Review: The Waterdine, Shropshire

When we first visited Shropshire, some years back, I distinctly remember being told of a hidden gem with a Michelin listing called The Waterdine. This week I finally got round to trying it. Unfortunately I may have left it too late.

It’s tricky writing a review like this. We had a nice chat with the lady of the house, who runs the place with no staff, just her husband Ken in the kitchen. They’ve been going for years, and I really wish them well. And yet if I’m going to be honest, which I have to be if I’m a food blogger, then I have to report that our food tonight really wasn’t up to scratch. Not inedible, or of course I would have said something, just not where it should be for the price.

My red mullet starter was pretty good, with a sweet and zippy pesto, green olives and stewed onions. Maureen’s pigeon breast was cooked to a uniform, very chewy grey and sat on some bits and bobs of courgette and tomato.

Main course for me was a rack of lamb, shepherd’s pie and lamb liver. The rack was nice enough lamb and decently cooked. The shepherd’s pie had a scruffy scurf of not-quite-mash on top. The lamb’s liver was just a whole lamb’s liver, cooked. I’m… not sure what I expected?

Maureen’s venison was overcooked again, though I did like the pickled damson accompaniment. Also accompanying were potato pancakes with goat cheese, but sadly the pancakes were properly burnt around the edges and perhaps shouldn’t have left the kitchen.

My summer pud looked the part and was okay, Maureen’s filo basket with raspberries had a really punchy sweet tang of lime along with some very splendid raspberries.

Leaving the odd mistakes aside, it would be an okay pub dinner. But at £32 each without drinks it should be more than okay. I can find three better courses for £25 at a handful of good pubs in the area. The wine list was okay, but if I ask for a suggestion I’d sort of expect more than “I don’t know, everyone likes different things” as a response! I’m not sure whether chef Ken was having an off night, or whether perhaps he’s winding down slowly to retirement. Either way, although I’d really like to I’m not able to recommend a meal out at The Waterdine to you.

Review: The Butcher’s Arms, Eldersfield

Well, that was jolly good.

The Butcher’s Arms is a proper country pub, honest and comfy. I’m getting heartily sick of walking into gastropubs that turn out to belong to a boutique chain of identikit establishments, walls hung with photos of pheasants and foxhounds, deja vu menus of hand-dived scallops and sticky toffee pudding. So I’m always happy to stumble into the real deal. The kegs of guest ale behind the bar were a clue, as was the lack of STP on the menu.

In fact the Butcher’s is such a perfect little country boozer that the fine dining aspirations of the food came as a bit of a surprise. The prices on the menu were certainly an eyeful, but I can happily report: totally worth it.

I started with a salad of hot smoked eel, beetroot and potato drop-scone. You can’t put hot smoked eel on a menu and expect me to pass it up. There was a really generous amount of magical eel, and a very satisfying spiced beetroot chutney with it; lots of smoky paprika and roasted cumin. Maureen’s was pig cheek and squid. The pig cheek rissole was heading beyond delicious and into mmm-gorgeous territory. Oddly enough, the squid seemed irrelevant, adding neither a useful texture or taste to the plate. Didn’t care, the pig cheek was pigging excellent.

My main course of turbot roasted on the bone was also excellent, with chorizo, lentils and bacon. Fish cooked to perfection and a really solid balance of flavours. The accompanying potatoes anna were brilliant, crisp on top and buttery/waxy inside. The star of the show, however, was Maureen’s squab. This was a beautiful roast bird, served up very rare and with a bold, livery flavour. The confit legs added another dimension. There was gravy with a sticky shine and flavour to put a big smile on your lips. On the side, a cube of deeply wonderful home-made haggis rolled in oat nibs. Essentially the best main course either of us have tasted in quite a while.

Puddings were original and a bit off-beat. I had donuts with caramel ice cream and strawberries. That’s exactly what it was: two nice little sugary donuts, some very good strawberries and a delicious scoop of caramel ice cream with just enough bitter to balance the sweet. Maureen enjoyed pistachio and peach macarons, both excellent, some very nicely poached peach and a lovely mango sorbet. I thought these puds good, and fitting for a pub that is walking it’s own path. They weren’t quite as magic as the courses that came before.

I would round off this review by saying that this was the best pub meal I’ve had in ages. However, at around £36 for three courses without drinks the Butchers is almost no longer in the pub price bracket. Doesn’t matter. These were all faultlessly executed dishes using superb produce in delicious ways, and outshone a whole bunch of fine dining experiences I can think of. Seek out the Butcher’s Arms next time you are lost in rural Worcestershire!

Review: Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

It’s a rarified world we foodies live in. With GBM on the telly every year and reams of print on the topic of food it’s easy to forget. But we stopped tonight at the Premier Inn less than two miles from Nottingham’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the 2 star Restaurant Sat Bains. Asked the receptionist for a taxi. “To where? Never heard of it. Is it far?” He spoke to the taxi company. They’d never heard of it either. Langton Lane, we offered. Oh, must be near the casino. Right-o.

I’m glad the taxi driver found the right spot (just off the dual carriageway, a narrow farm track on the edge of the industrial estate, sheltered in the lee of electric pylons) because we sat down to my favourite meal of the year so far. Over ten courses we enjoyed an array of strong flavours confidently combined with scarcely a missed step among them. I’ll just punch up some highlights…

The crab salad was epic. White meat combined with enough brown to pack it full of flavour, on a salty peanut sauce with flakes of crispy peanut brittle, topped with shredded pickled mooli. Really confidently banging the drum for sweet, salty, sour.

I’ve had baked onion before, but this one was baked to gooey, sweet, don’t-need-a-knife perfection and served with thyme granita. I’ve had thyme granita before; it’s nice and whispers thyme gently across your tongue. This granita belted out thyme like a marching band.

Oh, and I must shout out the duck liver. Who would have thought apricot puree, slivers of green bean and pickled cranberries would be such a hit with nitrogen-frozen duck liver shards? Green bean and duck liver. That was enlightening all by itself. The granola on top added a simple crunchy sweetness.

I’ve been saving myself for the main course. It was pressed lamb, what must have been a fairly fatty piece of meat but with the fat cooked out through the meat so totally that only the wonderfully deep lamb-y taste remained. And this was such a light main, with a goat cheese mousse, a lamb consomme and slices of pickled radish and sweet onion. Summer on a plate. I could have been romping across the grassy hills taking bites out of the gamboling lambs around me. Or something.

The most brilliant pud was the first: sweet “curry”. It’s a brave chef that uses cumin confidently in a dessert, and salt. But that’s what made the mango sorbet and fruits so marvelous. Its only in the French tradition that sweet is invariably the dominant flavour in a dessert, with sour (citrus) and bitter (caramel) the lone combatants against the sugar. Great to find chefs bringing clear eastern influence to the sweets.

I did like the last pud too. It’s easy to mess about with strawberries and screw up one of the few foods that nature gives us in its essentially unimproveable form. In this case the strawbs are pretty much left to themselves, but partnered with a frisky wood sorrel granita to cleanse the taste buds. I’m familiar with the wood sorrel leaves scattered over lamb or seafood for a citric edge, but this is the first time I’ve seen them step into the pudding world and it was lovely.

This was a confidently inventive £85 tasting menu, a real eye-opener with plenty to talk about. And it was faultless. Despite the surprising location, the restaurant itself is modern and welcoming, set in converted red-brick farm buildings. Service was up to 2-star Michelin standards (although of course Michelin stars are only about the food, of course), the wine list was good and our sommelier very helpful, but there’s nothing at the cheaper end. I’m not saying anything new when I conclude that Restaurant Sat Bains is definitely one of the UK’s best destination restaurants. Go, go!

Review: Alimentum, Cambridge

Hm. When a customer tells you that a dish is delicious – really delicious – but that the pork shoulder was seriously over-salted, perhaps you shouldn’t get into a debate with them about whether it was or not? Especially when all seven people at the table agree. “Haha, seven against one, I guess you win!” he eventually conceded. Ye-es, I think we do. Perhaps also because we are your customers. But hey, we had a great meal and our waiter was generally friendly and good fun, he just stepped over the line that one time.

We were dining at Alimentum, Cambridge’s most central Michelin-starred restaurant, and enjoying a ten-course tasting menu that was definitely one of my top three dining experiences this year. The restaurant is oddly situated on a commercial road within spitting distance of Nando’s and the local multiplex cinema. Inside the decor is wine bar classy, with plenty of black and the odd splash of red or gold. Our table had windows into the kitchen for extra entertainment, which was great until we spotted the one chef who tasted absolutely everything he plated, with his fingers, in between occasionally scratching his head and wiping his brow. No idea whether this is normal but, testimony to the great cooking, it didn’t put us off!

The little amuse of pea mousse and cottage cheese that opened the batting was ridiculously good, perhaps because it was such a hot summer day outside. The next dish of asparagus and chanterelles with a clean goat cheese sorbet kept up the quality both in good looks and taste. Smoked eel with crisp apple cubes and a grating of horseradish and truffle couldn’t really go wrong. Alimentum puts out very pretty plates of food and that’s definitely part of the joy. Our final starter was a gooey, crispy, unctuous little tranche of lamb belly with a more robust pea puree and a little crumble of goat cheese.

The fish course was a lovely plump piece of halibut with textures of butternut squash and caviar. The salty punch of the caviar saved this dish from mediocrity. Meh, I just don’t rate butternut squash unless it has griddled black tramlines or is made into soup and properly overwhelmed with roasted garlic.

And so to the porky main, which was superb. The whole table mmmoo’d like a herd of contented cattle. I think the chief delight was a black pudding puree that was just deep and rich with animaly, irony goodness. I’d love an enormous tube of this that I could spread on toast, bread, croissants or indeed my toothbrush! The pork medallions were pink, squidgy and perfect in their salty wrap of ham, the gravy sublime. Instead of potato we had a couple of thick slices of sturdy swede and I smiled because I wouldn’t have thought of it and it worked perfectly. The sticky pulled shoulder was tasty but criminally over-salted, but who cares?

Odd little experiment of a cheese course. A dollop of Epoisses on a spoon, in bowl of dark onion soup with cubes of apple and truffle powder. The tastes combined very splendidly, and top marks for invention, but I think a tiny slice of crispy French toast with it would have brought a necessary texture and starch.

Loved the pre-dessert, lemongrass mousse and ginger beer granita. Great combo. The first dessert was superb, a mango sorbet with honey mousse, toasted almonds and a slightly marshmallowy vanilla cream described as a “Japanese panna cotta”. I wish I’d remembered the proper name to look for a recipe, as it was magical. Second pud was crumbled hazelnut cake with chocolate sorbet, coffee mousse and meringue. Nice cake but couldn’t match what had gone before!

Alimentum offers inventive, delicious and beautifully presented food. It’s a much more satisfying experience than a whole tranche of other 1-star fine dining establishments around the country, and than its own peculiar location would suggest. This 10 course tasting menu was £85, which strikes me as about right, and the wine menu offers some very good value options. I like a sommelier who, when you ask their opinion of two bottles, opts for the cheaper one. The menu was very well balanced, we left feeling replete rather than stuffed. Yes, Cambridge definitely has a top-class destination in Alimentum.

Review: Le Gambetta

We had a wonderful meal in Saumur, one that really reaffirmed my faith in French cooking after our culinary washout of a trip last year. Unfortunately this wasn’t the meal I’m reviewing here*. I enjoyed dining at Le Gambetta, but it was a frustrating mixture of the jolly good and the merely okay.

The restaurant is in a town house and the decor is light and traditional. Service was effortless all evening, by which I mean the staff made no effort at all to establish a friendly rapport with us. Entirely professional and decent, but nothing more. There we are.

Our amuse bouche was a fairly forgettable bit of dressed crab with a thai-flavoured madeleine. The starters, however, were a really exciting eyeful. My trio of foie gras was beautifully presented and included a scrumptious concoction of confit orange, pan-fried foie gras and chocolate. In fact all three elements were magic. Maureen’s lobster came two ways; on a bruschetta of fennel with a pipette of impressively infused lobster oil, and cooked in a bag with a spicy celery jambalaya. This was a strong dish, in fact the first course was rather unfortunately almost the highlight of the meal.

My fish course was a piece of turbot with an uninspiring soft crust, served with stringy white asparagus and a bitter sauce that I failed to identify. The accompanying Argan-oil foam was a frothy punch of intriguing flavour, but the rest of the dish I couldn’t love. Maureen’s rolled fillet of brill came in a delightfully fragrant Thai broth. The menu proudly noted that it was “cooked at 45C with Hawaiian black salt” but since the result seemed to be an unexpected dense roll of well-cooked fish I’m not sure the effort was worth it.

For the main course we both picked veal. I normally wouldn’t, in France, but we had a translation failure. The dish was “noix de veau” (nuts of veal, eh?) and when we asked our waiter what part of the animal that was, he definitely seemed to give a knowing smile when he replied “it is the best part”. Well, a nudge is as good as a wink. We thought we were going to get goolies, but in fact we got fillet. Nicely cooked, though the bacon stuffing was a bit salty and the dish otherwise didn’t consist of anything very interesting; few peas, bit of non-descript puree. The other main was a Moroccan-inspired lamb dish that our friends enjoyed much more.

Best dish of the meal? The cheese course, which was a little yogurt pot filled with warm, gooey, ripe reblochon topped with a creamy olive emulsion. It was the definition of funky.

My dessert was a lovely idea on paper; themes of chocolate and tarragon. But in the event the chocolate elements were thoroughly rich and gooey, against which the light and delicately flavoured tarragon (a cream and a sorbet) didn’t stand a chance. It was like throwing snowballs into lava. We took the wine pairings with this meal, and I’ve got to note that I’ve never been offered a more frankly bizarre wine pairing than a crisp, dry sparkling white with a rich chocolate pud. Doubly odd that Maureen got the same bubbly with her lemon and lime dessert; a richly lemon curd-y souffle with a pipette of kaffir lime oil (mmm… good), a bright kaffir lime sorbet and a layered lime jelly with a lemon foam.

This was a beautifully presented meal, but quite a few dishes fell short of their ambition and for this reason it wasn’t really worth the 78 euros each (without drinks) that they’re asking. However, the ambition and invention is lively enough that I do think on a different night Le Gambetta might put out a very memorable meal. So I wouldn’t count it out, if you’re planning a trip to the Loire and want to take a chance.

* – if you are ever in Saumur, definitely book a table at L’Escargot for a dinner of perfectly executed French cooking, mostly classic, served up with great local wines and at a very delicious price.

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