Review: Jolly Nice, nr Stroud

Jolly Nice

Jolly Nice

We found Jolly Nice three years ago. Someone had bought a defunct petrol station on the A419 and turned it into a bit of a farm shop. Only it was a surprising little farm shop because they made a really good flat white, astonishingly gorgeous salted caramel milkshakes with their own ice cream, and sold burgers from an old airstream parked to one side.

You wouldn’t recognise it today. There’s still a farm shop, but it has grown. And the coffee has moved across the forecourt to a dedicated coffee bar. There’s also a dedicated kitchen for turning out the burgers, a separate butchery counter, two yurts full of tables and chairs, a fenced off pasture with picnic seating for summer days, and just this season a little homewares shop has slotted in alongside the butcher. So… is this a sad tale of sell-out and rampant commercialisation? Well, the homeware nook did make me twitch, just a little. But this is a million miles from Daylesford Organics, purveyors of mightily marked-up produce to the Chipping Campden set.

Burgers

Burgers

For starters, the seating is mostly bistro chairs and old benches. And you can’t get your burger on a plate, it comes in a little cardboard box whether you’re taking it away or “eating in”. And if you stand back and squint, you can still see the old petrol station forecourt hidden under what feels like organic and natural growth. Just a year ago there was only one yurt! Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bargain farm shop such as you might find in a lonely corner of Shropshire. They’re selling produce from small and artisan producers, it’s priced appropriately but not eye-wateringly.

Their burgers are grrrrrreat though! Cooked pink (don’t tell the flippin’ inspectors!) with a bit of cheddar and smokey bacon on top, in a good brioche bun with an appropriate bit o’ lettuce and mayo, it’s really splendid meat from their own shorthorn herd and juicy enough to have the bun dissolving in your fingers if you linger too long. And under a tenner. I also need to give a good shout-out to another of their staples: the KFP. Kentucky Fried Pheasant in a bun, that is. What a brilliant idea. Delicious too, the strong meat really succulent in seasoned breadcrumb.

I can’t really say more than this: given we live 30 minutes away in Cheltenham, it’s ridiculous the number of times we manage to find an excuse to wind up pulling into Jolly Nice, for a burger or maybe just a coffee and a cake.

Farm Shop

Farm Shop

Review: Koj, Cheltenham

KFC

KFC

I feel the need to ‘splain this up front. We were lucky enough to visit Japan just over a year ago, and as well as some convoluted kaiseki feasts and high-end tempura temples, we also ate tons and tons of delicious casual Japanese cooking – tonkatsu restaurants, okonomiyaki places, and smoky bars serving yakitori and beer to the after-work crowd of men in suits. So we enjoyed the real deal, at ridiculous prices (only in Japan can you enjoy a fantastic meal for under a tenner and then struggle to find a basic hotel for under a hundred!).

So I was going to need to employ some Zen and empty my mind before dining at the new casual Japanese street food-inspired, no-sushi restaurant opening in Cheltenham. Koj, the Kickstarter-backed dream of Andrew Kojima. It’s a friendly place, although it seems to be a little unsure of whether it’s chic or laid-back; colourful hand-painted Japanese logos and icons on the wall, cool black-and-grey furniture. The staff were friendly and enthusiastic. It would be a good place to stop for a pre-theatre bite to eat, which is exactly what we did.

Pork hirata bun

Pork hirata bun

It’s all small plates, and we went through half-a-dozen with a couple of sides. KFC (Koj Fried Chicken) were satisfyingly random-shaped dollops of deep-fried goodness, light and flavourful batter, juicy chicken, tasty sesame mayo dip. More deep-fried goodies, this time panko-crusted shitake mushroom chunks, absolutely nowt wrong with them. We also picked out a couple of hirata buns. The buns themselves were nice puffy teeth-sticking sweet dough. Mine was filled with pale and soft pulled pork and some finely shredded pickled veggies at the back, a good combination though I like my street food with more oomph. Maureen’s soft-shell crab bun was nice too, a decently crispy soft-shell crab with a mayo blob. I’m not going to pull out any stronger adjective than “nice” though, because surely the purpose of street food is to leave you saying “oh wow, let’s order another one! Or maybe three!” and we weren’t quite saying that.

The other dish we had was the squid okonomiyaki, and it was the same sorta thing. Okonomiyaki is a filthy, starchy, flavourful, jumble of gubbins. That’s the whole point. If you refine it and take the “street” out of the street food then it’s just… food. Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly tasty and if you’ve never had okonomiyaki then it’s a nice intro, kinda like your first bike with the training wheels on.

So that’s where I end up. Uncertain whether I’ve been impartial enough, or whether I’ve let my very real delight in the actual food of Japan set my expectations far too high? Dishes are £4-8 so you’d be spending £20 each for a light meal. Their entry level sake was £10 for a small 125ml flask (it was jolly good though). It’s really good to have another Japanese option in Cheltenham, and I’m gonna go back, but I guess I’m hoping the menu gets a bit more “street” in it!

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Review: BOX E, Bristol

Dining in a box

Dining in a box

All the tables at BOX E are closer to the kitchen than the chef’s table at most other restaurants. I say “all the tables” but they’ve only got 14 covers in total. The clue is in the restaurant’s name: BOX E lives in two knocked-through shipping containers, perched on top of some other shipping containers in Bristol’s revitalised dockland area. I’ve eaten in some boutique restaurants, but this is unimaginably small. The tidy-nerd in me marvelled at how cleverly they’ve used every inch of space to maximise storage. Still, if chef Elliot Lidstone hasn’t got a couple of extra freezers and a cupboard full of gadgets back at his house I’ll be very surprised!

They do actually have a chef’s table; four stools at a bar that is as close to the action as you could possibly get. I could look into the pans on the hob, and I’m not even joking. I’d 110% recommend this experience; Elliot has plenty of time to chat while seemingly able to keep track of the timings of five different dishes in his head while plating up table 2’s desserts and answering all our questions.

Wallfish 'n' bone marrow

Wallfish ‘n’ bone marrow

So, how about the food? Chef’s table gets a five course tasting menu (though by my count it was eight courses, so no idea what happened there!). Elliot’s cooking is spot-on flavour combinations and mouth pleasure, sensible portions and nothing finicky or flash; it’s not fine dining, it’s just really good food. The salmon from our second starter was cured in the leftover botanicals from a local gin distillery, a powerful cure that went very well with a fresh fennel salad and a sprinkle of fennel and bee pollen. The star of the starters was snails with caramelised onions and a bone marrow broth.

Beautiful piece of halibut next, with crushed potatoes, salsa verde, monksbeard and anchovy butter. Deadly simple, but such a perfectly cooked piece of fish with the balance of the other flavours just right, if I had this for supper every night until the end of my days I’d be happy. Our main course was local salt marsh lamb, jolly pink and accompanied by a Moroccan-style chickpeas spiced up with paprika and plenty of fenugreek. Absolutely loved those chickpeas.

Pannacotta

Pannacotta

Somewhere I ought to be recording where I’ve had my “best ever” of all the various dishes of the world. It’s probably a bit late to start now. But for the record, the best ever pannacotta is served at BOX E – it wobbles there on the plate, clearly just within a whisker of collapsing into liquidity but somehow staying together, and eating as lightly as a dream. Very nice with a bit of rhubarb on the side.

This was a jolly good meal for £45 a head, plus drinks. The wine list is short (there’s nowhere to put more bottles!) but full of good choices based on the two we enjoyed, and it has a bit of a focus on organic. I’d say that £45 is about spot-on for cooking of a style and quality to match the very best dining pubs, but the chef’s table experience here is more than a bit special – you’d have to put an apron on and start cooking if you wanted to get any closer. Can’t recommend highly enough.

Lovely fish

Lovely fish

Review: Clarence Social, Cheltenham

The Clarence Social

The Clarence Social

Full disclosure: my meal at The Clarence Social was paid for by dem. Though that’s only because there was a cock-up with our booking two weeks previously, and they very generously offered us a free meal by way of apology! Any business has the odd cock-up, you ought to be judged by how you deal with them. So, they get good marks for that.

The Clarence Social is a seriously stylish place to drop in for a drink or a quick bite; we had brunch there a few weeks back and it was good. The bar on the ground floor is buzzin’ with a more exclusive little cocktail bar in the basement that we didn’t explore. The restaurant is upstairs, darkly furnished with care taken on the details. It has an open balcony over the ground floor, which is spiffy design but certainly floats the buzz upwards. Basically, this isn’t the place for a romantic tete-a-tete but would be just fine for food before a night out with friends.

The menu is unpretentious but interesting enough for me. I picked ham hock croquettes off the starters, and these were classic deep-fried cheesy nuggets, though I might have liked a bit more hock. Maureen’s gorgonzola arancini sounded great but were a bit disappoint. They were wanting in the cheese department and wanting in the seasoning department. Nice slices of pickled pear with them.

Ham hock croquettes

Ham hock croquettes

For main I picked their house wagyu beef burger. It was a nice bit of beef, with a nice char, but very properly medium cooked (I discovered later that I could have asked for it to be done differently, which is a bit of a stable-door-horse-bolted scenario really). The disk of raw red onion hiding in the bun was a bit stark. Nice bun though. Overall, because frankly I’m no burger geek so I don’t know all the things I should be ticking through, I’d say it was a fine burger but it wasn’t a grrrreat burger.

Maureen’s cubed pork belly in Japanese BBQ sauce was a rather more spiffy plate. Nice cubed of pork, properly shreddable and unctuous without any big lumps of fat left on ’em. Good sauce, gingery and sticky. I really liked the oriental salad/slaw it was served with too, a very good accompaniment, cutting nice and clean through the porky goodness. Good stuff.

They’ve got decent wine on the list, if my Picpoul was anything to go by, and Maureen had a capable caipirinha. It would have been £18 each for 2 courses, and that feels about fair. They haven’t shot straight into my “favourite locals” list – too noisy and food not good enough overall – but I wouldn’t worry about enjoying a bite to eat out with friends there.

Burger

Burger

Review: Ynyshir, mid Wales

The view from the chef's table

The view from the chef’s table

Ynyshir absolutely blew me away. Which is amazing, because until I tried to find a promising place for a meal out in mid Wales I had never even heard of it; one of the scant handful of Welsh restaurants to have quietly won itself a Michelin star. It’s not only me. At the time of writing, exactly none of the major UK restaurant critics has visited. Zilch. There are burger joints in Bristol that have had more professional reviews. Possibly because it is at least 3 hour’s drive from absolutely everywhere? And getting on for 5 hours from London. They haven’t made it easy.

Talking to chef Gareth Ward, they are of course banking on becoming a destination restaurant-with-rooms. And they’ve got a big head start over some others: previously a classic country house hotel, their bedrooms are large, beautiful and very very comfortable. Ours had a great view out over the gardens towards the wild and woolly hills beyond. And you do have a magnificent part of Britain to explore for the rest of your weekend break.

But you’ll be wanting to know a bit about the food, eh?

Simple onion broth

Simple onion broth

The tasting menu is long and dazzlingly inventive. But the invention here goes way beyond the tasting menu staples of some quirky flavour combinations and some theatrical touches of presentation. This isn’t just playing with combinations, it’s right down to the cuisine. They’ve stepped right away from classic French stocks & bases, focusing instead on building flavour and depth through misos, kombuchas (go on, look it up!) and other exotic fermentations. This delivers up dishes that are absolutely jam-packed with flavour but also light, fresh and zinging with the vinegary (but not vinegar) punch of these cunning ketchups, glazes, drizzles and gels.

Some of the highlights? Well, the main course was a stunning piece of deeply flavourful local Welsh lamb, aged for no less than 60 days, covered with slivers of Anglesey onion and a mint kombucha gel. Yeah, that’s right, basically lamb with mint sauce. Total revelation.

Or how about a perfect square of dreamy local Welsh wagyu shortrib beef? Made earthy and funky with shitake ketchup and dusted with some crunchy crumbs of dessicated shitake for added flavour and texture. Never have I enjoyed such melt-in-the-mouth beefy-mushroomness.

There was some amazing duck liver, whipped up with tofu and miso to form a smooth and creamy white dollop that bore no resemblance to any duck liver I’ve ever had, and was both much lighter and much finer in flavour too.

I could just keep going! Instead, here’s a gallery of snapshots because frankly every plate was a beautiful culinary jewel.

They love their local produce; as well as the lamb and the beef, Anglesey onions starred in a couple of dishes. And to be honest, I’ve looked back over the whole menu and can’t think of anything other than the dates in the “sticky toffee pudding” (nothing of the sort, and very delicious!) and the chocolate in the other desserts that wasn’t both British and in season – or fermented from last season, of course. Quietly done, they don’t shout about this, but very amazing.

The menus (there are two to choose between) include fifteen jewel-like dishes for £110. Worth every penny. I’d recommend going for the chef’s table if it’s available – the team of young chefs are friendly, deeply knowledgeable, obviously loving their work, and happy to talk to you about the food or pretty much anything. Plus they throw in a handful more dishes over the course of the evening! It’s £130. Ynyshir deliberately doesn’t offer a wine pairing, because they don’t think that much alcohol enhances the experience. I happen to agree, so I applaud them for that too. We enjoyed a couple of glasses of good wine, though I must admit I think they can probably find better. Who cares, we loved every minute and finally toddled up to bed after 1am.

Take a trip to west Wales! Put Ynyshir on the map! I haven’t wanted to recommend a restaurant so much since I-don’t-know-when.

Disclaimer: I have to admit that one of the dishes was duck with SALTY PLUMS ON TOP! So I was bound to be horribly biased from that moment on. : )

Duck with... salty plums!

Duck with… salty plums!

Page 1 of 4312345...102030...Last »