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Review: Pascere, Brighton

Pascere

Pascere

There’s something about Christmas that brings out the worst in dining out. The phrase “Christmas menu” usually has me turning a swift 180 on my heel and heading elsewhere. And oh my, the work Christmas party! This year’s was a classic. Floppity “roast” veg. Slices of turkey so thin and processed that I swear – I swear – it was the same stuff they use in Tescos basics turkey sandwiches. And the vegetarians got a mushroom risotto with two mushrooms in. Because how Christmassy is mushroom risotto, eh?

And this perhaps explains why I was deeply underwhelmed by Pascere, which most food writers and bloggers have raved about in recent months. Because I was lucky enough to have their Christmas tasting menu.

The place is a nicely chilled out modern dining room, good design aesthetic, dark and cosy with golden touches, turquoise and gold menus. Staff are friendly and service was good.

Tiny crab tarts, filled with white meat and topped with a bisque-y hollandaise for flavour, were a jolly promising start. Haggis bonbons too.

Tiny crab tarts

Tiny crab tarts

The first starter was a dish of properly bitter raddichio with a drop of artichoke puree. The puree was nowhere near useful enough in cutting through the really singular bitterness of this red raddichio. Next was a neat little package of sous vide haddock, translucent and toothsome, with a neat cylinder of roast salsify and an unctuous smokey mousse. All great. But with a blob of celeriac remoulade on the side that had all the subtlety of industrial coleslaw. Jarring.

The rabbit I liked, very nicely sous-vided so that it was still deeply pink and as toothsome as the fish before. Paired well with a lobster foam and wrapped in… a delicate green pasta? I’m gonna be honest, I’m not sure! Nice dish. And the mushroom orzo in risotto style with little cubes of blue cheese was a really nice dish too. Two hits!

Haddock

Haddock

Sous vide trout was, like the haddock, a neat package of fish. Quite literally. Both fish still held the exact shape and edges of the vacuum bag they’d been cooked in. That just seems… clumsy. But hey, as long as it tastes good. It actually just tasted okay. The beetroot accompaniment was too earthy and rooty for the soft amber fish. And the fish was “roasted in burnt butter”? Maybe it briefly met a hot pan, but far too briefly to show.

I’ve got to have a pick at the main goose dish too. I really had to saw away at the roast goose, and that’s not a good sign. Just as with a normal Christmas dinner, the extra bits – the little sausage and the cube of stuffing – were much better than the main meat. So I suppose they’re just sticking with tradition…?

First dessert of pine curd topped with tart cranberries and pine granita was good, a lovely seasonal dish that I’d have preferred a double portion of, as the main dessert was a bit of a muddle of pistachio, passionfruit and chocolate. Not bad at all just a blur of flavours.

Pine custard

Pine custard

I’d want better for £75 a head before drinks. Incidentally, I liked their wine list – not super long but a good selection; we paired our meal with six good wines. There were enough good ideas and solid ambitious cooking here for me to want to give Pascere the benefit of the doubt, and maybe come back at a normal time of the year. Perhaps all restaurants with high aspirations should just ditch “Christmas menus” as too likely to compromise their high standards (and good name) with hastily devised menus straight-jacketed by a theme?

Hmm… and then again, check out how beautifully The Clove Club delivered seasonal delights to us last year!

Review: Bibendum, London

Stunning starter

Stunning starter

Our meal at Bibendum was quite an example of what a difference menu choices can make. Left to my own devices, I’d have probably given an unambiguously glowing review. But it was very clear that of the four of us I’d definitely made the best selections from the a la carte menu at Claude Bosi’s 2-star restaurant in the famous Michelin building.

The dining room is iconic, with fantastic stained glass windows of the slightly bizarre cigar-puffing fat tyre man of Michelin, a towering ceiling overhead, and elegant chairs tucked beneath crisp tablecloths. The service was the kind of silk-smooth smiling efficiency you’d expect from a 2-star classic French establishment (though not faultless; our main courses arrived pretty much on the back of our starters being cleared, and then afterwards we were left completely untouched for almost 30 minutes; we felt a little like a table of ghosts, watching the world of fine dining bustling around us).

So. Food.

Fantastic fish

Fantastic fish

There were some polite little amuse bouches. The liquorice-flavoured black sticky bun filled with salt cod was the stand-out specimen for originality and a flavour that lingered pleasantly with our wine. Tiny cone of foie gras icecream was meh. Though I freely confess to a huge “meh” on any attempt to chill foie gras.

My starter was an absolute stunner, visually and in taste. Duck jelly, tiny cubes of smoked sturgeon, and a generous dollop of caviar. The jelly was clear as a bell and pure umami, giving a beautiful earth edge to the salty caviar. And this was definitely the most classically beautiful plate of food I’ve seen in a long time. By complete contrast, Maureen’s pastry-coated sweetbread with pickled walnut jam was really quite an unrefined beast for such a refined table. Jolly good though. Tim’s golden beetroot terrine was a huge glowing amber brick of lovely beetroot with a smart mixture of blobs to add flavour pairings; the salty white feta especially good. Vanessa’s crab and apple I didn’t try; it was pronounced light yet unamazing.

Resplendent rabbit

Resplendent rabbit

On the main course I scored again, with a turbot grenobloise. The chunk of fish was cooked to toothy perfection, emerging from a fluffy cloud of brown butter foam. Hidden below the clouds, a bed of really dirty crushed potatoes, made super-filthy with plenty of burnt butter and something with a pronounced caramel flavour. My arteries creaked a song of pure joy. Maureen went for lobster in Singapore black pepper sauce. In hindsight, a mistake: 2 Michelin stars is never going to deliver the depth and power of flavour in a proper Singaporean black pepper sauce. Even so, this was very toned down. The pepper was there, and the sauce was fine, and that really was a splendid lobster tail. But…

Well, I guess that’s the contrast. Refined French cooking of a classic French gave me mouth-gasms, while refined French cooking of a classic Asian dish sucked the joy out of it and left behind another “meh”. Tim’s rabbit and langoustine dish was very excellent, and Vanessa also partook of the lobster and found herself wishing for some other element to vie with the single-minded lobster.

Magnificent meringue

Magnificent meringue

My dessert was a cep vacherin, which turned out to be a prickly golfball of pure white meringue filled with a delicate banana creme patissiere and sprinkled with cep powder. I enjoyed the novelty of the funky fungi flavour. All in all a good end. Others plumped for the chocolate souffle with Indonesian basil ice cream. This souffle was a monster, and the brush of shiny chocolate ganache over the perfectly raised surface was a good stroke. The ice cream cut the richness just enough.

So… Bibendum. For £90 per head without drinks (and there are very few wine bottles under £60) you’re getting absolutely classic French fine dining. For the food alone, it’s not great value – though my own choices came close to brilliance. This is experience dining though, and you’re also paying for the crisp tablecloths, the effortlessly elegant waiters and good ol’ Bibendum with his fat cigar. Depends what you’re after.

Mr Bibendum

Mr Bibendum

Review: Wilder, Nailsworth

Jacket potato soup

Jacket potato soup

Nailsworth officially has a restaurant empire. Just like Rick Stein in Padstow or Heston in Bray, chef Matthew Beardshall has now got no less than two… count ’em, two… restaurants in town! There’s the brilliant and relaxed Wild Garlic where we’ve always enjoyed great meals full of straight-forward good cooking, and now there’s Wilder which offers a higher-end tasting menu experience just a hundred yards down the road.

The menu is £70 for eight courses and, kinda like the Wild Garlic, the decor and the tableware doesn’t really flatter the menu. It’s pretty ordinary stuff and (I hate myself for saying this) ultimately I think some of the excitement and pleasure of an expensive tasting menu is where it’s served and what it’s served on. It might be that they’re planning on investing more when they know they’ve got a hit? Or that they just don’t have the touch for that aspect of dining.

Pork tenderloin

Pork tenderloin

Still, they certainly know how to dish up good food! The first amuse was a cup of jacket potato soup. And that’s exactly what it was. Absolutely no mistaking the rough earthen flavour of a jacket potato coming through the smooth gulp of soup. Clever. Paired with a tiny sobrasada toastie that absolutely hummed with its own deeply earthy pig flavour.

There were a trio of good starters with some neat ideas. Salt-baked parsnip with curd was lovely, the parsnip having a richly creamy texture to go with with its sweet/funk flavour. Home-cured salmon was delish, so was the roast and spiced cauliflower, though I wasn’t 100% certain the two really went together. Sweetcorn tortellini with a truffle emulsion made for another gently amiable dish, although the pasta was a bit thick; didn’t detract from the flavour at all, but I guess I had my “fine dining radar” on and this wasn’t refined.

The main was a beautiful piece of pork tenderloin, still toothy and pink but nicely glazed without. The five-spice gravy was good, though subtle. Butternut puree, cavolo nero and a blob of transparent apple sauce accompanied well.

Cheeeeese

Cheeeeese

The rest was a bit anti-climactic. The cheese dish included a few nuggets of spicy Hampton Blue served with pickled pear plus roast, crisp and puree’d jerusalem artichoke. Creamy puree was just weird with cheese. The pear had lost its sweetness in the pickle. Pre-dessert of coconut sorbet with charred pineapple was better, though a very sweet sorbet indeed. Dessert was from the blob school of tasting menu desserts. A quenelle of (good) chocolate ganache, a quenelle of very sweet blackberry sorbet, and two dollops of chestnut mousse. I liked all three flavours in combination but this was a texture-free plate and after a few mouthfuls just too sweet and rich to love.

The wine pairing was very reasonable and the wines very good and intelligently paired. Service was also lovely. But really I’ve got: starters that I enjoyed but didn’t knock my socks off, a main course that was pleasant, and a disappointing pud. That’s not a great investment of £70 per head without drinks. I’m going back to the Wild Garlic for an unfussy dinner I know I’ll love, and will wait quite a while before checking whether Wilder has turned up the volume on its tasting menu.

Review: Bwyta Bwyd Bombai, Cardiff

Proper cuppa chai

Proper cuppa chai

Some twelve years ago we went on holiday to India, and the most abiding memory that I came away with was the pleasure of a nice cup of chai. A cup of chai while choosing spices in Jodhpur market. A cup of chai while haggling over hand-bound books in Udaipur. A cup of chai after dinner in a royal palace in Bikaner. A cup of chai in our transit hotel in Delhi after a fraught day of culture shock.

So of course, it’s something I have always sought out back in the UK. Good chai is strong darjeeling tea with plenty of spices added, particularly cardamon, and the sheer strength is tempered with plenty of milk that has crucially been cooked along with the tea, and plenty of sugar. It is nigh impossible to find here. Even my beloved Chilli Pickle does a barely adequate chai, if I’m being really honest.

The chai at 3B’s (the abbreviated name of Bwyts Bwyd Bombai) flung me straight across twelve years and a few thousand miles back to a non-descript hotel in Delhi and a hot little cup of heaven.

Samosa and gravy

Samosa and gravy

And it doesn’t stop there. We had a plate of Dahi Puri, and although at first I thought they’d drowned the crisp little shells in yogurt, the sweet/sour taste of the chutneys mixed with the chickpea filling came warmly through. Next up was a samosa broken open and doused with chickpeas in a hot masala gravy, apparently a classic Bombay street dish (shouldn’t we be saying Mumbai these days?). The masala gravy was divinely deep and warm-hearted, a cheap-and-cheerful match to the exquisite gravy I had with grouse at the Painted Heron a while back. Another street classic was the Batata Vada, a potato cake that was crisp on the outside and silky-soft within. It was served with a powerfully roast-garlic flavoured powder and some astonishing chillies, frankly too powerful for anymore more than a nibble. For me, anyway. 3B’s never compromise authenticity, it seems. I could tell that the bright and fragrant mango lassi was made with the real fruit – it’s the huge noseful of fragrance that you get before even sipping it that gives it away.

At £20 for two people to eat and drink enough for a good lunch, 3B’s is irresistible value. The decor and furnishing is very rough and ready which, y’know, basically just reinforces the honest authenticity of it. The chef here has clearly lived and loved a life with Bombay street food, knows how to cook it, and isn’t going to muck about with compromises for a “British palate”. Good on ’em.

Dahi puri

Dahi puri

Review: The Cauldron, Bristol

In the Cauldron

In the Cauldron

The Cauldron boasts of being the first entirely “solid fuelled kitchen in the last 100 years” – basically, they cook everything using wood or coal to “remove their reliance on the big 6 energy providers”.

Don’t say it’s laudable. It’s not. If every restaurant in the UK switched to this approach we’d have lopped down the whole of the New Forest inside five years and there’d be new clouds of smog over every substantial city centre. That’s not really the point. The point is that it’s different, interesting, and provokes exactly these kind of discussions – generally, over lunch or dinner. It’s just as easy to pour scorn on hippies that choose to live in a forest commune, grow their own food and abandon the trappings of modernity. The world’s population is already way too large for pre-industrial ways of life to sustain everyone. But that those people exist, and choose to tell their stories in books and TV slots, is a very good thing because it provokes the right kind of conversations. The last thing we should do is sleepwalk our way into destroying the natural environment pole-to-pole and ourselves into the bargain.

The Cauldron’s website looks way hip, so the hand-painted sign above a bow-windowed shopfront with a couple of pub tables outside in a down-at-heel parade of neighbourhood shops is a bit surprising. But the welcome is warm and they accommodate our unannounced arrival by perching us at one end of a long table booked for five. To our pleasure (but no doubt to The Cauldron’s chagrin), the five never show up.

Sunday roast

Sunday roast

We are here for Sunday roast, and the plate that eventually settles before us is a smorgasbord of roasted things. I’ve chosen the mixed roast, so my plate includes roasted: beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, carrot, beetroot, banana shallot, sweet potato, yorkshire pud, cauliflower, greens and peas. The last three aren’t roasted but you get my drift! Love it. And I can report that all were roasted to perfection except for the carrot which was simply too huge to have cooked through and the pork which was drysabone. Outstanding was the beef: nicely pink sirloin, and it had been wood-smoked beforehand. If you like roast beef, you’ll love smoked roast beef! Also the beetroot, charred on the outside which gave it a coal-y sticky sweetness. Smashing cauliflower cheese – whatever cheese they chose, they chose wisely. The gravy was deep and good, but I should have asked for an extra boat as we just didn’t have quite enough.

And, genuine or psychosomatic, I really thought I could taste the tang of wood-smoke right through the whole lot.

And that’s your lot, we didn’t stop for pud. Decent glass of Rioja – all their wines are vegan, by the by. The roast was £15 and this is an excellent deal. The Cauldron brings a dose of originality and some solid cooking to an already eclectic Bristol dining scene. I’m looking forward to going back on a not-Sunday and tucking into their regular menu.

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