Review: The Chagford Inn, Chagford

Trotter on toast

Trotter on toast

I’m a sucker for anything a bit different. At The Chagford Inn they do nose-to-tail proper country style. They source a Dexter ox from a farmer a mile down the road, and then they take about ten days to work through him from nose-to-tail, changing their menu as they go along. Tonight they had heart on, as well as tail, liver, rump, and fillet. I’m sold.

Chagford is packed with pubs, inns and restaurants offering good-looking menus. Ridiculously so for a tiny Dartmoor town, but then it is next door to Gidleigh Park and also bucolic as heck. The Chagford Inn is a cosy and relaxed place, still looks like a pub though obviously the food is probably the main part of what they do. Service was great and they’ve got a great list of wines by the glass. So… food!

I went for pigs trotters and prunes on toast to start. The mixture of funky, gunky trotter chopped up with sweetly dark prune and diced veg was a really top combo for dedicated adherents to the cult of St John. I loved it. On the other hand, the toast beneath had quickly become soft and squodgy. Fried bread might have stood up better. Who cares, lovely dish.

Have a heart!

Have a heart!

Maureen’s starter of salt cod brandade with arancini and gazpacho was just perfect for the summer, bright flavours and a great clash of textures between the crunch of the tiny arancini and the smooth creamy brandade. Honestly, hardly very Devonian or beefy though!

So she followed it with sliced beef heart, white anchovies and aioli. That was as good as it sounds, the seared beef heart full of flavour and a really toothy bite without being at all chewy. My dish was a strange fellow; ox liver with baked goat cheese and figs. This came with batons and finely chopped courgette and tomato, and they did make rather odd bedfellows for the fresh fig. To be honest, so did the liver. Lovely piece of liver though, well cooked and great to devour. I’ll even buy the goat cheese with it. The fruit n veg were just too wimpy for the powerful offal.

Too stuffed for pud, we wandered out happy with our dinner. Three courses would be around £32 per head, and I’m gonna say that’s about right. It’s a menu with bags of originality, even if not every dish was faultless. And in particular if you like your nose-to-tail eating then this has to be a destination for anyone visiting Devon!

Liver n cheese

Liver n cheese

Review: The Woodspeen, Newbury

My dining buddy

My dining buddy

I never thought I’d actually live the cliche: “waiter, there’s a slug on my lettuce!” And to be fair, it was actually on the leaves of the baby radish that we had to nibble with our bread, so not actually lettuce. And it was a tiny slug, though very much alive. I did call the waiter over, and told him that the little guy would probably be happier back in the garden. He took the radish stalk off to show to one of his colleagues and then my slug friend disappeared and was never mentioned again.

If I’m gonna be honest, I was kinda expecting an apology or some kind of acknowledgment. The Woodspeen boasts a Michelin star, after all, and I can’t picture the Michelin inspector handing out stars if he got an unwanted gastropod on his plate. Seriously, if a guest finds something like that, even if they don’t make a fuss about it some reassurance would be nice. You can bet my parents and Maureen checked every bit of salad and garnish on every dish for the rest of the meal!

So what else can I tell you about The Woodspeen?

Lobster platter

Lobster platter

Well, it’s a big, bright dining room in a lovely country setting, wood decor, comfortably modern furnishing and a fine big open kitchen. Service was friendly and refined, though there were a couple of minor hiccups (e.g. being served our starters before we’d ordered wine). The wine list was good, plenty of variety and a friendly range of prices.

My starter was a black pudding terrine, with a large square of dense belly pork in the centre and chewy pieces of dried apple embedded in the black pud. It came with dressed leaves and some very good little sweet/sour gooseberries. Also with some strips of crackling that didn’t – they were chewy. Overall, unamazing. Maureen’s mackerel starter was much better by comparison, the mackerel really smokey from its grilling, the pickled veg accompaniments and dollops of guacamole making an effective combo.

Veal and sweetbread

Veal and sweetbread

For main I picked veal. Juicy and well-cooked slices, a deeply flavoured jus, and a very neat accompaniment of spicy date puree. There were more good bits to pick at too. A lovely piece of battered sweetbread with a super herby flavour. Skinny little whole roasted carrots. And a slippery little charred onion sitting on top of a wafer-thin disc of pastry (called an “onion tart” on the menu – hopefully not with a straight face). Really solid dish overall. Maureen shared a lobster dish for two with my brother, and really it was a bit of an oddity. The main event was a lobster gratin with a barbecued lobster claw. Served with a salad of heritage tomatoes, crab and burrata. Served with big triple-cooked chips in a chip-shop paper cone. Burrata and chips? Burrata and lobster, for that matter? I just couldn’t see this as anything but three unrelated elements, and reports from over the table agreed.

Homemade cheeses

Homemade cheeses

Puds. Well, I went with cheese because two of the cheeses were homemade. Mmm… really delighted by the beetroot-washed goat cheese, it had an unashamedly pungent goaty flavour and the colour is unique. Their sharp blue had a strong tang, jolly good, and they picked a real quality gruyere to finish the trio. Crispy flatbread, lush pickle, I was happy. Maureen’s strawberry brulee was also good, though it is truly monstrous to deconstruct a brulee and deny your guests the privilege of cracking the crispy top!

So there we go. It was a 50/50 meal – half the dishes really jolly good, the other half not so great. You’ll be looking at £45 for three courses, and at that price I’d have probably wanted everything a notch better. Of course, I have to face the possibility that finding Mr Slug set the tone for the evening, but then if you don’t handle something like that well you’ve got to expect it to dent your guest’s enjoyment.

Review: The Cellar, Anstruther

The Cellar, Anstruther

The Cellar, Anstruther

Have you visited the east of Scotland? Not Edinburgh. Not the majestic Highlands or the wild Islands, not Stirling or Loch Ness. But the surprisingly fertile swathe north and east of Edinburgh that includes places like Dundee and Perth and St Andrews. You should. It’s dotted with evocative medieval castles, truly ancient monuments, gnarly little towns of old red stone, and a bunch of gritty working ports and fishing harbours. The jewel in the crown might be the “East Neuk” of Fife, a string of beautiful cobbled fishing villages. You could be mistaken for thinking yourself in Devon, except that it’s far less crammed with tourists. To be fair, it’s also far less crammed with cafes serving a decent flat white, which makes searching out the little gems more satisfying.

Which brings me to The Cellar in Anstruther. Okay, so we searched it out and booked beforehand, but it’s a gem. Innocuously hidden down a little courtyard off a tiny back road just beyond the harbour, inside is a cosy dining room with plenty of bare stone and dark wood (the “cosy” lighting level is my excuse for grainy photos!). Service was friendly and unstuffy, the wine list was fairly short and sensible; hardly wandering into three digits even at the top of the reds. They serve a tasting menu with a couple of options along the way.

Crab n asparagus

Crab n asparagus

So we began with a couple of nibbles, the best being a quails egg wrapped in crispy filo strands and set on a blob of very punchy lovage mayo; great to get the full flavour of the herb. First starter was a lovely combo too, little unctuous chunks of ox tongue with diced pickled cucumber, hidden under a pea and mint mousse with some great tarragon-flavoured scrunchy bits on top. Yes, scrunchy bits is a technical term. Second starter matched the first for pleasure; white crab meat, a bright dashi with plenty of depth, and a really effective asparagus foam. It’s not often a foam wins me over.

Maureen then went for a beetroot dish pepped up with flavours of charcoal oil, goat cheese and basil. I only tried a nibble, nice combo. My dish included a very neat piece of cod, a dramatic and tasty squid ink dressing and baby gem lettuce. The whole thing was very good to eat. My main course was also beautiful to look at, beef with charred grelot onions, pickled raddichio, blobs of black garlic puree and a scattering of blue

Cod n squid

Cod n squid

cheese crispy puffs. Another technical term, that is. The combination of flavours was really satisfying and very nicely balanced. I’m gonna admit to actually not being bowled over by the piece of beef itself – just didn’t get bags of flavour out of it, and it was fairly dense to boot. Bit of a shame for an otherwise excellent dish.

Absolutely nothing wrong with Maureen’s main, though. Beautiful piece of halibut, cooked to a tee, served with a really slick lemony emulsion, fat local mussels, and a wonderful char-grilled leek with parmesan blobs on. Dish of the day.

There was a very pleasing first pud, a barley flavoured cream with a gentle hay sorbet and little pings of crispy honeycomb on top; just enough to not overpower the softer flavours beneath. Second pud was one of those seldom memorable tasting menu chocolate concoctions, absolutely nowt wrong with it though. In fact our whole meal was excellent, and at £60 each I’d say it’s really spot on for the sheer quality of the cooking, the interest in the dishes and the lovely surroundings. Anstruther might be the prettiest spot on the east coast of Scotland, so there’s two reasons to come.

Beef n onion

Beef n onion

Review: Norse, Harrogate

Sea trout

Sea trout

Well, guess what? Norse is a modern Scandinavian restaurant. They give it away with the name, really. Although looking back on the meal there’d be nothing wrong with calling it a modern British restaurant, because frankly all the fantastic northern European ingredients they focused on are all found right here on our shores. Some lovely hen of the woods, kohlrabi, sea buckthorn, mackerel, celeriac. I can’t think of anything specifically Nordic, except of course that it was places like Noma in Copenhagen that kickstarted this whole focus on the great flavours we have on our doorstep.

The decor is very pleasingly Scandinavian, with smoothly sculpted scrubbed wood tables, muted neutral tones and simple, delicate crockery. Service was friendly and helpful, and they’ve got a nice selection of wines by the glass – we found a pecorino that paired really well with the savoury flavours. They’ve organised the menu as tasting plates – some small, some larger, and they suggest three per person which turned out about right.

Hen of the woods

Hen of the woods

My first dish was hasselback potatoes with Quickes cheddar. This was one of those “I don’t know what else I was expecting” dishes. It was a sliced and roasted potato with a melty chunk of cheese draped on top. I don’t know what else I was expecting! Though the bitter swipe of bright green lovage puree added a good third dimension to it.

Next was mackerel tartar, set on a base of jersey royals and smoked beetroot (though I couldn’t find much smoke myself). You just can’t go wrong with beetroot, mackerel and potato. And the third dish was a splendid little piece of sea trout, jazzed up with crispy and juicy bits of apple and green strawberry and given a strong seaside tang by an oyster emulsion. Served in a deep little bowl which made it oddly tricky to eat, but really delish.

Then we ordered coal-baked kohlrabi with a sweet mushroom puree. Sounds odd, but was jolly good. The kohlrabi was great, the surface really well charred to bring some life to the mild, juicy brassica flavour beneath. Best yet. Almost beaten by a really smashing chunk of hen-of-the-woods mushroom, kissed with the taste of the Josper (or whatever) grill it had been cooked on. This came with asparagus and neat little pillows of a soft goat cheese I’d never come across before: Yellison’s. Some generous slivers of truffle made a great finishing touch. And so to the final dish; a great piece of hake given a really beautiful crust in the pan, with char-grilled lettuce heart, roast celeriac, sea veggies and a veeeeeery creamy good fish bone broth to bring all the flavours together.

Smashing hake

Smashing hake

That was dish of the day. Puddings were good. A chocolate ganache (maybe a tad overset?) served with silky soft jerusalem artichoke ice cream. And a sea buckthorn tart, thin and crisp pastry, with an equally lovely cardamom ice cream on the side. The tart could definitely have been given a braver sweet/tart contrast given how puckeringly sharp sea buckthorn is. Still, nice finish.

You’ll probably pay £30 each for dinner before drinks. I think that’s really excellent value for the top-notch cooking and the thoughtful and inventive menu they’ve got going on at Norse. Was I in Harrogate again any time soon, I’d definitely come back.

Sea buckthorn tart

Sea buckthorn tart

Review: The White Hart, Fyfield

Splendid spring salad

Splendid spring salad

There’s a certain kind of pub that can be a bit wearisome for a food blogger. It’s a lovely old building, service is friendly and informal, the cooking is all excellent and the menu is mainly old favourites with some original touches because chef obviously is a craftsman and loves what he or she is doing. You’d always be happy dining there.

There’s your blog, job done. Unless you find a Roman coin in your locally shot venison it can be hard to work out how to write anything interesting!

But really, this can’t possibly be a bad thing. It’s actually a splendid triumph that pretty much no matter where you live in the country there will be a dining pub less than thirty minutes drive away that you’d be more than happy to take the whole family to for a celebratory birthday lunch, where the food will be so good that maybe only ten years ago it would have had all the big London reviewers galloping out of the city to gush over it. I still remember the first dinner I had at the Stagg at Titley, feted at the time for being the first ever pub to score a Michelin star, and it was certainly no better than our lunch at The White Hart, Fyfield.

Fishy platter

Fishy platter

And yet apparently not one major journalist nor any food blogger has taken the trouble to come and visit the White Hart. In such a useful spot, too. Just south of Oxford, handy for the M4 or the M40 if you need a bite to eat on the way to/from parts unknown.

So let’s set the record straight. I started my meal with a beautifully plated spring salad, which must have had more than a dozen elements including a wild garlic mousse, a beautiful little crispy quails egg, a chanterelle, some goat cheese puree, broad beans, nasturtium leaves, cauliflower, the list goes on. But taken as a whole it was just well balanced and gorgeous. Maureen enjoyed a generous sharing platter of seafood with my brother; the home-cured salmon was particularly good. For main course neither of us could resist the lamb, a tasty and juicy piece of meat that came with a splendid ratatouille and some char-grilled ribbons of courgette that made me deeply envious (I love char-grilling courgette ribbons, but they never come out like this!). The slice of black olive and feta tart that accompanied was a good idea, and a good texture, but neither of the flavours really sang out from it.

Lamb

Lamb

Puddings were good. I was seduced into chocolate fondant with salted caramel sauce and coffee ice cream, and can report that they cook a mean fondant which of course combined well with coffee and salt caramel. Maureen’s lime and ginger cheesecake was more inventive, the crystal clear jelly on top being a really good example of how we eat with our eyes – I’m sure just the sight of it made the cheesecake even more zingy.

You’re going to average £34 for 3 courses, so it’s definitely on the ambitious end of the pub dining price range, but the presentation and imagination in the dishes well deserved it. Oh, and architecture nerds will love the building – it’s a 15th century chantry house, turned into a pub centuries ago but recently restored so the huge windows and towering beamed roof are all visible.

Zingy cheesecake

Zingy cheesecake

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