Review: Pasta Loco, Bristol

Bugatini pasta

Bugatini pasta

They’re turning them away in droves at Pasta Loco, and you’ve got more chance of finding Heinz Spaghetti Hoops on the menu than you have of getting a table on a Saturday evening! Determined to find out what all the fuss is about, we found a lunchtime excuse for a visit.

Pasta Loco is tiny and spartan. It’s a nice, relaxed place for a meal but don’t be expecting white tablecloths and comfy upholstery. It’s the food that’s going to make you feel at home. Well, and the service. They’re a friendly bunch.

Maureen’s starter is an antipasti of long green peppers, thick white goat curd, sweetly vinegary barley with a little belt of harissa. It’s a magic combo, fresh and tasty with a bunch of contrasting textures. My starter is centred on three beautiful little slices of cold seared beef, on top of a silky-sexy sauce gribiche, with texture from tiny little sweet onion rings and a parmesan crisp. That beef on top of that sauce was definitely an x-rated pleasure. Phew.

Beef stack

Beef stack

Fortunately my main course was so beautifully soothing that I calmed right down. I’ll admit, I’m no expert on pastas. For those of you that also aren’t: bucatini is like thick spaghetti but with a hole all the way down the middle. This one was green with spinach and muddled up in a creamy truffle sauce along with girolle mushrooms and garlic scapes – which turns out to be short, sweet sections of garlic stalk. The pasta itself was as perfectly cooked as I am qualified to judge!

Maureen’s pasta was tortellini of rabbit ragu. And let me tell you that bunny was superb. Doused well in sage butter, along with some tender charred veggies. But the bunny! Soft, deep in flavour, just a tiny bit of bite left.

In true Italian style, there was no failure in the pud department. My coconut and cherry frangipane filled in all the holes just beautifully, and Maureen got a plate of beautifully kept Gorgonzola dolce perfectly partnered by a spiky-sweet little pumpkin relish.

At £26 for three courses, you’d be just delighted to have Pasta Loco as your neighbourhood Italian. That they’re booked out sooooo far in advance shows just how far they’re elevating pasta above “good neighbourhood Italian” levels! You know what they really need to do? Open another branch. In Cheltenham, please.

Gorgonzola

Gorgonzola

Review: Le Cercle, Bourges

Car crash pud

Car crash pud

What is it with French fine dining and puddings? Sorry, desserts. Are there other food writers out there properly bemoaning the complete lack of decent pastry chefs in French provincial 1 Michelin star restaurants? Or am I just dismally unlucky to have had crap desserts in the last five French provincial 1 Michelin star restaurants I’ve dined in?

I’m not bloody kidding. Check the reviews. Here’s Septieme Peche in Bordeaux, Le Gabriel in Bordeaux, Le Gambette in Saumur, and I’ve just realised I never even blogged Les Berceaux in Epernay but take it from me: crap dessert.

Nice fish

Nice fish

And blimey if the dessert at Le Cercle in Bourges wasn’t crap too. Room temperature cheese curds, frozen balls of apple with thin strips of peel unappealingly still attached, a sesame snap, I have no idea what they were going for but it fell way short.

Which is a pity, because right up until then we’d been enjoying a very good meal indeed!

Some decent hors d’oeuvre to kick off, and then a jolly good starter of snails in a nettle and wild garlic butter with morels, scorched strips of scallion and other odds and ends. Pleasing combo, rich with flavour. Across the table, a classic block of foie gras mi-cuit with gingerbread crumb and sharp apple goo was declared good, if predictable.

Fish was perhaps the success of the evening, a glistening slab of monkfish with bright peas and a sour rhubarb gravy. Summery and delish. Oh, and at Le Cercle they have this cute schtick where they serve a separate little bowl with each dish, containing the same main ingredient done a

Nice veal

Nice veal

different way. So we also had a bit of monkfish tartare on a bed of minced mushroom with a fragrant oil. Yeah, kindof a gimmick. Okay, totally a gimmick. Some of these little asides worked, others didn’t.

The little aside for the veal main worked very well: a thin sliver of belly, cooked to crispy goodness. The roast lump of veal was also good, with a curry-perfumed gravy that complemented very nicely indeed, along with girolles and fresh cherries. Also some juicy pieces of turnip. The whole combo was a really engaging affair.

Then the complete poop of a dessert. Which is a shame. The four courses were about £60 before wine, and I’d have paid a bit less if I’m honest. It’s a handsome dining room in a big old town house, service was good, and of course there’s a great big wine list full of good Loire wines.

Le wine list!

Le wine list!

Wine tasting in the central Loire

The Loire changes as you head upstream. Down near the sea it’s awash with Muscadet, head upstream and it becomes a broad flow of Chenin Blanc, but keep going and eventually you’ll be swimming in pure Sauvignon Blanc. This is the grape of Sancerre, Poilly-Fume and Reuilly. And Menetou-Salon but I’ll come back to that. And this is the central Loire. Further upstream as far as I can tell the Loire is just water. So pretty much pointless.

Sancerre

Sancerre


I don’t like most Sauv Blanc. I don’t like the sharp, citric blast of zesty greenery. Actually, show me any wine described as “zesty” and I’ll run a mile. That’s just a preference of mine. Luckily the folk of the central Loire feel the same, and try to turn SB into something more elegant and occasionally surprising. They also throw in some light Pinot Noir for the reds.

We based ourselves this year in Bourges, an absolute gem of a little city with a wonderful huge cathedral and a warren of streets full of medieval half-timber buildings. It really oughta be on the tourist trail, it’s a seriously splendid place to spend a day. Look for the Comptoir de Paris for a great bistro meal in the old town.

Comptoir de Paris, Bourges

Comptoir de Paris, Bourges

We successfully deployed all of our well-honed wine tasting tactics on our three days of touring. (1) Find a couple of recommendations from the Oz Clarke book and visit them – check. (2) Ask someone friendly at a winery where you just found some good wine to recommend other good wineries in the area and then visit those – check. (3) Enjoy a great local wine with a meal and then seek out the winery it came from the next day – check. (4) Try at least one completely random place – check.

In the renowned AOCs of Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre it seems hard to find cheap bargains; the wineries we visited all started their bottles at £8-9 for the basic 2017. On the other hand, pretty much everything was excellent, all the winemakers we met were friendly, and there were plenty of places open any day of the week. The wines I love are typically the ones that have been given some more attention – kept for 3 years or so, perhaps on the lees (sur lie) and perhaps some time in oak. This all adds complexity and balance to the Sauv Blanc and rounds out the green acidic flavours beautifully. Sometimes you even get the smokiness that gives Pouilly-Fume it’s name.

Menetou-Salon is the small AOC nearby that you’ve never heard of, but which is pretty much the same geology and climate. It sounds like it might have been a bit cheap and cheerful in the past, but there are some producers now making wines (to my tastebuds) pretty much as good as most of the ones we tried in Sancerre. So that’s my tip for this wine trip!

To be honest, there are more knock-out tourist destinations, and a wider variety of wine available, if you base yourself further down the Loire near Saumur or Tours. But the central Loire is a great alternative and – for me – the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world.

Bourges cathedral

Bourges cathedral

Review: The Fordwich Arms

Fordwich Arms

Fordwich Arms

Kent is super-beautiful. Seriously got some of the most stunning countryside in the UK. I’m using the word bucolic here, and I’m meaning it sincerely. So many of the villages are staggeringly pretty. Visit Chilham, Ickham, Wickhamburgh, Fordwich and Lenham, then tell me it ain’t true. Actually there’s a mistake in that list: Fordwich isn’t a village. It’s the smallest town in Britain.

The Fordwich Arms looks great inside, all cosy wood panelling and comfy chairs, a real squire’s bolthole after a long day sniping at poachers and dealing with unruly tenants. Or whatever squires do. The welcome is warm too and we were nicely looked after. It might look like a pub but it’s a fine dining restaurant to the bone. Please note that we enjoyed a potent Negroni and then sucked down a bottle of 2005 Tondonia Rioja. This may impact the crispness of the reviewing!

Snacks

Snacks

Three little snacks at the start were all lovely, with a tiny roll of celeriac around ricotta and crisp chicken skin being the prettiest. Best taste was the pure pleasure of a slice of pickle and a blob of whipped cod’s roe sandwiched between two potato crisps. Do yourself a favour: buy a tub of taramasalata, a bag of ready salted and a jar of gherkins. Make your own. They’re AMAZING.

First starter was an absolutely magical slice of trout, intensely deep pink and yielding like butter, served with a vivid pea mousse and a good blob of horseradish snow. It’s not an unfamiliar combination but this was cooked and balanced to perfection.

Followed by a more complex dish of hake with (follow me here) asparagus, wild garlic, baby onion, swede puree, wild mushrooms, semi-dried grapes and a cream sauce made with the lees from Gusbourne vineyard. This was a triumph. The sweetness of the grapes, swede and the onions picked up and intensified the wine-cellar-y flavour of the cream and made a real wonder of the smartly pan-fried piece of hake. Very clever. I’d have left the asparagus off, but that’s me.

Pig

Pig

Now, what can I say about the suckling pig dish that followed? Hmm. How about OMGBESTPIGEVER!? This was a monstrously good fall-off-the-bone piece of meat with perfect crackling and a deeply piggy flavour. In a pan to one side, hay-smoked belly was equally profound. Some sensible veg and a deeply good Grand Marnier sauce. Oh, and a couple of pieces of charred apricot that made a tangily brilliant relish for the meat.

Good puds to finish us off. Seasonal and delicious muddle of strawberries and strawberry sorbet. And then a white chocolate dish that paired up very effectively with confit lemon ice cream and coffee crumble. Solid finale from the blob school of fine dining desserts.

The Fordwich Arms is already a serious contender for meal-of-the-year. Faultless cooking, full flavours, three absolutely stunning dishes, a beautiful setting, great service. The tasting menu is £65 at the moment and that’s great value. Get thee to Kent! And do thyself a favour, make a weekend of it.

Hake

Hake

Review: Alchemilla, Nottingham

Alchemilla has one of the most stunning dining rooms going. It’s an old coach house beneath the pavement in front of the splendid old town houses that the coaches once belonged to. Their maitre d’ showed us the photos of the place when they took it on: there were tree roots growing through the ceiling and standing water on the floor. But someone had a good eye for possibilities, because its now a beautiful stripped-back space with natural light coming from the original roof windows and most of the tables tucked into booths that were of course once the parking spaces for coaches. It’s basically magical. And they looked after us beautifully. So how magical is the menu?

Alchemilla

Alchemilla


The first bite, a tiny warm chicken and porcini tartlet, was dreamily good; a light almost liquid mousse with crispy little shards of chicken skin and bright lemon thyme. Neat. The seaweed-flavoured crackling with parmesan was okay, and my cracker had missed a few seconds in the fryer so was still chewy in parts.

Enoki over duck liver

Enoki over duck liver

My next course of duck liver and enoki was, I have to say, destroyed by soy sauce. So overpowering that it lurked on my palate and in my throat and messed with my next couple of courses. I should have sent it back in hindsight. Instead I left some. It’s a nice idea and I can actually see exactly how the salt/umami taste cuts nicely into the duck liver. Maureen did much better with a raw dice of scallop doused in a pleasant mix of buttermilk and dill oil.

A nice piece of BBQ celeriac was smothered by quinoa soaked in a hefty sweet/salt sauce of some kind. Felt unbalanced and odd. The final starter was better, a wild grain risotto with crispy wild grain on top and a healthy grating of aged parmesan. Or maybe the soy sauce was starting to wear out, washed down by some very good Jurancon.

On to the main, a jolly decent plate of duck; pink and toothy breast, slowly roasted leg and a couple of pieces of heart. You can always win me over with a bit of fowl heart. I liked the punchy little pieces of sweet pickled alexanders stem, and the kohlrabi was… kohlrabi. Meh.

Yogurt with sorrel

Yogurt with sorrel

And then the meal really took off, with three superb desserts! First a stickily delicious bit of diced loquat (look it up!) surrounded by loquat stone cream and sandwiched between two delicate amaranth biscuits. Sublime combo of textures and the floral perfume of the fruit. Second pud was a really inventive and scrumptious combination of curry, coconut, cardamom and chocolate. Smart to choose three flavours that really stand up to the chocolate, which provided our dinner theatre in the form of a chocolate foam mousse turned into feather-light “ice cream” by plopping it into dry ice. Final pud was a bright and cleansing frozen yogurt stacked with an architectural display of wood sorrel leaves on pine gel. Proper nordic forest on the tongue.

So what am I concluding about Alchemilla? Our 7 course menu was £50, and that’s a fair price for the level of ambition on show. And, yeah, for the awesome dining room. It’s all part of the experience! That said, there were definitely a few problematic dishes, a lack of balance and refinement mainly. I found them easy to forgive because it was an otherwise lovely lunch, and really exceptional desserts. I’ll go there again next time I’m in Nottingham – it’s a good discovery.

Celeriac

Celeriac

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