Review: Clarence Social, Cheltenham

The Clarence Social

The Clarence Social

Full disclosure: my meal at The Clarence Social was paid for by dem. Though that’s only because there was a cock-up with our booking two weeks previously, and they very generously offered us a free meal by way of apology! Any business has the odd cock-up, you ought to be judged by how you deal with them. So, they get good marks for that.

The Clarence Social is a seriously stylish place to drop in for a drink or a quick bite; we had brunch there a few weeks back and it was good. The bar on the ground floor is buzzin’ with a more exclusive little cocktail bar in the basement that we didn’t explore. The restaurant is upstairs, darkly furnished with care taken on the details. It has an open balcony over the ground floor, which is spiffy design but certainly floats the buzz upwards. Basically, this isn’t the place for a romantic tete-a-tete but would be just fine for food before a night out with friends.

The menu is unpretentious but interesting enough for me. I picked ham hock croquettes off the starters, and these were classic deep-fried cheesy nuggets, though I might have liked a bit more hock. Maureen’s gorgonzola arancini sounded great but were a bit disappoint. They were wanting in the cheese department and wanting in the seasoning department. Nice slices of pickled pear with them.

Ham hock croquettes

Ham hock croquettes

For main I picked their house wagyu beef burger. It was a nice bit of beef, with a nice char, but very properly medium cooked (I discovered later that I could have asked for it to be done differently, which is a bit of a stable-door-horse-bolted scenario really). The disk of raw red onion hiding in the bun was a bit stark. Nice bun though. Overall, because frankly I’m no burger geek so I don’t know all the things I should be ticking through, I’d say it was a fine burger but it wasn’t a grrrreat burger.

Maureen’s cubed pork belly in Japanese BBQ sauce was a rather more spiffy plate. Nice cubed of pork, properly shreddable and unctuous without any big lumps of fat left on ’em. Good sauce, gingery and sticky. I really liked the oriental salad/slaw it was served with too, a very good accompaniment, cutting nice and clean through the porky goodness. Good stuff.

They’ve got decent wine on the list, if my Picpoul was anything to go by, and Maureen had a capable caipirinha. It would have been £18 each for 2 courses, and that feels about fair. They haven’t shot straight into my “favourite locals” list – too noisy and food not good enough overall – but I wouldn’t worry about enjoying a bite to eat out with friends there.

Burger

Burger

Review: Ynyshir, mid Wales

The view from the chef's table

The view from the chef’s table

Ynyshir absolutely blew me away. Which is amazing, because until I tried to find a promising place for a meal out in mid Wales I had never even heard of it; one of the scant handful of Welsh restaurants to have quietly won itself a Michelin star. It’s not only me. At the time of writing, exactly none of the major UK restaurant critics has visited. Zilch. There are burger joints in Bristol that have had more professional reviews. Possibly because it is at least 3 hour’s drive from absolutely everywhere? And getting on for 5 hours from London. They haven’t made it easy.

Talking to chef Gareth Ward, they are of course banking on becoming a destination restaurant-with-rooms. And they’ve got a big head start over some others: previously a classic country house hotel, their bedrooms are large, beautiful and very very comfortable. Ours had a great view out over the gardens towards the wild and woolly hills beyond. And you do have a magnificent part of Britain to explore for the rest of your weekend break.

But you’ll be wanting to know a bit about the food, eh?

Simple onion broth

Simple onion broth

The tasting menu is long and dazzlingly inventive. But the invention here goes way beyond the tasting menu staples of some quirky flavour combinations and some theatrical touches of presentation. This isn’t just playing with combinations, it’s right down to the cuisine. They’ve stepped right away from classic French stocks & bases, focusing instead on building flavour and depth through misos, kombuchas (go on, look it up!) and other exotic fermentations. This delivers up dishes that are absolutely jam-packed with flavour but also light, fresh and zinging with the vinegary (but not vinegar) punch of these cunning ketchups, glazes, drizzles and gels.

Some of the highlights? Well, the main course was a stunning piece of deeply flavourful local Welsh lamb, aged for no less than 60 days, covered with slivers of Anglesey onion and a mint kombucha gel. Yeah, that’s right, basically lamb with mint sauce. Total revelation.

Or how about a perfect square of dreamy local Welsh wagyu shortrib beef? Made earthy and funky with shitake ketchup and dusted with some crunchy crumbs of dessicated shitake for added flavour and texture. Never have I enjoyed such melt-in-the-mouth beefy-mushroomness.

There was some amazing duck liver, whipped up with tofu and miso to form a smooth and creamy white dollop that bore no resemblance to any duck liver I’ve ever had, and was both much lighter and much finer in flavour too.

I could just keep going! Instead, here’s a gallery of snapshots because frankly every plate was a beautiful culinary jewel.

They love their local produce; as well as the lamb and the beef, Anglesey onions starred in a couple of dishes. And to be honest, I’ve looked back over the whole menu and can’t think of anything other than the dates in the “sticky toffee pudding” (nothing of the sort, and very delicious!) and the chocolate in the other desserts that wasn’t both British and in season – or fermented from last season, of course. Quietly done, they don’t shout about this, but very amazing.

The menus (there are two to choose between) include fifteen jewel-like dishes for £110. Worth every penny. I’d recommend going for the chef’s table if it’s available – the team of young chefs are friendly, deeply knowledgeable, obviously loving their work, and happy to talk to you about the food or pretty much anything. Plus they throw in a handful more dishes over the course of the evening! It’s £130. Ynyshir deliberately doesn’t offer a wine pairing, because they don’t think that much alcohol enhances the experience. I happen to agree, so I applaud them for that too. We enjoyed a couple of glasses of good wine, though I must admit I think they can probably find better. Who cares, we loved every minute and finally toddled up to bed after 1am.

Take a trip to west Wales! Put Ynyshir on the map! I haven’t wanted to recommend a restaurant so much since I-don’t-know-when.

Disclaimer: I have to admit that one of the dishes was duck with SALTY PLUMS ON TOP! So I was bound to be horribly biased from that moment on. : )

Duck with... salty plums!

Duck with… salty plums!

Review: The Wilderness, Birmingham

The Wilderness

The Wilderness

The Wilderness is an edgy little restaurant occupying a space in Birmingham Open Media, itself an odd little art & media space down a grungy back street behind New Street Station. So: location convenient but not very pretty.

It’s a tiny space and you dine on small round cafe tables, which is a bit squashy but wasn’t uncomfortable. One of the walls is covered in rubbery green moss. Service was cheerful and friendly, making up with enthusiasm what they lacked in knowledge. Their website statement talks of local sourcing, foraging, ingredient-driven simplicity – so let’s see how they did.

Venison with stout gel

Venison with stout gel

First course was a piece of sea trout, just a tiny bit over-cooked, served with pickled and grilled mushrooms, puffed rice and a powerful dashi. The dashi was good, although much more powerful and deep than a classic Japanese specimen. The rice too scrunchy to be pleasant. Still, not bad. Yeah, that is faint praise.

Next course was a nicely cooked piece of boar with a layer of salty fat, served with puree & crisp of j’choke, deep-fried reindeer moss, and scattered with wild garlic flowers. In February? Perhaps rather than The Wilderness they should be called The Polytunnel? Snark aside, it was good to see boar on a menu. I enjoyed the venison too, beautifully plated and with my favourite little touch of the meal: blobs of sweet stout gel.

Rhubarb pud

Rhubarb pud

Two puds. One was flavours of rhubarb, which was a perfectly decent collection of fruit, sorbet and gel. The other was a chocolate dish that had one very awesome thing on it: cep flavoured chocolate parfait. They mucked it about a bit with cherries and other chocolate elements when really they could have made me very happy indeed with more of this!

So the 5 course tasting is £35 each. And gold-dusted chocolate skulls to finish! It’s £70 if you go for their cocktail-based pairing, and based on the one cocktail we each tried that might be a great plan. The food was all pretty good, and it’s definitely priced right at £35… but at the same time, maybe I expect a bit more from a tasting menu at any price? Maybe I’ve just had one too many tasting menus! I’m more than willing to go back and see what they serve up on a different day – I’ll update when I do.

Skull. Nice

Skull. Nice

Review: Midsummer House, Cambridge

Quail liver on toast

Quail liver on toast

Daniel Clifford’s Michelin 2-star dining room in Cambridge has been on our hit-list for aaaaaages.

It’s one of the stealthiest restaurants in the country. You walk across Midsummer Common and then stand there in faint bewilderment. There’s a pub. There’s a small detached Victorian house alongside. And there’s nothing else this side of the river. Has Google Maps failed us? On closer inspection the house does have “Midsummer House” carved into the lintel over the door in nice, solid Victorian capital letters. But surely they can’t shoe-horn a Michelin starred restaurant into the living room of a Victorian villa? Maybe Google Maps has found the wrong Midsummer House? Closer inspection still, and we spot a menu in a discrete case near the door. As further proof, a taxi pulls up and disgorges two ladies whose heels couldn’t possibly have walked across the Common. Phew!

Raclette

Raclette

And of course the trick is that the walled garden conceals two very large conservatories that give plenty of room for a dozen or so tables. We are warmly greeted, and really treated very warmly and well all through lunch – which rolls majestically from 1pm to 5:30pm before we roll less-than-majestically back across the Common in our coats.

After some spiffy amuse bouches and a zingy palate cleanser of celery sorbet, we are treated to eight or so courses of really sublime cooking, plenty of invention and very satisfying flavours and textures. The exploding flying saucer of creamy raclette cheese on top of a disc of braised pork knuckle is a great hit, with cubes of white wine jelly to complete the perfect Alsatian taste experience. There is my favourite ever quail dish, made up of so many delicious components; smoked egg in a crisp case, toast with a stunning liver parfait and sweet relish, and a perfect pink quail breast covered in slices grapes and served alongside a stingingly good shallot puree.

Sweet scallop

Sweet scallop

The signature scallop dish is excellent, but not quite to my taste – the granny smith apple and sauce is astonishingly sweet, swallowing up the natural sweetness of the (perfect) scallop rather much. It does bring out the taste of the fresh grated truffle though, I’ll give it that. Actually the other seafood dish is also my least favourite; the roast monkfish is great, the confit pork belly slice isn’t unctuous enough, and together they just don’t offer any wow.

The piece of Yorkshire venison is back on track, just cooked to absolute perfection. Love the little venison sausage roll with a dollop of tart sloe mousse to dip it in. The roast veggies with the venison are good, ‘specially the chervil root.

Venison sausage roll

Venison sausage roll

Mmmm… desserts. Where a lot of tasting menus deflate into the desserts, Midsummer House elevated. The first was a great example of stuffing an unexpected veggie into a dessert and it actually working. Lychee… rose… and jerusalem artichoke! The candied chunks and flakes of j’choke with their dirty, earthy flavour paired up beautifully with the fragrant lychees and rose. This dish also included a great theatre element; one of the roses that had decorated our table from the outset, plucked out and dunked in liquid nitrogen so that it could be scattered in fragrant shards over our pud! The final dessert married passionfruit and chocolate beautifully, the delicate disc of chocolate being just enough to add sumptuousness to all the sharp fruity goodness.

Loved my meal at Midsummer House, it has to slot in there as one of my very favourite lunches along with the Manoir, the Waterside and Noma. It’s very classical combinations, with just enough flights of fancy to make it memorable. The menu was £110 each when we visited but I believe it’s gone up since. We enjoyed doughnuts and chocolates in the lounge, drank too much wine, and ambled back to town very happy.

Passionfruit and choc

Passionfruit and choc

Review: The Red Lion, East Chisenbury

Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand

This is country pub meets Michelin. Having got so stuffed we couldn’t finish our chateaubriand, the plate clearer asked if we had a dog who would like the remainder wrapped up for them? We didn’t. However, the two pooches curled up quietly under the adjacent table pricked their ears up. So we donated our left-over steak to our neighbours and everyone was happy. Saturday lunch at The Red Lion in East Chisenbury.

Although it has collected a Michelin star, the Red Lion is still very much pub inside, with space given over to the bar and dining tables not crammed in cheek by jowl. It can be found hiding in the little village of East Chisenbury on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Looked like the local vicar was in for lunch at a nearby table. That kind of place. Nowhere better on a wet Saturday in December.

Arnold Bennett risotto

Arnold Bennett risotto

My starter of chestnut capelleti with roast sprouts and parmesan was pure seasonal perfection, really beautifully toothsome pasta. I have to admit to being a bit envious of the Arnold Bennett risotto though. Spot-on risotto shot through with flakes of smoked cod, topped with a confit egg yolk, bathed in a hollandaise sauce, lightly scorched on top. Wicked.

As noted, I shared a chateaubriand with my dad. I think there must have been more than 12oz each, wonderfully flavoured meat. The inky, glossy gravy was superb – I could have wished for more than the little puddle it arrived with (to be fair, service was so warm and friendly I’m sure they’d have fetched some if I’d asked!). There was a very fine side of little gem lettuce with a refreshing dressing; an absolutely ideal balance to the rich beef. Big fat chips were very good too, especially to scoop up the bearnaise sauce – just a tad lacking in punch, that sauce, good texture though.

Maureen had a wild mushroom pithiver. The dome of golden brown pastry was a feast for the eyes, and inside it delivered on the promise with deep, rich, earthy mushroom flavours. One of those vegetarian dishes that needs no apology for being meat-free, I almost wished I’d ordered it.

Pithivier of mushrooms

Pithivier of mushrooms

My pudding absolutely kicked butt, and seasonal butt at that. Pumpkin rice pudding. All the glorious silky richness of proper rice pudding but with the pronounced autumn flavour of pumpkin. To this were added bitter/sweet notes: an espresso syrup drizzled over it, and a scoop of praline parfait in the middle along with nuggets of caramelised hazelnuts. Haven’t enjoyed pud so much in a long time.

This is a great pub. At about £40 for 3 courses before drinks, it’s not what you’d call a bargain, in fact I’d say it’s about bang-on for the sheer quality of food as well as the great ambiance and service. And being a pub, they were proper reasonable on the wine list. Both bottles under £30 and both better than wines I’ve paid three times that for recently (cough, Hedone, cough).

Pumpkin rice pud

Pumpkin rice pud

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