Review: Hive Beach Cafe, Bridport

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

Hiking the South-West Coast Path could be considered quite a foodie ramble. Taking you past Ricksteinton (aka Padstow), and the home of Nathan Outlaw in Rock, along the rugged Cornish coast which boasts more and more top-notch dining, like a personal favourite of mind the Gurnard’s Head. Thence through the South Hams of Devon, with just about the greatest concentration of artisan producers in the UK and blindingly good seafood at The Oyster Shack near Bigbury, then more Michelin-starred dining at the Elephant in Torquay. Eventually you’ll reach Dorset. Although by then you’ll have been walking for five weeks or so, which means you’ll want to stop for a nice lunch.

Which is handy, because the Hive Beach Cafe on Burton Bradstock beach near Bridport is right on route. It’s a proper beach cafe; the mish-mash of wooden buildings and pavilion tents look like they’d blow away in a

Crab sarnies

Crab sarnies

strong gale and if the day is anything less than freezing or pouring then the eager customers quickly spill out onto the various old wooden picnic tables on the terraces outside. Service looks chaotic but manages to somehow work wonders with such a rambling collection of tables. It certainly helps that the sun is shining and everything that comes out of the kitchen is brilliant.

This is where to come for spankingly fresh, generous and well-treated seafood. Much of it landed within ten miles, the rest just a few miles further down the coast in Devon. Maureen went for crab sandwiches. Properly served on brown bread, with a really beautiful mixture of white and brown meat generously stuffed between the slices. The side salad was well-dressed and worth eating (I have a real bugbear for this – so few side salads are actually good for anything but presentation).

Mackerel

Mackerel

My dish was a proper lunch; mackerel. What I actually got were two really large and handsome mackerel, grilled to perfection. It was one of those plates of food that makes you grin even before it’s been put down in front of you, because it’s so obviously generous and so obviously good. The fish didn’t disappoint, beautifully cooked to toothsome perfection. But there’s more! It was set on a vast bed of salad, broad beans and peas and fennel and tiny local prawns. Dozens of them. All delicious. The salad would have been a great lunch. And then! On the side was a great big dollop of smoked mackerel whizzed up with mayonnaise, and when this was combined with the rest what you have is one of the best plates of food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

It’s lovely country, is the Dorset coast. But the Hive Beach Cafe really is worth a special trip. My dish was £17 but if I transported it to any of the finest fish restaurants in the country it wouldn’t look out of place. They’ve got a full wine list, and their own labelled lager is amazingly good and full-flavoured for a sunny day.

Hey, and while I’m at it: shout out to The Abbey House in Abbotsbury for a great cream tea at the end of the day, in a beautiful garden in an eye-wateringly pretty village.

Abbotsbury tea!

Abbotsbury tea!

Review: The Bottle of Sauce, Cheltenham

The Piggy Smalls

The Piggy Smalls

The Bottle of Sauce is a great big, new, modern pub tucked a short stroll away from Cheltenham High Street. It’s the new partner to a couple of successful pubs in Oxford, The Rickety Press and the The Rusty Bicycle. They’ve hit on a really excellent formula, pared back furnishing, bright colours, bare wood, good beer and a rambling collection of rooms and outside courtyard. Really good beer, actually. I don’t know if they brew their own or just get it badged up, but I was honestly startled at the depth of flavour and funky floral notes in their Dodo Lager.

Yeah, I drank a lager and I liked it.

But as usual we’re here for the food. They’ve got a separate canteen room, but in effect it just had more tables than the rest of the place; food is ordered at the main bar and served wherever you’ve found to sit. Interestingly, back in Oxford they experimented with life as a gastropub and reached the heady heights of a Bib Gourmand, before deciding that they really and truly just wanted to run a brilliant pub with food on the side. And so the menu is a mixture of burgers and pizzas. But let me tell you, their burgers are friggin’ excellent.

I ordered the Piggy Smalls, an April special but they’d be nuts not to repeat it (with variations). Massive helping of spicy pulled pork, moist and delicious, with the exceedingly black and splendid BBQ sauce of the house. Stabs of pickle mixed in there too, and the bun was fine and just about held together around the glorious mess. Maureen’s burger was just a splendid piece of beef. Cooked medium, no pink left (hey, no gastro!) but still very moist and – most winningly – tasting very richly of powerful beef. Good chips. Phew, that’s enough adjectives. I’m spent.

So, the food is filthy and good. But this was a pub on Thursday night, the music was loud, the crowd was too, and we had to shout at each other over the table to discuss the deliciousness of the burgers. Just so you know. We’ll definitely find our way there for lunch some day, brunch too probably, but only of an evening if we’re really in the mood. Hey, no gastro.

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

Review: Jolly Nice, nr Stroud

Jolly Nice

Jolly Nice

We found Jolly Nice three years ago. Someone had bought a defunct petrol station on the A419 and turned it into a bit of a farm shop. Only it was a surprising little farm shop because they made a really good flat white, astonishingly gorgeous salted caramel milkshakes with their own ice cream, and sold burgers from an old airstream parked to one side.

You wouldn’t recognise it today. There’s still a farm shop, but it has grown. And the coffee has moved across the forecourt to a dedicated coffee bar. There’s also a dedicated kitchen for turning out the burgers, a separate butchery counter, two yurts full of tables and chairs, a fenced off pasture with picnic seating for summer days, and just this season a little homewares shop has slotted in alongside the butcher. So… is this a sad tale of sell-out and rampant commercialisation? Well, the homeware nook did make me twitch, just a little. But this is a million miles from Daylesford Organics, purveyors of mightily marked-up produce to the Chipping Campden set.

Burgers

Burgers

For starters, the seating is mostly bistro chairs and old benches. And you can’t get your burger on a plate, it comes in a little cardboard box whether you’re taking it away or “eating in”. And if you stand back and squint, you can still see the old petrol station forecourt hidden under what feels like organic and natural growth. Just a year ago there was only one yurt! Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bargain farm shop such as you might find in a lonely corner of Shropshire. They’re selling produce from small and artisan producers, it’s priced appropriately but not eye-wateringly.

Their burgers are grrrrrreat though! Cooked pink (don’t tell the flippin’ inspectors!) with a bit of cheddar and smokey bacon on top, in a good brioche bun with an appropriate bit o’ lettuce and mayo, it’s really splendid meat from their own shorthorn herd and juicy enough to have the bun dissolving in your fingers if you linger too long. And under a tenner. I also need to give a good shout-out to another of their staples: the KFP. Kentucky Fried Pheasant in a bun, that is. What a brilliant idea. Delicious too, the strong meat really succulent in seasoned breadcrumb.

I can’t really say more than this: given we live 30 minutes away in Cheltenham, it’s ridiculous the number of times we manage to find an excuse to wind up pulling into Jolly Nice, for a burger or maybe just a coffee and a cake.

Farm Shop

Farm Shop

Review: Koj, Cheltenham

KFC

KFC

I feel the need to ‘splain this up front. We were lucky enough to visit Japan just over a year ago, and as well as some convoluted kaiseki feasts and high-end tempura temples, we also ate tons and tons of delicious casual Japanese cooking – tonkatsu restaurants, okonomiyaki places, and smoky bars serving yakitori and beer to the after-work crowd of men in suits. So we enjoyed the real deal, at ridiculous prices (only in Japan can you enjoy a fantastic meal for under a tenner and then struggle to find a basic hotel for under a hundred!).

So I was going to need to employ some Zen and empty my mind before dining at the new casual Japanese street food-inspired, no-sushi restaurant opening in Cheltenham. Koj, the Kickstarter-backed dream of Andrew Kojima. It’s a friendly place, although it seems to be a little unsure of whether it’s chic or laid-back; colourful hand-painted Japanese logos and icons on the wall, cool black-and-grey furniture. The staff were friendly and enthusiastic. It would be a good place to stop for a pre-theatre bite to eat, which is exactly what we did.

Pork hirata bun

Pork hirata bun

It’s all small plates, and we went through half-a-dozen with a couple of sides. KFC (Koj Fried Chicken) were satisfyingly random-shaped dollops of deep-fried goodness, light and flavourful batter, juicy chicken, tasty sesame mayo dip. More deep-fried goodies, this time panko-crusted shitake mushroom chunks, absolutely nowt wrong with them. We also picked out a couple of hirata buns. The buns themselves were nice puffy teeth-sticking sweet dough. Mine was filled with pale and soft pulled pork and some finely shredded pickled veggies at the back, a good combination though I like my street food with more oomph. Maureen’s soft-shell crab bun was nice too, a decently crispy soft-shell crab with a mayo blob. I’m not going to pull out any stronger adjective than “nice” though, because surely the purpose of street food is to leave you saying “oh wow, let’s order another one! Or maybe three!” and we weren’t quite saying that.

The other dish we had was the squid okonomiyaki, and it was the same sorta thing. Okonomiyaki is a filthy, starchy, flavourful, jumble of gubbins. That’s the whole point. If you refine it and take the “street” out of the street food then it’s just… food. Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly tasty and if you’ve never had okonomiyaki then it’s a nice intro, kinda like your first bike with the training wheels on.

So that’s where I end up. Uncertain whether I’ve been impartial enough, or whether I’ve let my very real delight in the actual food of Japan set my expectations far too high? Dishes are £4-8 so you’d be spending £20 each for a light meal. Their entry level sake was £10 for a small 125ml flask (it was jolly good though). It’s really good to have another Japanese option in Cheltenham, and I’m gonna go back, but I guess I’m hoping the menu gets a bit more “street” in it!

UPDATE: Been back since, enjoyed it again, definitely a good place for a casual bite in Cheltenham – just not quite oh-wow-tell-all-your-friends great.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Review: BOX E, Bristol

Dining in a box

Dining in a box

All the tables at BOX E are closer to the kitchen than the chef’s table at most other restaurants. I say “all the tables” but they’ve only got 14 covers in total. The clue is in the restaurant’s name: BOX E lives in two knocked-through shipping containers, perched on top of some other shipping containers in Bristol’s revitalised dockland area. I’ve eaten in some boutique restaurants, but this is unimaginably small. The tidy-nerd in me marvelled at how cleverly they’ve used every inch of space to maximise storage. Still, if chef Elliot Lidstone hasn’t got a couple of extra freezers and a cupboard full of gadgets back at his house I’ll be very surprised!

They do actually have a chef’s table; four stools at a bar that is as close to the action as you could possibly get. I could look into the pans on the hob, and I’m not even joking. I’d 110% recommend this experience; Elliot has plenty of time to chat while seemingly able to keep track of the timings of five different dishes in his head while plating up table 2’s desserts and answering all our questions.

Wallfish 'n' bone marrow

Wallfish ‘n’ bone marrow

So, how about the food? Chef’s table gets a five course tasting menu (though by my count it was eight courses, so no idea what happened there!). Elliot’s cooking is spot-on flavour combinations and mouth pleasure, sensible portions and nothing finicky or flash; it’s not fine dining, it’s just really good food. The salmon from our second starter was cured in the leftover botanicals from a local gin distillery, a powerful cure that went very well with a fresh fennel salad and a sprinkle of fennel and bee pollen. The star of the starters was snails with caramelised onions and a bone marrow broth.

Beautiful piece of halibut next, with crushed potatoes, salsa verde, monksbeard and anchovy butter. Deadly simple, but such a perfectly cooked piece of fish with the balance of the other flavours just right, if I had this for supper every night until the end of my days I’d be happy. Our main course was local salt marsh lamb, jolly pink and accompanied by a Moroccan-style chickpeas spiced up with paprika and plenty of fenugreek. Absolutely loved those chickpeas.

Pannacotta

Pannacotta

Somewhere I ought to be recording where I’ve had my “best ever” of all the various dishes of the world. It’s probably a bit late to start now. But for the record, the best ever pannacotta is served at BOX E – it wobbles there on the plate, clearly just within a whisker of collapsing into liquidity but somehow staying together, and eating as lightly as a dream. Very nice with a bit of rhubarb on the side.

This was a jolly good meal for £45 a head, plus drinks. The wine list is short (there’s nowhere to put more bottles!) but full of good choices based on the two we enjoyed, and it has a bit of a focus on organic. I’d say that £45 is about spot-on for cooking of a style and quality to match the very best dining pubs, but the chef’s table experience here is more than a bit special – you’d have to put an apron on and start cooking if you wanted to get any closer. Can’t recommend highly enough.

Lovely fish

Lovely fish

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