Review: East India Cafe, Cheltenham

Anyone who reads this blog knows that my favourite Indian restaurant is The Chilli Pickle in Brighton. And this is because it is not just a curry house. It’s not a good local curry house, it’s not a curry house with fine dining pretensions, it’s not an actual fine dining curry house. It’s a modern Indian restaurant, trying to bring some of the authentic flavours of India – muddled up with a few modern British ingredients – to a happy south coast audience. And there’s far too few of them. So I’m really delighted that something a bit similar has popped up in Cheltenham.

The East India Cafe is easily missed, tucked away in a basement on the Promenade. Through the doors there’s a bijou 24 cover restaurant with furniture and decor to conjure up the idea of the Raj, and an eclectic looking little bar with a few seats for cocktails. It’s a brand new venture from completely first-time restauranteurs, and it looks good. I felt perfectly chilled (especially after a decent negroni) and the service couldn’t have been more friendly.

We started with a plate of phuchka – another regional variation on the pani puri – very good mix of flavours with a strong buzz of chilli, and the puri shells were interestingly bubbly in texture, like pork crackling. Wikipedia tells me there are at least eleven names for these: Gol Gappa, Pani ke bataashe / Patash, Pani puri, Phuchka, Gup chup, Pakodi, Phulki, Tikki, Padaka, Phulki, Pani Ke Patashe. I know I’m going to like a restaurant if they serve them, whatever name they happen to pick.

Next up I had a couple of lovely little grilled lamb chops, while Maureen picked out keema chicken; two small fritters with a nice texture, a strong curry leaf flavour and a surprise garlic mayonnaise accompaniment. Hey, it worked. My lamb chops came with a “lasooni chutney” which was a smooth, spicy, garlicky paste I hadn’t tried before. Also delicious.

For main course I ordered a cardamom roasted guinea fowl. This was a beautifully cooked piece of bird, still juicy, and the cardamom was there too (it better be, ’tis my favourite spice!). The sauce was creamy and almost there – just a tiny bit unbalanced, perhaps the cream not cooked out. Maureen’s allepey sauce with her sea bass was spot on, though; sweet, sour, fishy, and with a heat that built up. The crispy sea bass was nicely presented, but just a tad over. Both dishes came with good pilau rice.

Apart from decent cocktails to begin, we drank down a glass of ghol and a masala chai. The ghol is like a light, refreshing version of a salt/spice lassi. Refreshing? It was so refreshing it refreshes the meaning of the word refreshing! Their masala chai was good too, not over-sweet, and with a very savoury spice mix in it.

Apparently chef has never cooked in a commercial kitchen before. For me, that instantly explains and forgives the couple of dropped notes during an otherwise delicious meal. Give it another six months and I’ll bet those dishes will be perfect. In the meantime, I reckon the sense of hospitality and authenticity at the East India Cafe make it well worth a visit any time. Expect to pay £25 for three courses.

Review: Old Passage Inn, Gloucestershire

Dear front of house. When a diner asks you for a recommendation, maybe between two or three dishes, they aren’t really asking you to name the best dish on the menu. They’re just undecided, they just want you to help them make their mind up. Batting the question back at them with a headmistress-y “I can’t recommend for you, they’re all good” is just unhelpful and unfriendly.

Okay, while I’m at it. If your fire alarm goes off in the middle of starters, deafening the whole dining room and leaving them wondering if they need to flee the building, when you manage to switch it off after a couple of minutes you might just want to pop ’round the tables and apologise/reassure your guests? It’s not like you had more than a half-dozen tables, it wouldn’t have taken a minute.

Well, and just on the subject of unfriendly. Yes, yes, your menu says that coffee comes with petit fours. But when three people out of a table of four order coffees it does look just a teensy bit mean when the plate of little delights set in the middle of the table quite pointedly only has three of each and three forks. It’s a choccy and a bit of nougat, why not show a little generosity?

Ha. And only a couple of posts ago I was saying that I scarcely ever mention service! Well, if the food at the Old Passage Inn had been magical I perhaps wouldn’t have. But it wasn’t really memorable enough to make an engaging blog post out of otherwise.

Unlike the Sportsman, the Old Passage Inn makes no pretense of being a pub; it’s a dining room, with clumpy chairs and art for sale on the walls. Little ambience, especially when not full. We started with some hot bites; crispy breadcrumbed oysters and smoked haddock croquettes, both pretty good if decidedly unrefined. My starter of treacle cured salmon with pickled beetroot and ginger syrup was okay; I enjoyed the strong treacly cure on the beautiful salmon, the ginger was clever, but the beetroot didn’t pair properly with it and there was a creamy element missing. Maureen’s fish soup was a super-pungent number, with the French accompaniments of gruyere and saffron mayo.

For mains we had a chunky piece of stone bass, served with wilted gem lettuce, cockles, diced apple and some very tasty little crab arancini. This was a good dish, nice combination of tastes and textures, uncomplicated presentation. Maureen enjoyed it to. My dessert was a slice of creme fraiche tart, a delicate form of creme brulee with a neatly caramelised top and some chewily pleasing bits of candied orange.

With mains at £23 the Old Passage Inn sets out its stall as a classic old seafood restaurant, but I’ve had comparable fish dishes for £16 at various good pubs. The various service glitches may have coloured my view, but I honestly don’t think the cooking at the Old Passage Inn stands up at all in quality to a similarly priced fish restaurant like The Sportsman. Despite being relatively close to Cheltenham, I’ve no plans to return.

Review: The Sportsman, Kent

The eerily drab Kent coast on a moist, cold November day with the last few leaves dropping from the trees. It’s gloriously Dickensian. The Thames estuary is a huge grey blanket the same colour as the sky and you can’t see across to the other side. The Sportsman doesn’t look like much from the outside; an old white-painted redbrick building in stark isolation with a muddy car park at the front and a cluster of caravan chalets out the back. Inside it’s quite different. A big, airy pub interior painted in warm antique tones with scrubbed wooden tables and comfortable chairs. It’s one of those well-balanced places that hasn’t lost its identity as a pub in spite of being a top-notch dining room.

We went with the tasting menu, and tuck away three delicious oysters to begin with, then a couple of smashing pre-starters. There’s a neat stack of chewy mackerel, glistening bright apple jelly and

an almost treacly dark rye bread. Then there’s a hen’s eggshell filled with smoked eel, poached yolk and topped with horseradish foam. MmmMMMmmm. We settle next into a delicate dish of crab and carrot. A bit unmemorable, to be honest; I always want more of the brown meat in these delicate crab salads. The next starter was delicious pieces of roast partridge, served up with crispy skin on top of a celeriac risotto that tasted exactly – exactly, mind you – of the best kind of cheese and onion crisps. By accident or design, it was one of those charming reminiscence dishes.

Next we enjoyed two very good and very different fish dishes. The first was the bravest of simplicity; a single fillet of slip sole on a plate with a little seaweed butter. The seaweed gave us a strong estuarine tang and the slip sole proved to be pleasantly more dense than the more commonly served varieties. Luverly. The second dish, of brill braised in sherry with local hedgehog fungi, was very good though verging on too rich. That might be me, though – I don’t like my fish too rich (see Gamba, for instance!).

The main was foreshadowed with lovely nuggets of deep-fried lamb neck in breadcrumb, to be dipped in vinegary miny sauce. WANT MORE. The mint sauce stays for the main of roast local lamb, a well-executed dish but (ssh… don’t tell chef) not a patch on the lamb neck nuggets! Our pre-dessert was a little quince lolly with some “cake milk” to dip it in (single cream with, yeah, a distinct cakey taste). I love quince, but for it’s fragrance, and they hadn’t captured that. The bramley apple souffle to finish was delicious, a jolly good and very bright souffle with a blob of salt caramel ice cream to deposit in the top.

I enjoyed the menu at The Sportsman, and I particularly enjoyed the surroundings. At £65 it’s good value for sheer quality of produce and cooking. The wine list is good too; in spite of the Michelin-quality food, the wines are pub priced. If I lived near here, I’d be down far too often!

Review: Spring, Somerset House

We never tried Skye Gyngell’s beloved lunch spot at Petersham Nurseries, despite living in Richmond for three years. I could never make the dishes as written on the menu match up to the prices next to them and had the distinct impression that this was more a place to be seen to be seen, a bastion of the ladies-who-lunch. Certainly Petersham Nurseries was, and is, probably the most artistically old-fashioned nursery in the country, a delight to browse around. Anyway, roll forward a few years and we’re trying her first new permanent dining room; Spring, at Somerset House.

The room we get is suitably lovely and woodsy, like a winter forest. The staff float around in outrageously whimsical Hampstead Heath hippy outfits, but for all that the service is perfectly pleasant. The menu matches the outfits: my chosen starter is “goat curds, puntarelle and spinach” and you can have a side dish of “slow-cooked chard and lentils” for £9. Yes, for a side dish. Yes, chard and lentils. Yes, I guess this is the middle of London… but still!

So, my starter is lovely and pleasant. Puntarelle is a kind of chicory. Maureen’s salt cod croquette is scrumptiously salty with earthy roast garlic in the aioli, but it is just a couple of nice croquettes. For £12.50. My main of slow-cooked paprika lamb with chickpeas is gorgeous, a heart-winning dish which would make anyone smile. Maureen’s squab with girolles is even better, a delicious and meltingly livery pigeon, beautifully cooked indeed. I finish cleanly, on meringue with a smart clementine sorbet. The pear tart is also good, served with a muscat ice cream (somewhat drowned out by the nice glass of sauternes we enjoy with it – the sommelier is a top chap, by the by).

Spring. The style of food is Italian-influenced gastropub. The execution is basically faultless – that’s what you’re paying for. You’ll pay over £50 for three courses. As our friend Tim says: this would be a great place to take a business lunch when you want to impress. Personally I can’t think of any other use for it at that price. I feel so provincial. : )

Review: Svea, Cheltenham

Svea is to Scandinavian cuisine what Rules is to British cuisine – a dose of the traditional. I like the dining room. It’s on the ground floor of a quirky Victorian building just around the corner from the High Street, and is decorated in classically soothing Scandinavian colours with the occasional Swedish flag to remind you that it’s a Swedish restaurant. It feels as though a cable-knit jumper should be part of the dress code.

We tuck into a trio of pickling herring to begin. One is a beetroot cure, one is a juniper cure and one is a dill and mustard cure. All three are very good, with plenty of flavour and a beautiful texture to the translucent fish.

My main course of Tjälknöl is a dish of slow-cooked slivers of beef, sticky with marinade and a heart-warming sauce flavoured with junipers and a scatter of chanterelles. It’s a good dish, plenty of flavour if not exactly fireworks. Maureen settled on the classic meatballs, just to ascertain

whether they are better than Ikea’s. Of course they are, a country mile better. The creamy sauce coating them is good and punchy, the meatballs themselves are well flavoured with herbs and hefty without being dense. Lingonberry jam, of course. Mashed potato from the sensible-amount-of-butter school, and pickled cucumber.

I don’t have room for the Princess Cake, apparently a deeply traditional Swedish pud that I can imagine homesick Swedes flocking to devour. I’m not sure how big the Swedish ex-pat population is in Cheltenham, but with or without them I think Svea deserves to thrive – it’s a brave and different cuisine to be offering in a provincial town, and it’s all done well. Starters around the £6 mark, mains either side of £15, it’s in the same price range as a lot of good pubs I know and so is the quality of cooking. It’s up to you to come along and find out whether traditional Swedish food floats your particular longboat.

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