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.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Rising to the Challenge

The present Mrs C. has commented that my blogs are a bit wordy and that I need to be a bit more succinct. Those that know me will know how difficult I will find this, but never let it be said that I am not up for a challenge.

The Plough and Sail at Snape. Worst food I’ve had in ages. Unwelcoming. Tired premises and staff. Over chilled real ale. Expensive tourist trap. Thoroughly unpleasant. Stay well clear. Struggles to achieve a ‘Ping’ rating – the crab saved it from being unclassified.

There, brief enough for you?

For those that want to know more – read on! 

And I can't guarantee to be quite so brief in future!

One to Avoid!

Just a mini-blog*, this one but I really couldn’t let this ‘experience’ pass without comment. Mrs C and I had spent a very enjoyable couple of days with some colleagues in Southwold on the Suffolk coast but had made a slight misjudgement over the date in that we chose the same weekend as the Latitude Festival and had seriously underestimated the impact 35000 festival goers would have on the A12. The journey up early on the Sunday was fine, with only minor delays as we passed through Blythburgh but leaving Southwold just before mid-day on the Monday was a definite mistake.

Our original intention of lunching near Woodbridge was soon abandoned as we crawled along at ten miles per hour as the single carriageway A12 failed to cope with the high volume of traffic and the inevitable breakdowns of overloaded ancient campervans. Strangely, the Suffolk Road Safety Partnership saw fit to set up two of their camera vans on the approaches to Blythburgh where, I would guess, the average speed was certainly in single figures although it was difficult to see my speedometer through the thick black exhaust fumes emanating from the battered Toyota in front pf me. What a brilliant waste of resources – two vans, all that technology, plus operatives all for nowt! Still, it certainly made me check my speed and I didn’t have an accident.

So a Plan B was called for. Using my extensive knowledge of Suffolk watering holes gained from my misspent youth we struck across country to Westleton. Both pubs were jam-packed so I continued on, heading for The Ship at Dunwich. Managed to park fairly easily, and got served fairly quickly with the by then necessary liquid refreshment but my request for food was met with an incredulous look and a warning that it ‘may be slightly delayed’. When pressed further, the ‘slight delay’ was put at ‘about an hour’. I declined the opportunity to sit twiddling my cravat amongst the, quite literally in some cases, great unwashed and after supping our ale, we retreated to the air conditioned comfort of the Cravat Mobile and set off heading south, running roughly parallel to the A12 but at considerably greater speed. Following a slight misunderstanding (I thought we had abandoned the idea of lunch and was heading for Woodbridge where I knew I could get a decent coffee and a sticky bun) Mrs C let it be known that she was in need of sustenance NOW! As time was passing, and most Suffolk pubs seem to stop serving lunch at 14:00hrs., I made the fatal mistake of aiming for Snape Maltings on the grounds that if the pub had stopped serving, then at least there was a half decent café even if the complex was a bit of a tourist trap.

The Plough and Sail pub had been one of those small chain pubs that we had promised to visit on one of our early morning jaunts to Suffolk as they used to serve a decent looking breakfast but we had never actually managed to get there so today was our first test of what this Deben Inns owned venue had to offer. Arriving at 13:50, there were only three people eating inside, with a couple more on the terrace, so they were not overly busy and they professed to serve food all day so we settled down at our chosen table and perused the menu and the specials board. Mrs C is always partial to crabs so chose the Dressed Cromer Crab, salad and new potatoes (why Cromer when Aldeburgh, just down the road, produces excellent and abundant crabs?) and I plumped for the Aldeburgh Cod (that’s better!) in Beer Batter with Chips. The waitress also took our drinks order and we settled back to discuss the finer points of the past weekend.

The first disappointment was just around the corner as the waitress returned after ten minutes to inform me that they had “run out of cod. We’ve got the chips and peas and things but I thought you might want to choose something different”. One does wonder whether they had been debating in the kitchen whether they would have got away with serving me a plate of chips, peas, a blob of batter and the mysterious ‘things’ but eventually decided to offer me a further choice! I swapped my choice for the Trio of locally produced Proctor Sausages with Mash, Onion Gravy, and Seasonal Vegetables as I was, after all, just looking for a stop-gap meal before feasting in the evening back at Cravat Towers. Still no sign of our drinks and it took two more reminders before I managed to get outside my overly chilled pint of Woodfordes Wherry, making a change from the relentless Adnams stranglehold of Southwold. Mrs C’s Crab salad arrived and looked rather nice, indeed she professed herself well satisfied with the quality and quantity of the crab although it was very cold, the freshness of the salad and the dressing applied and the new potatoes. A success, although as Mrs C pointed out, they didn’t actually have much to do with the crab and any numpty can get potatoes right.

The second disappointment was, however, staring at me from my plate. The three sausages may well have been of decent quality when crafted by the local artisan responsible but someone in the kitchen had managed to totally ruin them. Their outsides were blackened whilst their centres were still pink and doughy. They had obviously been oven baked some time earlier by someone who hadn’t got a clue, and kept luke warm awaiting their ‘lucky’ consumers. Considering the amount of time we waited for our dishes, they could quite easily have been cooked to order, after all the kitchen wasn’t exactly a hive of activity! The combination of the toughened, burnt, skins and soft pappy interior was really quite unpleasant but they paled into insignificance when compared to the potato – disproving the wife’s assertion with ease!

I must admit I have never come across mashed potato quite so appalling in all my years. If I canvassed fifty people and asked them what could possibly go wrong with mashed potato I wouldn’t mind betting they still wouldn’t have identified all the errors exhibited in the steaming pile placed before me. Yes, it was hot but only in places. Its consistency ranged from wallpaper paste like, over worked gloop to strange lumps while the taste was a mix between an unspecified waxy potato, Smash, and Polycell. At one stage we thought they had used flesh from baked potatoes which may have accounted for the lumpy bits, or were the ‘recycling’ precooked new potatoes, we really could not work it out. Really strange, truly appalling and inedible. The Seasonal Vegetables proved to be carrot, mange tout, new potatoes (why would anyone want more potatoes with such a large portion of delicious mash?) and the ubiquitous pub-chain standby of ratatouille – all precooked and then reduced to a crusted pile the temperature of molten lava in a microwave.

The waitress glided by and asked how our meals were. We professed ourselves satisfied with the crab but pointed out some of the shortcomings with the mash. She scurried away and obviously discussed our comments with the ‘chef’ as he was standing at the waitress station at the time. She returned bearing the chef’s apologies and suggested that she took the plate away so the chef could ‘beat some more cream into the potatoes’ or that I could have a free dessert. I pointed out that beating already overworked potato was not the answer and declined both her kind offers – I was by now rapidly losing my appetite. What really niggled me was that the chef, standing some twenty feet from our table, could not be bothered (or was so disinterested / uncaring) to come and discuss the issue directly with me – perhaps he was intimidated by my homage to the Sunshine Coast cravat?. The stand-off continued until the waitress cleared the plates, only to re-emerge from the kitchen and call the chef in. The one saving grace was the waitress’ return to our table to explain that she had made the chef taste the offending mash and told him she was going to remove the dish from our bill. The correct result but so badly handled by the chef. Well done to the waitress.

This really was ‘tourist trap’ catering at its worst. Lazy food preparation by a kitchen brigade that either doesn’t care, or doesn’t even know how to make basic mash. Poor sourcing (how could they have run out of cod from just down the road when they obviously hadn’t had many punters in that day), and a lack of information being conveyed to waiting staff, coupled with a chef that hides behind his front of house staff. Overall, a business that, with the notable exception of the waitress, really doesn’t appear to care. I shudder to think how they would cope if they were moderately busy rather than having to cope with just the half dozen or so diners. Would we go back? Not in a month of Sundays and it has certainly put doubts around visiting other pubs in the chain which is a shame as two of them are favourites from my youth.

I may be displaying my prejudices here but when a member of ‘management’ appears with his clipboard, dressed in boat shoes, cropped trousers, a pink short sleeved shirt with the collar turned up and designer sunglasses nestling amongst his carefully styled blonde hair like a refugee from the Boden catalogue, you just know it’s all going to be style over substance and that is exactly what The Plough and Sail is. ‘All fur coat and no knickers’ was the phrase favoured by my straight talking mother but in this case, not even the fur is real. Having presumably been in the ‘Evolving and Improving’ category previously I fear that if this venue was anywhere other than at Snape Maltings the local punters would have voted with their feet and financial pressures would dictate a change. With the constant throughput of tourists visiting the Maltings, I am assuming repeat custom is not required to sustain the business, hence the lack of effort displayed by the majority of staff and the tired state of some of the public areas. This is sub-Wetherspoons standard at gastro pub prices – shame on you, Deben Inns


Food style - Pub ‘standards’ with specials and desserts on blackboards.
Drinks – over chilled real ales at over £3. Wine list short but covers most bases, no wine sampled. Diet Coke seemed ok!
Décor –Large extended pub with galleried eating area and terrace. Starting to look a bit tired despite being opened only three years ago and the Gents loos in particular distinctly ropey.
Staff – with the exception of the waitresses (who took a while to get going!), customers seem to be a bit of a nuisance.
Quality against Cost score – Mrs C’s salad was reasonable but aggressively priced at £12.95. The sausage dish was £8.95 . Overall, a really unpleasant experience that is just not worth paying for.
Cravat Rating – Despite the Deben Inns website professing “Our ethos at Deben Inns is to run individual pub/restaurants of quality and value with the emphasis on good food and service “, they are sadly missing their target at The Plough and Sail. I wondered whether I would mhave o create a new category but thanks to the crab, I have given this a ‘Ping’ rating and suggest you stay well away.

Post Script There are two other pubs in Snape village that are infinitely better or, if you travel slightly further afield there are two pubs (The Kings Head and The Jolly Sailors) plus Ruth Watson’s Trinity / Castle inn and an excellent fish restaurant in Orford, and further good pubs at Chillesford (Froize Inn) and Butley (The Butley Oyster), or there are a multitude of eateries at Aldeburgh (including the excellent Regatta and one of the country’s top fish and chip shops). Don’t make the same mistake I did - don’t waste your time and money at the Plough and Sail.
* Yes I realise it’s not exactly ‘mini’ !

Friday, 23 July 2010

Anchors Away!

To set the ball rolling, so to speak, I thought I would recall a recent experience. The advantage is that at least you, dear reader, have something to cast your eyes over, the disadvantage is that I didn’t have my Box Brownie to hand so sadly, no pictures. It does also demonstrate that I am, truly, a ‘man of the people’ and am prepared to risk travelling to areas such as Hullbridge, a riverside village whose main claims to fame are the yacht clubs, one of which consistently hosts ‘tribute’ acts as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and the Carpenters, and what used to be a bit of a dodgy pub.

Being at a loose end one Tuesday evening the present Mrs Cravat and I decided to give the newly refurbished Anchor Inn at Hullbridge the benefit of our custom. Having been open for approximately a month, we hoped that any teething problems and logistics had all settled down and we’d be able to accurately assess the potential of the place. Reports from colleagues suggested that the management had pursued a ruthless policy of barring undesirables, so I chose an understated, yet slightly jaunty pale blue cravat to complement my beige slacks.

Imagine my dismay on turning into the car park to find the entire extended building to be exactly the shade of beige as my trousering! Also, as is the modern way, the name of the establishment was emblazoned, not once but twice, in dark beige letters eight foot tall - no mistaking where we were then! Entering through the portico’d glass doors you were immediately transported to a modern three star hotel lounge – unrelenting beige walls and light oak floors with an eclectic range of comfortable chairs in carefully crafted discrete areas, some defined by glass cabinets displaying their wine range, others by more conventional partitions. The restaurant area is to the rear of the bar and unfortunately does not have river views but almost in way of compensation you do get a view into the ‘open’ kitchen. The oak bar rightly dominates the area but is noticeably uncluttered, adding to the overall impression of a light and airy space. Being a riverside pub, much store has been placed in the external terracing with comfortable rattan style chairs and proper tables leading down to the garden area with traditional trestle tables. A further garden area with apple trees and more trestles can be found to the side of the building.

For those visiting just for liquid refreshment, there were four real ales, the normal ranges of over-chilled lagers including the obligatory East European sounding ‘premium’ bier, and a short but well structured wine list. Whilst I got outside a pint of Adnams Bitter (well kept, not too cool, and served in the correct glass) Mrs C, partook of a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc which was also deemed to be quite acceptable and reasonably priced. Having chosen a secluded spot where the seating didn’t clash with my ensemble, we perused the various menus and wine lists displayed upon the table and the obligatory ‘Specials’ chalk board. The menu was commendably short but covered most bases, whilst the specials were biased towards seafood which is the way it should be.

Having sat for half an hour or so watching the general activity in the bar, our abiding impression was of a commendably well run outfit. All the front of house staff appeared welcoming and helpful and had obviously been trained – if they had nothing to do they were out clearing glasses and cleaning tables - very efficient and personable, and so they remained throughout our stay with our waitress and the manageress being particularly accommodating.

It got to that decision time where either a) Mrs C had another glass of wine, or b) we went home and cooked ourselves a meal. Note that there is no ‘middle option’ of another drink and cook at home, having a second drink means you have to eat out – it’s the Law in Cravat World. So, having ascertained that there was a table available in the restaurant area we returned to the menus but this time with a view to making choices rather than just idly speculating. Wine ordered, the waitress was subjected to our frst test.

For no apparent reason, Mrs C occasionally modifies her eating in the search for health and beauty – I believe this is referred to as ‘dietting’ – and as such only really wanted something light as a main course. However her eyes were drawn to the Ham Hock and Chicken Terrine nestling amongst the starters. A quick check with the kitchen and her main course was confirmed as a larger portion of terrine with a side salad – high points to the staff for flexibility and helpfulness!. Having no such qualms about my food intake, I chose the Home Cured Halibut with Fennel and Citrus dressing from the specials, following by Braised Rump of Lamb, Fondant Potatoes, Confit Tomatoes, Spinach etc.. Purely in the interests of providing a fuller description of what the Anchor had to offer, I also chose a glass of Chilean Merlot to complement the Lamb

The halibut proved to be well presented, the fish being not too acidic, the fennel thinly sliced and slightly pickled giving just enough texture to balance the soft slices of fish while the citrus dressing (with small nuggets of pink grapefruit and orange) provided the necessary mouth cleansing effect. Overall a nice dish and, at under a fiver very good value. A promising start. Things then went badly downhill when the waitress tried to palm me off with a small glass of Merlot – she was young and obviously didn’t know who I am – but this was soon rectified with a smile and profuse apologies. Crisis averted. The large glass of wine was at the correct temperature and proved adequate.

After a nicely judged delay (I hate charging from one course to the next, and then again I don’t want to spend ages waiting while the kitchen staff hunt down the unfortunate beast, skin it, etc. etc..) our mains arrived. Mrs C’s terrine, again, nicely presented looking meaty and glistening with jelly with a small salad, pickle and (in a nice variation from the normal toast) a few seasoned bruschetta. On tasting, the terrine was well seasoned, the meat well cooked and prepped, and the pickle piquant enough to cut through the fattiness. Mrs C declared herself satisfied although disappointed that the salad was not a) larger and b) lightly dressed – not a Gold star, more like a Silver.

My Lamb, garnished as was everything else with peas shoots, did indeed look a picture. Admittedly a small picture but all the ingredients were there, if only I had my Box Brownie with me! The lamb was well flavoured, soft, but my personal preference would have been for slightly pinker. The fondant potato seemed to have been left too long without turning so the bottom was slightly ‘caramelised’ to the point where is was difficult to cut but the main part was tasty and suitably soft. The accompanying spinach, tomatoes and aubergine puree were good but the star of the show was the jus – even Mrs C reckoned it was good and she is a sauce fanatic! I bow to her superior knowledge but I do know it tasted very good. My only real gripe, apart from the potato, was the size of portion but for under twelve pounds I don’t think I can justifiably complain, I just felt I would have been happier paying sixteen pounds for a larger portion.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining and I still had room within my expanding waistband slacks to try the Cheese Slate. To help me in my endeavour, Mrs C forced down another small glass of SB. This I was not so impressed with I’m afraid (the cheese, not Mrs C I hasten to add). Served, not surprisingly on a slate which I personally don’t see the point of, when I asked the manageress what the cheeses were there was a fairly non-committal reply of “there’s your brie, a blue cheese, and a cheddar” not inspiring and certainly not ‘local and traceable’ but perhaps I expect too much. The cheeses were adequate, the cheddar actually being quite good as was the spiced chutney, and the assortment of crackers adequate but why was there one huge pickled onion sliced in two staring at me from the corner of the slate. You just knew that if you attempted to cut into it, it was going ricochet off the beige walls! I declined that particular challenge. I am of the old school that feels if you’re going to get one thing right, make sure it’s the dessert as that’s what people remember first, ladies tending towards chocolate, men the cheese. I would mark the dessert as being mildly disappointing, a bit like the brie! Having said all that the couple on the table alongside totally blew my theory out of the water as she had the cheese and he had the strawberry sundae!

So, from what was admittedly not a full test of the menu, will I be donning the cravat to visit the Anchor again. Yes, I think I will. I don’t think I would want to be there on a sunny weekend when the world and his wife, screaming kids and tattooed grandmother would be there but for an early weekday evening it is a perfectly acceptable venue for either a quiet drink watching the river pass by or a light meal. Someone (there is no hint of who is behind the venture on their literature or website) has spent a lot of money transforming the Anchor, with the majority of it seeming to be well spent, and have ensured that the staff are up to the job. The kitchen appears well organised and, on the whole, is producing good quality food that is certainly a notch above local pub offerings. A couple of small niggles as written, and I personally do not want to have a silver bucket on my table with cutlery and napkins in, but overall a success.

Food style - modern British with small choice incorporating pub classics with imaginative specials.
Drinks – good value wine by the glass and bottle, again a short list but most bases covered
Décor – clean, modern, relentlessly beige and natural wood – could do with some splashes of colour, possibly some nice paisley prints?
Staff – excellent, attentive and knowledgeable
Quality against Cost score – High. Three courses for myself, uprated main for Mrs C, two small glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, one large glass Merlot came to under Forty pounds.
Cravat Rating – “Evolving and Improving” worth a visit.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

By Way of Introduction

Welcome to my blog, that of the cravat wearing gastronaut. My aim is to provide honest reviews of restaurants and food establishments visited on my travels around Essex and beyond, written from a personal point of view which may not, of course, coincide with everyone else’s but will hopefully strike a chord with the vast majority.. Many of the established food bloggers concentrate on London establishments, barely acknowledging that good food can be found outside the M25. I hope to dispel that myth, whilst exposing some of the more pretentious, overpriced, examples of dining in the hinterland. I will not be chasing Michelin stars or celebrities (shudder the thought!) but will be seeking out new, and established, businesses that provide good value, quality produce.

How am I, a mere mortal, qualified to comment on the sweated output of kitchens and producers? Firstly, I really do not conform to the profile of the majority of food bloggers I have met. I am not ‘in media’, or ‘between jobs’ hoping to get into media, or hoping to gain accelerated access to the exalted ranks of food critics and writers, or even skirting the periphery of the establishment with a pop-up restaurant (how last year, darling!) – I just enjoy writing and hope that my scribblings may help inform other peoples’ decisions before handing over their hard-earned cash. I am not new to blogging, but my previous effort has run it’s course and has been mothballed so I need a new outlet for my witterings! My previous reviews as a ‘guest blogger’ on Mrs Cravat’s blog was generally well received so I hope to continue in that vein.

I am also not one of ‘the bright young things’, having been around the block a good few times. Indeed, at a recent bloggers event I was by far the oldest there. In the resultant blog, the only evidence of my attendance in the photos was of my hands wielding a carving knife – does this mean my hitherto promising modelling career will be restricted to hand work from now on? With age comes experience, both good and bad, and having started my ‘eating odyssey’ in the early Seventies I have ridden the roller-coaster of food fads from Nouvelle Cuisine to Pukka Grub, embracing them all equally, as my waistline bears witness. Influenced thorough the years by such luminaries as Robert Carrier, Graham Kerr, Keith Floyd, Rick Stein, the Rouxs, and the modernists such as Fergus Henderson, Giorgio Locatelli and that Essex bloke who seems to be everywhere, I have turned my hand to preparing just about every style of food but my abiding passion remains as being for core ingredients, treated sympathetically, and with maximum taste.

I have been fortunate to travel our sceptred isles extensively in my work, and also for pleasure, experiencing every level of food from motorway services (it was an emergency!) to the best of ‘country house’ cooking, from dismal mass catering to beautifully crafted mouthfuls of sheer delight. I will confess to having ‘eaten’ three times in a McDonalds, the last time my Good Lady Wife insisted on proving to me that the Breakfast McMuffin was not too bad, a resounding failure on the part of McDonalds and Mrs Cravat., I’m afraid. Holidays and breaks have been spent in France and Greece primarily, sampling the best their cuisines have to offer, each with their merits, and applying lessons learnt to my own approach to food.

I should also come clean and admit that the present Mrs Cravat runs a high-end catering business for which I have been known to wield a knife or two but my primary experience is that of an informed consumer. Being involved with the trade, however tenuously, does however open one’s eyes to the effort required to produce consistent output, the overheads, and the shortcuts that can be taken, all of which go into the overall cost that we all as consumers are expected to pay.. Not even I want to eat top-notch food in the hushed atmosphere of an over-staffed dining room every day, sometimes you just want to eat good quality pub food or buy a free range steak from a local supplier but the one criteria that they must all fulfil is that of Quality Against Cost – does the establishment meet it’s purported level of quality of food and service at a reasonable price?

I live in an area where there are literally hundreds of restaurants, yet I struggle to recommend more than four or five using my Quality Against Cost criteria. I would suggest there are a number of categories that restaurants fall into, some of which have merit and some that should be avoided at all costs if you are looking for an enjoyable meal. Just so you understand where I stand – I will not be visiting the first and last categories through choice.

The first category consists of places that, quite honestly, serve dreadful food but the good news is that there’s lot of it! Why bother going out - you could buy the same processed kak at Iceland, Tesco or Macro, bung it through the microwave, and recreate that ’special’ evening in the comfort of your own Lazyboy (I do understand I’m making a sweeping generalisation there but looking at the girth of the majority of people waddling down the High Street I don’t think I’m far wrong). Normally associated with a bottom end chains of ‘eating experience venues’, or aspiring to be so, they often provid ‘specials nights’ such as “Curry and a Pint for £3.79”. Large pub chains and fast food outlets are the masters of this category, somehow managing to bring inconsistency into the most portion controlled, automated, regularised food that man has devised. I refer to this as the ‘Ping’ category as most food is microwaved, or they have some spotty youth who failed Food Technology in charge of an encrusted deep fat fryer, in which case you wish they had used the microwave!

Climbing the ladder of quality, so to speak, we come to the second category. Mainly well-established venues, often family run or smaller, local, chains, I often refer to them as ‘Time Warps’. Their menu and décor, and often their prices, haven’t changed in years, often serving tired ‘Mediterranean’ cuisine by bored swarthy gentlemen with the obligatory huge peppermill or ‘old school’, everything made with the same base gravy, Indian. The advantage of such venues is that you now exactly what you’re going to get, indeed most punters seem to know the menu off by heart, so the disappointment level is normally fairly low. Like a pair of comfy slippers, they embrace and comfort you with their undemanding food and welcoming hosts.

Next up we have the ‘Evolving and Improving’ category. These are restaurants that at least attempt to move with the times, adapting their offerings to current trends and offering seasonal menus. Often quite new on the scene and, regrettably, short-lived after failing to live up to their earlier promise or mis-reading their demographic this category can provide some of the best, and worst, dining experiences. Prices can vary wildly, depending on the attitude of the proprietor and whether they are in the business for the long haul or the fast buck. One of the dangers in recommending anything in this category is the lack of consistency of quality or service that only comes with the experience of an established business but occasionally you stumble across one that is worth a second chance. The worst eventually succumb to financial pressure and disappear; the best thrive and achieve the next category where they hopefully remain.

The best category, as far as I’m concerned, have a mixture of experience, knowledge and skill that culminates in a subtly evolving yet consistent dining experience. I call this category ‘The Best’. Normally well established, the management understand their existing and aspirational customer base and meet their expectations through providing a level and consistency of service whilst still offering the occasional challenge within their constantly changing, short, menu and daily specials. Another sweeping generalisation I know but such establishments are often headed up by knowledgeable ‘foodies’ or established chefs that have taken the plunge on their own that want to provide good food in welcoming surroundings. Restaurants falling in this category can be modest bistros through to high end gastronomy – they are providing their services at an appropriate price for the level of dining on offer

The last category and the one that challenges me the most is best described as ‘Destination Dining’. Launched with a fanfare, normally a symphony of beige (until the fashion changes again) with draped or leather chairs and banquettes, a menu purporting to feature local produce yet includes the latest salad leaf from Japan at every opportunity and staffed by young lovelies that occasionally deign to serve you with a level of disdain not even experienced in a Paris bistro in August, these venues are all about being seen. Invariably bankrolled by a consortium of local builders, they bring in a young chef from ‘London’ who is given carte blanche to fleece the diners, sorry I meant to say develop his own, eclectic, style combining ingredients that may well work given the finesse of the Fat Duck or El Bulli but in reality, inevitably, leaving an expensive discordant taste. Combine haphazard cooking with staff who haven’t got a clue and really don’t want to be there, charge ‘London’ prices to punters who just want to seen and you have a ‘Destination Dining’ experience. The shame is that these places survive because, certainly in my locality, there is a swathe of mahogany coloured, fake breasted, blinged up people, (and that’s just the chap!) often of ‘a certain age’ that have high disposable income but no taste or understanding of good food who try to outdo each other in the extravagance stakes, for which these venues provide a perfect window for them to practice their conspicuous consumption. Tragically, sometimes a perfectly good chef gets sucked into the morass from which few manage to escape with reputations intact. Luckily, they are catering for a diminishing market so hopefully their days are numbered. In the meantime, go once when they are newly opened and trying to impress, then avoid like the plague!

Having exposed my prejudices in the preceding rambling introduction, my aim is to chronicle my visits to food venues, whatever their category, and provide my honest opinion of those venues. If I think something is wrong, I will offer the management the opportunity to comment so you can make your own minds up. Over-riding all this I hope that my writings will be enjoyable, occasionally humourous, and informative and I look forward to any comments you may care to make

So, on with the expanding waistband trousers and voluminous stain resistant shirt, and dust off an appropriate paisley cravat, as I set off on my mission to eat my way around the more salubrious parts of this fair land of ours.

Toodle Pip!