Restaurant Reviews:  Eastern England



The Pheasant, Keyston, Huntingdon

I popped in here for a quick lunch while driving past on the A14 when I saw the roadside sign.  I vaguely remembered hearing something about it, but it was not until I pulled up outside this archetypal English village inn, that I realised it had been a participant in one of Gordon Ramsay's F-Word series.  Not sure whether that would ever be much of a recommendation.

Inside, it's quite a rambling place with a number of large rooms which seemed to lack atmosphere and warmth on a quiet May lunchtime.  But the welcome was warm and the menu really talks the talk, though I found it a little aggressively priced in parts.  So a table d'hôte lunch at £16.95 for two courses (less than all but one of the à la carte main courses) took my eye, especially as there were a couple of good test dishes on it.  

A warm salad of guinea fowl with green beans, mustard sauce and egg, had good guinea fowl and properly cooked beans, though the flavours were completely dominated by a very heavy hand with the mustard.  I'd expected a poached egg, or maybe boiled, but in fact it was a boiled egg that had been grated/shredded, giving it both the texture and flavour of cotton wool.

Grilled onglet was really good meat with a stupendous flavour.  Perfectly cooked to somewhere between blue and rare. Delicious.  But utterly marred by a sorry, curiously orange-coloured excuse for béarnaise that had been put onto the steak cold, and had started to split.  Accompanying matchstick fries were jolly good, but as ever impossible to eat decorously with a knife and fork.  I thoroughly enjoyed the very simple side salad of cos lettuce with a creamy dressing (which I see from the menu was meant to be blue cheese), though didn't care for the over-sized croutons with it.

Pretty decent espresso.

Service was fine, if rather slow.

The Pheasant strikes me as potentially useful in an area curiously devoid of similar establishments, and I thought the à la carte dishes on the next table looked better than my budget options, but I wouldn't go out of my way.
(May 2011)

The West Mersea Oyster Bar, Colchester

With a couple of hours to kill in the Colchester area, it seemed vaguely rude not to head to West Mersea island, home of the Colchester native oyster to see what I could find in the way of food.

The big name is The Company Shed, which takes BYO (bring-your-own) to new limits: you not only take your own drinks, but also your own bread, butter, mayonnaise ... I wasn't that prepared, and in any case must have taken a wrong turn or something as what I ended up at was another shed with tables inside and out and a sign proclaiming it to be the West Mersea Oyster Bar.

Pretty heaving busy, and they sell drinks and bread too. Inside, it's bright with a slightly Ikea feel: a style you might call Portakabin Ikea?
However, I was immediately struck by the deeply unimpressive shellfish display: a small basket of small oysters, a couple of cling-film wrapped dressed crabs and various polystyrene cups of cockles, crayfish tails etc.

Curiously, the menu doesn't major on shellfish, and even more curiously, almost downplays the oysters that give the place its name. Instead, there's a lot of deep frying and a few simpler grilled/poached dishes. They clearly do a roaring trade in fish and chips, to the point that I thought it a bit odd that they hadn't got a chipshop frying range installed. The fish and chips looked jolly good, I have to say. Also worthy of note is that it didn't smell like a fish and chip shop inside or out: obviously the oil is changed regularly.

Obviously I had to have the oysters, and priced at just under £11 a dozen, it really would be rude not to. Aha. There's a reason why they're as cheap as that. They're not cheap. They're No. 3s. And, it seemed to me, at the tiddly end of the No 3 range. The lemon in the photograph is not a giant one ...
They tasted good, but I couldn't help but think they were just too small, and surely somewhere called the West Mersea Oyster Bar should have more than just these tiddlers on offer?

Much as I fancied a whole grilled lobster with garlic butter and chips, I ended up ordering scampi and chips off the blackboard daily specials.
scampi & chips
The langoustines were superb: sweet, juicy and barely cooked. But the heavy crumb coating didn't really do them full justice I thought. I think there were seven scampi, plus the really good chips, homemade tartare sauce and the salad stuff. Damn fine value for a shade under a tenner. With a bottle of beer, the whole meal was £18.30.

Good friendly service.

I couldn't say that the West Mersea Oyster Bar is worth the trip to Colchester. But the Oyster Bar has the advantage that you can reserve a table, and it's easier for those who can't be arsed to take half their meal with them. It seemed that most of the menu was also available to take away, which may have an appeal for some.

But I can't get away from the feeling that calling it the West Mersea Oyster Bar is a little disingenuous given the very minor role oysters play in their offering. I found it difficult not to think of it other than as a glorified chippy in the corner of a boatyard.

(April 2011)

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.

(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)

Old Cannon 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.
(September 2007)

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.
(September 2007)

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.
(September 2007)

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Last updated: 15 February 2011