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Review: Old Hall Persian, Dorrington

Persian is one of the three “grand cuisines”, along with French and Chinese. For me it conjures up images of delicate meats cooked with perfumed spices and exotic fruits. Yet it isn’t something you see a lot of in provincial towns and cities (well, unless you want to count doner kebabs as cuisine). So to find a Persian restaurant in a small rural village in Shropshire is not much short of astonishing.

The Old Hall Persian is in Dorrington, near Shrewsbury. As the name implies, the dining room is set in an old half-timbered house in the middle of the village. Instead of playing to that ambience they’ve chosen a fairly neutral modern decor, in essence what you’d expect of a small town Indian. This is a family operation and service was very friendly, helpful and informal.

My starter was simplicity itself; thinly sliced mushrooms fried with oodles of cracked pepper, on a paper-thin and crispy piece of oily flatbread. It was delicious. Maureen’s appetiser was a concoction of aubergine and yogurt with sharp citrus flavours, also very good with the splendid flatbread.

For main course I ordered the Ghormeh Sabzi, and it was a lovely earthy bean stew with fine, clear flavours of preserved lime and aromatic spices coming through. It’s one of the national dishes of Iran, and now I know why. Chef Lal has put the recipe up on his website – I have a feeling I may start cooking it a lot. Maureen’s Fesenjan was an unusual stew of chicken with ground walnuts and pomegranate. The dish fell on the sweet side of sweet/sour and although we’re always keen to pick unusual flavour combinations I have to admit that we didn’t fall in love with it. It probably didn’t help that the chicken was bite-sized bits of dry breast. It may be received wisdom that British people want nicely chopped up pieces of white meat in their ethnic cuisine, but I think restaurants really ought to start testing this and serving up chicken on the bone, with all the improved flavour and texture that would bring.

I wanted to try a pudding, as none of them were familiar to me. Because they were Persian! The Sheer Birenj dropped me straight into the bazaars of old Araby, with the high scent of rosewater and other floral notes coming from the sticky ground rice with its little puddles of milk and scattering of sultanas. Very classic, very good.

We drank a glass of wine with the meal, rather oddly served as 250ml measures. I really don’t need a third of a bottle in one go! This is a restaurant, not a boozer. I would also have liked to see a couple of interesting soft drinks on the list; some suitably Persian teas or long drinks.

Given the rarity of Persian restaurants pretty much anywhere, it’s great to find a place that delivers genuinely classic dishes so well executed. The bill came to £30 each, including two drinks apiece. I think that’s about spot-on. If you’re not familiar with Persian cuisine then I’d recommend you take a trip to the Old Hall, it’s a fine introduction.

Steak tartare

Whenever I visit France I throw myself at the steak tartare like a love-struck fool. Because absence makes the heart grow fonder and this simple dish is harder to find on UK menus than beetroot macarons. Not impossible, I grant. But don’t bother telling me about the one posh brasserie in London you know of that has it on occasionally; in France you find steak tartare in family-friendly chain restaurants and every cheap bistro in every single town.

Clues as to why I can’t find steak tartare in the UK are plentiful. Search for recipes and they all agree on one thing: use the very best fillet steak. Ouch. That’s immediately pushing it out of the everyday bistro food category. Were my 10 euro steak tartares around rural France really all fillet?

Next we can search the web for articles discussing the pros and cons of eating raw beef. Opinions are polar, running from “I love the taste of raw beef, chicken, turkey…” right through to “I think it’s disgusting! I actually don’t know how people can casually chomp on raw meat! I find it repulsive.” Taken on balance, the “think it’s disgusting” group seem to have weight of numbers. And I’m betting they represent an even larger silent majority who would simply never think of eating raw beef.

I’m part of quite a small market, it’s no wonder most restaurants won’t risk their fillet steak on it. Chatting on Twitter, Matt Follas of The Wild Garlic told me that last time he tried, he offered it raw or grilled… and every order was for grilled. Hmm.

Finally, it’s interesting to look at Food Standards Agency advice. Their requirement is that if you have to serve steak tartare (reading their blogs and articles, it’s pretty clear they would much rather all meat was cooked right through) you must use the “sear and shave” approach; sear the outside of the beef and then cut the seared edges away, before mincing the interior.

So that’s a fair percentage of your fillet steak disappearing into the bin.

To be fair their fear is E. coli, a particularly horrible bacteria that exists naturally in cattle guts and faeces. Apparently no modern beef butchering process can entirely avoid getting some of this onto the surface of the meat. Which means that any beef, even the best fillet from your local organic butcher, could have a little E. coli dusting the surface. Fear not, a brief searing will kill it entirely, which is why even rare steak should be safe and why “searing and shaving” the steak before chopping it for tartare is also safe.

But do they really take this approach at every tiny neighbourhood bistro in France?

I suspect not. I also suspect that farming practise has something to do with it. Modern mass production of beef cattle is intensive. The beef live their lives in small concreted yards where they are fed corn and dosed with numerous additives to try and keep them healthy. Hardly the cleanest animals at the best of times, they are essentially standing around 24/7 in each other’s muck. Where the E. coli is found. My hunch is that the highly subsidised French agricultural system has a lot more grass-fed cattle living out in the fields. Your average French bistro sourcing meat from their average French butcher is probably getting a better product than the average UK restaurant getting a weekly delivery from a meat wholesaler. Not every restaurant in the UK can afford premium beef from the minority of farms using less intensive practises.

I hoped this post would be an entertaining rant against bonkers food safety standards, but I’ve ended up concluding that there probably is a higher risk from eating steak tartare in this country than in France. That’s reality. What I cannot hope to self-research is the absolute risk of finding E. coli on a piece of raw beef. The risk exists, as evidenced by the occasional news stories of an outbreak, and although these stories always seem to relate to undercooked burgers of dubious provenance that doesn’t mean there is zero risk from a carefully sourced piece of fillet. But I think it’s pretty low.

So if – for the sake of argument – the risk of finding E. coli in a well-kept piece of beef is substantially less than the risk of being killed in a car crash then I’m going to keep enjoying steak tartare and driving to work.

How? Well, since restaurants won’t give it to me I’m going to make it myself.

Steak tartare (serves 2)

350g fillet steak (see below)
2 fresh egg yolks
1 banana shallot
1 tbsp capers
4 cornichons
Handful flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Dribble of olive oil
Splash of Tabasco sauce
Salt and black pepper
  1. Remove any obvious bits of fat, then chop your steak up very fine, just stop short of turning it into mince
  2. Finely chop the shallot, capers, cornichons and parsley
  3. Mix these into the steak along with the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco to your taste, olive oil if a little dry, then salt and pepper to season
  4. Divide the steak tartare between two plates (I used a big cookie cutter as a mould and squished the tartare into it, which looks nice), add an egg yolk to the top of each, and pile a load of salty French fries alongside. Bliss!

If you are more concerned about E. coli than I, just buy 400g of steak and sear every side of it in a pre-heated frying pan (2 seconds is fine) before carefully slicing the seared edges off. Then switch to a new chopping board and new knife to dice up the beef.

Buying your steak
Please, please, please don’t try making steak tartare with meat from your local supermarket. Yes, I know that sounds very middle class, but I’ve seen far too much TV exposing the slip-shod and cost-squeezed supply chains that get produce onto supermarket counters to ever trust their meat raw. Instead I went to a reputable (in fact, award-winning) local butcher and explained that I wanted to do steak tartare. They suggested two tail-end pieces of fillet steak; being too thin to make steaks they were cheaper but still as lean as the rest of the fillet and in fact more full-flavoured. Brilliant! That’s what going to someone knowledgeable gets you. Thank you, Ludlow Food Centre.

Review: The Unicorn, Ludlow

I’m sometimes tempted to make allowances for duff food on the grounds that at least it was cheap. But that’s daft. I’m a half-decent home cook, no Delia but no bad either. So I can confidently state that it doesn’t cost more money to cook crunchy chips, it just requires that you cook them right. It doesn’t cost more to peel apples before making a crumble with them. It doesn’t cost more to make a chocolate torte that has a velvety texture rather than that of potter’s clay. It doesn’t cost extra to roast beef to pinkness rather than grey – arguably it costs marginally less. So although there is a need to balance a review to reflect the price-point, that’s more about not expecting premium ingredients or molecular techniques. You shouldn’t need to pay extra for good cooking. If you eat in a restaurant you are eating food from a professional kitchen. As opposed to your own, amateur, kitchen. It should be at least as good as your own efforts, end of.

I think I’ve pretty well prepped this review!

I do like how they’ve done The Unicorn Inn, with its three distinctive rooms. The front room is a perfect country pub, original wood panelling still on the walls and a roaring fire in the grate.

Further back is the Slate Room, open to the kitchen, stuffed with period features but offset by smartly modern and comfy chairs. Good choice. The Oak Room at the back is the new extension, looking a lot more friendly and cosy than under the previous owners.

We were in for Sunday lunch. My duck liver pate was pretty decent, with a nice fat grape chutney. It being Sunday, for main Maureen chose the roast beef. The meat was cooked right through to grey, disappointing given that we took the trouble to ask whether it would be pink and were told that it was. The roast potatoes were decent, the veg had good texture, but the Yorkshire pud lacked poof. The gravy was very full flavoured, a free hand taken with the Worcestershire sauce. My battered cod and chips were a mixed bag. The cod was a decent piece wrapped in jolly thick, crispy batter. There was a fair dollop of pea puree and a tangy homemade tartare sauce. The chips were disappointing though, the skins leathery rather than crisp. Not inedible, but it was certainly a chewy experience.

Puddings can often save a Sunday lunch, but these didn’t come close. My chocolate torte was as dense as any I’ve had, like trying to push through hardening potter’s clay. It stuck to the spoon like glue. The pastry did nothing and the chocolate itself wasn’t packing any punch. Blood orange sorbet was sweet-shop flavoured. Maureen’s crumble was mainly fruit with a dusting of crunchless crumble on top. And would it really have killed them to peel the apples? Strips of apple peel, divorced from their fruit, aren’t the loveliest things in the world to eat.

It wasn’t an expensive lunch. £25 for three courses and one drink. Good enough if you want a Sunday pub lunch in Ludlow, given the lack of good eating pubs in the town (we’ve tried the pies at The Church Inn, they were yuck but didn’t warrant a review). But £25 is also the price of a three course Sunday lunch at the Michelin-starred Stagg Inn, thirty minutes drive away in Titley. And what frustrates me most is that the things we didn’t like were just down to how the food was cooked. Which costs no more or less to get right, wherever you are.

Khao Soi, Northern Thai Curry

If you haven’t been to Thailand, you really should. I recommend spending two weeks exploring north from Bangkok, inland, and then relaxing for two days on a beach at the end before going home. We have such brilliant memories of our eight weeks there, and no more so than a week in the city of Chiang Mai, where we enjoyed the hot northern Thai curry, Khao Soi, as often as we could get it. For whatever reason, it seldom shows up on Thai menus in the UK.

One thing particular to Khao Soi are the condiments: a plate of various things you can add to your bowl as you go along, to your taste. I wish I’d taken a photo, but at our favourite place in Chiang Mai the plate of extras included bunches of about five different herbs, none of which (except the coriander) I recognised. And all of which were uniquely tasty.

So, this Khao Soi recipe isn’t watered down, this is the real deal*. It has a bright, aromatic, chilli heat which is making my mouth water while I type. It really is a dish for those who enjoy some serious spice, but if you want to try a less ferocious one then go down to 1 dried chilli and a half tsp of curry powder.

Khao Soi, Northern Thai curry soup (serves 2)

1 tbsp coriander seed
1 inch piece fresh ginger
2 black cardamom pods
3 big dried chillies
3 shallots
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp salt
250ml coconut milk
300ml water
2-3 chicken thighs
1 lime
1-2 shallots
pack mustard greens
bunch coriander leaves
  1. Dry-fry the coriander seed, chopped ginger, cardamom seeds (discard pod), crumbled chillies and chopped shallots together in a pan for a couple of minutes
  2. Wail like a baby as the chilli fumes melt your eyeballs and lacerate your throat. Or make sure you leave plenty of windows open and the extractor on full blast!
  3. Put into a pestle along with turmeric, curry powder and salt then pound the whole lot until you end up with a thick paste. This will take some time!
  4. Pour 150ml coconut milk into a wok or large pan and bring to the boil. Once it is bubbling away, add all the curry paste and stir in. Leave this on a medium heat, stirring regularly, for perhaps 10 minutes or until it has reduced a lot and there is a sheen of oil visible
  5. Add the chicken, cut up as you like, and cook in the paste for 5 minutes
  6. Add another 100ml coconut milk along with 300ml water and leave this simmering for a good 15 minutes. Add a splash of fish sauce, then taste for seasoning and add more fish sauce as necessary
  7. Chop a couple of segments of lime. Pull off a good handful of coriander leaves. Chop up some pickled mustard greens (look in your nearest oriental supermarket). Chop up a shallot or two. These are your condiments, leave them on a plate to be added to the khao soi as you like
  8. Plunge enough noodles for two into boiling water for 3-5 minutes, then drain them and divide into two bowls. Add the chicken and pour on the khao soi curry
  9. Enjoy!

The paste is a hassle to make, so perhaps double the ingredients and make enough for two meals; it will keep happily for a week or two in the fridge, or could be frozen.

* – okay, it’s not quite the real deal. There are a few unusual herbs and spices from Asia that I have still never found in UK shops, so rather than torture you with demands for fresh turmeric root I’ve left it at stuff you ought to get easily enough. The black cardamom and mustard greens are probably still only from specialist Asian food shops, however.

Review: Churchill Arms, Gloucestershire

Is it fair to review a restaurant that you visited on a “special” day? In this case, New Years Day for lunch. My friend Tim was quite prescient in saying “we shouldn’t expect too much, the staff will be tired after last night.” But surely a restaurant should only open its doors if it is going to bring its best game? If they put a note on their website saying “open for New Years Day, but please don’t expect our best” would many, indeed anyone at all, book a table?

So, this is the Churchill Arms, Paxford, a village in the charming Cotswolds which were looking even better for being seen on the first sunny day for the last twenty years (or so it feels). The pub itself is lovely, with all the feel of a country inn that has been evolving its way through the past few centuries to arrive at the cosy lived-in yet classy look it has today. Big inglenook. Random collection of chairs. Photos of pheasant shoots upon the walls. Rugged young professionals in cable-knit jumpers being altogether too chipper on the next table.

I’ll touch very lightly on the twenty minute wait for a table, only ended when I went to remind them we were still waiting. Yes, we had booked. We got two little round pub tables shoved together to make an impromptu and uncomfortable dining place for four. But staff were friendly and coped reasonably well with a room that was frankly

heaving with people all wanting food and drink; it may have meant eating elsewhere, but I could wish that they had refused our booking and given themselves more breathing room. All this may have made us grumpy but I’ll allow it, given this was New Year’s Day.

And my starter was pretty good. A bread-crumbed ham hock terrine, topped with a generous slice of black pudding, some crispy bits of smoky bacon and a dollop of pear puree. This made for a very pleasant meaty overload. My main course was disappointing, though. Salmon fishcakes with poached egg and creamed leek. The fishcakes were so dense as to be beyond dull. You can put too much fish in a fishcake, and these were 110% fully-cooked baby-pink mashed-up salmon. I chewed and gulped my way through as much as I could, also becoming aware of a harsh note of uncooked cayenne pepper on my palate. Maureen’s fish and chips were greasy, the batter not particularly crispy and the tartare sauce lacking any really zing. I asked about the burger across the table and got a non-committal nod, perhaps a “fine”. Sticky toffee pudding and apple crumble were both fine too. The coffee was nasty.

If Harden’s write-up is accurate, we got the Churchill Arms on a bad day. But that’s just tough (for them and us!). I don’t think any restaurant should be opening its doors if it isn’t going to offer the best it can do. Or if it does, it’s going to risk getting a bad review. Because one thing is for sure: there will be more amateur restaurant critics stalking the streets in 2013 than there were in 2012. Happy New Year!

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