Review: The Dysart Arms, Bunbury

The Dysart Arms is part of the Brunning & Price chain of pubs, one of those groups that has worked out the gastropub formula and is busily replicating it in 30+ places across the country. Normally I’d pick an independent instead, but Harden’s gave it a thumbs up and we were winding our way home after a long day so picking somewhere with some confidence of success seemed good.

Of course, and feel free to call me a snob, if I’d known that Brunning & Price were owned by The Restaurant Group, who also run Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquitos and Garfunkels, I might have been more tempted to pick a local indie. Hey-ho, we learn as we go. At least I can say that I ate and reviewed before finding out.

The ambiance is one thing they’ve got right, a handful of linked rooms kept cosy and characterful with plenty of original looking features and a grand library giving the main dining room style. This is not the identikit decor of a Garfunkels. The service is friendly, generally good. The menu had me worried even before ordering: sixteen mains? That’s not usually a good sign.

My starter, a pigeon breast salad, was well done. The pigeon was raw cured and ate beautifully. The stickily dressed salad added good flavours of chestnut and cranberry. Maureen’s “crab bon-bons” were dense and the crab uncrabby, with a zingy Thai-style sauce from the bottle-of-sweet-chilli-sauce school of UK Thai cooking.

My pork main was a big plate of pig. The belly was okay, a big confit slab with too much unrendered fat left. Pig cheek was a good texture but under-seasoned, and the “black pudding croquette” was soggy sage stuffing in breadcrumbs with the odd crumb of black pudding to show willing. Maureen’s salt-and-pepper squid salad was four big rubber rings coated in a powerful spicy pepper, tossed into a mixed salad with some bits of grapefruit. It was definitely ho-hum.

Gastropub puds ought to have fixed things, but their sticky toffee pudding was unloving with not enough sauce and the bread-and-butter pudding had absolutely no colour on top, it was just a hefty lump with a sticky apricot sauce that looked like… well, I’ll leave it to the photo.

None of our meal at The Dysart was inedible, but none of it was very good either (pigeon excepted). I’ve had better specimens of every other dish within the last six months. There’s a place for chain pubs, I’ve got no problem with Wetherspoons and co. turning out microwaved Brake Bros grub for those who only have a tenner to spend on a meal out. But if Brunning & Price want to charge the same as good independent gastropubs (£24 three courses without drinks) for what is generally very dull fodder, then I’ve got no time for them.

Review: The Oak, Notting Hill

The Oak. It sounds like a pub, but it’s actually a casual Italian restaurant on Westbourne Park Road. Don’t come expecting sausage and mash or a pint of Guinness.

Instead expect rustic stripped-back tables decked with candles packed into the shell of a handsome looking old boozer. The atmosphere even on a Tuesday in February is good, buzzy without becoming annoying. The cosy atmos extended to it being too dark for decent photos, as you can see. Oh, and there’s a no reservations policy, so Saturday evenings might be tricky.

I had a brief grump at the outset; despite being the first punters to arrive we somehow found ourselves seated at a table barely big enough for four in front of the breezy door. Don’t get me wrong, our greeter allowed us to choose, but there were bizarrely only two of twenty tables set for a party of four and she certainly drew the line at the suggestion that we might shove together two small tables in a more comfy looking corner. Bah. Grump over, service was otherwise swift and friendly.

Padron peppers with paprika salt were jolly moorish, as was garlic bread. Maureen’s starter of octopus carpaccio was a great opener, perfect polpo and perfectly dressed. My own salad of chicory, walnuts and blue cheese was satisfying, dosed with truffle oil and honey it was a spiffy enough marriage of flavours and textures that I’m gonna add it to my lunch repertoire back in the kitchen. Our friends were equally enthusiastic.

My smoked haddock and saffron risotto was good; deep flavour and the right bite. Maureen enjoyed slices of seared tuna over salad. All the mains were simple dishes, but made with good produce and well cooked. Desserts were a final delicious touch to send us away happy. My semi-freddo was topped with a nutty crunch and paired with slices of poached pear that had been caramelised to a beautiful translucency but still held a juicy bite. Honestly, one of the best pearish things I’ve ever had. Tiramisu was deemed good, as was a simple cheesecake with a crunchy hazelnut base and a sumptuous caramel sauce.

All in all, good tucker for around £30 each before drinks. I couldn’t call it a bargain; this is straight-forward cooking, albeit of quality. But we are on the edge of Notting Hill, after all, and Italian places have a habit of nudging their prices a few quid higher than equivalent British or French joints. Never have worked out why that should be, have you?

Review: The Swan Inn, Hertfordshire

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to enjoy the Harry Potter Studio Tour, it’s the kind of thing that could be magic… or very naff. But it was a gift from my sister, and I never look a gift Thestral in the mouth (little Harry Potter humour there!).

In fact it was brilliant, from the genuinely impressive original sets like the Great Hall and the Griffindor Common Room, the fascinating collection of grotesquery in the creature workshop, the astonishing intricacy and beauty of all the schematics and concept art produced long before anyone ever dons a wig or hefts a camera, right through to the frankly awe-inspiring scale model of Hogwarts used as the set for all the outside footage. Even the Butterbeer was good; a sort-of butterscotch soda with a creamy head and a delicate fizz, sweet but (surprisingly) not overly sweet. If it was sold in pubs instead of coke, I might actually order a fizzy drink occasionally.

Conversely, I was expecting The Swan Inn in the bucolic village of Denham to be something fairly special: Les Routiers Dining Pub of the Year for 2011, after all! Okay, so it isn’t really a pub. It’s a restaurant in an old pub that still has a bar, but essentially every table in the place is set up for dining. Lovely oak chairs, cosy fire. Service from the team of young ladies was efficient and friendly, without being particularly personal.

My starter of rabbit rissoles was good, with carrots pickled in star anise and a slightly bland sweetcorn puree. It was an inventive and effective combination. Maureen’s beef carpaccio was very good, a light Waldorf salad in the centre being an excellent complement to the melty meat. That’s the highlights out of the way.

Well, the Swan has certainly boldly and unashamedly perfected the English pub lasagne! The beef wasn’t minced, it had been slowly braised then pulled to a sticky shred before being cooked in tomatoey sauce. The cheese on top was cheddar, and there was a scattering of wild mushrooms hiding in there along with chunks of carrot. It worked, in a hearty way. Maureen’s roast beef was a thick chunk of pink meat, but not the most tender nor the most flavoursome roast. Gravy was in short supply, but in other regards this was a huge plateful of food topped with a somewhat stodgy Yorkshire pud.

Our dessert really ought to have been taken off the menu if chef was having such a struggle to make it set. Salt caramel chocolate torte sounded promising, but the chocolate was a milky concoction so un-chocolately it could have been Cadburys, and more like a rapidly melting mousse than a torte. The oozing dollop of sweet pale fudgey caramel on top was left as the only flavour on the plate, with the occasional salt bomb from an errant crystal of Maldon.

Prices were about typical for a home counties gastropub, perhaps £25 for three courses without drinks. There’s a good number of wines by the glass, though neither of the ones we had were particularly great. Hey, if you want a posh pub lunch in one of the odd patches of rusticity inside the M25 then this’ll do fine. I’m just not sure why it would win any awards.

Review: No 1 Vault at La Becasse

Rumours of the death of fine dining are much exaggerated. In fact, I’d say that in dining rooms up and down the land fine dining is getting busy exploring new ways to stay relevant and special. I’m going to remember cooking my own steak at the Savoy Grill for a long time. And yesterday we were served a seven course tasting menu by chef Will Holland of La Becasse in the “No 1 Vaults Tasting Room”.

When I say chef served us, I do actually mean that he brought every dish to the table, introduced it and then loitered for questions if we had any.

The Tasting Room is akin to the idea of a chef’s table, but in this case it’s a small private room with big windows into the kitchen and three tables. So it can cater to three parties at once, and apparently the presence of chef and the shared experience of the tasting menu tends to break down barriers and actually get people talking. Yes, talking!

However, this Wednesday lunchtime we were the only couple in the Tasting Room. On the one hand, service doesn’t get any more personal than this and the opportunity for a long chat with chef was unique. On the other hand, I felt even more on show than the kitchen. That glass is two-way after all. It was mildly surreal and I keenly felt the need to be a witty and interactive diner.

Of course, this is the introvert in me talking. Other introverts reading this will squirm in sympathy. Proper dyed-in-the-blood extroverts would have been in hog heaven, bantering away with chef and his front of house team. In fact I have to applaud Will and the team for making us feel so welcome, I relaxed quickly and forgot our splendid isolation. Service was excellent (and of course personal) throughout.

The room itself is cool neutrals, warmed by beaten copper light fittings. It needs some art on the wall, but that’s apparently on the way. Bowmore have obviously put some money into this, as I should more properly call it the “Bowmore No 1 Vaults Tasting Room” and

there are a few little touches to remind diners of the sponsorship. Nothing in-your-face, and Bowmore is after all a good whisky. Well, I’m partial.

So, we enjoyed a seven course taste of delicious food. I’ve already reviewed the food at La Becasse, and it is still every bit as excellent as the day the idiot Michelin inspector visited (perhaps with orders from head office to knock one of 10-in-8’s stars off?). My favourite dishes this time…

  • From the canapes a beignet of bone marrow, in which Will had managed to neatly catch the fleeting carnivorous taste richly.
  • Foie gras of a beautiful cafe creme colour, silken and perfect. It wasn’t frozen, spiked or covered in acrid ginger powder. Only recently I was bitching about being bored with foie gras, having had altogether too much of it. Now I realise that I’d just been having very annoying foie gras.
  • A piece of cod with a soft herb crust, so delicate it was like eating fishy clouds, which you’ll just have to accept is a very good thing as I can’t think of a way to describe it better.
  • Finally I enjoyed my favourite souffle for long time. It was light and flavoured with nothing but caramel, served with burnt marshmallow and a dollop of clotted cream ice cream. So far as I can tell, this sublime dessert contained nothing but egg, sugar and cream. Sweet.

We arrived at 12 and said goodbye at nearly 5. So although the bill was £100 each including drinks, this was five hours of pleasure. The wines we enjoyed by the glass (from the list, not a special flight) were all superb selections, including the house white. I try not to use the word superb lightly, these really were. La Becasse is a good example of a restaurant looking for new ways to attract and retain an audience. It’s daft to separate the food from the experience; a meal is much more than just the stuff that ends up in your belly. Though of course this particular experience wouldn’t work at all if Will Holland wasn’t a chef right at the top of his game.

Review: Purnell’s, Birmingham

I struggle to love Birmingham. It’s handsome in parts, ugly in others, and sits in that uneasy size bracket where a city is too large to be friendly but too small to be metropolitan. Someone give me a list of reasons to love Birmingham and I’ll check them all out next time I visit, promise. Then perhaps I can update this intro. At least I’ve found one of the good bits, and that is Purnell’s.

Purnell’s is right in the heart of Birmingham’s ever-rejuvenating financial district and the dining room is a dead match for this; a sober palette of greys, browns and creams with leather-encased chairs and huge light fittings depending from a high ceiling. The lighting is bright, the mood is comfortable and the tables have acres of space. It sets the scene for service that is sleekly professional from a handsome young team that don’t over-engage unless you want them to. If you like cosy, informal, bare wood and irony then you’ll hate it.

Of an evening there are just two tasting menus on offer, though judging by the pair adjacent you can go a la carte if you tip the maitre d’ a nod and a wink. We went the whole hog with the Purnell’s menu.

Glynn’s food has a really strong balance of great technique, popping flavour combinations and a sense of humour. He likes his waterbath and uses it to great effect, notably with fish. One of my favourite early courses was the poached duck yolk with smoked haddock foam, cornflakes and curry oil. This was a complete retake on the classic flavours of kedgeree and the stars of the dish for me were the slippery, perfect flakes of smoked haddock lurking under the piles of foam.

Later on the stand-out dish of the day was madras monkfish, the precisely water-bathed slab of translucent fish had a meltingly fleshy texture that sang a song with the brave spices used as a coating. Of course, a water bath doesn’t guarantee perfection and couldn’t disguise the fact that the venison sourced for the main was quite a chewy specimen with no great amount of flavour.

Actually, I have another candidate for dish of the day: a charcuterie plate of beef carpaccio, corned beef cube and braesola with accompaniments of octopus and sticky candied onion that was all exquisite.

Going back to the sense of humour, or theatre if you like. There was another witty deconstruction when our waiter took us through a three-part remoulade. First was a cube of salt-baked celeriac, to get that earthy and snarky taste onto the palette. Then a grain mustard cream encased in a delicate shell of butter so that it collapsed in a cool/warm explosion that coated the tongue. Finally a shot of spritzed celery and apple juice to clean up and leave us smiling in anticipation of the next trick.

On a special occasion, when you’ve decided to throw £80 at a chef to show you what he can do, it’s absolutely right to be treated to some dazzle and flair, a bit of theatre and fun. Parties are no fun without games.

Parties haven’t had cheese and pineapple on sticks for a couple of decades, though, and this was one bit of retro gastronomy that I don’t think Glynn has really nailed. Nice cheese-filled gougere, lovely goat cheese mousse, but I think the pineapple flavour needs to punch out more to be a proper punchline. One or two other dishes

didn’t quite hit the high notes either, the flavours of British seafood having all the great taste but none of the presentation, but overall we felt treated on course after course.

The first dessert was more theatre, with liquid nitrogen poured over a bowl of mint foam to fill our nostrils with the scent of toothpaste and heighten the pleasure of the chocolate pot with mint ice cream. The star dessert was pure cuisine; a literally perfect vanilla creme brulee served cleverly in an egg shell. This came with a frankly pointless cake that was saved by the zingy textures of apple surrounding it.

Purnells, for me, is hovering just a smidge below the very toppermost restaurants in the country. A couple of shrug-worthy dishes couldn’t knock the shine off of all the big-smiley ones. This is a great evening out at £80 for the full Purnell’s menu. The wine list is much as you might expect from high-end fine dining, with a handful of options around the £30 mark. Go, for sure.

Page 30 of 52« First...1020...2829303132...4050...Last »