Review: Scully, St James

Tentacular spectacular

Tentacular spectacular

When you go all-out for flavour and innovation, you won’t hit perfection every single time. Some dishes will be a bit OTT or just plain weird. For me, that’s part of the joy. I’d rather have food I can talk about and maybe a couple of dishes I can absolutely rave about, than several courses of refined perfection that are just going to merge together with every other fine meal I’ve eaten in a forgettable soup of food.

Well, I won’t be forgetting Scully’s thousand-layer pork belly in a hurry! Or his salt-caramel egg yolk, for different reasons (reasons which may simply be that my tastebuds aren’t ready yet for broccoli with caramel sauce).

It’s a classy little joint in St James, with an open kitchen. Service was excellent, informed and clearly enthused. So they should be.

Broccoli with caramel egg yolk

Broccoli with caramel egg yolk

Our first plate was a snack of crispy beef tendons (think beefy prawn crackers) with a dip of pancetta kilpatrick covered in a layer of light foamy oyster mayo. This was just absolutely filthy delicious, I could have scoffed it ’til I died. Every flavour and texture: salt, sweet, spicy, earthy, umami, sour, crunchy, silky, chewy.

Next, two veggie plates. Winter tomato and coconut salad with a tomato shrub I liked a lot, Maureen less so. It was easy to add too much of the vinegary shrub and overpower things, but done right this was a fine salad. The char-grilled broccoli came with nice little blobs of dark vinegar gel, but also with dollops of “salted egg yolk”. This was actually salt-caramel egg yolk, and delicious though it was I couldn’t quite enjoy broccoli and caramel. Yet. Maybe it’s me that needs to evolve?

Back on prime form with beautifully cooked thick octopus chunks paired with a deeply funky/smoky XO pork goo and cubes of perfectly pickled daikon. This was a marvellous bit of surf and turf.

Pineapple and pepper pud

Pineapple and pepper pud

But the best was yet to come. How can I describe thousand-layer pork belly with mustard greens, tapioca and pork broth? I’m going to have to go with: PHWOOOOOOOOOOOAR! Real words escaped me. It’s also very clearly a dish that a lot of careful prep and attention goes into, so hat’s off to chef Scully. If you’re reading this, I reckon you’ve got a signature dish right here chap! We very seriously considered ordering a 2nd one instead of dessert.

I wish it wasn’t only Jan 10th, because calling it “dish of the year” feels a bit daft! I’ll be lucky to eat something better in 2019.

Dessert was a bit of a let down. Black pepper ice cream and pineapple tart is a great idea, but both element were so just-barely-set that within seconds we had a plate of orange and white goo. The flavour was excellent, the texture not.

Who cares? I loved the heck out of my dinner at Scully. At £41 each before drinks, it beats the pants off a lot of £60+ tasting menus in terms of ideas, flavours and execution for my money. Wine list was good, full of interesting stuff as you’d hope. Get yourself here.

Thousand layer pork belly magnificence

Thousand layer pork belly magnificence

Review: The Drunken Duck, Ambleside

A walk in the Lakes

A walk in the Lakes

The Lake District is bloody glorious. It’s without doubt the most beautiful corner of England (and I’ve been to all the corners) and more and more it’s also got plenty of fantastic places to eat. But food aside, you need to get up into the fells. You can head up onto mighty Helvellyn or Scafell Pike, or you can take an easier ramble up Catbells, but whatever you do you need to get some height and then walk and see.

And when you get back, and have cleaned the mud off and got your fell-weary limbs into fresh clothes, you could cap off the perfect country day with The Drunken Duck – an absolutely perfect country pub.

Bread and a nibble

Bread and a nibble

It sits alone in wild hill country, with a view of the fells and Ambleside below, and has a rambling four or five rooms full of tables and a busy bar full of excellent modern local beer. Their kitchen manages a very clever thing: the food is all resolutely comfortable, country and delicious yet they absolutely refuse to fall back on old pub dining staples. Our beautifully crusty sourdough bread doesn’t come with olive oil and balsamic, no. It comes with pine oil and stout vinegar, and I can report that to be an infinitely superior and delicious experience!

So I start with a gruyere souffle sitting on top of a mess of slow-cooked onions and topped with a big handful of toasted almonds. It’s cheesy, scrunchy, cosy, oniony good. Maureen has a kipper scotch egg on a big puddle of homemade brown sauce, and the combination is killer. The amount of smoked fish in there just right, not overpowering.

Kipper scotch egg

Kipper scotch egg

My main is a generous portion of venison haunch, roasted very rare indeed and served in thick, delicious purple slices. Salt-baked swede joins up with toasted seeds and other roast veggies in a heart-warming winter dish. Maureen goes for shiitake dumplings with a hearty helping of punchy kimchi and a red pepper broth. The broth is deep and clear at the same time, soaking wonderfully into the dish. The menu fails to mention the huge pile of other mushrooms heaped on the plate with the dumplings; it’s an absolute fungal feast.

We were too stuffed for pud, but on another day we stopped in for tea and couldn’t resist a plate of fluffy pancakes with chestnut custard and spicy stewed plums. Magic. And an excellent apple crumble.

The Drunken Duck has rooms too, and I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t be disappointed. It might even make for the perfect weekend break in the Lake District. But if you base yourself somewhere near Ambleside then I’d say lunch or dinner at the Drunken Duck should definitely be on your itinerary somewhere!

For pics of the Lakes, here’s a post from my other blog: Otter Adrift.

Venison haunch

Venison haunch

Review: The Old Stamp House, Ambleside

Amuse bouche

Amuse bouche

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dining experiences, and how must expectation feeds into your enjoyment of a meal. I’ll be honest: I went to Core with so much buzz and hype about Clare Smyth’s restaurant having passed before my eyes that I was perhaps doomed to go “meh?” when I was treated to 7 courses of perfectly nice refined French cooking. Whereas I visited Ynyshir totally by chance, trying to pick somewhere to eat on a weekend walking break in Wales, couldn’t find any reviews about it, and so was absolutely blown to bits by Gareth Ward’s astonishingly original cuisine.

It’s tricky as a reviewer. You have to review your experience, but recognising where expectations have played a part in your response to a meal is kinda tough.

I think if I’d found the Old Stamp House by chance, got lucky with a table, and enjoyed their 7 course tasting menu then I’d perhaps be enthusing about a hidden gem in the Lakes. But since I’d already read a bunch of reviews wondering aloud “why they haven’t got a Michelin star yet”, I’m going to have to admit to just being whelmed.

Overwhelmed is when you are blown away by something. Underwhelmed is a distinct disappointment. So I figure “whelmed” must be just reasonably satisfied.

Splendid hogget

Splendid hogget

There were some tasty bites of black pudding to start, with Cumberland sauce jelly atop. A pile of brown shrimps in a sweet curry gravy made for a tasty beginning. Sous vide trout was kinda dull with an oyster emulsion and rather thuggish lumps of cucumber and ikura. The third dish, a good chunk of cod on a raunchy brown crab risotto and jerusalem artichoke puree was very satisfying.

The absolute stand-out dish, and I gotta applaud, was the Herdwick hogget main. Beautifully sourced and beautifully cooked piece of loin, the fat crisped lightly on the outside and having buckets and buckets of flavour. The blackened roast carrots added another great dimension of flavour, best carrots I’ve enjoyed in a while. And they plated up two other delicious elements alongside: glistening shreds of shoulder on a gooey potato puree, and a beignet of minced belly with an anchovy and mint mayo.

Spiced apple cake finished the meal well. But this was a £70 tasting menu, and for me there were just too many kinda familiar and just-nice dishes to be asking for that money. Service was perfectly good but not really engaging, and the dining room isn’t bursting with atmosphere, so really the food had nothing to hide behind. It’s good that the Lake District is getting so many excellent dining options, but my conclusion for The Old Stamp House is: good cooking, but not good value.

Excellent cod and crab risotto

Excellent cod and crab risotto

Dining highs and lows, 2018

Is “disappointment” meant to be the opposite of “appointment”? If so, my dining experiences in 2018 included a bunch of great appointments and a handful of disappointments. Here they are…

Best meal

Too easy. The pass bench at Ynyshir. This is the best restaurant in the UK right now (for my money) and I harumphed loudly at my Twitter feed when I saw the stodgily trad Core by Clare Smyth get a 2nd Michelin Star while Ynyshir is still on its 1st. Maybe the wild west coast of Wales is too far for Monsieur Bibendum? Gareth Ward is a wizard and it feels as though every morsel of superb produce that comes out of that kitchen has been treated like a precious artefact deserving of care and respect. But with flavours that kick arse.

Char sui perfection, Ynyshir

Char sui perfection, Ynyshir

Runner up

The Fordwich Arms, in deepest Kent. Quite apart from the simply superb cooking, you cannot possibly come here without feeling like a country squire, just popping down to his rather splendid local after a bracing afternoon bagging pheasants in the coppice. Do yourself a favour, take a weekend break in this gorgeous corner of England.

The Fordwich Arms

The Fordwich Arms

Best casual dining

Bristol is just killing it with amazing casual dining places, absolutely killing it. Top of the heap has to be Pasta Loco, where every plate of food is just gob-smacking flavour-packing good, and where the staff couldn’t be more friendly and relaxed yet totally capable and knowledgable.

Killer bugatini, Pasta Loco

Killer bugatini, Pasta Loco

Top tip for future greatness

I’m good at this. I’ve got form. I raved about Casamia before they had even one Michelin star, and Ynyshir before anyone else had even reviewed them, not to mention Bulrush and the Black Swan who are both now dusted with stars. So. This year my pick for future greatness is: Folium, Birmingham. One dish in particular made me sit up and grin my face off. Ribbons of kohlrabi cooked to the texture of fresh pasta and doused in a pungent truffle sauce with a pile of parmesan. Yes! They made kohlrabi special! I expect great things to come.

Platin' up at Folium

Platin’ up at Folium

Best dish

So, so difficult; amazing bucatini at Pasta Loco, several astonishing morsels at Ynyshir, and that pork knuckle at the Fordwich! But let’s talk about Hambleton Hall. It’s been there for donkey’s years, posh dining on an island in a lake, and I kinda expected some very predictable French fayne dayning and a bunch of dishes I’d have forgotten within a week. But I am never gonna forget that hare wellington, as it was absolutely bloody amazing. Here’s a nice callback: Gareth Ward recalls cooking the hare wellington when he worked at Hambleton ten-odd years ago!

Hare wellington, rubbish photo

Hare wellington, rubbish photo

Most disappointing dining

Well, got a couple of candidates. Where The Light Gets In had so much hype thrown at it by the time I visited, on a frozen day in March, that my expectation levels were in the stratosphere. Even so, this was great technique but producing really uninspiring dishes. It was a melancholy meal. And I’ve seen the photos on the rave reviews, and I’m convinced the team at WTLGI just had a really poor menu on during our visit. C’est la vie. Differently disappointing was Jamavar. We visited this fine dining Indian just after their star-winning chef had moved on to pastures new, and so instead were treated to a bog standard curry blowout with various fripperies and expensive crockery to give it the stamp of “fayne dayning”. Meh.

Pork, Where The Light Gets In

Pork, Where The Light Gets In

Seriously, WTF?

Shout out to Moksh, Cardiff for keeping us entertained right through their “tasting menu” (though probably not in the way they’d hoped). Clipping a tiny reading light to the side of a plate so that it looks like a tiny street lamp does not turn a dish of (fairly decent) Indian street food into fine dining! And doubling down on the clove-scented dry ice so that it appears with not one but two dishes also doesn’t double the gastronomy, chaps.

Street(lamp) food, Moksh

Street(lamp) food, Moksh

Local hero

I couldn’t round up 2018 without recalling the dozens of times we’ve gone down the road to Baker & Graze here in Cheltenham and enjoyed some of the best cafe lunches and naughty pastries I’ve had anywhere in the country… nay, the world. Praised by David Everitt-Matthais in a recent article, which is praise indeed. Cuttlefish stew with aioli FTW. Deary me, and I haven’t even done them a write-up!

Spiffy raclette, Baker & Graze

Spiffy raclette, Baker & Graze

Great food abroad

Hats off to Chiang Saen, a town on the Mekong in northern Thailand where we ended up almost by accident. Hungry and lost down backroads, we had an amazing bowl of pork noodle soup made by a lady who spoke no English, though thankfully her neighbour the barber (very cool haircut, dude) came over and translated for us. Then in the evening we sat on the pavement by the dark Mekong and feasted on a river fish cooked in bamboo and laden with so much holy basil and chilli that my mouth was actually at war with itself (Give me more! No, I’m going to die of chilli! But it’s soooo good! No, no, REALLY dying! But I want moooooore!).

Pork noodle soup, Chiang Saen

Pork noodle soup, Chiang Saen

Sad food abroad

French provincial Michelin 1-star restaurants continue to be terribly disappointing, especially in the dessert department. This year’s specimen is Le Cercle, Bourges. Sad stuff indeed. But it follows at least four similar experiences in the last few years. The bar is clearly much, much lower in the home country.

Car crash dessert, Le Cercle

Car crash dessert, Le Cercle

DIY

Well, y’know, I cook stuff myself! Shout out to a lovely cookbook: Fresh India, by Meera Sodha. Great vegetarian dishes from all over the sub-continent. Normal rules of Indian cookbooks apply though; always double the quantity of spices specified (and sometimes I wish I’d gone further). My favourite made-up-by-me dish that I can remember is: puree of baked potatoes and leek, topped with smoked oysters. This was a brilliant pairing. Try it, trust me. Modern classic.

New Year's Eve supper - Indian feast

New Year’s Eve supper – Indian feast


And that’s my lot. Stuff I’m looking forward to in 2019? No idea! Sorry, I’m just not that dedicated a food blogger. I’ll see where my wanderings take me, what new openings catch my eye, and then I’ll write about whatever is worth writing about. Take care out there.

Review: Core, Notting Hill

Core, c'est elegant

Core, c’est elegant

Core is proper fine dining. The elegant room filled with soft lighting on white linen, the miracle thin glassware, the shimmying clusters of waiters bearing the next remove, it’s all there. This is not “casual fine dining” or “modern fine dining”. And that’s lovely. This is exactly the place to come if you want to feel like you are someone special, but a non-showy self-assured British kind of special.

The wine list is kinda eye-watering. Yes, if you pore over the tome long enough you can find a handful of wines around the £60 mark. But if you have to play “hunt the 2 digit wine” on a wine list then you also spoil the lovely sense of occasion by having to admit that, yes, you chose this wine not based on whether it’s a style or grape you like, or whether it particularly suits the food you’ve chosen, but because it’s one of the few cheap ones. Classy.

Potato and butter

Potato and butter

But hey, I’ve blown £500+ on a meal for two more than a handful of times, so that shouldn’t be what the review is about (though it’s worth disclosing). It’s about the food.

Nice little amuse bouches to start, though none that quite met the “oh, just give me a dozen more of these and leave me in a corner!” test of a truly great amuse. The first dish was a scallop tartare on a handsome shell, dressed with an oceanic bit of sauce. It was creamy, gentle and – for me – an unappealing slightly sticky/slippery texture without enough flavour to bring it to life.

Next, a potato. Good idea to make a small perfectly roasted charlotte potato the centre of a dish. And if you put it in a lake of insanely rich buttery seaweed sauce then it’s going to taste great. Wow. Buttery though. The fish was a tranche of skate wing topped with a crisp sliver of sweet malty bread and some bright orange curls of Morecambe Bay shrimp. But again with the pool of artery-hardening rich sauce. Maybe I’m just gettin’ too old for classic 7 course tastin’ menus, eh?

Carrot and lamb

Carrot and lamb

The carrot and lamb dish was a winner, although if the carrot was meant to be the star then I’m afraid that slow-cooking it in lamb fat and covering it with lamb kinda took all the carrot out of it. The main course, of duck, was truly delicious and well balanced. I really loved the startlingly bright citrus perfume of the Nepalese pepper ground onto it – a tiny touch but well worth doing and I found a flavour I’ve never tried before. Yay.

Dessert was a classic tasting menu concoction of shards of meringue and cream and soforth with flavours of pear and verbena. It was a good enough end, but I’ll have forgotten it in a week.

I’ve had so many superb meals this year that I was really underwhelmed by Core. Which isn’t to say that it’s not excellently executed classic French fine dining, because it is. It’s some of the other great meals I’ve had (for less dosh) that set the bar too high. It was a good meal out with friends, but I don’t think it’s going to be appearing on my “top” anything list. The tasting menu was £115 each, but unless you’re going to go tee-total or stick to the cheapies you could easily add the same for drinks.

Signature pre-dessert, pretty and tasty enough

Signature pre-dessert, looks pretty and tastes okay

Page 1 of 5412345...102030...Last »