me a rather large portion (but this was Yorkshire), and I think I might have got a bit bored with it about half way through. Very good pastry.

Stuffed roast breast of guinea fowl with wild garlic, spring cabbage, rosti potato, wild mushrooms and crispy air dried ham.
This delivered virtually everything you could ask of it. The guinea fowl was perfectly cooked - really moist, yet with a good flavour. Unfortunately I didn't note down what the stuffing was and now can't remember. Despite the root vegetables (which to be very critical, could have done with a little more cooking), this was a very springtime dish, very well conceived. Excellent rosti too.

Portions are such that desserts weren't really and option, though as we had plenty of wine left, we rounded the meal off with:
a Lincolnshire Poacher rarebit with tomato chutney
A splendidly light, almost souffléd topping, but overall this was the weakest dish of the meal, as there was just too much mustard in the mix, overpowering the cheese.

A bin end section at the end of the wine list caught my attention. The first bottle of 2006 Cristom Pinot Gris Estate, Eola - Amity Hills, Oregon was pretty badly oxidised, but the next one was a good, rich almost Burgundian pinot gris. A slightly pinkish straw colour. Fairly subtle on the nose with some pears and beurre noisette. There's a nice weight in the mouth: rich and buttery, and nicely evolved. Though more acidity than you might expect in a pinot gris. 87/100
We then moved on to a 2005 Hermitage Blanche, JL Chave Selection. The immediate impression on the nose was of some delicious freshness. Very good weight, poise and balance. Pretty classy. 92/100

All round, an excellent meal, and better than both the Pheasant and the Star at Harome, which we moved onto.
(May 2010)

The Pheasant at Harome, Yorkshire
The Pheasant at Harome is the younger sibling of the Michelin-starred Star at Harome, and it's clear that the Perns have their eye on a star here too.  We stayed overnight at the Pheasant, taking dinner here and then lunch the next day at the Star.

The courtyard really reminded me of France:
though it looks a little more English from the street:
The Pheasant is in a very pleasant spot, looking over the village duckpond, and I had a very pleasant room, or rather suite, for the overnight stop. £145 DB&B single occupancy - that includes the table d'hôte dinner, or £30 towards the carte, which struck me as a little tight, as the TdH costs £35. Amazingly my "room" had two bedrooms, a sitting room and - for some reason - a fully equipped kitchen. It must have been kitted out as a holiday cottage let by previous owners, as why would the owners of two restaurants provide self catering bedrooms?
Sitting room of my room at Pheasant at Harome

But, onto dinner. There are no photographs of the food or the restaurant, I'm afraid, as the fairly formal dining room (white tablecloths, central table where everyone's wine and water bottles were kept out reach) was rather dimly lit. It's a shame as the food was largely a bit unmemorable, so apart from a few scribbled notes, I'm struggling to remember the details.

There's a table d'hôte and a tasting menu, but we decided to have two starter portions and a main, which between us effectively gave us a broad picture of the kitchen's abilities. Most of the dishes are available in a starter or main course size, to encourage a grazing approach. Dishes are listed - in the current fashion - by their main ingredient: Pork, Venison, Woof, Beef and so on.

The wine list I found a little short and lacking in obvious interest, though a pleasing number of bottles were also available in 375ml carafes, which helped in selecting a couple of wines to go with the food. I can't remember what we drank (the problem with the carafes is that you never see the bottles), other than a really good pinot blanc, which might have been from Argentina.

"Pork" was some lovely slow cooked pork belly with a really glassy thin crackling, served with a langoustine and, I think, some jerusalem artichoke purée. It was nicely cooked, and a pleasant dish, but was barely lukewarm.

The same was true of a scallop dish. Nicely cooked scallops, but with a bit of an odd flavour to the scallop flesh that we couldn't identify, presumably from marinading or a liquid in which they were cooked. This came with a rather odd, and to our minds not at all well matched salad of crunchy sprouting beans, and a very good "scallop cracker" evidently made from the roes.

Both dishes came on cold plates and were so barely lukewarm, that we questioned the waiter about it, who assured us that was how it was meant to be. Apparently (the waiter said) because it's all slow cooked, the chef doesn't then want to put them on hot plates or heat them up for fear of overcooking. Sounds like nonsense to me, and smacks of emperor's new clothes.

Fortunately, my next dish had some temperature. This was a small portion of a gratin of Scarborough woof with confit tomatoes. The woof was again nicely cooked, and the tomatoes provided some acidity to lift the very heavy richness of the dish. Initially (particularly for a non-prime fish such as woof) this seemed a very small portion, but it was so rich that it was a bit of a struggle to finish it, and I can't help but think it would have become a bit tedious in the larger, main course portion. Alongside my woof, my companion had a lamb sweetbread dish that evades all memory recall, other than that it was nicely done, but simply served too cool.

For main courses we had two dishes that superficially looked remarkably similar. Venison was slow cooked, presumably sous vide, and had a decent flavour. Some intensely dark green lovage purée came on the side, along with some gnocchi that had been quite light, but appeared to have either been fried or grilled after cooking, a process that made them hard and unappetising. I had some sous vide sirloin of beef, which was very good, though a bit of the old maillard reaction on the outside would only have improved it. On the side there was what looked like the same really intense dark green, textureless purée as with the venison, but was apparently spinach. The real star of the dish was a brilliant take on pommes anna, which appeared to have been a slice of a pommes anna terrine, which had then been fried very, very quickly on all sides, to crisp up the outsides. The potatoes were the only hot thing on the plate, everything else being (as was the venison) as tepid as the first course.

With the main courses came a large bowl of simple vegetables, including lots of the sprouting beans that had been such a large component of the scallop dish. Presumably the bowl of vegetables was the nod to the "needs" of the Yorkshire appetite, as it really seemed at odds with the carefully plated and balanced dishes.

A gratin of apples served with a Somerset cider brandy sabayon and a stunningly good stem ginger ice cream was by far the best dish of the meal, probably helped not only by having some heat to it in the glazing of the sabayon, and a welcome absence at last of sous vide cooking.

This was by no means a bad meal, but for me seemed to concentrate far too much on slow cooking sous vide and then simple presentation, often with a purée. Service was very good, and definitely on the formal side - down to the execrable practice of keeping bottles (or in our case, carafes) out of reach.

One rather bizarre thing was that on a Wednesday evening, the Pheasant was like a geriatrics' club. Barring one single diner, I was the youngest person dining there by at least 10 years, and there were more than a couple of customers who must have been in their 80s or more. Before dinner we had to move from one lounge to another with our aperitifs as we could hardly hear ourselves think over the old geezer shouting to his companions. When we went into the dining room there were two dowager duchess types dining on separate tables at one end of the dining room. Two singletons itself would have been odd, but they actually turned one of those tables when another single diner turned up later. I can't remember ever having seen so many single diners in one restaurant at the same meal. I wonder if the number of oldies was related to the reliance on sous vide/slow cooking? Dentally challenged and soft meats ... 

Breakfast in the morning displayed some really crackingly good ingredients, as well as a really nice selection of hot dishes, including a selection of frittatas, and an exceptionally good buffet, largely of fruit and meats.

I was disappointed when paying the bill that the food and drinks at dinner weren't itemised: although the amounts seemed broadly correct, there was no way of checking that the bill was accurate. I also like bills to remind me what I've had!
(May 2010)

The Star Inn, Harome, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire
We called again at the Star in May 2010, as part of a mini-Odyssey of east Yorkshire's finest, which also took in the Pipe and Glass near Beverley and the Star's sibling in Harome, The Pheasant.  Since my last visit two years previously, The Star has expanded, and this time we were in the restaurant, looking out on the decked terrace which was busy with al-fresco diners and then onto a kitchen garden. The restaurant felt to me to have a bit of a nautical cum art deco air, with slightly cramped, white-tableclothed tabletops, and black upholstery. On an unusually warm afternoon, the restaurant was a bit hot and it's a shame that the refit hadn't included some better cooling. As before, the menu reads well and there is also a selection of specials, though here in the restaurant, they are recited by the waiter, whose heavily Italian-accented pronunciation made me think that it would be much easier to have a printed menu of them.  The printed menu is only a sheet of A4, so the specials could easily have been incorporated into it, or on the reverse.


Ham hock terrine with spiced pineapple pickle and a fried quail egg, was a witty reworking of the classic gammon and eggs with a slice of pineapple. A nicely made terrine, though definitely very much in the shadow of that at the Pipe and Glass the day before.

This rather unappetising-looking plate of food was a wild garlic risotto with blue cheese and a beetroot foam. The foam was what made it look a bit iffy, and served to hide the beauty of the perfectly cooked risotto below it. However, in flavour terms, it really worked, lending a sweet-earthy note almost reminiscent of an aged Burgundy, to the dish. The risotto itself was perfect, capable even of a subtle wave when the plate was shaken. The flavour of the wild garlic was subtle, but clearly there, and the blue cheese worked surprisingly well. But why was it decorated with two unopened chive flowers, and not wild garlic flowers?

A simple dish of steak and chips - billed as rump steak, but looking like just the popeseye part of the rump (and cooked in a pan, not water-bathed as everything seemd to be at the Pheasant the night before), served with a flavoured butter and a nice salad with some pieces of Blue Wensleydale crumbled into it. The chips are out of shot, but came in a stainless steel basket and were very good. Curiously, I'm sure I saw three different types of chips leave the kitchen: these medium sized ones, some big chunky, almost pomme pont neuf style, and some finer ones too. Talk about making life hard for yourselves ...

From the recited list of specials of the day this was the finest fish pie I've ever had, and am likely ever to have. To start with, it was a luxury version, containing turbot, halibut and scallops, along with some nuggets of exquisite (cold) lobster around the outside. Each of the fishes were in pieces big enough to identify in the mouth, and each was absolutely perfectly cooked. The fish came in a really gorgeous, very light, very subtly mustardy cream sauce, which also contained a veritable forest of ultra-tender young samphire. It was a bit of a puzzle how they managed to get the buttery mash, glazed with just enough cheese to give it colour, to sit on top of the very light broth without collapsing into it. A mighty, mighty fine dish, and they even managed to present it remarkably delicately on the plate. Bravo!

As at the pheasant, a large bowl of vegetables and potatoes came with the main courses - despite both main courses including potatoes already. That seemed to me to indicate a kitchen a bit on autopilot, as surely most chefs would ask themselves why they were sending potatoes on top of potatoes? The bowl of veg also stretched our already slightly cramped tabletop to bursting, so that candle (hardly necessary in the bright sunlight anyway), cruet, butter etc had to be removed.

Bread was a bit mixed - a cheese bread was a bit hard, while a wild garlic roll was quite brilliant.

The wine list is good with fair depth and interest, though no bargains. We drank a beautiful bottle of 2007 Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett by Dr Thanisch that was gorgeous stuff.

I was by now fit to burst and couldn't even have managed a waffer theen mint, but my companion had a small bowl of strawberry sorbet - one element of a bigger dish of strawberry desserts on the menu - that was apparently very good, though of a texture verging on granita.

Service was again really good, from the welcome and throughout. I certainly felt it was better informed than at the Pheasant.

Overall, the Star wasn't quite as good as the last time I'd visited, but on the dishes I had, it was easily up there. Again the bill wasn't itemised, though at least we were given one this time.  The bill seemed about right, but there just seems to be something a little shady these days about not providing itemised bills.
(May 2010)

A previous visit to the Star at Harome

The Star Inn at Harome has long had an excellent reputation, and has attracted a string of awards and even a Michelin star.  I hadn't previously been as it is just a little too far out of what's comfortably possible from my home base in Lancashire, but as I had been in Leeds the previous evening, I took advantage of my unusually eastern location to drive to Harome for an unbooked lunch in the bar.  It was still a good 90 minutes drive from Leeds, so don't misjudge how far north and east it is (on a level with Scarborough, to which the nearby A170 leads).  Possibly not quite as long if you only have cars ahead of you driving up the fiercesomely steep Sutton Bank (1:4).  

The Star was smaller than I thought it would be - only about 20 covers in the bar, and that would be really cramming them in.  The bar, which also functions as the village pub, is quite dark, and full of heavy wood; the ceiling is low and dark, replete with more beams than you'd think strictly necessary.  Books and awards fill the walls, along with a clock that manages to chime an hour less than the hands show (particularly noticeable when it's one o'clock and it strikes twelve times!).  The tables are rustic great hunks of wood, with settle-type seating on the wall side and equally rustic hunks of wood milking stools on the other side, which can't really be terribly comfortable if you're having a full meal.  The rusticity of the bar area is very ill-matched with the refined, assured cooking, which really deserves proper height tables and chairs.  But it was certainly nice to get proper napkins.

If I say that about the most major quibble I could possibly dredge up about the food is that the miniature brioche loaf that came with the chicken liver parfait was only half sliced, meaning that you had to tear the other half apart yourself; then that gives some indication of how near perfection the food was.

The menu has as many place names as actual dishes ("Pickering Watercress", "Yoadwath Mill smoked salmon", "Duncombe Park Roe Deer", "Cotherstone Cabbage", etc), but the dishes read well and, with the blackboard menu (of mainly fish) supplementing the printed menu, decisions are difficult to make.

A chicken liver and foie gras parfait was a very well made example, with excellent texture, and the chicken liver dominating, but with just a bit of foie gras richness showing through.  The accompanying salad was lightly dressed, the gooseberry and green peppercorn chutney worked well with the parfait, and the miniature loaf of brioche was as good an example as you'll find.

A risotto of "homegrown Matador spinach" had a beautiful spinach flavour enriched with cheese, with a deep-fried spinach leaf that was pure essence of sweet spinach in the mouth.  Also on top of the risotto, were two small croquettes of a smoked salmon brandade - beautifully made, with a nice subtle flavour, and a surprisingly good combination with the risotto.  To be hypercritical, maybe the rice was very slightly overcooked, but I much prefer it that way to being under-cooked.
My main course came off the blackboard: a "posh rabbit pie": lots of rabbit (it had a placename of origin, but I can't remember it), leeks and some very tiny onions in a delicious tarragon velouté. The pastry was two discs of a French style (i.e. slightly tough) shortcrust, the top crust being beautifully glazed. Again being hypercritical, perhaps the pastry looked better than it was, and why was there a bottom, as it was only ever going to end up soaking up the sauce and becoming a bit soggy?  That bottom crust was, however, useful in mopping up the sauce, in addition to the very good bread (the rolls with a hint of bacon were especially good).  The tarragon worked exceedingly well with the rabbit.

All the desserts I saw come out of the kitchen looked superbly presented.  I went for the most seasonal - an elderflower jelly with "Harrogate sponge fingers", marinated strawberries and a small jug of excellent custard.  The jelly was a clear hemisphere with an excellent texture and 'wobble factor' and a delicate, but definite elderflower flavour.  The "Harrogate sponge fingers" were slices of very light jam sponge cake.
Very good coffee came with a slice of miniature battenberg cake, a chocolate truffle with a white chocolate shell and a home-made bounty bar.

Service was excellent throughout.

It is, however, not cheap.  My four-course meal with just a pint of an indifferent Yorker ale from the Leeds Brewery and a glass of delicious apple juice, came to £62.  Not cheap, but good value for the quality of the food and excellent service.  Maybe in the restaurant, which I assume has slightly more of a sense of occasion, the value seems even greater?  One rather odd thing was that I was merely told the amount due, not given any written or printed receipt.  The amount was about what I expected and seems to be right, doing the sums after the event, but it seems a very odd procedure.
(July 2008)

El Gato Negro, Ripponden, Yorkshire
On the main road through Ripponden at the traffic lights where several roads meet, this is a converted pub - nicely done, but without losing the traces of its former existence (the bar is, apparently, the original bar from the pub).  

The food is relatively straightforward tapas, but on the evidence of our visit, very well executed.  You'll not find anything particularly unusual on the menu, which is compact, with five meat, five fish and seven vegetarian options.  The menu is your place mat - you tick off (pencils supplied!) what you want and hand it in and sit until the food comes in no particular order.

Pan Catalan was really just fried bread topped with tomatoes and garlic, but boy was it good fried bread with delicious, very fresh tasting tomato and a very well-judged level of garlic.
Roast Belly Pork with Morcilla, Apple & Pea Purée was nicely cooked (though no attempt had been made to produce crackling on the belly pork), though I'd have liked a bit more of the purée.  Not a dish made for easy sharing though.  I'm never quite sure what the distinction is between a small, light main course and tapas, though this seemed to me more main coursey than tapassy, as did the Grilled Hake with Samphire & Salsa Verde.  That had a very nicely cooked tail end of hake with some thin, but unusually woody samphire given its fineness and a lovely lift from the combination of (sherry vinegar?) dressing and the salsa verde.
From the vegetable options, we chose a bowl of Chickpeas, Broad Beans & Peas in Mint & Parsley Sauce which curiously was the last dish to arrive, but eating it you could see why - the freshness of the flavours was very evident and made a very satisfying, enjoyable dish.
Given the strong Spanish flavour of the savoury dishes, desserts were a little disappointingly Anglophone.  Sticky toffee pudding, crème brûlée (not even crema catalana!) etc.  Our lemon tarts were good examples, though didn't really thrill.

All jolly good.  But don't think of tapas here as a cheap option.  Three of the meat tapas are between £9.50 and £13.50, and the hake is £9.  By contrast the most expensive tapas at Paul Heathcote's Grado in Manchester (surely the nearest competitor for tapas?) is the exellent quail at just under £7.  Not to say that El Gato Negro is over-priced, but they know their worth and charge it, and this is  no undiscovered bargain.
Service is bright, cheery and welcoming - and well-managed.
(July 2008)

Salvo's, Leeds
Classy looking from the outside, but less so inside, this is apparently one of Leeds longstanding institutions, famed for its queues and its food. There's a very good atmosphere, and at just 6.15pm it was buzzing.  Staff seem to be more local than Italian, but the welcome and general service throughout is none the worse for it, and they're all pretty good.  The only issue with the service was a curiously long wait between starter and my main course pizza. 

But the long wait for the pizza was a bit of a blessing, as my starter portion of pasta alla siciliana was big enough to be a main course anywhere else but Leeds.  The pasta was nicely cooked and the aubergine & tomato sauce was attractive and just in the right quantity for the amount of pasta.  This was topped with a chargrilled slice of ricotta that worked really well, though a little more of that would have been welcome given the quantity of the rest.  Why they offered parmesan as well, I don't know.  But I suppose Italian restaurants have to offer parmesan with virtually everything
The pizza had a good dough - which certainly seemed to have been properly allowed to rise.  Maybe it could have been a little crisper, but it had a nice lightness on the perimeter crust.  Tomato sauce tasted well.  This was a pizza diavola - with hot salami and buffalo mozzarella: simple, elegant and not overspiced, despite a scant smattering of chopped chilli.  After the pasta, it was too much for me, but the readily boxed up the remaining half for me to take away.

Very good espresso.

With a large bottle of San Pellegrino, £21.65.  Possibly a little on the pricey side for what I had? 
(July 2008)

Little Chef, A64, Tadcaster
In early January 2010, with Britain in the grip of exceptional snowfalls, I spent a night at a Travelodge on the A64 between Tadcaster and York. Naturally as I waded through the snow I didn't pay much attention to the Little Chef next door, though I did think it didn't look seedy like most do.

I couldn't resist looking at the menu in my bedroom - for a laugh, and for a masochistic reminiscence.

Then I realised that this was one that had been done up following the Heston Blumenthal TV programme. I had 45 minutes to spare before meeting up with friends in York, so thought it was worth trying.

The first impression was of how bright and clean looking it was; and how there was no nasty smell of old cooking fat. The next impression was the great staff. Nobody was sullen. All were really bright and cheerful. When I went in, the servers were all busy serving, but the cook saw me come in and came over to show me to a table.

I had to have the ox cheek of course - one of the dishes that Heston Blumenthal put on the menu. I'm guessing it's boil or microwave in-the-bag, but it wasn't bad. Three hunks of cheek, just a bit too chewy, in a pretty decent, very dark red wine sauce. Really nice mash on the side.

I chose the most Hestony sounding dessert: trifle made with green tea soaked sponge, ginger beer custard, popping candy, chocolate rice crispies. Yeah, well, it was ok, I suppose. Obviously made in a central production kitchen, and with no detectable green tea or ginger beer flavours. But they're obviously trying. You don't just get the little disposable plastic bowl containing the trifle, there are three little bowls - one with the popping candy, one with the chocolate coated rice crispies and one with "crumble" crumbs.
A pretty good coffee came with jelly beans as petits fours!

All in all much better than the absolute last resort most Little Chefs would be and have been.

It's not a particularly cheap meal though. The cheeks are £9.75, the dearest thing on the menu, other than steak and chips with Béarnaise sauce (and yes, they actually do have the acute accent on the menu!). But it's not a rip-off either.

Of course, one of the things Little Chefs always used to be known for were the all-day breakfasts. So, purely in the interests of research, I nipped in before setting off back home the next morning. The Olympic Breakfast gives you an attractive, un-greasy plateful: good bacon, good black pudding, good, nicely cooked eggs (fried only), disappointing sausages, flat mushrooms, grilled tomato and a couple of slice of toasted bloomer, for £6.95. The pot of tea seemed a bit effete though.

All in all, while the food is a massive improvement and actually worth stopping for, what really struck me most was the excellence of the staff.

Free wi-fi is nice.
(January 2010)

Rogan and Company, Cartmel
Cartmel is a nice little place, not quite centred on the lovely 12th century priory, which escaped destruction during the dissolution of the monasteries by virtue of it also being the parish church.

Long famous for its racecourse (unless you're going to the races, do not under any circumstances go to Cartmel on a race day), then for the village shop and its sticky toffee pudding (incidentally, one of the poorer examples you can buy), and then Simon Rogan opened L'Enclume, Cartmel also went onto the restaurant map.

L'Enclume (see below) is in a really lovely setting, and the food can be brilliant, but it (the food) is a bit pretentious and the insistence on multi-course tasting menus means that it's increasingly of less use to us locals. Last year, it was reported that Simon Rogan was looking to open a second restaurant in Henley. That fell through, and so he looked to Cartmel itself. Premises on the main street, just off the square were secured (the antique shop that had been in them moved across the road), and Rogan's second-in-command, John Bradshaw was going to be installed when it opened in April 2008.

Sadly, John Bradshaw died suddenly in January. A very untimely death: he was only 31, and it was just four weeks after the birth of his second child. But the new restaurant project, now christened Rogan & Company, continued and (something that will come as a great surprise to many London restaurant owners) opened bang on time in April. A John Bradshaw private/party dining suite on the ground floor pays tribute to the intended chef.

Comparisons with Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head were inevitable, and that thought makes me realise that Simon Rogan has moved his camp somewhat from his original pledged allegiance to Marc Veyrat to follow more of the molecular gastronomy route. It's a long time since I've seen the good king henry and other locally foraged herbs that were such a feature of early menus at L'Enclume. Now alginate concoctions are more of a regular fixture. Rogan & Company is described as "casual dining", but this is much more of a restaurant than a gastro-pub.

Externally, the family relationship to L'Enclume is obvious, with the same sage green paintwork. Internally, there are similarities too, but oddly, at least on my lunchtime visit, Rogan & Company almost feels a bit classier than its Michelin starred sister. I omitted to look upstairs, which I understand is where the restaurant is: we ate downstairs in a flexible space that is part bar, part dining room. Modern fittings and fixtures blend well with the more olde world beams. Bare tables are so highly polished that it's tempting to have a quick game of air hockey with the glasses.

The menu avoids the whimsy and wackiness of L'Enclume, reads very well, and is supplemented by a blackboard. The menu offers everything from a sandwich through to a classy full à la carte meal.

Our starters were roast veal sweetbreads with a red onion compote and truffle vinaigrette, Dressed crab with roquette salad and celeriac remoulade and a wild mushroom and pine nut pithivier, served with a Madeira sauce. All were pretty much faultless dishes. Perhaps the sweetbreads could have been improved if they had been a little crisper on the outside? But the crab was an exquisite little dish (and so vastly superior to the tasteless example at a recent really rather grim visit to the much vaunted One-O-One restaurant in Knightsbridge): here it was a timbale of some of the sweetest, freshest white crab meat I've ever tasted, topped with a mousse of the brown meat, with just a hint of mustard to give it a lift. The celeriac remoulade was spot on, and even the little rocket salad was a well judged accompaniment. The pithivier had some of the finest pastry I've had in a long time; utterly ethereal pastry, wrapped round a mousseline (which to be very critical might have benefited from being a little lighter and a little heavier on the mushrooms). The madeira sauce was spot on.

Our main courses were a blanquette de veau with rice pilaff off the blackboard and, from the menu, an organic chicken fricassée served with buttered chard and macaroni cheese, the macaroni and and the rice coming in a separate little cast iron pots. I've had macaroni cheese as an accompaniment to roast veal at the Gavroche in London: this was a superior macaroni cheese. So too, the accompaniment to the veal was some of the best rice I've had in a very long time: a really good taste. Lest it appear that the accompaniments outshone the main event, I should add that the blanquette de veau was a pretty much textbook rendition, and the chicken was well nigh perfect too: very tasty bird in a lovely sauce with lots of mousseron mushrooms.

For dessert, Apricot Sablee, star anise mousse
and sauternes poached apricots
was a supremely elegant version of what it said on the tin. Incidentally, the star anise mousse is about the most outré thing on the menu. Each individual element was at the top of its game, and combined into a great dish. Sorry, if it sounds like I'm gushing, but this really was an excellent meal. Perhaps the weakest dish of the whole meal was a stunningly presented (layered in a martini glass) Black cherry and lemon trifle, with a mint sorbet, which was a bit heavy, with the layers of cherry jelly a bit overset. The taste was spot on though. One indication of the kitchen's attention to detail was that the trifle came decorated with a crystallised mint leaf stuck in the excellent mint sorbet.

After such impressive food, it was no surprise that espressos were spot on too.

The service was efficient and polite, though very relaxed. There is plenty of room for improvement in the service (for example, ordering "the Albariño" (the only one on the list) shouldn't really elicit the response "can you show me that on the list"), but there was nothing to complain about.

I think Simon Rogan has been very clever here. Although L'Enclume has by all reports had a very good year, Rogan & Company is going to provide a steady stream of income to help the combined business through leaner months. While I might go to L'Enclume once or twice a year (because the tasting menus rely to a large extent on their novelty), I could easily go to Rogan & Company once or twice a month. It's also worth saying that the cooking is of a much higher standard than the closest competitors, places like the Punchbowl at Crosthwaite and the Drunken Duck near Ambleside.
(May 2008)

A subsequent visit in late June was rather less successful.  Eggs Benedict suffered both from a very tough muffin and the fact that they'd glazed the finished dish under the grill, which meant the hollandaise had just started to overcook and turn into scrambed eggs - it hadn't got there, but was on the way.  There was some really good bacon, under the two accurately poached eggs: I could tell it wasn't Peter Gott's or Slacks (the two major local producers), as it was too good, but was a bit surprised when the information was relayed from the kitchen that it came from Yorkshire.  And while we're on the bacon - why bacon?  Eggs Benedict is supposed to be made with ham.  Not bacon, not smoked salmon, but ham.  If restaurants are serving eggs Benedict, I wish they'd do it properly.  The sweetbreads were as good as before, if not better, as this time they were actually a bit crisper on the outside.  Our third dish, however, was a real failure: a croustillant of confit duck with star anise syrup.  A great dish to have at a restaurant: not only do you have to cook the duck legs long and slow, but then the meat's been picked off, and neatly packaged into a crisp feuille de brick pastry wrapper.  Unfortunately the whole thing lacked any real flavour: the duck was merely very ducky and could have done with some spicing or something to counterbalance the rich meat, and the star anise syrup was just a slightly sticky, off-clear heavy fluid with no flavour at all.  A warm cheesecake tart with poached yellow peaches, was almost identical to a cheesecake dish that had previously been on the à la carte menu (RIP) at L'Enclume (where it went under some silly name like "dessert with no name" because its shape was vaguley sombrero like).  Beautiful very light, incredibly thin pastry with a light, fluffy, almost soufflé-like filling, though "peaches" was only a half of one peach.  

Overall, then, out of four dishes, we had a 50% success rate.  Which was rather better than the service that was two-thirds sullen and only one-third pleasant and welcoming.  Actually it took several minutes to be acknowledged by anyone.  Service was also incredibly slow, but no apology or explanation was forthcoming, neither to me, nor to the other table who made a point of saying that they hadn't left a tip because service had been so slow.  I wrote above that there was room for improvement in service, but instead of improving, it seems to have gone the other way.  
It was also interesting to see that already, after just a few months, the number of dining tables downstairs has been reduced, to be replaced with high bar tables and stools, presumably reflecting where the money is and the level of dining trade.

On this visit, probably just 2-3/10.
(June 2008)

Update: Walking past Rogan & Company in June 2009, the menu seemed shorter and more aimed at the "light bites" market, rather than full meals.  This may well be related to the fact that L'Enclume itself is now open for lunch again, including a £25 table d'hôte set lunch, and it would be a bit silly  for Rogan & Co and L'Enclume to compete for the lunch market, even though the food is rather different.

Northcote Manor, Langho, near Clitheroe
Appearing on the Great British Menu seems to do two things: first it brings people through the door in droves (they did over 40 covers this Saturday lunch, over 4 times the number the last time we had lunch) and second, it gives them and us an opportunity for another set menu.

Here at Northcote, the Great British Menu Semi Finals lunch menu comes in at £35 for three courses and £43 for four courses, both including coffee and petits fours, with a selection of recommended wines by the glass, priced separately.  Also at lunchtime is a table d'hôte (though individually priced) and an à la carte.  At the end of our lunch, we asked to see the evening menu - the à la carte has rather more choice, including the GB Menu dishes, which aren't available alc at lunch, there's a tasting menu, plus a Great British Menu menu, which interestingly drops the curd tart and replaces it with another dessert (forget what, but no doubt we'll see it on the TV soon).  Some of the dishes on the tdh and alc are described in curiously bad English: e.g. "new season's butter puff pastry wrapped lamb fillet belly, served crispy, and ..."  If you rearrange the words you might get 'new seasoon's lamb fillet wrapped in butter puff pastry, crispy belly [sc. of lamb], and ...' which I presume is what the dish really was.

Drinks and orders are as ever taken in the comfortable lounge which manages not to impose too hushed an atmosphere, and after (as ever) a longish delay, you are taken through to the dining room (mind the step).  The dining room has been redecorated since my last visit (over a year ago) and feels a bit classier now.  But it still has a rather cool, provincial hotel feel to the room (unlike the temperature today, which was roasting, not helped by the high humidity, lack of breeze and lack of any air conditioning or ceiling fans).  Personally, I don't find it the most congenial of dining rooms (though the new decor helps), but that really is just a personal view, and I really can't see what they could do to make it more congenial to me.  While I'm on the non-food complaints, it's a shame that they still haven't solved the issue that you have to go through the busy service corridor to get to the toilets.  Oh, and I do wish they didn't make the male staff wear those dreadful, very cheap looking Northcote Manor ties.  Oh, and one more thing: if they are going to tell waiting staff to ask how a dish was when clearing plates, s/he should have sufficient command of English to understand "very nice, but it could have been warmer".

On his Great British Menu, Nigel Haworth's starter (you may recall) is a Warm Hot Pot Salad, Sweetbreads and Pickled Red Cabbage.  This is a somewhat pared down version of the Hot Pot Salad that I've had in the past, and didn't seem quite as good as its big brother has been previously, but it's still a great dish, even though it could have been a bit warmer.  Possibly the red cabbage is a touch over-spiced, but that's nit picking, and even so it did not particularly detract from the dish overall.  The Hot Pot is served with a glass of pinot grigio from Friuli, deeply extracted from the coppery colour, but served so icily cold as to remove any perfume or flavour.  Though even when it warmed up a bit, it was hardly a great wine and distinctly over-priced in value terms at £11.50 a glass.  But wine has always been very expensive at Northcote.

Next up is one of the best dishes I've had the pleasure of eating in many months: Line Caught Whitby Cod, Trotters, Tripe, Broad Beans, Peas.  An amazingly, stupendously, good cube of cod, absolutely perfectly cooked, on a fairly sparse, but absolutely right in quantity, smattering of slivers of tripe and trotter meat, in a perfectly judged meat jus.  The beans and peas might have benefited from another 30 seconds cooking.  The whole is topped with a brilliant bit of cod crackling.
This is served with a White Dao Encruzada (mis-typed as Encruxada on the menu) from Quinta does Roques, a much better wine than the pinot grigio and much better value at £6.30 a glass, though still served far too cold.  I don't understand the pricing, as this is only just a pound or so cheaper per bottle retail than the first wine, not nearly half the price.  It reminded me, however, just what a good food wine, white Dao is.

Main course is a Canon of British White Beef, Smoked Marrowbone, Baby Cauliflower, Watercress Purée.  Very beefy, very tender beef (cut from the sirloin?), beautifully cooked, and in a substantial portion.  The marrowbone, also perfectly cooked, comes as a crisp, very clean tasting croquette, though without any detectable smokiness.  Cauliflower and watercress both worked very well.  On the side in a separate, rather medical looking bowl, was a buttery puréed potato, that just had something a bit wrong about it that we couldn't pin down.

The dessert on the menu is a Lancashire Curd Tart with rose petal cream and redcurrants.  I love curd tart, probably more than the next man, but it's not a restaurant dish: it's patisserie, something you have a slice of with a cup of tea.  It doesn't need cream, it doesn't need rose petals, nor redcurrants.  I can really see why Nigel Haworth decided to change it for the next round of the competition.
On the table d'hôte menu was a carpaccio of alphonse mango, which we had instead.  Coincidentally, at £4.50, rather cheaper than the £8 difference between the 3 and 4 course menu.  I can't help but think this was a better dish too.  The thinly sliced mango was delicate and fragrant, apparently marinated with the merest hint of mint.  On the side was some utterly delicious coconut scented tapioca and a baton of meringue.  A small bowl of superb mango granita was served separately on the side.

An excellent meal, a few very minor faults, but still excellent.

Incidentals are top class too.  Bread is superb and comes all but incessantly and petits fours with the coffee are also excellent, and very interesting too: miniature Eccles cake, a square of raspberry jelly, a top notch truffle and a Fisherman's Friend flavoured macaroon (which is several thousand times better than it sounds).
8/10 (but see below)
(May 2008)

A more recent visit, for dinner in June, was less successful.  My salad of radish, onion and organic leaves (all apparently from Northcote's own gardens, which now have organic certification) had an extra little bonus to remind me of its origin in the form of a shard of what looked terra cotta plant pot. Fortunately I spotted it, and was just going to make what I hoped would be a humorous remark when they took the plates away when I bit into another piece (it transpired later that this had damaged a tooth).  After drawing it to the maitre d's attention, a replacement was provided: it no longer contained any noticeable bits of plant pot, though it was a smaller portion than previously and with much less radish.  I couldn't help but think they'd either weighed what had been returned to make sure I didn't profit from sending it back or that I'd got back what I sent back, just better picked over.  It was still on the bill too, though thankfully just once.  We again had the cod, this time as an à la carte main course portion - the main reason for going back in the evening, actually.  Beautiful cod, beautifully cooked.  Being a larger portion than previously, there was also more of the trotter and tripe dressing, and this was much to the dish's benefit, and with a stronger piggy flavour too.  But the dish was really let down by the cod-skin crackling being tough, un-crisp and inedible.  A carpaccio of rhubarb with custard ice-cream was delicious in itself (though obviously would have been better earlier in the season with the forced Yorkshire rhubarb) and not at all improved by a sort of orange angel delight foam that came separately.
(June 2008)
A couple of meals in 2009 were more disappointing still and merit no more than 5/10.

The Red Pump, Bashall Eaves, Lancashire
This is a very old pub that for years languished as home to a reportedly rather grim Italian restaurant, but is now restored to former glories by the new ownership which came in about three years ago.  The pub is divided into a series of dining rooms, some bright and sunny, some a bit more gloomy.  As often these days, the menu deals in local produce prepared in simple dishes, like potted beef, rabbit stew, game pie and steaks simply cooked with chips.  The food might be simple, but on the evidence of this visit it is done well. 

A rustic chicken liver paté to start with was fully oxidised, but well seasoned and came with toasted good, home-made bread and a good-flavoured, but rather runny onion chutney.  Another starter was a very nice pigeon breast and lentil salad (maybe a bit heavy on the puy lentils compared to the pigeon, but the lentils were very nicely seasoned), while the final member of the party had some potted crayfish.  I wouldn't have picked the crayfish myself, as they're becoming a bit ubiquitous and seem to be available to the catering trade pre-cooked, pre-prepared (pasteurised?) in (presumably) brine in large tubs.  But these were a much better quality than I'd expected and the spicing in the butter in which they'd been potted was subtle, but definitely there.  Our main courses included two of the dishes they seem best known for: game pie and slow cooked belly pork.  The game pie was half way between pie and hotpot: various game, mainly feathered with some rabbit, I think, casseroled and then topped with sliced potatoes. It was served with some good braised red cabbage and some straw chips, which were rather poor, being cool, a touch greasy and soggy.  The belly pork was really top notch: served with superb, light crackling; really meaty belly with very juicy meat evidently cooked long and slow, served with a nicely flavoured mash, some slightly dull baked pears and squeaky beans.  The final main course was a huge slab of fillet steak with a good salad but again poor chips, this time fat ones. The steak was excellent meat, cooked exactly as requested.  Desserts were a delicious, very gingery rhubarb and ginger cheesecake, served with home-made ginger biscuits, and a rather less successful bread and butter pudding, which was one of the heavier stodgy ones, but came with some excellent ice cream from a source I'd not heard of before - "Uncle Bob" in Chipping.  OK espresso came with some really nice shortbread biscuits flavoured with lavender.  

There are some well kept local beers, including the excellent Bowland Gold from the Bowland Brewery at the completely mis-named Bashall Town, just over a mile away, and Timothy Taylor's Landlord (which mine hostess explained that she had to have  on as it's from Yorkshire and so many of the locals still regard that area of Bowland and the Ribble Valley as part of Yorkshire).  As well as the ales (and keg lagers) there is a short wine list, that isn't going to excite anyone, but it looks like it's been chosen well. When we asked for a fino sherry, we were offered a choice of chilled or room temperature. Not sure who would want a glass of room temperature fino, though bizarrely that's how it's usually come at Le Gavroche. I had a quick taste of a glass of Macon Lugny (didn't get the details) which seemed pretty good, and I was impressed that it was suggested that we let it warm up a bit from fridge temperature to appreciate it fully. But definitely a place for the food and the beer rather than the wine.  Service, like the initial welcome, is able, friendly and female.
(May 2008)

The Devonshire Fell Hotel & Restaurant, Burnsall, near Skipton, West Riding
First off, it's worth saying that the view from the conservatory dining room across the dale, with the River Wharfe snaking its way along the dale's floor, is enough to recommend a visit if you're anywhere near the vicinity.  The food doesn't quite hit the same highs as the view, but it's absolutely fine.  Turning away from the view, to the interior, it is a large open plan space, with much use of garish colour (apart from the silver-grey gents loos with their oh-so-tasteful naked ladies on the walls; I'm afraid we didn't use the ladies' room to see how that compared).  A large bar dominates the main room with its bare floor boards and casual seating and tables off the room.  To the front of the property is a conservatory extension (a touch chilly when we visited) with more formally laid tables, though the walls are decorated with brightly coloured modern art.

The menu is relatively simple brasserie fare.  We started with a chicken liver parfait that was well made, though oddly pretty uniformly oxidised throughout the two slices; and a twice-baked cheese soufflé, that while light lacked flavour.  The parfait was served with some excellent melba toast, the soufflé came with a small selection of the usual salad leaves lightly dressed in a completely flavourless dressing, and a small bowl of hot chutney, which the dish really needed to inject some character.

We shared a bowl of mussels as an intermediate course: these were nicely cooked, despite being a remarkably diverse range of sizes (are mussels cheaper if you buy them ungraded?), and had a good flavour, but as a dish, it was completely marred by an incredibly over-salted creamy broth.  In moules-frites mode, the mussels came with some chips  and garlic mayonnaise, though just six or eight chips, which might well have been disappointingly parsimonious if you were having this as a main course.  Very good chips, though.

For main course, my companion had a nicely cooked sea bass fillet served with a pile of shaved fennel and an exceptionally good fondant potato.  I had steak tartare, with side orders of more of the excellent fat chips and some deep fried onion rings in a lovely light batter, though, as the pools of oil in their bowl bore witness, they could have been better drained.  The steak tartare was made of very coarsely chopped fillet steak, topped with an egg yolk in the half shell, and came with separate bowls of tiny capers (perhaps a bit over-rinsed), roughly chopped cornichons, finely chopped shallots and Worcestershire sauce.  I prefer my steak tartare a bit more finely chopped and always think the seasoning should be done in the kitchen: what came on the plate as a neatly presented patty of steak, soon became a right mess on the plate once I'd mixed in my accoutrements.  Also, the coarse cut of the steak meant (as to be expected) that the accoutrements remained largely discrete.  The steak tartare came with the same superb melba toast - probably the best melba toast I've ever had.

When it came to desserts, a creme brulée was a good example, but with the sticky toffee pudding I was once again visited by the curse of the incompetent microwave operator, who doesn't realise that five minutes is not the same as 50 seconds.  I assume 5 minutes, as I don't know how else the small single portion (which makes me wonder if it was bought in) pudding could have been rendered so rubbery and inedible.  After wandering round the ground floor to find a member of staff to take it away, it was quickly removed and replaced by an edible version, that was nicely rich in dates.  Two single espressos were not the best examples.  With a bottle of water (nice that it wasn't pushed onto us by default) and a bottle of Boschendal Chardonnay-Pinot Noir, the bill (excluding the comp'ed sticky toffee and coffees) came to just over £130, which is I think a bit above what the food was worth, so I'm left wondering just how much I would want to pay to enjoy the view for an hour or two.
(March 2008)


The Weavers Shed, Golcar, West Riding of Yorkshire
Twice recently, we've been caught out by something I find really irritating: restaurants that claim to be open at lunch, but then only do a very basic lunch that bears no relation to the restaurant's reputation. We encountered this at Holbeck Ghyll in the Lakes a few weeks ago. Then again today, we thought we'd try the much lauded Weaver's Shed at Golcar near Huddersfield in the West Riding. It's well established and almost invariably gets high praise. Although they cleverly avoid putting any menus on-line, the restaurant's own website says
A typical meal will begin with warm Gruyere biscuits served with drinks in the bar, followed by a small complimentary ‘amuse-bouche’ at the table. This can be anything from a sliver of foie gras terrine, to a small cup of Kitchen Garden soup, according to season. After three courses of fresh, unique dishes based around locally sourced produce and organically grown fruit, vegetables and herbs from the Kitchen Garden, guests can choose to take coffee at the table, or retire to the lounge. [snip] Stephen provides the petits-fours to accompany after-dinner drinks
Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, maybe that's the case at dinner, but it's not really a fair representation as far as lunch goes. It was a cold, wet day. The bar-lounge was cold, and the atmosphere in the dining room, was rather cold. What of the menu, and its "fresh, unique dishes based around locally sourced produce"? We were handed a 3-3-3 table d'hôte. Is there any à la carte available? we ask innocently. "No. That's all there is." Not even a pretence of checking with the kitchen. Disappointing, but fair enough if those are the rules. But the menu itself hardly deals in "fresh, unique dishes." We have the choice of split pea and coconut soup, eggs benedict or yorkshire pudding with gravy. Mains were sausage and mash, grilled Limousin sirloin with maître d'hôtel butter, or hake (I forget exactly how that was done). Afters were queen of puddings, cheese or some sort of cheesecake thing (as far as I could understand when it was recited).

I have to say the food was good. There was nothing to criticise about the Eggs Benedict. The soup could have done with a bit of a lift of sorts - there were a few bits of chopped chive in it, and when you got some of those on the spoon, they lent a welcome freshness. There was a good texture to the soup (and no windy after effects either!)
The steak was really good meat, though they weren't able to cook it as requested: rare came as medium, and medium rare came as just short of well-done. It was, however, very tender sirloin with a good, smoky char-grilled flavour: we couldn't be bothered to send it back, due to a combination of our despair at the kitchen's aspirations on this lunchtime, and the fact that even over-cooking it hadn't overshadowed the quality of the meat. The cooking error might have had something to do with the rather thin slices of steak we got: not exactly the archetypical Yorkshire abundance, but entirely appropriate. The steak came on top of a handful of unevenly cooked sauté potatoes. Vegetables (plain boiled carrots and cabbage being the two options) are charged extra. The maître d'hôtel butter was good, and certainly not shy of flavour.

Queen of Puddings was probably the best dish of the lunch and as textbook an example as you might wish. Given the restaurant's emphasis on local ingredients (even down to having their own kitchen garden), it was very odd that only one of the three cheeses served (fridge cold unfortunately) was English.

Espresso came in glasses (the only glasses that weren't Riedel), though the accompanying petits fours, were more petits ones: a couple of crown-threateningly hard chocolate and nut confections that were too big to be able to put in your mouth and just let melt on the tongue.

It is a nice, if surprisingly small dining room. Rough stone walls, stone flags and the creaking floor boards of the upper storey forming the ceiling. The tables are large and well-spaced, well set with the appropriate Riedel glasses, cover plates and general restraint. There is, however, an affectation (derived from Marc Veyrat?) when it comes to the cutlery: forks and spoons are "normal"; knives are Laguiole, resting in slots cut into small black pebbles. Each knife has a little paper note wrapped round its blade, telling you a) what a wonderful knife it is and b) that tradition dictates that you keep the knife through the meal. True.  And it saves washing up, I suppose. But I can't say I would be particularly happy at reusing a knife that has been used for smoked salmon (did I say that the eggs benedict had hot-smoked salmon instead of ham?) with steak. Fortunately, I'd had the soup, so it wasn't my problem. My companion licked his knife clean and wiped it on the table cloth.

In contrast to the rusticity of the dining room (the old weavers' shed), the bar area, richly decorated with menus and cookery books from the world's leading restaurants, feels more like the mill owner's parlour, with carpets and elaborate cornices. Shame they hadn't put the heating on, or lit the open fire.
The wine list is intelligent, with good descriptions of the wines: the sort of interesting wines that demonstrate real interest from the owners, and at reasonably restrained prices.
Overall, this was not so much a disappointing meal as a disappointing experience. I'll certainly not be embarking on the 150 mile round trip again, and wouldn't bother with lunch again. If I were in the area though, I would still be tempted to give dinner a go, as it certainly sounds from all the reviews that it's quite different in the evening.
(March 2008)

Nigel Smith's Restaurant, Ribby Hall, Wrea Green
Ribby Hall is an upmarket holiday park at Wrea Green (just off the main road between Preston and Blackpool), and Nigel Smith's Restaurant (so modestly named after its chef, Nigel Smith) is its high(ish) profile anchor restaurant. The dining room is large and modern, with a feature gas fire place using up the carbon credits - combined with the central heating on full blast, this made the room feel almost uncomfortably hot, despite being a large, airy room. On the evening we visited, we sat not in the main dining room, but in the corner of a conservatory style extension adjoining the main room (with chairs and banquettes covered in a vinyl, which rather accentuated the uncomfortable hear) just off the main room.

The menu offers no surprises, with standard British brasserie fare. It perhaps lacks the refinement that the front of house decor would suggest and I think they may need daily specials to encourage regular revisits by locals in addition to the transient holiday park custom.
I started with a nice dish of belly pork (not crispy belly pork, as on the menu), with a bramley apple purée that had lean yet moist belly pork. Accurately done. The other starter was a generous slice of a chicken terrine that lacked only a bit of seasoning. The presence of some very precisely pink chicken livers through the centre of the terrine was both a welcome addition and showed some ability in the kitchen.

Two demitasses of a delicious smoked salmon consommé, each cup with a slice of scallop followed, somehow combining smokiness and meatiness. The scallop was perfectly cooked, but I couldn't help thinking that a quail's egg might have been better. The consommé was the best dish of the night by far.
For main courses, we had a beautifully presented Shepherd's Pie, which had a real depth of flavour, though we were both positive it was really a cottage pie, as it seemed to be beef, rather than lamb. A confit Goosnargh duck leg, with a perfectly light, crisp skin avoided all the pitfalls that confit duck legs can fall into. The duck was served with a very well judged mixed spice mash, and some delicately sweetened turnips. A very good dish.

Things, however, took a serious nose dive with desserts. "Olive Oil and Sauternes Cake, Compote of Warm Tangerine Segments" was simply not right. It came as a triangle of heavy, flat looking sponge cake, with a ramekin of tangerine segments in a light syrup on the side. The tangerine ramekin was hot; the cake was also hot, by virtue of being so far over-microwaved that it was fairly difficult to get the spoon through it. I summoned the waiter and asked him to take it away as it was inedible. What was the problem, he asked. I picked up the triangle of cake and squeezed it hard - very hard - between my hands and watched (to my surprise as well as the waiter's) as it sprang back into shape. It was rapidly and graciously replaced by a chocolate mousse, which had a spot on texture, though a curious nutty, torrefied flavour, which made me think it was either made with cheap chocolate or very expensive chocolate. On the side of the chocolate mousse plate was a delicious, rich vanilla ice cream.

Overall, there seemed to be some good things going on here, though with one serious misjudgement. It is, however,  let down by a somewhat lazy wine list.
(March 2008)

Holbeck Ghyll, Windermere
The setting and the view are magnificent, all the more so on a less than perfect winter's day, when the ever-changing weater meant the view changed about every five minutes.
Unfortunately the food (and to a lesser extent, the service) failed to come anywhere  close to the magnificence of the setting.  It was lunchtime and then menu (once you ignored the sandwiches) was more restricted than the full evening carte, but very much in the same style.  A smoked jerusalem artichoke soup was an interesting start, unlike a goats cheese feuilleté, which was no more, no less than some bits of goats cheese between three circles of filo, with a sprinkling of tired looking salad in a ring round the outside of the plate.  My main course of turbot was a decent sized portion of fish, nicely presented, but sadly a bit overcooked.  Desserts were unmemorable.
It was all extremely expensive too.
On the other hand the wine list is very impressive, with lots of interest and prices that are not that unreasonable, though it is unforgiveable that a glass of fino sherry should be served warm.
Very much giving them the benefit of the doubt and strongly influenced by the view, I'll score this 1/10
(March 2008)

Hipping Hall, near Kirkby Lonsdale

Please note that the following reviews of Hipping Hall are from when Jason Birkbeck was running the kitchen. For some unfathomable reason, I haven't been since, something which I must rectify.

A wine-merchant acquaintance of mine had mentioned Hipping Hall to me on a number of occasions as somewhere worthy of attention. While I trust his judgement, I'd borne in mind that he was supplying wines and that his praise may have been relative to other North Lancashire/South Cumbria restaurants.

I was wrong. This really is cooking of the highest order.

I went for dinner (they are only open dinner) on 7th June 2006. Hidden behind trees, which muffle much of the noise from the busy A65, and up a short drive lies a slightly higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of 15th - 18th century stone buildings that make up Hipping Hall, now a restaurant with rooms. It was a beautiful warm evening, so we sat outside in the small courtyard, overlooking a curious, almost ecclesiastical looking wash house next to a small stream.

As we enjoyed the early evening sun and wondered whether, while the menu read very well, they could pull it off, a wooden platter of nibbles arrived. This set aside any possible doubts: they were so good, so well conceived and executed that we knew this was going to be a really good meal.

The nibbles were:

The dining room is in the oldest part of the building - a 15th century hall, complete with a (more recently added) minstrels' gallery at one end. A large inglenook fireplace dominates one wall, and the wall opposite the minstrels' gallery has a large tapestry. It could have ended up looking rather kitsch, but manages to avoid it completely. A huge wooden table fills the centre of the room and serves as the waiting staff's station for ice buckets and such.

The chairs are very comfortable dark brown leather. The tables have good quality white napery, Spiegelau glasses and fancy modern cutlery that only just stays on the right side of function vs form.

Once at the table, a variety of excellent breads were produced, and the dish of breads left on the table. An appetiser followed soon after: this was a really lovely pressing of tomato, anchovy and mackerel with a fillet of red mullet on the side. We'd been impressed by the kitchen work involved in the nibbles served while we read the menu: this went one step further. The pressing was probably about an inch and half square with ripe, deeply flavoured layers of tomato containing fresh, escabèche flavoured diced fish. That would have been great on its own, but it was lifted (rather than merely having its lily gilded) by a perfectly cooked, quite fragrant fillet of red mullet on the side. A real wow! dish. And that was the freebie appetiser.

My starter was "Confit belly of Kitridding Gloucester Old Spot, Roasted Langoustine, Choucroute, Crispy Pigs Ear" with an excellent jus too. The belly pork had a great flavour and I believe had been properly confit'd rather than just slow cooked. The langoustines were huge, sweet, perfectly cooked and worked surprisingly well. The choucroute was as good an example as I've had, and the crispy pigs ear was a take on St Menhoud in the form of two half pencil sized panéd morsels.

My companion had a "warm salad of Canadian lobster, wild asparagus, fresh peas and broad beans, lobster foam", which was reported to be as good as the best Scottish lobster and a very good, light, fresh dish.

For main course I had a "Fillet of Veal, glazed sweetbreads, black pudding tortellini, creamed cabbage, veal jus" which was just that, all exceptionally well prepared and cooked and beautifully harmonious on the palate. A really good dish.

My companion went the piggy route with "Pot roast pigs head, crushed ratte potatoes, root vegetables, pickled ginger, apple purée, roasting juices". He was in raptures over the apple purée, and the head meat was reported to be as good as any he's ever had, and miles ahead of most. Also in the dish were a couple more of the crispy pigs' ear cigarillos I'd had with my starter.

The pre-dessert was described by my companion as the best dessert he'd had for years. It was an ovoid glass filled with layers of a luscious vanilla cream, passion fruit jelly, pineapple ice cream, passion fruit mousse and foam. Passion fruit filled the nose, but didn't dominate. Superb dish.

Desserts were a prune bonbon (a sort of cross between a doughnut and a turnover) with prune and armagnac ice-cream; and an excellent individual tarte tatin that completely knocked spots off that served at Gordon Ramsay RHR and at Petrus.

For coffee we retired again to the courtyard outside to watch the last of the evening light go. Coffee could have been a bit better (the second cup was much better than the first, so perhaps just a matter of the first cup of the day out of the machine), but petits fours continued the high standard of the rest of the meal for the most part. There were warm lemon madeleines, warm chocolate madeleines, lemon tuiles, chocolate doughnuts, little tuile cones filled with an utterly delightful peanut mousse, squares of chocolate ganache, white chocolate and caramel sweeties wrapped in cellophane and (this was the only disappointing element of the whole meal) white chocolate ice cream in a very hard, rather too thick chocolate shell that had been heavily and needlessly coated in dessicated coconut.

The menu is £42.50 for three course, which given the amount of skill in the kitchen is without doubt a real bargain (their DB&B rates are similarly well-priced). We drank a 2000 Domaine Niero Pinchon Côte-Rôtie from the intelligent wine list, which is really very generously priced: the Côte-Rôtie was £46. Frank Stainton of Kendal who supplies most of the wines retails it at £25.50. It is a rare thing to see a wine markup of less than 100%, rarer still in a restaurant of this calibre.

They have now been open almost a year, and to my mind, it must be the Newcomer of the Year for North West England, if not northern England full stop.

9/10 and hugely recommended.

Septembers, Queen Street, Blackpool

Stop Press - as of Spring 2008, the restaurant continues but the chef, Neil Sedgwick has left and has been replaced by Michael Golowicz the one-time chef-patron of the old September Brasserie.

On the site (unoccupied for some years now) of the defunct September Brasserie on Queen St in Blackpool, but unrecognisable in every way. Makeover isn't the word. This seems more like a complete rebuild! It's light, airy and modern, with good lighting. On one visit so far, the food was remarkably good and - at lunch - very fairly priced, with three courses for £14 including a glass of wine. In the evening there are a somewhat confusing variety of menus (to become still more confusing with the announcement that they are going to introduce a tapas menu too).  The decor and the food are both modern, but there is the bizarre reappearance of two blasts from the past: a variety of vegetable dishes are available as "sides" and  in this day and age it's remarkable to see the cover charge making a reappearance, but only on the à la carte. Having to pay £5 for the privilege of only having only two courses instead of four is ludicrous and reveals a certain arrogance on the part of the kitchen (an impression that is reinforced by the presence of a chef's table). The result of the ludicrous cover charge is that they they might well lose custom in the evening - they would certainly, if there were much competition in Blackpool.

At lunch, I had some good scallops, very nicely cooked with a saffron foam and a couple of other twiddly bits I can't remember now followed by a very nice, very tender, very well flavoured rib-eye steak with an absolutely spot on béarnaise sauce (a small jug with the remainder of the béarnaise was provided, and we eagerly gobbled it up). The accompanying pommes pont neuf let the side down a little, as they could have been crisper.  A nice selection of cheeses rounded off a jolly good meal.

?/10 (was 4/10 under Neil Sedgwick)
(April 2007)

The Olive Press, Preston (and elsewhere)
Paul Heathcote's burgeoning chain of Olive Press restaurants gets a bit of stick from some reviewers for their formulaic approach.  But that's never done Pizza Express any harm, and like the PE of old, the OPs are showing the assembled multitude of Italian mediocrity how to do pizzas.  A good base, stretched thin, cooked through and cooked crisp (very rare in so-called Italian pizzerias, at least here in the north west) with good quality toppings and not all under a blanket of plastic mozzarella.  Sounds simple.  So why does it take a lad from Bolton to show all the local Italians how it should be done?
The Winckley Square, Preston branch of Heathcotes has (Longridge aside) always been the best of the Heathcote empire in my view, through its various incarnations.  And here in the Olive Press incarnation (downstairs, below the Chop House), it seems to be still the case - there just seemed to be a bit more care in the cooking and in the service than at the Clitheroe branch, which I visited late in 2007. 
A large marmite of mussels was fine, though lacked a depth of flavour that the best moules marinières style dish can have.  A half portion of one of the pasta dishes wasn't terribly enthralling - penne with chargrilled chicken, mushrooms and pesto.  The chicken was a bit overcooked and a bit dried out, but there was a pleasing lightness of touch in the cream sauce.  The main course pizzas were spot on.  A bottle of 2005 Barbera from Araldica was nice, easy drinking (though pretty much at its money at £17.95), which is more than can be said of the pretty horrible glasses it was served in - presumably the glasses are selected on their ability to bounce on hard floors rather than any aesthetic or drinking pleasure.
(January 2008)
A more recent revisit allowed for a reconsideration.  Pizzas are what to go for here, and it's unfortunate that it's not a slightly longer list of options - e.g. it would be nice to see a proper pizza napoletana.  Unlike the previous visit, this time there was a specials menu on the table (note to Heathcote's HR department: it might be a good idea to train your staff to mention this).  I had a very dull and boring dish of fried mushrooms with grilled ciabatta from the specials menu.  Which was just some fried mushrooms (sliced so thin that they were scarcely identifiable though the predominant type seemed to be the not at all wild oyster) apparently without the truffle oil advertised on the menu.  With an oil (not truffle oil) dressing on some accompanying rocket leaves and the mushrooms apparently having been cooked in oil, the dish had a bit of a greasy edge.
 The ciabatta was good though.  
We know the pizzas are good, what about the rest?  That was my thought in ordering a 'salmon, spring onion and mozarella macaroni bake'.  Nicely cooked macaroni, a tolerable amount of salmon (though very broken up, so you didn't actually notice it by change of texture from the macaroni) some breadcrumbs on top provided a useful contrasting texture, but there was a slightly odd fishy (as opposed to fresh salmon) flavour that didn't seem to quite work for me.  Also there weren't any spring onions in it at all, but rather some undercooked peas.  It's difficult to undercook peas, but somehow they managed it.  
They were very quiet at this visit, and the staff seemed a bit bored and disinterested, unable to judge their pacing.  E.g. I waited ages for the bill, but when earlier I had visited the gents, I returned to find my table had been cleared.   Ah yes, and (note to Heathcotes Estates Department) the decor in the gents needs some urgent attention.
On the basis of this visit, 1/10.  
I'll definitely stick to pizzas at Olive Presses in future.  
(February 2008)

The Winckley Square Chophouse, Preston
The Winckley Square branch of the Heathcotes Empire always used to be one of the best bets. Downstairs, the Olive Press is very reliable, but today was my first visit to the upstairs operation, the Winckley Square Chop House, and it was unfortunately a bit disappointing.
When you enter from Winckley Square you head straight ahead and down the stairs into the Olive Press, or turn left into a bling (i.e. dark) bar area which forms an ante room to the Chop House dining room. The room is little changed from when Heathcote's Brasserie first opened here all those years ago, just updated slightly, an area of suspended ceiling, and the lighting turned down to something like a 25W light bulb.
I started with a "crisp lamb salad" that was three slices of slow cooked (but not quite cooked slowly and long enough) belly of lamb in a crisp crumb, served with a salad of thinly sliced radish and watercress. The menu mentioned something about spiced tomato ketchup: if that was home made, then they have perfected the art of making a slightly runny sweet chilli sauce. The dish was slightly marred by one of the slices of lamb having a bit of cartilage left in it.
My rib eye steak was good meat, accurately cooked rare as requested and served with some really exceptionally good chips (a variety of sizes, all fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside), a rather dried out mushroom, and an even more dried-out looking half of a roast beef tomato. In fact the tomato was rather good - slow roast with slivers of garlic - though it did still look like it had been sat under the lamps for six hours.
A pistachio crème brulée was an out and out disaster: split, scrambled, soggy brulée topping and an otiose quenelle of substandard vanilla ice-cream that both had ice-crystals and that unpleasant texture that frozen cream has on the roof of the palate. This was replaced by an elderflower pannacotta. This was a bit over-gelatined and lacked any elderflower flavour.
One of the weaknesses of the Heathcote Empire (perhaps with the exception of Longridge) is the way that chefs are constantly moved around the empire, and it was perhaps significant that I heard one other table complaining that something had come with boiled egg, rather than the poached egg they were expecting from the menu, and that I saw the chef on the pass fixing a copy of the menu into his tab grabber.
1, maybe 2/10
(April 2008)

The Fence Gate Inn, Fence, near Burnley  
My first visit here was just after Easter 2007, though it had long been on the radar.  Although there was nothing particularly wrong with it, it didn't over-impress, and it's taken almost exactly two years for a repeat visit. 

The Fence Gate Inn rose to a brief national attention four or five years ago when they made the world's most expensive pie, which involved Wagyu beef, black truffles and 1982 Mouton Rothschild for the sauce among other luxury ingredients.  The pie sold at £1000 a slice.  It was, of course, a one-off publicity stunt, and thankfully there is none of that nonsense now and, indeed, prices are pretty reasonable, apart from a beef fillet dish which was by a very long chalk the dearest thing on the menu (about twice the price of almost everything else).  I was amused by a possible indicator of these recessionary times: on the menu Thai Salmon and Cod Fishcakes had had the final s crossed out on all our menus.

There are two public opportunities for eating at this large pub and banqueting venue: to the left of the entrance is the bar, on a winter's day heavy with wood smoke from the fire, or the brasserie, which for some reason they feel needs a separate name: Topiary.  The bar is open plan pub with lots of heavy wood; the brasserie is smarter with proper tablecloths, and a combination of proper dining room chairs and leather banquettes.  Heavy pub-style wine glasses placed upside down on the tablecloths add a cheap look and air of  not really knowing how to do things.  The practice of paper napkins at lunch and (as we could see from the tables being re-set for dinner) cloth napkins at dinner is irritating and, when there is no difference in cost and no set lunch deal or anything, just plain cheap.

Venetian blinds on the windows do an efficient, utterly unnecessary job of keeping the light out even on a bright, sunny day, though there is sufficient lighting
to keep the tables bright, and the modern art visible, the latter including odd beige things, apparently made out of faded brown paper that are evidently meant to look like topiary trees, each formed into three round balls.  They also, if you catch them in a certain way, each look like three skulls piled on each other.

There is a certain inattention in the dining room that extends beyond the charnel house like decorations.  The white tablecloth had a stain, or at least a discoloration that looked like wax that hadn't washed out properly.  The salt and pepper mill was grubby with a piece of food hanging off it.  When it was turned the right way up, one of the glasses was dirty with lip marks on the rim.  And then there were the strange splash marks on the aubergine-coloured wall up to which the table abutted.  Goodness knows what they were.  If one table front of house shows such poor cleaning, what - we are forced to wonder in the post Ramsay Nightmares age - is the kitchen like?

There are two menus: one for the bar and one for the brasserie, plus a few blackboard specials on the wall by the door.  You can order from the bar menu in the brasserie, but not the other way round.  When the cheery, but inattentive staff take your order, they don't mention the specials, even to the point of not telling you what the soup of the day is.  They've not got the hang of up-selling here ...  

The food actually isn't bad.  Starters were the weakest point.  A pasta dish (chopped up tagliatelle!) was clearly supposed to be a take on a pasta carbonara with chorizo and
chicken.  Unfortunately it was a little dull and with a heavy cream sauce, coloured rather than flavoured by the chorizo.  Regular clientèle presumably aren't up to eating
tagliatelle that has not been chopped up?  Scallops were good scallops, accurately cooked, served with asparagus, béarnaise sauce and a large quenelle of what a glance at the menu afterwards revealed to be aubergine caviar: not something you would guess - it was cold, largely flavourless other than a bit of raw onion.

Main courses took a definite turn for the better.  Bowland Beef, Mushroom and Oxtail Pie had a good pastry top flavoured with thyme, contained large chunks of tender meat in a really good gravy and came with excellent chunky chips.  We wondered if there was really any oxtail in it, as the meat seemed more prime muscle. Lancashire hotpot (off the specials menu - fortunately we'd remembered it was on) was by contrast a little short on meat, but had its own very rich gravy, though it was a little oversweet, presumably from the cooked-to-mushiness carrots and ?swedes that bulked out the meat.  Lancashire hotpot is a very variable, personal dish: this isn't how my grandmother made it, but I'm perfectly prepared to believe it's the traditional preparation in the chef's family.  The hotpot came with some beautiful mash - for once just very light fluffy potato, not laden with butter and/or cream.  We also had a couple of side dishes which were excellent: onion rings in a light, crisp, grease-free batter were among the best ever, and a bowl of petit pois cooked with spring onion and garlic cream was delicious.

The Fence Gate Inn trades somewhat on the owner's former calling as a butcher and there is a separate section on the menus for sausages - apparently award winning sausages. We tried two types of sausage (from a selection of six on the menu), which were very good, and also very nicely cooked too - worthy of note as sausages are not the easiest of things to cook well. 

Portions, while not massive or over-facing, are fairly large and certainly we could only manage one dessert: we went for the intriguing sounding and mis-spelled Sherry Trifle Crème Brule (equally intriguing was that brûlée was spelled and accented correctly on the bar menu).  Initially this looked a little odd: crème brûlée topped with a big dollop of lightly whipped cream.  Then when you ate it, it made sense: this was actually a sherry trifle (and a good one), but the custard layer had had a brûlée  topping added before the cream was added.  Quite clever actually, and it worked well, and looked well.

They make much of the wine list being award-winning, even down to a sign outside the door, but don't actually mention who awarded them anything.  It's actually well put together with lots of interesting wines, well (if a tad over-enthusiastically) described, and at pretty reasonable prices.

1, maybe 2/10
(April 2009)

Yang Sing, Manchester

I am very pleased to report that on today's showing, the food - at least the dim sum - at the Yang Sing is very much back on form. But why don't they have any customers any more? Time was on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime you would have to queue on the stairs to wait for a table, and the dining room would be 60:40: Chinese:Caucasian. Today there were less than ten tables occupied and nobody from the Chinese community (other than the staff). Have the Yeungs offended the Chinese community or not paid their dues to the Tongs or whatever? But it still doesn't explain why the non-Chinese community aren't there any more. We had a selection of superb dim sum all of which knocked value and gastronomic spots of a disappointing meal earlier this month at the new London golden-boy, Ba Shan. In theory, the Xi’an and Szechuan cuisine at Ba Shan should be the punchier, against the more delicate Cantonese cuisine of the Yang Sing, but I found the opposite to be the case. The dim sum at the Yang Sing combined punchy, yet balanced flavours with finesse of execution. Little char siu pasties combined deep, cha sui pork morsels in a nice err... gravy with exquisite, light crumbly pastry that any French patissier would sell his grandmother for. Paper wrapped pork chops are fairly thin slices of pork sirloin cooked en papillotte with five spice and onions. The tenderness of the pork is remarkable, as is the combination of depth and delicacy of the spicing. Cuttlefish "bumble bee" is all about texture rather than great flavours: very tender, chopped cuttlefish is crumbed, stuck with slivered almond "wings" and deep fried. Beef dumplings with spring onion and ginger manages to have a fairly light filling in a delightfully slimy wrapper and an equally slimy, and slightly sticky ginger spring onion sauce. Rather more "fusion" were some delightful lemon chicken samosas. Very clearly wanton wrapper skin, rather than Indian samosa, and so very light and crispy with a delicate lemony cream sauce with pieces of tender chicken. Steamed scallops with ginger and spring onion were excellent scallops, though a little swamped by the very salty light soy with which they had been steamed. There aren't trolleys here, but on Sundays, some dim sum is hawked around the room on trays: a fried dumpling, looking a bit like Lebanese kibbeh, contained a delicious pork and chinese chive filling (infinitely superior to the pork and chinese chive filling of whatever it was at Ba Shan) in a slightly odd, glutinous coating. Jolly nice. Staff are very good - helpful and knowledgeable. The wine list is intelligent, and we had a very nice white Sancerre at a not unreasonable price.
(May 2009)

Chaopraya, Manchester

I popped into this Manchester yearling (actually on top of Sam's Chop House) really just to see what it was like, and just had one of their tapas/dim sum platters and a bottle of Singha beer.
The decor manages to stay just the right side of over the top and, certainly at lunchtime, the downstairs exuded a cool air of calm.
My platter comprised (for a good value £7) some stunningly good chicken satay.  A much more generous amount of chicken than is common, and as the peanut sauce was served separately the effect of the marinade on the chicken was pleasantly noticeable.  The platter was also supposed to contain some thing called Moo Yang, grilled marinaded pork, but I could have sworn what I got was lamb by the texture.  Jolly good, whatever.  Prawns deep fried in a light crumb were fine, if no better than most places.  An upmarket prawn toast (on slices of baguette) could have done with having a strong prawn flavour, but tasted much fresher than most other places.  The final element of the platter were some prawn, pork and crab steamed dumplings which had a lovely fresh flavour.

Service was excellent and knowledgeable, presentation of the food well above average for a Thai restaurant, and all in all a very pleasant experience.  Definitely one to try for a fuller meal.
(November 2007)

The French Restaurant, Midland Hotel, Manchester  

Manchester’s old belle dame has had another face lift. This former railway hotel’s lobby is now all stark black and white, with a new marble floor. As always with new owners, they have found a whole new area within the sprawling layout and a new bar has been created on the Oxford Road frontage. At the heart of the ground floor, however, the French Restaurant continues as before. If it’s not listed, it probably should be, as it reflects a different era. There are some new touches: the paintings are now all fakes, the originals having been sold and rather unfortunately the new owners’ interpretation of fire regulations means that the lighting is uniformly very bright, which has lost some of the room’s former romantic ambience.

The menus are more modern than the room, though execution sadly falls very short of the promise. A demi-tasse of asparagus soup came as a freebie appetiser. This lacked much asparagus flavour, and instead was dominated by being heavily over-salted (I noticed another table complaining about this too) and having a touch too much truffle oil on top.

After the appetiser, we started with a dish of a warm salad of scallops and langoustines with puréed cauliflower and a ham hock and foie gras terrine. The salad element of the scallops was beautifully dressed, but presented in an over-heavy, slightly soggy parmesan-tuile basket. The scallops were fine, if really rather small and cool, but the langoustines were superb, large and beautifully sweet. Unfortunately the cauliflower purée under the scallops and the watercress purée under the langoustines were a bit too cold (they were warm enough to know that they weren’t meant to be cold), a theme that ran through into the main courses (the rather coarse, mass catering plates may not help). The terrine was very good, with a decent depth of flavour and what looked like a largish torchon of foie gras through the middle. Unfortunately, the foie gras was more of a mousseline of foie gras, which meant it lacked its own flavour in combination with the ham hock, and didn’t really deliver on what the terrine’s appearance would have suggested.

My main course was an assiette of lamb. This comprised a best end chop on the bone and another off the bone, with a bit of very soggy, very pappy, tasteless stuffing. Very good lamb, but poorly trimmed, with huge amounts of fat left on the plate: the boneless chop’s stuffing was held in place purely by a flap of fat. On the side was a sprig of rosemary, skewering an overcooked kidney, a cherry tomato and a rather rubbery piece of lamb’s sweetbread. Again, the accoutrements on the plate (some spinach and some sort of tomato fondue, together with some finely turned carrots and courgette) were distinctly on the cool side. Also on the plate was a pile of lukewarm pickled cabbage, that was so vinegary as to be positively unpleasant, particularly when drinking wine from the Midland’s deeply uninspired wine list: I had to push it aside and curse the red vinegar it left me having to try to avoid on the plate. Served separately, in a copper pan, was a very large helping of shepherd’s pie, which was at least hot. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much else. Decent meat, slow cooked, but really very tasteless, with a very water jus not at all binding the meat. The mashed potato on top was just plain dull. My companion had a dish of sea trout and a lobster boudin. A very good bit of fish, though with the skin browned but not crisped. The boudin was good, though the casing was tough and inedible. On the side was a large slick of almost cold mashed potato.

The highlight of the meal was a superb raspberry crème brûlée. Light, delicate, beautifully flavoured with a very thin crisp caramel on top. The large portion meant it was easily enough for the two of us.

Two espressos looked like they had been poured out of a pot of coffee, though at least they tasted well and were served with good chocolates.

Bread has its own trolley of huge loaves, sliced at the table, though the breads themselves could have been a little better tasting and, while by no means stale, weren't exactly straight out of the oven.

Service was very good and old school, with some of the now much slimmed down team apparently hanging on from BTH days (like some of the cutlery and other silverware, though unfortunately that doesn’t include the wine list which is dull in the extreme). The service could at times be rather entertainingly formulaic. “Thank you sir … <puts the other plate down> … and thank you sir.” It’s unfortunate that the French Restaurant continues to be let down by its chef. Just some basic improvements (such as getting food to the table hot) would really help. Perhaps the pastry chef should be put in charge of the brigade?

There are the occasional places of this standard that make it into the guides with scores of 1, 2 or 3 out of 10, so I think it's worth a 1/10, maybe a 2/10 given that it really is an experience: it's a special occasion place. Personally, though, I'd rather eat in Establishment or the Yang Sing when in Manchester.
(September 2006)

San Carlo, Manchester  

San Carlo is a big, modern bustling Italian restaurant, with an open kitchen, dominated by the open flames of a large pizza oven.  One wall is mirrored, which makes a large, airy space, seem even larger and more airy.  Dotted around the room are a number of blackboards with additions to the menu and special wines.  The blackboard menus do not seem to change much, and in any case, just in case you can't see a blackboard clearly, it's all repeated on a printed menu.  The food, almost inevitably in a place of this size, can have some misses along with the hits.  Their take on mozzarella in carozza, for instance, came in an oddly chewy thick batter.  Osso Bucco Milanese, on my most recent visit was the only item on the blackboard that wasn't on the printed 'blackboard' menu and came as a generous portion of two hefty slices of shin with a rich, if a bit too tomato-ey sauce.  The meat would really have benefited from a bit longer, slower cooking, but in a big restaurant like this that's almost forgiveable.  The osso bucco was accompanied, however, by plain boiled arborio rice, which really struck me as just not trying - there was not the slightest effort to turn it into the traditional accompaniment to osso bucco of risotto milanese.  The other traditional element of the dish, the gremolata (chopped garlic, lemon zest and parsley) was also conspicuous by its absence.  A dish of "pasta Norma" was also a touch hit and miss - penne pasta served with an aubergine and tomato sauce topped with pecorino cheese and blasted under the grill.  The sauce had a lovely fresh taste, with lots of basil, but the pasta was a bit hard from the grill and the aubergine would really have benefited from being cooked longer.  Bizarrely, given that the menu laid such emphasis on the pecorino, as soon as it was arrived parmesan cheese was offered.  A veal chop with sage was fine, if a bit on the small side (and I'm sure the menu mentioned a weight as well).

Service too can be patchy, varying from inattentive (to the point of not responding when tapped on the back!) when you want them, to over attentive when you don't (I lost count of how many times for each course we were asked if everything was okay!).  The service is one area where San Carlo could really aim to improve, and then they would merit the obligatory 10% service charge added to the bill.  To add insult to injury, when the credit card machine is handed over, it asks you to put in an additional service charge.  Cheeky! 

The wine list is solid stuff, with a few trophy bottles thrown in (there are often quite a few of the Manchester glitterati eating here) - prices are at the top end of not that bad, if you see what I mean.  Jolly good espresso.

(March-September 2006)

Mung Mee Thai Restaurant, Lancaster

This Thai restaurant is joined at the hip to an oriental supermarket.  Both are an extremely welcome addition to the otherwise uninspiring restaurant scene of Lancaster.  The menu ranges through the mainstream Thai repertoire, seemingly with a few not-quite-Thai dishes thrown in for the comfort factor.
The food is perhaps a little toned down for the western (or do I mean the north-west England?) palate, but manages to retain great depth and balance of flavours in all the dishes I've had: it's a very clean, fragrant cuisine.  As can be the case with Thai food, presentation of main courses sometimes leaves a little to be desired.
Service is charming rather than expert, apparently being drawn mainly from the local oriental student population, but is eager to please and better than merely competent.
A two course lunch (including tea/coffee) is a complete bargain at a mere £7.99 and offers a pretty wide choice of dishes.
(several visits in 2007 and 2008)

Artisan Café, Morecambe

This is a tiny café on Morecambe's seafront, but it's a thousand miles away from every other café in Morecambe, or for that matter on most British seafronts! It's quirky with a display of cakes and pastries on a table in the window (if the other tables are full, you just push the cakes to one side and sit at that table - goodness knows how they survive the health police!). Tables and chairs are mismatched; if it's not roaring sun and tropical temperatures outside (that does happen sometimes in Morecambe!), the window is invariably steamed up. There's a printed menu on the tables, plus a blackboard, which is where the interest is. It's all quite homely. Some of the food is good, some is really remarkably good. I've had some good homity pie and once some really good lamb burgers (plural - two of them) made from local salt marsh lamb (from Cockerham I think, on the south side of the Bay, rather than the better marketed Holker Hall salt marsh lamb from the north of the Bay).
Some of the cakes and pastries are home-made, others are home-baked (Danish pastries, for example, are bought in uncooked/part-cooked and finished in-house). They are quite open about this. There are often steamed puddings on the menu, though on one occasion a sticky toffee pudding wasn't that at all, but rather a steamed sponge with a toffee sauce.

This isn't cooking that's going to set the world alight - though it does make Morecambe glow a bit.

Resolutely no smoking and no mobile phones. There is a small delicatessen area between the café and the kitchen which has some acceptable produce.

Each time I've been, however, it's been sadly let down by the service, which is hands-off and elusive in the extreme.

All in all, a very welcome addition to Morecambe (and the only place I would go to eat or recommend anyone to eat in Morecambe).

(March 2007)

Potts Pies, Lancaster

A takeaway pie shop that merits a mention here as, apart from the Bay Horse just south of Lancaster and the Mung Mee Thai restaurant in the town centre, this is probably your best bet for lunch in Lancaster, though you do have to take it away. But I also think the quality of the pies merits attention location notwithstanding. The queues out of the door, and the fact that they've usually sold out of virtually everything by 1pm are testament to the quality.
All the pies have good pastry and all are notably well seasoned. Steak & Kidney, has big chunks of good quality meat and kidney in a rich, peppery gravy. Regrettably they have discontinued the cheese and onion pies which were small saucer shaped pies with lots of onion and real cheese. On the other hand there are still the potato cheese and onion pies, which add an extra layer of interest to the butter pies, which are filled with sliced potato, cooked just right, with a nice buttery flavour with just the right amount of salt and white pepper.  A recent innovation is that the vegetable pies are now suitable for vegetarians, as the pastry for them is now made using vegetable oil, not lard.
It seems odd to be raving about a takeaway pie shop in a restaurant guide, but they really are very good.
(February 2008)

Bay Horse Inn, Forton

Handily just off Junction 33 of the M6 and right next to the former Bay Horse station (to which the inn gave its name) on the Preston to Lancaster railway line, in the tiny hamlet of Bay Horse (ditto) this small country pub, family-run, has become a local dining destination, offering some of the best food in north Lancashire.  The bar has a reasonable atmosphere, though despite the appearance this is 100% gastro and 0% pub: I've been going for many years now, and have never seen anyone come in just for a drink.  The restaurant area, however, is best avoided if you can, for it is cold and lacking in atmosphere.

They do a good trade in sandwiches at lunchtime, as well as a slightly shorter version of the printed menu, with a couple of dishes on the blackboard (sometimes duplicating what is on the printed lunch menu, as well as the soup of the day which figures on both).  As always these days, local produce figures predominantly.

Craig Wilkinson's food when through a phase a year or two ago of seemingly just getting better and better, though now it seems at a peak of accomplishment. Starters tend to be better (better balanced at least) than main courses, and of the main courses, the more traditional dishes such as Lancashire Hotpot and Fish Pie tend to be the more rewarding choices, as well as offering the best value.

Of the starters, terrines are always extremely reliable, often combining (lots of) tasty chicken breast, Lancashire blue cheese and maybe fruit of some form, served with invariably good and well-matched chutney. On one occasion I had an excellent "Mrs Beeton's potted crab".  On a springtime visit, the soup was leek and potato with a poached egg and soldier.  Despite a green colour, the soup could have done with a bit more leek flavour.  For some bizarre reason there was a sprinkling of broad beans in the bottom of the soup.  The egg was fine, though not really needed, and it could have done with being warmed more thoroughly.  The soldier was soldier of toast floating on the soup.  Bit of lily-gilding here.   In August 2008, I had a really top notch chicken liver paté (though I was hard-pressed to find the Blacksticks Blue element that I'm sure I read on the menu). More of a parfait than a paté: smooth and well seasoned, with a nicely dressed little salad and some loose chutney, heavy on the sultanas. As well as the good bread (quite possibly home made?), the paté came with a slice of toast from an equally good, but different loaf.

In the past, meat main courses have been better than fish (though Craig's fish cookery, particularly the timing, seems to have improved in the last couple of years): a mutton shank slow-cooked in Lancaster Bomber beer with a goats cheese mash was excellent, as was a superb Lancashire hotpot, served with a stunningly good home-made pickled red cabbage (pickled red cabbage is usually something I loathe!). Confit duck legs have come with a very good madeira sauce, roast figs and a very good mash, unnecessarily and inconveniently served in a small marmite on the main plate: the duck legs themselves were spot on, perfectly cooked and much more succulent than many reheated confit duck legs can be.  A dish of rump of lamb in May 2009 was very accurately cooked, though a bit chewy, and came with a very good madeira sauce, some superb puréed potato and parsnip and a couple of tiny little copper pots, one with nicely cooked carrots and onions, the other with excellent spring cabbage. 

Ignoring my own previous advice about fish at the Bay Horse, in August 2008 my main course, off the blackboard, was grilled plaice with chips and tartare sauce: as simple as it read, and with simplicity comes no room to hide. No need to hide today. A nice plump whole plaice, cooked perfectly came with some absolutely superb chips. A lot of places these days pride themselves on their double or triple cooked chips, but few manage ones as good as these were today: these had a thin, crisp exterior with the crunch of the topping of a great crème brûlée and a light fluffy interior. Perhaps all the more remarkable, given that they were what I suppose you could call rustic cut (i.e. all different shapes and sizes, not perfectly formed pommes pont neuf). Maybe they were frozen and then fried, rather than oven-baked - I don't care; they were damn good! The tartare sauce was home made (well, at least the tartare bit was, I couldn't be sure about the mayonnaise base) and came in a sizeable quantity, oddly in a baby Le Creuset marmite pot. After a few minutes (a bit too many) came some rather sad looking vegetables (three chantenay carrots and cabbage) which were over-microwaved (you can hear the ping of the microwave in the bar!) and (presumably) in an attempt to reduce the portion to a single portion, but not being able to quite find a dish small enough, looking not just a bit bedraggled, but also a bit mean. 

I don't often have a dessert here, but they've always been excellent, e.g. a relatively indulgent treacle and fig tart - dried fig, this time - served with a scoop of damson ice cream.  The tart was just aired, presumably in a microwave, as the good, short pastry was a little soft, and had a nice rich filling without being sticky or gooey.  One summertime pudding was a rich, heavy, unctuous lemon posset topped with four raspberries, which worked really well to cut the richness of the cream, nicely presented in a mini kilner jar, though maybe a piece of lemon shortbread might have made the dish feel really complete.  A textbook burnt vanilla cream was spot on in every regard, save perhaps being a slightly too large portion. This was served with some poached rhubarb in a light syrup and some, presumably homemade langues de chat biscuits adding another note de trop.

The Bay Horse falls down on two counts: 1) the beverage side: the wine list and beers on tap are dull. My pint of Black Sheep in May 2009 was not well kept. 2) the service: they use local youths, who aren't managed during service and appear to have had little training.  Service takes orders at the bar, brings food to the tables and (when it gets round to it) clears the dishes away after, but doesn't really do much more - they often seem to be overseas students from the university just up the road, and occasionally there have been slight language problems in the past.  A particular lowlight on a visit in 2009 was the two young girls running front of house discussing their favourite meals: Kentucky Fried Chicken for one of them; pizza for the other. I really can't think of a worse impression for front of house staff in a restaurant to make.  There isn't really any welcome, warm or otherwise (though the spirit is willing I think), and overall perhaps the greatest drawback of the Bay Horse is a certain lack of atmosphere, particularly in the room designated as the restaurant.

(last updated May 2009)

 The Italian Orchard, Broughton, near Preston  
The Italian Orchard nestles in the northern armpit of the M55 and M6, but you don't notice the traffic.  This is a huge trattoria-pizzeria.  Having ignored it for many years, I've now been going regularly since the early part of 2005 and it is very consistent - and, I think, improving.  In the year up to July 2007, service has become more relaxed and effective.
You enter via a large bar area, which has a very stylish wood-burning fireplace in the colder months.  The interior is vast and cavernous: a glass fronted extension running the length of the building offers the best tables; behind it is a darker area; and then there are more tables upstairs - there is room in all for around 400 covers!
The food can be a little ordinary at times, though in recent months (this sentence was revised in October 2005) the food seems to have taken a praiseworthy step upwards, but the wine list is remarkable.  Well, wine-lists: there are three.  The lowest level wine list is printed on the back of the standard menu: there are no details of the wines, just name of wine and producer, no vintages, (there used to be no explanation, but there is now a few words on each wine): and some of the wines need explanation, as even the basic wine list has some really unusual wines.  The next wine list is more of the same, and printed on the reverse of the specials menu.  The next wine list is the big daddy, encompassing the other two.  There's a little more detail here, including vintages, but still no explanation.  The Braganini family, who own the Italian Orchard are remarkable wine enthusiasts, particularly for the wines of of their native north-east Italy, especially Trentino and Friuli, and more particularly from small producers: there is a depth and breadth of wines from north east Italy that is probably unmatched in any other UK restaurant.  A remarkable number of wines are also available in magnums or other large formats.  Other regions of Italy are not ignored (there are well over a dozen vintages of Sassicaia, for example), though the list only leaves Italy for champagne and port. 
Originally, when I first wrote about the Italian Orchard, I wrote that "it is unfortunate that the food is not quite up to the standard of the wine." But that is to praise the wine, rather than denigrate the food, and you should also bear in mind the size of the operation - they can do hundreds and hundreds of covers at once!  Much of the food is, it has to be said, rather standard Italian fare - pizzas, pastas, saltimbocca, and other meat dishes.  Pizzas are good, but not in the top class category (it's very much worth remembering to request that a pizza is cooked really crispy), and cater largely for the English taste.  Pasta is good, though cannelloni has been a little heavy.  Recently, however, cannelloni has been exemplary: plated (rather than served in the oval Le Creuset dishes that are the norm), with a very light-textured filling and a good light pasta, complemented by a gentle hand with the tomato and bechamel saucing.  Even more recently, however, cannelloni is back to the cast iron dishes.  Calamari in a lightly curry-spiced batter are excellent and in a large portion. 
An Italian antipasti platter is stunning with several varieties of cured meats and salamis, all of the highest quality: this is the must-have dish, as it is difficult to believe you could get better anywhere. 
The specials menu is where most of the interest is, though I've not quite worked out how often the specials menu changes: sometimes it seems to be the same for weeks at a time, other times it is different each time I go.  Ravioli of crab was lovely, with a good light pasta and creamy clean flavoured filling.  On another occasion, good quality veal kidneys came with  a well-flavoured sauce and an excellent truffle raviolo, which provided the balance of flavour and texture that lifted the dish from workmanlike to really very good.  Similarly, a venison in berry and port sauce was lifted by an excellent raviolo of wild mushroom.  Occasionally there are flashes of brilliance from the kitchen: a north-east Italian version of involtini, wrapped in cabbage leaves and then in ham, the filling light and airy with an interesting agrodolce flavour.  Meat dishes like saltimbocca and steak diane are at best competent: the saucing on the saltimbocca (as with a number of the meat dishes) was a little heavy for me: there's a slight tendency to gloopiness on occasion, which increases with the darkness of the colour of the sauce!  Desserts, in common with most restaurants of this type are largely bought in and hence avoidable, though the crème brulée shines out by being a notably good example.  Coffee is good.  Staff can be a little mixed, but mainly from language difficulties - the result, probably, of the laudable policy of taking young students from catering colleges in Italy.
Very useful in the area, and it would make a good stopping off point for anyone travelling past Preston on the M6 (come off at Junction 32 and take the A6 north, turning right at the first traffic lights).
(Updated March 2007)
Cassis Restaurant, The Stanley House, Mellor, near Blackburn

Note: the chef, Warwick Dodds, left in late 2007 (he is currently cooking at The Hastings in Lytham).  The notes below are from before he left and may not be representative of the current situation at the Stanley House.  Caveat lector!

A relatively new (when I first went in July 2005) opening, this is a boutique hotel and restaurant, combining a restored seventeenth century manor house with a newly built extension (made to look like a barn conversion), which houses the restaurant.  The hotel and restaurant are sited on top of a hill with commanding views out towards the sea.  Entering the restaurant, you are immediately struck by the decor, which is heavy, baroque and bordello-themed, with lots of deep purples and sage greens.  All the art on the walls appears to be by Rolf Harris (which is not saying that you can't tell what it is yet: all the pieces I looked at were signed Rolf Harris and the self portrait was a bit of a giveaway too!) 
Cassis would seem to be intended as a destination for the moneyed to show off their money: second and third division footballers and second and third division footballers' wives and mistresses.  Tables are properly laid with some interesting modern design cutlery which, unlike some modern designs, actually work.  Dining chairs are, bizarrely, swivel chairs: they look like proper dining room chairs (apart from the odd electric lilac leather seat pad), but incorporate a swivel mechanism.  This makes getting in and out easy, no doubt particularly for the infirm, but I don't think that was the intention.  Locanda Locatelli in London has the same chairs, though in less lurid coverings. 

The food is between excellent and very good. Mostly excellent, but occasionally let down by a bit of confusion on the plate, primarily in appearance rather than flavour.  

I think the food has improved since last year. But without a doubt, the front of house team has changed out of all recognition for the better to a huge degree. Now they are largely French and know exactly what they're doing. This has transformed a rather grim experience into a splendid one. A most welcome innovation this year has been the introduction of a stupendously good cheese trolley: it majors on French cheeses, but all are in absolutely tip top condition, and the staff know all about them and are able to tell you which order to eat them in (often a useful intrusion).
(February 2007)

The Highwayman, Burrow, near Kirkby Lonsdale

A new opening from Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft of Northcote Manor near Whalley in Lancashire, building on the success of the Three Fishes in Mitton, near Whalley (see below). The format is the same as the Three Fishes, clearly on the why break a winning formula model. Although open only a very brief time (and it's not even finished yet, as the garden, which the signs at the entrance tell you is also non-smoking, as well as the dining rooms, has not even been started yet) it's already very busy. Clearly the format is a winning one.

But I'm afraid it's not a winning formula for me. The local sourcing policy is laudable, though how local Formby asparagus is to the Lune Valley, I'm not sure; not to mention the "Scottish Seafood" that features in one starter and the products of the Marrbury Smokehouse in Dumfries & Galloway.  If they roll out the formula anywhere else, it's going to be even more difficult for the local suppliers to match the demand: they must be really stretching some of the suppliers already. 

I really don't understand the rigorously enforced Berni Inns style policy: find a table (not easy, and it leaves customers wandering around trying to find the best table for them), note its number (on little brass discs embedded into the table) and order at the bar or "food station". Something that the newspaper critics, who have been lavish with their praise, don't mention. Perhaps people like Nick Lander are spotted and receive restaurant service as well as the kitchen tour he described in the Financial Times? Where the order at the bar policy really falls down is with larger parties. A party of six was seated near me: if a waiter had taken the order that would have been accomplished within a couple of minutes. But leaving the customers to their own initiative meant that the one delegated to hand in the order had to return to the table a couple of times to check their memory of what his fellow diners wanted and how they wanted things cooking.  And of course, it's pay as you go or give them a credit card number, which means that normally it's the host who will have to do the ordering. This really is unnecessary I believe. Furthermore, there's no concession in the pricing - no doubt because there are no fewer waiting staff than a similar sized establishment would have, if it had proper table service. It also raises the interesting question of what level of gratuity the customer should leave, given that you're only getting two thirds of the service you would get elsewhere (assuming taking orders, bringing food, clearing tables to be roughly equal tasks of a waiter/waitress).  They have sufficient staff, so why not do it properly?

It's a big place that must be able to do a huge number of covers, and the sheer scale of the operation means that this is never going to be at the finest edge of gastronomy. In that respect the menu is well designed, with many dishes involving putting ingredients together, rather than relying on great skills at all stations in the kitchen.

I started with one of only two vegetarian starters, both of which involve cheese, as does the only vegetarian main course. If you're a vegetarian who doesn't really like cheese, you're going to be in bother here. There's only one vegetarian item on the whole menu that doesn't involve cheese: a tomato salad. You can't even have a bowl of chips, as they're proudly fried in dripping. My Yorkshire Pudding, Melting Leagram’s Sheep’s Milk Cheese, Mushrooms & Tomato Fondue, Wild Leaves was a three inch diameter, nice and crispy Yorkshire (Burrow, though in Lancashire, is close to the border with both Cumbria and Yorkshire, so we'll let them have that as local!) filled with a very dull, really remarkably bland duxelle, which was topped with some rather oddly stewed tasting tomatoes (which also surrounded the pudding) and a slice of Bob Kitchen's excellent young sheep's milk cheese, just melting on top of the lot. The advertised wild leaves were a small handful of rocket. The dish lacked flavour and balance, with the tomatoes dominating: not an especially good thing, and you could certainly have too much of it.

My main course was an Aged 8oz Cumbrian Fell Bred Rib eye of Beef (Matured for 5 weeks), Real Chips cooked in Dripping, Onion Rings, Tomato, Field Mushroom. This was a really good bit of rib eye, though it seemed very parsimonious for its advertised eight ounces, perfectly cooked as requested with a good flavour from both the meat and the char grilling. The onion rings were a huge disappointment: the batter was tough and leathery, almost as if they had been pre-cooked and either kept warm or re-heated. Maybe they'd stood too long while waiting for the steak? The chips were good, but could have been crisper: the best bits were the "off-cuts" and broken bits; and I'm not sure that the dripping really added that much more to make it worthwhile stopping vegetarians eating them. The tomato was a tad undercooked, but with a rather nice herb crumb topping. The mushroom was a small open mushroom, about which not a lot can be said. I ordered some bearnaise sauce with my steak (£1.50 extra): not a bad bearnaise, but it was barely lukewarm and clearly prepared earlier in the day.

For dessert, I eschewed the main menu (with its acknowledgedly bought-in puddings, which seems a step too far in pursuit of local suppliers for a restaurant with a kitchen) and looked to the supplementary menu (a seasonal menu, not a daily specials menu) and a banana split. This was a rectangle of unexceptional, thin shortbread topped with half a banana, cut in two and separated by a scoop of very frozen ice cream, with squirty aerated cream sprayed over the top and then sprinkled with some nice ground praline. Combined with some caramel sauce piped onto the plate, this all had a really nice flavour (the praline adding a lovely touch), but it would have taken scarcely more to improve the execution no end: ice cream that wasn't quite so frozen solid; proper cream instead of the squirty stuff, which had largely collapsed before I was even half way through the dish; maybe even the other half of the banana, though that's more a question of generosity than improvement.

Staff, while pleasant and efficient at what they do, are rather robotic: each one that comes to the table announces their name to you and says that if there's anything more you'd like during the day, please do ask. But of course you can't do that: if you want to order food or drinks, you have to go to a food station, which makes it all pretty pointless roboticism.

The remarkable thing though is just how busy it is: it's not even fully open yet, yet it's heaving, and I can't help but think that their car park (and there's nowhere else to park and you need a car to get to it) isn't quite big enough to cater for all the covers, especially once they open the garden too: the car park already feels a bit cramped and tight.

Just scrapes 1/10
(April 2007)

Returning in December 2007, things hadn't really improved.  I had to send one dish back twice: some cauliflower fritters (from the section of the menu entitled "nibbles") unfortunately had large lumps of raw flour in the centre of the larger pieces of cauliflower florets, which were deep-fried in a chipshop batter.  Presumably they had been floured then refrigerated.  Having been returned, and despite the replacements being fried for a noticeably longer time, there were still clumps of raw flour at the centre.  I gave up and ordered some onion soup with Lancashire cheese crouton.  This was partway between a French onion soup and an English cream of onion soup.  Nicely made with a good creamy texture.  Maybe a bit more onion strength would help?  Main course was a very good mutton pudding with a good suet crust and a good filling, the inclusion of some kidney being a pleasant surprise.  A bit more depth of flavour in the gravy would have helped.  This was served with far too much, if very good mash potato and black peas, which as ever with maple peas were a bit hard - but that's the nature of the beast.
Quite a long wine list and rather uninspiring beer selection takes this more into restaurant than pub territory, though it's strange that there is such a small selection by the glass.  Notable, however, is a very good selection of grown up soft drinks in the ilk of Mawson's Sarsaparilla and Dandelion & Burdock, Fevertree, Fentimans etc. Unfortunately they're not exactly cheap.  The bill came to £23.35 per person for two courses and soft drinks, which isn't exactly cheap.

A further return visit in June 2008 was abortive thanks to an ordering fiasco that went beyond amateurish combined with the fact that two of the dishes I wanted were not available: I was too irritated and left.  Come on, Nigel and Craig (Howarth and Bancroft), sort this out.

The Three Fishes, Mitton, near Whalley

A large informal restaurant masquerading as a pub (which it was for about 400 years) in the heart of the Ribble Valley, it opened in September 2004 under the same ownership as nearby Northcote Manor.  It's a huge open barn of a place, with more than a feel of a Berni Inn to it.  And that feeling is reinforced by the order everything at the bar style operation.  Come to think of it, they would do well to visit a Berni Inn for lessons on how to provide even the most basic standard of service.  But I'll come back to that.

The menu reveals the philosophy of Nigel Haworth and the brigade he has in the kitchen here: regional cookery, British classics, local sourcing.  The reverse of the menu is a map showing all their local producers.  Very laudable of course, and here they certainly pull it off: some restaurants with a strong emphasis on local sourcing can sometimes fall down on the quality of some of the ingredients, particularly meat: but that's not the case here - this is a real showcase for the best of Lancashire (and Cumbria and Cheshire, but mainly Lancashire) produce.  Prices are good and the kitchen does very well.  I started with some "Treacle baked free range Middlewhite Garstang ribs with devilled black peas" which was a really good dish on a cold spring day, with a good balance between the sticky coating on the ribs and the well-flavoured meat itself; and the spicy, if a bit too hard black peas went very well.  My main course was off a seasonal menu and was a belly pork dish that was really very good indeed.  Apart from the fact that it still had on the cling film that was obviously holding the whole belly in a roll.

As I say, you order at the bar.  Fair enough.  Reasonably common.  But it's very strict.  There aren't that many actual waiting staff, and, having been swayed by the next table ordering the "real chips", when a waiter brought my cutlery, I said I'd forgotten to order chips and would he mind adding them to the order.  No.  You have to order at the bar.  So I go and join the queue again.  One of the people behind the bar is in deep conversation with her boyfriend down the other end of the bar, leaving the others to cope with the huge queue.  I gave up.  I didn't want chips that badly.
After the main courses, I was asked if I would like to see the sweet menu.  Might as well.  Couple of things take my eye, and I assumed a waiter/waitress would return to take my order (the usual way of operating in establishments like this).  None did, and when I finally caught the eye of one, he indicated that I should order at the bar.  Back to join the queue.  Eventually I order and eventually (the food doesn't exactly come quickly, and I wonder if they've misjudged the size of kitchen brigade they need) my coconut sorbet with chocolate sauce arrives.  Fortunately the chocolate sauce (hot) is in a separate jug - it would dominate the exquisite coconut sorbet if poured all over.  Bounty bars work because the sweetness of the coconut goo can stand up to the sweet, greasy chocolate.  This coconut sorbet was not at all over sweet and had such an elegant flavour that it couldn't stand up to the sauce, although that too was excellent.
Well, I could do with a coffee.  No.  Join the queue again.  Difficult now as most of the staff behind the bar are deeply engaged in getting ready to knock off for the afternoon.  Apart from the one down the end of the bar, who's still gazing longingly into her boyfriend's eyes.  Not for the first time, I give in and when I do finally get served, I just ask for the bill, pay and get out.
It's incredible that what's actually a very good kitchen can be so comprehensively let down by its management's ideas on service and the incompetence of those actually employed to provide that service.
The food was pretty good (1/10 maybe even 2/10 for the food), apart from the cling film on the lamb which is utterly unforgiveable, but it's not somewhere I'm likely to go back to again as the complete absence of service brings its score down to somewhere less than 1/10.  All I can really say is "beware".
(March 2005)
Kwizeen, King St, Blackpool
Blackpool is not somewhere that has ever been a destination for fine eating.  For many years, the main restaurant trade was carried out by a number of - largely unimpressive - Italian trattoria places, some of which later morphed into pizza-pasta establishments, a couple of doubtful Chinese restaurants and fish and chip shops.  If you wanted good food you generally had to go inland.
King Street is just slightly outside the town centre, which isn't going to do much for their passing trade. But then you wouldn't want most of the trade that passes by in Blackpool.
It's been open a while now, but I've only recently been. It's been converted, I think from a cafe perhaps via something Italian. Not unpleasant to look at, but distinctly cobbled together on a tight budget!
There is a ridiculously cheap £4.95 two course table d'hote lunch (with three or four choices, and all sounding interesting), but we plunged into the a la carte.
There was something rabbity (a terrine maybe) opposite me, while I had a tomato and cheese tart, with superb pastry. I'd expected microwaved pastry, but it wasn't. Beautiful. Both starters were garnished with an easter bunny (for it was the Easter weekend) formed out of an olive!
Mains were a slab of halibut (£11.40) and a sort of seafood bollito misto (£12.80), which had at least four types of fish, plus various shellfish. All good quality, well cooked, well seasoned. Both dishes came with a selection of vegetables on the plate, and some of the care taken here was remarkable: a cube of swede, wrapped in leek and tied up into a parcel with a chive bow; exquisitely cut vegetables, a good gratin lyonnaise beneath the fish.
2 desserts at £3.50 were good, but overshadowed by their presentation: huge showy spun sugar constructions, towering about 6 or 7 inches over the plate. A remarkable degree of effort.
The wine list has no pretensions to being a wine list really. Just three or four anonymous non-vintage reds and three or four anonymous non-vintage whites. We had an anonymous, non-vintage, vaguely Australian sounding white for £10.75 which was perfectly quaffable.
One brandy at £3.00 and £2.80 for drinks before hand brought the bill for two for lunch to £55.70, and it was well worth that.
At one point a chef type creature emerged from the kitchen and said that he remembered us from Uplands (the Tovey offshoot near Cartmel). We didn't remember him, and neither of us had been to Uplands for around 10 years. There is a bit of a Tovey influence in the menu, but nowhere near as formulaic as the Richard Dutton enterprises (New Inn, Yealand, Dutton Arms, Burton-in-Kendal, Miller Howe Kaff at Lakeland Plastics). Probably worth a 2. Maybe a 3 if the quality is kept up.
(April 1999)
Since the above review was written I've been once or twice more.  My father goes at least once a week, but they don't open Saturday lunchtimes, which are usually the only times I can make.  I never quite find it lives up to the initial promise.  It is a strange, rather bleak dining room, particularly when there are few in.  Service is not the most natural and can tend to hover and listen in rather too much.  The food, while having flashes of brilliance and excellence, unfortunately tends most of the time to be a bit un-focussed and often a bit muddy.  Chef Marco can do it with real style and expertise - it's just unfortunate that usually when I go, he doesn't.
(March 2005)
Most recently, I went for Christmas Day lunch.  This was really very good, particularly at the exceptionally reasonable price.  Everything was good quality throughout, though the roast beef (the alternative to turkey, to be ordered in advance) could have been better hung.  A busy atmosphere certainly helped, but the food was undoubtedly better.  Perhaps Marco Calatyud, the chef, is better when under pressure catering for a full restaurant.
(December 2005)

Chicory, Henry St, Lytham

 Chicory has been open a few years now (since Easter 2002) and serves the well-heeled clientele of Lytham well.  It is modern, bright and cheerful decorated in tones of orange, with a bare wood floor.  It is saved from being too brash an environment by a large central banquette unit that divides the restaurant into two.  The menu reads reasonably well, especially at dinner (a shorter, lighter menu is served at lunch and dinner dishes are not available at lunch): the style is modern with lots of  pan-Asian and other fusion touches.  The kitchen is open to the restaurant and provides a hint of theatre for those not people watching.  The upstairs has been completely revamped in the last year: a very comfortable, almost souk-like bar, with dark wood and dark leather seating occupies much of the space.  The bar has a number of lockers for customers to keep their prized bottles of spirits safe until their next visit.  Remarkably, these lockers were oversubscribed from day one and there is now a waiting list.  The list of drinks (i.e. mainly spirits, but also ports and champagnes) available by the bottle in this bar area is extremely interesting though the cost is eye-watering on occasion.  The toilets, also upstairs, are similarly classy, especially the entrance, which has the communal washing facilities in the form of a resurrected (very resurrected: you'd not guess its origin!) pig trough found in a field. 
In terms of the food, Chicory comes more into the useful in the area category than the worth a detour category.  The transition from menu page to plate just isn't as effective as it might be, and occasionally it would seem the raw ingredients might be of a slightly better quality.  In general, the food lacks focus and identity, as it ranges across the world.
On one visit (February 2006), we started with "Crayfish tail quesadillas with melted pepper jack cheese and chive sour cream" and "Eggs Benedict on toasted homemade bread with spinach and smoked ham".  The Eggs Benedict were good, with a generous helping of hollandaise, though oddly the ham element was finely chopped.  The quesadillas had a good filling of crayfish tails, salsa and Monterey Jack (with some rather dull chive sour cream in a small pot on the side), and a small slick of what seemed to be hoisin or similar sauce, that really lifted the dish.  Unfortunately, however, no attempt had been made to toast or otherwise cook the tortillas themselves: I always think the crisping up of the tortilla is, along with the cheese filling, a defining characteristic of a quesadilla.  This was just a tasty filling wrapped in a soft tortilla that hadn't even been warmed.  But this isn't the first time the name of a dish has not been respected: an earlier visit yielded a "veal saltimbocca" that was a (very good) tournedos of veal, but with no sage or ham. 
Our main courses on this occasion were "Fisherman’s pie, topped with creamy mash potato with melted Gruyere cheese and a beetroot and vodka salsa" and "Crispy duck leg on celeriac remoulade, warm beans and five spice plum sauce ".  The duck leg was an absolutely fine example of confit - maybe not the greatest, but nothing at all to complain about, and the remoulade and plum sauce worked well.  The fish pie, was a large portion, with a nicely browned mash potato topping.  As I would have expected, it was evidently a way of using up fish trimmings and other leftovers of fish:  unfortunately, tuna does not really work in a traditional British fish pie.  Neither do lots of silverskin onions - and I mean lots of them.  Very odd.  There were just one or two traces of white fish, but no smoked haddock or prawns as you might expect to find alongside the usual leftovers.  A bit under seasoned too.  Again the basic problem is the translation from menu to plate.  If it had said "tuna and baby onions with a creamy sauce and mashed potato topping" I'd have known not to have it - or at least what to expect!  The beetroot and vodka salsa was absolutely fabulous: beautiful flavour and balance.
We shared a dessert: a "milk chocolate mousse cup flavoured with rum, topped with a Tiramisu cream and a pistachio and almond tuille [sic]": this was not a chocolate cup filled with milk chocolate mousse, but a large cappucino cup filled with a pretty good chocolate mousse, but spoiled by being such a large portion (also far too big for its £4.95 price tag): the two of us struggled with it, and ended up keeping it to have as truffles with our (good) espresso.  The tiramisu cream lacked any real tiramisu flavour, but the tuile was excellent. 
With an excellent bottle of 2003 Barbera d'Asti La Caplana, water and armagnac the bill came to £64.  It's unfortunate that it just seems to slightly miss the mark at virtually every stage.  If they could maintain the high spots throughout the meal, then this would merit a score of 3/10.  But as it is now, it's only worth 1, maybe 2/10
(February 2006)
An older review (August 2004):
The openness of the kitchen has mixed blessings.  It is practical in a small busy restaurant to have a large pass, rather than waiters having to disappear into the kitchen and the chefs can keep an eye on what is going on.  Diners get a sense of theatre that an open kitchen provides.  A further benefit on the occasion of my latest visit was that we got to see most of the kitchen tantrums, which helped explain why we waited so long for our food: no explanation or apology was forthcoming from the rather mixed waiting staff, until we asked what the delay was.  At one point - which must have lasted 15 minutes - no table in the restaurant had any food on it.  I have to admit, however, that these delays were unusual.  At one meal  I started with Thai fishcakes and moved onto calves liver with a bacon and potato-and-cheese-stuffed-mushroom; my companion started with a quail and pork terrine (from the verbally recited specials list) and continued with fish and chips.  The Thai fish cakes were a little workmanlike: rather large and a little dull; and totally dominated by the extremely over-dressed salad that came with them.  The balance was totally misjudged.  My calves liver was overcooked, but fortunately not to the point of dryness: I pointed this out when the inevitable "are you enjoying your meal" question was asked, and to their credit they offered to start the dish afresh.  We had waited about 90 minutes by this stage, and so I pointed out that I'd make do with it, as I had to be in work on Monday morning.  I think that was when the front of house staff finally grasped that the delays really had been a little too long.  The dish was probably a bit over-salted for many people's tastes.  My companion's terrine was good, though the rhubarb-based chutney that came with it was a bit over the top and a complete wine killer.  Fish and chips were good, though the batter was perhaps on the heavy side: the batter was also a very dark colour, though not overcooked. The fish inside was an excellent quality; chips and the little pot of tartare sauce were also good.  Once the kitchen got over its problems we were able to watch desserts coming out, and they all look jolly impressive.  Not exactly matched on the plate however.  I had what was billed as a warm chocolate mousse with espresso granita.  It wasn't by any stretch of the imagination a mousse, but rather one of those chocolate nemesis imitations that are increasingly common.  This one was a slightly too large a portion (served in a large cappucino cup, with a tasteless white froth on top), and not as good as the little Gü pots available in many supermarkets.  The espresso granita was excellent, though difficult to eat as it was served separately in a shot glass, which was too small to get the provided teaspoon into.  With a couple of espressos, which took them a couple of goes to get right, the bill for two was just under £40 (the dessert was on the house).
On this showing not rated, but overall, taking into account previous visits, 1/10.
A new venture round the corner in Dicconson Terrace is Sweet Chicory.  This is a creperie cum coffee lounge cum patisserie cum delicatessen.  Everything appears high quality and like the main Chicory restaurant, is very very busy.  Interestingly they have the sole UK right to sell the rather fabulous Yves Thuriès chocolates, but make virtually nothing of it.  (They don't sell these now - Feb 2006).  It would I think be fair to say that Sweet Chicory has taken management's attention a little too much away from the original Chicory restaurant.
(August 2004)
Anthony's Restaurant, Boar Lane, Leeds

Latest report: May 2009 

I find it a bit irritating that they always try to hold you upstairs for 10 minutes before letting you at your table, even when it's a single diner. Selling drinks, I suppose, and helping the place to look busy from the street. Even more irritating is that when having ordered food, they take the wine/beer order, and then open it and bring it to you *upstairs*. Grrr.

The dining room, when they finally let you into it, is pretty much unchanged from day one, and seems to be due a bit of redecoration just to spruce it up a bit. Although a slightly odd shape, I find the dining room is calm and comfortable. Service is better here than at other outlets in the group, though when Olga isn't present (as today), you do notice her absence.

The set lunch is good value at £24 for three courses, but I went the whole hog and had the tasting menu at £60 for seven courses. (Exceptionally good value, given that portion sizes and composition of dishes matched the à la carte that other tables were having, and that's £42 for three courses.)

An amuse bouche of brown shrimps with a fine brunoise of pear and pumpkin seed dressing was fine, but not the most alchemical sort of dish you expect from Anthony's. I'm pretty sure they weren't Morecambe Bay shrimps, as they didn't have as much flavour as Morecambe Bay shrimps usually have. I noticed that half way through the lunch service, the amuse bouche changed. Unless there was a remarkable coincidence that everyone starting their meal after 1pm was allergic to shellfish.
The first proper course was the signature onion risotto with parmesan air and espresso - I believe this is the only dish that has been on the menu from the day the restaurant opened. This was a better example than previously, with more onion flavour than when I've had it before. A big portion for a tasting menu - as with all courses, exactly the same size as the à la carte versions. The risotto was nicely cooked, the parmesan air was remarkably parmesany and the espresso really adds a touch that works well.
Next was smoked beef carpaccio with pomelo, smoked feta and shredded fennel - excellent, balanced dish.
Next was a scallop (actually not quite as good as the night before at Anthony's at the Piazza), which was served on a very delicately flavoured garlic mousse (I wondered if it was actually a garlic and almond mousse, but the waitress said just garlic, which I didn't quite believe.) Also on the plate was a jolly good little goats cheese shredded wheat (like a mini shredded wheat, cut in half and filled with a goats cheese mousse), shredded jabuga ham, a caperberry beignet and, poured over at the table, "Iberico cream" - a savoury, hammy cream, apparently made by boiling Spanish ham bones in cream.
Two fair sized pieces of lovely thick John Dory were beautifully cooked and came with the usual Flinn selection of other stuff, all of which worked very well with it: a cube of apple confit with a twin of apple jelly, Bellota ham topped with pumpkin seeds and a single leaf of baby spinach, a lovely avocado mousse sandwiched in some puff pasty (like a sort of avocado vanilla slice), itself topped by a butter poached, tiny oyster.
The next course, the last of the savoury courses, was the weakest dish of the meal: the main component wasn't ideally cooked and the various accompaniments didn't really go with it. Belly pork was long and slow cooked, but apparently had been divested of its fat, leaving it a bit on the dry side and lacking unctuousness. Also on the plate was half a pearl onion, some pine-nuts, some squid ink and tapioca "quavers" (my description), themselves topped with delicious baby squid, and some very odd, crispy black "spaghetti", which really was just like deep-fried wool. There was just too much crunch on the plate.
Although I asked for a slight break before the dessert courses, it ended up a very long break - getting on for half an hour.
There are two desserts on the tasting menu, and I think they should have reversed the order of the two they gave me. I started with kaffir lime leaf and mango canneloni (the mango thinly sliced and forming the 'pasta'), which was utterly gorgeous, served with a coconut sauce, coconut brittle and an amazing rum jelly. The second dessert was much more savoury than the first and would have made a better bridge between the savoury and dessert courses: beetroot arctic roll with licorice espuma and bulgar pudding. If you ignore what it actually is, this is a mighty good dish - the beetroot element being somewhere between sorbet and parfait, the bulgar pudding, like a very loose rice pudding, but with (unsurprisingly) a sweetish wheaty flavour, while the licorice espuma is much more phlegm like in texture than foam or air, and actually like a very, very, very light licorice flavoured Angel Delight. The flavours worked superbly together.

This was probably the best meal I've had at Anthony's in about 30 months. Superb espresso afterwards, with very nice chocolates (from the Anthony's chocolatier at the Piazza, I understand). The Anthony group espresso must be about the best I've come across in the UK. It also comes, slightly ridiculously, with four different types of sugar.
Bread is excellent - a white loaf per table (one big advantage of eating alone here!) with the usual three butters: toast-flavoured, parmesan-flavoured and plain salted. It's really nice for once to have butter in a restaurant that isn't fridge hard. Thinking about it, the bread and butter is, like the white onion risotto, unchanged from the day Anthony's opened.
(May 2009)

Previous reports

September 2007:
Bit of a mixed experience recently, which I post to balance the usual (my usual) adulatory praise.

The usual warm welcome from Olga, who took me downstairs, straight to my table, rather than trying to get an extra drinks purchase upstairs in the bar. The à la carte is now quite short, and initially I was tempted by the £60 tasting menu, but satsifyingly for the wallet, the lunch table d’hote (two courses for under £20; three courses for £23.95) offered some of the dishes that most interested me. The 2-2-2 table d’hôte really does offer superb value for a kitchen of this quality. On the other hand, a tdh lunch also traditionally gives kitchens a chance to experiment and try out new dishes on customers, which means there can occasionally be an occasional miss. Unfortunately, this was one of the occasions.

But all started well. The amuse bouche was an interesting prawn peach ravioli with a carrot foam. This was one of Anthony Flinn’s trademark raviolis which involve no pasta: the “pasta” here was a micro-thin slice of peach, wrapped round some lovely fresh tasting sweet prawns; the carrot foam tasted of fresh carrots. The whole was more than a little odd, but far from unpleasant, with a lovely fresh clarity, that actually made it quite mouth cleansing.

My first substantive dish was an extra starter off the carte: a piece of braised pig’s cheek, rich and succulent, served with pressed chitterlings. Yay! Chitterlings. Last had them in a Chinese restaurant on Lisle Street in about 1987. The chitterlings had been very firmly compressed in a terrine and were served as wafer thin slices shaped into domino sized rectangles. They had a real meaty taste, with a good, interesting texture to match. The slices of pressed chitterlings were interleaved with similarly thin, identically sized rectangles of avocado. A really good dish.

My next dish was the starter off the lunch menu: roast john dory with a crispy pig’s ear salad. The john dory came as two small lozenges of very gently cooked very firm fish. The pig’s ear added both texture and a nice piggy, crackling flavour. By the ears were not Ste Menhoud style, but I would assume just roast after being finely sliced. The pig’s ears were mixed in with a lightly dressed salad of baby leaves and another larger green leaf which had me completely perplexed: the stems had the crunch of cucumber, but more of the texture of cactus, and the leaves were similarly succulent, though neither leaf nor stem had any noticeable flavour. Close examination revealed tiny globules on the stems, which didn’t shake off or even come off when rubbed with the finger: very strange! The part-explanation came back from the kitchen that these were “iced leaves”. My guess is that these were mache/corn salad, which had been sprayed with water and then blast frozen, perhaps with liquid nitrogen. This was another dish that worked really well, and – “iced leaves” notwithstanding – it wasn’t quite as intellectually challenging as some of Anthony Flinn’s dishes.

It was with the next dish that we hit a problem: my main course off the lunch menu was braised belly pork with pea nut scallop ravioli. The space between pea and nut was there on the menu. The ravioli (naturally) involved no pasta, its place being taken by ultra thin slices of scallop; the filling was a sort vaguely nutty hummus that was a little odd, and not at all a brilliant partner for scallops. A passion fruit sauce sat very oddly with this, and equally so with the main element of the dish, a fairly large slab of very lean belly pork, probably just under A7 size and getting on for an inch thick. Unfortunately the crackling on top was very hard and too thick and there was no way whatsoever (I tried!) that I could get knife through it. I even tried again, having sliced the crackling off the meat, and only after really quite violent stabbing could I get a shard to break off: it was however inedible, and not worth the effort I’d had to put in (or the inconvenience to the other diners!). As if that wasn’t bad enough, the meat itself was a little hard and dried out around the edges and stringier than it should have been throughout. Scallops and belly pork are a fairly classic combination, but this wasn’t balance, with far too little scallop to balance the slab of belly pork. The passion fruit sauce just added a rather unpleasant jarring note. All in all, a poorly conceived dish, poorly executed. I almost sent it back, but in my book it wasn't sufficiently badly executed to warrant that. Though I did think about it.

Incidentally, the next table also had the pork belly dish, about 15 minutes after I'd asked the waiter to draw the kitchen's attention to the problems with it. Their piece of pork appeared to have been better trimmed after reheating, and they could get their knife to pierce the crackling. Maybe mine was a rogue bit.

Things were redeemed by the dessert, a rhubarb pistachio crumble with smoked chocolate sorbet. The rhubarb was very lightly cooked, retaining quite a texture, and served cold. This was topped with a warm pistachio fine crumble. The smoked chocolate sorbet was exemplary, almost with the consistency and feel of a ganache. But I couldn’t help wondering what the point of smoking chocolate is. It tasted of smoke and of chocolate, but I couldn’t see what the smoke added to the dish that a pure chocolate sorbet couldn’t have managed on its own.
Espresso is an excellent example, but served in a cup that is all style of over practicality. Five types of sugar come with the coffee and are almost enough to make me want to take sugar in my coffee! The accompanying petits fours are superb: a spiced fudge, a fruit jelly, soft, supple and fruity, and a white chocolate filled with a pumpkin seed truffle mix: all utterly delicious. With a bottle of water and another of Anchor Steam Lager from the useful and intelligent beer list, the bill was £44.25.
6/10 on the evidence of this visit.

July 2004:
I went on Saturday 24th July 2004 for lunch. Chance - not booked, but they only had 8 in all lunchtime.  By contrast, they tell me that they are booked up for a couple of months for Saturday evenings.  Why don't people, other than Fay Maschler, share my joy of eating out on Saturday lunchtimes?
Anthony’s only opened in March but has been written up, and received great praise from many of the newspaper critics. The eponymous Anthony Flinn is a mere 24, but has already has a career encompassing Michelin starred restaurants like Lords of the Manor, Abak and, most famously, paid work at the legendary El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia.  A number of British chefs - and those of other nationalities - have worked at El Bulli, but on stages (stints, unpaid or where you actually pay for the privilege of working with a great chef).  I believe that Anthony Flinn is currently the only British chef to have been paid to work at El bulli by Ferrán Adrià!

The restaurant has a tiny frontage on Boar Lane - the entrance is just round the corner.  Apparently the premises used to be a club owned by Vinnie Jones.  I'm sure it's much nicer now! On the ground floor there is a small bar with comfy seating, to which they can relegate smokers.  The bar is well stocked and has a notable selection of bottled beers: there is even a separate beer list.  The restaurant itself is downstairs.  It is a light airy room, decorated in a minimalist style, with cream walls, dark wood flooring and recessed display shelves, either minimistically empty or with a magnum of Amarone or similar. The chairs are very comfortable dark brown leather, the accents in the room are the well-lit tables, impeccably set with good quality white cloths and large square plates.  Glassware is from Riedel and is changed to match the wines ordered.

A bargain-priced table d'hote is available, but I chose from the a la carte.

Ordering from the carte, you get a succession of appetiser/amuses before you even get to the starter. First was a raspberry gimlet (a sort of raspberry slush, in which I couldn't detect any gin, topped with a pink foam - a common sound from the kitchen is of the electric whisk/stick blender!), next was a paprika wafer (a crumpled sheet of rice paper, deep fried and then sprinkled with smoked paprika), then a rather bizarre little dish of peas and a summer fruit sorbet. Well it looked bizarre, but turned out to be a highlight. The peas were a wonderful exercise in umami, alongside their own sweetness.

Then the bread came. Individual loaves (sliced). Fantastic bread. Really alive. I'd guess at a very, very slow rise. A quenelle of parmesan butter, made by melting parmesan in water and skimming off the why to be whipped into the butter, as well as being dusted with powdered parmesan, and a quenelle of unsalted butter (oddly with a sprinkling of salt on top, which seemed to defeat the object ...)

Starter was a breast of Anjou squab. The meat had merely been shown where the oven was, but despite being extremely rare, was beautifully tender. Served with a "pickled garlic ravioli", which was a blob of mashed potato with roasted garlic, which had then been covered, petal-fashion, with ultra-thin slices of picked garlic. There's a heck of a lot of kitchen work involved in that - as indeed in everything here.  The pigeon was on a bit of chard and had a couple of shards of honey roast parsnip on top. And a sprinkling of what appeared to be small pieces of bread crust, which worked really well.

Main course was duck with chocolate bons bons. Again, a very rare breast, on top of spinach, which itself was on top of some slice of roast peach and some roast salsify. Two baby fondant potatoes, the size of the end joint of your little finger and the chocolate bon bon, which you are informed that the chef recommends that you break with the side of the fork and then let the contents sauce the meat. Well the bon bon was a bit small in relation to the Yorkshire-portion size of the duck breast, but it was jolly good - a mix of olive oil, chocolate and coffee I think, which worked well on its own with the duck and also with the meat jus that was already on the plate. The meat jus could have been doing with being a little stronger flavoured I thought.

A pre-dessert that I've entirely forgotten was followed by Reconstructed Tarte Tatin with vanilla parfait. Which was actually a deconstructed tarte tatin. The vanilla parfait was superb, but the dish didn't quite work for me. What was on the plate was a disc of grated apple bound by a very sweet caramel that overpowered the apple, more caramel splashes on the plate and some shards of pastry. It was all too sweet and the balance between apple, caramel and pastry was completely wrong. Disappointing end to the meal.

Absolutely superb, I'd say Spanish-style, espresso with an individually wrapped (in Anthony's branded cellophane) bar of chocolate ganache, which had been rolled in crushed, roasted sweetcorn. Fabulous.

Bottle of water and a half of Masi Valpolicella. The bill was a few pence under £50, which seemed remarkably good value to me given the quality of the food and the amount of kitchen work involved. The table d'hote was, I think £22.95 for three courses, and laudably they didn't blink an eye when another diner asked for one course off the lunch menu and another off the carte: she didn't get the full range of amuses, though, I noticed.

I'll definitely be back.  (I was back two Saturdays later.  If anything the food was even better and the bill for two with a full bottle of wine was just under £100.  On this occasion, I had a langoustine starter of some complexity, but was stood out were the clean fresh taste of everything in dish, the utterly impeccable langoustine and the way it all knitted perfectly.  Main course was a slab of fantastic with a cannelloni of belly pork and mushrooms: it was only on the second taste that I realised what was odd about the pasta; it wasn't pasta, it was very thinly (horizontally) sliced belly pork meat.  In contrast to L'Enclume (see below), all the amuses were different this time, though I noticed other tables got some of the amuses I had had two weeks earlier: either they keep records, or the amuses vary according to what you choose off the menu.
(July 2004)

Anthony's at Flannels, Leeds

How can Anthony's be so good, and Anthony's at Flannels so bad?

Anthony's was full when I called in on chance, and Olga suggested I try Anthony's at Flannels.  There's never been any reason why I've not tried it before, other than that if I'm in Leeds, why would I want to go anywhere else but Anthony's proper?  So this was a good opportunity.

It's occupies the fourth floor of a clothes shop (Flannels), but looks so very temporary.  Apart from some large light fittings, the room looks undecorated and unfinished, as though they've cleared the racks of clothes away and put a few tables and chairs in for the day.  Bare walls and a painted concrete floor. The welcome is an unstaffed "please wait here to be seated" sign, and while a couple of staff looked at me waiting there, they didn't acknowledge me, let alone stop their glass washing (or whatever they were doing).  But after a few moments, someone did come and offered me my choice of tables (they had a few in, but weren't exactly marshalling the crowds).

The menu covers a number of bases, from brunch to afternoon, by way of a table d'hote lunch and a small à la carte, which deals in pasta, salads, sandwiches etc.  The table d'hôte lunch is no bargain at £15.50 for two courses and £18.25 for three courses - £4 more gets you the set lunch at Anthony's proper.  You can have the set lunch at Northcote for £17.50 for two courses (just £2 more than Flannels)  Set lunch at the excellent dining room at Rawtenstall is £14.95 for two courses and £16.95 for three courses.
In comparison to those others local(ish) set menus, Anthony's at Flannels is top money, and when you actually see what you get, it's extortionately poor value.

The table d'hôte lunch offers standard gastro-pub fare (on the day I visited soup, leek & bacon quiche, pigeon breast and black pudding, smoked trout paté for starters; pumpkin risotto, beef stew, rack of mutton with pearl barley for mains).  This is simple food that we're now all pretty much familiar with and needs to be well executed to impress.  It wasn't and it didn't.
My starter was "Wood pigeon breast with apple puree and black pudding".  The pigeon (just the one, small breast) was nicely rare but had a very hard, tough skin and extremities which once cut off made it even smaller, but the black pudding was very good indeed. The apple purée was completely overshadowed by the pigeon and the black pudding - the dish needed an apple chutney and or a bit of stock-based sauce. The pigeon was a little heavily salted.  Not a disastrous dish, but pretty boring and saved only by the black pudding.

 My main course was "Rib of Beef with Dark Ale Stew, Pearl Shallots and Buttered Puff Pastry".  I had assumed that this wouldn't be rib of beef, but rather beef ribs - a subtle difference in the words, which makes a big difference to what's on the plate, and I was right.  The meat off the rib was nicely cooked and juicy, but there was another cut of meat in there, cut into small cubes, which was just hard and dried out.  This was all in a very rich ale-based sauce, with diced root vegetables, bacon and the advertised shallots.  Unfortunately, the bacon and an extremely heavy hand with the salt meant that it was far, far too salty.  And I like a bit of salt.  The puff pastry disc I could see looked overcooked, and it was to the point of extinction and inedibility.
Really I should have refused the dish and sent it back, but apart from the pastry it wasn't totally inedible - and I was hungry and sufficiently short of time that I didn't want to wait another 10+ minutes while an alternative was produced.  A side order of "hand cut chips" had been amateurishly prepared, in that black eyes remained in them.  They were cooked through properly, and nice and fluffy (not as common as it should be), but they were very blonde and not at all crisped.  As if someone had forgotten to give them their final frying.
Service was a little variable, possibly showing inexperience.  I was asked if I wanted a drink when given the menu, but not asked when the order was taken.  I was going to have a glass or two of wine, but in the absence of even being asked, I stuck with my bottle of water.  Another waitress was doing a remarkable impression of a labrador that's been chastised in all her mannerisms as she went around the room.  When she came to bring me my starter, she approached the table with the dish in her hands (that always looks amateurish when they carry a plate holding on to the rim with both hands), and then stood there hesitating for about 30 seconds, even starting to go away at one point, until I said, "yes, pigeon, for me."  Maybe she was confused by a lone diner, as it meant she couldn't ask that dreadful question "Who's having the ... ?"  Another waiter, who brought the bread (pretty good actually, and served with the same excellent parmesan butter that you get at Anthony's) explained what the three varieties were and proffered the serving plate under my nose.  I went to pick one up and was told - halfway between being snapped at and being shouted at - not to touch, as he whisked the plate away saying "I have to serve other people".  Fair enough, if the policy is always to serve the bread to the customer, but in that case for heaven's sake don't push it under their noses!
Desserts on other tables looked nice, though I also noticed that the waiting staff didn't seem to know what they were, but I really couldn't face any more at that point and just asked for my bill, paid and left.
0/10 and not recommended.
(October 2008)

 L'Enclume, Cavendish Street, Cartmel

A new review of L'Enclume, following a meal in June 2009.

I still preferred it when they had tablecloths, and not bare black tables and black corduroy placemats, but it is still a lovely dining room, in an old smithy (whence the name, L'Enclume, which is French for anvil) in a really nice setting, on a small stream, looking out onto Cartmel's priory. Since I last went, they have extended the conservatory and thereby made room for probably five more tables. However, it's rather upset the balance of the garden: the apple tree that used to be at the centre is now right next to the corner of the conservatory, and somehow, with less lawn outside leading to the stream, it just doesn't feel as tranquil as it did. They've also done away with the paintings for sale by local artist Anne-Marie Foster, and the walls now have rather drab brown canvases on them. Presumably the chef-owner, Simon Rogan, thought the more colourful art of the past detracted from his food too much - that at least was the excuse for getting rid of tablecloths!

I've always found the staff at L'Enclume to be very good, though often very French, and they tend not to be able to hang on to the better ones for long. It was a good welcome, and interesting to see the return of a restaurant manager who I'd last seen there about three years ago, when he'd recently arrived from Michel Roux's White Hart in Suffolk. As they've lost the conservatory for pre-repast drinks, it was straight to the table and a very acceptable glass of Deutz NV to accompany some interesting spiced popcorn, while perusing the wine list and quickly scanning the three menus available at lunchtime (£25 set lunch; £55 8 course; £75 12 course; a longer extravaganza is available in the evening). The set lunch, unfortunately for the wallet, didn't appeal for some reason I can't remember now. Much of the 12 course I remembered having before. Much of the 8 course sounded new and interesting. So the 8-course "Menu 1" it was.

Unfortunately, I didn't remember I had my camera with me until we were a few courses in, so the memory's a little hazy on the first few courses. 

The first course was a cocktail. Tamarillo martini fizz. A smallish martini glass was half filled with a tamarillo juice/purée and there was an "olive" of tamarillo jelly speared onto what looked like one of my grandmother's hat pins across the top of the glass. Then at the table, from a soda siphon, they squirt in a gin fizz that floats on top of the tamarillo juice and fills the glass. I really liked this. Good theatre and very nice, clean, mouth cleansing flavours.

The next dish I (vaguely) remember was a mallow soup. Bright, livid green. Excellent texture. Served cold and very refreshing. There were various things in it/on it, I think, but what I remember are some delicious Morecambe Bay shrimps, which really worked well with the soup.


This was a fair-sized portion of the central part of two fillets of Esthwaite trout that had been cured (somehow) and were remarkably dense-fleshed, but not heavy. This was served with some trout caviar, and on top of a pistou sauce. On top of the trout were some leaves that were remarkably bitter (but worked well as part of the dish), together with what looked like some form of succulent plant. Despite asking the waiter three times I still couldn't recognise what he was saying they were, other than that they were all off the same plant, what I'd taken to be a succulent, being its unopened flowers. Then, on top of all this, was some elderflower foam. But not foam as we know and hate it. Oh no. This foam had been "cooked" in liquid nitrogen, which meant it had all the airiness of a foam, but without the sputum texture. Jolly good dish and good theatre as it comes to the table surrounded in fog.

This was followed by a lovely dish. Completely non-weird, non-wacky, no jokes or puns, just a stunning piece of lemon sole served with broad beans, broad bean purée and a lemon balm beurre blanc.


The fish was beautifully cooked, perhaps a little over-seasoned if you ate it on its own, but combined with other elements of the dish, the seasoning was spot on. Personally, another 15 seconds cooking for the broad beans would have suited me. The beurre blanc was excellent. Nice to see they can turn out some really good, classic cooking when they want to. 
Back to the sole. Fantastic. Very thick. So thick, I peered intently at it prodded and dissected it, to see if he'd glued two fillets together, but, like Ernie Wise's wig, you couldn't see the join.
Here you are - marvel at the thickness of that sole:

Thus far I'd been drinking the Deutz and then a glass of 2007 Eroica Riesling, which worked very well with the first few dishes, combining limey new-world-ness with a delicious minerality.

Now I moved onto a glass of 2005 Côte du Rhône blanc from Guigal. Interesting choice (the sommelier's - I just told him to bring me three glasses of anything that'd work) with steak tartare and braised lamb, but these were lighter versions, and the choice worked decently, and certainly suited me on a hot sunny day.

The next dish was (together with the one following it) what initially caught my eye on the eight-course menu:


It's a veal tartare, classically prepared, though more coarsely cut than many steaks tartares. English rose veal: it didn't say on the menu, but I checked, as if it wasn't obvious from the colour of the meat. The herb is, I believe, oxalis (wood sorrel), and the sort of grey-ey-greeny shards are slivers of dried artichoke. Obvious when I asked that were. Either side of the tartare are two lovely treats, which both worked brilliantly with the veal. To the left are blobs of oyster sauce; to the right the white powder you might just be able to see is dried white truffle powder, that perfumed the table as they dish was set down.

And then, to round off the main courses (and this post - the remaining dishes will be covered in the next post to get round the per-post limit on images) was a braised shoulder of suckling lamb with sweetbreads:


I can't remember what the green sauce was; the brown was an intense stock reduction that managed not to be sticky. Of course, the problem with suckling lamb is that it doesn't really taste of a great deal, and this was no exception to that rule. Delicately flavoured. The two white blobs on the far side of the lamb were (presumably a pun on the suckling lamb) an emulsion of ewes' milk. All in all, a remarkably delicate dish for braised shoulder of lamb: I'd certainly have been looking for a lightish red to go with it, so I'm glad I left the choice to the sommelier, as the Guigal was an excellent choice.

After the lamb, a short pause and then a suggestion of some cheese before moving on to the dessert dishes. That seemed a reasonable idea. This was an extra £15. Ouch. But no, it was worth it. A very good selection of cheeses, all (on the evidence of my sample) in absolutely tip-top condition. Indeed a couple of them, notably the Brie was so à point that there was a strong risk it might not make it to the dinner service. With the sole exception of the local ewes' milk, rind-washed St James all French.


Clockwise from top right:
The little bowl has some delicious grape chutney and a slightly too sweet red onion marmelade.

Nice glass of Côteaux du Layon with the cheese. No idea what it was.

Then it was onto the dessert courses, both of which were characterised for me by having as much of a savoury edge and a sweet edge.

The first was a rather visually unappealing malt sponge cake
which came with an incredibly silky, very beery beer ice cream (I think the menu said what the beer was, but I can't remember) and blackberry granita.
Possibly the least successful dish of the meal, but nowhere near as unsuccessful as some of the misses I've had here and at Anthony's in Leeds before now. Might have been interesting to try a small glass of a kriek or framboise beer with it. As a whole I think it just edged onto the umami savoury side of the sweet-savoury divide. As such it's probably quite a good intermediate in the progression from savoury to dessert, and might actually work better in the context of the menu had I not had cheese, which itself forms a bridge between savoury courses and dessert.

Then it was onto something more recognisably sweet:


Though even this had a bit of a savoury edge: the white quenelle is a (sweetened?) goats' cheese mousse, and it sits on some half crunchy, half not sponge-cum biscuit (you'll have worked out I can't remember what it was), so the whole ends up forming a slightly and gently deconstructed cheesecake (though it very definitely wasn't called that on the menu). The yellow liquid is a tropical fruit soup, and the vertical disks stuck in the goats cheese mousse are a blond caramel.
Very good dish.

That leaves only coffee and petits fours.


Well, the petits fours have had a bit of a rethink, which they were probably due, as they'd changed little from the early days of L'Enclume. Instead of all being on lollipop sticks, they're now served on what I'm pretty sure are the old menu covers.

Clockwise from top right:
All in all, a very successful lunch. I staggered out about 4pm feeling utterly stuffed!

(June 2009)

2003 report:
L'Enclume was undoubtedly the north of England opening in 2003.

Getting the non-food stuff out of the way first: the setting is quite splendid. A converted smithy (hence the name, I understand), with cooling whitewashed walls. White table cloths, good cutlery, good glasses. Even the lighting is good. A conservatory that's not too conservatory-like and a lovely garden with a stream running through, all nestling below Cartmel Priory. On a warm day, it's very difficult not to linger - even to the point of having a cafetiere rather than an espresso after the meal. Cartmel is not exactly a busy metropolis, but Enclume and particularly its garden provide a complete oasis from the outside world.

I've been several times now, and the standard of cooking has been consistently high and innovative. First impressions of the menu are of a Blumenthal/Fat Duck type striving for effect. But while Blumenthal is more about technique, Enclume is about tastes and textures, underpinned by a strong classical technique. Particularly looking at the menu, but also at the food when it arrives on the plate, it is easy to get the impression that there is a striving for effect. That may well be - and I suppose in the crowded market of the Lake District you perhaps need a USP - but the key is that it all works, and often better than it sounds. Menu descriptions tend to the listing every ingredient in a dish variety, which can make you slightly nervous when it comes to something like a "calamint, bark and blossom infusion", but the weirder sounding stuff stands out far more on the page than it does on the plate. Unusually for a lake district kitchen, there is no sticky toffee pudding (thank goodness) - anyone with withdrawal symptoms can pick up the famous (but not that good, in my view), Rick Stein Food Hero version, from the village shop just down the road.

There are, I believe, 5 menus - a TDH at about £20, the carte, and three "Taste and Texture" menus: a seven course "Introduction" at £50; a twelve course "Intermediate" at £75 and a 19 course "gourmand" menu at £95. With the carte at least comes the freebie appetisers and pre-desserts.  The wine list is very well chosen.

I have been for lunch on several occasions, and so far always opted for the carte. The first time was a standard 3 course affair that I now can't remember in its entirety. A dish of turbot and oxtail gayette was quite superb: not at all surf and turf - all elements were perfectly executed and worked harmoniously. This was followed by a Monkfish 'cinq saveurs' that I can't remember much more about than a spicy crust and enjoying enormously. My companion's starter was a "foie gras hors d'oeuvres", comprising I think 4 little foie gras goodies - terrine, pate, fried and a Marc Meneau style cromesqui. Personally I think the foie gras cromesquis, which seem to be becoming more common, are better as a tie-ruining (for the uninitiated) appetiser, than as a substantive element of a dish.

One visit was on 5th June 2003 - a gorgeous boiling hot day, with the sun beating down, while the ducks played amorously in the stream. Indoors was cool, pleasant and welcoming. So I sat outside in the sun (!) with a glass of very good citron pressé (which had to be made in the kitchen for some reason) while I read the menu. Rather than a starter-main course meal, I chose three starters, and asked for a glass of appropriate wine with each. It is a mark of the high standard of the staff that they are unphased by such requests (and indeed hadn't responded "yer wot?" to the request for a citron pressé).

Things got underway with a slab of slate bearing three "freebie" appetisers:
A shot glass of superb asparagus velouté - quite excellent - beautiful colour and an excellent intense flavour.
Dauphinoise potato with leek - not so good. A bit underseasoned and undercooked. I like the cream for my dauphinoise to have been cooked for a while. This was like a warm vichyssoise before processing. Which now I write that, I realise was exactly what it was! The description was wrong, maybe.
Last of the appetisers was a red pepper bavarois. Again in a shot glass. A quite exquisite texture and hugely intense flavour. Superb.

Excellent bread, including a saffron bread, and a sea lettuce bread among about 5 varieties with Echiré butter.

My first course was a sweet woodruff jelly, pickled cucumber, flaky crab, oscietra caviar and "nearly-caramelised baby squid" Each element was superb in itself. Sweet woodruff has a refreshing taste all of its own (and is representative of a number of less common herbs that appear on the menu - maybe chef Simon Rogan is a bit of a forager?), the pickled cucumber was 'spaghetti'd' and slightly sweet, slightly sour , the flaky crab was very fresh tasting white meat that had somehow been fluffed up (you might even imagine that each 'grain' had been separated by hand) and then loosely formed into a neat quenelle. The squid was excellent - tiniest squid imaginable and, as the tin said, nearly caramelised. Everything on its own was quite perfect, but the combination of tastes and textures was simply exquisite. The only drawback might have been that the third of a coffee spoon of oscietra was not quite enough to stretch beyond more than two mouthful combinations (if you see what I mean). They selected a glass of Mosel Riesling Kabinett to go with this, which it did - rather well in fact.

Next up was a nage of langoustines with green vegetables (i.e. peas, beans and broad beans) cooked in a calamint, bark and blossom infusion. Quite exceptional langoustines, perfectly cooked. Stunning colours and flavours on the plate. Presentation of all the dishes is very good indeed. This was matched well by a glass of good, if rather warm muscadet.

Third came Lozenges of quail, roast ramsons (bit late in the season for ramsons, isn't it?), bergamot salsa and a smoked papaya vinaigrette. Another splendid dish, again each component well done (though I'd not have guessed at smoked papaya in the sauce if it had been served blind) and the whole managing to be greater than the sum of its parts. I find it very interesting the way that all components of a dish are excellent in themselves, and thoroughly enjoyable on their own, but when you put it all together on the fork it takes it to a different level. There is a very assured hand at work in the kitchen. The quail breasts were perfectly cooked and served on the finest of finely chopped brunoise of apple and carrot - certainly no more than a sixteenth of an inch perfect cubes. I have to pity the poor person who'd chopped them.
A glass of surprisingly good chardonnay from the Veneto came with this, again a touch on the warm side unfortunately.

Then there were the pre-desserts, which I have forgotten entirely, though I'm pretty sure shot glasses came into it again.

Dessert proper was an upside down coconut soufflé with roast pineapple and a mango chutney ice-cream. The plate arrived, bereft of any sign of souffle, but with a palm tree painstakingly constructed of tuile biscuits glued together with caramel and a slice of highly spiced roast pineapple topped with the equally heavily flavoured mango chutney ice-cream. Seconds later a teacup containing a souffle appeared and was ceremoniously up-ended onto my plate. Well, yes, it was now an upside down souffle. The coconut souffle itself was - I'm sorry, I'm going to use the e word again - excellent. No trace of egginess, no trace of the dreaded dessicated coconut, but just an elegantly perfumed textbook souffle. Excellent. I have to say I found the mango chutney ice cream a little on the overpowering side.

As if you might not have had enough puddings, coffee comes with a shot glass of very good, spongeless tiramisu and a chocolate filled doughnut.

The only weak points in the whole meal were the over-flavoured mango chutney ice-cream and the chocolate donut petit four, which was a little chewy.

Everything else was characterised by the innovation of the combinations, the use of unfamiliar ingredients and the intense, very clean flavours.

I have no reservation in saying that this should get a very very high 8/10. Properly chilled wines by the glass, a little more flavour and seasoning in the vichyssoise cum dauphinoise pre-starter and a milder mango chutney ice-cream would make it an easy 9/10.

I really hope L'Enclume proves a commercial success, as it is a much needed injection of style and skill into the North Lancashire dining scene. (Any Lancastrian will tell you that Cartmel really is part of Lancashire, whatever the 1974 boundary changes said ...)
(June 2003)

2005 report:

L'Enclume, Cartmel
Lunch, 15/10/05

My last visit to L'Enclume was not the best experience, particularly front of house, that I had started to think it perhaps wasn't worth and was coming to the conclusion that there was more than a bit of the emperor's new clothes about Simon Rogan's cooking. But I happened to be in Grange-over-Sands on 15th October and was about to chomp on a sausage roll from the excellent Higginson's butchers, when I thought I'd give it one last go.

To my mind it's one of the most attractive dining rooms in the north of England, in a fantastic setting with a lovely view of Cartmel Priory. They don't really like chance diners, but once I was in everything was proper and the welcome and service much warmer than my previous visit. Some time ago, Simon Rogan clearly decided to get rid of the English staff he had front of house, and the last time I went there was a new largely French team, most of whom left something to be desired, and I regretted the departure of Jamie Slee-Smith.

Now it is all change again, with a new front of house general manager who has come from Michel Roux's White Hart at Nayland in Suffolk. I think called Frank, he is French, and shows the signs of the Roux front-of-house pedigree: a warm welcome, an interested and happy, almost jovial appearance, yet with the ability to keep things carefully under control and running just right. I hope he stays, as he should be good for L'Enclume. There were two other staff serving on this Saturday lunchtime: a young English woman, whose main role was as a commis, though she is the person who tells you what your petit fours are; and a rather more sullen, snooty Frenchman (with more than a passing resemblance to the actor who plays Pascoe in Dalziel & Pascoe). It was noticeable that this latter waiter never missed a trick though: as soon as anything needed changing or whatever on any table he was there. For example, I was mopping up the sauce on my main course with the last of my bread, and he immediately appeared offering more bread.

Walking along the road to L'Enclume, I had already convinced myself that I wasn't going to have the tasting menu (even though the lunchtime tasting menu is good value at £50), and was thinking to have perhaps just two or three starters - an approach that had paid off handsomely in earlier visits, probably in the first 18 months of L'Enclume's existence. Reading the menu, I'd almost come to the decision, when I flicked back to the table d'hôte. £25 for three courses, no choice, and it all sounded exactly what I wanted, so I went with that.

For a £25 TDH lunch, I was surprised to receive an appetiser: a beautiful jerusalem artichoke velouté, with an excellent texture and depth of flavour, and even more surprising was that at the base of the cup was a dice of scallops, the sweetness of which worked excellently with the jerusalem artichoke. A very generous and totally delicious start! At least four sorts of bread, one of which seems always to be sea lettuce, all of which are jolly good - a good texture, presumably from a good slow rise. Three sorts of butter: on this occasion including nasturtium flower.

The starter was a guinea fowl and foie gras terrine: two slices of a baby terrine (2 inches by 1 inch), one rolled in chopped pistachio nuts, which gave an interesting contrast in texture as well as lending a certain sweetness that worked well, as did that provided by a very light quince purée. Wafer thin discs of beetroot and some heavily reduced cabernet sauvignon vinegar were the other main ingredients of this dish that worked well both in its parts and as a whole. Like all the dishes that come out of the kitchen here, it looked stunning too.

The main course were two collops of good (if not as stunning as at Gamba in Glasgow a couple of days previousy) monkfish with some remarkably sweet lobster (again notable generosity on a £25 TDH, particularly when you think that most of the à la carte main courses are £25+). This was served with a bay leaf sauce, some reduced meat juices, a sloosh of fine parsnip purée, some very delicate parsnip crisps, half a small potato (a cross between roast and fondant), and probably a few other things I've forgotten. Once again all the components were accurately cooked and ate well on their own and then as a whole also.

Dessert was a tall, thin column of peanut butter parfait (I don't like peanut butter, but this was great), an excellent hot walnut brownie, a very wobbly, soft set, very green, very cucumbery cucumber jelly and a fourth component that I can't remember now.

Espresso was a good example (but in the most dreadful cups on the planet - style way above practicality) with the standard Enclume petits fours of turkish delight, chocolate filled cinammon doughnut and shot glass of tiramisu. The tiramisu was particularly good this time. Timing of the arrival of the petits fours could be improved.

I drank a pleasant glass of Jurancon moelleux as an aperitif and a half bottle of Pouilly Fumé.

(October 2005)

  Visit their website at www.lenclume.co.uk 

Cortez, Kendal

Cortez has taken over from an old established, old-style Italian on Kendal's main street, Highgate, in a location just outside the main shopping area. Even from the outside it now looks cleaner, brighter and more appealing.

Inside, it is cool and achieves a real genuine Spanish feel without straining to touristy artefacts. The restaurant is long and thin, with tiled floors and rendered walls, with the odd bit of Spanish proverb written on them, helpfully translated. Around 8 sherries by the glass and two PXs from Montilla, reinforces the impression that this place has got it right. Statements on the menu about sourcing help too.

The menu deals in tapas, with a minor foray into three paellas (meat, fish, veg) and a grilled Cumbrian Fell-bred rib eye for unreconstructed carnivores.

In amongst the more obvious, more common tapas dishes such as calamares and patatas bravas, there are a few less common examples. A dish of Spanish green lentils cooked with chorizo and morcilla had a good, rich depth of flavour, good balance and well-cooked lentils. Instead of a straightforward tortilla, I had a tortilla de habas - with broad beans and piquillo peppers. Calamares were very good examples, apparently done in an almond batter: crisp and dry, tasting very clean and certainly very tender. The saffron aioli with the squid was jolly good too. Buñuelos de bacalao were small salt cod fishcakes, perhaps a little heavy on the potato, but very light and airy and with a good flavour. A good sourdough bread comes at a price (£1.60), but there's good olive oil and PX vinegar on the tables.

There are plenty more tapas dishes I want to go back and try.

Desserts all sounded good. I asked if the churros were any good. "Yes, we think so". Nice and light? "Oh, very". Not like many I've had in Spain, then, and it seemed worth a go. They were superb - feathery light, just fried with a nice cinammony taste: they were accompanied by a very good dark chocolate mousse that could have benefited from being just a little more softly set.

Espresso, or rather Café Solo was excellent. Mineral water is Spanish.

A welcome addition to the less than inspiring collection of eateries in Kendal. This is proper tapas and it's so good to see a restaurant in the north that starts out with tapas as its focus, rather than introducing them in an attempt to jump on a bandwagon.



The Punch Bowl Inn, Crosthwaite, near Kendal

Please read a quick, more recent note at the end of this report.

For a good number of years the Punch Bowl at Crosthwaite in the Lake District's Lyth Valley (where the damsons come from) won numerous plaudits under the stewardship of Steven and Marjory Doherty.  Steven Doherty, holder of the prestigious MOGB (Meilleur Ouvrier de Grand Bretagne) award, was a former head chef at the renowned Le Gavroche restaurant in London, under Albert Roux.  He withdrew from the London ratrace to take over the Brown Horse at Winster (also in the Lyth Valley), but shortly afterwards, and building on the success of the Brown Horse, they bought the Punch Bowl at Crosthwaite and turned it into a foodie destination.  Latterly, standards had started to slip, particularly front of house, as the Doherty's spent more of their time running the café-restaurant in Lakeland Ltd (aka Lakeland Plastics) in Windermere.  In 2005, the Punchbowl was sold to a consortium of four, including the owners of the Drunken Duck near Ambleside (see below).  An enormous revamp ensued - the building was completely gutted: I remember driving past once during the building work and there were just about the external walls standing and nothing else.

The result is quite spectacular, and, once through the door, completely unrecognisable from the previous layout.  They were lucky that there were no planning restrictions whatsoever, and the interior of the building has been completely remodelled.  There is now a clear distinction between bar and restaurant.  It's unfortunate that the bar area, and the informal eating areas are all a bit dark and gloomy: so much so that candles are provided on the tables, even at lunchtime, yet it's still quite difficult to see to read the newspapers they thoughtfully provide.  Lots of heavy dark wood furniture does not lighten things.  As the interior is so completely different, it is also very clear that all the olde worlde features (beams and fireplaces) are modern imports, although the slate floor laid in the bar and bar eating areas was apparently discovered underneath the floor in what is now the dining room.

Reception for my lunch in the bar area, initially, was somewhat brusque.  "Find yourself a table, then that's the menu on the blackboard and you order at the bar."  I wasn't given the option of the restaurant (with its higher prices and markedly more ambitious food), and when I inquired later, was told that I would have had to have booked for the restaurant.  I could only see two or three tables occupied though.  Once you fit in with how they do things, staff are pleasant and friendly.  In the bar, starters range from £5-7 and mains from £10-15; and the only menus are the two blackboards, so you need to avoid sitting too near the blackboards or you'll have people standing on top of you while they read the blackboards.  Having done as instructed and found a table and read the blackboard, I returned to the bar to order.  Somewhat unusually, you have not only to have a credit card if you want to run a bill, but you also have to leave it with them: they have a credit card safe system in which to retain your card.  Two older ladies seemed to me to be a little distressed when they were told they had to leave a credit card behind the bar: they wanted to pay cash, but pay at the end.  That wasn't possible.  I too couldn't see the point in traipsing back to the table to get my wallet to get a card just to leave it behind the bar (the legality, or certainly the advisability of which practice is questionable), so I paid for what I ordered, as I ordered it.  Paying in advance is not conducive to tipping, so I hope the staff are all being paid properly.

I started with Cottage pie in miniature with carrots and fine beans (£4.95).  This was presented in a small, oval ramekin with three cubes of carrots and a stack of accurately cooked green beans on the side, with a small slick of stock reduction.  The pie had a notably good quality mince, though the sauce was a little too thin, meaning it sat at the bottom of the ramekin, leaving some dryish meat below the mash topping.  It was almost impossible to eat with the knife and fork provided, which was acknowledged by a passing waitress, who brought me a teaspoon.  If they know, why don't they lay a spoon with the other cutlery?  I have to say it all had a really good flavour, though needed a bit of a stir-up with the spoon.

My main course was Seared calves liver, mustard mash, crispy bacon, onion rings and beer sauce (£12.75)  Good liver, though it was very unevenly sliced, which meant it was a bit unevenly cooked.  To be critical: the bacon was more hard than crispy and the batter on the onion rings could have been better - lighter and crisper.  The mash was excellent, with just the right balance of mustard, as was the beer/stock reduction sauce.

Desserts seemed fairly standard stuff, though it all looked well (and in large portions) as it came out.  A rather unusual entry among the desserts was Black Forest Gateau.  This was an excellent reinterpretation of the much maligned 1970s classic (which even in its traditional form, is a great gateau when properly and freshly made).  Two discs of thin lightly-chocolate'd sponge were layered with a lightly whipped cream into which some excellent cherries and some shards of chocolate had been folded.  On the side was a good little tuile basket, filled with kirsch soaked cherries.  Quite a lot of work in that for its £5.95 price tag.

Espresso was good, though a little on the cool side, presumably because the cup was cold.

If they sort out their silly policy of not being able to run a bill without depositing a credit card, and perhaps introduce some at-table ordering of desserts to save the walk/queue to the bar, I'd be much happier.  But there seems anyway to be plenty to recommend the Punchbowl.  I would have to say that the food is probably better than in the last days of the Doherty regime.  I'll be back, and I also want to try the restaurant.  The food in the restaurant clearly moves up several gears to look at the menu, and I look forward to finding out if they can pull that off.
(February 2006)

A new chef is a the helm at the Punch Bowl and is making himself felt on the menu. Now the restaurant and bar share a menu (though with lighter snacks and sandwiches only being available in the bar).  One welcome new arrival on the menu is a very good Soufflé Suissesse, though called a Cumbrian Cheddar Cheese soufflé with cream sauce: light yet rich and everything a suissesse should be, though I didn't think the bed of spinach on which it came added anything worthwhile.
A fillet of sea bass was very accurately cooked and served with a mashed potato flavoured with crab, and gives a flavour of the standard modern British menu.
A ginger creme brulée was one of the best textured crème brulées I've had in a long time, gently but obviously flavoured with stem ginger and served with two delicious light thin shortbread biscuits.

On this occasion, service was better, and in the restaurant at least it's no longer pay-as-you-go.
(April 2007)

The Drunken Duck Inn and Restaurant, Barngates, near Ambleside  

An old inn, still with rooms and now with an on-site brewery producing ales named after family pets.  It apparently gets its name from when a Victorian landlady found her ducks lying out on the road. Presuming that they were dead she started to pluck them, but soon realised that they were not dead. Apparently down in the cellar a barrel had slipped its hoops and the beer had seeped into the ducks customary feeding ditch. The ducks had made all too good use of their unexpected opportunity and consequently found themselves plucked and half way to the oven when they came to!

Although officially still called "Inn and Restaurant", the pub side is minimalised now, with only the bar in the entrance.  It does sell the - rather good - home-brewed ales of course, but it's dominated by wines, and really the bar area seems to serve mainly as a waiting area for the two rooms that make up the restaurant, and indeed, when I left, some of the bar tables were being laid with tablecloths etc in preparation for the evening service.  That said, there is a bar menu at lunch at least, so you needn't go the whole hog of the restaurant.

The two rooms of the restaurant are quite cosy, but decorated in a modern neutral style.  There is good white napery, good glasses and heavy cutlery on the tables; the chairs are high backed dark brown leather.

There was very good chewy bread provided throughout the meal.  The menu is a mix of modern British classics (including the omnipresent fish and chips, which here looked an unnecessarily large portion: I don't think I saw anyone who ordered it manage to eat it all).  I started with a licorice marinated pigeon on a prune and parmesan risotto, one of the more outré dishes.  The risotto was well cooked but unfortunately had a bit of a raw wine taste to it; the pigeon breast was not the most tender and not the most flavourful, and still had the remains of a couple feathers attached: something that shouldn't happen in any restaurant.  Unless it was a throwback to the origin of the name ...

My main course was roasted diver-picked king scallops with black pepper soufflé beignets and a chilli jam salad.  The scallops were excellent and expertly cooked, if a little small and, particularly in comparison to the fish and chips, the portion size was a little mean for the £17.95 charged. The black pepper beignets were a good idea, poorly executed: they were a bit tough and leathery.  The salad element comprised rocket with sweet chilli sauce and parmesan.  Parmesan and sweet chilli sauce don't really go together very well, and you had to be careful what you put on your fork, as the chilli dominated everything else in the mouth.

Vegetables are extra and I didn't partake.  One of the listed vegetable extras was "Gratin Potatoes": I noticed on other tables that this wasn't, as you would expect, a gratin dauphinois or similar, but rather boiled new potatoes with cheese melted on top: raclette potatoes would certainly have been a far more accurate description.

Desserts were the occasion for mmmm-ing and ahhhhh-ing both from me and other diners.  I went for a melting chocolate pudding with a white chocolate pannacotta and a chocolate and orange parfait, all of which were really well made.  Very good espresso afterwards.

I find it difficult to decide what I think about the Drunken Duck, and intend to go again, lest I chose poorly for starter and main course.  There is some good cooking going on here, though I don't think I got the best of it on this visit.
It's also not a particularly cheap option: my three-course lunch, with a pint of Cat-Nap bitter and a bottle of water came to £37.

(March 2005)
The Restaurant Bar and Grill, 14 John Dalton Street, Manchester
The Restaurant Bar & Grill strives and largely succeeds to be stylish. Downstairs, in what was once Habitat's and more recently Lloyd Davies' ground floor (Lloyd Davies have withdrawn to the basement only now) is the bar, where food is also served. Upstairs, in what I'm certain was once the Goethe Institut, is the restaurant. Very smart, very stylish. Vast room, with a glass wall overlooking John Dalton St at one end and an open kitchen at the other. Disconcertingly the toilets are right next to the open kitchen.

The food is probably best described as River Cafe meets Vong.

Char-grilled chilli squid (£4.75) was splendid - light, very fresh, slightly crisped with extremely well judged chilli input. Our other starter was a special of the day combining taleggio cheese with prosciutto and olive oil, which was reportedly very good. For main courses, we strayed from the Italo-Thai theme, which was a bit of a mistake. A hamburger at £7.95 is made from good meat, perhaps slightly overcooked, and comes with chips and a sesame seed bun that's about as good as they get. Fillet Rossini (£14.75) was a fairly good piece of meat, though far from the best flavoured with a slightly overcooked escalope of foie gras on top and the requisite croute underneath. The accompanying sauce was rather dilute and tasted a little of raw demi-glace.

Apart from chips with the hamburger, vegetables are extra: excellent chips £1.95 and textbook peas french style (aka petit pois a la francaise) £2.50. The peas were as good a vegetable dish as I've had in ages, showing that the classics still have plenty to offer.

A rich and luscious calvados ice-cream was £3.50 and had a good taste of apple with just the right amount of kick of the calvados. From the daily specials menu a mocha tart was an oversized slice of hedonistic indulgence.

With sparkling water, a glass of rioja, a beer and coffee the bill for two came to a good value £57.60.

I think everything I saw come from the kitchen looked interesting, and we'll definitely have to return, but will stick to the more obviously Italian or Thai or Italo-Thai dishes next time.

(November 2001)

Fischer's, Baslow Hall, Baslow, Derbyshire

A 19th century stone built pile, pretending to be several hundred years older, at the top of a steep drive that could do with a little attention to pot holes. Judging by the number of log piles scattered around the extensive, if in places precipitous grounds, they must have a sideline in the logging industry.

On a cold November day, it was much improved when they got round to putting some of those logs to use by lighting the open fire in the hall. The atmosphere is comfortable and homely, which is no surprise as it is home to the Fischers. Max Fischer stays in the kitchen while his wife sees to front of house with an excellent, largely female and all-English staff. Guests are cosseted from arrival to departure, but the attentiveness is not excessive. The bedroom and bathroom were well appointed and very comfortable. Everything is to a high standard. The floors creak, but not so much as you worry about disturbing those below you - more of a comforting, lived in creaking!

The food certainly doesn't creak. Cooking is up to the minute, executed with great skill and with just enough panache to be impressive without being ostentatious.

Pre-dinner drinks are served from a table in the hall and come with good, if not thrilling titbits, carefully explained. "Here you have a red onion tart, a haddock beignet, a cheese tart, a ... oh... err..., that looks the same as the onion, doesn't it? Umm. And those [pointing to a bowl of olives] are olives." The one that looked the same as the red onion tart was a Heathcote-ian baby shepherd's pie. All were good, with notably good pastry.

The menu is not one for vegetarians, and fish-lovers are not particularly well-catered for (scallops as a starter, and a fish special of the day). Meat is where Max Fischer's heart evidently is, and to make sure we understand that most main courses have at least two cuts of the same animal - one prime, one less so. So there were on the menu on the night I went fillet of beef & shin of beef;pork tenderloin, honey glazed belly & stuffed trotter; saddle of lamb & charlotte of lamb shank. Only a duck breast appeared to have just the one bit of the animal (I'm not counting the roast partridge with choucroute, which was a special for the day, attracting a £5 supplement). It was exceedingly difficult to make a choice: there was nothing on the menu that did not appeal immensely.

Having been seated, an excellent example of the white bean cappucino with truffle oil (and a slice of summer truffle for good measure) was served. Very light and frothy and with notably less of the graininess of the beans than I've experienced elsewhere.

Starters, or at least their menu descriptions, are simpler, though I went for the only one that reached two lines: "A composition of warm guinea fowl in filo, foie gras terrine, chicken livers & pancetta".

This was complex and involved. The core was a filo patty-shaped parcel of chopped guinea fowl served, like most of the other elements of the dish lukewarm (tiede in menuspeak). Two discs of single sheets of filo then turned the dish into what would normally be described as a millefeuille (deux feuille to be pedantic). On top of the first filo disc was a slice of a fine foie gras terrine, and on the second, a well dresssed salad. At first sight the foie gras seemed otiose, particularly given the large, perfectly cooked chicken livers (also tiede) around the plate, and in general the dish reads over-complex. When I mention that everything was liberally scattered with slices of summer truffle, then it also seems that a little lily-gilding had been going on. But all elements, beside being of the finest quality and perfectly prepared/cooked, had a point. And they also had a counterpoint, which when you compare the theme and variation of the main courses, would seem to be something Max Fischer enjoys. All in all, it was a splendidly conceived and executed dish.

Main course was "Forest of Dean wild venison saddle, venison osso bucco, game pepper sauce". Both meat elements were perfectly cooked, the meat itself being of singularly high quality. Perhaps the fillet could have done with a few moments longer resting. The osso bucco was an unusual (to me) cut of venison, which deserves to be seen more: the deep mahogany colour contrasted with the pink fillet and while both almost melted in the mouth, the texture of the two meats also worked well together. The pepper sauce was a most remarkable delight: rich and gamey, the amount of pepper being quite perfectly judged. Various incidentals which unfortunately, apart from a tiny tatin of chicory, I can't remember rounded off an excellent dish.

Desserts have much of interest, though I fear those with lighter appetites might be beginning to flag. Portions are hearty, verging on the substantial. Baslow is at the heart of good walking territory though.

A granita of grapefruit and (I think - didn't write it down) cinnamon came as a pre-dessert, and was welcome.

Cheeses looked (when served to an adjacent table) an interesting selection, primarily from the UK and Eire with a few French smellies.

I had a fig platter, which comprised whole roast fig stuffed (after it had come out of the oven!) with icecream; a fig tarte tatin and a beignet of rice pudding with fig sauce. Again, each element irreproachable and working well together.

Coffee (included in the fixed price £48 for 3 courses) was good and came with a selection of home-made, largely chocolate-based petits four.

Bread was very good and appeared home-made.

A bottle of water (not local, oddly) was £3 and a Crozes Hermitage from Belle £21. The wine list is thoroughly multi-national and contains some interesting bottles, but it is a little odd in the price range of wines offered, but perhaps reflects what their clientele want: either cheap or ostentatiously expensive. My Crozes was one of the few in the £15 - £40 range. There were plenty at well under £15, but the list leaps alarmingly quickly to £50+. The list has, for examples, three Argentinians. One at £10 ish (so at the level of supermarket plonk), the other two hovering around the £60 mark. There are plenty of wines that could come between those extremes, which is what leads me to believe that the bulk of the clientele either want something cheap or something that they can show off with. And it would be wrong to criticise Fischer's for responding to customer demand.

I would give it a score of 8/10.

Breakfasts are also good, but much more straightforward: full English for £8.50; smoked salmon & scrambled eggs £7.50 (cereals, fruit salad, excellent croissants, oddly dry brioches, good toast from excellent bread, etc are included in the room rate). Bacon is local, scrambled eggs arrive in the centre of the plate shaped into a huge dome.

(November 2001)

The Monsal Head Hotel, near Bakewell, Derbyshire
The view outside is stunning.  But indoors, this is a rather cramped stables conversion, apparently with only an open fire for heating (meaning if you're at the extremities of the room and not wearing your hiking gear (which to be fair all the other customers this lunchtime were) it can be a bit chilly in cold weather). The main business seems to be drinks as a meeting point for those going walking, with food a little secondary. The menu is a combination of traditional pub fare and some other rather old fashioned dinner party dishes. The fact that salt and pepper comes, along with vinegar, in a wicker basket, filled with sachets of various sauces (ketchup, tartare, etc), seemed to me to speak volumes as to the low aspirations here. Nothing wrong with that, provided they can do it well. But they didn't really pull it off, and my overall impression was that the kitchen was not quite up to the job, and that the food and cooking was nowhere need as good as they thought it was.
I ordered the Lamb, Lentil, Vegetable and Ale Pie and was told that it would take about half an hour, as it's made and cooked to order, which sounded good. But that sort of wait meant I needed a starter to keep me going. Probably the most modern sounding dish on the menu are the crispy pork spring rolls, so I ordered these as something to play with until my pie was ready. According to the menu these were made from shredded spiced slow roasted Pork Belly - all that I could find were a few bits of unspiced chewy pork and lots of vegetables, though the spring rolls themselves were nicely crisp and clean tasting. As a dish it really needed the smear of hoi-sin sauce that was on the plate to liven it up, but it never got beyond the pedestrian.
Eventually, the pie came, and I'd like to say it was worth the wait, but, while it looked good (a dome of thin pastry, if slightly undercooked pastry), it failed to deliver on flavour and showed some laziness in the gristly meat it contained and the unfortunate lack of any real depth of flavour. Accompanying chips appeared frozen.  
(April 2008)

Rowley's, Baslow, Derbyshire
The dining room upstairs is bright and airy with bare wooden floors and bare dark wood tables. Colour is provided in various shades of aubergine-purple, including from the napkins and the seat cushions on some of the chairs. It's a bit odd that some of the blonde wood chairs have upholstered seat and back cushions, but some don't. Presumably the "bright idea" of a designer, without thinking about all the "who wants the comfy seat" debates that presumably result. The menu has no real surprises, but plenty of interest. At lunch, a number of dishes are available in large or small portions, plus a small selection of more obviously main, main courses. One neat little twist at lunch here is a "chef's pie of the day" 

I started with the "Seafood Bouillabaisse". I'm not sure what other sort of bouillabaisse there is, and this wasn't really a bouillabaisse either (salmon? cockles?). What it was, however, was a really good tomatoey fish soup with lots of fish, though the couple of squid rings (nicely cooked, by the way) weren't easy to eat with a spoon. It came with a toasted wedge of good bread and a bowl of slightly underpowered aioli. 

Pie of the day was meat and potato and came with a thin suet crust, that was just a bit too thin and crispy for the most part. The meat in the pie was notably good (no scraps, no gristle), the potato cooked just right and the gravy reasonably tasty, if a bit thin. Other tables around me were having fish and chips (the standard on all modern British brasserie menus) and a notably good looking rump steak and chips. The chips looked so good, that I asked if the pie came with chips. No it didn't, but they could arrange that. It was a pleasant surprise to see that a good portion of very good chips was charged at only £1.50. The pie came with some extraordinarily good thin, squeak-free French beans - I'm not sure what had been done to make them so good, as they seemed absolutely plain, and there was no tell-tale pool of butter in the bottom of the bowl in which they were served, but there really stood out as some of the best I've had in a long time. 

For dessert I had a very well conceived, and perfectly executed rhubarb and custard millefeuille with a delicious star anise ice-cream. One of the best desserts I've had in a long time. Even espresso was jolly good: a double espresso had a deep crema, that's remarkably rare on a double espresso. With a couple of glasses of good wines and a bottle of water, the bill for one came to £38.05 exc service.  

On another occasion, pumpkin and root vegetable salad made a nice light starter: roast pumpkin, roast carrots and parnsips, all served hot, blend with nicely dressed salad leaves. Mussels and tagliatelle came with an excellent saffrom sauce, though I thought it rather a shame that the mussels were still in the shells: by the time you've removed them from the shells, the tagliatelle has started to go cold. 

A pleasant stop off, perhaps not worth the detour, but worth stopping for if you're passing.

(April 2008)


Braidwoods, Dalry
 I had two meals at Braidwoods on the same day. I was dropping a bottle of wine off for the evening event, and as it was lunchtime, thought it rude not to have a light lunch while I was there.
For a bargain price, I had a superb Arbroath smokie hot mousse (almost a soufflé) to start with, which retained a real depth of the smoked haddock flavour.
Then a medley of fish in a shellfish nage. It was a Friday, and this was very far from the "let's use up all the scraps of old fish and call it a medley" that is too often found. Each piece of fish was top quality and perfectly cooked - salmon, monkfish, haddock, turbot I think, each would easily have been a main course portion in some London restaurants.
With a glass of wine, bottle of water, and coffee with excellent chocolates (home-made presumably?),  the bill was £21.

Then returning as one of a party of ten in the evening (we had arranged BYO and a set menu, and had taken along a stellar collection of wine (81 Cristal, 92 Chablis Blanchot from Raveneau, 66 Meursault from Potinet-Ampeau, 86 Corton from Remoissenet, 93 Cros Parentoux, a 78 Gevrey from Pernot Fourrier, 64 Ch. Corton, 85 VCC, 73 Unico, the 97 bottling of Unico Reserva Especial, and 90 Coutet)

Canapés were delightfully light little puff pastry pies filled with mushroom and bacon (vol au vent really doesn't do them justice, and they weren't that shape).

First course was
Seared, hand-dived Wester Ross scallops on a bed of leek, beurre blanc and crispy Parma Ham

Huge, meaty scallops.
The best scallops I've had for years - huge beasts, perfectly cooked. The leeks were exceptionally good too.  All nicely cooked - a very good dish.

Warm tart of Parmesan on a rockette salad with red pepper coulis


Fabulous, really fabulous tart. 
Extremely light, parmesan custard filling - so light it was only just able to maintain its shape in the slices on our plates.  Utterly ethereal pastry - crisp yet probably only the thickness of two sheets of filo. A technical tour de force of the tart world. The red pepper coulis, while in itself superbly done, didn't really work that well for me. I thought tomato would have worked better, or even something that you might more associate with parmesan, say some diced pear. But I think I was in the minority.

Roast loin of highland red deer with a Jersusalem artichoke puree, baby spinach and wild mushroom jus


Gorgeous deer, perfectly cooked and rested.
 The artichoke purée was stunningly good too, and the un-advertised gratin dauphinoise spot on.  There was a flavour in the spinach that I couldn't quite identify - it felt slightly fishy, but the only texture I could identify (other than the spinach itself) appeared to be bacon. Overall though, a superb, beautifully balanced dish.

A small taste of three British cheeses from Iain Mellis

The printed menu showed that dessert was a choice between

Chilled caramelised rice pudding with warm Agen prunes in Armagnac
Dark chocolate truffle cake with an espresso anglaise and maple syrup ice cream

After representations, and weeping and imploring from some of the party, the "or" was replaced by an "and" ...


Has anyone had a better rice pudding? God, it was good. The chocolate truffle cake was so light, it was remarkable. I particularly liked the espresso anglaise too, and wished there had been more of that. The maple ice cream was beautifully made, but I'd have preferred more of that custard.

Service was as excellent as the food throughout. All the above, plus coffee and more of the excellent chocolates, came to £100 a head, including corkage, service, umpteen bottles of mineral water. A lot of money, but very good value.

(March 2009)

The Champany Inn, Linlithgow

A small huddle of buildings around a small courtyard houses the Chop House (for more informal eating), the Restaurant (for formal eating) and some accommodation (for collapsing in as you've eaten so much you can't move any further).  I had lunch in the Restaurant on Friday 18th March 2005, and I was their only customer.
The bar area is comfortable and has a small pond and waterfall, which initially I thought rather chi-chi, but then I looked in it, and realised it was their holding tank for oysters and lobsters.  Sitting in the comfy sofas in the bar you can look up at what I understand is but part of the wine cellar.  Upstairs and open plan in a restaurant wouldn't have struck me as the best place for a fine wine cellar, and to make matters worse they also have tables up there.  A bit strange.

What strikes you immediately about the menu (apart from its enormous size) is its simplicity and its prices.  Good grief!  The prices!  This is getting close to big city prices.  Starters were around £10 and for a steak you wouldn't get much change, if any, from £30.  And then on top of that vegetables are extra (£2.75 a pop).  By contrast, the wine list is a haven of relatively sensible markups (perhaps there's a connection ...).  It's a truly astonishing list with breadth and depth in many regions: it seemed to me (having skipped Bordeaux and Burgundy entirely) to have particular strengths in Spain and above all South Africa (reflecting the owner's origin).  All the top South African wines seemed to be there, and most unusually on either a restaurant or a merchant's list, there were plenty of mature South African wines, which immediately drew my attention.  With the help of the wine waiter, I settled on a 1989 Nederberg, Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Bin R161, Auction Selection, Paarl, South Africa
An interesting nose, with a touch of cassis, and quite cedary with a lot of truffley mushrooms. Very soft on the attack. Lovely, elegant restrained fruit. A moderately old feel to it, with elegant softened tannins. Really well integrated. A mature elegant lady. Lovely earthy finish with magnificent length that goes on forever.
After time a touch of soapiness appears on the nose and a hint of violets. Also with time, it is slightly more drying on the palate.
I took just over a half of the bottle away with me, and finished the bottle at about 9.30 that night. No further development (despite having been on the long drive home) and it wasn't showing any signs of fading.
Excellent wine.
The dining room is a curious round building (apparently an old horse-driven mill) with a very Scottish baronial feel: all very dark, polished wooden tables, heavy cutlery, good quality glasses, copper cruet, copper water jugs.  The jarring note were the modern perspex salt and pepper mills - all the more jarring as they were identical to the ones on the refectory tables in the University of Stirling, where I had been at a conference, and from where I was now on my way home.  Good bread.
The cooking is as simple as the prices are high.
For a starter, I just managed to avoid the Loch Gruinart oysters (a name uncomfortably close to Gruinard) and instead had what was billed on the menu as hot smoked salmon.  I expected a small piece of hot-smoked salmon, as you often find in delicatessens, some salad and whatever.  No.  It was a huge (big even for a main course) portion of salmon, that was both hot and hot-smoked, served on a plain hollandaise.  The fish was perfectly cooked - still just translucent in the middle, and with an extremely well-judged level of smoking, with a nice hint of mesquite.  Apparently the range in the kitchen incorporates a smoke pot.  Very good fish, perfectly cooked, perfectly smoked, but too big a portion.
For main course, I'd ordered a rib eye steak, some dauphinois potatoes and some french-fried onion rings.  The steak was £29.50 and when it came, it was easy to see why.  I don't think I've ever seen such a huge hunk of cow on a plate in front of me.  There was nothing else on the plate, just what looked like about 24 oz of cow.  It was quite perfectly cooked: charred on the outside, rare on the inside.  And the quality of the meat was quite simply astounding.  Without a doubt, this is the best ever steak/beef that I have ever had.  Quite superb, quite astoundingly good.  But the size?!?!  I can understand that it's easier to cook a bigger piece of meat more accurately, but this was too big.  It almost defeated me, and but for the nagging thought that clearly a noble beast had died to provide this, it would have defeated me - assuming my portion was a normal portion.  And that's what I don't get.  They clearly have a great understanding and respect for the beef they serve, but unless their entire customer base have gargantuan appetites, there must be a lot of wastage from what's returned on the plates uneaten.  Also if they cut the portion size down by a third, or even a half, nobody is going to go away hungry, and they could reduce the prices accordingly, yet still maintain (probably even increase) their gross profit.
The gratin dauphinois was poor - very dry and a bit tasteless.  Onion rings were good, though I think they would have benefited from slightly fresher oil.
At this point I was completely beefed out and needed something refreshing, so just had a bit of ice-cream.  Again, far too large a portion, served in slightly heavy tuile which to make the dish heavier still had been dipped in chocolate.  The ice-creams (a mixture of praline and vanilla), while well-flavoured, were rather coarsely made with a somewhat grainy texture.  They were also served too cold.  Decent, if not terribly wonderful, espresso came with what looked like shortbread and something dipped in chocolate: but I couldn't face eating them.
I find it difficult to decide what I make of the Champany Inn.  There is no doubting the sheer excellence of the quality of the beef, the à point timing of the cooking and the breathtaking wine list.  But the cooking is very simple: meat is grilled full stop.  And there is far too much food.  This is also I think about the first restaurant in many years where a fine mature wine has cost less than a simply cooked steak.
I would give this a score of 2/10 at most.  It is tempting to give a higher score on the basis of the amazing wine list and the simply astounding quality of the meat, but I always try to weight my scores based on the skill of the kitchen, and all things considered this is only really a steak and chips establishment.  Bearing that in mind, 2/10 is probably a bit generous.
(March 2005)


The Plumed Horse, Crossmichael,
(restaurant now closed, and re-opened in Leith, Edinburgh - comments from people whose judgement I trust make it sound like the following review is still relatively accurate)
Crossmichael is a couple of miles north of Castle Douglas, which is billing itself as the food capital of Scotland.  It's got a way to go yet, although it really is a gloriously "proper" high street, with lots of privately-owned shops, including a few decent looking butchers.  Crossmichael is quite the opposite.  It's a one street linear settlement with absolutely nothing going on.  If you're travelling north (coming from Castle Douglas), the Plumed Horse is remarkably easy to miss, as the sign is visible only when you're southbound.  The Plumed Horse is next to (and at right angles to) the pub.  A small, unremarkable whitewashed building that looks like it might have been stables for the pub or a smithy cum mechanic (a sign on the exterior south wall refers to a switch for isolating petrol pumps of which there is no trace).  Going in the small front door (there is also a larger glass door, but that's not an entrance), the kitchen is on the left, the dining room on the right.  I had booked for lunch and one the only diner; Tony Borthwick, chef-owner, fulfilled all the front of house functions as well as working in the kitchen.  The dining room is small (probably only about 15 covers max) and feels quite formal, all in bright yellow and white, with large tables, crisp tablecloths and serious stemware.
I chose a langoustine bisque, a dish off the very reasonably priced table d'hote to start with: light and frothy with an intense flavour.  In the centre a mousse of langoustine topped with caviar (Avruga, actually, I think), and surprisingly also stuffed with caviar.  Clever and very well executed.  Quite a dish to have on a bargain TDH!
Reverting to the carte, next up was a Ballotine of Young Grouse & Foie Gras with Madeira & Sauternes Raisins, truffled Leaves and Cumberland sauce. An excellent ballotine with clear, clean, well-defined flavours.  The delicately dressed baby salad leaves came in a very fine pastry cup.  All jolly good.
Main course was a Roast Loin of Pork, with a piece of braised rolled belly stuffed with Prunes soaked in Armagnac on top of it.  Excellent meat (both of them), accurately cooked (both of them); served with some mashed Potatoes, and a superb beetroot & red cabbage stew.
Dessert was a touch disappointing: billed as a trifle, it was served in a champagne flute: some nice red fruits in an excellent sherry jelly at the bottom, but then rather than a light crème anglaise and a bit of cream, the custard element was also quite firmly set.  After first saying that the last time his assistant had made it, the custard had been too loose, Tony Borthwick came back from the kitchen saying that it wasn't an anglaise but a vanilla bavarois and that's how it was meant to be.  Well, yes.  And on its own it would be a singularly good vanilla bavarois, but it rather missed the mark as a dessert: jelly with jelly.  Excellent coffee and a decent glass of house red (there are no halves) brought the final cost, with service, to £47.50.
(October 2004)
Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart

The hotel building is an imposing white rendered pile, clearly designed by somebody who liked bays, set in grounds that aren’t quite as large as they seem at the end of a long drive clearly signposted from the A75. The main lounge has a modernised baronial feel, with log fires and comfortable furniture for post-prandial snoozing. My bedroom was extremely comfortable and huge – I mean massive: it must have been 30 x 20 feet, excluding the ubiquitous bay, with a four poster bed and an en-suite the size of most hotel bedrooms. The standard of hotel-keeping is very high indeed, with great attention to detail throughout. Unfortunately the food needs a bit more attention to match the hotel-keeping standards.

Orders are taken in the main lounge before you are taken through to the rather cold, slightly institutional, utterly soulless big-hotel dining room. Lots of big curtains, a dried flower display in the fireplace, fresh flowers on the table, monogrammed (“KH”) cutlery. The food is rather anaemic and forgettable. My main course was a rather pedestrian, ungenerous piece of salmon, adequately cooked with a bland basil sauce and a very smooth saffron mash, that somebody had unfortunately forgotten to put the saffron in until the last minute. This meant that the flavour and the colour of the saffron had not had any chance to develop: instead there were just occasional, rather off-putting blobs of yellow. The starter I have forgotten completely.
Perhaps the most memorable dish was the amuse gueule, which was unfortunately memorable only for its awfulness: it was billed on the menu as something like a red pepper roulade. Well, that sounds ok, but what arrived was a thankfully small slice of a rolled up slice of flabby Mother’s Pride style white bread with a filling apparently of cream cheese and a sparse scattering of diced raw pepper. Eurgh. Maybe Abigail at her Party might have been impressed, but I can’t believe anyone would be nowadays.
The bread roll offered with the meal was also not terribly good, with a very hard bottom suggesting it might have been in the warmer a few times too many; and despite having been in the warmer, it was unevenly warm. Similarly the turnips (small turned white turnip) accompanying the main course were unevenly heated. Service was very uneven: a male waiter in black tie, who also worked the lounge (and carried bags at other times of day) was very good; two females who did most of the service in the dining room really didn’t do much more than carry the food to the table. When one of them came to brush away crumbs before dessert, she managed to miss most of the crumbs! Desserts were straightforward classics of the ilk of crèpes Suzette and crème caramel with cheese as an alternative. Cheeses came ready plated: four well kept Scottish cheeses, served a bit cold but otherwise the highlight of the meal. The meal was over in just over an hour and for once I was glad to escape the soullessness of the restaurant and the Agatha Christie style supporting cast of my fellow diners (two maiden aunts and a Yorkshire magnate and his bored wife) and return with my coffee and a glass of port to the luxury of my bedroom.

Breakfast was also a little uninspired: decent if unexceptional porridge; a competent fry up of a full Scottish, but with a remarkably poor quality sausage.

The price for dinner, bed and breakfast was £113.50. A bottle of 2001 Knight Granite Hills Riesling from Central Victoria was £18.75 from a not terribly distinguished and not terribly good value list, though a glass of 1985 Noval was a relative bargain at £4.80.
(October 2004)
Knockinaam Lodge Hotel, Portpatrick
Not in Portpatrick itself, but two bays south in Port of Spittal Bay, at the end of a long track, part of which seems quite likely not to have been repaired since Churchill met Eisenhower here during the Second World War. Knockinaam Lodge is a grey stone building (partly white rendered on the north side), set in extensive grounds (with room to land your helicopter) leading down to a black sandy beach in a relatively sheltered cove. At night the lights of Belfast harbour are just about visible directly opposite.

The feeling is of complete isolation, but definitely without any privations that you might associate with isolation. There is a warm welcome, log fires burn in the public rooms. A clubby bar with an impressive selection of single malts; a comfortable lounge with a highly ornate cornice and somebody could clearly go in for the cushion plumping world championship. Staff are friendly and efficient, though well able to leave one well alone when that’s what you want, even without them being told. Even the two gorgeous black labradors (never seen in the hotel building) are welcoming and the male, Jack, came bounding up when I went for a walk round the grounds after breakfast on the first morning to insist that I follow him down to his private playground, the beach.

2009 report:
I stayed for two nights at Knockinaam this time. The DB&B rate for an enormous room, complete with a bathroom from the tub of which you could watch the sunset was £150 a night - I think there were two cheaper rooms available. But £150 a night was pretty good value I thought, when you bear in mind that a room only overnight stay in London can easily be over £100.  The only disappointment was that the bed appeared to be two singles (or at least two single mattresses) pushed together and made up as a double, rather than a true double (well, queen/king - I'm not expert on bed sizes!).

Breakfasts are excellent, with a huge choice - the only fault I could find with breakfast is that the home-made croissants were a bit heavy. Everything else in the bread basket was superb though, including the large warm muffin.

The evening meal is a set affair four course (five if you include the tweely named chef's surprise) with the only choice being between dessert and cheese. The first night, the running order was: Large olives and home made crisps with drinks, quickly accompanied by canapés: a very nice grilled fig with blue cheese and Serrano ham, and a rather dull mini baked potato with not very spicy spicy baked beans.
At the table we were presented with an appetiser of aubergine caviar with parmesan crisp. Very smooth with a nice balance of flavour, but it was served a bit too chilled.

Grilled salt cod with chive hollandaise followed: very precisely cooked fish, in quite a large portion. Excellent hollandaise. The chef's good at hollandaise here - it's excellent at breakfast too!

Next was a celeriac and parsley soup with truffle oil. This was fairly light but with good depth of flavour, and for once the truffle oil worked well and integrated in flavour with the celeriac and parsely, rather than sitting slightly apart from the main flavours of a dish, which it often can.

Roe deer with mash, haggis beignet and very good stock sauce formed the main course. The deer was beautifully cooked, extremely tender, very flavourful meat. The haggis beignet was a bit otiose and didn't, I thought, really contribute that much to the dish other than a strained "this is Scotland" note.

The cheese selection comprised Cheshire, Pont L’Eveque, Epoisses, and Stilton. All in remarkably good condition. Oddly served with half a pickled onion, alongside more normal couple of grapes, celery and a slightly musty tasting apple.

Passion fruit soufflé with its sorbet – the sorbet was orange, I’m sure. Beautifully risen soufflé, but a bit on the sweet side, and could have done with a bit more passion fruit character.

The next night brought: Olives and crisps again. Canapés: goujon of sole with tartare sauce; quail egg on black pudding. Both spot on, though the quail egg and black pudding impressed me most.
Appetiser: oyster beignet with shallot & rice wine vinegar. This was superb and I could have eaten it all night.

Sea bass with citrus segments and beure blanc. Pretty good, but lacked the precision of yesterday’s cod.

Turnip & thyme cappuccino with truffle oil. Again pretty good, but not a patch on yesterday’s soup. This time the truffle was a bit too dominant over the rather slight flavour – the only other taste was some thyme.

Canon of lamb with herb crust, puy lentils and white pudding was the main course. The textures of the herb crust and the white pudding were a bit too close and sticky-claggy. The stock based sauce lacked flavour and any of the depth that yesterday’s sauce had.

Tonight's dessert of gooey chocolate pudding with sour cherry ice cream. was a very good chocolate fondant, with the ice cream a good counterbalance, but a bit too hard and too frozen.

At both the starter and the soup course, the waiter asked how it was, and I said truthfully, "very good indeed, but not quite as good as yesterday". When it came to the main course, he asked "if I asked how it was, were you about to say 'not quite as good as yesterday'?" Well, yes, if I had to tell the truth, that's exactly how it was. "Hmm, " he said, "there aren't many guests who can tell when it's chef's night off!". I felt quite pleased with myself!

It wasn't quite as good on chef's night off, but it was still very good indeed. The last time I went to Knockinaam (4 years ago?), the wine list had lots of really interesting, very reasonably priced bins, most of which, it transpired, had been in the cellar when the current owners bought the hotel. Unfortunately, there are now fewer of those bins (but still a couple that kept me very happy - some otherwise unknown Italian wine from 1985 for £30 and Guigal La Turque 1986 for £130), but the wine list continues to be intelligently put together, with plenty of choice at the lower reaches of the price scale. It's unfortunate that they didn't have the foresight to continue buying and laying down wine while they used up the previous owners' cellar to give the cellar the real depth that it had previously. The staff are very well trained and very able - surprisingly so since they are drawn from the local, sparse populace. If I had one fault to find with the staff, it would be with the owners, who are noticeable by their absence: David Ibbotson appears in the bar at dinner to take wine orders and greet new residents, but immediately disappears once he's done his perfunctory duty. You couldn't really call him a host.
(March 2009)

2004 report:

My bedroom was one of the smaller rooms, but immaculate, everything of the highest quality, including cotton sheets of the finest quality I’ve yet come across. There is not the standard hotel welcome folder, rather a personal letter with all the usual information. A nice touch.

Dinner is a four course affair, with the only choice being between dessert and cheese. Sitting in the lounge with an aperitif (the well stocked bar extends beyond whisky to less unusual drinks in this part of the world such as Punt e Mes, served as is everything in a generous measure), I was struck by the quality of the wine list: this is a real enthusiast’s and collector’s list (indeed David Ibbotson is buying en primeur for the future) with good breadth and depth. Current and recent vintages are at standard to occasionally hefty markups, although there is plenty under £20. There are, however, plenty of bargains in the wide range of mature wines: there are sizeable quantities of 1980s claret and Italians at good prices. I had a 1983 Coltassala, Castello di Volpaia, Vino da Tavola di Toscana, 13%, a blend of sangiovese and mammolo and, according to the bottle ‘specially selected for the Opimiam Society, Canada’. This was one of a number of wines sourced from brokers such as Fine and Rare: interestingly the wine list shows merchants, which in itself reveals some very intelligent purchasing. Pol Roger Winston Churchill is appropriately on the list (in two vintage: the 93 at £154 and the 85 at £160).

Incidentals are good: good bread, nice canapés and petits fours. On my first night canapés were a half inch square of excellent melba toast topped with a stunningly good mango salsa; and a confit baby potato. On the second night there was a very fine (fine as in delicate and fine as in very thin) cheese straw and a bite-sized chunk of delicately flavoured oriental spiced salmon. This is in addition to the home made crisps and giant olives that come with the drinks.

The dining room is comfortable, with another log fire burning; white tablecloths (pink tablecloths at breakfast), decent glasses. Though some of the tables are a bit dark. Service is enthusiastic, able and attentive without omnipresent lurking.

My first meal began with an excellent amuse gueule of wild mushrooms on toasted brioche. First course was a spot on piece of roast salmon (beautifully cooked – completely à point) with a pesto dressing, followed by a grilled goats’ cheese salad: the goats cheese in and on partly hollowed out new potatoes; some intensely flavoured cheeks of confit plum tomato, apricot chutney, some green beans and a few salad leaves. Sounds more complicated than it was. Main course was a paupiette of wonderful tasting chicken, wrapped in an air dried ham and with a small dimple of Kiev style butter in the top. A light perfect haggis beignet was a show-off for the chef, but, while it didn’t jar in any way with the rest of the dish, it didn’t really do anything for the dish. Excellent fondant potato; fine beans and baby carrots and an excellent stock based sauce with chanterelles completed a lovely dish. Pre-dessert was an utterly inspired miniature champagne flute of freshly crushed pineapple juice – hardly a big cheffy show-off (and so on that basis, I can excuse the haggis beignet) but a truly wonderful component of the meal, showing the chef’s excellent feel for menu construction. Dessert was an expertly executed (if a little large) pear tarte tatin with “double vanilla” ice-cream.

Dinner on the second night began with a nice little amuse of a cube of ham hock terrine with a light picallili. First course was a quite beautiful rich, deeply flavoured, just lip-smacking beef consommé with a very light boudin blanc style mushroom sausage. Next came a bundle of lightly char-grilled asparagus wrapped in some very good smoked salmon and served with a truly expert light frothy hollandaise. Main course was monkfish, two slices off a large tail: again very precise cooking with a crisp rim and pearly white interior retaining moistness and freshness – impeccable quality fish. This came with a mid-weight chicken jus, lovely soft creamy mash, green beans and baby fennel. Another perfectly balanced dish, but where on earth do they get baby fennel in such an isolated location? A minor criticism might be the slight similarity between the hint of lip smackingness in the consommé and the stock-based sauce with the monkfish. Pre-dessert was a nougatine glacé and the desert proper was a stunningly good crème de menthe soufflé, with great depth of delicate minty flavour (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and a chocolate ripple.

The no-choice meals are extremely well constructed and have a lovely balance and looking back, it is clear that one outstanding feature was the notably excellent precise seasoning: over two meals (four including breakfast) nothing needed any salt or pepper at all.
(October 2004)


Beechwood Country House Hotel, Moffat

A short drive off the main street of Moffat, the last few hundred yards along an unmade road, brings you to a substantial stone property, with a slightly incongruous conservatory extension on one side. To the front, there are fantastic views across the Annan valley and down onto Moffat. To the rear of the hotel is a beech wood and rising beyond it, offering a gentle afternoon stroll and excellent views, Gallows Hill.

Public rooms are high-ceilinged and very comfortable, with lots of knick knacks giving an impression of a family home (which it is: the conservatory houses the Michaelides’ private living quarters and office). My bedroom was a good size, comfortably furnished with a mixture of hotel furniture and Ikea furniture and every little extra I could think of.

Stavros Michaelides’ welcome is warm and he works front of house well. There is, however, a hint of Fawlty about him, as for instance when before dinner he spilled some mixed nuts he had taken to one of the tables in the bar: the spilled nuts were wiped straight back into the bowl, which was then put on the table. Other minuses are:
• the strong smell of animals that greet you as soon as you go through the front door, though probably only non pet owners will notice it. The problem is that the dog’s and the cat’s bowls and beds are under the reception table.
• The open fires are not lit till 6pm
• Sitting in the lounge, enjoying the peaceful location is rather spoiled by the loud music coming from the kitchen.
• The kitchen’s loud music starts again quite early in the morning.

The dining room is well proportioned, high-ceilinged and lit primarily by candles. I started with a game terrine with a light apricot chutney, the terrine marbled with various game meats. What was particularly notable about the terrine was that it was served at the merest fraction above room temperature which brought all the flavours out beautifully. Unfortunately, two small pieces of fowl rib cage had escaped detection and made it onto my plate – a fairly elementary error.
An extremely good, very creamy mushroom soup with an exceptionally good texture followed.
Main course was a navarin of venison with soft potato gnocchi. Initially it appeared a rather mean portion with only four or five small cubes of venison, but as a dish in its entirety and as part of the meal it worked very well. The venison had been long cooked, the gnocchi were well made and well cooked and the sauce had a great depth of flavour.
Desert was a caramelised (i.e. bruléed) fig with a fig compote and cinnamon yoghurt. Perhaps a tribute to Stavros’ background, but a well balanced, well executed dessert.

The next morning, breakfast was exceptionally good. Excellent porridge, a superb full Scottish that remarkably left virtually no trace of grease on the plate at all: really good bacon, meaty Cumberland sausage, haggis, etc. And seriously good toast made with real bread and a nice freshly baked buttery croissant.

With a bottle of Haras 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (£19) off a decent broad-based list the price for Dinner, bed and breakfast was £104.

Overheard on the next table: “Do you have English cheeses?” “No, they’re all Scottish” “As long as they’re not that soft French muck.”

(October 2004)


Brian Maule, Chardon d’Or, Glasgow

I was slightly wrong footed from the beginning, as when I was entering the restaurant (which is up half a dozen steps from the street), I was in the vestibule space between the outer and inner doors, when the maitre d' rushed forward to open the inner door for me - unfortunately it opens outwards, and to avoid getting smacked by the door, I had to take a quick step backwards.  Inside, it's a very smart dining room, which at first I thought looked bigger than it was ... until I realised that it wasn't a mirror down what wasn't a wall!  Very comfortable dark brown leather chairs, white tablecloths, good cutlery, good glasses - all what you expect.  Huge flower displays, including on our table a huge vase full of gigantic lilies, which prevented you from looking directly across the table.  We ate à la carte, from an interesting menu.

I started with tempura squid with avocado and red onion.  This had merely acceptable squid, which retained more chewiness than you might expect in such an establishment, and was in a batter which was a bit more English (well, Scottish) batter than tempura.  A rather messy plate (other dishes shared this visual confusion on the plate), the squid, which could certainly have been in a crisper batter, sat on top of a curiously large mound of what was really only an average guacamole (adding its own greasiness), on an over-dressed, over-oily (and hence clashing with the deep-fried squid) salad with mounds of really rather uninteresting chopped red onion.

My Beef fillet with roast parsnips and wild mushrooms was good, though not exceptional beef, very accurately cooked with a few chanterelles and a very good stock sauce.  Excellent roast parsnips and a very good, generous circle of an interesting cross between pommes Anna and gratin Dauphinois.

 My dessert was a cranachan parfait with stewed raspberries and strawberries.  When it was put in front of me, I viewed the cooked fruit with doubt, but they were very accurately poached and worked very well with the parfait.  Maybe some form of biscuit/tuile would have provided the texture needed to lift the dish to that extra level.

There were no incidentals (no appetisers, pre-desserts etc), other than some rather tired bread.  Service was unobtrusive – almost to an extreme, as empty plates were left for quite some time, especially after the main course.  To their credit, all plates got to the right recipient.  Of course, that should always be the case in an establishment of this calibre and these pretensions, but is worthy of note given that we were a party of ten.  The bill for ten was just short of £700, which worked out at something like £44 a head without wine (we had arranged BYO and were charged a steep £13.50 a bottle corkage).  We had no wine service whatsoever from the restaurant, other than the provision of a large ice bucket and a decanter; we had to rinse out our glasses with mineral water (for which we were naturally charged), and when we asked for some fresh glasses, we were told they didn't have enough: yet the same percentage service charge was applied to the £270 corkage charge, which at best ranked as very cheeky.  When we remonstrated, £120 was immediately knocked off the bill.

(October 2005)

Gamba, Glasgow
A basement dining room, reached down some steepish steps that the sign warns are slippy when wet (it was and they were).
The walls are painted in terracotta tones, and the tiled floor gives it a bustling, vaguely Italianate feel. Furnishings and table settings are good, and a little higher standard than the decoration would have you think. It seems to hit the balance between a relaxed, informal atmosphere and doing things "properly" just right. Against one wall is some curiously oversize blue banquette sort of seating that seems out of place and probably wouldn't suit the claustrophobic.
I started with fish soup with crabmeat and prawn dumplings. There was a really good depth of flavour to the soup with lots of crab meat adding another flavour and texture, along with some pools of great, fresh tasting coriander oil floating on top. The prawn dumplings, while very light, didn’t really add anything and just introduced an unnecessary complication to the eating process. Nice to see them recommending sherry with this, and it worked very well.
My main course was a roast monkfish with pea and shrimp curry. Actually, not really a curry by any stretch of the imagination: more of a very very mildly spiced tomato based goo with large shrimps and peas, neither of which were overcooked, so had presumably been added late in the cooking process. The pea and shrimp goo balanced very well the huge portion of spankingly fresh, very precisely monkfish. Stunningly good chips.
Stem ginger and pistachio cheesecake with fresh raspberries was the lightest sounding dessert on the menu, which seemed to major a little too strongly on chocolate. I was looking for something lighter for dessert, but this triangular cheesecake was jolly good.
Espresso coffee was a touch thin with an indifferent crema.
Staff are very good. The dining room is non-smoking until 2pm at lunch and until 10 pm at dinner.
(October 2005)
Café Ostra, Glasgow

In the Italian Centre in Glasgow’s merchant quarter, but without any discernable Italian connection, this large multi-level establishment owes just a little to Livebait for its style, though here the tiles are black and white.

Fish soup was very good (as it should be in a primarily fish restaurant), with a great gingery undertone, and the fresh-tasting basil oil pooled on top worked very well. In the soup was a very light and largely tasteless prawn dumpling that did nothing for the soup at all.

For a main course I had a smoked salmon omelette: a good light-textured omelette with plenty of good quality smoked salmon and a light mornay sauce. Served with decent chips, perhaps slightly underdone maybe.

A straightforward wine list that matches the food well.

With a small bottle of sparkling water, a glass of Australian (?) pinot gris and a particularly good espresso the bill for one came to £23.85.
(October 2004)
Restaurant Rococo, Glasgow
22nd October 2004

This was a dinner for which a small group of six wine, with a vague theme of mature wine for which we had arranged BYO and the restaurant had proposed the following menu, at a (bargain!) price of £55 per head including corkage.  They had originally proposed the two starters the other way round, but asked them to reverse the order to suit the wines.   We were in a semi private room, separated from the restaurant by some heavy leather covered screens. The restaurant is stylishly decorated with top quality tableware and notably comfortable seats.

As an aperitif: Krug 1985

As we were finishing this we were brought an amuse gueule of a velouté of pumpkin with ceps and truffle oil: a light, frothy soup with a good pumpkin flavour, big chunks of ceps and just enough truffle oil that you knew it was there but without overwhelming.

Moving onto the first starter, poached turbot and oyster served with wilted spinach and a champagne velouté, we opened two 1993 Chevalier-Montrachets:
1993 Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles, Louis Jadot and 1993 Chevalier-Montrachet, Leflaive

The turbot was a very nice generous bit of fish, well cooked; the oysters too were perfectly timed. A nice light sauce completed a very nice light dish.

The second starter was a terrine of foie gras with fig jam and celeriac remoulade. The terrine was well made, nicely seasoned allowing the richness of the liver to show through, and presented as three thin slices off a small (say 4cm) torchon. The slices of terrine were served on a rectangular smear of fig jam; the celeriac remoulade was otiose.  With the foie gras we had 1949 Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Moelleux, Huet

The first main course was a very good if slightly uninspired roast breast of mallard with creamed cabbage, braised white turnip and an appropriately mild sauce Albert. Thus the menu. The real stars of the first main course, however, were the little jugs of simply heavenly bread sauce – easily worth eating directly from the jug … With this, we had two superb 1991 burgundies: 1991 Clos de la Roche, Lignier and 1991 Vosne Romanée Cros Parentoux, Rouget

The next main course was an excellent rolled tower of remarkably lean slow cooked aromatic pork belly with cauliflower purée and delightful light sage beignets, brought separately to the table to avoid them becoming soggy. The wines we served were a 1961 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou and a 1982 Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste

Next came a delicious dessert, described merely as a “Trio of Apricots”. This was a very well conceived dessert perfectly executed, with a good combination of textures and temperatures: a warm apricot strudel, apricot ice-cream containing a chunk of apricot and err … what was the third one? A sort of apricot cake?

After dessert we compared the remaining 1949 Huet with 1949 Moulin Touchais.

Finally with coffee, and served blind was a half bottle of 1955 Sandeman.

This was a marvellous evening with excellent food, splendid company and some stunningly good wines – also surprisingly youthful wines, with no real faults: we were very lucky (not to mention a little surprised) indeed with the quality and vitality of all the bottles opened. The only disappointment of the night was the Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet, which was merely prematurely aged and still a pleasant drink. Restaurant Rococo did us proud, not just in the excellent quality of the menu: incidentals were great (I made a note that the bread was seriously good); service was brilliant – there when we needed them, not there when we didn’t; they’d taken time to understand what wines we had brought and which we were having when; and they kept up a constant supply of decanters and quality glasses.
(October 2004)




The Moat House, Acton Trussell, Staffordshire

Review moved to new page: click here

Opulence Restaurant, Cathedral Quarter Hotel, Derby

Review moved to new page: click here

Hambleton Hall, Rutland

Review moved to new page: click here

The Old Bridge Hotel, Huntingdon

Review moved to new page: click here

Fratellis, Stamford, Lincolnshire

Review moved to new page: click here

Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

Review moved to new page: click here

Iberico, Nottingham

Review moved to new page: click here

Harts Restaurant, Nottingham

Review moved to new page: click here

Le Mistral, Nottingham
Review moved to new page: click here

Restaurant Gilmore, Beamhurst, near Uttoxeter

Review moved to new page: click here

Siam Thai, King's Heath, West Midlands
Review moved to new page: click here

Simpsons, Birmingham

Review moved to new page: click here


London restaurant reviews are now available on their own page: click here


    Bordeaux: Le Jardin d'Ausone
    Les Cinq Sens
    La Tupina
Portugal:   Oporto: Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana
Spain:   Salamanca




Le Jardin d'Ausone
10 Rue Ausone
Tel : 05 56 79 30 30
Fax : 05 56 44 75 02

I classed this restaurant, run by wine-nut Laurent Vialette, as a bit of a find: it was certainly the most enjoyable, and probably the best meal I had over a few days in Bordeaux. I happened to be walking down the Rue Ausone and stopped to read the menu of this restaurant. The menu was short and to the point and thoroughly ingredient-centred: dishes are grouped under the main ingredient, with many dishes available as a full portion or a half portion; so, when I went in October 2005 the menu went as follows:

In addition there are the normal handful of set menus, including a menu autour de cèpes for what sounded like a bargain €50, and a menu surprise.

The menu stood out, head and shoulders above most of the other restaurants I peered into in Bordeaux in having a real integrity. And I really fancied that menu autour de cèpes ...

You go up a few steps into a rough stone, vaulted room that actually makes you feel a bit like you're dining in a château. Apparently the buildings classed as some sort of historic monument. Upstairs, there's apparently a champagne bar, serving nothing but.

The interior of the restaurant on the ground floor is quite chic: Starck chairs, wooden floor, rough, lightly rendered walls, with huge bleached wood beams above. Mirrors propped on the floor against the wall. There is an ornate, very large carved wood bar bristling with wines available by the glass. An unseemingly large number of Mas Amiel 20th anniversary magnums serve as vases. Table settings are very proper and the glasses from Spiegelau.

As an aperitif, I had a glass of 1998 Ch. Tour Faugas, AC Cadillac and enjoyed some rather different nibbles while reading the menu: a mall dice of courgette with confit lemon. One of the most unusual nibbles I've been given, but actually very pleasant.

Having ordered my menu autour de cèpes, the first thing to arrive was the freebie appetiser: air dried ham and mi-cuit tomato on a small croute.  Very simple, but with nice ingredients.

The first wine was a 1997, called something like Mau Chantré (I didn't quite catch what it was and forgot to ask to see the bottle again.), which was a rather undistinguished, basic, medium oak chardonnay. But it proved an interesting match with the first course, a Terrine de campagne aux cèpes et foie gras, pain bio toasté.   This was a rich, very moist pork/duck country terrine with chunks of tasty fresh ceps and a torchon of foie gras through the centre. Served with pain grillé, some very strongly flavoured baby cos leaves and some very fragrant slices of raw ceps.

The next wine was a 2001 "De La Salle", Château de la Salle, AC Premières Côtes de Blaye, an oaked sauvignon blanc that was a remarkably big wine for the Côtes de Blaye. Big, round, expansive palate and in quite a new world style. On the palate, one might quite easily mistake this for a semillon, or even a chardonnay. Could this be a step too far for Bordeaux sauvignon blanc? Though, I rather liked it and found it a very satisfying wine.

This went with a superb scallop dish: Saint Jacques à la plancha, émulsion de cèpes aux éclats de noisettes torréfiées. This was a beautifully rich cep velouté with top quality scallops, cooked absolutely à point. Roast walnut pieces in the veloute give it an air of walnut/pain d’épices. Very high quality ingredients. There was a lovely balance to the dish: elegant yet earthy.

Next appeared a glass of 2003 Ch. Canon Pécresse, AC Canon-Fronsac that was warm and ripe on the palate, yet quite restrained. It went well with the food, which it really needed - Cochon du Cantal en côte épaisse, rôtie, cèpes poêlés aux échalotes confites: a plain roast 2 rib t-bone pork chop, served off the bone, the loin sliced, the tenderloin and the intercostal meat whole. Beautifully cooked, served with some fabulous fried ceps and parsley, though it could have done with just a bit more of the pan reduction sauce.

The cheese course was a Dégustation de trois millésimes de Comtés affinés par Bernard Antony.
The 2001 Comté had an almost parmesan like texture, but with the Comté/swiss cheese sort of flavour. Very interesting cheese.
The 2002 had a hint of granularity, but a much creamier feel.
The 2003 was much more like what we know as Comté in the UK.

This was probably one of the most interesting cheese courses I've ever had.

To accompany the cheese, Laurent Vialette insisted I had to try 2004 Domaine des Granges de Mirabel, Viognier de l'Ardèche, Vin de Pays des Côteaux de l'Ardèche, M. Chapoutier, which overall just seemed a bit blowsy to me, although it was good with the 2002 and 2003 cheeses.

My essert was a stunningly good Millefeuille au chocolate d’origine Saint Domingue, fréchinettes roties au sirop d’érable
This had feather-light chocolate pastry, served warm. Roast baby bananas on top, and a layer of unctuous cold chocolate mousse in the middle of the pastry. Inordinately yummy.

With that came a glass of 2001 Coume del Mas Quintessence, AC Banyuls, which was (rightly) served chilled. It was more or less what you would expect of a grenache vin doux naturel: fairly simple and didn’t stand up to the millefeuille.

Excellent coffee and cake.

Laurent Vialette also has a wine shop round the corner - not exactly sure what it's called, but I think it's got Ausone in the name.
(October 2005)
Update: I am told that Laurent Vialette has now moved on, and the Jardin d'Ausone has a new owner and chef.

Les Cinq Sens
26 rue du Pas Saint Georges 33000 Bordeaux
Tel : 05 56 52 84 25
Fax : 05 56 51 93 25

This is a small (28 covers) modern restaurant, very bright with lots of bright white napery and gleaming glassware; and a bit of hushed atmosphere.  The cooking is essentially a modern take on south-western cooking.  I didn't take much in the way of notes of this meal (too busy talking!), but my overall impression was that it was absolutely fine, but not as good as it could be or as it thinks it is.  We ate a velouté of ceps, which was absolutely fine, but with nothing to make it stand out from other similar cups of soup.  This was followed by a very rich dish that tasted better than it looked: a foie gras custard with pumpkin.  Fortunately the main course was a lightish fish dish: grey mullet and cuttlefish, simply cooked (a touch over-cooked actually) served with a delicious langoustine bisque in a separate shot glass.  The fish was a bit average, though the langoustine bisque was fabulous: I was so glad I ignored the instruction to pour it over the fish and was able to drink it separately.  Dessert was a cold chocolate fondant that had been coated in a light ganache and was served with a pistachio crème anglaise, again in a separate shot glass.  The fondant would have been infinitely better warm or even hot, though I suppose they would have had difficulty getting the ganache to stick to it, were it warm.
I'm afraid I have no note as to costs, as I was the guest of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce for this meal.
Would I go again?  Yes, I think so.  But if you gave me a choice between here and La Tupina, it would be a very difficult choice.  The food at Les Cinq Sens just seemed a bit dull, lacking any particular spark.
(October 2005)


Le Chapon Fin
5 rue Montesquieu, Bordeaux
Tél. : 05 56 79 10 10
Fax. : 05 56 79 09 10

Le Chapon Fin is something of a Bordeaux institution having first opened its doors in 1825. Fortunately it’s not set in aspic, or whatever food was set in pre-Escoffier.

The décor is, however, to say the least weird. You enter from the street along a longish, rather anonymous corridor which opens out into a large airy dining room with tables properly set. It takes a moment for the brain to process just what is so weird and bizarre. The room has the air of a belle époque conservatory – but a fairground conservatory, with rows of small bulbs (thankfully not flashing) on the trellis arches. But that’s not the weird bit: one end of the room is subsumed by grotesque tufa outcrops, partly forming a balcony for a few tables, partly forming caves for a few more tables. Weird and not a little mad. Yet for all that it curiously lacks a little in ambiance, though that might be because they were quite quiet when I went on a Tuesday evening in October.

Service was excellent: attentive, yet discreet and reassuring polyglot when my French started to show its seams.

We chose the Menu Dégustation at €76 together with the Mexican sommelier’s selection of wines.

The first amuse was a shot glass, presented in an interesting glass “frame”, of excellent crème d’asperges with a strongly flavoured parmesan foam.

The second amuse was a dice of lobster and vegetables in a perfectly balanced cream sauce, served with a poppy seed filo crisp.

The first wine was a 2002 Chantegrive Cuvée Caroline, AC Graves Sec
A fairly dull nose that’s a little uninteresting. Nice palate. Fresh with good body. Good depth of flavour. Nice finish with notable length.

The Chantegrive was served with Ravioles croustillantes de canard, bouillon chaud de volaille parfumé à la truffe, which was served on an interesting tear-drop shaped black plate with a white bowl for the bouillon. The wine went particularly well with the crispy ravioli of confit duck, less so with the accompanying chicken bouillon, which contained a chicken quenelle and cep dice, flavoured with rosemary.

The next dish was the intriguing sounding Longuets toastés aux huîtres et farce crépinette, un jus à la lie de vin. I was expecting 'longuets' to be some local delicacy, maybe the local name for razor clams or something, but they're not. What this dish really was was a sort of posh oyster sandwich. ‘Longuets’ indicated the 15 cm by maybe 2 cm strips of thin toast, which sandwiched a layer of veal farce, a layer of oysters and another layer of veal farce. A small salad of mâche, two drops of an indeterminate green foam and three drops of a lovely, very concentrated veal stock sauce finished the plate. Very good dish.

This was served with a 2003 Château Villa Bel-Air, Graves
A delicate, lightly scented nose. Very crisp and clean. Very Good Indeed. This made a lovely match with the oyster butty.

The next wine was a 2004 Château Brondelle, AC Graves
A rather closed nose, with some floral notes just about detectable. A fruity, open style. Very Good Indeed.
This accompanied a dish of Encornets frits et farcis, servis avec un cappucino de fenouil. The encornets farcies were the body of the squid stuffed with an utterly delicious filling mixing the tentacles and dates; the frits element was one of the squids wings, fried in a inordinately light, though somewhat salty, batter, presented on a skewer vertically on the plate like a sail. The cappuccino of fennel was a very light fennel mousse, that worked very well with the squid, but there was really too much of the mousse.

Next came the one red wine served with the meal: 2002 Château Haut Cruzeau, AC Bordeaux Supérieur
A very floral nose. Soft an open with a gentle spicing. Good fruit. Elegant and clean. Very Good Indeed.
This accompanied a Canon d’agneau à la sauge, pulpe de topinambours aux noisettes éclatéees. Another strikingly presented dish, a boned and rolled triple chop of spring lamb cooked rare forming the core of the dish, with puréed Jerusalem artichokes above the lamb on the plate, the two circles square off by two long strips of delicious jus.

The pré-dessert was a very heavy chocolate rice pudding which rather missed the mark, unfortunately.

But this was more than made up for by a lovely Pressé de pain d’épices «Facon Tatin» tuile aux sésames et glace cannelle.

For the first time ever, my pot of verveine was real verveine, not a tea bag. Good petits fours, though curiously they were all of a crunchy nature, which made the selection a bit unbalanced, apart from a couple of the best cannelés eaten in Bordeaux.


La Tupina
6, rue Porte de la Monnaie 
Tel: +33 (0) 5 56 91 56 37
Fax: 33 (0) 5 56 31 92 11

La Tupina deals in solid, south-western cooking of the rustic variety. If you don't like duck and duck fat, or have any concerns about cholesterol, don't go.

I went on a Sunday in October 2005 as part of a group over in Bordeaux on a food/wine exporting event organised by the chamber of commerce. It was heavingly busy, hot, stuffy and there was a thick fug of cigarette smoke that really caught in my throat, and pretty much ruined the evening for me.

When you go in, the first thing you see is a open range with a spit on which chickens are roasting. Clearly, given the amount of chicken they get through, though, this is only for show.

I started with boudin de canard poêlé et pommes cuites. This was a thick slice of a CD sized black pudding - I'm not sure whether it was duck blood or pig (maybe both), but it also had loads of shredded confit of duck blended into it. Very nice it was too. Other starters available were mignons de canard, sauce echalotes and salade croquante aux légumes de saison et blancs de volaille

Main courses were a choice of confit de canard, volaille farcie rôtie, or morue de Bègles, pommes de terre. I fell into the advertising trap of the spit by the front door and had the chicken. The stuffing was a slice of a chicken liver terrine. On the side was a soup bowl, filled with around half a pint of chicken juice and fat, ladled over a three-inch cube of bread. The chicken itself was a airly unexceptional large breast of chicken; the stuffing utterly unremarkable; the bowl of juice, fat and soggy bread utterly delicious, moreish and largely fatal.

After a little while, some chips arrived. But these weren't (as M&S might say) just chips. Oh no. These were hand-, irregularly cut gloriously crisp chips that had been fried in duck fat. My arteries are wincing at the memory. With every chip you ate, you could feel 12 hours dropping off your life. But boy was it worth it.

Dessert was either chocolate cake with custard (which admittedly sounds better in French as gâteau au chocolate, crème anglaise), or for the more virtuous, which at this stage included me: sorbet aux fruits rouges & cake

I didn't see the wine list. We drank:

their house aperitif which came round by the decanterful - a blend of white wine, armagnac and cassis. Not too unpleasant, but you wouldn't go out of your way for it.

2002 Réserve du Château, Château Clos de la Tour, AC Bordeaux Supérieur, Vignobles Dourth, 14%
Very undistinguished. Very straightforward, modern, Rolland-style wine. Fairly tannic. Very short. Its main distinguishing feature was a whopping 14% alcohol, though I couldn't say it was a redeeming feature.

NV Vinihana Le Bousas, Vin de Table (from Gascony)
Dull and oversweet.

La Tupina was good, and its totally unreconstructed attitude to confit, duck fat and other poultry grease is to be praised. I'd maybe go back if I fancied the sort of rustic, life-sapping cooking it produces, and perhaps also to check out the wider carte.
(October 2005)



Yountville:   Redd, Yountville
Capitola Gayle's Bakery
San Luis Obispo The Big Sky Café
Monterey Passionfish
Los Olivos Mattei's Tavern
San Francisco Slanted Door
Gary Danko
Berkeley Chez Panisse Café
Paso Robles Artisan
Santa Cruz Aqua Bleue
St Helena Taylors Automatic Refresher
Sonoma The Girl and the Fig
Morro Bay Giovanni's
Mendocino Mendocino Hotel


The Hitching Post
Buellton, California

Given its starring role in the film Sideways, I was a little wary of going to the Hitching Post in Buellton, but locals assured me the quality of the steaks makes a visit worthwhile.  As it was 14th February, I had made a reservation a few weeks beforehand, but still had to wait about five minutes for a table.  This gave me chance to take stock of the surroundings: there are two dining rooms, separated by a bar and the kitchen, with the big barbecue grill behind a large glass window.  The décor and atmosphere is distinctly dated, with a real feel of a drab, provincial pub dining room in the 1960s or early 1970s, an impression that’s reinforced by the dated chintzy crockery.  There are two maîtresses d’, one of whom is so painfully thin that she looks like she could do with a few steaks (or a cupful of rice) to help her make it to the weekend.

But the main point here is the steaks: “World’s Best BBQ Steaks” is their proud boast.  I couldn’t vouch for that, but I left with a very favourable impression overall.  They know what they’re doing, and how they want to do it.  All the main courses include a tray of crudités (though they just call it a fresh vegetable tray), garlic bread, rice or baked potato or French fries, together with two first courses selected from salad, soup and Bay shrimp cocktail.

Once ordered, the food comes exceptionally fast.  My shrimp cocktail came within seconds.  This was a distinctly dull prawn cocktail served with a very tomatoey, slightly spicy sauce, or rather ketchup: pretty rubbish really.  Then came a really good leaf salad.  From the rapidly recited list of specials of the day, I couldn’t resist some scallops, simply grilled over the oak fire.  My $14 for the scallops bought me two huge scallops, cut in half and grilled, served with a pot of clarified (“drawn”) butter and a sweet potato mash.  The scallops had been grilled on a skewer with onions and red pepper.  Cooking the scallops perfectly had the side effect that the onion and pepper were a bit underdone.  There was some spicing on the scallops which just stayed the right side of overwhelming them.  I thought the 2004 Highliner pinot noir worked exceptionally well with the scallops: the sweet smokiness of the scallops really brought something out in the wine.

For my main course I had chosen the combination plate of grilled California quail and 7 oz top sirloin.  The steak really was very tender indeed and had a beautiful flavour, though much of the flavour came from the barbecue and the spice rub.  The quail had been part boned before grilling, and this had the unfortunate consequence of making it look a bit like a frog with its legs akimbo.  But more importantly, it was very juicy, had a great flavour and was perfectly cooked, though there was plenty of salt on it too.  Some exceptionally good, if rather salty, fries came with the meat.  As did a bowl of fiery salsa, which was a surprise.  The garlic bread, however, was undoubtedly one of the poorest, dried out, most ungarlicky specimens it has been my misfortune to encounter.  Fortunately there was enough food to make discarding it all after the first bite not a problem.

A pedestrian crème brûlée rounded off a surprisingly good, enjoyable meal. 

The total cost, including several glasses of their own wines, a bottle of sparkling water, taxes and service was (in UK terms) a reasonably good value $125.

(February 2007)

Brothers Restaurant, Mattei’s Tavern
Los Olivos

Felix and Lucy Mattei opened Mattei’s Tavern in 1886 at the time the town of Los Olivos was starting to develop: it became popular two years later when the Pacific Coast Railroad reached its southern terminus in Los Olivos.  In the 1930s it was a popular stop for Hollywood stars on their way to Hearst Castle.  The Brothers are chefs Matt and Jeff Nichols, who took over Mattei’s Tavern in 2002. 

The Tavern is an agglomeration of white clapboard buildings: when you enter there is a busy bar with its own menu, but the main dining takes place in a series of dining rooms and a conservatory extension.  Like the surroundings, the menu is attractive, though to British or European eyes perhaps a little old-fashioned.  There is no doubting the quality of the food and the skill of the kitchen.  I started with some nicely flavoured Dungeness crab cakes and followed that with a stupendous veal chop.  This was a bone in veal rib eye; not the sort of veal chop we usually get in the UK, and much better for it.  As I was learning is often the case in the US, desserts were a little pedestrian.
(February 2007)

Artisan Restaurant
Paso Robles

Artisan sits a block away from the main square of Paso Robles.  Like most of earthquake prone Paso Robles (there are still gaps in the streets from the 6.5-magnitude quake that struck in December 2003), it is a single storey building.  The L-shaped corner site houses a popular bar on the short side and the restaurant on the long side.  Inside, the décor is modern, with earth tones on the walls, and an open kitchen at the rear, which is just big enough for the six chefs to stand side by side.  The menu is fairly standard stuff, but attractive, and were it in Britain, it would be described as Modern British.  The wine list is good, and with the exception of two champagnes, all American.  There are 23 wines by the glass, 8 halves, 6 fizz, 17 whites, 2 rosés and 48 reds.

I started with some calamari served with a malt vinegar mayonnaise and a chipotle crème fraiche.  The calamari, which came in a paper lined square bowl, were light, very tender and in a light, crispy batter.  There were lots of them too.  The malt vinegar mayonnaise was excellent – the vinegar was very mild, but detectable.  The chipotle crème fraiche was more straightforward.  A decent wine, but not with which I was over enamoured.  With the squid, I had a glass of a viognier-marsanne blend, the 2003 Mer Soleil Vineyard White from Treana, My main course was a venison wellington.  This was superb: there was nice light pastry, the venison was perfectly cooked, but the highlight was without a doubt the single best piece of venison I have ever had.  Meltingly tender, but with an absolutely excellent flavour.  I asked where the venison came from, and was told the Central Valley in California.  The venison came with some rather underdone yellow carrots, which were a bit bland, particularly with the stock reduction sauce, some squeaky green beans and some baby white onions.  A glass of 2003 French Camp Vineyard Syrah from Anglim, was a superb wine, which worked very well.

The dessert menu read attractively and I was momentarily tempted by a profiterole sundae with vanilla bean ice-cream, organic hot fudge, pistachio and brandied cherries, but I finally went for a trio of crème brulée, one flavoured with bourbon, one with butterscotch and the third with giandjua chocolate.  The butterscotch one felt a little too sweet to me, the chocolate one a touch heavy, but the bourbon, while very delicately flavoured, was the highlight.

All in all, this was highly competent assured cooking and front of house the service was excellent.  With a couple of bottles of sparkling water and an espresso, the bill with service came to $95.90 (£50.79)

 I drank two wines by the glass:
2003 Mer Soleil Vineyard White, Treana, Paso Robles
A deep gold.  There are almond and apricots on the nose.  Very full and really quite concentrated on the palate.  It has good balance, but you can feel the alcohol level a bit on the finish and after.  This is a decent wine, but I’m not over-enamoured.  Very Good.  86/100

 2003 Syrah, French Camp Vineyard, Anglim
A very, very dark appearance, but with a very young edge, though only right at the rim.  Quite a strong, minerally, black fruit nose, that’s very elegant and a touch Hermitage-like.  There’s a real hit of chocolate and violet creams on the nose too.  Lovely on the attack: it has a lovely freshness and balance, which persists throughout.  It has a good, rich, velvety feel, manifesting itself in some crème de mûre and chocolate flavours.  Very Good Indeed/Excellent.  93/100

(February 2007)

Aqua Bleu
Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, where weird is made a virtue of (I have the T-shirt to prove it), did not appear over-populated with finer, lighter dining experiences.  I had just flown in from London, and driven straight to Santa Cruz, and ended up in here, as it looked the least challenging culturally of the small number of eateries in the (almost) one-road downtown area.  Aqua Bleue has  a large, very high ceilinged room that on a quiet Sunday in February seemed a bit cold and lacking in atmosphere.  The menu reveals a relatively adventurous, interesting Pacific Rim cuisine.  I had only flown into San Francisco a few hours earlier, so was a little tired and not especially hungry, so I couldn’t do full justice to the menu, though, that said, I also found the menu confusing in terms of portion size.  I chose the Aqua Bleu oysters to start with and was a bit surprised when it arrived to find just a single oyster.  Cooked oyster dishes aren’t normally my thing, but this was a very nice combination, with the oyster just about holding its own with the miso crab cream and tobiko topping.  There was an interesting selection of sushi with a distinct Californian (maybe a Santa Cruz?) twist and tried to order a couple of items, but the waitress counselled against that, saying that one would be enough.  So, as with the starter oyster, I went for the dish bearing the restaurant’s name, the Bleu Meany.  This was a tempura prawn, ungi (??) and cucumber maki roll, which had then been briefly pan-fried before being topped with snow crab in a creamy sauce before being gratinéd, with some tobiko (flying fish roe) sprinkled over before serving.  This was the first time I’d had a sushi maki roll that had then been cooked further (though not to the point that the rice was hot, merely aired), and furthermore the combination sounded daring.  But they pulled it off, and I rather enjoyed this very tasty dish.  It was, however, a whole thick maki roll and I’d regard it as a starter to share rather than a main course, which is how I ended up taking it. 

With a glass of kiku masamune sake, the bill, including service came to a shade over $39 (which equated to a shade under £21 and feels a bit pricey).
(February 2007)

Yountville, Napa Valley

Yountville is somewhat embarrassingly over-supplied with top restaurants: besides Redd, there are Bistro Jeanty and no less than three Thomas Keller establishments: the fabled French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon.  And that’s not counting Keller’s Bouchon Bakery (though a quick look at that, I couldn't see anything to fuss over - the bakery goods at Dean & Deluca down the road in St Helena, looked more inspiring to me).

I didn’t have a child to sell, so couldn’t get a table at the French Laundry.  Bouchon is a pretty straightforward French brasserie in the Lyon mould: no doubt very good at what it does, but, like Bistro Jeanty, a fairly classic French bistro menu such as is available the world over; and if you really want a bouchon meal, well, living in the UK, why not go to Lyon?  It was virtually impossible to find any information whatsoever about Ad Hoc: in fact it all seemed a bit of a silly joke, although there is actually a restaurant, serving a no choice 4-course meal for $45.  More to the point, the one bit of information I could find was that no bookings were accepted.  Thomas Keller food at bargain prices, with no problem getting a table if I’m there early?  Sounds too good to be true.  And on the evening I went it was.  They were closed for a charity event.

Next door, however, is Redd.  Smooth, calm, sophisticated and airy during the day when the large windows let the light flood in; in the evening, it’s busy and buzzy, but, the white walls notwithstanding, quite dark once the sun has set over the Mayacama mountains, with low lighting levels combining with the sleek cherry wood ceiling, floor and fixtures.  There is a warm welcome from the reception staff, and although they were very busy, I was immediately seated at a table adjacent to the packed bar, where locals were drinking and eating from the bar menu of light dishes.  My table, at the far end of the room had an advantage of offering a direct view onto the pass in the kitchen where Richard Reddington was running the calm kitchen.

The menu has ten starters and eight main courses.  Starters range from $12 to $17, mains from $20 to $29.  In addition 5 and 9 course tasting menus are available for $70 and $105 respectively (add $40 or $65 respectively for wine pairings with each course).  To get a full picture of the kitchen’s capabilities I naturally went for the nine-course option, though with only three glasses of wine (I was driving), which I chose myself from the list.  I couldn't indulge in wine, but thought that their wine list looked impressive.

My first dish was a sashimi of hamachi, sticky rice, edamame, lime ginger sauce.  Nicely presented and with exceptionally clean flavours: there’s a bit of spice from some chilli oil and some sweetness, perhaps from mirin.

Next up came some caramelized diver scallops, cauliflower purée, almonds, balsamic reduction.  In addition, some golden raisins, capers and cauliflower were included in what is now a pretty classic dish.  This example was very well executed, with the exceptionally sweet scallop, cooked well, and balanced by the savoury purée and other ingredients, counterpointed by the balsamic and raisins.

The next dish was John Dory, creamy jasmine rice, mussels, chorizo, saffron curry nage.  The nage was a foam.  Again, there were nice fresh, clean flavours on the plate and it all worked very well.  A glass of Leitz Spätlese worked superbly with the dish, although the waitress said it was a chardonnay that they would normally serve with the dish.

My next dish was the most expensive of the starters on the à la carte, the tasting of cold foie gras preparations, winter fruit, pistachios, brioche.  This comprised a quenelle of foie gras mousse, served (unnecessarily) on a fleuron of puff pastry, a slice of foie gras terrine, which seemed to me to have a slightly pasty texture, and was served with an entirely appropriate concasse of cooked apple.  The final element of the dish was a slice of a torchon of foie gras that had been rolled in pistachio and topped with a crunchy roast pistachio nut.  The torchon was a tiny bit salty, but had a very good texture.  A little well-dressed curly endive finished the plate.

The fifth dish to arrive was a delightful butternut squash ravioli, winter root vegetables, sage emulsion.  The winter root vegetables were some golden carrots.  The dish also included some well-flavoured chanterelles and a port reduction had been drizzled on the sage foam to give a heart shaped red line.  The ravioli itself, served in a light, fragrant vegetable broth, was made of some very good pasta: it was a very flat ravioli, and initially I wondered whether there was going to be any noticeable filling.  But filling there was: a very smooth, almost liquid purée of squash that burst with flavour in the mouth.  This was a really good dish.

Next came a dish, on the menu as a starter, of glazed pork belly, apple purée, burdock, soy caramel.  Though my version came without the burdock and soy caramel, which were replaced with some frisée and a Bordeaux red wine sauce.  The pork was well cooked, but seemed to me a slightly muddy, unfocussed dish.  There was also, as with the next two courses to follow, little concession as regards portion size to this being part of a ten course meal.

This was followed by Liberty Farms duck breast, swiss chard crepe, celery root, chocolate sauce.  The duck was beautifully cooked and very tender and served on a celeriac purée and celeriac batons.  The crepes had been formed into small canneloni, stuffed with the chard, wild mushrooms and confit leg meat.  But the crepes didn’t entirely convince me, partly maybe because they had been seared which gave them a slightly odd flavour.

That was supposed to be the end of the main dishes, and the waitress laid out the setting for the cheese course.  But kitchen had other ideas and sent out a bonus course of prime new york steak and shortribs, potato purée, carrots, red wine jus.  The steak was nicely cooked and well flavoured; the ribs buttery soft and tender.  Some big chunks of black pepper on top provided a perilous touch.  The potatoes were a Robuchon style mash.  The carrots, however, proved the weak point, as they were a bit too undercooked.

Then the delayed cheese course came: pecorino cheese with comb honey, sultanas, green salad, which proved curiously refreshing.

This was followed by the final dish, an apple beignet with cinnamon toast ice-cream.  The apple was in a very light batter, and served on a gently spiced apple compote.  The ice cream was seriously good – totally smooth and full of flavour.

As is often the case in America, I had to correct the assumption that I would want a coffee with my dessert, but the espresso afterwards was a good one.

The overall impression of Redd was that here was a kitchen that not only aspired to, but could on occasion reach impressive heights, but that standard was not maintained throughout.  Some of the dishes, particularly the meat dishes, lacked precision and focus and here and there there were minor errors that marred the impact of the dish.

The cost, including, water and the three glasses of wine, taxes and tip came to $204 (about £107), just a little cheaper than Cyrus, which I thought was just better.

The wines:

NV Crémant de Bourgogne, Simmonet-Febvre
A very, very slight nose.  Crisp, clean palate.  Nice bubbles.  Fairly innocuous.  Good.

2005 Rüdesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese, Weingut Josef Leitz
Fresh creamy apples on the nose.  Unfortunately served way too cold, but once it warmed up, everything was in order and the palate as you would expect. Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

2005 Dutton Goldfield “Dutton Ranch” Pinot Noir, Russian River
Warm raspberry and cherry fruit on the nose.  Warm fruit on the palate, but it has a good restraint.  Very Good+.

(February 2007)


Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria
504 Bay Avenue, Capitola, CA 95010

 If you’re driving between Santa Cruz and Monterey, it really is worth stopping off in Capitola to call in at Gayle’s Bakery.  As soon as you arrive, the full car park bodes well.  When you go in chickens and other meats are roasting on the rotisserie, and a series of counter fridges open before you.  First there are some delicatessen products, then some jolly good looking salads, before moving onto a counter fridge stuffed with well stuffed sandwiches and wraps.  Then as you turn the corner of the bakery, you hit the bakery, first a display of high quality looking cakes and pastries, then some interesting looking breads.

I wanted to try most of the salads, most of the sandwiches and all of the cakes and pastries.  The roasted artichoke salad (with orechiette, garlic, pistachios, basil, parmesan, paquillo peppers and a lemon vinaigrette) was crying out to me, but then so (strangely) was the vegan Asian noodle salad (udon noodles, grilled tofu, napa cabbage etc), but then the Winter Vegetable salad with its cauliflower, Yukon potatoes, carrots and golden beetroot looked great too.  The Tuscan sandwich, overladen with prosciutto, salami, mozzarella and rocket looked unmissable.  But then so did a spicy grilled chicken breast, tomato, lettuce, blue cheese dressing and buffalo sauce.  Or how could I pass on the really flaky looking croissant stuffed to overflowing with the albacore tuna, celery, red onions, cornichons, mayonnaise and salad.  God this was dreadful!

A last minute change of my order meant I walked out with a five spice chicken wrap – grilled chicken, marinated daikon, carrots, Napa cabbage, spring onions, mayo, coriander ($6.95).  A couple more snap decisions led to a Bear Claw (a sort of overgrown almond croissanty-Danish pastry thing for $2.50) and a stupendous looking éclair for $3.50.  The “Sinful Dessert Tray” for $60 will have to wait for another time.

I took my light brunch/lunch “to go” and it sat in the passenger side footwell, desperately waiting for a suitable spot for lunch.  That came a couple of miles into the 17 Mile Drive near Monterey (definitely worth taking, if you’re driving up or down Highway 1, though I’d recommend just doing the coastal section between Pacific Grove and Carmel).  First to go was the bear’s claw.  Light and flaky pastry, sweet and almondy.  Yum.  Time to drive on to the next bay, where, sat on a rock overlooking the Pacific, the five spice chicken sandwich wrap proved as delicious as it looked., with a remarkably nice balance of flavours for something as simple as a sandwich.  The éclair had looked stupendous and tasted better.  Crisp choux pastry, a rich crème pat and chocolate filling.  Marvellous.

Ok, it’s only a sandwich bar and cake shop, but I know if I’m in central California again, I’ll be trying to work out how to fit in a detour to Capitola.
(February 2007)

The Big Sky Café
1121 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo

 A winemaker’s recommendation for a place to stop for breakfast between Buellton and Salinas, led me to this small, insignificantly fronted single storey building (complete with warnings about its unsafety in the event of an earthquake) in the calm, cool, low-key small town of San Luis Obispo, just off Highway 101.  The sign over the door proclaims Modern Food, New American Cooking and Local Provisions.  Inside, the décor is a mixture of Cranks and La Tasca, with bare wood tables and bare brick walls to the front of the restaurant, and a more Spanish air to the rear.  One side is taken up by a long bar, where I took up a seat.  I knew it couldn’t be a bad place when I saw the bumper sticker by the wine racks: “Friends don’t let friends drink white zinfandel”! 

The breakfast menu had lots of interesting breakfast and brunch dishes, as well as the standard American take on a fry-up and stacks of pancakes (which looked great, if an enormous portion, on a nearby table).  I went for the one that sounded most unusual: a Mexican pozole with poached egg and pieces of fried pork.  This was a very tasty hominy broth with lots of vegetables, herbs and seeds, with a nice light spicing.  It was offered in a vegetarian and non-vegetarian version: I went for the latter, which included pieces of fried pork, which gave a good, additional texture, though not a lot in the way of flavour.  This was followed by an assortment of beignets (the blackboard menu had a helpful pronunciation hint, presumably for those who never learned any French or hadn’t been to New Orleans) – one cinnamon, one strawberry and one chocolate.  They were freshly fried (presumably to order), hot and light and airy: the cinnamon one, though, was my favourite – the rich chocolate just made the chocolate beignet a bit heavier, and the strawberry compote made the strawberry one a bit sweet.  But on their own, any of the three would have been delicious.  With a good fresh orange juice and good coffee, the bill, including service, came to just $23.50, which worked out at just over £12.

I would definitely stop here again, and would like to try it at lunchtime or in the evening, as there was some obvious care taken, even just at breakfast.
(February 2007)

1001 Front Street, Morro Bay

 Giovanni’s is a small fishmongers, with tanks outside for live crabs and lobsters, at the end of what in Britain would be called the promenade, but here is the Embarcadero at the fishing community of Morro Bay.  Wet fish isn’t the only thing for sale here: a large menu painted onto the wall offers all the sort of things you would expect of a California seafood shack, including (as every shack, café and restaurant does) a prize-winning clam chowder.  You order at a small window in the wall, and wait till your number is called before eating outdoors on the deck.  The food was freshly prepared, and the chowder was pretty good, fish tacos were ok, though the fish was a touch overcooked.  This has no trace of ‘gourmet’ about it: it’s just simple, honest food, cooked in a somewhat rough and ready style, and the queues testify to its popularity.
(February 2007)

701 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, Monterey

First off, a warning.  Passionfish is on Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, not Lighthouse Avenue, Monterey.

It is a corner property, elevated above the road, and very, very busy.  It deals firmly in sustainable seafood and is involved in the TagAGiant charity which supports the bluefin tuna.  The menu crosses the seas of the world to offer an inventive selection of dishes, with some combinations that wouldn’t be immediately obvious.  The main business is “entrées from the waters”, but there are also three meat and one vegetarian “entrées from the land”.  First courses are, to European eyes, small portions: the intention is clearly to order several and share, while a separate section of the menu deals in some interesting sounding salads (e.g. warm brussel sprout salad with korobuta ham, grapes and ricotta salata or Fried Oyster Salad with citrus dressed arugula) to bridge the gap between starter and main course.

As a starter, I had one of the rapidly recited list of specials, a grilled scallop with tamarind jelly and avocado purée, which delivered the goods.  This was followed by Hand-line Mahi with a black pepper-rum sauce, cucumber salad & green onion rice.  The fish was accurately roasted and served with a delicious – and surprising – light stock sauce flavoured with black pepper and rum, and managing not to feel overly Caribbean.  The rice too was splendid: a cross between risotto and sushi with a light green colour and gently onion flavour.  I finished with mud pie, which was a below average, over frozen mint and chocolate ice cream bombe, which looked and tasted commercial.  A half bottle of Anderson Valley gewurztraminer from Navarro was top stuff and worked well with the food.  Allow upwards of $60 per head for a three course meal with wine.
(February 2007)

The Slanted Door
Ferry Building, San Francisco

The foodie paradise of the Ferry Building houses the latest incarnation of Charles Phan’s Vietnamese-Pacific Rim restaurant that is one of the hottest tables in San Francisco.  It’s busy and bustling, with lots of hard surfaces (wooden floors, wooden tables and chairs, large picture windows) creating a big hubbub in the restaurant itself, which has an open kitchen on the inland side.  To one side is a long, trendy bar, where I sat, and I thought felt more comfortable than the restaurant itself looked.  Much of the food seems to have its origins in Vietnamese street food, but is lifted well above that.  I grazed through the menu, but could have done with an appetite three times reality to try even half the dishes on the menu that I would have liked to try.  So, unfortunately, I had to miss out on signature dishes of cellophane noodles with dungeness crab and Meyer Ranch shaking beef and loads more.  I started with a couple of dishes from the “raw bar” section of the menu: Hawaiian kampachi with fresh ginger-scallion oil and live Atlantic sea scallop and golden caviar with lime-cilantro vinaigrette.  Both were bright, ultra-fresh, clean, and refreshing.  The scallop was perhaps more interesting, and at the same time maybe less successful, with the fresh flavours of the green sauce sitting alongside the scallop rather than necessarily complementing it.  Another section of the menu deals in “Rolls”: I tried a crispy vegetarian imperial roll with taro root, cabbage, glass noodles and peanuts and a shrimp and jicama roll with thai basil and roasted peanuts, both of which convinced me.  Pan roasted Petrale sole with rice noodles, peanuts and scallion oil, despite being listed under appetizers, was almost a meal in itself; as well as being a nice fish, accurately cooked.  A couple of plates from the vegetables section rounded things off: Mariquita Farm organic rapini tips with garlic and rice wine were nicely cooked and had a lovely flavour.  Spicy Catalan Farm broccoli with honshimeji mushrooms and pressed tofu was a little dull, with the broccoli a touch too underdone.  Hodo Soy Beanery organic lemongrass tofu with fresh shiitake mushrooms, onions and chilli sauce was absolutely delicious and without doubt the best tofu I’ve ever tasted; and as a whole it was an excellent dish.   Che Xoi Nuonc finished off an interesting meal in an interesting way: sweet mung bean dumplings in a fragrant, sweet, spicy, refreshing ginger soup.  Sounds odd, but it was an excellent finish to the meal.

The wine list majors on German riesling and Austrian Grüner Veltliner, which is not only unusual, but highly apt.  I had a 2004 Serriger Saarstein Riesling Kabinett, Schloss Saarstein (AP Nr. 2 555 014 09 05, 8%) which worked well with all the dishes.  It had a creamy, lemon zesty nose and zingy, fresh palate with lovely fruit.  Very clean with a slight hint of sweetness on the finish.  Very Good Indeed. 

The bill, including service came to $133 (£70)
(February 2007)


Sociale Restaurant
3665 Sacramento St, San Francisco

This small neighbourhood Italian restaurant is quite difficult to find, set back from the street in a residential neighbourhood in Presidio Heights at the end of a small, leafy courtyard.  It is a light, cool, airy dining room, despite some fairly dark wood fittings.  The food was very good indeed – light, clean Italian fare.  The wine list is particularly interesting with some very unusual wines.  The friendly staff contribute to a relaxed atmosphere at lunchtime.
(February 2007)

Gary Danko
800 North Point at Hyde, San Francisco

 Gary Danko’s restaurant is set in a rather unprepossessing, not entirely salubrious looking corner building at the Fisherman’s Wharf End of the Powell-Hyde cable car route.  One façade is windowless, and on the others the windows are obscured, almost giving it the appearance of a sex shop or, rather, given the bouncers outside, some sort of Soho private members club.

Once past the bouncers, it seems de rigueur that you have to join a small queue cum melée just inside the door, while the greeters and waiters sort out your table.  This is a bit off-putting and takes a bit too long.  Once you’re at your table, things settle and calm, and you can take in the surroundings and the menu.  The décor has a warm, yet sharp feel with various shades of brown and there’s a vaguely colonial overtone from the wooden blinds on the windows.  The staff are for the most attentive, and smart, displaying their Relais et Chateaux lapel badges prominently.  The food reflects this balance between calm smartness and a bit of show.  In fact it’s hard to pin down the style of the food: the menu ranges across the continents for inspiration, all tempered by a Michelin style.  The menu structure shares the format of Cyrus in Healdsburg (and other similar restaurants): it is divided into four sections, appetisers, fish and seafood, meat and game, and desserts.  The pricing and portion size depends on the number of courses taken and the order in which you choose them.  Very curiously, there is also a five course tasting menu that is priced the same as a five course à la carte meal, and the dishes are all taken from the carte.  Some dishes are very refined (and in remarkably small portions), while others are a bit over the top.  The former would be exemplified by the glazed oysters with osetra caviar, salsify and lettuce cream, which was one of the most refined dishes I’d had in a very long time, and at the same time was utterly delicious and perfectly balanced.  It was, however, a minute portion.  On the other hand Moroccan Spiced Squab with Chermoula and Orange-Cumin Carrots was a stunning presentation: a whole squab, boned and reformed around an huge portion of Moroccan spiced couscous: the couscous was delicious, but its amount was out of all proportion to the size of the bird.  Pancetta Wrapped Frogs Legs with Sunchoke Garlic Purée, Potato and Lentils and other dishes such as Risotto with Lobster, Shrimp Winter Root Vegetables and Oregano Oil, or Beef Tenderloin with Potato, Leeks, Bacon and Black Truffle tread a middle path and fit best with the more European Michelin style.  In this sort of company, a dish of steamed shellfish with Red Thai Curry seemed to me to sit somewhat awkwardly, so much so that we eschewed it.  Meyer Lemon Soufflé with Blackberry Sauce was delicious and well executed; on the other hand, the signature Baked Chocolate Soufflé with Two Sauces was well executed, but rather pedestrian, and the two sauces (anglaise and chocolate) made the light soufflé into quite a heavy dish.

The wine list has lots of interest, including a number of reasonably priced bottles and a commendable selection of half bottles.

Prices are not cheap, but in terms of what you get and its quality represent good value.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meals here.
(February 2007)

Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

 Downstairs in this oddly ramshackle timber building on Shattuck Avenue is the holy grail of California cuisine and the temple to and of Alice Waters, the goddess of California cuisine: Chez Panisse.  I had asked my hotel in San Francisco to book me a table for dinner, but as I was driving past Berkeley on my way to San Francisco, I thought I might as well have a look at Chez Panisse in the daylight.  And, of course, see if I could get lunch in the café.  I had a quick peek behind the curtain that separates the entrance way and staircase from the main restaurant: a wooden floor, white tablecloths and – if memory serves – red banquette seating, with chefs working on the evening’s prep to the rear of the room.  But for now, I headed upstairs to see if they could squeeze one more in for lunch in the Chez Panisse Café.  Fortunately, a couple of tables were just about to leave, and if I could come back in fifteen minutes, they’d have a table.  I took a few steps down the road outside, saw a long queue at a pizza place opposite and a new (to me) concept just a few doors down from Chez Panisse: a restaurant where the customer does all the cooking, following the instructions and guidance of the chefs.  Hmm … mileage, there I think.  There was now just time to cross the road to take a photograph of Chez Panisse, and then back in.  A brief wait and drink at the bar (strictly a waiting area only: this isn’t one of those Californian restaurant bars which function as an extra table for use by singles and couples), and then it was to my table.  The Chez Panisse Café is all wood and feels organic rather than designed, and it reflects the ramshackle appearance of the exterior.

The menu is brief and simple; the wine list is similar.  Large hunks of sourdough bread come with good butter.  I started with a pizzetta with new onions and capers.  This had a base that you really could not imagine being more perfect: thin, nicely crisped, and remaining crispy across the entire base, with a few puffed up areas.  The topping was spot on too: pizza bianca, without tomato, just a good layer of thinly sliced, strong yet sweet onions with some delicious capers and a delicate use of cheese.  I couldn’t work out whether the onions were large spring onions or baby onions, just a bit bigger than silverskins.  There was a little heat in the pizzetta that probably came from the onions rather than from a tiny splash of chilli oil.  This was a pretty damn near perfect pizza.  All the more remarkable was the price: just $12, so say £6.

As a main course, I had some wood Wood oven-roasted squid with fennel, crisp flatbread and chickpea hummus ($18).  The baby squid were tender and evidently very fresh indeed, with just a delicate flavouring from the oven, the fennel, hummus and carta de musica style bread forming well-matched accompaniments, and make a very good whole out of the parts.  The squid was superb, but paled into insignificance next to the pizzetta.  The same went for the excellent Pink Lady apple-currant tart with vanilla ice cream ($9.50) for dessert, which had excellent pastry and a great, clean flavour filling from the Pink Lady apples.

 With a bottle of sparkling water and a glass of sauvignon blanc, the bill, including service (and most unusually, 17% service was already included on the bill – though the credit card slip was left open) came to $67.44, which worked out at £35.42 when the credit card bill came.

The menu that evening, downstairs in Chez Panisse, was Fried vegetables and herbs with anchovy vinaigrette, followed by risotto with English peas, butter lettuce and serrano ham, then grilled quail stuffed with chicken and winter green mousse, followed by tangerine, blood orange and candied kumquat ice cream bombe.  All for $65.  On Fridays and Saturdays the price rises to $85, though you get an aperitif thrown in.  Unfortunately, the hotel let me down big time and failed to make a reservation for the evening, so it was lucky I decided to stop off for lunch.

(February 2007)

Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
933 Main Street, St. Helena

Taylor’s is housed in an unprepossessing roadside shack – well a little more than a shack: it’s a single storey building, harking back to the 1950s, housing the kitchen and then outside seating, half covered, for customers.  Creature comforts are completely lacking: indeed on a rainy or cold day, or if you want a comfy seat, you’ll probably be eating in your car.  You order at a window at the right end of the building and give your name, walk down to the other end of the building, collect your drinks and take a seat (or watch the cooks at work) while you wait for your name to be called so that you can collect your food.  The menu covers all the bases you’d expect, with a selection of burgers on a variety of breads and buns, from the lowly (but darn good) Hamburger at $5.75 to a Western Bacon Blue Ring at $8.99, a selection of seafood and chicken options, some sandwiches and a selection of (to judge by the dressings, hardly low-calorie) salads.

The ordinary hamburger on its toasted egg bun was a very fine example, but the Wisconsin Sourdough burger stole the show, laden with a surfeit of grilled mushrooms together with bacon and cheddar cheese.  Onion rings were thick cut and came in a rich, thick, crisp beer batter.  Garlic fries were chips that, after frying, had been tossed in garlic butter and parsley: delicious, but somehow lacking in moreishness and after the first few handsful a bit blowsy.  A white pistachio shake (a five dollar shake, literally and figuratively) was a thing of beauty: it looks like a white vanilla shake, and initially that’s how it tastes, presumably made from a quality ice cream.  But then you start to get some subtle, very natural pistachio flavour and when a pistachio nut makes its way up the straw you realise where the flavour comes from: there’s a half inch layer of pistachio nuts at the base.  The Black & White milk shake is the same quality but lacks the impact, combining a plain vanilla with a chocolate ripple. 

Allow $15-$25 per person.

 (February 2007)


The Girl & The Fig
110 West Spain Street, Sonoma

On a corner site facing the main square of historic Sonoma, the Girl and the Fig is a light airy space, divided into a crisp, white-tableclothed restaurant on one side and a long, impressive bar (at which you can also eat) and reception area with sofas, combined with the “Salon de Fromage” and a small dry goods grocery.

I found the menu very attractive and difficult to choose just a light lunch.  One third of the menu is taken up by cheese and charcuterie: the cheeses are mainly local, but with some intruders from elsewhere in California, France one from Vermont.  Cheese and charcuterie selections come on tiered stands and looked like they would be ideal for two.  The rest of the menu is divided into starters, soup and salads, “petits plats”, sandwiches and entrées.  I forsook the entrées, thereby missing out on such dishes as Provencal fish stew, a foraged mushroom risotto and a grilled pork chop with yam purée, brussel sprouts and pomegranate glaze.  I started with a salad and then moved onto a starter.  Being the Girl & the Fig, I started with the fig and arugula salad, which blended the main ingredients (dried, not fresh fig, though) with goats cheese, pancetta and a fig and port vinaigrette to make a lovely light dish, with a well balanced and interesting combination of flavours and textures.  For my main course, I chose crispy sweetbreads from the starter section of the menu, along with some of their signature matchstick frites.  The sweetbreads were nicely cooked, and duly crispy, and served with a wild mushroom and cannellini bean ragout that worked very well, as well as having its own inherent merit.  The fries (apparently made from Kennebec potatoes) came with a very good tarragon aioli, but I was less than convinced by the fries themselves, which to my mind were too fine: they were half the thickness of a matchstick and completely crisp throughout.  Their ultra-fineness meant that they couldn’t be picked up with a fork – you had to use fingers.  They had a good taste, but I didn’t find them particularly satisfying.  The Girl & the Fig has an interesting wine list, with the exception of sparkling wines, comprised solely of Rhone varieties from California and France, all at what seemed very fair prices.  Corkage is $15 a bottle, but in a very strange twist given that the wine list is entirely Rhone varieties, if you bring a wine made from a Rhone variety, corkage is only $10.  It being lunch, and as I was driving, I just had a bottle of a refreshing Lorina French lemon soda.  I was thinking of a dessert, but after the sweetbreads arrived, I was a bit ignored by the staff, which meant I ran out of time.  The bill, including service came to $47 (=just under £25).  Another place I'd like to go back to explore the menu  further.

(February 2007)

Mendocino Hotel

45080 Main Street, Mendocino
From Santa Rosa I drove up to the charming small town of Mendocino, which lies on a small promontory with the waves of the Pacific crashing in on three sides.  I looked for somewhere for a light brunch and stumbled across the greenery-filled conservatory-style restaurant built onto the side of the Mendocino hotel.  It was busy, but there were a couple of small tables free.  I waited by the door for a few minutes to be seated, but evidently I was in the wrong place, as I was completely ignored.  I eventually spotted where I should go to be greeted (deep inside the restaurant.  I was told it was a few minutes, but I could wait in the hotel lounge bar.  I waited for a few moments before returning as instructed.  I was then shown to one of the empty tables I had seen about ten minutes earlier.  What a pathetic attitude!  Not wanting to prolong exposure to such rubbish staff, I ordered a Dungeness crab eggs benedict, which I’d have to say was pretty good, though not especially generous with the crab.  With an ice tea, the bill came to $22 (about £11.50)
(February 2007)



Historical notes on restaurants that have since closed or sufficiently changed to negate the review completely:

Grado, Manchester
Having shown how rubbish Italian pizza-pasta places in the UK are with his Olive Press chain, Paul Heathcote has turned his attention to the proliferation of generally execrable tapas joints that have sprung up on high streets across the country.

Grado, which has been open two months now, is rather anonymous from the outside (lacks street presence I think is the phrase), but is sleek and modern inside, but not unwelcomingly so.  It reminds me of a smartened up Moro, down to the open kitchen at the rear. 

Try not to let them sit you on the banquette tables on the left of the lower level - there's a perishing wind blows through the coat rack and onto those tables. 

Lots of sherries, served at the right temperatures, kicks off an all-Spanish wine list, that has some interesting bottles, but really needs a sommelier to sell them.  At the top end (£100+), mark-ups on the big names and old vintages seemed not unreasonable.  The food is a bit Moro-like too, and for the most part quite simple.

Good quality clams came in a slightly too salty broth.  Smoked anchovies with beetroot and shredded calçots was a super little dish - not a lot of kitchen skill, if any at all, but a lovely combination of flavours that worked superbly.  Portion size of the starters was a bit mean - they were tapas size portions, but were not tapas: they were starters off an à la carte menu, and priced accordingly.  A bit disappointing, but in a way redeemed by the next dish: off the tapas menu (and from a separate tapas kitchen, behind the bar, which means the staff have to tell you that dishes ordered off the tapas menu can't be coordinated with dishes ordered from the main menu - although they managed to come together after all), came an utterly delicious and remarkably succulent char-grilled quail with a chilli and honey coating that was spot on.  The accompanying shredded fennel had somehow had the taste removed from it. A platter of jamon, chorizo and lomo offered remarkably sweet ham, delicious lomo, but rather dull chorizo.  A rabbit main course came as the leg braised (apparently), the fillet wrapped in very good bacon and roast, and then served with prunes and some excellent rice.  Looking at the menu, I see the rabbit is supposed to have been braised in Rioja: I didn't detect that at all, and it was a tiny bit on the dry side, so maybe it's braised in Rioja the region and shipped over?  Sorry, cheap jibe.  Milk roast pork was a lovely couple of generous slices of pork, served with spinach, pine nuts and a slick of what we presumed was a rather thin apple sauce.  Very nice, but really could have been warmer.  A side order of chips were excellent excellent examples, though the brava sauce (thankfully separate) did nothing for them.

The cheese selection was a really good selection of presumably all Spanish (unfortunately they weren't named on the menu or by the waitress) cheeses, all in tip-top condition and making a nice combination.  Served with excellent membrillo and a nice if filling-threatening fig cakey-panfortey-thing, and nasty British oat crisps. The latter were replaced with bread, not so much with a smile as a beaming grin, by the Spanish waitress.  A glorious Santiago Tart was a not too sweet orange-citrus, Moorish and moreish concoction, served with a scoop of fab almond ice-cream.  Coffee (pretty good café solo, though lacking the body of good café solo in Spain) came with some delicious petits fours: a sort of deep fried cube of custard, some nougat and what seemed to be some form of heavy syrup cake.
If they sort out the sizing and pricing of the starters, do something about getting the food to the table a bit hotter and sort out some of the minor consistency issues, plus getting someone to sell the wine, this could be really impressive.  Of course, none of this comes particularly cheap (though the tapas menu is reasonably priced), but it's gratifying to see a pretty top class restaurant in Manchester city centre once again.

A few weeks after the visit just described, I popped in for a leisurely spot of tapas while I waited for the Manchester rush hour to subside.  While the food was nothing outstanding (unless you compare it with other so-called tapas joints, in which case it is outstanding), it is an ideal - if expensive - way to wait until the trains (or trams if you're more local than I am) are likely to be quieter.
After a day's wine-tasting, I needed a drink, so started with one of their cocktails - a Gypsy Lemonade combining, if I remember correctly, manzanilla sherry, Majorcan gin and Fentimans lemonade.  Majorcan gin isn't exactly something I'd normally seek out, and the combination of gin and sherry sounded a bit challenging to me, but I have to say it worked well and was a nice refreshing drink.
Pimientos de padron were exactly what they should be: small green peppers, some hotter than others, fried in a hot pan with just a touch of oil, so they had some nice charred bits, and sprinkled with a good dose of salt (probably too much for the salt police).  Morcilla with a fried duck egg and sherry vinegar was some very good morcilla, unfortunately a little tepid, with a very nicely fried duck egg and pan juices deglazed with the vinegar and with a bit of added paprika.  I'm not sure how the morcilla came to be not warm enough: I was sat at the bar and watched the tapas chef in his kitchenette behind the bar: he cooked the (lengthways) slices of morcilla on the stove for a few minutes and then put them in the oven.  Maybe I didn't notice him take them out and leave them on the side while he did the duck egg? 
Salt cod fritters were acceptable, though not the lightest - but that might be because there seemed to be a healthy amount of salt cod in them.  The accompanying smoked anchovy mayonnaise was superb.
The grilled quail was again superb and again the accompanying white vegetable shavings (fennel I was told on a previous visit) were utterly tasteless.
Santiago tart wasn't quite as good as last time, but still excellent.
Coffee (cafe solo), however, was better, though at the bar, you don't get the petits fours.

The main problem with Grado is the cost.  With a glass of La Gitana Manzanilla the above managed to mount up to £34.10.  For £71 a head, we had had the full 10 course tasting menu with a bottle of wine, couple of bottles of water and coffee with petits fours at L'Enclume just a few days earlier.  No question that L'Enclume is way ahead in the value stakes.
And I've just this moment noticed that Grado forgot to put the coffee on my bill. 

So in summary, Grado is probably at the top of Manchester's tree at the moment, it's very useful next to a main transport interchange and on the way to both Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations, it's very useful being able just to have a snack and a drink, but all of that comes at a price.

(January 2008)

The Sparling, Barton, near Preston

As of May 2010, the Sparling appears to have ceased trading.
By all appearances (apart from the truly hideous sign on the A6 - how on earth did they get planning permission for that?), this seems to be a blatant rip off of Nigel Haworth's Three Fishes/Highwayman concept, even down to the less than subtle name of the holding company, Wyre Valley Inns (compare Ribble Valley Inns!).  But I was very pleasantly surprised: the menu and general concept are similar, but the leather chairs, Villeroy & Boch table settings, the service (yes, unlike Ribble Valley Inns, there is service) and above all the chef, Warwick Dodd's food demonstrate this is a rather classier place all round.  It's nice and bright, with attractive photographs of the region on the walls, though I have to say that had I been paying whoever fitted the floor and skirting boards, my snagging list would have been rather longer than theirs evidently was.  But who goes to restaurants to look at ill fitting floors and unfinished skirting boards?

The menu is fairly standard gastropub fare with the emphasis on local producers, several of whom are named on the menu, though without the anal retentiveness of some places.  There were just two extras for the day: some scallops to start with and a plain roast monkfish main course, recited by the French waiter, though he seemed a bit uncertain how they were prepared.  

The scallops were a bit on the small side, but nicely cooked, though would have been much better without the sesame seed crust, which jarred slightly with the chive-laden beurre blanc cum velouté sauce.  Our other starter was a slice of confit belly pork, nicely cooked though mad hot from the honey glaze.  The belly pork was served with some excellent, ultra smooth puréed sweet potato, some fine strips of apple (which worked remarkably well) and an unfortunately undressed small handful of salad leaves.

A peppered steak pie was a huge (8" diameter) earthenware dish with a puff pastry top and holding a good steak pie mix with notably good meat, though perhaps not as peppery as the peppered description might lead you to believe.  The pie came with some of the best chips encountered in a long time. 
Lasagna (sic) is far removed from the heavy meaty version found in Italian restaurants.  It's a mushroom (ceps and wild mushrooms according to the menu) version, the non-vegetarian option having a very parsimonious amount of parma ham in it, which definitely does not justify the £2 premium on the vegetarian version.  The pasta in the lasagne was fine and delicate, though there was a slightly mushy feel to the dish: a good one for if you've left your dentures at home.  If the vaguely bechamel-type sauce binding the mushrooms together were a little lighter, this would make a good starter.  It's a bit insubstantial as a main course, particularly when the vastness of the steak pie sits in front of the person opposite.  According to the menu, it is supposed to come with a rocket salad.  It was, however, the same small selection of mixed salad leaves that had come earlier with the belly pork, but at least this time, the salad leaves were dressed.  But it did have a very nice flavour, with a judicious use of truffle oil.

A small selection of desserts include "Mrs Myers sticky toffee pudding" and a "hand flamed vanilla & mascarpone crème brulée").  Hand flamed??  Oh, come on ...  Nice brûlée, but you wouldn't guess it had mascarpone in it if you didn't know.  A particularly small portion, that would be a pre-dessert in restaurants that serve pre-desserts.  The sticky toffee pudding was a decent example, apparently bought in from Mrs Myer (I didn't quite catch the full explanation of who Mrs Meyer is - some kind of a friend of a relation or vice versa of someone involved in The Sparling).
The wine list has a good selection of house wines at under £15 a bottle - a remarkable achievement these days, but the other wines seem to be not merely a bit dull, but quickly reach significant amounts of money.
(February 2008)

St Alban, Lower Regent Street, London

St Alban is rather anonymous from the outside, sitting on a corner site on Lower Regent Street, which is one of London's non-entity-of-a-street streets.  Since the BBC closed its Paris Studios (the home of much BBC Radio comedy for decades), nothing much has gone on in Lower Regent Street, and it's just been the northbound side of the Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus one-way system.  Inside, St Alban is a large space, with generously spaced, luxuriously padded tables. I'm not sure if it was just because it was evening, but the lighting levels overall were a bit gloomy, being very much focussed on the individual tables.  The decor is a little odd, with a strong 1960s-1970s feel: you feel that if they'd found any old doors in the building, they'd have nailed hardboard over them.

For me, the sourcing of ingredients really stood out, and I thought there was good attention to detail throughout.

Bread was very good, and came in quite a variety including focaccia, sourdough, pane carauso, rather nice grissini, served with a good olive oil, and alongside the bread, while we were reading the menu came some excellent, really fleshy giant olives.

The menu is attractive and un-fussy, drawing inspiration largely from Italy and Spain and uses a charcoal grill for meat and fish and a wood-fired oven for pizzas (and, presumably, other things).

Soft shell crab (served with a tarragon mayonnaise) was one of the better examples I've had, though it's still a dish that I don't really get: it always seems to be more about the deep fried exterior than any particular taste sensation - at least this was a really nice, light, dry exterior.
My quail, pancetta and dandelion salad was a very nice dish drawing on a good combination of the bitter leaves, the sweet quail flesh and the crispy bacon.  It was, however, remarkably light on dandelion, with the leaves being for the most part frisée.

A charcoal grilled veal T-bone was heavy in weight and heavy on the char-grill, particularly on the fillet side, which couldn't really stand up to the strong char-grill flavours. However, the sirloin side was spot on; almost more tender than the fillet, and certainly way better flavoured. T-bones are always difficult: two entirely different muscles that require different cooking. No doubting the quality of the meat, though it's a shame that the menu doesn't say whether or not it was British rose veal.

Scallops with pancetta and apple salad, were excellent scallops, perfectly cooked and the salad worked surprisingly well with them.

We were obviously a table of strawberry lovers, as by far the most popular dessert was the strawberry soup with mascarpone sorbet. This was a large (possibly a bit too large) portion of well sieved strawberry purée: nice and fresh and clean. My pistachio ice cream with zabaglione was very good too - pretty much what it said on the tin, though the zabaglione was a dark colour that suggested maybe some chocolate in it, though I couldn't particularly taste that. Very good espresso afterwards.

(June 2008)

The Longridge Restaurant, Longridge, Lancashire  (this is still open, still owned by Paul Heathcote, but now in the hands of Chris and Kath Bell)

"The Longridge Restaurant" is the name for what was (is) Paul Heathcote's original restaurant in Longridge, in Lancashire's Ribble Valley, near Preston. While he was in the kitchen, he won one, then two Michelin stars, then lost one, then revamped it as more casual dining, losing the other in the process. Paul Heathcote is now rather more of a businessman with several chains of restaurants, than a chef, and all credit to him. 

Anyway, I had a really very good meal indeed at The Longridge Restaurant today. The restaurant's new look (well new to me - it was redecorated in 2006 I understand) of modern shades of beige and grey, and a rather clever carpet that manages to look like stone flags at first glance, I think really suits the row of cottages that make up restaurant

Naturally Paul has no involvement in the kitchen now, but somebody's doing some good work. At lunch, a well-priced 3-3-3 table d'hote is offered for £25 including a glass of wine. Unlike the Weavers Shed at Golcar, the table d'hote here reflects the style of the à la carte, which is also offered at lunchtime.

After devouring the superb little pear and cheese tartlets provided with drinks, I started with a top notch terrine off the à la carte, before moving onto the table d'hôte. There's not a huge choice of half bottles, and the wines by the glass, while fine, didn't leap out at me, which the manager seemed to realise and she offered to open a bottle of anything off the list and I could just have a glass or two of that, and they'd be able to sell on the rest later. I didn't take up that offer, but thought it was an exceptionally good one.

An appetiser bowl (yes, not a coffee cup, but a rather attractive small Villeroy & Boch bowl) of exquisite wild mushroom soup, with a small morel floating in the middle, started the meal off. The couple of tarragon leaves worked very well in the soup, adding a freshness and an interesting hint of anise, that I must play with myself in combination with mushrooms.

The terrine was of wild rabbit, foie gras and sweetbreads, all perfectly (and gently) cooked. The menu says it's served with a tartare sauce, which I have to admit concerned me slightly, but this was a tartare sauce like no other: rich, eggy fresh mayonnaise with well-drained and washed baby capers and similarly vinegar free cornichons.

A glass of Selbach Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese (didn't catch the year) was recommended with this, and worked very well, both with the terrine and the foregoing mushroom velouté.

The famous Paul Heathcote black pudding came next (without the sweetbreads that it used to contain in Michelin-starred days, unless I was just unlucky in the slice I got), here on top of some nicely cooked and seasoned gently crushed potatoes (more just quartered new potatoes, squashed into a ring), some caramelised apple slices and with a neatly trimmed fried egg on top of the whole. A little white onion purée smeared on the side of the plate added extra interest.

My main course was a fillet of notably good (and - very welcome - carefully boned), very accurately cooked rainbow trout, served with a delicious tomato butter sauce, sea kale and asparagus. It took a look at the menu to choose dessert to work out what the sea kale was - some pieces reminded me of celery, but it wasn't celery; others reminded me of white asparagus, but it wasn't that either. It's been a long time since I had trout - they can sometimes be a bit muddy and I don't like messing with the bones, but this was a very good dish at that. They chose to gild the lily, however, serving a small scallop and crab mousseline alongside the fish: the texture of the mousseline was about right, but it lacked much of the flavour of either of its named ingredients. A glass of Crowded House Sauvignon Blanc from  Marlborough was served with this.  2006 I think she said.  Not entirely convinced by the match - while a good NZ sauvignon, it seemed to jar a little with the sweetness of the fish and the sweetish tomato butter sauce.  Another glass of the riesling would have been better.

If the black pudding is a signature dish of old, then so is the bread and butter pudding. Heathcote's version of bread and butter pudding is much lighter than most examples, being essentially a 2 inch high lovely, wobbly vanilla-rich set custard, with a thin bread and butter pudding topping. Great stuff. It was served with some apricot coulis and pouring custard, and a quenelle of clotted cream. The apricot (together with two halves of dried apricot) make a welcome addition, though the clotted cream seemed once more perhaps to gild the lily a bit.

Coffee was a bit of a let down - double espresso was crema-less and a bit thin. Charitably, I put that down to it being a double, but the later single espresso was even poorer. Good petits fours though: baby madeleines straight from the oven, rich cylinders of chocolate ganache, lemon and raspberry tartlets and ultra thin sugared shortbread biscuits.

Very good bread came plentifully (I turned it away at least three times) throughout the meal. Well not during dessert, just to forestall the pedants.

(March 2008)

The Freemasons' Arms, Wiswell, near Whalley

Chef-patron Ian Martin has retired as of Easter 2008 and the Freemason's Arms was sold.
Although I'd passed the sign for Wiswell many times, I'd never paid any attention and certainly hadn't heard of the Freemasons' Arms.  But recently a friend was recommended  the Freemasons' Arms by the brothers Byrne in Clitheroe, and having been, passed the recommendation on.  We 'phoned to book and had got directions, but still managed to miss it twice. Wiswell is a tiny village in the Ribble Valley, close to Whalley.  It is reached along narrow country lanes approaching from three directions which then encircle the handful of buildings.  Wiswell was basking in the sunlight, the sun giving the stone buildings more than an air of a Cotswold Village, an impression reinforced by the fact that the whole village was eerily deserted. Not a soul to be seen.
Curiously, though, there is no obvious pub building, or even any central buildings, not even a church, despite the address being Vicarage Lane.  The Freemasons' Arms is a small mid-terrace property, down a small ginnel which runs between Wiswell's two roads, with etched windows advertising the long defunct Nuttall's ales.
A list of wines by the glass and interesting bin ends are on blackboards above the bar. There is a short printed menu with the like of rib eye steak, steak and kidney pie, fish pie, fresh battered haddock  etc, and a blackboard with daily specials (and a healthy-looking amount of rubbing out). 
We went for some scallops and a rib eye steak and a twice baked Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese soufflé and a dish of roast duck breast with confit leg.
What was noticeable throughout was how well judged the cooking times were. Scallops were à point, the steak and the duck breast well rested and beautifully tender; the confit leg had melting meat and a gloriously crisp skin. Sauces and dressings complemented without overpowering. Good skin-on chips.  The Lancashire cheese soufflé was half way to being a Roux style suissesse.
Recently the scallop dish has changed and is now an utterly delicious combination of good quality, accurately cooked scallops with meltingly soft pork belly, which has been reheated by deep frying in panko breadcrumbs.
Desserts are somewhat unchanging standard fare (sticky toffee pudding etc, though grilled figs often make an appearance).
The menu has a short - interesting enough - wine list, but with a note saying ask to see "our full wine list". Blimey. What a list. It makes most serious restaurants look like they're just playing at it. There are wines to make the heart beat faster and the wannatrythelot neurons in the brain start racing around like demented furies on acid. The only thing it doesn't do is make your eyes water at the price. You look at some things and you can only assume that he's forgotten to put his markup on.
Curiously for such an enthusiast's list, no Alsace or Germans - not in any depth anyway. The Rhone selection is quite short, but with some beauties at bargain prices.
We went for a 1989 Sean Thackrey Orion at £65 (the 2001 is £60 at Oddbins) which took a while to open up, but was soon singing.
Amazing wine list, good technical skill in the kitchen producing unfusssy food. Excellent prices. What more could you want?
And how many pubs do you find not only with Moorhouse's and guest beers but also two vintages of D'Yquem? And bottles of Ridge and Planeta casually on the shelf behind the bar?
I can't wait to get back.
5/10 for food.  Much more for the wine list.
(April 2005)
Several repeat visits confirm this.  The quality of the meat is worthy of special mention.  Ian Martin's kitchen is as adept at handling a plain sirloin steak (on one occasion from a Belgian Blue) or spot-on steak and kidney pie with a Black Sheep gravy as it is with roast figs, stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in pancetta or a very fine, carefully made wild mushroom sauce with fillet steak; nor is the kitchen afraid to resurrect such classics as calves liver with Dubonnet and orange.  All of which, by the way, have been excellent.  The precision of cooking times continues to shine through.  Figs are clearly a favourite ingredient and have appeared at every course.
 Establishment Restaurant, Spring Gardens, Manchester  

(Restaurant now sadly closed: this was a very fine restaurant, and it's a shame that Mancunians didn't see fit to support it properly, preferring to spend £200 on a bottle of Cristal in a bling bar than £120 on a superb meal for two.)

Ten of us gathered at the Establishment Restaurant in Spring Gardens in Manchester for a wine dinner with a theme of Southern Rhône, with allowances for southern France generally.

We had a seven course meal, of a very high standard (details follow), plus a constant supply of tap and sparkling water, followed by coffee and generous petits fours, use of what seemed like several hundred Riedel glasses and the entire output of a small bakery in excellent bread rolls. All for £55 inc service and corkage for seventeen bottles of wine.

Our canapés were some home-made grissini, and some olive pastries with a delicious home-made taramasalata.

This was followed by a brilliant scallop dish: two slices of really good scallop and an intensely flavoured langoustine sat on top of a small square of (salt?) cod(?), served with a veal jus and fried, turned cucumber. A jolly good dish.

Next up was a Ham hock and ox tongue terrine with sauce gribiche and some toasted sourdough. The terrine had a very good balance of flavours, with both the ham and the tongue flavours and textures clearly identifiable; and the gribiche just gave it that little lift. On the side was some sprouting salad stuffs and four or five perfect little, lightly-battered crisp shallot rings.

Then, came an espresso cup filled with an excellent cappucino of wild mushrooms. This had a lovely, rich, creamy earthiness: very full-flavoured, but not at all over-concentrated - excellent balance again.

A few more wines were tasted, and then it was Whole Roasted Baby Poussin with handmade pasta and a sauté of ceps. A whole poussin per person, served off the carcase as two breasts and two legs (which, as there were ladies present, saved any discussion of who was a breast man and who was a leg man). This was served with a ravioli filled with, I guessed, smoked chicken and truffle: marred slightly by slightly thick pasta. The chicken was lightly cooked without being underdone: the breast was very moist and juicy; the legs nice and crispy, fully cooked and delicious. All really very accurately seasoned too. The dish could just have done with a little bit more jus/sauce/gravy from the goodness of the meat. The pasta was very fine and perfectly cooked. The ceps were, perhaps a little powerful for a wine dinner, but, heck, who's complaining?

The first dessert was a shot glass of crème de vanille topped with a blueberry compote. Lush!

And then the main dessert: "prune and armagnac soufflé!" (for some reason, the menu included the exclamation mark.) Very good soufflé indeed, with a really good flavour, but also incredibly light.
Petits fours were mini lemon meringue tarts and fabulous profiteroles.

Service was excellent throughout and very obliging.

(January 2006)

For another meal at Establishment in May 2006 see here.



Tapenada Restaurant, Forton  
(Restaurant now closed: the building now houses a café with a new cazy golf course built next to it(!!), which I've not yet been to.)

The curiously named Tapenada (surely destined to mis-pronounced, mis-spelled and confused with both tapenade and tapas) has taken over the premises of the very long-established El Nido on the A6 near the village of Forton, just south of Junction 33 on the M6.  Twenty (thirty?) years ago, El Nido was a welcome addition to the North Lancashire eating scene, being the first restaurant with a Spanish flair, and for some time the food was good.  There had been several changes of ownership over the years and in the last 10 years or so, it's been largely avoidable: not somewhere I ever went out of personal choice.  The decor was tired, heavy and dark.  The food was dull, uninspired and often seemed to have been prepared a few days in advance.  There wasn't really any identifiable Spanish element at all.

There has been a complete transformation.  I went recently, just as they were finishing their third week of business - good business as well they said.  Inside is now light and airy; fresh and clean.  Reasonably spaced tables are laid with good quality white cloths and napkins, snazzy cutlery (that works) and Riedel glasses.  The interesting stained glass windows are exposed and now let light flood in. 
The food too is in a different style.  Ingredients are largely local, and great care appears to be taken with regard to sourcing (although as there apparently aren't huge storage facilities, they are going to rely on suppliers to ensure meat and poultry is properly hung)  This isn't however one of those places (like the Three Fishes - see below) that labours the sourcing with anally retentive descriptions on the menu: at the Three Fishes you get Wallings Farm rare breed Gloucester Old Spot pork from Cockerham; here you get Gloucester Old Spot pork.  Similarly the menu credits vegetarians with more intelligence than many: there are plenty of vegetarian options on the evening carte, and it is nice to see them blended in seamlessly with the rest of the dishes, rather than highlighted with big Vs etc. 
The sign outside the restaurant proclaims "Mediterranean cuisine", though the chef apparently hasn't seen that, as, when I spoke to him, he was keen not to be so pigeon-holed: the style (as the restaurant name would suggest) nods towards the Mediterranean, and (as the name wouldn't suggest) Greece in particular.  Curiously tapenade doesn't feature anywhere on the menu!  There is a lunch table d'hote (£7.95 for 2 courses; £10.95 for 3 courses: 3 choices at each course) and a lunch à la carte, together with a dinner à la carte.  A bit more work needs doing on the menu structures I think: the evening carte sounds much more interesting than the lunch carte, and I can't see many going for the lunch carte over the set lunch.    It would do them good, I think, to make more of the vegetarian options available at lunch.  I'd hope that once they're more settled in, they may be able to just have one carte. 
For me, the lunch carte didn't have enough attraction on its own to make me stray from the set lunch.  I started with a good chicken Caesar salad - a good selection of immaculately fresh leaves, nicely dressed, with some balsamic and some pesto on the plate too, giving a nice counterpoint to the richness of the Caesar dressing.  The croutons with the salad were notably good.  My main course was a medley of seafood with pappardelle pasta, which was actually pappardelle with a seafood sauce.  None of the seafood was fresh - which is not a criticism as none of it was meant to be: there was some uncoloured lightly smoked haddock, some (bottled?) octopus and some of the crayfish tails that you see in fishmongers in large white pots.  These were bound in a very good sauce, that, while rich, just about managed not to be too heavy: a sort of enriched velouté with almost a hint of a hollandaise to it.  Good dish, and plenty of it.
Dessert, on the recommendation of the waiter, was a croissant bread and butter pudding.  Unfortunately this was a little stodgy, perhaps reheated a few seconds too long in the microwave?  But it had good flavours, though I'd have preferred a little more fruit.  Far too large a portion though.
Good espresso coffee.
The wine list is short, and lacks vintages, but seemed to cover most of the bases that it would need to and prices are with I think just one exception (apart from champagne) under about £20.
This all seemed rather promising to me.  Undoubtedly they are still settling in and there are a few aspects of the menu and the cooking that need a bit of work: it will be interesting to see how this develops.
Provisionally 1/10 (but please note this is at a very early stage of their operating and based only on a very reasonably priced table d'hôte lunch.  If the evening carte delivers on the promise of its menu descriptions, this could well be scoring higher.)
(July 2005)
A couple of subsequent meals have largely confirmed this: I think unfortunately what I saw as settling in/needing to settle in was actually showing the limitations of the kitchen and front of house: nothing much has changed.  Some dishes that have come out have been very good indeed (they seem particularly strong on pork, which is Gloucester Old Spot from Wallings Farm in Cockerham) and saucing can be notably good.  A terrine of something at one lunch was, however, distinctly unmemorable and not really up to scratch. 
Pool Court, 42 The Calls, Leeds
(Restaurant now closed, with the retirement of Michael Gill.  This review dates from September 2005)
Pool Court's dining room is quiet and sedate (except when the doorway through into the Brasserie 44 next door is open) and has quite a nautical feel to it (although there is nothing overtly nautical): the room is ovoid and overlooks the River Aire (there is even a balcony, presumably reserved for warm nights!) and decorated with an understated opulence.  It is let down somewhat by the entrance, which could perhaps be a little more distinguishable from the adjacent kitchen door.  Going in the entrance, there is an oddly long narrow, curving corridor that really could do with being made a little more inviting.  On the tables everything is as good as you would expect: good glasses and cutlery, white table cloths.  At lunch, the room is bright and airy; in the evening it is candlelit and - it has to be said - just a little bit dark.  You get the feeling this might be a good place for a secret assignation.
The food at Pool Court was well up to scratch, and, while there are some vestiges of its heritage (e.g. crudités and huge parmesan straws as nibbles), there are also some more modern touches (nodding to Heston Blumenthal for savoury ice-creams!) over the last time I was there about three or four years ago: they're not open weekends, unfortunately. The modernity is perhaps a reaction to the opening of Anthony's: maybe Pool Court's cooking isn't quite as exciting and novel as Anthony's, but in terms of quality and ability it is up there with them and I don't think it deserved to be as quiet as it was.
The amuse was a quenelle of red onion ice cream on a basil leaf, served with some whipped goats cheese. Very yummy.
I started with - would you believe - cauliflower cheese! This was a thoroughly impeccable of said dish, but topped with some (deeply un-trendy, but this is Yorkshire) milk-fed veal which had been wrapped in a Parma ham and roast till medium rare. The ubiquitous pea-shoot salad was there too.  My companion started with "Pool Court's Study in Foie Gras", which comprised a terrine with chopped pistachios, a chilled mousse with armagnac jelly and a warm sausage with sesame and pear.
I'd been toying between the cauliflower cheese and another starter, which involved smoked Catalan anchovies, that I like the sound of. They offered to bring some of the anchovies as a middle course, and it was a bit of a surprise to find that this was an ice-cream too. This worked very well, perhaps even better than the red onion ice cream.
My main course was an excellent plainly roast partridge, the legs confit'ed, served with a good bread pudding and an exceptional game sauce enriched with foie gras.
No puddings for me - I had to leave room for lunch at Anthony's the next day.


Luna Restaurant, Lancaster
(Restaurant now closed

Luna opened in St Leonardsgate in Lancaster a few years ago and has changed hands a couple of times since then, but always remained virtually identical - and the food has remained completely unchanged.  One reason, is that it seems to have been passed round a relatively small number of local Italian chefs/restaurateurs/waiters, who clearly share the same philosophy.  The food is relatively simple modern Italian, that would really benefit from a bit better sourcing of ingredients, though they commendably buy locally.  Fish dishes are always reliable, and things like deep-fried baby squid or baby octopus (that regularly feature as starters) are very well done: very light, crisp batter and seemingly always fried in very fresh oil.  A recent visit yielded bianchetti fritti (whitebait), which were excellent fish and beautifully cooked.  Pastas and risottos always show a delicate hand in the kitchen, in contrast to meat dishes, which are sometimes a little "ordinary" on the plate, despite the menu descriptions, and can be a touch overcooked on occasion.  Main courses are often let down by the vegetables which are re-heated and always served in a pancake basket, that adds just too much stodge.  This all sounds a bit negative, but I don't mean to be, as I genuinely enjoy Luna, and urge you to support them.  Desserts are all homemade and usually worth trying: semifreddo is very reliable and I recently had a superb home-made orange sorbet.  At lunchtimes, they offer (in addition to the full carte and the specials) an absolutely bargain lunch menu of a few pastas, a few bruschettas and what are probably the best pizzas in the north of England - for the princely sum of £3.95.  Although they're not a pizzeria and don't have a pizza oven, the Pizza Napoli is a classic, with home made dough and good quality toppings, baked in the regular oven on a stone: it's always much crisper across the whole of the bottom than most Anglo-Italian pizzerias.  An absolute bargain, unbeatable at twice the price.  Luna is unlicensed and they have recently withdrawn the corkage charge (which was a bargain £3 per table anyway).
Note that from 8th August 2005, Luna are set to move to the premises on Sun Street, Lancaster, currently occupied by the Sun Street Café.  These premises are licensed and Luna will be continuing that licence.  So, all the people who complained about the £3 a table corkage charge, will now, presumably happily, pay a standard restaurant markup on the wines.  Luna tends to amble along in a slightly amateurish manner, so it might be some time before it finds its feet in the new venue. 
Chez Nico, Park Lane
(Restaurant now closed, the great Nico Ladenis retired.  This review dates from July 2001)
Little seems to me to have changed since Nico handed back his stars. There is, however, a certain unease about the dining room. Is it more relaxed now? Certainly fewer ties and jackets. But there's still an air of gastronomic temple. Conversations are hushed and service solicitous. And it is ferociously expensive.

The large (in proportions) menu contains menu of the dishes that became Nico signatures over the years - you could probably take the last 10 years' Good Food Guides and find that many if not all the dishes mentioned are still on the menu. That, of course, was always part of Nico's philosophy. This was never a kitchen governed by what was best at the market that morning. But scallops, foie gras, dover sole, morels, etc are probably easily enough obtainable at the sort of quality levels we might expect.

Appetiser was a very dull piece of poultry terrine with a very good truffle cream.

Starter was a plainly cooked (fried) baby (definitely "baby") dover sole which comes only with a particularly creamy tartare sauce. A testament to the fish buying as much as the kitchen.

Main course was sweetbreads with morels. Excellent veal sweetbreads, perfectly cooked. Morels, mousserons, baby carrot, baby onion and asparagus tips accompanied the sweetbreads along with an irreproachable, but rather unexceptional cream sauce.

Chestnut mousse with a vanilla syrup was simply sublime. The chestnut mousse had an exceptional depth of flavour with no detectable gelatine flavour/texture, although it must have had some in to keep its terrine shape. The only fault was with the quantity. It was a very large portion. Though on this occasion it would have been difficult to have too much of a perfect thing.

With water and a half of Ch. Haut-Beausejour 1995 the bill came to £104.63.

It is undoubtedly very good, but falls down on the value equation. Cheese is available as an alternative to dessert, but attracts a *supplement* of £8. Not the price, but a supplement (at John Burton Race, I was charged £7.50 for cheese as an extra course, £12 at Gordon Ramsay, £8 at Petrus. All of which were remarkably good cheese selections, so I think Nico is being merely greedy to charge an £8 supplement.

7 out of 10 would seem to me about right. I could easily see it being less.

John Burton-Race at the Landmark
(Restaurant now closed, though Burton-Race is now cooking at what used to be the Carved Angel in Dartmouth.  This review dates from January 2001)

A last minute meeting in London led to me ringing round my list of London restaurants to go to. Gordon Ramsay full, Pied a terre closed. John B-R, yes that will be fine, we're very quiet tonight.

They were quiet as well. Apparently it was their first day opening after Christmas (8th Jan 2001). Two fours and me (dining alone). Fortunately, we weren't dispersed to 3 of the 4 corners. The next table (comprised mainly of Americans) were, in the stillness of the room, close enough for eavesdropping. After they had been discussing American chablis, I thought it impressive that the sommelier could remember what wine they had had on a previous visit to the Ortolan some years before (several bottles of an Alsace Pinot Blanc).

Having arrived by taxi which delivered me to the rear of the hotel, I set off on a long trek down the vast and very anonymous corridors of the Landmark, eventually arriving at the series of side rooms that form the JB-R. For an operation that has not been open that long, there is something of an air of faded elegance about the large room which houses the lounge/bar area and the restaurant, a partly mirrored dividing wall between the two. There is very much a hotel-dining room feel to the room, which feels rather sidelined within the hotel (though of course JB-R is a separate business and so there's no requirement for a connection). I think it would help if they'd had a door to the street (as for example the Nico Central has in the Midland Hotel in Manchester).

Enormous chandeliers hang from the ceiling, though with the combined illumination of no more than a handful of 60 watt lightbulbs, the main source of illumination being candles in chunky glass candelabras on each table. Candles are only lit when the table is occupied, which meant it was really a bit dark (and perhaps a bit chilly - in temperature as well as atmosphere) too now I come to think of it). When they weren't looking I surreptitiously edged my candles nearer my plate. There are what appear to be speakers set into the ornate ceiling, but thankfully nothing comes out of them.

Some rather good tidbits while perusing the menu, which is a prix fixe of £70 for three courses. Utterly superb calamaris fried in a tempura batter with a Chinese style sweet and sour sauce, a very good lightly curried chunky lamb samosa with raita, a peerless shallot tartlet topped with a fried quails egg and an adequate salmon mousse-y type thing piped onto a tiny crust of bread. The tiny squid rings (probably just under the size of a 10p piece) must I think be some of the best I've ever had.

The menu itself has plenty of interest and laudably includes two veggie mains (can't now think how many of the starters were vegetarian).
The wine list is such as to make it worthwhile arriving early and snuggling into one of the capacious sofas in the bar/lounge area for a good read. Many of the prices seemed to me to be exceptionally good, and not just for London. I'd be pleased to see the same markups applied round here in the frozen wastes of Lancashire (unless they have an exceptionally cheap source!). Also a good selection of wines by the glass: not "house wine" standard by any means. I couldn't quite see the point of the seasonal selection of wine at the start of the list, given that wine's not really dependent on the seasons in the same way as asparagus or white truffles might be. I suppose it provides a changing overview of the list for those who prefer not turn page after page ...

It's unfortunate that the decanters they use bear more than a passing resemblance to what Jane Austen might have taken with her on a long coach journey lest she be caught short, though they do pour well and are left on the table, well within reach.

First course was a croustillant de foie gras et confit de dattes, sauce de banyuls. Unfortunately they hadn't any Banyuls by the glass, but a glass of Trimbach lieu dit Pinot Gris (but I've forgotten the lieu) went well with it. The croustillant is a sort of single layer roesti, spread with a little of the date confit and topped with a slice of expertly fried foie gras. This was then repeated at least once, but I rather think twice - i.e. three slices of foie gras. A Shinfield size portion if ever I saw one, and in this context exceptionally generous. The contrast of textures between the croustillant potato, the gooey date and the creamy foie gras worked as well as the combination of flavours (very well, that is). The Banyuls sauce had perhaps been reduced a little too much, but added its own counterpoint. Looking and tasting (well, not tasting very much at all) rather otiose on the plate were some little quenelles of grated beetroot and parsnip. These were very cold (perhaps intended to provide a temperature contrast, as well as a texture contrast) and really rather tasteless: they needed something, perhaps the merest hint of grated horseradish, to lift them a little. The waiter asked for my comments on the dish and undertook to pass on them and the suggestion, saying that this was a new dish and they were looking for customer reaction. Oddly, I thought I'd read about this very dish - quite possibly in the GFG - maybe the beetroot & parsnip was a new addition.

Main course was an assiette de veau au deux sauces, described by the French waiter who delivered it as "your plate of veal". Loses something in the translation ... This comprised an exemplary roast fillet served on some heavily truffled squeaky beans, a piece of veal kidney on a bed of spinach served with a sweet and sour sauce and a piece of sweetbread on a bed of noodles served with a truffle cream. At the point of ordering, the sommelier and I had had a little discussion about what wine might go with this (I'd taken myself down a pinot gris path at the thought of sweet and sour), but eventually I went with his suggestion of a half of Guigal Hermitage 1994. An excellent wine and perfect with the veal fillet and kidney with its not really very sweet nor very sour sauce, but a bit of a struggle with the truffle cream. It'd be a good dish to ask those competing in sommeliers' competitions to match, as it's really a bit of a chef's challenge to his sommelier! All of the veal plate was perfectly cooked and again the portion was generous. It was let down by a rather poorly trimmed piece of veal kidney, though it is as much a mark of the overall standard that the amount of fat left on the kidney could be said to let the dish down.

Finished the wine with some cheese, from an excellent selection (solely French I believe) in tip-top condition. Probably matched in my experience only by the Gavroche, though JB-R's selection is probably only a third of the Gavroche's. Watching the cheese being served at the next table, I could see how the diner's selection was continually adjusted to ensure that they were presented in the correct order for eating, the start and end point being indicated by the waiter. Being told the best order in which to eat a selection of cheese is a practice that deserves encouragement, particularly where the cheeses may be unfamiliar. I took the cheese as an additional course and was amazed on getting the bill to see it came at the knockdown bargain basement price of £7.50 for an exceptionally generous selection. It came with some so-so homemade crackers (three different ones, two of which were a bit greasy) and some thinly sliced walnut bread and some thinly-sliced sultana bread. The walnut bread tasted a little odd - bit too much walnut maybe.

Ah, which brings me to the bread. A selection of three rolls were offered at the start of the meal (white, brown and baguette - the latter being a slightly streched white roll). It was mad hot (almost to the point of being painful as you tore it open), and the beurre echire was far too cold. Later in the meal, some more bread was offered, or rather I was asked if I would like more bread - there was not actually any bread in evidence. The bread then arrived some 10 minutes or so later, again mad hot and presumably baked to order. I was assured that they make all their bread themselves by a waiter who then felt obliged to ramble on about them not making the butter themselves!

For dessert a selection of sorbets d'agrumes (lime, lemon, grapefruit & orange), which were textbook sorbets - no better, no worse. Presentation however requires some speed in eating them. A rectangular plate has been filled with water and frozen until solid. The drawback of this is that as time passes (and citrus sorbets are not really something you want to wolf down) the bottom of the ice tray starts to melt, eventually giving the I suppose rather entertaining experience of trying to eat off something moving around just like the corridor connections of a train or the oscillating floor of the former Fun House at Blackpool's Pleasure Beach.

An infusion of verveine came with a slightly paltry selection of petits fours, which had little of interest to non-chocoholics.

The waiting staff just managed to keep on the right side of paying attention without being overly solicitous. They did seem a little bored on occasion, which I suppose was hardly surprising as they weren't exactly pressed.

The bill, gulp, excluding service, gulp, came to a rather hefty £133 (water, glass of Hidalgo's Manzanilla Pastrada as an aperitif, the Hermitage at £31, the glass of PG at £10 and the tea at £4.50 bumping up the £70 pre fixe). Large gulps, but fortunately no palpitations at the price, but it took only a moment to realise that it was in fact very good value: I had no sense whatsoever of paying over the top for location, 2-star, 8/10 - no doubt aiming at 3 stars and 10/10 - status. It's not cheap, but it is exceptionally good value.


1880 Restaurant, The Bentley Kempinski, Harrington Gardens, Gloucester Rd.

Andrew Turner left the 1880 at the end of January 2006 to go to Pennyhill Park in Bagshot.  I had a dreadful meal at the 1880 towards the end of January 2006 at the end of Andrew Turner's incumbency, so there's no doubt this should be moved to the history section.  For what it's worth, here is my review from January 2006

It is difficult to imagine a more different experience to my last visit. The first immediate difference was that there was no doorman and no welcome at the ground floor: if I hadn't been before, it would have taken some time to work out how to get to the 1880 restaurant.

Having descended into the basement, we were greeted by a man with a sommelier badge and asked if we wanted to go into the bar for a drink first. We did, and the barman duly came to take our orders. We ordered champagne cocktails. He didn't understand. He told us that there is a drink made with champagne called a kir royale. Well, golly ... No, we'd like two champagne cocktails please. The so-called barman (who was presumably merely a hotel porter or similar) still didn't understand, so we consulted the bar list, which included a champagne cocktail. We pointed to it on the bar list and said two champagne cocktails, please - two of these. "Would you like kir royale? It is a nice drink." No! This one, we said again pointing to the bar's list of cocktails. He shuffled off and promptly disappeared. After a while the sommelier came through, presumably having detected that something was wrong, and asked if his colleague had taken our order. We explained the apparent problem (that the barman was - implicitly - utterly incompetent) and after a while the cocktails appeared. They were ok, but nothing special, and had all the hallmarks of being made by someone who was unfamiliar with them.

The various menus continue to read well, and we eventually chose the Sommelier's Selection menu at £120 (a £20, 20% increase since my last visit in May 2005). This was an 8 course menu surprise with accompanying wines at each course: we highlighted a couple of dishes from the various menus that had caught our eye, suggesting that if possible, we would like these to be included.

After a while, we were led into the dining room and informed that we were the only diners that evening. That was undoubtedly a major problem throughout the evening: the barman clearly wasn't a barman; the pianist in the bar left immediately we had gone through to the restaurant. We were seated on a large table in the middle of the room, close to the kitchen door. After only a couple of minutes, we asked to move to a different table, which was handled well. While it's possible to appreciate the problems faced by a restaurant when only two are booked in all evening, I think it's worth really stressing here at the outset that, while I understand the commercial pressures, it wasn't our fault that we were the only two in, and there was no adjustment to the bill (none was requested by us - by that time, we just wanted to get out).

The bread trolley is no more; and the cheese trolley is no more. A shame.

The first dish was a mushroom velouté with a Comté and chorizo samosa. The mushroom soup was well done, but in the final analysis was merely a simple mushroom soup. The samosa was, however, really good, with a well-judged filling. This was served with a Puerto Fino from Lustau, lovely wine, though the combination with the mushroom soup really only served to demonstrate how well a dry sherry will match with most foods.

Our next dish was the best of the evening: an avocado and shellfish cocktail, topped with a slice of lobster, some caviar (looked like oscietra) and a small pile of baby (well, more like prenatal) salad stuffs. This was a lovely dish, very fresh tasting and showcasing some good ingredients. It was served with an excellent 2004 Menetou Salon from Domaine de Chatenoy. A fantastic wine to go with a classic dish.

Next up was one of the dishes we had requested: a confit duck pudding with crispy hen's egg and lie de vin sauce. The pudding was a baby suet pudding, with a fairly thin suet crust and a densely packed, very salty filling of confit duck; the egg, was a lightly cooked yolk that had been breadcrumbed and deep fried: my egg was runny and unctious; my guest's was almost cooked through, and lost the cromesqui-like delight of the contrast of textures. Nice sauce, though again you'd certainly not be wanting to add salt. This was served with an excellent 2000 Salice Salentino

The next dish was the second of our requests: Skate wing with belly pork. This was a small piece of baby skate wing, accurately cooked. Not my favourite fish by a very long stalk, but this was a very fine piece of fish indeed. The belly pork was small, meaty cube: the pork had evidently been cured and cooked with maple, but was over-salty and a little dry and hard. This was when things started to go downhill. Perhaps the kitchen was now rushing, with the prospect of getting off home early looming. Again not our problem. A 1997 Marques de Murrieta Ygay Gran Reserva Capellania, was lovely and worked well, particularly with the skate, though it's sweet, slightly oxidative flavours also balanced the pork well.

Unfortunately the next dish was one of the worst of the last 18 months or more. It was essentially lamb with sweetbreads. But merely looking at the dish, there was an immediately evident error in that the sweetbreads were deep-fried, as were some small rectangles of lamb breast. Two battered elements in one dish of this size is too much. The lamb breast was also, in itself, really dreadful: hard and overcooked and with no redeeming feature. The loin of lamb itself, while well cooked, was utterly tasteless: it was wrapped in what we were told was a parsley mousse. The parsley mousse was tasteless and comparable only to a bright green India rubber. The sweetbread on top, battered and deep fried, was the only enjoyable aspect of the dish and indeed really the only truly edible part of this execrable dish.
The lamb was served with a 2000 Vieux Chateau Vachon from St Emilion. These were the last two glasses out of a bottle, which had presumably been open since at least Friday or Saturday: fortunately, it had benefited hugely from this, and while it retained some young fruit characteristics on the nose, it had a good, developed palate.

Cheese came next: good quality, though only the fourme d'Ambert really stood out as beyond the ordinary. We had to specifically request the house speciality of jellies to go with the cheese. With the cheese came another sherry (well done, Mr Sommelier!), this time an Amontillado del Puerto, again from Lustau.

The first dessert was a terrible creme brulée, the only redeeming feature of which was a very, very thin crust. The custard itself was heavy, a touch grainy-textured and utterly tasteless. The Ch. de Sante Helene Sauternes that was served with this was extraordinary only in its complete ordinariness.

The main dessert was described as a signature dish: banana creole with coconut sorbet. Bananas in a caramel and rum sauce should win most people over. The coconut sorbet was a great, refreshing counterpoint, but there was far too much of it, and it unbalanced the dish. This came with a glass of surprisingly good Lustau (yes, another sherry!) East India Solera, that worked well with the dish, and knocked the Sauternes utterly into touch.

So, there were two hits, two complete failures and the other four dishes were ok, but not really up to the standard you'd expect. This was a very disappointing meal and for me, personally, very embarrassing, as I had been recommending 1880 to many people, and in particular my guest. On this showing, neither of us would want to return. We were embarrassed too for the sommelier, Andrew, who performed valiantly in circumstances that must have been embarrassing for him, though his level of eavesdropping could have been embarrassing for us, if we'd anything to discuss.

This was all such a huge difference from my last visit and so contrary to friends' experiences that I assumed it could only be down to them being empty bar us and presumably a B team front of house and in the kitchen. And a Z team in the bar. The one good difference from my last visit is the much improved range of sherries: last time they could only offer Tio Pepe!

Thinking about it the next day, they really should have rung us to say there was a problem with the stove or something and that they couldn't do us after all. That would have been much better. They were clearly on a skeleton staff because we were the only table in, and most of the problems (the idiot pretending to be a barman was the worst start possible) were because they were short-staffed. But it wasn't our fault we were the only ones there.


The following review dates from May 2005, when Andrew Turner was still there and firing on all cylinders.

Andrew Turner moved from the 1837 restaurant in the historic Brown’s Hotel just off Picadilly to this new hotel in the wild netherlands of Gloucester Road.  The doorman leads you down a swooping staircase into a slightly oppressive basement.  To left is a bar where a pianist beats out show tunes that are entirely in keeping with the ever so slightly camp, over-the-top decoration of the restaurant to the right at the base of the stairs.  The room is decorated in golds, blacks and olive silk panels; lighting is verging on the crepuscular.  But before you go in, you are greeted by the maîtresse d’, with what I soon realise is the trademark handshake.  When the sommelier, Deborah Kemp, arrives at my table, she proffers her hand too.  Yes, apart from one commis, all the staff are female.  That is until around 9 p.m. when a maître d’ rolls up, makes a beeline for me to shake my hand.  Have they mistaken me for another even more famous Andrew Stevenson?

There is an à la carte, but the main feature here are the grazing menus, seven course (£48), eight courses (£52), nine courses (£56) and ten courses (£60), plus a Chef’s Surprise Menu (£70) and a Sommelier’s Choice (£100).  I went for the Sommelier’s Choice, essentially an eight or thereabouts course menu surprise, chosen by the sommelier in consultation with you, with her selection of seven different wines.  Apparently they have around 200 wines by the glass, though I didn’t see the wine list.  Each of the wines I had came from a freshly opened bottle.  All the more remarkable that the only glass of sherry they could offer me as an aperitif was Tio Pepe.

The first glass of wine was a 2002 Saumur Blanc, Domaine du Val Brun.  A creamy nose.  Fresh, clean and vibrant.  Very Good Indeed.

This was rapidly accompanied by a velouté of rabbit, sprinkled with truffle powder, swirled with truffle jus.  The velouté was well flavoured, fairly salty with a good earthy taste.  Hidden in it was a light rabbit ravioli.  On the side was a confit pork, onion and tarragon samosa: a very good filling with lots of texture, let down by a slightly thick pastry on the samosa.  With this came some very good olive straws and cheese straws.

Then it was the turn of the bread trolley with around half a dozen different loaves of very good bread indeed, though the selection was missing a plain loaf.

Next up was a 2002 Semillon-Sauvignon, Cullen, Margaret River, Western Australia.  A fragrant lightly oaked nose.  Reminiscent of a decent standard Graves on the palate; not earth shattering, but Very Good.

With this came a lobster and asparagus cocktail.  Baby gem lettuce, topped with a lobster and white asparagus dice in a very light marie rose sauce.  A decent slice of crisp, tender, very sweet lobster perched on top, its top scalped to allow a small spoonful of oscietra caviar to be inserted.  Baby white asparagus spears and paprika pastry spears stood guard around the outside, with rather otiose deep-fried onion rings hanging off the pastry spears.  The onion rings notwithstanding, this was a great dish: delicate and fresh, with all components clear and precise, all in a neat twist on an old classic.

My next wine arrived soon after: a 1996 Riesling Spätlese from v. Kesselstatt.  A lovely, honeyed mineral nose.  Very fresh on the palate, with some sweetness but above all well-balanced.  Sherbetty notes on the finish.

This was served to accompany a port-cured foie gras served with a Tom Aikens style blackcurrant crisp, pools of lemon curd and port curd, a sprinkling of sherbert, and some excellent paper-thin parmesan and almond biscuits.  A few leaves of baby curly endive helped cut the richness of the liver.  It all worked well together as well as individually.  The tranche of foie gras was a very generous portion of absolutely top quality foie gras that had been perfectly cured, with a deep flavoursome deep purple exterior (the colour of which was picked up by the blackcurrant crisp, and the flavour by the port curd).  An excellent dish, but that was not the totality of the dish.  With it came a small glass of apple granita, topped with an apple crisp, and left with instructions to leave it until after the foie gras.  It was fresh, green and served as a perfect palate refresher.  All in all a really excellent dish.

A glass of 2001 Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc arrived next (as with all the wines, in an appropriate Spiegelau glass).  A mellow sauvignon blanc nose, that develops more smoky, toasty notes as it warms up. Rich on the attack, and I have to say it’s taken the oak well.  Not a wine I’d ever have chosen, but it works extremely well with the scallop dish that arrived a few moments later.

This was a roasted scallop, on an utterly smooth cauliflower purée with a creamy white sultana sauce with cèpes, carrots and cauliflower crisps.  Another excellent dish, lifted beyond the excellent conception and execution by an utterly stunning scallop.

Next a bottle of 1994 La Rioja Alta 904 was produced, opened and decanted, before a glass was poured for me a little while later.  A gorgeous nose of sweet vanillin fruit with a touch of volatile acidity.  Sweet, spicy, gentle red fruits on the palate.  Completely integrated fruit, ripeness and acidity; just waiting for the last of the spicy tannins to integrate finally.

This was accompanied by a perfectly cooked spring lamb cutlet, served with a ravioli of veal tongue and ham (an item I’d noticed as a course on one of the other grazing menus and asked if it could be worked in), a delicate spring roll of confit breast of lamb, lamb sweetbreads, pommes noisettes and a lamb and tarragon sauce.  The ravioli was served on a bed of garlicky spinach with horizontally sliced morels.  Another excellent, well-balanced dish.

After a pause, when the maître d’ arrived and did all the handshaking and greeting stuff, he wheeled round the cheese trolley.  A smaller selection than in many of the top London restaurants, but very well chosen, well kept and well described.  Cheese was served with some fabulous dried baby figs that had been marinated in Chablis for a week (something I am going to have to try myself) and two jellies: an apple jelly (intended to match mild, creamy cheeses) and a pinot noir jelly (intended to match strong cheeses) – both jellies served their intended purpose exceedingly well.

With the cheese came a Aleatico di Puglia, Candido, Salice Salentino (fortified?) negroamaro   An elegant, slightly floral nose.  Very fresh and light textured with a nice sweetness, but also lovely balance.  If served this blind, I’d have guessed it was a black muscat.

The first dessert was a gingerbread trifle: a light apple jelly, pain d’épices, crème chantilly layered on top of each other and decorated with a gingerbread biscuit and a caramel shape, probably best described as a hat pin.

The second dessert was a beautiful, light, fresh, satisfying way to finish the meal: a full-flavoured mango puree set between sesame caramel wafers, with a pineapple sorbet on the side.  Underneath, covering the plate were the thinnest sheets of pineapple carpaccio that had been marinated in a coconut liqueur.  All superb, but the sesame caramel wafers were exceptional.

With the desserts was served a 1995 Sämling 88 (??BA??) from Helmut Lang in Austria’s Burgenland.  A very, very delicate nose.  Much bigger and sweeter on the attack than the nose would have led you to think.  Big and round; really quite sweet, and it doesn’t fully carry off its sweetness.  A touch simple, but it matches well and stands up well to the desserts, especially the mango.

Portions are not small (they are larger than some à la carte portions I’ve had elsewhere), yet the whole meal had a superb balance that left one comfortably contented rather than overfull.

(May 2005)

Istanbul Mediterranean Restaurant, Lancaster

This has opened at 66 Penny Street, Lancaster in premises that previously were an unexceptional tapas restaurant. Talking to the owner/manager/waiter, he sees the plainly grilled meats as his restaurants main strengths, but I went in one lunchtime, when there was a cheapo lunch menu, offering lahmajun, chicken stew, an overgrown börek - that sort of thing. The menu and low aspirations are reminiscent of many a small café in Turkey, as is the somewhat basic decor.
I don't see this lasting long. While the simple cooking may appeal to some, there's no sense of occasion to make people go for food they could easily cook at home.
Lahmacun was ok - nice fresh tasting, but a rather thick, unappetising pizza base. The börek sort of thing was the same pizza base folded over a filling of spinach and cheese and then baked, served sliced, sprinkled with sesame seeds: it was the better of the two, but not exactly inspiring.
0/10 (which is not to say it's actively bad, but not somewhere I'd recommend eagerly)
(December 2006)

The Dining Room, Rawtenstall
If you look at that vast organ of collective hearsay, wikipedia, you get the impression that Rawtenstall is famous for ... absolutely nothing. They mention that it's the birthplace of Jane Horrocks, but manage to omit that Rawtenstall is home to Britain's last remaining temperance bar, Fitzpatricks, with its excellent sarsaparilla and dandelion & burdock among other restorative non-alcoholic drinks, alongside shelves laden with herbs and spices of varying degrees of mysteriousness, all looking destined for non-culinary purposes, to judge from their monochrome appearance.  The Helmshore Mills textile industry working museum is just down the road, as is the northern terminus of the East Lancs preserved railway line.  Rawtenstall's market, which proudly preclaims itself the friendliest market, is an interesting mix of outdoor cabins (à la Clitheroe) and traditional market hall.

Opposite the market hall is something that should add to the fame of Rawtenstall, but appears curiously overlooked by all the food guides, except Hardens. 

The location is somewhat unpromising and you wouldn't expect to see an advertising A-board outside many Michelin-starred restaurants.  This isn't Michelin-starred, but should be.  To my mind, some of the finest food in the north west is being served here.  I find the dishes very well conceived, very well balanced, very well executed, and beautifully presented.

I've never actually eaten à la carte here, having always been tempted away by the excellent value offered by the tasting menu or the equally excellent value set lunch.  The latter offers three courses for £16.95 (less for fewer courses), which is astounding value for the quality of food and execution.

Today was the set lunch, starting for me with a room temperature fillet of mackerel served on top of some lightly pickled ceviche-style carrot (and something else).  The balance of the un-ceviched mackerel and the ceviched (if you'll allow me to make up words) vegetables was just right.  Top stuff. 

Before moving on to main course, we had an additional starter off the à la carte, mine being the terrine of foie gras.  This was served with a rather nice gewurztraminer jelly chopped, and mixed with a fine brunoise of apples, a much too thick brandy snap (the first real fault I've found in the food in numerous visits) and some very fine home-made brioche, which had been toasted with a degree of precision that is quite rare.  The terrine itself was well-made, though perhaps a slightly small slice, but was a bit underflavoured: it needed a bit of salt, though a bit more marinading of the livers would have achieved the same result I think.

Then it was back to the set lunch.  Set lunches are the time for restaurants to wheel out cheaper cuts (and indeed there was a slow cooked shoulder of lamb), but my main course featured the primest of prime cuts, the pork tenderloin.  Perfectly cooked and served with peas three ways (though that's not how the menu described it, as that just mentioned the risotto): fresh peas, a pea purée and a superb risotto of peas and cider-marinated bacon.
Although there would have been no problem switching to à la carte for dessert (and the chef's selection of desserts for sharing was recently an exceptionally good selection of exquisite desserts), the lure of "apple crumble tart" on the TDH was too much for me.  Super light yet crisp pastry, with a nicely tart apple filling topped with an almost streusel like crumble, served with a scoop of excellent vanilla ice-cream, was really spot on.  It would be tempting to slip a touch of cinammon into such a dessert, but on this occasion I much appreciated the purity of the apple flavour. 

Incidentals are top notch too.  Bread is home made and superb: four varieties, all tasting of what they're supposed to.  Petits fours are very fine: a perfect miniature lemon tart with a gossamer of crispy brûlée topping, an ultra light lacy tuile and a superbly hedonistic chocolate truffle.  
The wine list perhaps doesn't have the same interest or skill as the kitchen, but there is sufficient to match the food at not too unreasonable prices.  

That is the most recent visit, but based on a number of visits, The Dining Room is one of the best restaurants in the North West, if not the North of England. Andrew Robinshaw's cooking is assured, skilled and inventive, without any excesses that can arise from inventiveness.  I find the food is better (or rather more consistent) than at Northcote Manor (and I prefer the more informal atmosphere at the Dining Room to the temple of gastronomy feel that Northcote cultivates), better than all the restaurants run by Paul Heathcote, better than many of the Lake District restaurants. Nutters in Edenfield is probably the closest local competitor:  I find Nutters slightly over-bearing and the food isn't as good as they think it is: I've had some great meals there, and some less good (the best was the first time, at the old Nutters site, when we persuaded Andrew to do a tasting menu for us at lunchtime, and as we were the only ones there, he came out and talked us through some of the dishes).  Probably the closest restaurants in quality and standard to the Dining Room are L'Enclume in Cartmel, Hipping Hall near Kirkby Lonsdale and the new Michael Caines at Abode (in the former Rossetti hotel in Manchester). L'Enclume is in a class of weirdness of its own, and doesn't really bear comparison. Hipping Hall (like the Dining Room, curiously ignored by all the major food guides, apart from Hardens) has a very near level of quality of food, maybe slightly better executed on occasion, but the Dining Room edges it slightly for me as the menu changes more regularly. Michael Caines at Abode is also at a similar level of quality, but it's in a dark basement down anonymous corridors and concentrates on a grazing style of menu.  If pushed, I would probably say that The Dining Room just about edges slightly ahead of the food at Hipping Hall near Kirkby Lonsdale, and what pushes it ahead is the more frequent menu changes: indeed, the second time we had the tasting menu at the Dining Room, they adjusted the menu to avoid duplicating the dishes we had had on the previous visit.  Edging slightly ahead of Hipping Hall, makes this probably the best restaurant in the north west.

(August 2008)

Very, very sadly, the Dining Room closed in the autumn of 2009.  I hope we see Andrew Robinshaw cooking in a restaurant kitchen again soon.

The White Bull, Ribchester, Lancashire
Kath & Chris Bell took over the place in 2006, having both spent eight years at Paul Heathcote's Longridge Restaurant, she as GM, he in the kitchen. Here at the 300-year old White Bull, they've certainly not messed about with a traditional boozer. As you pass through the Roman columns of the portico (this is the former Bremetennacum Veteranorum after all), there are some pool tables in a distinctly rough looking room to the left, a large lounge bar in the centre and a restaurant room to the right. All is pretty much unreconstructed old pub (and still operating as a local), and you get the distinct impression not much money at all has been spent, which in these days of "designed" gastropubs is actually a pleasant change. There's even a stuffed fox rather bizarrely cut into two and mounted so that it appears to be leaping through a wall.

In the lounge bar there are two smallish blackboards, and then in the dining room there is one large blackboard and a second smaller one with steaks. Too many blackboards. In addition there's a printed menu (laminated, wipe clean, but somehow not feeling particularly cheap or icky). Ingredients are shared between blackboards and the menu, but with slightly different treatments, which just seemed a bit confusing. The common thread through the menus is British food from local ingredients.

We started with a good ham hock terrine served with a nice chutney and a large, quartered and toasted barmcake and a beautifully smooth wild garlic and potato soup, entirely lacking the flouriness that too often mars an anything and potato soup. Though a bit more wild garlic would certainly not have gone amiss. Main courses were an exceptionally good rib eye steak - beautiful flavour, perfectly cooked. A bit thin maybe, but it was only £11.95 (or was it £13.95?) with pretty decent chips. A suckling pig dish on mashed potatoes and a couple of other things I've forgotten looked remarkably like Pugh's porchetta and as is often the case with the latter suffered from an uncrispy, heavy skin.  Desserts are fairly standard and unfortunately both of us were too full to try more than a couple of scoops of local Mrs Dowson's ice cream. Nice, but nothing the kitchen here had had a hand in. While they've spent nothing on the decor or furnishings, they have invested in a espresso machine, and managed to produce very good espresso from it. The wine list is feeble - really very much a pub wine list, though a bit more expensive than it should be. A screwcapped 2004 Mitchell Peppertree Shiraz was a solid basic Ozzie shiraz which didn't really excite me. Fortunately there is some good beer, including on this occasion a very nice pint of Great Jemima from the local Bowland Brewery at Bashall. Service was surprisingly good for a pretty traditional village pub, not so surprising for someone who used to run front of house in a Michelin starred restaurant. All in all, I thought the White Bull was much, much better than I thought it was going to be. Utterly unprepossessing. Reasonably priced food, done fairly well - I need a few more visits to find out whether some minor seasoning errors were just that or more of a problem. Doesn't really replace the Freemasons (RIP), though the toilets are much more pleasant at the White Bull.

(April 2008)

Update: the Bells are, from July 2009, taking over Paul Heathcote's former flagship restaurant in Longridge (see below).  What the relationship is to the Heathcotes group is currently unclear, and varies depending which story you listen to!  At the time of writing (July 2009), the Heathcotes group website isn't admitting that the previous chef isn't there any more and the menus are dated February (without a year).

Lindsay House, Romilly Street, Soho, London

Richard Corrigan has now relocated to the former Chez Nico premises at 90 Park Lane (connected physically but not in business terms to the Grosvenor House Hotel). The old Lindsay House premises on Romilly Street are now (autumn 2010)  occupied by Alexis Gauthier, formerly of Roussillon.
One of my favourite London restaurants, excellent at both lunch and dinner.  Here is a report of an impressive set price lunch.

Keeping itself very much to itself on this quiet street between the attractions of Old Compton St and Shaftesbury Avenue. Ring the bell to be let in. Inside it is very much a house, with a series of rooms on three floors (second floor private dining, first floor lunch and dinner, ground floor dinner) with a slightly seedy air. Cultivated seedy perhaps. The decor is "lived-in Soho town house". Having entered you go down a rather dark hallway and up some uneven, very creaky slightly rickety stairs. The dining rooms have uneven bare wood floors and a general distressed appearance. Distressed by design, I assume. It works well - you might even say complements the rustic touches to much of the food - and provides a comfortable, conducive atmosphere. Tables and their settings are spot on though.

Roast wood pigeon, rosti potato, plum jus (they don't waste words on the menu here) was what it said. Small pigeon breats, slightly beaten out, perfectly cooked and sandwiched (some places would say en feuilleté) of wafer thin rosti. Served with stewed plums and an excellent stock reduction sauce flavoured with plums. Good combination, well executed.
Main course was Poached monkfish, shellfish ravioli, squid bouillabaisse. The monkfish was wrapped in courgette and the timing of its cooking was absolutely spot on. The ravioli contained a remarkably good combination of cockles and mussels made into a barely cooked mousselline: the pure, fresh flavours of the shellfish worked extremely well. The bouillabaisse was an excellent, very finely flavoured fish soup style sauce with some pieces of squid rather than fish. The squid seems at first glance redundant, but not only contributed flavour to the bouillabaisse (an achievement in itself), but added another welcome texture to the dish. The three main ingredients - the monkfish, the cockle & mussel ravioli and the bouillabaisse sauce worked exceptionally well together, each adding something and counterpointing the others, but remaining a very harmonious dish. Absolutely splendid. This came with a small pan of creamy Robuchon style mashed potatoes.
Dessert was rosehip soup, vanilla cream, almond biscuit. Quite unusual (to me anyway). The rosehip soup was served hot, and if that's what rosehips taste like, I like them. Sweetish but also with a savoury and slightly sour tang and a distinct pepperiness. The vanilla cream was 80% the way to being ice cream, yet wasn't melted ice cream. And once more it all worked well together, ending up with a dish far more than the sum of its parts. Without the vanilla cream and biscuit, the soup would have been too rich; the contrasts of the heat of the soup and cream and of the textures of soup, cream and biscuit were very well conceived.

The lunch menu is £23 and with a sherry (£7.50) a bottle of very apt Ostertag Sylvaner 1999 (£26), a bottle of water (£3.50), very good coffee with excellent petit fours (£3.50) and an "optional" 12.5% service charge, the bill came to just over £71.
The service charge is merited. The staff are excellent: friendly and approachable without being over-familiar and splendidly efficient. They also have the ability not to loiter within the dining room(s), but respond well to telepathic summons, as they almost instantly appear should anyone want them.

This easily deserves an 8, and it would be a high 8, almost a 9 out of 10.
(October 2001)
Another lunch visit brought the following:

Some very fine anchovy and tomato crisp thins come while you peruse the menus (carte also available at lunch), and are replenished.

Starter was a rump of veal with pickled aubergines. The veal was served barely lukewarm, very rare and almost like a tataki of veal. The pickled aubergine (a sort of melitzanosalata, if my recollection is correct of the menu at Kalamaras in Inverness Mews all those years ago) appears delicate at first, but manages to pack quite a punch, presumably from undetectable chilli and perhaps a bit of cumin. Fried basil leaves and a syrupy reduction of pan juices and soy (which I thought were much more than just that, so good were they) rounded off a very good dish. Light and oddly refreshing on a hot summer's day.

Main course was tongue with chanterelles. This was a very satisfying slab of calves? (could have been young ox) tongue cut lengthwise from the tongue. Came with a the largest coxcomb I've ever seemed, which rather redeemed the coxcomb as a food in my mind. So much better, meatier and more flavoursome than the tiny little gelatinous lumps that I would normally associate with coxcomb. It must have been a very big cock. Some small cream coloured quenelles defied identification at first, but when they were explained to be foie gras gnocchi, all became clear. A good madeira sauce rounded it off. This was far from being a good dish - it was an absolutely marvellous dish. A less common centrepiece with unaccustomed accompaniments that all knitted together perfectly.

The wine list is not quite so splendid. The difference in price between half and full bottles was minimal (say 0.75:1.0) and having nothing else whatsoever to do in the afternoon, I ended up with a bottle of Crozes Hermitage Les Pierrelles 1998 Belle Pere et fils at £28. Light and oddly fresh. Actually went quite well, but as a wine was a bit undistinguished.

Having plenty left I took a selection of cheese - 5 Irish cheeses, perfectly à point with some utterly delicious soda bread. It came with a very branston like pickle, which was singularly wine-killing. I expect Richard Corrigan has spent years perfecting this so it tastes just like Branston (in the same way Paul Heathcote has perfected Heinz tomato soup), but it was singularly out of place, particularly when the cheese had been suggested in order to finish the wine. The cheeses were all named, but no order in which they were to be eaten was suggested, unfortunately.

Dessert was "raspberries and raspberries". A raspberry sorbet, a tiny millefeuille of raspberries, a raspberry parfait (actually a very good vanilla parfait with a raspberry in the middle of it), a hot raspberry-frangipane tart and a wine jelly containing raspberries.

With a glass of sherry, bottle of water (£3.50), good espresso and an "optional" 12.5% service the bill came to a very reasonable £82.69 (I had had a full bottle of wine, remember), and the card slip was closed.

Service was friendly and welcoming, without being obtrusive. Very well judged. Just like the food.

A clear 9 out of 10.

I went again to the Lindsay House for lunch on 11th March 2005.

They were actually number 3 on my list: couldn't get in to Gordon Ramsay or Tom Aiken.

I had a fantastic lunch with a glass of wine at each course.

Canapés were:
Queen olives wtih a goats' cheese stuffing (the olives had been scalped and some light goats' cheese mousse piped in: very nice, but perhaps a touch rustic?)
Sherried foie gras mousse on crisps (very airy, but also a very powerful flavour with an excellent balance of sherry and foie gras)
Anchovy straws (ok, take a sheet of puff pastry, lay anchovy fillets horizontally at 1.5" intervals along the whole width of the pasty; season; put another sheet of pastry on top; cut vertically into fine strips and bake. Very nice - I think I'll be replicating these. Though I might air them briefly in the oven before serving, which unfortunately Corrigan's brigade hadn't done)

There is the carte, and - at lunch - two TDH menus at £25, but no problem to mix and match between them: so effectively a choice of 2-2-2. I'd just about made up my mind what I was going to have, and had talked myself into the TDH, when the waiter announced the specials. How on earth could I not have a "Ravioli of pigs head with a tempura of brains"?

So I slotted that into the TDH as an extra course, but had to change from the lobster ravioli that I'd been eyeing up as a starter to
Beef bouillon with marrow croutes
A very intense, but not overly beefy (ie not tending to oxo-iness) consommé, which was absolutely spot on in every way. The croutes were more garlicky/parsley than slathered with marrow. On reflection, I wonder if they incorporated the marrow into the dough before baking it? There were some halved soft boiled quails eggs which added colour and texture, but wouldn't have been missed; and there were also some little patties of (I think) shin, which added another texture and more flavour, and really did contribute.

With that, I had a glass of 2003 Albariño, DO Rias Baixas from Pazo Señorans

Next up was the Ravioli of pig's head with brain tempura
A large (6 inch square) flat raviolo, that was slightly thick at the edges where the two layers of pasta met: they'd have been better to trim it a little further after cooking and before serving. The brain fritters were vey light and airy - almost ethereal. The raviolo had an excellent meaty filling with a variety of textures. Trendy pea sprouts and other green sprouting veg type stuff, together with a good meat jus, completed the dish. Jolly good dish.

With that, I had a 2003 Chablis, Domaine Perchaud

Main course was a Ballotine of chicken and wild mushroom, chorizo bread pudding
An excellent example of just how good chicken thigh meat can be - really succulent. Good flavoured mushrooms. Some more sprouting leaves and a good intense, yet light jus. Really nice dish. This came with a rather odd sounding - and odd-looking - bread pudding. This was a savoury bread and butter pudding, with a rich savoury custard and cubes of chorizo. What a fantastic accompaniment! Gorgeous.

With the chicken ballotine, I drank 2003 Villa Vieja Sangiovese, La Agricola, Mendoza, Argentina

Dessert was a warm banana tart with hot raisin syrup. Needed a sweet tooth, but with one was utterly delicious and moreish. A sort of banana tarte tatin, but not one that had been upside down. Nice light puff pastry.

With that and with excellent espresso, I drank 2000 Mas Cristine, AC Rivesaltes

One of the greatest strengths of the Lindsay House is its treatment of offal and less prestigious cuts.  I've not (yet) been to St John, but I gather that the nose to tail eating there is pretty much literal and the cooking is much simpler. At the Lindsay House, these cuts are given a much more cheffy michelin treatment, if you see what I mean. E.g. their treatment of the classic Irish crubbeens (pig's trotters) sees them boned and formed into small breadcrumbed beignets.

The wine list is the problem at the Lindsay House - the markups are ferocious.   Each of these glasses of wine was around £8-£10 each. Corrigan's menu is one that should actively encourage innovative food and wine pairings, but instead diners are punished horribly whether drinking by the bottle or by the glass.

(March 2005)




andrew [at] andrewstevenson.com


Last updated: 10 April 2011