Review: The White Hart, Somerton

Crispy pig cheek salad

Crispy pig cheek salad

Deep in the Somerset countryside, surrounded by villages glorying in such names as Curry Rivel, Westonzoyland, Butleigh Wootton, Long Load, West Camel and Muchelney Ham (honestly, all within 5 miles!), the sleepy little town of Somerton seems to have gotten off lightly. It was actually once the ancient capital of Wessex and gave its name to the whole county. Can’t accuse me of being light on the research, I have most definitely read the Wikipedia page! Anyway, it’s a lovely spot and the more so for having a good dining pub – The White Hart.

We stopped in for a Sunday lunch, basically at random. It’s got a nicely welcoming dining room, scrubbed tables and stone floors, definitely a restaurant first and pub second (I think they have rooms upstairs). Service was friendly and swift.

The starters looked appealing, so I tried a crispy pig cheek salad. This was a really colourful plate; some big leaves of red and white raddichio with disks of crispy golden breadcrumbed pig cheek along with a vivid amber aioli scattered with deep green capers. The combination worked very well, I’d like all pub starters to be like this. Maureen’s ham hock and Dorset Blue Vinney croquettes were good, the ham and blue cheese combining into a gently funky flavour, with an apple and fennel slaw to lighten it up.

Crummy photo, good roast beef

Crummy photo, good roast beef

We both punted for the roast beef. And we got two generous slices of perfectly roasted beef, pink and soft. The red wine gravy was rich and deeply flavourful, and their horseradish cream was punchy. Nice little Yorkshire pud, very light with a good burnt taste. Greens, roast and boiled carrots, mashed parsnip, all good. The roast potatoes were apparently done in rapeseed oil, and I think I caught the taste. Nicely crunchy outside, but a bit heavy within to be called perfect. Just good.

No room for pudding! List looked good, though. About £22 for two courses without drinks, and I’d say that’s just about right – for what is really jolly good pub cooking and a menu more interesting than many. So if you find yourself somewhere beyond Curry Rivel, near Mudford Sock or Chilton Cantelo, you’ll know where you can stop for a bite to eat.

Review: Rofuto, Birmingham

Edamame over Brum

Edamame over Brum

There’s a lot going on in Birmingham. It’s gradually London-ising. Started with a couple of decent coffee shops. Then some better casual dining options and some street food. Next thing you know, they’ll even get some interesting independent shops. Of course it’s not going to match London – 8 million people are always going to get more choice and quality than 1 million people. But in just the three years I’ve been working here Brum has upped its game enormously. It even seems to have developed a couple of good Japanese options. Top of the heap would be Rofuto.

Literally top of the heap, on the 16th floor of the Park Regis hotel. It’s a large and spacious dining room, and although nicely furnished it does betray its hotel pairing a bit. Service was young, friendly and not very informed. When I asked for some help with the sake menu he kindly explained that there are various sized flasks and this “umeshu” one is sweet and all the others are… more dry. And that was it. He was dry too. I was actually too embarrassed to ask “sooo… is there anyone that can actually help me?” and just ordered at random.

Black cod nigiri

Black cod nigiri

I only mention this just to banish a notion: don’t expect Rofuto to be a hallowed temple of Japanese cuisine like some of the tiny jewels with the eye-watering prices in London. It’s a restaurant above a hotel, and the kitchen produces good Japanese food. Job done.

Our first sushi was of black cod, with a beautifully scorched taste and a powerful miso glaze (dengaku) on top. This was sushi with a bow tie on. The two maki we tried were also very good; nicely crabby and crunchy California roll, and unctuous eel with its own char-grilled aftertaste. Very good nori, nothing chewchewchewy about it at all.

Next up, a skewer of bright pink cherry-smoked salmon off the grill. Hefty on the sprinkled salt crystals in places. Made better by the lemongrass microherb scattered on it (at least, that’s what it tasted like to me). There was also some good asparagus off the grill too. Probably the best cooked dish was the tempura “Japanese fish and chips” consisting of some nice chunks of white fish in a light and scrunchy batter, no sense of oiliness, and some crispy fried strips of yam. It came with a colourful dish of wasabi mushy peas, and a passion fruit tartare sauce, though I couldn’t detect any fruit over the sharp sauce.

Grilled salmon skewers

Grilled salmon skewers

The one dud dish was a salad of config duck and raspberry sunomono with watercress. This was just some ingredients in a bowl, the oily/dirty flavour of the duck clashed with the delicate vinaigrette on the leaves and the halved raspberries were brief sweet bombshells.

They deserve a bonus point for some tasty desserts though. Pineapple off the robata grill with lemongrass sorbet was good, and my lemon and yuzu tart was tangy and delicious with a decent pastry.

On the evidence of our meal, Rofuto does sushi best, and if I came back I’d probably focus on that side of the menu. Only the black cod sushi reminded me of Japan, Rofuto was otherwise the better end of the kind of Japanese restaurant generally found in the UK. We paid about £40 each for what was a complete meal without drinks. That’s verging on the pricey, for the quality, but then again it’s always very fine to be dining with a view.

Eel maki, v good

Eel maki, v good

Review: Pi Shop, Bristol

My pi

My pi

Quick one, this. Pi Shop is the pizza place just opened up next door to Casamia. It’s the second piece in the new Sanchez Brothers culinary empire! Couldn’t be more different to Casamia, though. It’s a clean white space, with rustic Italian ingredients sitting alongside bare wood, plaster and metal. Seating is simple and built for a quick bite to eat rather than a lingering lunch. Perfect pizza setting, then.

Maureen’s pizza was the best muddle of toppings: lamb, courgette, blue cheese and rosemary, prettied up with a sprinkling of petals and citric nasturtium leaves. The lamb was very good, deeply tasty slow-cooked shreds. My topping was simpler; tiny firebombs of n’duja sausage and an egg in the centre. But what about the basics? Well, the tomato sauce was lovely and fresh, but that did give us a bit of a problem. The edges of the pizza base were great, chewy and crispy with that lovely burnt flour taste that makes a pizza great. The middle of the base was just too soft and uncooked.

Now, I’m no expert… (oh hell, did I really just say that?) …but I think the problem was the tomato sauce, which was too wet. Whenever I’ve made tomato sauce for pizza, I’ve always left it simmering until pretty much all the water is driven off. Maybe they wanted a much fresher taste than the deep ruby spread that I end up with? But if you’ve got free water in your tomato sauce, surely it’s gonna make the dough soggy?

Good coffee, and I most certainly enjoyed my pizza – but I’ve had better, and I think that’s down to the dough.

Pretty pi

Pretty pi

Review: Two Cats Kitchen, Birmingham

Wagyu beef and coal oil

Wagyu beef and coal oil

What is “New Baltic Cuisine”? Well, one answer is: it’s the tag line that’s meant to intrigue you into eating at Two Cats Kitchen. Another answer might be: it’s a themed menu that sticks pretty rigidly to the idea of only using things grown or found in northern Europe, with a couple of nods towards traditional Baltic dishes thrown in. A third answer could be: proof that a splendid meal can be had without resorting to tropical or even mediterranean ingredients.

The dining room is stylish industrial-urban, with a bit more character than most such places. Staff are friendly, a young team still getting used to the fine dining schpiel, which was fun. We took the drink pairing with the tasting menu – I can’t really say wine pairing because it included a vodka, a beer, three wines and a sake! So we were looking forward to some interesting cooking to go with that lot.

Crab hiding under a leaf

Crab hiding under a leaf

The amuse was a little crispy potato nest with a quail egg, scrunchy and good. It was dusted with black trumpet mushroom powder which sounds marvellous but did absolutely nothing for me. Either I have faulty tastebuds, or black trumpet powder is better off cooked. Loved the “haladnik” that came after: a ready lurid cold beetroot soup, max flavour and nice choice of summery salad in the bottom.

Goat cheese pelmini were little tortellini-like dumplings, in a sweet onion broth with lovage oil. Those flavours were great, but the pasta was a bit too sturdy for these tiny pelmini. Still good. Next up, wagyu beef tartare dressed smartly with coal oil, cured egg yolk(!) and crutons of a dark Baltic rye bread. De-licious. Next up, crab! I can honestly say I’ve never had hot shredded crab with ancient grains (spelt and whatnot) draped with a sheet of sea lettuce in a dashi broth. Like a weird prehistoric crab risotto by way of Japan. In fact this was my favourite dish, it really took me back to the completely alien flavour/temperature/texture profiles of kaiseki meals in Japan, so different from classic fine Western cuisine (even when it uses Japanese ingredients). I’m waffling.

Good lamb!

Good lamb!

There was a lovely lump of lamb for the main course, pink and juicy and tasting like it was up on the hills yesterday chewing on herbs and hay. Blob of oyster emulsion was a good touch, along with broad beans and samphire, another clever combination with the lamb. Loved it.

Dessert was whacky, and probably not one for your sweet-toothed chocoholic. A big sorrel leaf sandwich full of sorrel and apple sorbet, a hilarious mess to eat! The reprise of sorrel and elderflower under scorched meringue was more dainty and just as tasty. Final dessert was a choux bun with white chocolate, dusted with more black trumpet powder! It still did nothing for me, alas.

I couldn’t help but enjoy my meal at Two Cat’s Kitchen. It’s a cool dining room, and a really inventive menu with a good theme. The food is generally really well executed but even the couple of mis-fires were still perfectly tasty. Loved the original drinks pairings too. For £45 this was very good value, a great evening out. I’d go back.

Bonkers leaf pudding

Bonkers leaf pudding

Review: The Man Behind The Curtain, Leeds

Glamour and delight at TMBTC

Glamour and delight at TMBTC

Okay, look, if your tasting menu is described as “12 courses” and two of those courses are the petit fours, you’re actually grasping a bit. I’m just saying. Felt a bit silly ordering a second glass of dessert wine in anticipation of another dessert, only to have it put in front of us and then be asked “and would you like a coffee?”

I’m picking holes. We basically loved our meal at The Man Behind The Curtain and would go back. But there’s an important caveat for those of you with a healthy apetite: even I was tempted into a bag of crisps when I got back to our hotel after the meal. The portions are modest, but boy are they packed with flavour. Flavour and pizzazz. Lots of pizzazz.

Beautiful akee hake throat

Beautiful akee hake throat

You can see this in the first dish out of the blocks, a glistening oyster on the shell with a vivid green mojito dressing and a big fake pearl sitting on top. As well as the lime and oyster being a winning combo, the cocoa butter pearl filled with oyster emulsion made the whole thing a terrific statement. Setting the stage, kinda thing. Among our next bites were a vivid red oriental-style bun filled with some beautiful veal sweetbread and XO sauce, really eye-opening. But just in case you’re thinking it’s all show: the next bite was of hand-massaged octopus, a technique followed by only the most diligent sushi restaurants to get octopus of just the right texture. Really scrumptious with caper, lemon and a paprika emulsion – one of those “skip the rest of the menu, I’ll have a plate of this please” moments. And just to emphasise chef Hare’s winning originality: the third bite was raw wagyu beef with gordal olive juice, which turns out to be just a genius pairing of flavour and texture.

Black cod, inky shadow

Black cod, inky shadow

The next three courses were all fishy and all superb. Salted hake throat – yeah, hake throat – had the taste and texture of raw prawn, and was slavered with a wonderfully spicy akee sauce. Raw langoustine was pepped to superbness with an intense green curry sauce. The black cod had been baked to perfection and topped with crispy potato dramatised with black squid ink and vinegar powder. The vinegar a bit relentless for me, but then Maureen loved it so it’s all to taste.

This was one of those meals where most of our conversation was about the food we were eating. That’s a good meal.

More dramatic plating of the main course; four or five tiny bites of ox cheek with little dollops of truffle, parsley and mustard sauce to dip them in, all served on dark ceramic with twelve little dips in it (surely intended as an escargot dish originally?!). This was just a bit tiny for me, and those three spare dips in the dish were crying out for maybe three cubes of roasted turnip or something else bitter and vegetal to balance the sticky loveliness of the meat.

Tiny space-age main course

Tiny space-age main course

Loved the pudding. Chocolate cunningly disguised as a crumpled bit of silver foil, hiding a wicked violet ice cream and scattered with delicious potato puffs. There are far too many tasting menus that can’t carry the sheer invention and balance into their puds – either too insubstantial or too sickly – nice to find one that’s just right. There was a little after-pud which I enjoyed even more: a sorbet-based muddle of flavours that all sang a chorus of summer together; cucumber, strawberry, lychee, lime and basil. The petit fours were good too.

There’s no way you’ll find another tasting menu with this level of invention and skill for the knock-down price of £75! No wonder bookings are running months in advance. And the wines by the glass are terribly reasonable too. Hm. I haven’t even mentioned the bonkers punk-graffiti interior or the quirky location above a clothes shop, have I? The food was too distractingly good.

The Man Behind The Curtain

The Man Behind The Curtain

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