Restaurant Reviews: Eastern England
Hambleton Hall, Rutland
In October 2009, I 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.
You can read the full report by following this link: 1989 Revisited
The food and service really were superb, as was the breakfast the next morning in the main hotel dining room, overlooking Rutland Water.
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.
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
Brewery, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Good simple food in a pub with the brewery in a corner of the bar. There's a strong focus on local ingredients, both in the kitchen and in the brewing. Their home-brewed beers are excellent, and reappeared in the excellent batter of a huge piece of impeccable plaice and chips, which followed a bowl of textbook moules marinières.
I stayed a couple of nights in their B&B accommodation (which was fine and certainly good value) and had a superb breakfast the first day (Friday), but merely good the second (Saturday), when it was a different cook.
The Bildeston Crown, Bildeston, Suffolk
Despite its size, it's not impossible to miss it driving through the village, as it pretty much merges into its surroundings architecturally. Inside it seems even bigger than the outside, with a large public bar area to one side of the front door. To the other side is a small lounge area: too small, given that they try to hold you there to order before letting you through to your table in the restaurant beyond. The cramped lounge combined with the distinctly unpolished staff makes the welcome slightly discomfiting. The dining room is a longish room, and a bit soulless, despite the rather gothic/medieval decor, which weirdly simply stops abrubtly at the kitchen end of the room, as though somebody forgot to put a wall across that end of the room. There are two menus, a "modern British" (if you will) menu and a "classics" menu (shepherd's pie, fish and chips etc). We went the modern route, and - in for a penny, in for a pound (well fifty each) - went for the seven course tasting menu. This went from a pea soup with ham hock fritter, through seared scallops and lobster with cauliflower and spiced date chutney; a plate of quail (parfait, a poached cylinder of the confit leg, a roast breast and a fried egg on celeriac remoulade); to mains of bream on potato boulangère with langoustine and a rather jarring sultana purée, and a roast loin on venison on a white bean and snail stew. Dessert was the ubiquitous chocolate fondant, here with a white chocolate mousse, fig crisp, fig compote and a whisky marshmallow.
The food was very good, though not quite as good as I think they think it is. Some of the dishes lacked a bit of focus, but overall the standard of cooking far outweighed both the surroundings and the service, which let the whole experience down a bit.
Maison Bleue, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
I went to Maison Bleue on chance on a cold, wet, windswept September evening. Despite having no booking, the welcome was very warm, and I was given a good table (despite the fact that they later became quite busy). There was not even an eyebrow raised when I requested a dish off the table d'hôte as an intermediary course in my à la carte meal. I don't remember the details now - it was one of those meals that were so comfortingly good, without any "intellectual" challenges that I just completely relaxed and enjoyed it. Food and presentation were both at a high level. Service from the apparently wholly French staff was utterly charming.
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Last updated: 15 February 2011