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'