Restaurant Reviews:  the Midlands




The Moat House, Acton Trussell, Staffordshire

I had a very pleasant meal in the Conservatory Restaurant of this hotel, just a mile or two from the M6.  For my full report, please click here.

Opulence Restaurant, Cathedral Quarter Hotel, Derby

We had arranged a set price including corkage in their (nice) private room. The menu was: 

The amuse and the rabbit ballotine, which came with a ravioli of oriental mushrooms and sweetbreads were the highlights for me. I was a little taken aback that the brandade was cold, but it worked well, and the basil aioli was an excellent companion to the fish ball. 

Rabbit ballotine at Opulence, Derby

Maybe the ballotine was a touch underseasoned, but that wasn't a problem when eaten with other items on the plate. Good pasta, and the filling had us all guessing. There was an earthy sweetness to it that made me think initially of black pudding. 

lamb dish at Opulence, Derby
The lamb was beautifully cooked, but the black pudding (for real this time) was oddly hard, almost crispy on the outside. The peas definitely worked better with the lamb than on their own. 

The Hot Gin Fizz pre-desset was a major disappointment. It wasn't hot, either in fahrenheit terms or chilli terms. It was a gin and lemon sorbet with a fizzy foam on top. I didn't really think it even worked particularly well as a palate cleanser. 

lemon tart at Opulence, Derby
There was nothing to complain about in the lemon tart. Good pastry, nice filling. Nice ice-cream and tuile. But nothing to write home about. Good bread came in ample quantities. Service was pretty spot on all evening, the one failing being that they couldn't come up with an adequate explanation of why the Hot Gin Fizz was called Hot. 

The lasting impression I took away of the food was that it wasn't anything special but was all very well cooked, and that this was a kitchen which knew full well how to cook within its abilities. That, to avoid any doubt, is a good thing. Too many chefs are too ambitious and try too hard. I was rather concerned to see that - on a Friday night - the main restaurant appeared to have just two twos in. 

I stayed overnight. The room was a bit cramped and (thanks to energy saving light bulbs) a bit gloomy, but well appointed. Free broadband - very high speed too. 

Breakfast in the morning was good, though it was disappointing that they couldn't have bothered to air the croissants in the oven for a couple of minutes, rather than leaving them soggy and obviously bought-in. I ordered a full English without beans, but it came with beans. I thought maybe I'd not said the "no beans" out loud, and set to, then the waitress who'd taken the order noticed and apologised profusely and offered to replace it without the beans. I though she'd said replate, but she meant replace - everything was done afresh. A self service buffet offered only a limited selection, but the orange juice was good and for OJ lovers like myself, there were large glasses available, reducing the number of times I had to return for refills.

(March 2010)

Hambleton Hall, Rutland

I recently attended a dinner in a private room at the excellent Hambleton Hall.  The occasion was to revisit a selection of wines from the 1989 vintage and see how they were getting on twenty years on.  I've left the notes on the wines in this report, although it does rather unbalance it, as it was the combination of the food, wine, company and the impeccable service that made the evening so special.


1989 Giesenheimer Klauserweg Scheurebe Auslese, unknown producer
I didn't take a note at the time on this, as, like the champagne following, it was drunk standing cocktail-party like in the hotel bar before a roaring (and roasting) fire.
A deepish colour. Subtly fragrant. It's lost much of its sweetness. Makes a good aperitif. 86/100

Aperitif with nibbles of chicken liver parfait, brandade? fritters and parmesan wafers
1997 Bollinger Grande Année en magnum
A fairly muted nose. Good palate with a nice roundness. Really rather too young, I think. Very nice, but it doesn't thrill me. 88/100

A Jar of Foie Gras with exotic fruits and brioche
The first starter I've had with a built in antenna! Very well balanced dish. The foie gras element was somewhere between terrine and parfait. The passion fruit topping (on the jar) was initially a little shocking, but was just the right amount and worked well to balance the richness of the foie gras. It looks like quite a lot of brioche, but it was just right. In front of the brioche is a fairly gentle tropical fruit jelly.
1989 Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Auslese, Karthäuserhof
A very young colour. The nose, however, belies the wine's age and shows some reduction and some sulphur. On the palate, it's a little schizophrenic: it's fresh yet at the same time has mainly secondary, minerally flavours. 86/100

1989 Oberemmeler Karlsbert Riesling Auslese Gold Cap, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt
This is a much deeper colour; much more the right sort of colour. It's showing the same sort of age on the nose, which is quite petrolly and with some botrytis. It's still fairly sweet on the palate, but there's lots of pure elegance here too. Nicely integrated. 90/100
Delicious with the guinea fowl later on.

1989 Gewurztraminer Cuvée Anne, Schlumberger
A deep tropical fruit nose with a bit of a cinammon backbone. Very balanced, and - notably so for a gewurztraminer - really quite classy feeling. It's very balanced in the mouth. Perfumed, but not excessively so. Very impressive. 92/100
But it's a wine that very clearly works best drunk on its own - it would make a decent aperitif. It didn't work with any of the food that I tried it with, but was particularly disastrous with the foie gras dish, which just killed it completely dead. I can't immediately recall a wine which was so completely killed by a dish which you would expect to work well with it.

Gewurztraminer Goldert Vendanges Tardives, Zind Humbrecht
This has the deepest colour of the four. A big, very ripe nose. The trademark (for me) Zind Humbrecht power above all else. It's a compltely full on Gewurz, and is really very good, but is a bit hard work on its own, and marred on the finish a touch of alcoholic burn. 89/100
This really, really needs food to make it drinkable with pleasure: it was by far the best match with the foie gras and the Lincolnshire Poacher.

Mushroom Raviolo with a velouté of pea and smoked bacon
The photograph really doesn't do this justice. A subtle waft of truffle came up when the dish was put down on the table, then a smoky, bacony, sous bois aroma. The raviolo was big. Superb pasta. The filling was big, meaty chunks of mushroom - I think just common field mushrooms. The balance of the meaty (yet meatless) raviolo with the sweet-savoury pea velouté was somewhere very close to perfection. It did rather cry out for some red burgundy, but we didn't have any, so had to make do with:

1989 Château Latour à Pomerol
This has a very interesting nose: bright and perfumed, with blackberry, and then - rather oddly - some melon and apple. It feels very young on the palate, and doesn't live up to the nose at all. It's really very austere. 87/100
After just 10 or 15 minutes, the nose has changed compeletely. There are now violets with metallic notes. Then its starts to release some orange peel, which starts to show itself in some VA sweetness on the palate too.

1989 Rausan Segla
A subtle nose: gentle fruit with some cedar. Very even palate. There are very firm tannins still, but it's drinking well now.
The problem is it's really rather dull. All present and correct, but dull in comparison to the others in this flight.

1989 Château Margaux
A gorgeous, very feminine nose. This is just supremely elegant. Class in a glass. Just a lovely texture and balance in the mouth. Later in the evening, the nose is quite magnificent, though it's starting to feel less together on the palate. Come midnight, it was feeling past it.

1989 Kanonkop Cape Independent Winemakers Guild, W.O. Stellenbosch, 12.5%
This looks very young. The nose is fairly wild with gently perfumed black fruit and hints of tar. There's very young fruit on the palate. It feels very integrated and has a lovely structure and great balance. With time, it's standing up better than the Margaux and manages to develop some mintiness on the nose.

Simply Roast Guinea Fowl with Tomato and Artichoke Risotto
"Simply roasted" my arse. Roasted to absolute perfection. The skin was divine -  it almost seemed deep fried. The dark blobs were shitake mushrooms. The red cubes were revealed to be crab apple jelly, which was when I reached for my remaining rieslings and found the Kesselstatt to work very well with the fowl. The tomato and artichoke risotto was lovely, though did provide a challenge for the wines. But, while each individual component was beautifully executed, it was the overall balance of the dish which really impressed. And that continued into the whole meal: it was so well balanced overall, that it was almost as though the food was pretending to be a Château Margaux.

1989 Beychevelle

1989 Château Léoville Barton
The nose has meaty, fairly muscular black fruits. On the palate, it feels very young on the palate with fresh fruit and firm tannins.

1989 Lynch Bages
A big, solid, muscular nose. "A sarf Londoner" says one of my dining companions, and that sums it up quite well. It's a diamond geezer of a wine. Powerful and a bit obvious. It has enormous length with some bacon fat after.

1989 Clos du Mont-Olivet, Châteauneuf du Pape
This is rather good on the nose: there's game and some musk. Some dry fur. A delicious, evolved palate, but still with very firm tannins. It doesn't go very far on the finish. Fabulous with the guinea fowl, and the wine of the flight for me.

1989 Château Pradeaux, Bandol
This has intense black fruit on the nose with some garrique in the background. There's also a definite hint of emulsion paint. Big and mouthfilling; and also a touch wild. Massive tannins.
It's much improved with food, but is still rather outclassed by the rest of the flight. But with more time, it starts to give the Mont Olivet a run for its money.

Selection of Cheeses: Ragstone, Pont L'Eveque, Lincolnshire Poacher, Colston Bassett Stilton

1989 Château Suduiraut
On the nose, there's honey, orange and caramelisation, but none of it is overdone. Quite delicate on the palate, it develops orangey flavours towards the finish. Very slightly separate on the finish. There's also a slightly hot edge to it. 87/100

1989 Château Rieussec
A very muted nose, with less honey, but more marmelade, or even apricot jam. This is more together than the Suduiraut, but overall, it just seems a little obvious.

1989 Climens
A noticeably lighter colour than the other two. It has a lovely nose, and then on the palate there is some orange flowers and a very subtle honey note. This is very classy on the palate, and stands head and shoulders above the two Sauternes.

Tart Tatin of Pineapple with Cardamon Cream
This also came with an unadvertised pineapple sorbet (on the right). All classy, and expertly prepared, but for me the real star of the plate was the cardamon cream.

2008 Mullineux Straw Wine
A darker colour than you might expect for such a young wine. The nose has apricots, apricots, some more apricots, finished off with a glaze of apricot jam. Really lovely on the palate. Really luscious. There's powerful acidity there, but it's not too separate.

1989 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Beerenauslese, Max Ferd. Richter
This is quite perfumed on the nose with some honey, quince and a touch of citrus. Quite fresh on the attack, yet there's decent concentration on the palate. Massive acidity, balances the sweetness. But overall, it's really rather underwhelming.

1989 Mehringer Goldkupp Eiswein, Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymasium
Quite darkly coloured, which doesn't augur terribly well. It has a very pure, though rather simple riesling nose. Distinctly unimpressive on the palate. There's some sweetness and lots of acidity. But there's nothing really there to back up the acidity. There doesn't seem to be any particular fault, either in winemaking or subsequent storage. It's just a bit crap.

Tea and coffee with petits fours of which a chilli flavoured chocolate with popping candy and an extraordinary raspberry thing were the stars.

The food and service really were superb, as was the breakfast the next morning in the main hotel dining room, overlooking Rutland Water.

(October 2009)

The Old Bridge Hotel, Huntingdon

I stayed a couple of nights at the Old Bridge in Huntingdon. A nice hotel on a rather rambling footprint.  I found my bedroom very well (and luxuriously) appointed, including one of those B&O televisions that swings itself round to find you. Most of the public rooms are similarly well appointed.  There are two dining rooms: the Dining Room, which is only used for breakfast and private functions, and is a very nice room; and the main Terrace Restaurant, in a conservatory extension at the rear of the hotel. Unfortunately, this is a large, almost rambling room, rather lacking in atmosphere, and somewhat at odds with the warmth of the rest of hotel.  It also seems to be a thoroughfare to some guest bedrooms: it's rather odd, during dinner, to see someone being escorted through to their room with suitcases in tow! But these are minor quibbles.  The tables themselves are properly clothed, with good glasses and cutlery and particularly good salt and pepper mills.  The staff are very good and clearly well-trained: the changing of tablecloths is very neatly done, though not as exquisitely as at the Connaught Hotel in London in the old days, when the tablecloth was changed between main course and dessert, with the diners scarcely noticing!

I found the menu a good read, with plenty of interest, though the remarkable wine list is both of those with knobs on, and at notably un-grabby prices. I have to admit to not being familiar with menu prices in Huntingdonshire, but the prices seemed to be to be very reasonable for the standard of what was provided.

It is an issue with some hotel restaurants, particularly with single, resident diners, that often the diner will just be there to have a bite to eat before retiring to bed or to work in the bedroom, and those there for the gastronomic experience will be in the minority. That, I presume, is the explanation for the dramatic speed of service, at least of the first courses: there was a more civilised gap between starter and main courses. On the second night, I had to send my starter back, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because I still hadn't received my wine.

The food I thought was really very good, and any faults I mention are minor, and suggestions where a little improvement might mean a step nearer perfection. A dish of Portland crab with avocado, tomato, rocket and a lemon and marjoram dressing was a nicely balanced dish, but a bit too fridge cold. The crab was very lightly blended with mayonnaise, and presented on top of a crushed avocado, which itself was on two slices of beef tomato. I had to wonder, why they hadn't separated the two slices of tomato with either the avocado or the crab. I found the rocket salad, as often, a bit dull, and maybe this could have been picked up over better, but the dressing was nice and it was a good foil to the crab. 

Tortellini of pork and squash with sage butter and pumpkin seeds was an excellent dish. The pasta was definitely a little on the thick side, but was properly cooked. I can't say I really noticed the squash in the filling, but it was a very good, notably tasty stringy-hammy-confit filling. The butter dressing was very nice, with the crisped sage leaves and toasted pumpkin seeds adding both a flavour and especially a texture that was very useful for the overall dish. 

"Poached Cornish brill with king scallop, pan-fired gnocchi and a chowder of crab, courgette, young carrots and runner beans" was another impressive dish. The fish perfectly cooked; the gnocchi superb. The shellfish sauce would have been excellent, save for a slightly heavy hand with the lemon. 

"Roast red-leg partridge with parsnip purée, curly kale, roast beetroot, chestnuts and game crisps" was a very attractive plate. The partridge was served jointed, off the carcass, but then reassembled, with a rich stock sauce that had been lightened slightly with the juices from the bird. Lovely sauce. But, oh dear, what a shame! The partridge is slightly overdone, though not so far as to be a concern. The game chips were spot on, and the accompanying beetroot, kale and chestnut all worked very well. 

My selection of three cheeses (Ragstone, Berkswell and Ardrahan) were all in very good condition and served at a proper room temperature. Hurrah! 

Home made ice-creams were really excellent, and pouring half a glass of Lustau PX over them was heavenly. 

The wine list is remarkably good, and as I've already mentioned, fairly priced. I enjoyed bottles of a 2004 Steiner Hund Riesling Reserve from Nikolaihof and a 1990 Vigneto Bucerchiale Riserva Chianti Rufina, from Fattoria Selvapiana, along with glasses of 2006 Ch. de Cérons, AC Cérons, 2007 Les Tsamps by Claudy Clavien in the Valais region of Switzerland and the Lustau San Emilio Pedro Ximenez. Bread is home made and very good, especially the brown.

(October 2009)

Fratellis, Stamford, Lincolnshire

Just a quick lunch here. Nothing particularly special. There was something slightly odd about the atmosphere, but that could be as I was the only non-local having lunch there and everyone else was getting hugs & kisses and lots of how's the family type greetings. 

Lobster tortelloni with saffron sauce was fine, though seemed to me to contain more crab than lobster. Good pasta. If it's not homemade, it's very well sourced. 

Tiramisu wasn't so much pick-me-up as weigh-me-down: heavy and stodgy, icy-fridge cold. They appear not to have a dessert menu, but instead bring out a tray of desserts for you to choose from: the selection was very heavy on cheesecakes - three out of five choices I think.

Absolutely brilliant espresso. Some of the best I've had in years. 

Just scrapes 1/10 if I'm feeling generous
(December 2009)

Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

The location is unpromising: a huge flyover on one side, an industrial estate on another side and an electricity pylon directly opposite. But once you're inside it's all nicely appointed with a calm, gently luxurious feel, with the modern edges tempered by the rustic brick walls of this former dairy. 

In the restaurant, tables are well set and well-spaced, and somehow they avoid the air of hushed reverence that some temples of gastronomy can develop, but (naturally) without it being buzzy. 

Service, from Mrs Bains downwards, was able, well-informed and friendly. 

I stayed overnight and found the room nicely appointed, though I was surprised they couldn't run to such a little luxury as a bottle of mineral water in the room, given the not insignificant price. 

But the main point is the food, which I found for the most part excellent and characterised by the combinations of flavours and textures: sometimes it's the combinations that are innovative, sometimes the flavours and textures themselves. 

The meal started impressively with some very good amuses: compressed melon cubes with a little swirl of goats cheese purée on top; malted jerusalem artichoke soup; a brunoise of yuzu-marinated tuna and cucumber; little pig's head croquettes and identically sized salt cod croquettes. Only the watermelon failed to thrill and was merely delicious. The artichoke soup was stunning: the next night at Harts in Nottingham we were served a demitasse of jerusalem artichoke soup that was really very good, but the Sat Bains cup-a-soup was without doubt five times better. 

We started the meal proper with the Ham-Egg-Peas dish that Sat Bains made on the British Menu TV cooking competition: an additional course to the seven course tasting menu we had chosen. £15 for a duck egg! Wow! Sat Bains knows how to charge for kitchen work ... Actually, while we're on money, the whole meal with a bottle of moderate wine and water, 12.5% service, but no coffee was £234 for two. Significant money, but I have to say at no point in the evening or oven the next few days did I feel I'd been fleeced. It was a full-on, luxury experience and in those terms did not represent poor value. 

Anyway, the Ham-Egg-Peas really is a stupendous dish. The unctuousness of the slow cooked is egg is remarkable, with the yolk curiously managing to taste and feel like a liquid hard-boiled egg's yolk. The stunningly fresh pea sorbet, provides a superb counterpoint, while extra texture is provided by fresh peas and pea shoots. The ham works well texturally and in terms of flavours, but in quantity it was just a little out-balanced by the egg and peas. 

The next dish, the first on the tasting menu, was Scallop-pork-peanut brittle-Granny Smith apple. The centrepiece was a beautiful scallop, sliced in two, perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. The pork element was provided by some ham (Jabugo?) and a small piece of perfect belly pork that seemed to have a bit of a balsamic glaze.  Fresh apple provided another texture, as did an apple purée, which I found just a hint too sweet. Two small vials of peanut milk were provided (one each), which we were instructed to drink with the dish. The peanut milk cut the richness and sweetness well, and the only complaint we could make was that a little more would have been good: two more vials were immediately brought. 

The next dish was the only one which didn't really work, but only because of one element. This looked beautiful when presented on the table: a piece of organic salmon with the quivering freshness and texture that sous vide cooking brings. Around the salmon on the plate were various "sea vegetables" with a variety of colours and some avruga caviar. This looked lovely, but then they poured the final element over - a beetroot 'gazpacho' (their inverted commas). This turned the whole dish into a beetroot purple colour and also dominated the tastes, completely spoiling the dish. There was, however, one little redeeming revelation: the combination of the beetroot gazpacho and the avruga caviar was positively illuminating - a perfect combination of sweet and sour and salty. The beetroot juice and caviar should have been served separately as the peanut milk had been with the previous course. 

The next course was delicious, but made hard to eat by being served in a kilner jar. Pumpkin-mandarin-parmesan was a rich pumpkin velouté (possibly just a touch too sweet), with a quenelle of mandarin sorbet, on top of a parmesan panna cotta, with the parmesan theme being reinforced by a few parmesan crisps on top, which added a new texture, as did some roast pumpkin seeds. 

Next came one of the best, most harmonious dishes of the my culinary year: Yorkshire hare-cauliflower-chocolate-blackberries-poached nuts. There was a decent size portion of very tender, very flavoursome loin, and then an intense and intensely delicious ragu of hare nestling up to the roast (slow roast? sous-vide?) loin. To one end of the plate were some finely shaved slices of dried (probably dessicated rather than oven-dried) cauliflower, while at the other end of the plate were some identical slices of pickled cauliflower. A brownish purée was silky smooth and tasted of ginger and something else, we just couldn't identify. A few (bottled?) blackberries added a freshness and another sort of richness at the same time, and then taking into account the poached nuts and the chocolate, the whole dish reminded me of a tasting note for very good red Hermitage. Every single element of the dish was excellent in itself, and taken as a whole, it really was a case of a sum greater and more delicious than its parts. 

The next course was "Savoury-sweet" (subtitled "the crossover"). This comprised some marinaded baby (formerly dried) figs, a stilton-like blue cheese, pine nuts and a pine nut ice-cream, which all did exactly what it said on the tin, providing a perfect savoury-sweet crossover. 

The first dessert was chocolate-based: again, as throughout the meal, all the individual components were superb, but here they stood alone and only combined by their textures rather than their flavours - there was a quenelle of chocolate mousse toppied with candied violets and candied rose petals (perhaps a little more violet and/or rose flavour would have helped), a piece of home-made Wispa and a rather too small cube of fruit jelly (of a rather indeterminate fruit flavour). 

Finally, the second dessert was based around passion fruit: there was a very intense passion fruit purée alongside a square of delicious passion fruit tart, its base apparently made of biscuit crumbs (like a cheesecake base), which was lighter than pastry and retained more crispness and texture than pastry would have done. A blob of italian meringue added sweetness and a black sesame sauce provided a sweet, slightly savoury nutty feel. 

We didn't have coffee, but were still given the friandises: small chocolate brownies, of almost ethereal lightness, which then seems almost to turn to liquid chocolate in the mouth.

If only the beetroot had been served separately to the salmon, we would be looking at a very rare thing here: a well-nigh perfect meal.  Sat Bains walks the path between pleasure and innovation very confidently delivering food that is at once reassuring and comforting and also interesting and exciting.

(December 2008)

Iberico, Nottingham

This intimate restaurant has been created in part of the crypt below Nottingham's Shire Hall, and has been very nicely and sympathetically decorated with some nice Moorish touches. The food easily lives up to the surroundings and displays some good sourcing and a confident and able hand in the kitchen. 

A selection of Spanish charcuterie was very good, and served at the correct temperature (i.e. not cold from the fridge), and I thought the accompanying small bowl of caperberries and pickled fennel worked very well with the meats. I don't know if their version of pan catalan is authentic or not, but I appreciated it being thick slices of bread, rather than it being the crostini/bruschetta style you also find. Baby chorizo sausages in Rioja were nice and tender (they can have a tendency to be tough in the wrong hands) and the Rioja juices were delicious. Lime,Salt & Pepper Squid were good examples of deep fried squid, with the lime, salt and pepper flavours evident, but not overwhelming the squid. The accompanying aioli was just a little mean a portion. 

Churros and hot chocolate for dessert were excellent, light, freshly fried examples with a good chocolate sauce. Purists might say they're a breakfast dish, but we're not in Spain, and we'll have them when we want! 

Unfortunately, coffee - an espresso - was so bad, the first cup had to be sent back. After much messing with the machine, they managed to produce one that was just about tolerable. 

I'll certainly return here next time I have spare time in Nottingham, as there are plenty of interesting dishes on the menu, which cleverly managed to incorporate some "World" dishes alongside the more traditional Spanish tapas. The £10 lunch is an absolute bargain: pan Catalan, two tapas and dessert. Very nice to see halves of the excellent Manzanilla La Gitana from Hidalgo on the pretty good wine list, and at a not too greedy £13.

(December 2008)

Harts Restaurant, Nottingham

I went to Harts as part of a party of 13 (we had an extra place set, to ward off evil spirits) and we were in a very nice airy private dining room.  Being, such a large group, we had a limited choice menu, but there were no problems with lack of choice. The food was pretty impressive. A nice little shot glass of tomato water came as an appetiser, containing a piece of fresh tomato and a piece of mi-cuit tomato, together together with some finely sliced basil.
My starter was a white pudding of guinea fowl, which was superb: it had a really light texture but with a good flavour, including the flavour of the guinea fowl. Being picky, the poached egg on top of the slice of pudding could have been a little more lightly cooked and there was something (the minuscule croutons?) in the salad that was a bit salty. Some pickled girolles made a nice contrast and weren't too vinegary.
Fillet of beef with bearnaise sauce and rosti that others had, looked good ... and big. I had a saddle of rabbit with sage and onion risotto. The saddle was a boned and rolled job, with the liver included. In the attempt not to overcook the liver, I thought the rabbit was just a bit underdone. The sage and onion risotto was nicely subtle.
Lemon grass crème brulée wasn't a crème brulée, but just the crème, sandwiched between two discs of tuile-cum-brandy snap. The advertised bitter chocolate sorbet had mutated into a lemongrass? sorbet by the time it reached the table.
Service was excellent, keeping bread and water replenished, and sensibly suggesting a couple of cafetieres of coffee before we could start with a confusing list of espresso, cappucino etc.
(June 2007)

Very much up to standard at a couple of meals in June 2008.  Poached and roasted wood pigeon with raspberries had pigeon that was clearly low temperature poached, but I didn't get the roasting process in what was on my plate. Also raspberries and chocolate of course work really well together, chocolate and game usually works well, but pigeon, chocolate and raspberry? I should have gone with my gut instinct and realised that the three would struggle, and chosen something else.  Crisp pork belly, braised cheek, crushed peas, turnip purée looked well on the plate, but didn't quite live up to expectations: the belly pork was nicely cooked and succulent, though "crispy" was a very inaccurate description: what should have been crackling was just a bit of toughened skin. The cheek was curiously hard and dry, but had good flavour, and, if I wanted to be really critical, the fondant potato was a bit salty.  By contrast, an Assiette of free range chicken, sweetcorn, morels, choi sum, chicken jus was a rip-roaring success.  The skin on the roast chicken breast and on the ?confit? leg was really crisp and tasty - just like the previous night's pork crackling wasn't. The little breadcrumbed chicken nugget I think might have been the oyster (sot y laisse), though could have been some particularly succulent bits of thigh. All jolly good, even the sweetcorn, which was gently crushed, like the crushed peas that often appear on menus. The fondant potato was still a little bit salty though. A little shot glass came separately and contained a Jewish-penicillin-style chicken soup, which was gorgeous.

Cheese was a plated selection of nicely kept cheeses, and in a good selection too.  Black cherry soufflé with yoghurt sorbet and cherry crumble was delicious and once you got over the curious presentation, so was my Lavender pannacotta, raspberry compote, marshmallow.  The amount of lavender was just right, though the pannacotta felt a bit more like a heavy cream than pannacotta. Here, although lavender and raspberries don't immediately come to mind as ideal partners, the combination really worked, and while it looked like there was too much raspberry, the combination of the quantities worked really well. I'm not quite sure what the marshmallows added, but they were lovely, really light marshmallows, apparently dusted with some sort of purple space dust.

(June 2008)

Le Mistral, Nottingham
Good, solid, relatively old fashioned French bistro fare at a decent price (for our wine dinner, £20 for three courses, inc service and corkage).  Garlic mushrooms were button mushrooms in a garlicky butter topped with a slice of melted brie and served with a heap of baguette slices.  Boeuf Bourgignone was well-made, though the accompanying mash was a touch salty.  Cheese afterwards was decent stuff, served at the ripe temperature with another heap of sliced baguette.
Simple stuff, but does what it says on the tin and does it fairly well.

I imagine the 11 till 11 opening hours can be useful.

(April 2008)

Restaurant Gilmore, Beamhurst, near Uttoxeter

The satnav completely mislead me, taking me off to some other village miles away, so if you're going, look at a map and feed Beamhurst into your satnav, not the restaurant's postcode.  A large JCB factory lies just to the east.  The restaurant is in an old farmhouse, reached up a pot-holed un-metalled track off a quiet road running parallel to the A50.

I stopped off for lunch on the way to Sat Bains for dinner in the evening. Two greater extremes of cuisine you could not imagine, for - joy of joys! - Gilmore's menus at the moment are almost entirely derived from Escoffier's repertoire. As this is rural Staffordshire, every table also gets a potted note on Escoffier's place in the development of cuisine, just so you know that the chef's not gone mad. 

A number of the reviews of Hélène Darroze (the new restaurant in London's Connaught hotel) couldn't help mentioning the cultural vandalism carried out at the Connaught when Michel Bourdin retired, and here is the antidote to the London critics' wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

The current menu at Restaurant Gilmore is like going back to an old friend, whom you wonder why you haven't seen for so long. The restaurant isn't the Connaught, of course: it's a smallish, rather cramped series of cottagey rooms in an old farm, not a swanky Edwardian grand hotel, and the pot-holed track isn't exactly Carlos Place. But the tables are a good size, and all the cutlery and crockery are good quality. Service too is not that one formerly expected of M. Chevallier, but, despite an ability to disappear at times, there wasn't anything to complain about. I don't think you'd ever have seen a black cat prowling Bourdin's or Escoffier's dining rooms either. 

I'll mention the old Connaught just once more: through a misty reminiscence one starter on Gilmore's menu stood out: Oeuf Poché Maintenon. At the Connaught this was Oeufs de caille Maintenon, but here it's a beautifully poached hen's egg; otherwise it has all the comforting slightly bland, slightly underseasoned, classic comfort of the classic dish. Very good pastry too. 

I think I would have happily ordered anything (and everything!) on the menu, and when it came to the main course, the Cotelettes d'agneau à la Reform narrowly lost out to Faisan Pôelé Kotschoubey (Kotschoubey was some princess or other: Escoffier named his dishes after the great, the good and the celebrities of his age). To be very critical, I thought the pheasant breast was just a little bit overcooked, though the leg was spot on. Though the criticism is very minor, and in fact subordinate to the general feel of the dish, which was pretty good. There was real depth to the Madeira sauce and the slab of truffle on top was also impressive. The pheasant was accompanied by a good, buttery mash and some baby brussels sprouts (well, this is their Christmas menu ...). 

Desserts stray somewhat from the Escoffier theme, though Peach Melba keeps the Escoffier theme going and was very tempting. And thinking about it, bread and butter pudding and Mrs Beeton's plum pudding don't really stray that far from the theme, so they can be forgiven, as they will have figured in one form or another at the Savoy and similar hotels. It was a cold day, and peach melba unfortunately lost out to the bread and butter pudding, which was a very fine example: indeed one of the very best: very light and airy, with lots of vanilla, though it missed that little spark which would lift it into the very top tier alongside Paul Heathcote's version

Coffee was a bit feeble and the accompanying friandises were a bit of a mixed bunch, with a full-size mince pie dominating a selection which also included a bought-in, wrapped square of chocolate.

If I find myself on the A50 between the M6 and the M1 again around lunchtime, I'll certainly be dropping in to see what their regular year-round menu is like.

(December 2008)

Siam Thai, King's Heath, West Midlands
Unusually, they ask you to order in advance (more common in the past, but rare today), but when you realise that there is one person in the kitchen, who also serves then you understand why.  The dining room is a bit bare and barren, like a shop that's been quickly converted into a restaurant.
I'm no expert on Thai food, but came away with an impression of some seriously good cooking with lovely clean flavours and balance in the dishes.
Kung Choop Pan Tord were a notch above the commonplace deep fried prawn, and the accompanying cucumber salad with peanut dressing was superb.  By contrast, I thought the chicken satay a bit workmanlike.  Larb Kai (a salad with shredded chicken) was light and fresh tasting.  Tord Mun Kai were very good Thai fishcakes, but made with chicken rather than fish, and I would say better for being chicken.  Hor Mok Kai was unusual to the western eye and palate, being a sort of chicken custard.  Very nice though.  Other main courses, though more common, followed suit in the high standard of cooking.  Very reasonably priced too.  
(November 2007)

Simpsons, Birmingham

I last went to Simpsons when it was still in Kenilworth, where I had a really lovely meal in lovely surroundings.  The headline here is that now, in the centre of Birmingham, the food is lovelier and the surroundings even lovelier.  Simpsons is in a detached building (presumably once a Victorian magnate's residence), which has been decorated in a style that falls between chic and French brasserie.  After a glass of champagne in one of the original reception rooms at the front of the building, we went through to a table in the light, airy, contemporary conservatory.

We had the tasting menu, which was something (but not exactly?) like : 

Service was very good: professional, yet approachable (at least after we had got past a gatekeeping waiter, who did a good impression of trying to get us to go away!)
(November 2007)

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Last updated: 15 February 2011