Review: Pollen Street Social, London

I’ve said this before: I don’t like waiters who treat you like some kind of simple-minded rustic come down out of the hills. I fed back to the maitre d’ at Pollen Street Social that our desserts had come too fast, one on top of the other. Oh no sir, that’s how it is meant sir, the first two are small pre-desserts, we time it carefully, blah, blah, blah. Cock. When they put the petit fours on your table while you’re still eating your main dessert, they want the table back.

Pollen Street Social

Pollen Street Social

Now I’ve got that off my chest, how about our eight course tasting menu at Pollen Street Social? Jason Atherton’s flagship restaurant has never dimmed in popularity. It’s a big dining room, comfortable chairs, white linen, and classic Michelin-style service from the staff. Somehow I expected a “Social” to be more… I dunno, sociable? Anyway, that’s what you’re gonna get. The wine list matches; the handful of under fifty quid bottles looking a bit lost and nervous among all their three digit colleagues.

The meal started well with some delicious snack bites; salt/sweet churros to dip in truffle oil, a powerful gulp of mushroom broth under a light parmesan foam, sweet red pepper financiers. The starters took off very nicely from here. White bean soup had another hit of truffle and came with a little beignet of slooooow braised rabbit and tarragon flavours. Next was a tiny bowl of – in appearance – spaghetti bolognese, but which was actually kohlrabi and potato spaghetti with crumbled haggis, and a nice note of thyme through it all. Our third starter was the best yet, a delicious crab salad with specks of black garlic giving it punch, tiny blobs of lemon goo giving it zing, and a puree of the brown crab giving it grunt. Yumyumyum.

Spag bol of haggis and kohlrabi

Spag bol of haggis and kohlrabi

The fish course was good, if restrained. Quite a thick piece of John Dory, roasted crisp on the outside, maybe a tad over on the inside, accompanied by glistening salty cockles and a wilted leaf of wild garlic. Mmm… wild garlic. Two more leaves would’ve been nice.

Our main course was roast lamb, a nice slice of braised chard, some sticky-delicious brown onion puree and mushrooms (though sadly not the hedgehog mushrooms promised – I guess it can be hard to consistently source a wild variety?). The accompanying side, potato fondue with some little blobs of braised lamb and onion, was unctuous heaven. Taken as a whole, a rock-solid main, though it didn’t really keep up the momentum of the starters.

Pretty solid main - lamb, full fat

Pretty solid main – lamb, full fat

So, those three desserts. Admittedly all a bit of a blur (dig-dig). First a muscat grape granite with a delicate foam on top, perfectly decent palate cleanser and unmemorable. The beetroot and blood orange sorbet was also nice. That’s faint praise, that is. And I actively disliked the pink foam it was bathed in. Pink room-temperature foam coating my icy sorbet just had a weird and phlegm-y feel in the mouth. Chilled it would have been fine. The main dessert was the only real cracker here, a cake of sticky flaky pastry with gooey caramel-coated bits of apple nestled within. The pieces of sweet pickled apple alongside were a good touch, but the ice wine vinegar ice-cream was honestly too subtle for a rustic like me. Hey, at least it scores on originality – I’d never seen that flavour before.

For a £90 tasting menu this was really only just up to scratch, perhaps saved by some spiffing starters. As I perused the business cards at the front desk, for the half dozen other outings by Jason Atherton in London, Shanghai and Singapore, I wondered if he might have taken his foot off the pedal back home? This certainly didn’t seem like a meal worth raving about. Jolly good, though.

Apple pud, not refined but yum

Apple pud, not refined but yum

Review: Montpellier Cafe, Cheltenham

It took us a while to find our local restaurant in Cheltenham. We certainly spent our first year roaming around trying everything; the overpriced but unique Daffodil, the un-ironically retro Number Seven, the decently Swedish Svea, the zut-alors-tres-French L’Artisan, and a bunch more. We may live ten minutes walk from the 2 Michelin star Champignon Sauvage but popping down there every week or two would have a horrible effect on the arteries and waistline!

Proper fish and chips, Montpellier Cafe

Proper fish and chips, Montpellier Cafe

The trouble was, our favourite local restaurant hadn’t opened then. In fact the Montpellier Cafe only opened a few months ago, but we’re now pretty much regulars for brunch, dinner and the occasional cake. I can’t link you – they haven’t troubled themselves with a website, which is a shame because a clean and uncluttered site to match their smart grey-wood-red-white decor would certainly pull in a few punters.

Please, don’t go expecting fine dining miracles. Focus on the fact that main courses in the evening are seldom more than a tenner, and Sunday brunch is a ridiculous £6.50. Ssssh… don’t tell them… but they could charge a couple of quid more for everything on the menu and it would still be good value! Whoever the chef is in the kitchen, he or she just knows how to turn out a well seasoned, balanced, delicious plate of food.

Burger time at Montpellier

Burger time at Montpellier

Brunch first. They knock up a nice eggs benedict, with a properly tangy hollandaise. In spite of that, my order is usually the vegetarian breakfast with a side of black pudding. If that sounds contradictory, it’s because (a) I don’t need all the meat involved in sausage, bacon and black pud, and (b) the veggie breakfast comes with a helping of smashing bubble-and-squeak with just the right amount of leftover brassicas in with the potato and all blackened in places from frying. Mmmmm. The butter-roasted mushrooms are good too.

On to dinner. Well, I can talk to you about a beautifully char-grilled tuna steak, served with fresh asparagus and a jolly punchy sauce vierge. Or a really scrunchy-perfect pub style fish and chips, with creamy/tangy tartare sauce and “mushy peas” made with fresh peas instead – a much lovelier flavour, to my mind. On another occasion we tried their burger; good brioche bun, nicely crunchy skin-on fries, juicy meat cooked pink and flavoured with flames. I had a great piece of swordfish, cooked perfectly, on an artichoke and red pepper salad.

That's how to cook tuna

That’s how to cook tuna

So, yeah, don’t expect anything new and unexpected on the menu. But do expect it to taste great. They’ve chosen their wines and beers well too – the list is small and of course good value. If you live in Cheltenham, pop in. And if you’re visiting Cheltenham for a slap-up meal at the Champ. Sauvage, you know where Sunday brunch oughta be!

Review: Harry’s Place, Grantham

Blatant list-following: we only went to Harry’s Place because they got themselves into the top 10 of the annual Times 100 Best Restaurants in the UK list. And it was a unique and delightful experience, a lovely evening out, with some exceptional cooking. But I can see how your enjoyment could depend upon both you and your fellow diners.

The dining room is the front room of a Georgian house on Great Gonerby high street, and so it has just three tables and ten covers. Yes, only ten. And the menus are hand-written and they don’t have a website! The decor is comfortable and informal, deep red walls and rustic tables with pale green tops. This is a family business, just Caroline as front of house and Harry Hallam in the kitchen. And they’ve been here since 1988, a time when my idea of dining out was a birthday trip to the Beefeater with my parents. So, with Caroline’s serene attention and only a handful of other diners whose conversations you cannot help but overhear, you’ll have to decide whether it’s for you. For ourselves, we felt very much at home, and on a mid-week in cold February we had the room to ourselves by the time starters were cleared.

Oh, short menu too: two starters and two mains, so if you have dietary requirements then phone ahead! We both chose the scallops to start, and the lamb to follow. The scallops were magnificent specimens from Orkney, thoroughly caramelised on the outside but very toothsomely translucent within. They were dressed with a thoroughly delicious Thai-inspired concoction and garnished with (from memory) tomato and chive. Corals intact, of course. These were simply some of the best scallops I’ve ever enjoyed.

The lamb was roast loin, the delicate slices a beautiful pink inside and packed with flavour. Not half as packed as the gloriously boozy armagnac gravy, though. This had a deep, rich, sweet flavour with a shameless kick of booze on the end. I can count the number of sauces I’ve enjoyed this much on my fingers. On the side were cracking roast spuds and a delicate little salad of all my favourite veggies.

Puds were good, though low key after the great courses preceding. Maureen had a cherry brandy jelly absolutely brimming with great flavour and balanced with a clean cream. I got a big scoop of some very rhubarb-y rhubarb ice cream on a tangy puree. Comfortably full after all that, we chatted a while with our hosts while waiting for the taxi.

Three courses is somewhere just over £60 at Harry’s, and it’s exceptional cooking in a very personal setting. The wine list is short, but the four glasses we enjoyed were all excellent selections, including a luverly Sauternes. Now I just need to find another excuse to visit Grantham… any suggestions?

Review: Turners, Birmingham

I thought Alimentum had an odd choice of location, on a main road out of Cambridge near a trading estate. But Turners has it totally beat for “least likely place to expect fine dining”, squashed between hairdressers and carpet retailers in a drab parade of local shops with a squat row of 1970’s flats above. Who cares though, right? It’s all about the food. And to be fair, Harborne looks to be an up-and-coming area of Birmingham. I would have been tempted by the retro ice cream parlour up the road, if it hadn’t been 2 degrees and a biting wind outside.

Inside Turners things are more tranquil, decorated in modern masculine grey and black. The walls are covered in mirrors, to open up the narrow dining room, and all the mirrors say “TURNERS” in huge letters as a helpful reminder to those who eat out so often that they lose track of which restaurant they’ve wandered into. Service was a bit on the starchy side, only relaxed by one of our waiters being a bit new and making a couple of little cock-ups that he was unsure how to fix. Guys, just lighten up a bit.

I really enjoyed our lunch menu, though. Three little canapes, including a well tasty brown shrimp cracker, were followed by an oyster amuse. Maureen’s starter was a bright scallop ceviche, with plenty of zingy citrus in the luminous scallops and a nice horseradish snow on top. The cubes of pickled apple looked great but were really pretty vinegary. My starter, a plate of quail, was definitely my dish of the day. Confit leg, breast stuffed in cabbage leaf, liver parfait and a smokey quail egg with a runny yoke, all bound together with a splendid truffled jus and accompanied by crispy cabbage and very good cubes of salt-baked celeriac. Balance of flavours: perfect.

They pulled a cheeky number on the main course: lobster tortellini on the menu, langoustine tortellini when served at the table (and that mumbled pretty quiet). Served with sea bass and pronounced good. My main was beef, the usual pairing of a piece roasted pink and a slow-cooked element. The

slow bit was cheek, in a reasonably crispy potato tube, and jolly good. The other piece was sirloin, quite a dense piece and not particularly well chosen for flavour. Nice bourguignon-style accompaniments and jus.

Hm. Actually, pud was another contender for dish of the day. A really glorious prune souffle, full of flavour, with some very naughty armagnac ice cream and an earl grey caramel sauce poured in for good measure. Filthy good, when souffles are so often meekly angelic. That said, Maureen enjoyed the heck out of her rhubarb souffle and a neat brick of apple cheesecake was praised by our friends. And it wouldn’t be right to leave without mentioning the veritable regiment of petit fours that marched out with coffee, all good.

So we enjoyed dining at Turners and while a couple of dishes were good enough, a couple of others were really excellent. The three course a la carte we had was £55 at lunch and that’s about right. Richard Turner’s cooking is interesting enough that I’m happy to put him up with Purnell’s and Adam’s in the list of “fine dining places in Birmingham worth your time”. The wine list was a bit low on cheaper options, and the wines we had by the glass also weren’t quite up to what I’d have hoped. We may just have picked wrong.

Pedantic Postscript: why is it “Turners” restaurant? If this is the restaurant of Richard Turner, then it should be “Turner’s” as in “Richard Turner’s restaurant”. But it’s not, it’s “Turners”. So perhaps it is actually a restaurant where you might hope to find several Turners. Hence the plural, “Turners”. Perhaps it is actually owned by someone else, and employs a number of members of Richard’s family? Who can say.

Review: Marmalade Bistro, Birmingham

This is the new restaurant attached to the REP theatre, right in the middle of Birmingham. We stopped for a quick meal of small plates after a performance at the Symphony Hall next door. Sorry, no photos – way too dark for my phonecam.

I like the decor and ambiance, slightly mad hatter with the jaggedly scrawled quotes on the wall and all the bare cable lighting strewn about, with big velvet curtains framing the windows. Service was young, friendly and still learning the ropes. We ordered a few small plates between us along with some chips.

I’m really unconvinced by the triple-cooked chips. They were very chunky and not even remotely crispy. If they were on the menu as “saute potato chunks” then I’d feel that I got what I ordered, cos that’s what they were.

My main problem was the garnish. On two of our plates we had a little pile of yellow, spotty, wilting watercress. That betrays real lack of basic thought. If I pulled that out of the fridge at home to have with our dinner, I’d say to Maureen “oops, the watercress has gone” and throw it in the bin. Putting it out on a plate in a restaurant says to the diner: “hi there, I’m happy to be serving you food I wouldn’t want to eat myself!”

Blech. Wonder what else is on our plates? How old is the fish in these crispy fried nduja fish bites (a bit overwhelmed by their spicy mayo dip)? What about the white pudding served with this pig cheek (nice enough plate, this one)? And are these thin sliced of grilled honeydew melon unripe enough to give me indigestion? They were served with sesame seed coated halloumi and a big blob of black olive tapenade, and might have been a nice idea but the melon was too unripe to have any flavour.

The menu is quite inventive. I don’t think it was written by the guy in the kitchen. And I don’t think he or she is yet up to delivering it properly. Maybe they’ll improve?

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