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!

Review: Whatley Manor, Easton Grey

Tofu and caviar

Tofu and caviar

The infusion of Japanese and east Asian ingredients and techniques into modern British high-end dining is in full swing, and the work of chef Niall Keating at Whatley Manor is a pretty spiffy example.

Lime and parmesan crackers were a great start: two ingredients I don’t think I’ve ever seen listed together, but the perfumed lime and nutty parmesan married really well. A couple of nibbles later, a beautiful piece of turbot balanced on a crisp wedge of pear was less of a happy marriage. It sorta makes sense on paper, but the scrunch of the fruit was all wrong with the toothy piece of raw fish.

Tuna and kimchi

Tuna and kimchi

That was a rare mis-fire, though. I particularly loved a white disc of silken tofu, like a savoury pannacotta, with a scoop of Exmoor caviar on top and a warm chicken broth because tofu loves umami. Raw tuna and kimchi in a delicate pastry basket was my “ok, I’ll take ten of these!” dish. Genuinely impressed with how little they’d toned down the funky kimchi hit, given how often a crisp white tablecloth is taken as an excuse to take all the punch out of oriental sauces and combinations.

We enjoyed about a dozen courses in all. The main of pigeon was less exotic than the preceding starters, but beautifully cooked with a charred lettuce accompaniment and a good, deep, gravy. Big fan of the pre-dessert; a good clementine sorbet with generous black truffle shavings and a couple of shiso leaves. Now that’s what I call fusion! The main dessert was a very pretty apple dish.

Pigeon

Pigeon

Shout out to Whatley’s sommelier, who was very helpful and really knows his stuff. The wine list was on the expensive side, perhaps not surprisingly, but our selections all turned out to be superb. The tasting menu is £110 without wine. It’s also worth mentioning that Whatley Manor is an elegantly bucolic spot for a meal. From my experience, it’s a menu high on invention, and if a few of the plates aren’t quite masterful yet then that’s quite made-up for by the obvious love of experiment. I’d say the price is fair and I’d recommend a special trip.
Apple pud

Apple pud

Review: Mowgli, Birmingham

Chat bombs

Chat bombs

I love the arrival of Indian streetfood in the UK. It’s such a breath of fresh air after the decades of meat-in-sauce curry house cooking that was all you could find anywhere unless you went for the handful of fine dining Indians that started to appear in the late 90’s.

That said, I found Mowgli to be a terrific disappointment. I’m reviewing my second visit, but the different dishes I had on my first gave me the same impression. Part of the disappointment, perhaps, is just that I really wanted to love them, as they seem to have an earnest and honest presence on social media while they start to expand themselves beyond their apparently much-loved birthplace in Liverpool.

Mowgli

Mowgli

So, we start with chat bombs. And they are nice, light, crisp shells. But the filling is mostly sweet and creamy, nowhere near enough fire and sour to balance it out. Our other pick from the street food side is treacle tamarind fries. Well… not really fries, they are chunks of potato. They might have been sauted, but the sticky coating has removed any crispiness. Certainly sticky and treacly, but again sweet is the main flavour with not enough sour tamarind to balance it. An entire dish of them is just a bit much.

On to mains. In spite of the cute “it’s street food, it arrives when it’s cooked!” message from our server at the outset, on both my visits it basically goes starters (the street food) and then mains (the rest of the menu). They could just say that.

Tomato-y potatoes

Tomato-y potatoes

The house keema is… mince, with some chickpeas, and a generic spicy gravy. I really had hoped it might hum with flavour and build warmth in my mouth. It’s inoffensive. The potato curry is poor. It’s chunks of potato in a tomato sauce. In fact, it’s exactly the same as the first potato curry I ever made as a student. An attempt I was very disappointed with, even all those years ago, because it didn’t taste like a proper curry; it just tasted like cooked tomato with some heat.

The rice and breads are fine. The rose and cardamon lassi is good enough, though the cardamon flavour is very hard to detect. The dining room is beautiful, modern, fun, and has people queuing up to get in. It’s a nice place for a bite to eat with friends. If you are an aficionado of great Indian cooking, it’s not for you. Check out 3Bs in Cardiff!

Tamarind fries

Tamarind fries

Review: Bellita, Bristol

Pulpo!

Pulpo!

I’ve already reviewed the classic Bell’s Diner, an absolute pin-perfect neighbourhood bistro. And now I’m jotting down a few words about their other outpost in another Bristol neighbourhood: Bellita. A bit more bijou, more of a bar with a menu, but every bit as adept with the Mediterranean small-plates.

We had a masterfully cooked bit of octopus, truly generous chunks of tentacle with exactly the right meaty texture. The smoky aubergine puree with olives and lemon would have been an excellent tapa on its own but accompanied the cephalopod perfectly.

Panisse are more of a snack: soft little chunks with a crispy polenta-dusted exterior and a creamy soft interior. Dressed with an anchovy and vinegar dressing they are insanely moorish.

Turnip

Turnip

And then there’s an entire white turnip, presented whole and steaming. Of course it is soft and wet inside, terrifically soothing with the gentle sour brassica tang at the back. The salad of winter leaves with persimmon and hazelnut is tasty as a side dish.

Finally, the star of the show. Hake head with aioli. Seeing that on the board I couldn’t not order it. I had no idea he’d be such a monster! Not something I’d like to meet in his element. But on a plate I can cope, and by the time I’d skilfully picked and winkled around the bony skull I had a pile of silky translucent meat bigger than a handsome fillet and arguably more tasty (and all for a fiver – how crazy is that?).

Bellita is just as good as Bell’s and just as great value. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either to anyone needing a great bite to eat in Bristol.

Haaaaaake!

Haaaaaake!

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