Review: Mere, London

Amuse

Amuse

We’re not sure how to pronounce Monica Galetti’s restaurant, Mere. It’s certainly not “meer” as in a watery marsh. It seems more likely to be “mair” if it’s French for mother. But the website confirms that it should be “mary” which is a Samoan pronounciation. The restaurant also aims to be French with South Pacific influences, but eyeballing the menu doesn’t show up a helluva lot that isn’t staunchly modern Gallic.

There’s a soothing but not really deep venison consomme to start. Maureen’s starter is a venison tartare. It’s a little oily really, and the smoked pine oil doesn’t make much of a showing. Perhaps the dish is rather saved by the generous dollop of caviar on it. Well, that’s what you pay for! Caviar makes everything right. Mine is a salad that mixes deeply pink slices of braised brisket and nicely meaty slivers of grilled heart, along with various pickles and leaves. It’s a nice salad.

Black curry cod

Black curry cod

For main course I picked the veggie dish, intrigued by “chestnut puff”. I love a chestnut, and tis the season too. We found a great chestnut tree in the Forest of Dean the other week and feasted on ’em for days. This puff is a big crispy shell, a beautiful nut brown colour and properly chestnutty in flavour. It’s filled with a mixture of gently roasted root veg, bits of apple to lend an important bit of acid, and a pleasant celeriac sauce. This is an eye-catching and very stylish plate, but once it’s all done and I need to sum up the eating experience? What I’ve got is “very pleasant”. Soothing rather than exciting.

Maureen’s black curry cod is also highly dramatic, certainly to look at, and the hint of curry is a fine thing too. The hearty slab of cod has a beautiful translucence. Creamy lovage sauce and gently pickled celery work well with it. Good dish. Tim’s is the star dish of the day: splendid piece of brill with jerusalem artichokes and an ice wine reduction.

Pear and coffee pud

Pear and coffee pud

Desserts are pretty and pleasing. Poached pear slivers with a coffee mousse; a really good flavour combination, cleverly done and beautiful presentation. My baked alaska is also very easy on the eye, and setting fire to some bourbon poured into the top is good drama. I could have wished for a more dazzling orange flavour from the ice cream within, though.

I don’t think anyone bringing a loved one here for a special occasion is going to be disappointed. The cuisine is satisfyingly fine dining through and through. For me it lacked intensity in many of the dishes, a bit of style over substance. You’ll pay around £57 for three courses.

Chestnut puff

Chestnut puff

Review: Windsor Grill, Windsor

I’m very seldom in a steak restaurant. As I’ve noted before, most times for me the interesting thing about a plate of food – certainly if I’m going to throw £20+ at it – is the chef’s choice of flavours and textures, how they balance, how they pop and how they’re presented. Whereas a steak inevitably comes with chips, rocket and a grilled tomato. Maybe a mushroom. On the other hand, really good steak is utterly delicious. So I guess it’s worth hitting a steak house now and again. So, the Windsor Grill.

It’s tucked away about as far as you can get from the tourist scrum around Windsor Castle, which is a great sign. It’s not here to cater for the tourist trade, it’s here for the locals. Inside it is basically a steak house. You’ve got the picture. A nice one. The service couldn’t be more friendly and useful either. They even sympathised with us about the table of ten braying donkeys sat behind us. Bit unlucky, but didn’t spoil the meal.

Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand

The menu is all trad classics. My snails in garlic butter were from Dorset, plump and toothy, with a pretty good butter though not quite to Gallic standards of stinkiness. Maureen’s popcorn crayfish were a generous bowlful, in good batter, not oily at all.

For the main event we split a chateaubriand. It’s a beautiful piece of meat, as you’d hope. Soft, almost livery, full of flavour and cooked spot on. Truffle fries are good. The bearnaise sauce likewise. And yes, there’s rocket and grilled tomato and a fried mushroom.

Decent selection of wine too. The Windsor Grill is a good go-to if you find yourself in Windsor with no other desire than to avoid the vile tourist restaurants (side note: I’d also recommend Bel and the Dragon as a decent option). You’re looking at £30ish for two courses if you go for steak, but they’ve plenty of other options.

Review: Opheem, Birmingham

Opheem. Niiiiice

Opheem. Niiiiice

I wonder to what extent labelling a dish “Winning dish on Great British Menu” skews the punters to order it? I’m willing to bet that a lot more of them fly out of the kitchen than the other mains or starters they’re sharing the menu with. And chef Aktar Islaam has two “winner on GBM” as well as a “winner on F-Word” dishes competing on his menu at Opheem. We were typically obtuse and didn’t order any of them. Well, the whole menu just looked good.

And before I dive into the food, I have to say I liked the dining room to bits. Sleek decor, dramatic touches, but also very comfy. Open kitchen but behind a glass wall to keep the noise down. Good service too.

Oyster nibble

Oyster nibble

So. Good little nibbles to start. An oyster macaron with sweet green pearls and an oceanic oyster emulsion was very pretty and very polished. Best possible signal that this was going to be genuinely fine dining from Indian roots! I’ve moaned enough times about Indian “fine dining” restaurants that are just curry houses with fancy plating, I won’t start on that agai… oh. I just did.

My starter was abalone mushroom, hearty chunks grilled like steak, with truffle puree and a deeply satisfying mushroom broth. Little chips of rice pancake added crunch. Outstanding. Maureen’s mackerel sounded like it would be sweet/hot and punchy, but in the event the slivers of grilled mackerel were the predominant flavour (and good) with the accompanying mango salad and dressing just so-so.

Splendid fungi

Splendid fungi

Tamarind sorbet made for a funky palate cleanser. And ticks the novelty box for me, which isn’t that easy to do these days (jaded palate, moi?).

My main was gorgeous. Centred on a very juicy/fatty tranche of wild boar belly, a sturdy slice of nicely scorched carrot, and a dumpling filled with the most amazing minced boar loin. The dumpling had the texture of silky suet pudding and it’s quite beyond my skill to tell you what precise combination of spiced made the minced filling quite so wonderful. Anyway, the whole dish was finished off with a healthy pouring of beautifully deep and earthy curry gravy. Splendid.

Maureen’s goat biryani proved to be even better. A square of slow-roasted goat belly. A button of minced goat with, again, a warm and delicious mix of spices. And then an entire goat biryani under a pastry lid. Words cannot express the magical scent exhaled all around us by that dish when the lid was carved off. Black cardamom was the main aromatic, and if you know it you might be able to imagine. The dish needed a generous dollop of silky chilled yogurt, and that’s exactly what it had.

Goat biryani

Goat biryani

I honestly expected desserts to be a let-down after that. Nuh-uh. Maureen’s rice pudding was actually more akin to a pannacotta in texture; Chef Aktar Islam served our puds himself, and said he didn’t actually like the rice in rice pudding, so after cooking he takes it out! Well, it works. Paired very well with textures of rhubarb and some puffed rice too. My dessert was down on the menu as “Chai” but the chai parfait was actually entirely overwhelmed by powerful pineapple and coconut flavours. Pfff… who cares, I like pineapple and coconut, and I liked this a lot. Don’t think I’ve ever had better coconut sorbet.

We ended up around £38 for 3 courses without drinks. The wine list is fairly short, but very good prices and good quality. I’m really impressed with Opheem. It’s immediately the top bar for Indian cuisine in Birmingham, and frankly I don’t think there’s more than a couple of places in London being this inventive.

Rice pudding with a twist

Rice pudding with a twist

Review: Tierra and Mar, Cirencester

Tierra and Mar

Tierra and Mar

This little restaurant in a tucked-away corner of Cirencester is really hard to pin down. Is it fine dining or casual? Is it modern or trad Spanish? Is it brilliant value or a bit confused? Is it tapas or tasting menu? I’m not sure I can answer all these questions, but Tierra and Mar is definitely worth talking about and definitely worth a visit.

The dining room is a nice bold Mediterranean blue with seaside prints in primary colours, and comfy but terribly floral dining chairs. I like the overall effect. Service is excellent and friendly. They offer tapas at £6-8 or a 3 course menu for £22 or a tasting menu for a bit more. I think your meal will turn out pretty similar whichever variation you plump for. We went 3 course.

Rabbit terrine

Rabbit terrine

First up was a rabbit terrine, with pickled pear, macadamia nut cream and a cardamom puree. The terrine was delicate, soft and beautifully rich in bunny flavour. The accompaniments added a bright, clean zing to it. Very pretty plate, lots of technique. Seven quid? Nice! Maureen’s seared tuna sounded a bit bonkers on paper: mango, black garlic, quail egg, nasturtium pesto. WTF? And yet the whole was a balanced sour-sweet affair that complimented the sesame-crusted tuna perfectly.

Second course for Maureen was grilled octopus with squid ink tapioca, samphire and chorizo, draped with wafer-thin tocino (pork fat). The slippery-salty tapioca was a magic texture alongside the meaty octopus and the pork fat just inspired. This was almost divine. The chorizo was an unnecessary distraction. Without it this dish would have been absolutely divine. Hey, still… seven quid!!! My blow-torched mackerel and pineapple with a citrusy & chilli salad was light and tasty, but simply beaten into second place by that octopus. Definitely dish of the day.

Mackerel and pineapple

Mackerel and pineapple

Now, for full disclosure: our third courses, both rice dishes, were badly over-salted. Something had gone oops. But when we raised it, they replaced without complaint, and once the kitchen realised their goof they couldn’t offer us enough in free wine, dessert and coffee by way of apology – very sweet. I always say that mistakes occasionally happen, and the mark of good service is how you react to them. So: super-massive thumbs up for service here.

The replacement was good, tender lamb with a fine jus, smoked garlic puree, and a selection of veg, although it’s going to be forgettable compared with the first two splendid courses.

So, yeah. Presentation-wise they’re going for a fine dining vibe, but the experience is actually more informal than that, and of course three courses for £22 is seriously – seriously – good value. The combinations are modern and inventive, certainly not solidly Spanish. And it’s either tapas, tasting or 3 course depending on your fancy! Tierra and Mar would be my first pick if I found myself needed dinner in Cirencester.

That octopus

That octopus

Review: The Coach House, Exmoor

Sweetbread ravioli

Sweetbread ravioli

Or to give it its proper title: “The Coach House by Michael Caines“. In the interest of full disclosure, this kind of thing really gets on my wick so I was likely to be skeptical going into this meal! Is it really necessary to suck people in with a name? All I can find on the website about Michael’s involvement is this: “Everything is created from scratch by our talented kitchen team, who were hand-picked by Michelin starred chef Michael Caines.” Pfff!

Och, I know, it’s just business. And the chic folk adorning the tables tonight were no doubt drawn down to Exmoor by the name. In a difficult economy and a crowded market it’s every country house hotel for themselves and thinking caps on for the marketing and PR agencies.

John Dory

John Dory

We were drawn down to Exmoor for a weekend of hiking, and bloody lovely it was too, but I can’t leave home without looking for an excuse to try a new restaurant, so here we are and my expectations are firmly in check. When I asked our waiter what the selection of local cheeses were, he replied “it’s a goat cheese, a brie, a blue one and a cheddar”. That’s the level we’re pitching at. So I certainly wasn’t after the tasting menu.

There’s an amuse of a decent gazpacho and then we’re onto starters. Mine is a ravioli of sweetbread with a sweet and rich sherry sauce, nice bit of braised lettuce on the side. Whaddya know? Really very, very good. Dish of the evening. Maureen’s lobster dish, strewn in bits over the plate, is just okay. Turns out mango and lobster aren’t the most brilliant of bedfellows and the “curried” lobster mayonnaise isn’t really.

Beef fillet

Beef fillet

You can’t go wrong with a nice bit of local beef fillet, and mine was perfectly good. Crispy little shallot rings, roast silverskins, bits of mushroom that I’m not certain deserve the “wild mushroom” label they wore on the menu, and some grainy watercress puree. All good, if absolutely 100% predictable. Special bonus marks for an accompaniment of ox heart tartare! This was ace. Maureen’s John Dory was a decent bit of fish, though the black garlic sauce was heavy on the soy and as a whole the plate was unbalanced.

Having determined that the cheese option is probably crap, I pick a banana parfait. I’m not sure why. But it certainly is a banana parfait covered in bits of candied peanut with a lime sorbet. The parfait is already melting when it reaches me, which isn’t so great. Maureen’s passionfruit souffle is much better. Nice souffle, good flavour.

So we had a decent enough meal in the end. But at £50 for three courses I can’t help thinking of all the wonderful dining pubs around Devon where you can outdo these three courses for fifteen quid less. “The Coach House by Michael Caines, is a culinary experience that will change the way you think about restaurant dining” …yeeeeeeeah, no.

Exmoor

Exmoor

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