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!