Review: Auberge du Lac, Herts

It was a gorgeous autumn day, crystal blue sky and sun-dappled trees with a scurf of fallen leaves at their feet. The Auberge du Lac with its splendid lakeside setting were thus shown off to perfection. The Auberge is an old red-brick hunting lodge and inside they have a readily familiar country house style dining room with a conservatory addition. It’s a very satisfying place to arrive at for a celebratory meal of any kind (happy birthday sis!).

Now, can any industry insider please tell me, is it common practise to use your least competent or trainee staff for lunchtime sittings? Because this meal reminded me so much of our lunch at the Vineyard at Stockcross. Both Michelin star restaurants, both well-reviewed more generally, and both offering up clumsy and inattentive service on our outing there. I won’t bore you with all the individual infractions, that would be a dull list. But there were at least six, and it really isn’t normal at a Michelin establishment to have to get up from the table to go and find someone for the bill.

One of the service goofs was at least funny. The Auberge du Lac were celebrating the start of white truffle season with a couple of special dishes added to their luncheon menu. But unfortunately our waitress didn’t know which way up the truffle slicer went. Maureen ended up with scattered crumbs and lumps across her linguine after the girl’s brutal attempts to slice the truffle using the wrong side. She had spotted her mistake by the time she served my father, and came back around the table to casually slip a couple of proper slices on Maureen’s dish. Wrong! Yes they’re white truffles, and yes you’ll get a bollicking for using up extra to rectify your mistake. But this dish carries a £20 supplement and the diner is going to feel short-changed with two sliced and some naff crumbly bits.

Truffles aside, my starter was a lovely slippery piece of cured mackerel with a tiny beignet of smoked eel on top that packed a good punch. The pickled carrot and turnip was an appropriate addition but a little sharp.

My main course was a very good piece of slow-cooked mutton, still red through and with a thoroughly hill-farmish taste. It came with a pleasant parsnip purée and cabbage. Maureen’s truffled linguine was good, though so simple as to only be interesting for a truffle connoisseur. Across the table my brother had the best dish; monkfish with confit duck leg and ras el hanout, which he declared perfect.

My dessert was a trifle disappointing. It wasn’t a trifle. It was a blackberry tart with a wee scoop of tangy granny smith sorbet and some autumn fruit. The trouble was the tart, which had certainly been stained with blackberries but which hadn’t picked up any flavour from the fruit that I could find. Others chose the cheese trolley, which was extensive and good, or a chocolate marquise that was deemed tasty.

You can probably predict my conclusion. The food was generally delicious and always competent, but nothing terribly memorable in combinations or ingredients. The Auberge is a beautiful setting for a celebratory meal but may not be a great culinary destination for gastronomes to make a special journey. We paid a very reasonable £35 per head for the lunch menu. I’m sure the poor service was just a patch of bad luck, but it would have been better if the maître d’ had offered an apology rather than just suggesting that next time we book a private room for “such a large party”. A family, of seven.

Review: Aragon’s, Ludlow

You can divide people into two groups: those who like dividing everything into two groups, and those that don’t. Yes, I’m firmly in the first category. So…

I reckon you can divide cafes into two groups: those that are run by people who love food, and those that are run by people who want to make a living and can see that people require lunch and snacks. And there are definitely some key indicators you can use to identify which group a café falls into. It’s nothing as obvious as “the food is better”. Here’s my ready reckoner to help identify when you’re in a café that doesn’t give a stuff about food:

  1. Apple juice. If it looks and smells like cat wee, and was obviously pressed out of concentrate from the EU apple mountain and sold in a cash and carry, you know they don’t care.
  2. Pepper. When you have a little pot of sneeze-powder on your table, and nothing to get freshly ground black pepper out of
  3. SOS salad with everything. Same Old Stuff salad; lettuce, red & green pepper, tomato, cucumber. Usually with gloopy vinaigrette.
  4. Squirty cream. The only valid use of squirty cream is sexy bedroom hijinks. Put it anywhere near food and you’re in my bad books.

See? It’s all about basic choices, not the quality of the cooking itself. That said, in general terms you’d be lucky to get really good food at café that doesn’t care, and you can count yourself unlucky to be served rubbish by one that does.

In Ludlow I’d definitely put Aragon’s in the don’t-care category. The cat-pee apple juice was our first clue. My pot of tea was weak as dishwater and tasted like it. And Maureen’s panini came with prime SOS salad. So it was no real surprise that the steak in her panini was over-cooked and the filling generally niggardly and unbalanced. I had the Sunday roast; the beef was cooked to a uniform allotment-dirt brown and it was served with serially over-boiled vegetables. You’ve got to boil fairly vigorously to get round carrot slices floppy. Almost criminally, the beef was actually of very good quality and likely from a local butcher.

Which brings me to the “local produce” label. These days that label is about the easiest thing to stick on a sign or a menu and imply that you love food and care about what you’re serving. But it don’t mean beans, so don’t trust it.

I ought to feel guilty about giving Aragon’s such a slating when our lunch was at least essentially edible and didn’t cost the earth. But I don’t. Not when there are two other cafes in Ludlow that I can name without blinking (Green Café, French Pantry) who serve lunches in exactly the same price range that are immeasurably better. And they stock proper apple juice and even make a decent cup of tea.

So come on Aragon’s, up your game. You can actually save a bit of money by taking the roast out of the oven a bit earlier and halving the time you spend tormenting your veggies. Unfortunately, you’re nicely situated right on the main square of a popular little tourist town and I suspect you don’t really care.

UPDATE: check out the comments – more people have written to defend Aragon’s than any other review on my blog, so I may very well have had an unlucky visit. Give ’em a try! If nothing else they’re a local independent restaurant in a small town.

Guacamole recipe kicks ass

I like my guacamole more than any other guacamole I’ve ever tasted. That’s a proud boast, and so you’ll just have to try this recipe if you think you know a better one and want to burst my over-inflated ego.

So, first things first. Don’t you dare bring any mayonnaise near this lovely avocado! It’s a beautiful creamy fruit containing its own oil, so why would it need any of that oily gloop? And secondly, no food processor. Nope. You mash this fella by hand, show it some love. More importantly I think guacamole is much better with a bit of chunky texture to it, not just a smooth puddle. Otherwise, feel free to play around with the ingredients if this recipe doesn’t meet your taste…

Guacamole
Makes a bowl of dip, or accompaniment for 4 bowls of chilli
2 small/medium avocados
1 small clove garlic, crushed
½ tsp coriander + cumin (dry-fry seeds and then grind them)
½ lemon, the juice thereof
pinch of salt, pinch of pepper
tiny splash of tabasco
tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander

  1. Mash all the ingredients together in a bowl
  2. Add a little more lemon juice if needed
  3. Try not to eat it all when you’re checking the seasoning ; )

Not really a difficult recipe. The one thing I can’t help you with is finding a ripe avocado in England. Markets are probably best. Supermarkets have an atrocious habit of buying rock hard avocados which sit on your sideboard completely unripe for a week and then progress directly to rotten. Expensive though it is, if I have to I’ll go for the supermarket’s ‘perfectly ripe’ packaged avocados; they’re usually the only hope.

Devilled mushrooms (or kidneys)

Of course I’d rather be devilling kidneys. I love a plate of devilled kidneys with some nice buttered toast, it makes me feel like Bertie Wooster. But I got a huge box of mushrooms at Ludlow market this morning for £3.50 and so the crystal ball is showing a number of mushroom suppers in the immediate future. And if you happen to be vegetarian or just fussy ’bout offal then mushrooms make a perfectly good kidney replacement. Hm. Re-reading that sentence, I hope the NHS doesn’t pick up this blog.

Serves 2 as a light supper
2 good handfuls of mushrooms or 4-5 lamb’s kidneys, quartered
knob of butter
2 tsp Worcester sauce
2 tsp tomato puree
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp English mustard powder
pinch cayenne pepper
4 tbsp chicken stock (or veg stock)
glug of port, maybe 3 tbsp or so

  1. Mix everything except the mushrooms and port in a bowl
  2. Fry the mushrooms in a frying pan until they’re starting to release juices
  3. Tip on the dressing and cook the mushrooms in it for a couple of minutes
  4. Lift out the mushrooms and leave them aside in a bowl
  5. Pour the port in the pan and reduce the sauce for a few minutes
  6. Add the mushrooms back in, mix for a minute, then serve with buttered toast

The best mushrooms to get for this are whole small button mushrooms, but bigger mushrooms will do chopped to an appropriate size. To fry mushrooms effectively, get the pan very hot first, put in the butter or oil, then the mushrooms. Fry them very hot for a minute then turn the heat down to cook them through. In this way they get some nice golden brown colour before their juices come out and turn the frying into a stewing.

The idea with the stock and the port is to end up with a thick sauce that is just enough to coat the mushrooms and leave a little dribble on the plate for wiping up with toast. You don’t want a watery gravy, and you don’t want it to dry up. Options if your cupboard has gaps: you can use a splash of Tabasco or a pinch of hot paprika in place of cayenne, and try lime instead of lemon.

Review: La Becasse, Ludlow

This is the first time I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant on the very day its Michelin star was taken away. I am pleased to report that everyone front of house behaved impeccably and gave no sign of the disappointment they must all have been feeling, and none of the dishes were over-seasoned with the chef’s salty tears of frustration. Indeed, it was a great meal.

I’m gonna have to name-drop horribly here. I’ve dined at lots of Michelin starred places, and a bunch of them that La Becasse beats hands-down for service, ambience and cooking. Champignon Sauvage, Hand and Flowers and The Stagg at Titley to name three. No disrespect to these places, we enjoyed our dinner at them all, but they aren’t as good as La Becasse. Naturally enough we studied our dining experience pretty closely this evening (having been there before, there was no novelty factor and so this was easier to do) and I honestly can’t find fault with the service or the food. I guess I’d better get on and review our meal.

La Becasse has a jolly clubby dining room. Few restaurants have the good fortune to be situated in a large medieval townhouse with centuries-old oak panelling on the walls, and they bring this romantic old country sensibility up-to-date with a splendid contemporary red carpet and elegant tableware. Lighting is kept low and unobtrusive. You feel like a contented country squire.

The appetiser was a warming spiced lentil soup poured over tiny cubes of Ticklemore goats cheese and a bead of harissa. It was a good prelude, neatly expressing all of chef Will Holland’s themes that would be expanded on through the meal; local produce, inventive combinations and delicious results.

The first starter (yes, we had the six-course gourmet menu) was a carpaccio of pigeon paired nicely with slippery little cubes of mango and a neat stick of chilled foie gras. Lovely though it was, the second starter knocked it easily into touch. Dramatically presented on a square glass plate with a ruby red border, chunky cubes of Ragstone cheese coated in a delicately truffled crumb were herded together with wafers of biteable beetroot, supple raspberries and tiny cubes of balsamic jelly. It looked ravishing and ate even better.

The fish course was a hearty combination of halibut, shredded ox tail and sauerkraut. Each of these elements tried to sing loudest, but the result was a harmonious choir of flavours. I’m saving my breath for the main course. Venison, parsnip, chocolate, lime, chestnuts and parmesan sounds like a challenging edition of Ready, Steady, Cook. In fact it made for a sublime autumnal dish, centred on a meltingly good piece of venison. The chestnuts were glazed with honey and lime, the parsnips roasted with a bit of a parmesan crust, there was a friendly blob of chocolate sauce and our table was also given a little jar of tangy whinberry (or bilberry, blaeberry, hurtberry) relish to share. This is exactly the right way to celebrate local, seasonal produce.

Cheese was an additional course and seeing that we weren’t entirely sure how much room we had La Becasse showed themselves to be generous, giving us one cheese course to share between the four of us. There was enough of the five cheeses for each of us to enjoy, plenty of bread and biscuits, some lovely relishes and so it was rather startling to have it appear on the bill as a mere tenner. Universal praise went to the refreshing pre-dessert of lime and ginger jelly with maple parfait and a punchy lift of hickory-smoke foam. Dessert was a deconstructed chocolate and cherry torte with a salt caramel jelly, very moreish but not presented to its best potential.

All in all, a faultless evening and thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe the Michelin people were fussing about the length of the wine list? It certainly isn’t an epic tome, but it’s long on quality and the sommelier led us to a New Zealand pinot noir with dark cherries and impeccable smoothness to go with the venison. No matter what the fat tyre man says, it is still worth taking a weekend break in Ludlow for a very special meal.

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