Review: Grillstock, Bristol

If you fancy a filthily good bit of BBQ in Bristol, then Grillstock have been doing it longer than most. Doing it longer than most places in London, for that matter. And just as with their slow-cooked smoked brisket: the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Oh… man, is their brisket good. It is so astonishingly mouth-wateringly soft, so packed with flavour, so very good. Inna bun, and just a proper ol’ bread bun, none of your buttery brioche nonsense. Their BBQ sauces are about the best I’ve ever had too, so I just kept dousing my brisket bun with it every other mouthful (they don’t dish you out a poncy portion of BBQ sauce, they just have big bottles of the stuff in the middle of the long communal table). I doused my fries with the sauce too. Their fries are bloody excellent, by the way.

Maureen had a burger topped off with chilli brisket. Beef on beef action! The chilli was splendid, you could really taste all the smokey, freaky, dried up chilli peppers that had been slowly cooked into it. The burger was a good’un, though of the cooked through variety.

All their burgers and buns are around the £8 mark. I can report their home-brewed pale ale is a great easy-drinking brew. I can’t imagine that there is a better BBQ to be had anywhere west of Pitt Cue.

Brisket inna bun!

Brisket inna bun!

Review: Hedone, Chiswick

Hedone

Hedone

Other restaurants have no trouble putting up a sample menu on their website, even if it almost certainly won’t be what you eat on the night. It just gives you an idea of the kind of thing you might find. The clue is in the word “sample”. That’s too forthcoming for Hedone. They don’t even give you a menu at your table because – this is neat – you may not actually be served what the table next door is served, if a particular ingredient were to run out for example. This is either pure spin (in which case, well spun Hedone!) or it’s a practice that other fine dining places should pick up, as it must be avoiding a lot of waste. I couldn’t tell, I didn’t pay much attention to what the other tables were served.

Umami custard

Umami custard

We were served a pretty brilliant 8 course tasting menu. The dining room is modern, warm wood and cool taupe, with artwork from the my-five-year-old-son’s school. The service was great, the wine list long on French and high on price; nothing came in under £50 that I could see. We had a good bottle of Chablis – although in my book an £80 Chablis ought to be more than “good”! Anyway, let’s clear that to one side and eat.

There is some really wonderful cooking going on at Hedone. Amuse bouches were good, including a spendid bite of ham and foie gras with peppy pimento jelly on top. The first little starter was a fish-chip, a single baton of very firm monkfish wrapped in a singularly crispy potato wafer. Somehow it managed to include that unique chip-shop flavour. I was bowled over by the second starter, a bowl of parmesan custard topped with a very umami broth with toasted chia seeds suspended in it. When you’ve eaten a hundred-and-one variations on the classics, unexpected (and bloody delicious!) combinations are hard to find.

The scallop

The scallop

Jaded, moi?

The next dish was crab, and another knock-out. Very unusual to see unrefined pieces of crab claw meat on a fine dining plate. These were topped with blobs of awesome hazelnut mayonnaise (I’m gonna make me some hazelnut mayonnaise!) and bathed in crabby broth with parsley oil and apple. Top notch.

Loved the single-mindedness of the next dish. It was a scallop, just barely blow-torched, then halved. A few leaves, tiny drizzle of innocuous (yuzu?) dressing. This dish lived or died by the quality of that scallop and it was an absolute beauty.

Salty lamb

Salty lamb

The main fish dish was a piece of cod with green olive sauce and fennel on the side. By now I don’t really need to say that the cod was a beautifully cooked piece and the sauce sang like a drunken shepherd on the hills of Crete, you get the idea – the kitchen at Hedone only puts out faultless dishes. Hmm. Then again, the splendid chunk of lamb for our main course was arguably just a little on the salty side. Lovely though, with artichoke and sea aster accompaniment. And I have to say, neither pudding knocked my socks off. The main pud was a warm chocolate mousse with a praline-dusted biscuit on top, and trendy though warm chocolate mousse is right now I’ve not had one yet that I would really call a mousse. Thick soup is more like it.

So, Hedone. Absolutely cracking cooking, loved it to bits. All the real whiz-bang star dishes were earlier in the menu, which is no real surprise to a jaded Michelin-fatted gastronaut like myself. But at £85 without drinks Hedone really stands toe-to-toe with the best in the country, and knocks spots off a bunch of old dogs around the same price. I’ll be going back.

Magic crab at Hedone

Magic crab at Hedone

Review: &samhoud places, Amsterdam

Riiiiiiiiiight

Riiiiiiiiiight

Some people just want to watch the world burn. Why else would you start the name of your restaurant with a piece of punctuation? There’s a word for that, and it begins with “pre-” and ends in “-tentious”. I was actually amazed that websites like Google Maps and Trip Advisor were quite happy with the “&” and searching for it didn’t crash the whole internet or set my phone on fire.

It goes without saying &samhoud places is a thoroughly modern restaurant, with big glass walls overlooking part of Amsterdam’s harbour. The staff are swift and professional and informative, friendly too. I should probably have stopped to find out whether the sommelier made a genuine mistake in bringing us the 100 Euro bottle of Chablis instead of the 69 Euro bottle I asked for, but since my wallet had already been thoroughly vaccuumed by the meal I didn’t want to spoil a pleasant evening with a fracas.

Langoustine

Langoustine

We chose the blow-out 8 course tasting menu for 170 Euros, rather than the 130 Euro for 5 courses. At that money we were anticipating gastronomic wizardry exceeding even our favourites like L’Enclume and Casamia. Especially given the hyperbole of the little “message from the chef” that we were given along with our first pre-starter. “For me, nothing is as spectacular as reaching a point where I realise there’s something bigger than myself. That may sound incomprehensible. But at &samhoud places, you can taste it.”

I tell you what, with my pretentious-bullsh*t-o-meter going into the red zone, chef really needed to pull something special out of the bag!

The hot Thai-spiced infusion that cleansed our palate was a good start, light and bright with basil and lemongrass. Then came three amuse bouches, tasty bites of flavour and texture but none of them visually awesome enough to stick in my mind a couple of days later. Next, a golden eggshell

Damien Hirst?

Damien Hirst?

filled with soft yolk and a punchy anchovy hit. Two more starters followed. Langoustine tartare with a dashi goop and a spoonful of Anna Gold caviar was a wonderfully silk and velvet texture but surprisingly subtle on flavour. Autumn vegetables “inspired by Damien Hirst” was some nicely arranged discs of root vegetables. Mainly I tasted beetroot. This dish needed some oomph from somewhere. “With the help of my bright flavours, I hope to be able to move you” the cheesy memo had said – I was unmoved.

Almost dish of the day: the cod, a beautifully cooked piece, which I never expected to go so well with apricot and Jerusalem artichoke. Followed by duff dish of the day: braised cabbage, parmesan and nutmeg with a lemony broth. The sturdy cabbage leaves used to structure the dish just overwhelmed the rest. Followed by actual dish of the day: wonderful hay-smoked sweetbread in a light broth with a dollop of perfect confit lemon chutney to make it sing. The oddly gooey veg accompaniment didn’t add much. Wine note: the sommelier provided a wicked glass of barn-flavoured gamay that went perfectly with this dish.

Smoked sweetbread

Smoked sweetbread

The first pud was a plate scattered with various chocolate things, all very tasty but nothing outstanding enough to stick in the mind for longer than it took to eat it. The second pud was much better, a towering millefeuille with pina colada elements of pineapple and coconut cream sandwiched among the leaves. Beautifully crisp pastry with nut-brown butter flavour, very good.

And so we did have a lovely meal, with scarcely a missed step or bum note, and a couple of decidedly splendid dishes. But I need to be more blown away for an eye-watering price like 170 Euros before drinks. The wine list didn’t deign to stoop below about 60 Euros either, so two people aren’t going to keep the bill under £300 even if they go for the 5 courses.

Gilded egg - metaphor?

Gilded egg – metaphor?

Review: The Plough, Kingham

Salt cod croquette to start

Salt cod croquette to start

Our latest destination for a Sunday lunch. Since autumn had properly begun, and the day was moist and grey with dazzlingly red and gold leaves on the ground, it felt like the right kind of Sunday to find a really proper wellies-by-the-door fire-in-the-grate kind of country pub. So the Kingham Plough was a great choice, all flagstone floors and scrub-top tables. There was a big fireplace with logs a-crackle in it, and a cheerful publican in shirtsleeves with ruddy cheeks behind the bar. The Cotswolds at their cheesily bucolic best.

My starter was salt cod croquette, served up in crunchy panko with a good citrusy salsa verde, a gleaming sliver of crispy fish skin and a daub of amiable smoked cod roe. Very nice dish. Followed up with roast venison, as a bit of a change. These were lovely slabs of pink meat, with good gamey

Roast venison!

Roast venison!

flavour to them. The dark poached pear made a very good relish. Cavelo nero, bread sauce, red cabbage, all very good and starting to make me think of Christmas. And I must make a special mention of their roast potatoes – if you like ’em crunchy, then these were the king of crunchy roasties.

Pud was good. Mine was a perfect milk and honey panna cotta, scattered around with bits of fat blackberry and raspberry. I wanted something light and this hit the spot. Maureen’s apple charlotte was a much better pub pud, deep in delicious warm cooked apple flavour and served up with a very good cinnamon ice cream that crowned the Christmas theme perfectly. I could hear the sleigh bells in the distance – it’s less that two months away now, after all!

We had a really good country pub Sunday lunch at the Plough. Then again… you’ll be paying £42 for three courses before drinks, so it really did have to be absolutely tip-top nosh. To my mind it doesn’t quite merit its price tag.

Milk and honey for pud

Milk and honey for pud

Review: Riverstation, Bristol

Splendid soup

Splendid soup

Bristol is working really hard to be as hip as London, and there are very cool eateries and drinkeries popping up all over the place. We ended our evening with cocktails at The Milk Thistle, a taxidermy-strewn private cocktail bar that must surely have been teleported from Shoreditch.

And in complete contrast, for lunch we stopped at Riverstation, a restaurant that has been serving modern British food since 1997 in the old River Police Station building overlooking the harbour. And actually, to be honest the clean modern decor and furniture (somewhat unforgiving seats) are looking a bit worn and in need of a spruce up. Nothing needs sprucing up about the food though.

My starter of garlicky sweetcorn veloute with outsized crunchy corn grains on top was monstrously good. Just full of warm, generous flavours, really splendid. Having polished the bowl off, I can’t imagine ordering anything different the next time I come for lunch.

Lovely bit of chicken

Lovely bit of chicken

Things got even better for mains, with a truly succulent quarter of roast chicken on top of a bed of cavelo nero and seeded freekeh. What now? Think of freekeh as a soft grain, like bulgar or quinoa, with a really beautiful nutty/earthy taste. The dollop of plum compote on top of the chicken was a really worthwhile addition, a great relish, rather than the hardly noticed afterthought such things often are. And with a really clear, rich gravy to boot I just can’t find anything to fault about this lunch.

Pudding was simply excellent too. A beautifully translucent piece of white wine poached pear, still holding a firm texture and having a warmly spiced taste. That would have been good enough, but it came with a scoop of bay leaf ice cream. Bay leaf! Ice cream! Why can’t I buy tubs of this stuff? Magic.

I didn’t have giant expectations of Riverstation. It doesn’t appear in any of the hit-lists and top-tens from all the hip blogs and articles about the dining scene in Bristol. But I’m willing to bet you won’t find much better for about £32 a head (three courses without drinks), especially not in the middle of the city. I’ve found my local favourite for Bristol city centre.

Poached pear, bay leaf ice cream

Poached pear, bay leaf ice cream

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