Archive | March, 2011

Bybrook Restaurant

24 Mar

Last month Mark bought a set of Le Creuset pans off eBay, however in his giddy stupor he pressed ‘Bid’ before he saw that they had to be collected in Chippenham. Not to let this get in the way he decided to make a mini-break of it, and even better than that a surprise mini-break for me! B&B booked as well as a table at Bybrook Restaurant.

Bybrook Restaurant is situated in Castle Combe at Manor House, a rather grand and imposing hotel. Up the long and winding driveway, the lights from the hotel glimmering through the trees, I was sure I had seen this place before in every single period film ever made. After extensive googling it appears this is not so, but it was once host to the cast of Stardust. We waited outside the entrance for a moment to see if a valet would appear as a sign indicated one would, but we drove off to the car park in a matter of seconds as I didn’t think I could deal with the embarrassment. Mark’s Nissan Micra looked right in place parked between a Mercedes and a Porsche.

As we entered the hotel we were greeted by a gentleman who Mark later described as a ‘horrid little man’, so that will be his name henceforth. He was rather surprised to see us, especially when Mark explained they had a table booked for us at 8.15pm. With his lips formed in what one may call a smirk, he informed us that it was now 8.30pm. ‘Errr, I don’t think so…’ was Mark’s quick reply, and a pleasant-looking man behind the desk muttered ‘It is actually 8.20.’ The horrid little man turned red, his eyebrow raised and his smirk dropped into a grimace. ‘Please, follow me… Sir’ he said, leading us toward the dining room.

‘Hello, this gentleman apparently has a booking with us at 8.15’ said the horrid little man, pointedly looking at his watch. The hostess scanned her books and looked at us with a fairly unconvincing smile. ‘Um, er, was that for two?’ she asked, leading us into the restaurant to a spare table. As soon as we were seated we witnessed a mexican wave of information pass from waiter to waiter that an unexpected couple were now seated by that window over there and need some service. The horrid little man was a catalyst of hostility as every member of staff who passed him peering through the doors at us seemed to take on his unfavourable demeanor. ‘I think it would appear that they have lost our booking…’ I murmured through what I hoped was a charming and innocent grin as a pathetic attempt to appease the enemy. I suddenly felt out-of-place and for the very first time in my gastronomic history I felt inadequate in my Gap sale dress and my cheap Topshop shoes.

We decided to go for the ‘Menu Prestige’ aka the tasting menu and as an additional bit of extravagance I asked for the wine pairing. It was probably my subconscious telling me that the staff would like us the more we were happy to spend. We were given some arancini and parmesan sticks to nibble on while we waited for our seven courses to arrive. The parmesan sticks were a bit nicer than your bog standard cheese stick, but the arancini were lovely and piping hot.

The  Menu Prestige started with an amuse bouche in the form of a mushroom veloute. Call me greedy but I get a bit irritated when a menu lists the amuse bouche and pre-dessert as a proper course. I like to see them as surprise freebies to whet the appetite, something to make me feel that even though I am wearing a Gap sale dress and cheap Topshop shoes I am still deserving of a little bit extra. Irritation aside, the veloute was very smooth and hot, but I was more than ready for the real deal.

The first proper course was scallops with cauliflower puree and agro dolce dressing. It was subtle in flavour in that there wasn’t much at all, but I was hungry and it was pretty so my eyes were well fed. However, it did seem to be a good luck dish as the waiter who brought it along with (almost) every other dish of the night was polite and smiley and just oozed an aura of good will. Bye bye passive aggressive service! Even greater was the sommelier – attractive, enthusiastic, funny, wonderful to listen to – this guy could do no wrong. I couldn’t help but watch him all night as he read the mood of each table perfectly, it seemed only with us it was apt to describe a particular glass of wine as smelling so much of ribena. Very apt indeed, that was exactly what I could smell.

Torchon of duck liver, fig and port reduction and gingerbread followed. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, though it was probably the sweetest savoury course I have ever had. And I also struggled to find any gingerbread on the plate though this was probably a good thing. I loved the wine with this course (Gewürztraminer Signature, René Muré, Alsace, France 2008) which was also quite sweet. Apparently this particular wine has a Marmite effect on everyone who tries it, luckily I loved it.

Next up was pan fried fillet of Cornish turbot, cèpe, celeriac and pancetta fricassee. For some reason Mark gets very excited by turbot, but I think this is an aspirational thing. The fascination all started with the realisation that he had never tried turbot as it rarely appears on a lunch menu. He tried it for the first time at Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant last September and enjoyed it, however he found it hard to distinguish it from any other white fish. Never the less, his excitement was still high and it did keep up to expectations. Cooked to perfection and all accompaniments were delicious, even the celeriac which I generally don’t like as a rule.

Herb crusted cannon of lamb and confit belly, tomato and rosemary terrine, shallot puree, roast salsify and rosemary jus was our savoury finale. Lamb so tender it only needed a gentle nudge of a knife to be cut into mouthsize pieces. I really liked the tomato and rosemary terrine, it sliced through the richness of the meat and flavourful jus. A bit of finger swiping went on where my knife and fork couldn’t reach. I tried with the bread but it was undercooked and not particularly pleasant. I usually go mad with the bread basket – I can’t say no to free food – but I found it easy to restrain myself on this occasion.

Waving goodbye to the savoury courses, I can’t say I was looking forward to the desserts. There was a mystery pre-dessert (too small to be excited by) and then a chocolate fondant. Chocolate fondants just seem to pop up everywhere, so much so that for me it has turned a dessert that was once seen as special to something so ordinary. All this fuss about if the centre will be gooey enough – Bybrook has a Michelin star, I am sure it will.

Our pre-desserts were brought to us not by our charming waiter but by one of the horrid little man’s minions.

‘Here we have your pre-dessert – a rhubarb and orange jelly with…’

‘Yes! I love rhubarb!’ Mark interrupted, grinning from ear to ear. Well that went down like a tonne of bricks. There was a weighted silence as she glared at him, a smile that said ‘I hate you’ playing across her lips. The colour drained from Mark’s face. ‘As I was saying…’ she continued, ‘a rhubarb and orange jelly topped with vanilla cream and orange granita.’ We ate our pre-desserts in silence.

Warm Valrhona chocolate fondant, rum ice cream and chestnut puree now, blah blah blah. I half-heartedly brought my spoon to my mouth, but as soon as I tasted it I knew I was in for something good. It was so perfectly balanced in bitterness and sweetness as well as texture. I may even go so far as to say it is the best dessert I have ever eaten. It was just bitter enough to stop it from being too sweet. It was genius.

I was on a chocolate fondant high for the next half an hour which was improved somewhat by the test tubes filled with tea leaves given us to help us choose our hot drink to relax with in the lounge.

I noticed that everybody else just stared at theirs which seemed pretty pointless to me so I sniffed away but I didn’t choose anything too exciting in the end, just a pot of jasmine pearls. While we drank our tea we made friends with an incredibly drunk woman called Pauline and her more sober friend. It was Pauline’s birthday so they were celebrating with a stay at the hotel, good food and lots of alcohol. The horrid little man and his minions treated them with contempt, but Pauline et al didn’t seem to bat an eyelid. They confided in us that they found the staff to be snooty and arrogant, but what can you do.

We chatted with Pauline until our eyes began to droop and we were sorry to leave her. Pauline had no intention of going to bed, just to continue drinking and good for her! She wouldn’t let the horrid little men of the world get her down, so why should we? Just before we left we filled out a quick customer service form; we were sure to mention the wonderful service from the sommelier, but we added a little note about how they should consider organising a friendlier reception.

Bybrook Restaurant
Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Bath, Wiltshire, SN14 7HR
http://www.manorhouse.co.uk/EXCLUSIVE_HOTELS/eating_and_drinking/the_bybrook_restaurant.aspx

#MEATEASY

17 Mar

When it comes to burgers, you can always count me in. I don’t think life gets much better than meat in a bun and a nice layer of melted cheese. I have made it my mission in life to find the best burger in London – the title once belonged to Pick More Daisies in Crouch End, but it was hit by the recession and is sadly no longer openn. I believe I have Pick More Daisies high upon a pedestal which unfortunately never fails to diminish my pleasure of what is probably a very good or at least adequate burger.

A couple of years ago I was checking for updates on my favourite food blog, and read this review for the Meat Wagon. It looked promising. Rare beef, stringy cheese, a bun that doesn’t look too substantial (I hate a bun that is too substantial). I was eager to try it out but the one thing standing it the way of me and this meaty parcel was the fact that the wagon seemed to be stationed in Peckham and I could never quite understand how to find out exactly where they would be. Stupidity aside, I am also a little lazy.

Little did I know that a couple of years later my Meat Wagon dream would come true in the form of the #MEATEASY. Unfortunately, their wagon was stolen before Christmas so they came up with the ingenious idea of opening a pop up restaurant above a pub in New Cross. Now New Cross I can do. Although it means travelling on three different tube lines I know the journey like the back of my hand after three years of studying at Goldsmiths University, just minutes away from said pub. When a Goldsmiths friends meet up was suggested I was quick to put forward the #MEATEASY and everyone was quick to accept.

Ironically, the worst burger of my life was consumed at the pub underneath the #MEATEASY. Distressing memories of grey beef which was impossible to digest. Even Jyotsna with her iron stomach was unable to finish hers. We headed up at around 7pm where we were handed raffle tickets and told that with each ticket we could order a maximum of three dishes. From all of the media coverage about the place we were prepared for a long wait, so we all bought a beer and cheerily discussed what we would have.

An hour and a half later we were called up to order and I could barely contain my excitement. The food arrived soon afterwards and we all made short work of it. I chose a chilli cheese burger, like your regular cheese burger but with some sliced green chillies thrown on top. It was brilliant. The lighting was so dim it was difficult to see the colours of the food, but with my first bite I could tell that the beef was cooked perfectly. Crisp on the outside and soft and meaty in the middle. The chillies provided a nice kick and the cheese protected my sensitive taste buds from the heat. All of this held together by an easily digestible brioche style bun.

The sides were pretty incredible too. The fries I could give or take, but the buffalo wings were juicy and spicy and the onion rings were huge and provided that perfect crunch once bitten into. The real star of the show was the mac & cheese. SO cheesy. SO creamy. SO tasty. It blew my mind. Since then I have been inspired to create my own perfect mac & cheese. By the end of it I was absolutely stuffed. But also pleased to say that my #MEATEASY burger was one to rival Pick More Daisies. From that grey burger all those years ago to come full circle at #MEATEASY heaven.

A few weeks later after a particularly crummy day at work, I decided to make another visit with Mark. We got there as soon as it opened this time and were served within 5 minutes. I went for a Chilli Cheese Dog which was huge and I had to admit defeat three-quarters in. I wasn’t so keen on the frankfurter type sausage but that is because I have never been a frankfurter fan, but the chilli was delicious and there was so much of it that the sausage didn’t really bother me. Mark thoroughly enjoyed his burger as well and we ate in silence except for our mumbles of appreciation through mouths stuffed with food. We left in the cold rain but with our hearts warm and stomachs bulging.

In a sentence, the #MEATEASY is great. They seem to understand what a good burger should be – unpretentious, unfussy and easy to eat. When a new Meat Wagon is bought, I know now to make the effort to find out exactly where they are and take that journey to Heaven… I mean Peckham.

#MEATEASY
Above the Goldsmiths Tavern, 316 New Cross Road, London, SE14 6AF
http://www.themeatwagon.co.uk/

William Curley

10 Mar

Sometime last year Mark and I had a tea tasting menu at Teasmith in Spitalfields. Each course of tea was served up with a bit of cake or chocolate from William Curley, repeat winner of Best British Chocolatier. It was an original take on an afternoon tea, more like a wine and cheese tasting in essence with each beverage and edible treat to complement each other rather than the usual pot of earl grey to wash down a scone. We even got given some tea leaves to take home with us!

Although I loved all of the different teas I drank that day (I really love tea), my favourite part of tasting was eating a William Curley posh Jaffa Cake. Being partial to your usual bog-standard Jaffa this was an amplified pleasure experience. To start with the sponge was soft and light and thick. The orange jelly tasted real, sharp and sweet. The dark chocolate it was coated in was beautifully bitter cutting through the sweetness and giving the whole thing a sophistication McVities can only dream of.

Luckily for me, Mark had noticed how happy the Jaffa made me feel so he gave me a William Curley voucher for Christmas. It was specifically for two people to enjoy the Dessert Bar menu and a bit extra for a pot of tea. A month later we found ourselves perched on a couple stools at the end of the bar which was a great spot for a bit of people watching. There are tables to sit at in the shop if you are just popping in for a coffee and (heavenly) cake, but to eat at the bar you partake in a four course set menu of desserts, all to be created in front of you by your personal chef.

We both ordered hazelnut hot chocolates which were surprisingly light and easy to drink alongside our desserts. This was probably because the very nice lady who made our hot chocolates accidentally used skimmed milk rather than full fat. She informed us of this half way through and kindly offered to make us another one, but we declined. I think despite as sumptuous as it would be a full fat one is probably a stand alone feature, not a thirst quencher. The flavour was definitely still present, not too sweet and a subtle nuttiness.

Our first course was more of a palette cleanser – poached mango and passionfruit, ginger and lemongrass syrup with orange and yoghurt ice cream, topped with a sesame tuile. (As promised in my first blog, a grainy photo from my blackberry)

It was just as it should be, cool and refreshing. The ice cream was subtle in flavour, the yoghurt balancing out the strength of the orange. Nothing was too sweet, something I cannot stand in a dessert, the bitterness from the sesame seeds running through the sweetness of the tuile and the fresh pieces of fruit in the coulis gave it a zingy tartness. In fact, anything I have tried from William Curley has had the balance of sweetness to perfection for me. My taste buds didn’t detect any lemongrass or ginger, but this was no loss in the end.

Next up was a deconstructed rhubarb crumble. Mark’s passion for rhubarb (which is in equal measure to my passion for a soufflé) meant that we had high expectations for this one.

Our personal chef dropped in the crumble bits to the bottom of a cup which were more like cast off biscuit pieces (you can see a bit resting aesthetically on the top). This provided a satisfying crunch with each bite. Next up was a layer of cold vanilla custard and on top of that some wonderfully pink poached rhubarb. I wasn’t so keen on the idea of this pudding being cold, but once I began eating it, it all made sense. The coldness meant that the rhubarb still had a good texture and was fresh tasting, and the biscuity crumble wasn’t made soggy.

Course three was slices of plum poached with star anise, crème fraîche and a chocolate granita.

This was SO GOOD. WORDS CAN BARELY DESCRIBE. Soft plums with a slight aniseedy tang, sourness from the crème fraîche and a simultaneously sweet and bitter mouth explosion from the chocolate granita. I really wasn’t that fussed when I saw this on the menu, but man was it amazing. Every component fit in with each other like a jigsaw. A tasting menu is always that extra brilliant when something catches you by surprise, as this would never be something I would order if I had a choice. When our friendly personal chef asked if we had a favourite, I think she was rather taken aback by my enthusiasm for the dish, or maybe just taken aback at the force of which I displayed my enthusiasm.

Our last course was pain perdu with apple and rum soaked raisins cooked in a cinnamon caramel and a scoop of Madagascan vanilla ice cream.

The bread was soaked through with the rich and fruity caramel so that it was almost gooey. The raisins were delightfully boozy and the apples still had a bit of bite and sharpness. The ice cream was smooth, a simple delight. Each mouthful was punctuated with phrases of inarticulate appreciation – “mmm”, “oh yeah”, “yum”, “nice yum” etc…

I was happy to find myself pleasantly full, but there was just enough room in my stomach for the petit fours to finish everything off. Please let me introduce chocolate dipped orange peel, sesame seed chocolate, a salted caramel and a cassis truffle!

Errr, well, I may have been a bit quick to try my petit fours before I took a photo… I don’t like salted caramel but I still ate it because I don’t like to turn down food. According to Mark it was very tasty. The sesame chocolate was divine. Unusual but worked just right, nothing jarring in the flavours at all. The cassis truffle was fruity and very sharp which made it very easy to eat. I had a pot of jasmine pearl tea (from Teasmith) to wash it all down with.

Before we left we made sure to take away some treats with us. One posh Jaffa and a blackcurrant teacake. There was a little plate of chocolate testers by the till and I shamefully took about 6 different chocolates. Each time I made sure no one was looking I would pop another in my mouth. I still feel bad about it, however, I am extremely tempted to buy a three-month membership to the Curley Chocolate Club for £65, which I am sure would more than make up for the pillaging of the tester tray.

I left feeling as happy as only eating four desserts in a row can make you feel. Mark and I walked to the car discussing people we knew who would appreciate it – our conclusion: EVERYONE. William Curley is a shop full of taste sensations and I urge all of you out there to give it a try. I know any time I am near by I will be sure to pop in and buy a Jaffa.

William Curley
198 Ebury Street, London, SW1W 8UN
http://www.williamcurley.co.uk/
Teasmith
6 Lamb Street, London, E1 6EA
http://www.teasmith.co.uk/

Bill’s Produce Store – 3 Times

3 Mar

As full of shops and eateries as central London is, there seems to be a lack of affordable and nice places to eat. Or if there are any affordable and nice places, I don’t know of them and please enlighten me. There are about three places I visit repeatedly when I am in the area and armed with chomping gnashers because I know of nowhere else that I can be filled with rather pleasant nosh for under £10. So I was pleased when I was recommended Bill’s Produce Store which had just opened in Covent Garden.

It looks like a mixture of restaurant and local produce shop, which of course it isn’t, because where would you get local produce in central London that wasn’t an E number. Never the less I do like that sort of vibe as it is casual and friendly. I decided to try it out with my friend Kate after watching a selection of awfully pretentious and just plain awful short films. After that experience I needed to eat something comforting to reassure me that life is better than that. We checked out the menu in the window and I was pleased to see bubble and squeak with bacon and eggs and hollandaise. Oh yes.

Bill’s was full to the brim with diners so we had a few minutes wait till we got a table. I got really irritated by a waiter who kept turning people away at the door and then cockily informed his lovely fellow waitress that ‘the point is they didn’t want to wait’ which was so not true as he didn’t even suggest it. Grrr.

Anyway, just a couple of minutes later and we were seated at a table with menus propped up in front of us. I was quick to order the bubble and squeak accompanied by a bloody mary and Kate was eager to have the same but with a different alcoholic tipple. Service was speedy and we received our food merely seconds after our drinks had arrived.

I couldn’t have ordered anything more perfect for my present situation. Two fried eggs looking up at me, begging me to start eating straight away and I was happy to oblige. After my first bite I was quick to forget all the dross I had to endure in the morning as I could do nothing but savour the exquisite mix of flavours and textures. The bubble and squeak had a crisp exterior and was soft and comforting inside. The bacon added meatiness and a bit of chew to the ensemble. All this coated by the yolk from the perfectly cooked eggs and of course the glorious coating of hollandaise with just enough of a kick to cut through the smoothness of it all.

I was so impressed with this meal I went back the next week with my friend Dan for a snack before my dinner. On this occasion Bill’s was practically empty so we tucked ourselves into an intimate corner. This did mean we were forgotten at times, but our waitress was so lovely I didn’t mind. Dan went for a full english and I opted for a classic cheese and ham toastie. This was accompanied by some cheap rouge that did taste very cheap but I was not one to complain.

My toastie was quite enjoyable, but it did include a tomato chutney that I felt was an unnecessary addition, especially because it included sultanas. The feeling of my teeth biting on a sultana has the same effect on me like nails on a blackboard does to others. After that unfortunate discovery I had to spend a minute picking them all out.  Although not as successful as my first visit, I was still happy and looked forward to when I would next have a chance to eat there.

That chance came sooner as I thought as Kate decided to relive her good time at Bill’s as a way of celebrating her birthday. They are happy to accommodate large bookings and I was very happy to be part of it. I was so hungry I could have eaten the person next to me. I could barely sit up in my seat the hunger pangs were so strong. I ordered salmon with hollandaise sauce (obv) and waited. And waited. I had to chew on the celery stick from my bloody mary to keep me from fainting.

My main course finally arrived, or should I say STARTER. It was tiny! I am aware that because of how hungry I was I did eat very quickly, but all the same, I should not have finished my meal before everyone else had theirs on the table. It was literally gone in 60 seconds and I was nowhere near satisfied. The entire dish was average, something I could have quickly knocked up at home, and such a miniscule portion I felt cheated of my money. When it came to ordering puddings I made sure I asked how big each dessert was, the waitress literally showing me with her hands. From her visual examples I decided the pavlova was the most sensible option.

Again, the pavlova was nothing special. Just meringue and cream, some tasteless strawberries and a pointless drizzle of chocolate sauce. Of course that didn’t stop me from finishing my neighbour’s portion. While contributing to Bill’s bill my stomach was still asking for something more. Luckily on the journey home I remembered I had a packet of mini eggs in my bag.

Bill’s – what can I make of you? Our relationship started off so well and seems to have diminished in a pathetic puff of smoke. I’ll probably be returning, but as I have learnt, if it ain’t broke do not order anything else. Bubble and squeak it will be, over and over again.

 

Bill’s
St Martin’s Courtyard off Long Acre, London, WC2E 9AB
http://www.bills-website.co.uk/