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

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 will 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

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