Review: My Sichuan, Oxford

My Sichuan, Oxford

My Sichuan, Oxford

Oxford seems to have a thing for good, cheap oriental dining. All of the big London critics have snuck out to academia and waxed lyrical about Zheng, SoJo, Oli’s Thai and My Sichuan. So what better to sandwich in between the sketches of Raphael at the Ashmolean and a film at the indie Ultimate Picture House than a bite to eat at My Sichuan?

It’s great venue, an old school house of Oxford stone with little original features like the stained glass windows depicting nursery rhyme scenes. The dining room details – furnishing, crockery, service – are absolutely straight out of every other basic Chinese restaurant you’ve ever been to; basic seating, chipped teapots, and staff who can only get your order right if you point to it on the menu. But that’s all to the good, who rates style over substance anyway?

Duck tongues

Duck tongues

Okay, so then I skipped past all the probably amazing slow-roasted lamb dishes and picked a dish described as “black pudding with vegetables in chillies”. And because of some very fond memories of a Sichuan restaurant in Birmingham, I chose duck tongues in spicy sauce for a second dish. To balance, we also went for aubergine in spice and Chinese spinach with garlic. And rice, of course.

The duck tongues weren’t as good as the ones I enjoyed in Brum. There was an ambiguously fragrant flavour, the yielding little bits of meat were fine, but the overall experience was of oil. And really that was the overall experience of the whole meal. The Chinese spinach with garlic I really rather likes. The aubergine pieces were both sweet and spicy, but became a struggle as my throat kept telling me just how much oil they had soaked into them.

Black pudding?!

Black pudding?!

The black pudding dish was oddest of all. And here I can’t really cry foul; no doubt this is exactly what a Sichuan native would expect, it just rather threw me. The black pudding was indeed black, but it had the texture of fresh tofu and no discernable flavour at all. Disappointing. The dish (a huge bowl, really a tiny swimming pool) also contained a number of pieces of… well… spam. Yeah, pretty certain it was spam. The final meaty components were some long and convoluted pieces of peppery and flavoursome tripe. And these were, I must say, reeeeeeally good. Underneath all the protien lurked a whole bag of beansprouts – the “vegetables” of the description. And the broth this all swam in was generically spicy and, you guessed it, fairly oily.

I mean, you can’t fault My Sichuan for a menu laden with authentic offal-heavy oddities. I’ve never been to China, but I can imagine diving into a cheap Sichuan restaurant in a big city I’d probably find something similar. And if all the reviews from the big London papers are true, it sounds like we really missed out by skipping their more familiar slow-roast meats (and I’d be willing to go back and give it another try). But please don’t go expecting something modern, thoughtful or balanced – My Sichuan is Chinese, old school.

Review: The Chagford Inn, Chagford

Trotter on toast

Trotter on toast

I’m a sucker for anything a bit different. At The Chagford Inn they do nose-to-tail proper country style. They source a Dexter ox from a farmer a mile down the road, and then they take about ten days to work through him from nose-to-tail, changing their menu as they go along. Tonight they had heart on, as well as tail, liver, rump, and fillet. I’m sold.

Chagford is packed with pubs, inns and restaurants offering good-looking menus. Ridiculously so for a tiny Dartmoor town, but then it is next door to Gidleigh Park and also bucolic as heck. The Chagford Inn is a cosy and relaxed place, still looks like a pub though obviously the food is probably the main part of what they do. Service was great and they’ve got a great list of wines by the glass. So… food!

I went for pigs trotters and prunes on toast to start. The mixture of funky, gunky trotter chopped up with sweetly dark prune and diced veg was a really top combo for dedicated adherents to the cult of St John. I loved it. On the other hand, the toast beneath had quickly become soft and squodgy. Fried bread might have stood up better. Who cares, lovely dish.

Have a heart!

Have a heart!

Maureen’s starter of salt cod brandade with arancini and gazpacho was just perfect for the summer, bright flavours and a great clash of textures between the crunch of the tiny arancini and the smooth creamy brandade. Honestly, hardly very Devonian or beefy though!

So she followed it with sliced beef heart, white anchovies and aioli. That was as good as it sounds, the seared beef heart full of flavour and a really toothy bite without being at all chewy. My dish was a strange fellow; ox liver with baked goat cheese and figs. This came with batons and finely chopped courgette and tomato, and they did make rather odd bedfellows for the fresh fig. To be honest, so did the liver. Lovely piece of liver though, well cooked and great to devour. I’ll even buy the goat cheese with it. The fruit n veg were just too wimpy for the powerful offal.

Too stuffed for pud, we wandered out happy with our dinner. Three courses would be around £32 per head, and I’m gonna say that’s about right. It’s a menu with bags of originality, even if not every dish was faultless. And in particular if you like your nose-to-tail eating then this has to be a destination for anyone visiting Devon!

Liver n cheese

Liver n cheese

Review: The Woodspeen, Newbury

My dining buddy

My dining buddy

I never thought I’d actually live the cliche: “waiter, there’s a slug on my lettuce!” And to be fair, it was actually on the leaves of the baby radish that we had to nibble with our bread, so not actually lettuce. And it was a tiny slug, though very much alive. I did call the waiter over, and told him that the little guy would probably be happier back in the garden. He took the radish stalk off to show to one of his colleagues and then my slug friend disappeared and was never mentioned again.

If I’m gonna be honest, I was kinda expecting an apology or some kind of acknowledgment. The Woodspeen boasts a Michelin star, after all, and I can’t picture the Michelin inspector handing out stars if he got an unwanted gastropod on his plate. Seriously, if a guest finds something like that, even if they don’t make a fuss about it some reassurance would be nice. You can bet my parents and Maureen checked every bit of salad and garnish on every dish for the rest of the meal!

So what else can I tell you about The Woodspeen?

Lobster platter

Lobster platter

Well, it’s a big, bright dining room in a lovely country setting, wood decor, comfortably modern furnishing and a fine big open kitchen. Service was friendly and refined, though there were a couple of minor hiccups (e.g. being served our starters before we’d ordered wine). The wine list was good, plenty of variety and a friendly range of prices.

My starter was a black pudding terrine, with a large square of dense belly pork in the centre and chewy pieces of dried apple embedded in the black pud. It came with dressed leaves and some very good little sweet/sour gooseberries. Also with some strips of crackling that didn’t – they were chewy. Overall, unamazing. Maureen’s mackerel starter was much better by comparison, the mackerel really smokey from its grilling, the pickled veg accompaniments and dollops of guacamole making an effective combo.

Veal and sweetbread

Veal and sweetbread

For main I picked veal. Juicy and well-cooked slices, a deeply flavoured jus, and a very neat accompaniment of spicy date puree. There were more good bits to pick at too. A lovely piece of battered sweetbread with a super herby flavour. Skinny little whole roasted carrots. And a slippery little charred onion sitting on top of a wafer-thin disc of pastry (called an “onion tart” on the menu – hopefully not with a straight face). Really solid dish overall. Maureen shared a lobster dish for two with my brother, and really it was a bit of an oddity. The main event was a lobster gratin with a barbecued lobster claw. Served with a salad of heritage tomatoes, crab and burrata. Served with big triple-cooked chips in a chip-shop paper cone. Burrata and chips? Burrata and lobster, for that matter? I just couldn’t see this as anything but three unrelated elements, and reports from over the table agreed.

Homemade cheeses

Homemade cheeses

Puds. Well, I went with cheese because two of the cheeses were homemade. Mmm… really delighted by the beetroot-washed goat cheese, it had an unashamedly pungent goaty flavour and the colour is unique. Their sharp blue had a strong tang, jolly good, and they picked a real quality gruyere to finish the trio. Crispy flatbread, lush pickle, I was happy. Maureen’s strawberry brulee was also good, though it is truly monstrous to deconstruct a brulee and deny your guests the privilege of cracking the crispy top!

So there we go. It was a 50/50 meal – half the dishes really jolly good, the other half not so great. You’ll be looking at £45 for three courses, and at that price I’d have probably wanted everything a notch better. Of course, I have to face the possibility that finding Mr Slug set the tone for the evening, but then if you don’t handle something like that well you’ve got to expect it to dent your guest’s enjoyment.

Review: The Cellar, Anstruther

The Cellar, Anstruther

The Cellar, Anstruther

Have you visited the east of Scotland? Not Edinburgh. Not the majestic Highlands or the wild Islands, not Stirling or Loch Ness. But the surprisingly fertile swathe north and east of Edinburgh that includes places like Dundee and Perth and St Andrews. You should. It’s dotted with evocative medieval castles, truly ancient monuments, gnarly little towns of old red stone, and a bunch of gritty working ports and fishing harbours. The jewel in the crown might be the “East Neuk” of Fife, a string of beautiful cobbled fishing villages. You could be mistaken for thinking yourself in Devon, except that it’s far less crammed with tourists. To be fair, it’s also far less crammed with cafes serving a decent flat white, which makes searching out the little gems more satisfying.

Which brings me to The Cellar in Anstruther. Okay, so we searched it out and booked beforehand, but it’s a gem. Innocuously hidden down a little courtyard off a tiny back road just beyond the harbour, inside is a cosy dining room with plenty of bare stone and dark wood (the “cosy” lighting level is my excuse for grainy photos!). Service was friendly and unstuffy, the wine list was fairly short and sensible; hardly wandering into three digits even at the top of the reds. They serve a tasting menu with a couple of options along the way.

Crab n asparagus

Crab n asparagus

So we began with a couple of nibbles, the best being a quails egg wrapped in crispy filo strands and set on a blob of very punchy lovage mayo; great to get the full flavour of the herb. First starter was a lovely combo too, little unctuous chunks of ox tongue with diced pickled cucumber, hidden under a pea and mint mousse with some great tarragon-flavoured scrunchy bits on top. Yes, scrunchy bits is a technical term. Second starter matched the first for pleasure; white crab meat, a bright dashi with plenty of depth, and a really effective asparagus foam. It’s not often a foam wins me over.

Maureen then went for a beetroot dish pepped up with flavours of charcoal oil, goat cheese and basil. I only tried a nibble, nice combo. My dish included a very neat piece of cod, a dramatic and tasty squid ink dressing and baby gem lettuce. The whole thing was very good to eat. My main course was also beautiful to look at, beef with charred grelot onions, pickled raddichio, blobs of black garlic puree and a scattering of blue

Cod n squid

Cod n squid

cheese crispy puffs. Another technical term, that is. The combination of flavours was really satisfying and very nicely balanced. I’m gonna admit to actually not being bowled over by the piece of beef itself – just didn’t get bags of flavour out of it, and it was fairly dense to boot. Bit of a shame for an otherwise excellent dish.

Absolutely nothing wrong with Maureen’s main, though. Beautiful piece of halibut, cooked to a tee, served with a really slick lemony emulsion, fat local mussels, and a wonderful char-grilled leek with parmesan blobs on. Dish of the day.

There was a very pleasing first pud, a barley flavoured cream with a gentle hay sorbet and little pings of crispy honeycomb on top; just enough to not overpower the softer flavours beneath. Second pud was one of those seldom memorable tasting menu chocolate concoctions, absolutely nowt wrong with it though. In fact our whole meal was excellent, and at £60 each I’d say it’s really spot on for the sheer quality of the cooking, the interest in the dishes and the lovely surroundings. Anstruther might be the prettiest spot on the east coast of Scotland, so there’s two reasons to come.

Beef n onion

Beef n onion

Review: Norse, Harrogate

Sea trout

Sea trout

Well, guess what? Norse is a modern Scandinavian restaurant. They give it away with the name, really. Although looking back on the meal there’d be nothing wrong with calling it a modern British restaurant, because frankly all the fantastic northern European ingredients they focused on are all found right here on our shores. Some lovely hen of the woods, kohlrabi, sea buckthorn, mackerel, celeriac. I can’t think of anything specifically Nordic, except of course that it was places like Noma in Copenhagen that kickstarted this whole focus on the great flavours we have on our doorstep.

The decor is very pleasingly Scandinavian, with smoothly sculpted scrubbed wood tables, muted neutral tones and simple, delicate crockery. Service was friendly and helpful, and they’ve got a nice selection of wines by the glass – we found a pecorino that paired really well with the savoury flavours. They’ve organised the menu as tasting plates – some small, some larger, and they suggest three per person which turned out about right.

Hen of the woods

Hen of the woods

My first dish was hasselback potatoes with Quickes cheddar. This was one of those “I don’t know what else I was expecting” dishes. It was a sliced and roasted potato with a melty chunk of cheese draped on top. I don’t know what else I was expecting! Though the bitter swipe of bright green lovage puree added a good third dimension to it.

Next was mackerel tartar, set on a base of jersey royals and smoked beetroot (though I couldn’t find much smoke myself). You just can’t go wrong with beetroot, mackerel and potato. And the third dish was a splendid little piece of sea trout, jazzed up with crispy and juicy bits of apple and green strawberry and given a strong seaside tang by an oyster emulsion. Served in a deep little bowl which made it oddly tricky to eat, but really delish.

Then we ordered coal-baked kohlrabi with a sweet mushroom puree. Sounds odd, but was jolly good. The kohlrabi was great, the surface really well charred to bring some life to the mild, juicy brassica flavour beneath. Best yet. Almost beaten by a really smashing chunk of hen-of-the-woods mushroom, kissed with the taste of the Josper (or whatever) grill it had been cooked on. This came with asparagus and neat little pillows of a soft goat cheese I’d never come across before: Yellison’s. Some generous slivers of truffle made a great finishing touch. And so to the final dish; a great piece of hake given a really beautiful crust in the pan, with char-grilled lettuce heart, roast celeriac, sea veggies and a veeeeeery creamy good fish bone broth to bring all the flavours together.

Smashing hake

Smashing hake

That was dish of the day. Puddings were good. A chocolate ganache (maybe a tad overset?) served with silky soft jerusalem artichoke ice cream. And a sea buckthorn tart, thin and crisp pastry, with an equally lovely cardamom ice cream on the side. The tart could definitely have been given a braver sweet/tart contrast given how puckeringly sharp sea buckthorn is. Still, nice finish.

You’ll probably pay £30 each for dinner before drinks. I think that’s really excellent value for the top-notch cooking and the thoughtful and inventive menu they’ve got going on at Norse. Was I in Harrogate again any time soon, I’d definitely come back.

Sea buckthorn tart

Sea buckthorn tart

Page 4 of 48« First...23456...102030...Last »