Review: Where The Light Gets In, Stockport

WTLGI

WTLGI

This is a restaurant that seems to polarise reviewers. I’m going to cut to the chase: my experience of Where The Light Gets In was in the “meh” category.

Yes, it’s achingly hip. The chairs are plain wood, no cushion, Scandi minimalist. Beards are prominent. In all this I agree with other reviewers. But then other reviewers typically go on to say “…but this is still the most exciting meal I’ve had all year” and that makes it all alright. Whereas I’ve had a small handful of meals recently that I’ve enjoyed more than WTLGI. Mind you, the smoked eel amuse bouche was exceptional. And the dining room and service are both strikingly welcoming!

Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the cooking is absolutely superb. I could call out the wonderfully cloud soft piece of cod, as white as snow and soft as silk. No-one could better that. Or the buttery dollop of celeriac that they’d wisely resisted pureeing. It’s about 200% celeriac. I think they’ve probably just gone a bit far in stripping it all back.

Cod

Cod

The flavour profiling here is deeply of-the-earth organic. It’s not meant to fizz & zing, or theatrically wow, or lusciously indulge, or take you on any crazy culinary journey. It’s meant to elicit a quiet grunt of satisfaction. Buttermilk ice cream and blood orange granita. I’ve had buttermilk ice cream before, but never wearing its sour farmyard lacticity so proudly on its sleeve. Hrnn. See? That’s a quiet grunt of satisfaction.

I can see why it divides reviewers. The main course exemplifies it. A slice of lovingly cured pork with a pronounced tang of fennel, soft and chewy and everso honest. Served with accompaniments in three little shared bowls: the aforementioned celeriac, some red cabbage, and grain mustard. Small bowls for four diners, we all had to be super-careful not to take more than our share. Nice mustard but… well, nice mustard. The celeriac was wizard. The red cabbage? Was some red cabbage.

Pork

Pork

The wine pairing took up the same theme. Lovely local beer to start. Then two biodynamic white wines of the “cloudy farmyard” variety, neither of which were any good (it’s not often I actually leave half a glass of wine!). The final three wines were great though, including a lovely biodynamic red from the Loire.

My conclusion is going to be a collaboration. Because I know and trust some of the critics who have enjoyed their “best ever X” at WTLGI, and I don’t imagine for a moment they’re mistaken. And even the photos on their blogs look more appetising than the menu we had. So what I think is this: if you’re going to have a frequently changing menu and you’re determined to push boundaries and you’re still in your first year, well, then I guess you’re not going to hit the high notes every night. And we maybe got unlucky. £75 each before drinks is either going to be money well spent or a bit of a waste, depending what you get.

I’m going to end by calling out the excellent service, though! The young team here love what they’re doing, and look after their guests superbly. I hope WTLGI only gets better from here on out.

Welcome

Welcome

Review: Hambleton Hall, Oakham

Hambleton Hall

Hambleton Hall

Fine dining has evolved a lot. And so it’s lovely sometimes to rock up at a country house hotel in the middle of nowhere, be settled by the fire and brought champagne, then taken through to a high-ceilinged dining room, seated at a white linen clad table, and served superb food and good wine by a highly polished but very friendly team of pros.

There’s no punchline, that’s just what Hambleton Hall has been doing for years, and is still doing brilliantly by my reckoning. Of course, it helped that the temperature outside was -5, that there was snow blanketing the fields and the lane we had to pad down with torches from our nearby pub B&B was treacherous with giant lake-sized puddles. That just made the arrival more cosy. Shout out to the Finch’s Arms; comfy rooms and good breakfast, if you can’t afford to splurge on a room at the Hall!

Smoked eel terrine

Smoked eel terrine

Getting back to dinner. Maureen’s starter was a terrine of beetroot and smoked eel, with a scoop of delightfully creamy horseradish sorbet. The terrine was a triumph, two flavours that go incredibly well together given over in a generous quantity that was as light as it was moreish. My starter, a fricasse of morels with a poached egg set on a punky garlic sauce that had been foamed up, was as richly pleasing as you’d expect. Still, Maureen won the starters.

We both went for hare wellington next, which just goes to show how brilliantly discerning we are. Because this was a monstrously good plate of food. Seriously, I am beyond words. Perfect pastry, perfect hare, perfect gravy, and a perfect rich hare ragu on the side. The veg was good too. But that wellington! I hereby declare that I could eat hare wellington every day until I keel over and die happy.

Hare wellington

Hare wellington

Pud we also both went for quince and honey souffle with caramelised almond ice cream. I cannot resist quince, even though I’m so often disappointed when overzealous cooking destroys that delicate, ephemeral perfume. Needn’t have worried, this souffle was perfumed to the max and the funk of honey is a really smart flavour to pair with it. I also want a lot more caramelised almond ice cream in my life.

And then we retired to the lounge for coffee and petit fours, as you do.

They looked after us beautifully at Hambleton Hall, and at £73 for the 3 course menu that counts as great value for the whole experience. The puddles and the cold couldn’t faze us on the totter back to our B&B, we had hare wellington to sustain us!

Moresl

Morels

Review: The Larder, Nottingham

The Larder

The Larder

I seldom order steak. Not because I don’t like steak. I do like steak. But I also like an interesting plate of food, an unusual vegetable, an exciting accompaniment, an inventive sauce. And yet no matter how wonderful and inventive the rest of a restaurant’s menu looks, the steak is always served with a f*cking side salad and chips. Every. Bloody. Time. Steak is clearly universally accepted as “the safe option” or “what unimaginative diners order” and so I seldom order steak. Sigh.

So how about the steak at The Larder? Well… yeah, f*cking side salad and chips! But never mind, because Maureen ordered it instead of me. And it was a stunning piece of meat, beautifully seared. I got to scoff some because my beloved can never quite get through a whole main course. And yet I also got to enjoy some gnarly haggis with champ, charred spring onions, and a peppy puddle of grain mustard gravy. So, double win.

Mackerel

Mackerel and kimchi

Our starter was a fillet of mackerel, the skin scorched until it had bubbled up to crispy goodness. Served on top of a stack of unabashed kimchi, gutsy and funky. I think I’ve done the mains, yeah? The steak really was the star of the show – an obscure cut, labelled as “spider steak” but that doesn’t seem to match what I find when I google it. The cut Maureen got was as soft and yielding as fillet, but with a very close-grained texture almost more like venison, almost livery. Mmmm.

Pudding was a green tea posset with a cardamom biscuit. Okay, so a posset is always going to be odd without the acidity of citrus to balance is, but this actually worked well; the usual sweetness toned down. The little shortbread biscuit had a good hint of cardamom in it.

Good wine list. We found a splendid Burgundy in the bin-ends, lucky us. And the bill of £26 for 3 courses before drinks is really good value, in particular the steak which is only a few quid more than the other mains.

Haggis

Haggis

Review: The Bower House, Shipston-on-Stour

The Bower House

The Bower House

I love a place that has its own ambience. Something deliberate, done well enough that you can really soak up the atmosphere. I am bored to bloody tears of “oh look, reclaimed floorboards walling. Oh look, scaffold tube and copper pipe as furnishing and lighting.” You get the feeling there must be catalogues for this stuff by now! Just as there are presumably catalogues for the “Cotswold gastropub look” or the “modern British fine dining look” (aka 50 Shades of Taupe).

The Bower House has atmosphere. Seen from outside on a winter’s night it looks classy and inviting, one room peacock blue with tiles, the other burgundy and wood, with shining brass complementing both. One room has an open wood stove, very inviting on a night like this! Service is excellent. A glass of wine gets forgotten until we prompt them, but then a complementary glass of sticky shows up later by way of apology. That’s how you win repeat customers.

The menu is decided and clear too: it oozes French-influenced classics from every pore.

Duck

Duck

My starter of duck liver pate with a fig and prune chutney was superb. Lovely sourdough toast, crisp and soft at the same time. The pate smooth and rich, lurking beneath a shining clear jelly of dark chestnut-coloured umami. My only possible complaint was that this would have been plenty as a main course! Maureen’s mussels were also a mighty portion, but mighty good too, served in a soothingly earthy celeriac broth that was just bang-on with the plump shellfish.

My main was a jolly single-minded affair. Mountains of devilled veal kidney with a saffron risotto on the side. Again, splendid pairing. The risotto was sinfully rich and gooey, the rice still having bite, the saffron pronounced and sunny. The kidney was gently cooked, the gravy tangy and sweet. For myself, I like my devilled dishes to have a very proper KICK and to be honest that was lacking. But since I loved the whole plateful, I’m really spltting hairs! Maureen’s roast duck with sprouts and black pudding was also a fine dish, tied together by an excellent gravy. There was zero attempt to gussy-up or garnish these dishes, and I liked that.

Veal kidney

Veal kidney

I couldn’t resist trying the tarte tatin, even though I was already stuffed to bursting. They’ve twisted the classic; a disk of properly nut-brown and buttery pastry with a whole roasted apple on top, along with dark caramel sauce. After such a feast I really appreciated the reversal of the fruit-to-pastry ratio, and it was still 100% a tarte tatin in flavour and pleasure.

I love what they’re doing at The Bower House. There are not enough good restaurants out there keen to offer you simply superbly cooked classics, served in a convivial atmosphere with some decent wine. I think I’d drag people here in preference to the score or so of perfectly fine gastropubs in the vicinity, just for the sake of something different! You should drag yourself here too, next time you’re in the Cotswolds or tooling along the M40 and in need of a good feed.

Review: Horse and Groom, Bourton-on-the-Hill

Sardines on bread

Sardines on bread

The Cotswolds are positively awash with gastropubs. You’re surely no more than fifteen minutes drive from a Harden’s entry no matter where you are around here. Having not had a Sunday lunch out for a while, we decided to check out yet another one; the Horse and Groom, perched up in Bourton-on-the-Hill.

It’s certainly a handsome pub, inside and out, with thick beams and bare stone walls, an eclectic mix of scrub-top tables and a good selection of beers at the bar. Along with the obligatory collection of artisanal gins, of course! Some nice choices. Shame the barman empties the entire 200ml bottle of tonic into the glass with Maureen’s single shot. The list of wines by the glass isn’t particularly thrilling.

Tomato salad

Tomato salad

But we’re here for the roasts. Starters first, and the choice is short and trad. Maureen picks a heritage tomato salad, an odd thing to find on in February, and it is what it is. My sardines are good, skilfully butterflied and gently fried. Served on a slice of simple wholegrain bread that has gone soggy from the leaf salad under the fish.

We’re on better ground with the roasts. My lamb rack is full of flavour, pink within and firmly juicy. The gravy is outstanding. The yorkshire pud is a fine specimen, fluffy and crispy. Roast potatoes are big lumps and just fine. Veg is simply boiled. Not to death, there’s just enough bite to them, but there isn’t anything remotely interesting about them either. Maureen’s beef knocks my lamb into a cocked hat. It is an absolute dream of beef. Silken. Beefy. Perfect.

Lamb rack

Lamb rack

Sticky toffee pudding: a light and moist specimen, good enough to eat, the caramel sauce a bit over-sweet. Lemon posset: lovely example, and I like the diced tropical fruit crumble topping.

It’s a reasonable £28-30 for three courses without drinks. Seems about right to me. In my head I’ve lodged the Horse & Groom as: “if I’m ever in this part of the Cotswolds and in need of a bite to eat, this will do just fine.” You can call that damning with faint praise if you like!

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