Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A thousand curses on Jay Rayner

Or words to that effect. (I know how sensitive he can be!)

It’s Sunday morning and he’s reviewed the restaurant I was hoping to take Mrs. C to the following day. I had been working on the assumption that Monday lunchtime in sleepy Suffolk would be sufficiently quiet that a reservation would not be required. This was due to be a celebratory birthday treat so although the excellent marks awarded by Jay Rayner were reassuring, would it make getting a table difficult? I must admit I panicked and was on the telephone before I had a chance to don my waistcoat and was reassured by Ross, one of the owners of The British Larder, that they could indeed accommodate us and that marauding hordes of Rayner groupies had not as yet descended upon them.

And so it was that the new Cravat mobile (a long story involving an elderly gentleman, Waitrose carpark, and confusion between the brake and the accelerator) set fair for Woodbridge and a late morning shuffle around the excellent cook shop before crossing the river to Bromeswell and The British Larder. Now I knew the place as the Cherry Tree pub in the early 1980s, when I used to hurtle around Suffolk on my motorcycles, and I must admit it did appear to have been spruced up a bit. There remains a bar, with stools for perching upon, but the surroundings are very definitely slanted towards the food side of the business, as their website quite rightly suggests. Stripped floors, muted earth colours, comfortable leather chairs in the bar area, and well spaced tables for dining do follow the current trend with my normal criticism of the lack of sound deadening. Fine for talking (and listening to other peoples’ conversations if you are that way inclined) but when Mrs C’s knife made contact with her plate at one stage I could have sworn my ears bled!

We were greeted by the other half of the ownership team, Maddy, who proved to be friendly, attentive, and very knowledgeable of both the food and the drinks on offer. Other staff were also well trained in the niceties of service and were very pleasant. We settled down with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and an excellent pint of Woodford’s Wherry while we perused the menu. Mrs. C is not one for large lunches and as it was her unofficial birthday, I suggested we share the Dingley Dell Pork tasting platter as a first course on the grounds that a) she could eat as much as she wanted, and b) I could hoover the rest. Mains chosen we settled back and chatted about things foody until Maddy escorted us through to our table.

The shared platter was excellent. Even the Pea and Ham soup met with my approval (I have no time for vegetables that require you to expend more energy trying to eat them than they provide during digestion) with the other elements demonstrating skill and sympathetic treatment of the ingredients. Star of the platter for me was the Scotch Egg, perfectly cooked runny yolked egg and with the addition of shards of ham in the coating. Very toothsome. The terrine was dense and full flavoured whilst the warm, slow braised, pork and lentils gave a good earthy kick to the platter. Accompaniments of picallili, celeriac remoulade and beautifully crusted bread from the Orford bakery with salted butter were exactly right and complemented the meats perfectly. My only slight disappointment was the gherkins, neither home-made or inventive – I would have preferred some pickled vegetables but that is a very personal choice.

The restaurant started to fill as we enjoyed a nicely judged gap between courses before we took up the eating irons once more. Mrs. C had chosen the slow cooked duck leg with roasted beets which was presented well, not too fussy, and ate even better. The different beets were tender, sweet and earthy, with the duck was beautifully cooked, moist and full of flavour. The accompanying kale was also deemed acceptable although definitely not one of Mrs C’s favourites! The portion proved to be too large for the bird-like Mrs C, so I was obliged to assist and was duly impressed.

My main course was locally caught Skate wing with cockles, kale, and sautéed potatoes. A very decent sized wing ha been faultlessly cooked, the sticky translucent flesh easily parting from the bone and nicely complimented by the intense cockles. Excellent sautéed new potatoes and the kale (not my favourite either but a good contrast of texture in this case) completed the dish. My only slight criticism is that it was all a bit buttery, definitely not a dish a cardiologist would recommend, but in the interests of research I was willing to take the risk.

Having eaten royally, we declined desserts but watching dishes being delivered to our fellow diners they appeared accomplished and were certainly enjoyed. The bill for the aforesaid, and an additional pint of Wherry to aid digestion, was a not unreasonable £57.  Definitely The Best rating!

Pictures are courtesy of Mrs C's phone. I am greatly indebted.
Toodle Pip Once More!

Feeling Peaky

I have sadly neglected this web-log for far too long, and I apologise for that sad omission. As an easing back into the swing of things I present to you a round–up of my previous week or so’s foody forays. Sticking well within my remit of finding decent food outside the M25, the following micro reviews are as a result of my recent foray to the Peak District.

The newly-acquired Cravat jalopy was loaded, passports packed, vaccinations checked, and the Good Lady Wife provided with map books and Sat Nav as we left civilisation and headed for a week’s break in the Peak District. Our journey had been planned with military precision with a lunch stop identified after much deliberation from the Good Pub Guide, the Cravat favoured bible for decent stops when travelling.

Despite the best efforts of a lorry driver managing to close the A14, we arrived at the Wheatsheaf at Woodhouse Eaves in good time for a light luncheon. The pub appeared fairly food orientated, with a waitress service restaurant on the first floor, and an eclectic style of decoration. Drinks prices were a bit of a shock for a pub in the middle of nowhere - £3.50p for a pint of Marstons was particularly over-the-top I felt, but we settled down to peruse the menu. I chose the Ploughman’s, while Mrs C plumped for the Caesar Salad, neither of which should really tax a kitchen brigade. How wrong we were. The salad was strips of tired outer leaves of Romano, or similar, lettuce, large croutons that had been fried at too low a temperature in stale, poor quality oil, with shards of fridge cold incredibly salty bacon. There was plenty of parmesan shavings but the dressing, which Mrs .C had the foresight to ask for ‘on the side’, was suspiciously like it was from a supermarket bottle. At £10 we at least expected freshness and correct ingredients. My Ploughman’s was equally disappointing with salad that had been cut a long time previously, low grade cheese and indigestible bread. On the plus side, the waitress took note of our comments and removed the salad from the bill but the standard of food being passed from the kitchen on a quiet Friday lunchtime does not bode well. One to avoid, I’m afraid.

We fared somewhat better over the following week as we ambled around the southern fringes of the Peak District, certainly not experiencing anything quite so slapdash as on the journey up, and hot upon a couple of venues that delivered above our expectations.(and a couple that were ‘quirky’!). In no particular order, I’ll paint a pen picture of each:

The Devonshire Arms in Hartington (no website) is a no nonsense pub with a walkers bar, lounge and dining room (presided over by Head Waitress Janice) that delivered excellent value, good quality, pub food with the occasional ‘special’ using local ingredients cooked well. Welcoming landlord (Dave) and professional but friendly staff make for a relaxed atmosphere. The food is a bit ‘old school’ in that there is a lot of cream sauces on the menu but this is not meant to be ‘fine dining’. Dishes sampled included black pudding and bacon salad with mustard dressing, Chicken liver pate, grilled swordfish, griddled pork steaks with leek and mustard mash, steak mushroom and ale pie, and ginger pudding with sticky ginger sauce and ice cream. An excellent venue for lunch or dinner in a pretty village.

The Staffordshire Knot in Sheen was the scene of our best meal of our jaunt. Having popped in for a swift lunch on the Sunday and being impressed by the look of the food being enjoyed by fellow customers, we booked a table for the Tuesday evening – just as well as the owner doesn’t open unless she has bookings early in the week! As it turned out, we had the pub to ourselves but were entertained royally by Jacqui Allesbrook , the owner. The food was of good restaurant quality, locally sourced ingredients treated sympathetically and presented well. Star of the meal was the rack of lamb which was absolutely perfectly cooked for me although there was very little that we could criticise. The pub has lost trade in the last couple of years but Jacqui is trying to build the business back up and is offering excellent food at very reasonable prices. Highly recommended but make sure you book in advance! The Red Lion at Litton served a very decent lunch (particularly good chips) in a welcoming, old fashioned setting. A blazing log fire kept the chill at bay, the menu read very well, and if the food we saw was an indication then this would be a good evening destination if you were staying in the area. Appearances were deceptive at The Waterloo Inn at Biggin. (website could do with updating!) At the halfway point of one of our walks, we had low expectations of the slightly run-down looking pub but first impressions can prove to be incorrect and we had a very enjoyable lunch, again with good chips (once must keep one’s carbohydrate levels up when route marching around the dales), eaten in the sunshine wih glorious views, whilst being entertained by free roaming chickens. Very helpful , friendly, staff make this an enjoyable country pub.

Of the pubs that we visited that failed to make the grade The Royal Oak at Wetton was the biggest disappointment, particularly as it was our ‘local’ during our stay. A tired pub, run in a rather haphazard way, with very basic camp-site fodder, it really is not worth the trip. It would also help potential punters if there was some indication of when they were going to be open – it did seem down to the whim of the landlord.

Although we didn’t eat there, we were told that the food at the Watts Russell Arms in Hope is good so we popped in to have a look. An attractive small building from the outside, the bar was totally devoid of character, or sound, as the few customers stared blankly at the equally blank walls. Not the sort of place to go for a convivial evening but the food may be worth it.

We were going to try another pub on the way home but the A14 was closed once more so we were confined to the M1. I set the controls to Warp Factor 9 on the Starship Cravat and we headed straight for Cravat Towers so no further reports to be made I’m afraid.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Trip Too Far?

As part of Mrs. C’s plan for my convalescence, (or possibly just a cunning plan to finish me off!), I found myself supplanted to a bijou cottage in the Yorkshire Moors for a week of ‘R&R’. I packed plenty of reading material, my smoking jacket, an excellent malt whisky and slippers, and looked forward to a restful week admiring the views over the ‘blasted heath’. Unfortunately Mrs C had packed walking gear for the both of us and was of the opinion that a few brisk walks would work wonders in returning me to my former fitness. Every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes, and a handy by-product of all the yomping o’er hill and dale was an increasingly hearty appetite! So if, dear reader, you should find yourself in a similar predicament on the southern fringes of the Yorkshire Moors, here are my recommendations for favoured watering holes.

A couple of general observations before I get to the specifics: a) Yorkshire people (and incomers that have lived there at least a couple of years) tend to be very open and hospitable; b) prices for just about anything are significantly cheaper than Down South; c) ‘Yorkshire Helpings’ are large, there is no such thing as a ‘lite bite’; and d) you have to search really hard to find a country pub that doesn’t serve half decent food. Indeed, the overall ambience of the area sent Mrs. C scurrying into numerous estate agents looking for her retirement home (obviously to be purchased from the payout on my life insurance following the severity of a couple of our walks!). In all seriousness, given good weather as opposed to the howling gales we experienced, I can almost understand why they call it ‘God’s Own Country’.

We were billeted some 400 yards from the White Horse Farm Inn in Rosedale which proved to be most fortuitous. An ex-coaching inn, now owned by a local syndicate, used by locals and tourists alike, the bar had a good pubby feel to it and the restaurant sufficiently upgraded to make the dining experience that little bit special. The food was consistently high standard pub food with daily specials, served by friendly staff at a leisurely pace. Table 28 in the restaurant has the best views out across Rosedale (they charge the same whether you eat in the bar or restaurant) and would be my choice. A good, though limited, choice of wines at very reasonable prices and three real ales on hand-pump ticked most of my boxes. My last meal there (almost literally) was their Pork Stack – a base of mustard mash, with two pieces of gammon steak, two pork chops and two rounds of black pudding served with a cream and stilton sauce and vegetables. Not a hint of cholesterol, almost classed as a healthy snack I believe! If possible, approach the pub from Rosedale rather than from Hutton-le-Hole thus avoiding the notorious Rosedale Chimney, certainly not a road to attempt after a couple of snifters.

Slightly further afield, The New Inn at Cropton ticked every conceivable box and then some! A brew-pub, with up to six of their own beers on hand-pump, their own smoke-house, a good atmosphere and very good pub food, what is there not to like? They even have rooms if you get ‘tired and emotional’ and will happily show you round the brewery. I unfortunately ran out of time (and capacity) so was unable to sample their Dangleberry Ale, but I can certainly vouch for their Yorkshire Moors Bitter, Two Pints Bitter, and Monkman’s Slaughter. To accompany, I would recommend their sharing platter for one (!) which gives you a selection of their smoked meats, local cheese and lightly dressed salad with wholemeal bread and homemade pickles – definite ‘Yorkshire Helpings’.

Another firm favourite for lunches was the Horseshoe Inn at Levisham. Decidedly upmarket but very accommodating (we arrived, hot and bothered after a hefty walk, five minutes before they officially finished serving food to be told there’s no rush) with real ales and everything from sandwiches upwards at lunchtime. Situated in yet another beautiful village at the end of an increasingly narrow and steep road, it is well worth seeking out, whether for a bowl of soup and a sandwich (with excellent chips!) or something more substantial and testing for the kitchen.

Not so successful was the Blacksmiths Arms in Lastingham. Again, a beautiful village (famous for it’s Saxon church) and an inviting looking pub this was our only disappointment whilst in the Moors. Cramped and just the wrong side of cluttered, the landlord seemed disinterested to the point of rudeness, the beer was not well kept and the food decidedly slap-dash. The soup was out of a packet, the panini (that well known traditional Yorkshire staple) was almost devoid of filling and the chips were insipid and tasted overwhelmingly of old oil. To compound the misery, the chips were served in a mini galvanised bucket which, thanks to it’s handle, meant it was very difficult to extricate any of the meagre portion of flabby, oily, excuses for chips. A shame that somewhere that looked so inviting turned out to be such a let-down, particularly as we had heard growing reports of the Blacksmiths Arms.

A double check of the Good Pub Guide (Mrs. C’s preferred reference book when venturing outside Essex) revealed the Blacksmiths Arms at Hartoft End to be the actual recommended venue so we set about erasing the unfortunate lunch from our memories by travelling the extra six or seven miles to the proper Blacksmiths Arms at Hartoft for dinner. No longer really a pub, although they have retained a bar area and a second bar area for eating, this is really now a ‘restaurant with rooms’ that although very well laid out is just a bit too clinical and off-white to be comfortable. We were the first diners in the restaurant, seated by the most impressive kitchen range at the far end, and we were waiting for the tumbleweed to come blowing through. No music, muted colours and bare walls do not make for atmosphere, and once further diners arrived the lack of sound deadening furnishings led to high volumes of chatter. The first courses were, unfortunately, not very good but the main courses were much improved, apart from the sauces which in the case of Mrs C’s appeared to be based on a packet mix and certainly wasn’t the promised wine and cream reduction. So a bit of a curates egg - my pork belly was perfectly cooked as was Mrs C’s fish, as were the vegetables, but let down by the sauces and starters. The service was very professional and friendly but there was a very restricted choice of wine by the glass. With just a bit of tweeking, this Blacksmiths Arms could be very good. At the moment it’s the sort of place you take someone for a business meal, rather than a tête-à-tête.

Of the towns that we visited, Pickering had a comprehensive range of independent shops selling local foodstuffs plus the obligatory Co-op, and Malton seemed equally well catered for. We were lucky to stumble across the annual Malton Food Festival that demonstrated that there is a large number of local producers (primarily rare breeds pork and beef, cheese, and the dreaded cup cakes) along with a couple of Greeks selling their own olive oil and a couple of stalls selling all sorts of liqueurs (one manned by a very ‘jolly’ Frenchman in a monk’s habit!). There was even a Beer Festival showcasing the local microbreweries.

Unfortunately we have had to return to the overcrowded, overstressed, cultural desert of South East Essex but we are already planning our next escape! Just need to clean the flies of the old jalopy and polish my goggles in readiness!

Toodle Pip!

Friday, 20 May 2011

'Tis I, Returned from Afar!

“Why the lack of turgid prose?” I hear you ask. “Have you been banned from every eating establishment in the country?” “Has Mrs. C. imposed the long threatened diet and fitness regime?” “Has my local Gentleman’s Outfitters succumbed to the recession leaving nowhere for me to purchase my natty trouserings?” All these questions and more no doubt, may have been troubling those that have stumbled across my ramblings or perhaps, more accurately, no-one really cares. Whatever the case may be, I thought now was as good a time as any to let my reader know that I am, indeed, still in the land of the living and my fingers are poised to resume inflicting my witterings upon the general public.

In truth, the explanation for my absence is rather humdrum. In the words of that great philosopher Austin Powers, I had lost my mojo. I had continued to eat remarkably well, as my waistline testified but could not be bothered to write of my experiences. Then, whilst on a long weekend break in Shropshire, I had an epiphany. Actually it was my first angina attack, followed quickly by further attacks, leading to a quick rebore and a couple of stents courtesy of the Basildon Cardio Thoracic Centre (I really wouldn’t recommend the food!). Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, my mojo and my appetite were restored. Mrs. C has stopped studying the insurance policies and estate agent’s brochures and started planning holidays, which I have taken as a positive sign in that she at least expects me to last until September. In line with that positivity I have therefore decided to once again take up the metaphorical quill and subject you all to the ‘benefit’ of my experiences.

So, this entry is by way of a catch-up. A potted history of the last six months or so, in no particular order, with a couple of recommendations plus a few observations that made me chuckle or grimace, all of which you can take with a large pinch of low sodium salt substitute! My next entry will, hopefully, be back on the straight and narrow and may even include photographs if the proprietors allow me to whip out my Box Brownie.

Much chuckling ensued on the Twittersphere on the build-up to the release of the Michelin awards. One ‘commercial’ blogger leaked that a particular establishment was in the running for a star, whilst forgetting to mention that one of her relatives is in the kitchen of said establishment, and continued in her assertions right up until the awards were announced. Being somewhat mischievous, I just hope some chancer got away with a free meal at this particular pretentious pub by ‘accidentally’ revealing his identity as a Michelin inspector! This is the establishment that the same blogger suggested to a well-known food critic as being handy for Colchester, which it was if you count 40-odd miles as ‘being handy’. As you can guess. I do have problems with commercial web-sites that masquerade as blogs, especially poorly written and biased ones. Surely it is time that blogspot et al reviewed their terms and conditions and charged commercial usage?

Speaking of fellow bloggers, I dipped my well manicured toe into world of pop-up restaurants recently with a visit to Food Urchin Mansions where we were royally entertained by the Urchins. A small, select, gathering of diverse people, coupled with interesting, impeccably sourced and well presented food made for a most enjoyable evening. FU was on his normal top form, ably assisted by Mrs. FU, and everyone professed themselves to be well satisfied as we headed out into the night air. Definitely one to recommend.

Whilst on the subject of the FUs, we spent an enjoyable evening in London in their company based around the Smithfields area. A pre-dinner snifter in the Fox and Anchor was followed by a short amble to Vinoteca, only to be faced with a ninety minute wait. Having declined their kind offer, we decided to chance our arms at St Johns across the road. Yes, I know it was a long shot but the maitre’d could have disguised his contempt a little better. Plan C was required and Danny came up trumps with Bistrot Bruno Loubet. After indulging the maitre’d in the standard battle of wills (swayed, I feel, by my jaunty Impressionist cravat) he managed to find us a table at which we proceeded to have a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I will be returning in the near future to do full justice to the well crafted, excellent value, food served by knowledgeable staff without any undue pretension. It was only on returning to Cravat Towers that I able to check up Bruno Loubet’s credentials and I must agree with all the plaudits that have been heaped upon him since his return to our shores. An excellent, entertaining, evening thanks in the main to Food Urchin’s tireless research!

For every star, there has to be a black hole. Shoebury, that farthest flung outpost of Estuary Essex, is not somewhere I would normally think of as a gastronomic destination, but Mrs C persuaded me to take her to the local ASDA in pursuit of some wine on special offer. I will not dwell on the experience of mingling with the ‘shoppers’ in what I believe is termed a ‘supermarket’ but on escaping into the relatively clean air outside (there was still a distinct whiff of overstretched sports wear and lank hair pervading the car park) we noticed a new public house, the Meadowlark. Yes it is a chain, being one of Marstons’ Inns, but as it had only just opened we thought we would take a look. Decent beer, reasonable wine by the glass, and with staff that appeared to have been trained and efficient all seemed well. If only we had left it there but we returned three days later with the father-in-law in tow for a snack lunch. Will I never learn? If somewhere cannot even manage two sandwiches and a jacket potato without a list of errors as long as my cravat, they have serious problems. After correspondence with Marstons and the manager, we were offered three free main courses as recompense – any takers?.

Whilst in Shropshire, away from the the obvious delights of Ludlow, we greatly enjoyed the food at The Boot at Orleton (returned to form after a self-confessed dip in standards) and the Ragleth Inn at Little Stretton, and spent a relaxing and comfortable couple of nights at The Raven Hotel in Much Wenlock. For beer and atmosphere, but sadly not for the food, The Six Bells in Bishops Castle made a pleasant diversion. Ludlow itself was very interesting but not the food mecca I was expecting but we spent the afternoon and following morning ‘doing’ Ludlow and called in on the Ludlow Food Company as we set off towards Much Wenlock for our second night’s stay. On a personal note, I’d stay away from the walk from Church Stretton up onto Long Mynd – it’s a killer!

The Du Cane Arms continues to provide consistently good food for a ludicrously low price, having visited three times since my last missive. Their Menu du Jour carries an apology for having to increase the price for three courses to £13.50p, a level which they surely cannot sustain. The only niggle I have is the rather hit and miss service. They seem to have difficulty finding entirely suitable waiting staff out in the wilds of Essex. Our latest visit was prompted by a disappointing visit to another of our stalwarts, the Anchor at Nayland. where we failed to find anything on the menu to set the juices flowing. I don’t think we were being overly fussy but it seemed that the kitchen wasn’t trying very hard to entice the punters and the menu was too heavily laden with solid pub-grub favourites.

I recently had the pleasure of having a couple of hours to spare on the Essex Suffolk border one evening having been co-opted as chauffer to Mrs C following a hiccough with the rail network. Being casually attired (I didn’t have time to grab a cravat on the way out to rescue her from the local station platform) I trawled my memory banks for eating places near Mistley and after a brief tour of the Shotley peninsula I arrived at the Tattingstone White Horse, a ‘proper’ pub in the middle of nowhere with Grade II listed outside toilets (I kid you not!) I estimated that I had an hour and a half to kill before I would be summoned so a pub meal was exactly what the doctor ordered. Actually, in hindsight, it may have been the catalyst for my subsequent health problems as I have never seen such a large mixed grill – a large oval steak plate containing all the usual meats plus two fried eggs and a separate normal sized plate of chips and salad! Not even letting out the belt a notch would let me finish everything on offer. A friendly pub with extremely hearty food, give it a try if you dare!

As a postscript to the White Horse, I was invited to join Mrs C and her new celebrity best chum for dessert at the Mistley Thorn restaurant. I fear my red face, tight clothing, and inability to string a sentence together without gasping for air like some demented goldfish may have marked me down as a bit of a yokel. Still, he seemed a decent enough cove and he did have some amusing tales of fellow reviewers and celebrities. Mrs C appears to be settling into the food celebrity lifestyle much too easily, I think her TV appearance has given her ideas above her station!

I need to stop now; I’m obviously not ‘keyboard fit’. I promise my next blog will be more focussed.

Chins Up!

PS  For the benefit of one particular reader, I haven't once used the word 'nice'

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Du Cane Arms

I must immediately come clean and admit this was not my first visit to the Du Cane Arms. Shortly after attending the Grand Opening of The Bull at Great Totham’s ‘fine dining’ Willow Room, we became aware of the Du Cane and made an exploratory trip, incorporating a pleasant walk around the rolling hills that surround the village of Great Braxted. Moist from our exertions, and with my cravat slightly awry, I am afraid to report we fell upon our food with ne’er a thought of blogging or photos, secure in the knowledge that we would return.

Eventually, the opportunity arrived. I was able to escape the shackles of my ‘day job’ and Mrs. C had a rare day when she wasn’t catering in one form or another and so it was that we set off in the Cravat Mobile to North East Essex. Great Braxted is a small collection of houses along a single road in the middle of nowhere with, sitting fore square in the centre, the Du Cane Arms. Run by chef patron Jonathan Brown, whose avowed intent is “to deliver to discerning customers good quality, hearty food in a relaxed and informal atmosphere”, we arrived at lunch time determined to put him to the test.

Aware of the muted wall colours and gaily striped floor covering, I choose autumnal shades for my cravat offset by robust corduroy to give that ‘Country Squire About Town’ look, and I do believe I pulled it off! On entering the bar it was evident that this is one very popular restaurant but two separate members of staff were quick to assure us they would be with us in a minute and the young waitress was true to her word, escorting us to our table. Weekday lunchtimes the Du Cane operates a Menu Du Jour, two courses £10.00p., three for £13.50p. with four or so choices for each course as well as the A La Carte. Having perused the main menu our eyes were constantly drawn back to the Menu Du Jour as, quite honestly, I would quite happily have chosen any of the available options. To help our deliberations, I quaffed a most agreeable pint of Adnams Bitter while the present Mrs C enjoyed a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc about which I was most impressed by the young waitress' knowledge of all the details of the wine.

Choices made, I cast my monocle around the pleasant dining area to survey my fellow diners. Quite a diverse crew I must say; from ‘young’ retirees through to a young family, from a group of elderly locals to a pair of ‘Ladies who Lunch’. All seemed universally happy as the waiting staff negotiated between the slightly too close tables, laden with drinks and intriguing plates of impressively crafted food. Prominently on display were the recently gained 2010 Essex Good Food awards for Best Newcomer Restaurant, Best Chef, and Highly Commended Chef of the Future.

Our first courses arrived. Mrs C had a tian of smoked salmon and mackerel with dressed leaves which was deemed very nice. I managed to prise a morsel of the salmon and mackerel, bound with  mayonnaise from her and must admit it was fresh, well flavoured and nicely seasoned. I decided to take her word on the salad as I didn’t wish to indulge in an unsightly squabble! My starter, a salade tiede of pigeon breast, black pudding and chorizo with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing and dressed leaves was altogether to my taste, the excellent quality meat elements having been well cooked and the dressing providing just the right amount of sharpness to offset the richness. Both dishes were well presented and of good proportions. In readiness for the mains, I ordered a glass of red. Again the waitress was able to confirm the Merlot Cabernet Shiraz mix and very toothsome it proved to be.

The mains arrived, both adorned with their trademark shards, and after a quick piccie or two we both tucked in. For madam; loin of cod wrapped in pancetta with a potato cake, spinach, and mussels and cockles in a cream leek sauce. I had chosen the breast of chicken with wild mushrooms, crushed potatoes, cabbage, parsnip crisps and a grain mustard cream sauce. On looks alone, I think I won that round! Having ‘helped’ Mrs C to finish her dish I can confirm that the cod was cooked perfectly, large flakes of opaque fish with the slightly crisp ham offset by the smooth potato cake. The spinach still had texture and was not waterlogged, the sauce with the local mussels and cockles tasted of the sea with the cream balancing the saltiness nicely. A well executed, cohesive, dish.

My chicken was also perfectly cooked, moist and well seasoned. The mushrooms and cabbage were full of flavour, and along with the potato, provided ample opportunity to mop up the nicely balanced sauce. My only disappointment was the parsnip crisps which were a bit soggy. Overall though, a very good dish that I would happily order again.

After an ‘*Auntie Betty Moment’, I relented and ordered the local cheese slate for dessert, whilst Mrs.C bowed out gracefully with a cup of tea. The three local cheeses were served with fashionable black crackers and homemade chutney and were excellent but, even for an acknowledged gourmand such as myself, the portion was way too large. Luckily Mrs.C helped me out but there was still a sizeable amount left. Quelle Fromage!

As we both sat, slightly ruddy faced and replete, we tried our hardest to find fault with the food and the venue. Thank goodness for the parsnip crisps! The maitre d’ brought us the bill and engaged us in conversation as he remembered us from the previous visit. It was like going to an excellent dentist, the money was extracted without any pain or fuss. The total bill for five course, three large glasses of wine and a pint of Adnams bitter came to under £45. It was almost embarrassing to pay so little!

A small part of me wants to keep the Du Cane all to myself but then again they deserve to be packed to the rafters every day. What a conundrum! My view is get along there as soon as you can, then you can get that second visit in quicker – you will want to, I promise.

So, the all important Cravat Ratings::

Food style – Modern British with ethically sourced local ingredients. Well balanced and interesting.
Drinks – Three real ales, and a short but interesting wine list with a good range by the glass.
Décor – Very clean lines, if a bit clinical. Bare tables and comfortable seats with good weighted cutlery. Some of the art work jarred but the fresh flowers and plants softened the effect!.
Staff – Front of house run by three staff who were unfailingly pleasant and knowledgeable.
Quality against Cost score – Amazing! The Menu Du Jour provides the best value, high quality food I have seen for a long time. Even the a' la carte , if the same standard of food applies (which from the odd dishes we saw that lunchtime appears to be the case) represents astonishing value.
Cravat Rating – Definitely achieves 'The Best' rating.  Absolutely excellent.

Pip Pip!

*Auntie Bettie was an elderly friend of the family who was rather well upholstered and whenever, at a family gathering or tea party, she was offered a cake she would always say “oh no, I couldn’t really” and then, just as you were moving away, would snaffle two! A class act every time.

Friday, 1 October 2010

That Is Not Tiramisu

Occasionally I have been known to don an apron, carefully tuck in my cravat, and whip up a dessert in the Cravat Towers kitchen. One of my ‘signature’ dishes is that late eighties classic Tiramisu and I must admit it is normally very well received and particularly toothsome. Recently, however, I had cause to re-evaluate my performance in the face of stiff competition from all sides.

The first attack was delivered by the present Mrs. C when she had the temerity to choose Tiramisu on a recent excursion to Theo Randall’s eponymous restaurant. She taunted me with her description of the lightness of texture and defined flavours and even I would admit it looked very workmanlike but to my mind it was close but not quite there. It was a bit ‘Tiramisu Lite’ in that there were two layers of very light sponge and there was not alcohol ‘hit. The flavoured filing was beautifully light but again did not have the necessary ‘oomph’ to act as a pick me up. The cardinal sin, as far as I was concerned, was that the bottom layer of sponge was chocolate flavoured! I am sure there are Italian ladies of a certain age around the world reaching for the smelling salts at the thought of such a travesty but there it was. Chocolate sponge! At Theo Randall’s! The chef who professes to love simple Italian food without pretension! Whatever next?

Step forward Celebrity Masterchef, the program where a couple of blokes (one bald and shouty, and the other wearing and increasingly bizarre range of tasteless cardigans) gurn at the camera whilst minor ‘celebrities’ cook increasingly tortured food for even lesser celebrities. It was the FINAL, and the thin blonde contestant (who had continued through the competition despite continually making mistakes and having a nervous breakdown each time John Torode put her food near his flip-top mouth) had to make a ‘deconstructed’ TIRAMISU under the guidance of some MICHELIN STARRED CHEF. After making a VANILLA flavoured sponge (which was heavy according to the judges) this was topped with a COFFEE cream before chilling, covering with CHOCOLATE, topped with CREAM and another thin sheet of CHOCOLATE! As Mr Shouty would say – THAT IS NOT TIRAMISU! It’s a ponced about chocolate sponge cake. I don’t care if you dust it with cocoa powder and put a quenelle of marscapone on the side, it’s still not Tiramisu. Oh, quelle suprise, the young blonde won the competition, beating the battleaxe and the man with a hairy caterpillar under his nose, despite being the worst cook out of the three – no dodgy dealings there then!.

My apologies for all the SHOUTING there. When are the BBC going to get rid of Wallace and Torode? The Shouty Costermonger is, at least, a fairly decent sort of bloke but he’s certainly not a expert in fine food despite his waistline. Mr Cardigan is an altogether different beast, a reasonable cook perhaps but overly sensitive to any divergence from his views, and not a very nice character. On a purely personal note Torode’s tasting style never ceases to annoy, especially as his overladen fork fails to cleanly negotiate the gaping cavern that his mouth becomes and you get the sharp crack of metal against teeth – absolutely truly stomach-turning. Together, with their cliché ridden behind the scenes discussions and appalling background face pulling and smiting of brows, they have become a parody of a not very successful music hall act. The concept of the show is fine, if a bit dated now, but why do they persist with these two braying buffoons?

My apologies for the digression but it just had to be said! So, after two instances of people ‘failing’ my signature dish I just felt I needed to create my own, if only to prove to Mrs. C that I am indeed The Tiramisu Maestro! The ideal opportunity arose at a family dinner prior to Mrs. C’s cousin’s daughter’s wedding so some thirty hours prior to EET (Expected Eating Time) I started the science that would culminate in a proper Tiramisu. The Marsala and Brandy were mixed, and half combined with the expresso coffee. Egg yolks were beaten with sugar and marscapone added, the whites beaten until stiff before folding into the marsccapne mix and then the cooled coffee mixture added. The sponge fingers (bought, vanilla, and as the Italians do it) were drenched in the marsala and brandy and layered in the bottom of the presentation dish before half the creamy mixture was ladled over them. A second layer followed before being consigned to the fridge for all the flavours to meld and the filling to firm up. Five hours prior to EET a generous layer of finely grated bitter chocolate covers the top of the pudding and VOILA!, a proper Tiramisu. The contrast of the velvety filling with the alcoholic hit from the soaked soft sponge and the bitterness of the chocolate was heavenly and did indeed reinstate me at the top of the Italian Pudding podium, as agreed by Mrs..C. so it must be true! And the following morning a small spoonful prior to breakfast proved it is correctly named. Wonderful!

So, I can hear you all ask, what was the point of this particular ramble through the convoluted passageways of the Cravat psyche? In this age of over-elaboration and fusion this and that have we actually lost our way ? If I buy a tin of red emulsion paint, I expect a sweep of my paintbrush to deliver a deep red splash of colour on my wall, not a complex swathe of the component hues. If that was what I wanted then I would have bought a tin of ‘complex swathe of component hues (red)’ emulsion paint. If I order Tiramisu, surely I should get just that, not some tortuous overwrought, deconstructed, artifice?

We already have various food movements such as Slow Food, Field to Plate etc.. but I feel there is room for one more and I am therefore launching the ‘Pure Classics, Truthful Menus’ movement and I invite you all to join me. I am happy for chefs to produce their interpretations of classic dishes, just put a truthful descriptive name on the menu. If the menu says Tiramisu, you are right to expect a classic Tiramisu and, to my mind, perfectly entitled to send any travesty masquerading as Tiramisu back to the kitchen. United, we can claim back our beloved Classics!  Even I have meddled with classic dishes occasionally but have proudly proclaimed my 'ingenuity and creativeness' rather than admitting I'd forgotten an ingredient or my artistic side just got the better of me!

I recently ate at a couple of very contrasting but both excellent pubs in deepest Essex (I am waiting to return to one before writing a review, and the other I just haven't got around to writing the review of yet - so little time, so many restaurants!) that delivered on nthe plate exactly what it said on the menu or blackboard.  Well done indeed to those establishments but why can't everyone else follow their fine examples. 
Stand up and be counted - let 'Pure Classics - Truthful Menus' be our rallying cry!

Oh, and if we could get rid of the 'comedy'double act along the way, all well and good .

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Best Value in London?

Hands up.  I admit I have gone against my guiding tenet and partaken of a restaurant within the M25, indeed within the very heart of Old London Town, but it was a momentary blip on my otherwise stain-free character and I promise to try and curb any future occurrences. What prompted this abhorrent behaviour? I hear you ask. I’m afraid the temptations of spare time, proximity, and an early evening offer were just too strong to resist and so it was that Mrs. C and I set off for the Great Metropolis one recent Saturday afternoon.

Not normally being one to indulge in spontaneity, I was concerned when Mrs. C. casually remarked on the Wednesday that we had nothing planned for the coming weekend. I was strangely aware of a voice suggesting a visit to London and booking a deal at a restaurant. It was a couple of minutes before I realised that voice was mine! The damage had been done, the seed sown, the expectation set. There was no way back. Determined to make the best of my rash statement, I immediately got onto the interweb and started trawling through toptable to see what was available, bearing in mind Mrs. C’s penchant for shopping. One restaurant stood out as ticking all the boxes and so a booking was made for ‘Theo Randall at the Intercontinental Hotel’.

This left me in a quandary. Casual afternoon wear for traipsing around the shops and more formal wear for the evening – what cravat to wear? Having plumped for a slightly audacious houndstooth check jacket, I felt a slightly muted olive green cravat would set the right tone, neatly combining Harrods’ and the Italian influence of Theo Randall’s food. I just hope everyone appreciated the effort I had made.

The journey from our country bolt-hole to London was uneventful and mercifully swift and we emerged into the swathe of tourists at South Kensington mid afternoon. This allowed for a comfortable stroll around Harrods Food Halls and kitchen appliances (I was particularly taken with a pair of Alessi tea infusers) before retiring to a nearby hostelry for sustenance. Unfortunately Mrs. C’s eagle eyes spotted that the Harrods Christmas department was open (in mid August!) and so a tortuous 45 minutes was spent in a fairy tale world with relentless tinkley, joyous, music in the background. Two observations – Christmas tat is still tat, even if you do pay a ridiculous amount for it, and what effect will four months of inexorable ‘Christmas cheer’ have on the poor staff? I escaped with only a minor dent in my wallet and we retired to the Bunch of Grapes for a pre-dinner snifter. The twenty minute stroll back to the Intercontinental Hotel was mercifully dry but made tortuous by the milling masses of pint-sized touriists (it was like I had been transported to Munchkin Land) who would suddenly stop for no apparent reason other than to hinder my progress. Having negotiated the underpasses at Hyde Park Corner (complete with extremely loud penny whistle playing busker - how soothing!) we eventually found the entrance to the hotel.

Any concerns about not being able to find the restaurant were dismissed by the illuminated sign over the doorway just inside the foyer. 'Theo Randall' it proclaimed and so we entered. Having been greeted warmly we were shown to our table. The restaurant area is spacious, decorated in muted colours with the odd splash of colour provided by modern artworks or, as was the case in our area, by pieces of Venetian glass. The lighting was primarily by small spotlights but the overall effect was fairly satisfactory and the use of floral arrangements, including orchids on all the tables, softened the corners a bit. The problem here is that whatever you do to a large rectangular room with low ceilings and 'institutional' air conditioning, it will always remain exactly that and the ambience was spoiled by the acoustics. Still, a good effort given the raw ingredients!

The booking through toptable was for the early supper menu, including a glass of prosecco which was offered to us as the menus arrived, along with water (chilled tap). Having perused the menu on-line, I thought I was ready to order but the complementary bruschetta and foccacia breads diverted my thought processes so we had to ask the very obliging waitress for more time. Eventually decisions were made, and our order was placed.

We ordered a couple of glasses of wine, a Chilean Merlot for myself and a French Sauvignon Blanc 'for the lady' both of which were priced significantly higher than on the website. In discussion with the sommelier he suggested that the web-site was in need of updating but they hadn't got around to it as yet. A bit sloppy that but the only real fault we could find so only a minor quibble really.  The wines turned out to be very good and wholly met our expectations.

To start, I order the smoked eel with beetroots, dandellion, and fresh horseradish. Nicely presented, the generous helping of lightly smoked eel was delicious with red and yellow beets and creamed horseradish with just enough bite to counteract the oily fish. The only disappointment was the lack of dandelion in the salad but the rocket provided enough peppery contrast to ensure the dish was most enjoyable, Mrs. C. chose Bresaola which, again, was very generous in size and the ingredients spot on; beautifully cured, moist beef and almost crystalline parmesan. Of the two plates, I think I chose the better even though I am a huge fan of beef. Having done the obligatory swapping of fork-fulls, I found the eel dish just that bit more interesting, both in textures and flavours.

On to the Secondi. It was this course that was causing the delay in ordering as it is an unspoken rule that we cannot both order the same menu items – what would be the point of swapping fork-fulls? On this occasion we decided to ignore yet another rule and we both chose the roasted guinea fowl stuffed with prosciutto, marscarpone and thyme with Swiss chard, tomatoes and pagnotta bruschetta. A very wise choice as it turned out, and just out of sheer devilment I also ordered a side of zucchini fritti. The guinea fowl was cooked perfectly with the marscarpone stuffing placed under the skin aiding the moistness of the breast and the juices caught by the bruschetta were absolutely to die for. Again very generous helpings, especially the crisp battered courgettes, but I managed to soldier through and eat all my helping and a couple of pieces from Mrs C. (just to help her out!)
On to the Dolci and quite a momentous event as Mrs. C. normally shuns such things but she chose the Tiramisu whilst I fancied something a bit more palate cleansing, so opted for the Amalfi Lemon Tart. The Tiramisu was light, creamy, and subtle but not a 'real' Tiramisu (I will eloborate further in another blog) and seemed to hit the spot. The lemon tart was glorious with perfect pastry and cheek suckingly sharp filling that left you in no doubt as to the main flavouring. Again both dishes provided an ample demonstration of the levels of skill being shown within the kitchen.

As we were both in danger of following Mr Creosote's example, we declined coffee but petit fours appeared anyway. In the interests of science I took the risk and sampled the bitter chocolate truffles and the pistachio biscotti, and in the absence of any explosion had a couple more. A nice touch and very toothsome, although it did mean we had to have a lengthy walk before getting on the Tube!.

So, in Summary:

Food style – Modern Italian, unpretentious, robust flavours.
Drinks – the Prosecco certainly hit the spot, my Merlot was £11, the Sauvignon Blanc £9. Both wines were very good and we were continually topped up with tap water!
Décor – There is only so much you can do with a large rectangular space but overall a very pleasant space in which to spend a couple of hours.
Staff – Without exception, excellent. Everyone from the Greeter to the Maitre 'd were unfailingly pleasant, knowledgeable and apparently intent on ensuring all their guests had the best possible experience.
Quality against Cost score – If you will forgive the vulgarity, absolutely stonking! Excellent food for an unbelievable price. I would happily eat there every week, if only it was outside the M25!  Overall cost £80 including 12.5% service.
Cravat Rating – Definitely achieves 'The Best' rating.