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

Review: El Portal de Echaurren, Rioja

In the kitchen with chef!

In the kitchen with chef!

It’s always nice to pair a long weekend of wine tasting with a top-class meal, but for Rioja we decided to go totally overboard and book a gastronomic weekend at Echaurren. This involved an evening meal at 2* El Portal de Echaurren, a fine breakfast before a morning in the kitchen with chef Francis Paniego, a tasting menu at Echaurren Tradicion across the hall, and an evening meal at the E-Tapas Gastrobar. Massive, massive over-indulgence was achieved. The whole experience was very generous, with wine glasses topped up for as long as we kept quaffing and no limit set on the tapas we could have on our last evening. So I’d totally recommend it if you basically like eating and drinking above all things.

Tiny peas

Tiny peas

So how about the 2* tasting menu at El Portal? Well, this was my first Michelin-star experience in Spain, and if it’s any kind of an indication then we’re going to be returning to Spain a lot! Because this was exactly my kind of cooking: beautiful, inventive, light and popping with all kinds of zingy flavours. When there’s 15+ courses I can only talk about a few highlights…

There were a whole raft of pretty and delicious amuse bouches, but my favourite was a simple mouthful of whipped goat milk butter on a crisp green herb bread. Just filled my mouth with the most luscious dairy-goaty-creamy-ness and then lingered a while to make the glass of white Rioja taste even better than before. Some very good white asparagus followed, cooked sous vide so it still had plenty of bite. Teardrop peas were a new thing for me, miniscule and packed with bright flavour, rounded out with a potato and egg yolk and vanilla combo.

White asparagus

White asparagus

My absolute favourite dish was crayfish in walnut pil-pil. The crayfish was absolutely blushing baby pink and delicate, while the dusky sauce mingled strong flavours of walnut, crayfish shell and a hint of warmth. One of those “can’t I just have five more of these?” dishes.

Loved the splendid broth of their classic caparrones (red bean stew), loved the soft confit bacalao with rich red gravy, loved the little nuggets of glazed cow snout. After all that amazingness, desserts brought the meal to a fairly brief and sudden end. Refreshing pre-dessert with cotton wool and flavours of citrus and apple, and then a main dessert that was frustrating for being astonishingly delicious and yet really small; an angelic

Tiny pudding!

Tiny pudding!

pale cream sandwiched between tiny meringue slivers. And I darn well know the kitchen can produce wonderful patisserie ‘cos the next day our tasting menu at Echaurren Tradicion was topped of with an orgasmic little tart.

I don’t really mind, the whole savoury El Portal menu was long and exciting and brilliant. Smashing two-star cooking, though at 150 Euros for the menu I guess it’s probably about right for price, maybe even a tad expensive. The wine list is obviously heavy on the Riojas, and rightly so as there’s a bunch of great reds and whites on there for very reasonable sums. We were very well looked after and enjoyed the whole meal immensely.

Snout. Nice.

Snout. Nice.

Wine tasting in Rioja

La Rioja

La Rioja

Say “Spanish wine” and most people with think Rioja. And until we started planning a trip there I didn’t really know more than that; renowned reds and some good whites. So. La Rioja is a northern region of Spain, just inland from the Basque country around Bilbao and overlapping with it a little. It is essentially a great big east-west valley of sun-baked soils sandwiched between two ranges of green mountains. You can easily explore the whole region from a central base like Logrono, the largest town in the area with a fine historic centre.

Rioja isn’t like France or California, where wineries range from industrial monsters down to tiny cellar-door outfits. There basically doesn’t seem to be anything at the small scale, wineries are either quite big or really big. We also found that the articles we read online were backed-up by the advice in the tourist information and at the front desk of hotels: “you have to book to visit a winery, and visits are only at certain times”.

This isn’t quite true.

Ysios

Ysios

You have to book if you want a tour of the winery, and it seems to be assumed this is what all visitors want! But if you patiently explain that you only want to taste the wine, maybe buy some, then it magically transpires that most of the large or famous wineries have a bar and shop where you can drop in at any time, and that arrangements for a tasting can be made by phone with some smaller wineries (it goes without saying that you should probably buy some bottles, unless it’s really yucky, as you may have put them out of their way).

So we visited a few of the biggies. Ysios: has the most jaw-dropping architecture, and a very corporate tasting from a nice PR girl. Marques de Murrieta: classy and traditional, with a shop and bar where you can buy various tastings from an enomatic dispenser. Baigorri: thoroughly modern hilltop winery, we took the very interesting tour & tasting but they also have a bar/shop where you can taste. Marques de Riscal: with a slick shop and bar/cafe, and a double-jaw-dropping Gehry architected hotel/winery that you’re not allowed to actually see unless you pay for a tour. Vina Tondonia: slightly bonkers modern tasting room, very reasonable price for the wines on tasting. In all of these we were looked after by very charming PR girls or bar staff.

Marques de Riscal

Marques de Riscal

And which were the best wines? Ah, that would spoil the fun, and besides everyone’s tastes vary. But I will say that these were all makers of excellent quality Rioja, both white and red. You’ll just have to come over and try for yourself. One little tip: if, like us, you are disappointed that you can’t see Gehry’s hotel at Marques de Riscal, turn immediately left out of the car park and wend your way uphill on the tiny road through the vineyards. Look back – you get a great view of the hotel and the village. ; )

Of course, it wouldn’t be a successful wine trip if we didn’t accidentally find one cool local winery with a friendly proprietor. This time the accident was a bottle of 2001 Urbina Reserva we had with our Michelin 2-star meal at Echaurren. It was bloody lovely (so was the meal). So on a whim we asked at reception whether they knew if the winery had a bar or a shop (“just for tasting, not for a visit, yes we know visits are only 11am on weekdays and cost 5 Euros, we just want to taste and maybe buy some”) and they phoned up and arranged something for 5pm-ish the next day. When we got there, we were met by an old chap with a limp and zero English who talked us through his wines. Another difference between Rioja and almost anywhere else we’ve gone wine tasting is that they keep hold of their wines for a few years before selling them, rather than flogging ’em young and telling you they’ll be better with a few years “in your cellar” (pffff!). Even so, we were staggered to find he was selling the 2001 Reserva, alongside 1997 and 1994 Gran Reservas! For 14 Euros!

So that was a nice end to a great wine trip. It helps that the villages and towns are beautiful, with medieval churches and more warm golden stone than the Cotswolds. And that the food is absolutely splendid no matter where you go or what you pay; the narrow lanes of old Logrono packed with tapas bars are particularly good fun. And if you want to splurge, I can totally recommend Echaurren!

Millan de Cogollo, edge of Rioja

Millan de Cogollo, edge of Rioja

Review: Hive Beach Cafe, Bridport

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

Hiking the South-West Coast Path could be considered quite a foodie ramble. Taking you past Ricksteinton (aka Padstow), and the home of Nathan Outlaw in Rock, along the rugged Cornish coast which boasts more and more top-notch dining, like a personal favourite of mind the Gurnard’s Head. Thence through the South Hams of Devon, with just about the greatest concentration of artisan producers in the UK and blindingly good seafood at The Oyster Shack near Bigbury, then more Michelin-starred dining at the Elephant in Torquay. Eventually you’ll reach Dorset. Although by then you’ll have been walking for five weeks or so, which means you’ll want to stop for a nice lunch.

Which is handy, because the Hive Beach Cafe on Burton Bradstock beach near Bridport is right on route. It’s a proper beach cafe; the mish-mash of wooden buildings and pavilion tents look like they’d blow away in a

Crab sarnies

Crab sarnies

strong gale and if the day is anything less than freezing or pouring then the eager customers quickly spill out onto the various old wooden picnic tables on the terraces outside. Service looks chaotic but manages to somehow work wonders with such a rambling collection of tables. It certainly helps that the sun is shining and everything that comes out of the kitchen is brilliant.

This is where to come for spankingly fresh, generous and well-treated seafood. Much of it landed within ten miles, the rest just a few miles further down the coast in Devon. Maureen went for crab sandwiches. Properly served on brown bread, with a really beautiful mixture of white and brown meat generously stuffed between the slices. The side salad was well-dressed and worth eating (I have a real bugbear for this – so few side salads are actually good for anything but presentation).

Mackerel

Mackerel

My dish was a proper lunch; mackerel. What I actually got were two really large and handsome mackerel, grilled to perfection. It was one of those plates of food that makes you grin even before it’s been put down in front of you, because it’s so obviously generous and so obviously good. The fish didn’t disappoint, beautifully cooked to toothsome perfection. But there’s more! It was set on a vast bed of salad, broad beans and peas and fennel and tiny local prawns. Dozens of them. All delicious. The salad would have been a great lunch. And then! On the side was a great big dollop of smoked mackerel whizzed up with mayonnaise, and when this was combined with the rest what you have is one of the best plates of food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

It’s lovely country, is the Dorset coast. But the Hive Beach Cafe really is worth a special trip. My dish was £17 but if I transported it to any of the finest fish restaurants in the country it wouldn’t look out of place. They’ve got a full wine list, and their own labelled lager is amazingly good and full-flavoured for a sunny day.

Hey, and while I’m at it: shout out to The Abbey House in Abbotsbury for a great cream tea at the end of the day, in a beautiful garden in an eye-wateringly pretty village.

Abbotsbury tea!

Abbotsbury tea!

Review: The Bottle of Sauce, Cheltenham

The Piggy Smalls

The Piggy Smalls

The Bottle of Sauce is a great big, new, modern pub tucked a short stroll away from Cheltenham High Street. It’s the new partner to a couple of successful pubs in Oxford, The Rickety Press and the The Rusty Bicycle. They’ve hit on a really excellent formula, pared back furnishing, bright colours, bare wood, good beer and a rambling collection of rooms and outside courtyard. Really good beer, actually. I don’t know if they brew their own or just get it badged up, but I was honestly startled at the depth of flavour and funky floral notes in their Dodo Lager.

Yeah, I drank a lager and I liked it.

But as usual we’re here for the food. They’ve got a separate canteen room, but in effect it just had more tables than the rest of the place; food is ordered at the main bar and served wherever you’ve found to sit. Interestingly, back in Oxford they experimented with life as a gastropub and reached the heady heights of a Bib Gourmand, before deciding that they really and truly just wanted to run a brilliant pub with food on the side. And so the menu is a mixture of burgers and pizzas. But let me tell you, their burgers are friggin’ excellent.

I ordered the Piggy Smalls, an April special but they’d be nuts not to repeat it (with variations). Massive helping of spicy pulled pork, moist and delicious, with the exceedingly black and splendid BBQ sauce of the house. Stabs of pickle mixed in there too, and the bun was fine and just about held together around the glorious mess. Maureen’s burger was just a splendid piece of beef. Cooked medium, no pink left (hey, no gastro!) but still very moist and – most winningly – tasting very richly of powerful beef. Good chips. Phew, that’s enough adjectives. I’m spent.

So, the food is filthy and good. But this was a pub on Thursday night, the music was loud, the crowd was too, and we had to shout at each other over the table to discuss the deliciousness of the burgers. Just so you know. We’ll definitely find our way there for lunch some day, brunch too probably, but only of an evening if we’re really in the mood. Hey, no gastro.

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

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