Wednesday, December 24, 2008

L'Italia a Tavola

3B Monson Road,
Tunbridge Wells TN1 1LS Map

We've popped in to L'Italia a Tavola for a coffee occasionally and my wife picked up and excellent picnic basket in the summer so we decided to try the Christmas meal that they offered.

The subtly lit tiny restaurant and warm welcome offered a very nice cosy refuge from the cold outside and we were presented with a bellini each along with olives and bread as soon as we were seated.

My starters was a really nice lentil and vegetable soup, very Italian and an excellent beginning to the meal. My wife had a chicken broth with meat filled tortellini which she said was nice, but to be honest, mine looked and smelt a lot better.

Next, came a mushroom crespelle with a mushroom and truffle sauce. With my love of all things fungoid, it was perfect for me and it was very, very tasty. It came with a rocket and parmesan salad and, as I'm not a huge salad lover, my wife half-inched it and declared that it was an excellent example of her favourite salad. The meat main course was venison with a redcurrant sauce (I think) which my wife enjoyed and said was very good.

I finished the meal with a cheese platter which was, again, very good although something like a fig or other sweet fruit would've been a nice accompaniment and a coffee.

All in all, it was a very pleasant evening. There were only four tables eating (it is a very small place) but everyone kept themselves very much to themselves. It would've been nice if there was some interaction between the diners, and maybe a touch more festive music or something. We made an effort by pulling our crackers and wearing our hats, but we seemed to be the only table that did. Not to worry, the food was still extremely good and, from my experience of Italian fayre, very authentic.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Il Vesuvio, Tunbridge Wells

112 Camden Road
Tunbridge Wells TN1 2QX Map

We were at a loose end in Tunbridge Wells one lunchtime when I remembered a review of Il Vesuvio on the Eating Out in Tunbridge Wells website.

We arrived just as it opened and were given a warm welcome and seated in the window. The restaurant itself is really airy and is decorated in a style to make you think you've just stepped off of a Neapolitan street, with murals of Vesuvious overlooking the bay and other Italianate features adorning the walls.

We weren't overly hungry and decided to share a plate of Grigliata Di Vegetali Con Pinzimonio which was a plate of grilled vegetables consisting of courgettes, aubergines and peppers marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. While we were waiting, the restaurant became very smoky, so I guess it's safe to say that they were freshly grilled!

We ordered some bread to accompany the vegetable and they were really good, and the last of the bread was used to mop up the juices, which is always a good sign.

We honeymooned in Sorrento, and I have fond memories of sitting at a cafe eating gnocchi with tomato sauce and mozarella, so I decided to see what I Vesuvio's Gnocchi Sorrento was like. It was extremely hot! However, I was warned and after I let it cool down, it was very tasty. The sauce was good and "tomatoey" and the cheese very stringy. The gnocchi itself was firm and not too heavy. My wife had a spaghetti bolognaise and she said that the pasta was slightly undercooked, but not enough to spoil it.

We both enjoyed our meals and the price was pretty good. We were the only ones in there for the most part, although another table came in as we were finishing so I can't comment on the atmosphere. The service was great and the people were very friendly and Il Vesuvio is definitely on our list to go back to.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Jamie's Italian, Oxford

24 - 26 George Street,
Oxford OX1 2AE Map

Having loved Fifteen, when the Cheeky Mockney teamed up with Gennaro Contaldo to open a chain of High Street Italian restaurants, I just had to try one of them.

You can't book at any of the restaurants, so we turned up nice and early, to make sure we got a seat. The plan worked and we were seated straight away.

For those who aren't as lucky, there is a bar where you can wait until a table becomes available.

I started with a vegetable Antipasti “Plank” - so called as it arrives at the table on a plank of wood! Shortly before the antipasti arrived the waitress placed a couple of tins of tomatoes on the table. “Ah”, we thought. “Free tomatoes”. However the tins were for the aforementioned planks to be placed upon.

The antipasti consisted of peppers, courgette, aubergine, artichoke, olives, mozzarella, a minty coleslaw and parmesan cheese with a dollop of chilli jam. It looked great, and accompanied by the bread basket we'd ordered it tasted fantastic.

For the main course I thought I'd indulge my passion for truffles by having Black Truffle Tagliatelle. I wasn't expecting much, after all it was less than nine quid, but what turned up was a bowlful of tagliatelle absolutely covered in truffles and with a gorgous sauce to boot. I was glad that I had a spoon to finish it all off once I had finished the pasta.

For dessert I had Bakewell Tart which was served with lemon an orange crème fraiche. It was up to the standard of the rest of the meal.

The restaurant itself is very relaxed and the staff were extremely friendly. The service was great and for thirty quid each for three courses, drinks and a tip you really cannot fault it. If all the branches of Jamie's Italian are this good then watch out Carluccio's you have serious competition!

January 2009 Update.
I just thought I'd let you know that I visited the Kingston branch of Jamie's today and the service and quality matched that of the Oxford branch. I tried a couple of different dishes, the Mushroom Ravioli for main course and a Tiramisu for dessert both of which were excellent. If all the branches are as good as these two, then the cheekie chappie is on to a winner!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Return to Le Manoir

Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons
Church Road,Great Milton,
Oxford OX44 7PD Map

Truffles with everything! That seemed to be the theme of my latest visit to Le Manoir, Raymond Blanc's two-star restaurant in rural Oxfordshire. From the moment that the taxi arrived, we were the restaurant's special guests.

Mind you, so was everyone else. That's the beauty of dining at places like this – even though the restaurant is full, you feel like everything is being done just for you, and everyone else just disappears into the background.

With our move to Australia getting ever closer, my wife had suggested that my friend John, with whom I have enjoyed many of the meals reviewed here on Gaztronomy, and I should have a Gourmet weekend together and have a huge blowout at a top restaurant somewhere.

We decided that Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons would be a suitable place for this event and so we booked rooms at the Oxford Belfry, a hotel ten minutes down the road from the restaurant.

After confirming our booking we were shown into the lounge where where were given the menus to peruse. We both chose the ten course Menu Decouverte, I had the vegetarian one, John had the standard menu. I will describe the vegetarian dishes here, but suffice to say John enjoyed the standard dishes just as much as I enjoyed the meat free ones.

After some hors d'ouevres and a brief chat with the sommelier who we left to choose the wines for us, we were shown to our table and shortly after the first course arrived.

This was a potato a black truffle soup, which was a great way to start. After this came a cheese soufflé which was just about perfect. No, it was better than that, as somehow they managed to get a ball of melted cheese into the middle of the soufflé, rather like a cheesy version of a chocolate fondant.

Next up was a leek and Jerusalem artichoke salad. The vegetables at Le Manoir are always so fresh and tasty, and this salad was no exception.

It was good to see that the vegetarian menu was pretty much completely different to the one I had the previous time I went. Sure, there was a risotto and pasta, but both were different to last time, with different vegetables, oh and plenty of truffles! The only dish that was the same was the roasted sweet Romano perpper with tabbouleh, although it was presented slightly differently.

Once the various mains had finished, we treated ourselves to a cheese course, with some spectacular cheeses and then we went on to desserts.

The first of the desserts was Kaffir lime leaf and coconut tapioca with passion fruit and banana sorbet. This was a million miles away from the tapioca you remember from old school dinners and tasted wonderful.

The next dish was described as “Tiramisu Flavours”. This was what I can only describe as a deconstructed version of the famous Italian dessert as all the tastes were there but it was presented quite spectacularly as you can see from the picture.

Finally (sadly) the final dish, a chocolate mousse with lemon butterscotch sauce and almond milk cream glacée was delivered to the table. It was lovely, but the milk cream glacée really stood out – it was lovely.

A coffee and petit fours later and it was all over. We both agreed that the meal was fantastic, the sommelier did a superb job matching the wines to the various courses and the service was excellent and very friendly which all added up to a great afternoon.

We then took some time to wander around the gardens before our taxi arrived to ferry us away.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Paul Gayler's Sauce Book

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that Paul Gayler is a favourite chef of mine, and this is his latest book. It's a collection of 300 sauces from around the world ranging from the classics (Hollandaise, Bearnaise) to the exotic (Nam Jim, Sambal Oelek) to dessert (Creme Anglaise, Butterscotch). Not all the sauces are vegetarian, but a large amount are and many of the others could be adapted.

I made the Sicilian Tomato Sauce which was fantastic. The flavour was so rich and deep, and it was perfect with spaghetti.

Many of the sauce recipes have suggestions on how to use them. One that took my eye was Skordalia, a sort of potato mayonnaise made with potatoes, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. The recipe alongside, Roasted Beets with Rocket, Soft Egg and Skordalia, sounded interesting so I gave it a go. The results are pictured below, and it tasted pretty good.

The Sauce Book is excellent, well laid out with some great pictures and I expect it to be a constant reference and source of inspiration for me in the future.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mint Leaf, London

Suffolk Place
London SW1Y 4HX Map

I've walked past Mint Leaf once or twice a month for the last two years without realising it was there. A friend had it recommended to him so when we were trying to decide where to go to for our monthly (or so) Beer and Curry night he mentioned that we should give it a try.

So we did.

Mint Leaf is down in the basement and that, combined with the lighting gives it quite a cosy atmosphere. The room is long and partitioned in the middle. One side of the partition is the bar, the other side is the restaurant.

They do a couple of tasting platters on the menu, one of which is vegetarian, so I chose to have that with a side of baby aubergines stuffed with cumin mash and goats' cheese

The tasting platter consisted of baby bell peppers filled with spiced potato and paneerpotato cakes cased with green pea and raisin and paneer stuffed with rose petal confit.

The food was very tasty, however special mention must go to the aubergine which was lovely and if visit Mint Leaf, I recommend you try it.

The dessert menu had a coconut creme brulee on it, and it was pretty good, getting an 8 on the scale.

The service was good and, pricewise it's fairly average for London. We were on a discount offer from Toptable which made it quite a bargain and we had a really good evening.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fat Duck, Bray

High Street,
Bray, SL6 2AQ Map

The Fat Duck was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005 and, since then, has made the number two spot its permanent home, behind El Bulli.

I've heard many wonderful stories about the food at the "Duck", and have always wondered whether they would do a version of their menu that was suitable for a vegetarian. Well, I can happily tell you that they do, and it is an experience that, whether you enjoy it or not, you are unlikely to forget.

We arrived early enough to have a quick drink in the Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal's pub/restaurant, which is a few doors away from the Fat Duck restaurant. As our allotted time drew close, we wandered down to the restaurant and were shown to our table.

We then ordered a champagne to start the meal.

We had decided to do the tasting menu and I informed the maitre'd that I didn't eat meat or fish, to which she replied that wouldn't be a problem. The sommelier arrived shortly after and we told him that we would have the choice of wines matched to the dishes.

I'm going to concentrate on the vegetarian dishes that arrived, although I may mention in passing the dish on the main menu if I think it would be of interest.

A wooden bench was brought alongside our table and one of the waiting staff arrived with an array of shiny equipment. The stage was set for Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. Foam was dropped into liquid nitrogen and then sprinkled with green tea powder. You then placed this straight in your mouth to cleanse your palate. Which it did. It was very refreshing. It also caused faint jets of steam to come out of your nose.

Next, a plate arrived containing one square of red jelly and one square of orange jelly. This, we were told was Orange and Beetroot Jelly. "Try the orange one first," we were told. So we did. The orange jelly tasted of beetroot. The red tasted of orange. Very clever and a good amusing start to the meal.

Next came the first change to the set menu. I had Lentils, Peach Puree and Mint. Who would've thought that lentils and peach puree would work together. Take it from me, they do. Although the dish was only a couple of teaspoonfuls the flavour was intense.

Then we were back to the set menu with Mustard Ice Cream and Red Cabbage Gazpacho. Again, the combination of the flavours was superb. Tried separately however both did nothing for me. Once again, I am reminded that it is the combination of flavours that make up the overall experience and for me refusing a dish because I don't like one of the ingredients is something that I now try never to do.

Then came a piece of theatre as the next dish was delivered to the table. They were both themed around the truffle and mine was Butternut Squash and Truffle Veloute with Truffle Toast. As the truffle is dug from under the ground, to evoke the experience we were given a thin film to put on our tongue that had a very earthy taste. A box containing moss was put in the middle of the table and water poured over it. Mist and smoke began to pour from the box and covered the table. It was quite spectacular. Oh yeah, in all the excitement I almost forgot - the veloute was excellent.

Probably the most famous dish at the Fat Duck is the Snail Porridge. Now, as much as I detest snails when they eat my lettuces they're still not part of my diet, so I was wondering what I might get as a replacement for this course. A plate of what was described with a smile as Parsley Porridge was placed in front of me. This was the same porridge without the snails and with some of the thinnest slithers of sundried tomato that you can imagine mixed into the green porridge. On top of this were ribbons of celeriac. It was really tasty and had a very mild curry flavour. I was glad that I was able to share in at least part of the famous dish.

Next to arrive was Cep Mushroom, Almond Gel, Cherry and Chamomile. This was delivered as a substitute for a foie gras dish and was very nice. I'm a huge fungus fan and the “king of mushrooms” was a fantastic substitute. As you can see from the photo, the presentation was excellent.

And so it was time again for another piece of theatre. Two shells were brought to the table each with a pair of earphones coming from them. This was Sound of the Sea. Through the earphones we could hear the sounds of seagulls and the noise of waves crashing to shore. The dish that accompanied the aural experience was a culinary impression of the seaside with edible “sand” made, apparently, of tapioca, along with seaweed, various seafood (in my case it was mushroom slithers and bamboo shoots) and foam. The presentation was superb but most surprising was the reaction I had while I was eating it.

Initially the dish was quite interesting, but then I bit into a piece of what I think was some kind of seaweed. Suddenly my mouth was full of the flavour of the sea and I was transported back to the Leigh Cockle sheds where I used to go with my parents and grandparents when I was a young boy about 35 years or more ago. It was amazing, and a lump came to my throat as the memories came flooding back. I have never had a reaction like that to any food before – it was quite unexpected. Of all the wines that we had accompanying each dish, the Sake that we had with this one was the best match of the meal.

My next dish was Cauliflower Risotto, Carpaccio of Cauliflower and Cocoa Powder. This was the second time in a couple of weeks that I had had cauliflower with cocoa powder as Paul Gayler made a similar dish when I saw him at Café Spice Namaste. Needless to say, the risotto was lovely – the rice had a perfect al-dente texture and it had the perfect “gloopy” consistency that I love.

My next course was Vegetables with black truffle, celeriac foam and lemon and thyme veloute. The vegetables included baby turnips, chargrilled fennel, spring onions and mushrooms among others and they were wonderfully crispy and fresh. The foam and veloute complimented them perfectly. I love dishes like this that show how tasty fresh vegetables can be when cooked well.

Imagine a cup of tea where half of the tea in the cup is hot and the other half is cold. Now, imagine that when you drink it half you mouth is hot and the other half cold. Got that? Now, go to the Fat Duck and try the Hot and Iced Tea where your imagination is turned into reality. Amazing!

Next, it was time for a history lesson and a trip back to our childhood. We were handed a small parchment booklet telling the life story of Mrs Agnes B. Marshall. According to the booklet, Mrs Marshall was one of the greatest Victorian cooks and was the first person in England to write about the edible ice cream cone. We were then presented with a tiny ice cream cornet which was then followed by a miniature sherbet fountain.

It was now time for desserts and first up was Mango and Douglas Fir Puree and Blackcurrant Sorbet. It was beautifully presented and had a fabulous combination of flavours.

The other dish that is a Fat Duck staple is Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. My wife had this, preceded by Parsnip Cereal and Parsnip Milk which was delivered in a small "Fat Duck Cereals" box! She said at the time that it was nice, however now, due to the amount of wine we had, she cannot remember it!

I missed out on “Breakfast” and instead I had Blackforest Gateaux. This was the dish that Heston did on his TV show In Search of Perfection. Needless to say it was pretty much perfect. It looked good and tasted wonderful. The whole thing was really light and the chocolate layer in the centre was marvellously crunchy.

And so with the delivery of some coffee and petit fours which included Carrot and Orange Lolly and Apple Pie Caramel in an edible wrapper our Fat Duck experience came to an end. It was pretty much unlike any other meal I've ever had. Sure, it's gimmicky, but that I think, is the point. It's about seeing what you can do with food, turning conventions on their heads but most of all about presented beautifully tasting food.

The service was friendly and timely and was never "snooty", which is a criticism I've seen in other reviews. In fact, there doesn't appear to be a dress code at the Fat Duck as there were people in the restaurant in jeans.

If you're vegetarian, there doesn't seem to be any compromise on quality or taste, and I was never made to feel that I was having a second class menu; it was just a fabulous afternoon.

Caldesi in Campagna, Bray

Old Mill Lane, 
Bray, SL6 2BG

A while back I did a course at La Cucina Caldesi in Marylebone and I've always promised myself that I would visit one of Giancarlo Caldesi's restaurants. On one of the bread courses at the Bertinet Kitchen I met Gregorio Piazza, the head chef at the new Caldesi restaurant in Bray, Berkshire.

When we were planning a weekend away for my birthday we decided that we would book a meal at Caldesi in Campagna.

Bray is a lovely little village about ten minutes from Maidenhead and is blessed with some of the best restaurants in Britain, if not the world.

Caldesi in Campagna is in a quiet little road off of the high street and is well set out. The tables are nicely spaced giving a good amount of privacy. The building is an old cottage and is well decorated and the original brick fireplaces and well done lighting give the place a really comfortable and “homely” atmosphere.

We had a drink at the bar when we arrived and Gregorio popped out to see us and have a quick chat. While we were talking, Giancarlo arrived and also said hello before they both disappeared to the kitchen.

We were then shown to our table and our orders taken.

I started with Uovo con asparagi e tartufo which was asparagus, truffle and poached egg. The asparagus, despite not being in season, was really tasty. It was slightly chargrilled which gave it a great flavour and the texture was nice and crunchy. The large slithers of truffle just added to the whole experience – I really enjoyed it. My wife had scallops which she said were really good. She is quite fussy about her seafood and said that this dish was one of only three that she has had in Britain where she can really taste the sea.

My main course was Tortelloni con mozzarella e melanzane - aubergine and mozzarella tortelloni in a cherry tomato sauce. The sauce was superb, it had a wonderful aftertaste of chilli that, while not very hot, added an edge to the dish that raised above it above other pasta in sauce dishes. I mentioned this to Giancarlo, who had been wandering around the tables, and he said that I should mop up the rest of it with some bread, which I duly did.

For dessert I had Stecche di Bombalini which were doughnut sticks with a crème patisserie and jam and my wife had a tiramisu of which I had a spoonful. Both were excellent and it was a perfect end to the meal.

Caldesi in Campagna is a really nice restaurant, very friendly and welcoming and with some great food.

As an added bonus, Giancarlo popped over again and invited us into the kitchen to say goodbye to Gregorio and we took some photos. It was a fabulous end to a great evening which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Saf, London

152-154 Curtain Road,
Shoreditch EC2A 3AT Map

Saf is a relatively new restaurant in Shoreditch, about a five minute walk from Old Street tube. Its advertising, menus and website are quite clever and never mention that the food is vegan, they all refer to "Botanical Cuisine". To many diners this will hopefully remove the preconceptions of boring and bland unimaginative food that seems to dog the "vegan" description as Saf blows these ideas completely out of the water and if you decide not to go because of the "vegan" label, you will have missed out on some great food. In addition to being vegan, most of the food on the menu is raw and I was extremely interested to see what they offered.

We were seated at a large table that overlooked the kitchen which, at times, was quite interesting. We started with a round of cocktails and then moved onto the food.

I started with Beetroot Ravioli, which was very thin slices of beetroot served around cashew herb ricotta with balsamic figs and a side salad. It was very tasty, the beetroot was crisp and the balsamic figs were great. One of the others at our table had a dish described as Caviar. This consisted of "chive pearls" which were tiny little bubbles of chive. I've no idea how they did it, but they were quite impressive, reminding me of the kind of thing that Ferran Adria of El Bulli is famous for.

Next up we shared a "cheese" course between us. A cheese course? I hear you cry. In a vegan restaurant? Well, the"cheeses" are made from nuts and have a "cream cheese" consistency. The cheese plate consisted of a macadamia "cheese" an almond "cheese" and a cashew "boursin".

They were served with olives and some rather nice crackers. It was something a bit different and novel and, it was quite tasty.

For my main course I had Mixed Wild Mushroom Croquette, Truffle Alfredo and Baby Vegetables. This was presented nicely with a cylindrical tower of mushroom croquette alongside a large "teardrop" of truffle sauce. This was served on a slate slab and some carrots and baby turnips finished it of. As you know I'm a big fungus fan so any dish with mushrooms and truffles is a no-brainer. However, I wasn't sure what a raw mushroom dish would be like. Happily, it was great. It tasted cooked and it was served slightly warmed, so I wasn't sure how raw it was. However the menu marks any dish that has been heated over 48 degrees, and this wasn't one of them, so however it was done, it worked.

The desserts all sounded great and we tried a few different ones around the table. The apple sorbet was very strong and the vegan ice cream was a bit grainy. However, the peaches with courgette cake and "cream" was really nice and I had good reports of the chocolate tart too.

The service was extremely friendly and the waiting staff were very knowledgeable about all of the dishes and made some good recommendations, especially for their cocktail list.

Saf, as a concept, is great. I had to keep reminding myself that this was vegan food, it was so tasty. All the food was presented really well and arrived on a variety of different plates and dishes.

If you're looking for a tasty meal and something a little bit different then get yourself down to Shoreditch and give Saf a try.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Adventure Gourmet – Cafe Spice Namaste, London

16 Prescot Street,
London E1 8AZ Map

Adventure Gourmet is a new venture by Cafe Spice Namaste where they offer masterclass demonstrations by well known chefs. The one I attended was a demonstration of vegetarian dishes by Paul Gayler, the Executive Chef of the Lanesborough near Hyde Park Corner.

Paul Gayler has been one of my favourite chefs ever since I discovered his Pure Vegetarian cookery book on a trip to Australia, and I'd used one of his recipes in my Cordon Vert Diploma exam so I didn't want to miss a chance to meet him and see him in action.

I arrived in good time and he came over and introduced himself to me and the others that had arrived. Cyrus Todiwala, the owner of Cafe Spice Namaste came over shortly and very soon we were all chatting and joking.

Very shortly we were off and Paul was demonstrating how to make various vegetarian dishes. The audience was a mixture of enthusiastic amateurs like myself and professional chefs and others with a connection to the catering industry who were interested in diversifying their menus to include some really good vegetarian dishes. It is really encouraging to hear this and it was interesting to be able to chat to a couple of the chefs and to be able to exchange ideas.

The first dish that he made was Fonduta of Celeriac, Mushrooms and Compte on Truffle French Toast. It was basically a mushroom and cheese terrine wrapped in very thinly sliced celeriac. This was served on French toast, made with brioche (a truffle puree was beaten into the egg) and it was fantastic.

It was like feeding time at the zoo when he finished each dish as everyone gathered around to taste it.

Next up was Soft Goats Cheese with Roasted Apricot Chutney, Cracked Pepper Pastry and Banyuls. Again, this was another tasty and well presented dish. The pastry was made with filo with crushed peppercorns between each sheet. During the preparation of each dish Paul Gayler offered various tips on alternate ingredients, especially when cooking the dishes at home, what could be prepared in advance, as well as various amusing stories.

After everyone had demolished the goats' cheese it was time for a Cauliflower Risotto with Liquorice and Raisins. The risotto is mixed with a cauliflower puree to give it the creaminess as well as having a few florets in there and, at the last minute a liquorice jus is drizzled on the risotto. Oh, and just to give it a final twist the dish is given a dusting of cocoa powder. It sounds really weird doesn't it, but take my word for it, it works.

From the risotto we moved on to Brik of Aubergine and Squash, Green Couscous, Tagine, "Ras al Hanout" with Pomegranate Labna. This is a Morroccan dish consisting of aubergine, feta and squash enveloped in a thin pastry and it tasted great. The couscous was flavoured with a coriander oil and it was served with a harissa sauce and the pomegranite labne.
Finally, he made a Vegetable Thai Green Curry with Lychees, Green Peppercorns and Beetroot Jasmine Rice.

The curry paste was very hot, but a great recipe. The lychees gave an interesting texture to the dishes and the beetroot rice added an extra dimension.

After the demonstrations were finished, we all sat down for a lunch provided by Cafe Spice Namaste. This was a three course meal that consisted of a selection of starters including Cyrus's acclaimed beetroot and coconut samosas and a wonderful paneer tikka. This was followed by a thali that included a superb aubergine dish and finished with a rose kulfi. During the meal we all had a chance to chat with Paul Gayler as he joined us for the meal. Cyrus was also there for part of it too.

It was a really enjoyable morning, the atmosphere was informal and friendly and I learnt quite a bit. It was great to be able to meet one of my favourite chefs and to taste some of his dishes first hand.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Bignell Park Hotel, Bicester

Nr Bicester OX26 1UE Map

I stayed at the Bignell Park Hotel for a few days for work earlier this week. The hotel itself is okay, the staff are a bit grumpy, but the rooms are spacious and clean.

The restaurant boasts an AA Rosette and the food isn't bad at all. The restaurant somehow manages to have no atmosphere and I can only put this down to the wooden floor, tables, and high ceiling that manages to give it a feeling of a really unloved pub. It's odd, because for breakfast they put white cloths on the tables that makes it so much better, but these are removed for dinner service and you eat off of plain wooden tables.

The food, however, is very good. They have a separate vegetarian menu with three or four choices for each course. I stayed for two nights so was able to sample a couple of dishes which were pretty good.

The highlight of the main courses was a homemade wild mushroom flan with a white wine sauce. It was very nice and had plenty of mushrooms, which suited me down to the ground. It was served with a selection of vegetables and presented very nicely. The best dessert I had was a Panettone Bread and Butter pudding which was superb - very light and extremely tasty.

The breakfasts were good, consisting of a selection of cereals, croissants etc followed by a cooked breakfast. My favourite was a mushroom and cheese omelette that came with oodles of mushrooms, so that set me up for the day nicely.

Although the overall hotel service wasn't that friendly (although it wasn't unfriendly - just nothing special) if you're in the Oxford area, you could do worse than stay at Bignell Park.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Brew House Hotel, Tunbridge Wells

1 Warwick Park
Tunbridge Wells TN2 5TA Map

I've wandered past the back door of the Brew House many times without realising it was there. Just recently however, they have been putting hoardings up and adverts on the walls of the Cumberland Function Rooms (formerly the Gracelands Palace).

It popped up during a search on Toptable I did a few weeks back. As they were doing a promotion where, if you booked two meals in August, you got enough rewards points for a free meal my wife and I decided that Sunday lunch there was in order as this, along with a return visit to Imli earlier this month, would earn us a free meal.

Inside, the restaurant is very bright and modern. We were shown to a table next to the window and given three menus and the wine list. These comprised of the a la carte menu, the Sunday Lunch set menu and a Summer Special set menu. We decided to go for the Summer menu which was £9 for two courses plus a glass of wine.

Some home baked bread was brought to the table and we both started with a Goats Cheese, Walnut and Rocket salad. The cheese was really creamy and it combined very well with the other ingredients.

My main course was Tagliatelle with Tomato, Chilli and Rocket. My wife had a burger which had even more rocket - it did seem to embellish every dish... I thought, initially, that the tagliatelle might be boring but it was nicely spiced with chilli and quite tasty.

We decided to add dessert to the bill and for me there was but one choice as, on the menu was a Bourbon Creme Brulee. It ranked 7 on the chart. It was tasty, but let down by the consistency of he custard, which was just a bit too runny and the lack of any taste of bourbon.

My wife chose a Chocolate Fondant with Cappuccino Ice Cream and Vanilla Cappuccino of which I had a taste. It was gorgeous and I highly recommend it. The fondant was perfectly gooey and the ice cream was lovely. I didn't get a proper taste of the Vanilla Cappuccino as my wife woofed it down marvelling at how good it was!

The service was very friendly and the waiting staff were all very knowledgeable about the contents of the menu.

Compared to the a la carte menu prices (which were high, but not astronomically so) the set menu we had was a real bargain, and we'll back sometime to sample more sometime.

Prezzo, Tunbridge Wells

84 Mount Pleasant Road
Tunbridge Wells TN1 1RT Map

Prezzo is a national chain of restaurants serving Italian food. Like most Italian restaurants there are plenty of choices on the menu for vegetarians. I've been there a couple of times and had some really good dishes. The Pane Con Cipolla is well worth having. It's garlic pizza bread with caramelised balsamic onions and melted mozzarella cheese and is great to share at the top of a meal. The baked mushrooms on the Antipasti menu are very tasty and last time I went I had the Crespolina Porcini which consists of crepes filled with mushrooms and ricotta in a cream sauce.

One thing to note when tipping in Prezzo is that I have it on good authority that any tips left on a credit card are used to make up the wages rather than go to the staff as an extra for good service. There is new legislation coming in that will help to stop this practise, but now we always check when we eat out and leave cash tips if we are at all unsure as cash tips are not legally the property of the employer and cannot be used this way. There is a good article about it here. Having read it I was disappointed to see that Carluccio's, a favourite restaurant of mine, follows this practice, so I will now make sure to only leave cash tips when visiting there in future.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Drunken Duck Inn, Cumbria

Cumbria LA22 0NG Map

From the outside, the Drunken Duck looks like your average country pub, except that, despite its position - effectively in the middle of nowhere - there are an inordinate amount of people filling the bar and all the outside tables. So one may assume, quite rightly in this case, that the pub has a good reputation.

Inside, the bar is fairly narrow, but well laid out. The staff are very friendly and knowledgeable and they have a great range of wines and beers, the beers brewed at their own brewery which was initially set up to provide the Duck with its own beers and now supplies many other inns throughout the north of England.

The bar offers its own food menu, however it was the restaurant that we had come to sample. We visited twice, once at lunch and then for an evening meal a couple of days later so this review will be a mix of both visits.

So, lets start at the beginning. The restaurant is well laid out, with the tables far enough apart to allow quite a bit of privacy.

For lunchtime starters I had Goats Cheese with Celeriac Remoulade and Baked Pear. The celeriac was delicately flavoured with mustard and complimented the creamy goat cheese. Similarly, the goats cheese and pear were gorgeous. For starters at dinner, I had another cheese dish. This time it was a mousse with a fig chutney. It was nice, but nowhere near as good as the previous dish. My wife had scallops which she said were fantastic.

My main course on both days was fabulous. For lunch I had Pea & Mint Risotto. It was really good, the rice was cooked with just the right amount of bite and had a pea puree mixed into the rice as well as whole fresh peas. From the evening dinner menu I had Roasted Butternut Squash and Wild Mushrooms. As you know I have a bit of a mushroom fixation, so when this dish turned up I was in heaven. It consisted of two halves of a roasted butternut squash with the bulbs filled to overflowing with chanterelles and trompe-de-morte mushrooms in a lovely white wine sauce. It tasted as good as it sounds (provided I made it sound good enough) and the squash was wonderfully tender. My wife had a venison dish which she said was a little dry and overcooked. However, we saw others coming out that looked perfect, so I guess she was just unlucky.

Instead of dessert for dinner, we shared a cheese platter between us. This had eight different cheeses made from sheep, goats and cows served with various crackers, fruit and chutney. It was all very tasty and, along with a coffee, it ended the meal perfectly.

If you go for lunch, the menu prices are good value, in the evening it is a bit more expensive. If you're in the Lakes looking for a great place to eat, then a visit to the Drunken Duck is well worth fitting into your diary. As I mentioned at the beginning it gets busy so make sure you book ahead, especially for an evening meal.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Yewfield B&B, Hawkshead

Hawkshead Hill,
Hawkshead Ambleside,
Cumbria, LA22 0PR Map

Last weekend we went up to the Lake District. The Bed & Breakfast we picked was Yewfield, a vegetarian B&B near Hawkshead, a short distance from Ambleside.

When we arrived, no one was there, and we were greeted with an envelope with the room keys and a note apologising for no one being available to greet us and instructions on how to get to our room.

The room itself was very nice, spacious and clean and had a qonderful view from the full length window/door which opened onto a very small Juliet balcony.

It's pretty well situated, being about a 20 minute walk from Hawkshead down a small country lane, where you have to squash into the hedge should a car come along. It's also about a 10 minute walk from Tarn Hows.

We did two walks, one from Hawkshead to Latterbarrow and one around Tarn Hows and up Black Crag. We were pretty lucky with the weather as it stayed dry all the Bank Holiday weekend and only started to rain on the way home.

To be honest, the advertising of this place as a "vegetarian" B&B only really refers to the breakfast, as that is the only meal that is provided. Other than that, this could be any B&B. The breakfasts were good, but nothing more than I could get at any other hotel or guesthouse by asking for an English breakfast without the sausage, bacon etc. I guess that you do have the peace of mind that everything is cooked correctly and that there is no contamination by meat products. Other than that, there is no added bonus for vegetarians, which is a shame.

Having said that, it is a very nice place, the staff are very friendly and the rooms are clean and comfortable. If you are looking for somewhere in the Lakes to stay, you could do worse than Yewfield.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hand and Sceptre, Southborough

21 London Road,
Southborough TN4 0QB

We were planning to go to the Italian deli in Southborough for a coffee and a bit for lunch, but when we got there it was shut with a "Gone Fishing" sign on the door. So we drove up the hill to the Hand and Sceptre pub to give it a try.

This is a place that I drive past twice a day on my way to and from Tunbridge Wells and never really considered visiting. Now I know what I've been missing, I can see it being a regular choice.

The setting of the pub is really nice, sitting as it does opposite the green so on sunny summer days (if we ever get any) you could sit on the terrace and watch the cricket. Inside it is well decorated with wooden floors, well spaced tables and a few "olde worlde" ovens and such-like to add some atmosphere.

We were only there for lunch, so we didn't eat a lot. I ordered a quatro formaggi pizza and my wife had fish and chips. The pizza was great. As well as the cheese, there were slices of pear on it which went really well with the gorgonzola which I thought was a great idea. My wife really enjoyed her fish and chips and I had a taste of the mushy peas that came with them and they tasted really sweet - not unlike a pea soup. It was the first time that I've ever seen my wife eat mushy peas, they are normally just pushed to the side of the plate, so I think that is a great recommendation.

The service was quick and very friendly and we couldn't fault it at all. The prices are a little higher that I would expect for a pub lunch (my pizza was £9) but it was all very good quality and very well presented. To be honest I'd rather pay that little bit more for the quality of food and service than save a couple of quid and have tasteless, unimaginative food and poor service, so I'll forgive them.

They also offer accommodation, so if the rooms and breakfast match up to the quality of the restaurant it would be a good place to stay if you're visiting the area.

All in all, we were both very pleased that the deli was shut and we'll be back at the Hand and Sceptre before too long.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christmas in July

For Christmas last year, my sister gave my wife and I a "show and dinner" package. Finally, last weekend we went up to London for the day to finally partake of her present.

We started with lunch at El Cantara, a Spanish/Moroccan restaurant near Shaftesbury Avenue in Frith Street. We arrived around 2.30pm and were the only people in the place. The welcome and service was very friendly and we sat at a table where we could watch the rest of the world go by out of the window.

We chose a couple of dishes to start, Zaalouk which was smoked aubergine with mixed spices, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, and Piquillo de Patatas which was a baby pepper stuffed with a potato and carrot purée. We had some Moroccan bread to accompany them, and it was all really tasty. For main course I had a vegetable tagine, accompanied by a really good bowl of couscous, flavoured with cinnamon. There was just one thing that annoyed me. Service was included on the bill and yet the credit card machine still offered us the chance to add a tip. What's more, the waiter asked if we wanted to add a tip when he handed me the machine to which I politely pointed out that he'd already included it on the bill.

From there we made our way to Covent Garden and to the theatre to watch the Woman in Black. It's a great play and the tiny size of the Fortune Theatre makes it more spooky.

Once the play had finished we made our way to Maxwell's which was the restaurant where we were to enjoy the meal that came along with the theatre in our present. It's a burger and grill bar and, to be honest, I quite fancied a burger and fries to finish the day off.

When we arrived, we splashed out on a cocktail each and I ordered potato skins for starters. I was brought ones with bacon, but these were replaced without fuss when I pointed out the error. My wife had crab cakes, which she enjoyed.

For the main course we both had burgers; I had a spicy bean burger, my wife had a meat one. Both came with salad and fries and we both enjoyed them. We were both too full for dessert, so we ordered the bill. We both enjoyed the meal and the service was friendly and very prompt. It's a great place for a pre or post theatre meal if you want something quick, simple and reasonably tasty.

All in all, we had a very enjoyable day. Thanks Sis, and Happy Christmas!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sundridge House, Sundridge

73 Main Road,
Sundridge, Kent TN14 6EQ Map

We ended up here on a company night out. It was decided that the easiest thing to do would to be to order a set menu for the table. As the only vegetarian in the office, they ordered a veggie set menu for me to have. Actually, as the minimum order for the set menus was for two people, I had two portions of everything!

It was all pretty good. My meal started with some spring rolls and some spicy tofu. While the others had crispy duck, I was brought some pancakes and vegetables. For mains, I had spicy aubergine, sweet and sour vegetables, deep fried tofu with pak choi, spicy ginger tofu and steamed rice. It was all very good, especially the aubergine dish.

For dessert, I had the ubiquitous banana fritters.

All in all, it was pretty good, the service was friendly and we all had a good evening.

Mango Tree, London

46 Grosvenor Place,
London, SW1X 7EQ Map

Mango Tree is a Thai restaurant in Belgravia, London. It's a stone's throw from Victoria Station and is nice and easy to find. In fact, I went past it on the 73 bus every time I worked in London and I often wondered what it was like.

We arrived early, and sat in the bar where my wife had one of the best margaritas she has had, and I had a JD & Coke. Shortly after, we were collected and shown to our table.

The dining area is quite a large, high ceilinged room with a row of banquets down the middle and tables set along them and along the windows. The tables are set quite close together, but not uncomfortably so.

There are quite a few vegetarian options on the a la carte menu. However, as I flicked to the back of the various menus, I discovered a vegetarian menu that had all of the dishes that were on the a la carte, plus quite a few others. Actually, that's a bit unfair. Make that, quite a lot of others.

For starters I chose to have Tow Hoo Satay which was skewers of grilled tofu, peppers and tomatoes with a satay peanut sauce. It was very nice - the sauce especially- and, for a starter, there was plenty of it.

Now, I don't know about you but I'm so used to only having a couple of choices on a menu, that when I have to choose from half a dozen or more, I have no idea what to do - I just want to try everything!

I had narrowed my choice down to two, Gaeng Kiew Wan Pak - an aubergine and vegetable green curry - and Pad Thai Jay - noodles, beansprouts, chives and peanuts. I asked the waiter which he would recommend. He said that why not have both and suggested that my wife and I had the Pad Thai instead of rice. It was an excellent solution, and he was right, both the dishes were great, but the Pad Thai had the edge.

And so to dessert. The menu mentioned a dish called Sang Ka Ya Vanilla which the menu translated as Vanilla Creme Brulee. You all know the rules by now, so it was duly ordered. It looked nice, the caramel was good, but the custard was very thick - my wife said it was pasty, which summarises it quite well. So, it comes in at a 6.5 on the chart.

My wife chose Guay Ob Ma prow Sod, which was layered banana and coconut with caramel sauce and banana ice-cream. Actually, I chose it for her so I could have a taste. It was okay, but very heavy.

Despite the desserts, it was a very enjoyable meal. The service was excellent - very attentive and very friendly. The prices aren't bad, but they are "London" prices. We were on a 50% off deal through Toptable which saved us thirty quid, which made the meal very reasonable.

The only complaint that I have, is that the large room and high ceiling make the restaurant very noisy. Its certainly not the place for a quiet romantic meal, and if you had a large party, I doubt youd be able to hear people more that a couple of places away from you unless they were shouting. That, said the food is great and it wouldn't put us off going back.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Spice Club, Tunbridge Wells

37 Mount Ephraim,
Tunbridge Wells TN4 8AA Map

The Spice Club in Tunbridge Wells is part of the chain of restaurants that include Alishan in Tonbridge and the Spice Club in Sevenoaks. They all offer a more contemporary kind of Indian restaurant experience, with well presented food and tidy, nicely decorated interiors.

The menu is quite varied, with most of the old favourites, with some new dishes. The main course menus don't mention any vegetarian dishes except for a vegetable biryani, but I'm sure that they could rustle something up, as the menu says that "if you would like a dish that is not on our menu, please ask our staff..."

The vegetable side dishes can be ordered in a main course size if you so wish, and some of those sound quite interesting, such as spinach dumplings in tomato and fenugreek sauce and stuffed baby aubergines in a spicy peanut sauce.

After some poppadoms, I had spiced potatoes and garlic mushroom. This consisted of several nicely spiced potato balls and thinly sliced mushrooms and salad. It was very tasty and well presented.

Next I had the vegetable biryani (pictured above) and a side of the aforementioned aubergines in peanut sauce. The biryani was quite tasty - there was plenty of it too - and the aubergines were beautifully tender and the peanut sauce was nice, but could've been a tad more spicy for me. None the less, overall it was all pretty good.
For dessert, I had a halva with various crushed nuts and, again, it was presented very nicely and tasted good.

The service was very friendly and prompt, and the whole experience was very enjoyable. As it's quite close to us, I can see it becoming a regular choice when we fancy a curry.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Vanilla Black, London

17- 18 Tooks Court
London EC4A 1LB Map

Vanilla Black used to be in York and on my visits to the city I never managed to get a table as it was always full. It always got good reviews and the menu always looked fantastic. When they announced that they were moving down to London, I was excited.

The restaurant itself is a five minute walk from Chancery Lane tube and looks quite unassuming from the outside. Inside, it is nicely and professionally laid out with white-clothed tables all perfectly set.

We were given a very friendly welcome and were shown to our choice of table. We were given the menus and wine list. Some nice home-made rolls were brought to the table along with a couple of small pats of butter, one saffron and one salt.

Vanilla Black is totally vegetarian, but its not your "nuts and lentils" place, this is vegetarian fine dining with a very imaginative menu.

Shortly after ordering, the waitress turned up with an "amuse bouche" of some small choux-pastry rolls stuffed with olive paste and topped with yoghurt. They looked like small chocolate eclairs and tasted great.

Then came the starters. My starter was chosen for me by "The Rules". It was a Cep Creme Brulee. On the scale, due to the consistency of the custard, thickness of the sugar etc it rates a 7.5. However, I still can't quite decide if it worked or not. The Cep custard was lovely. It had a really strong mushroom flavour and was very smooth. Did it go with the caramelised sugar? Not sure. Let me know what you think if you go there and its on the menu.

For main course, I had Poached Duck Egg and Duckette Cairphilly Pudding. The pudding was like a cheese souffle and the egg, just runny enough without being too runny, was perched on top. Accompanying this was a hickory smoked potato croquette along with some pineapple pickle which, when eaten together were divine.

My fellow diner had Mushroom Duxelle Torte with Parsley Custard which I had a mouthful of. There was definitely a taste of truffle in there and it was really nice, but slightly dry. With a sauce of some sort, it would have been perfect.

For dessert I had Brandied Apple and Crumble Shortbread which was very thinly sliced apple steeped in brandy topped with shortbread and ice cream. It sounds great doesn't it? It was...

I also had a taste of Fig Roll and Black Tea Syrup which was also very nice. But the highlight of that dish was the Iced Milk that accompanied it.

It's great to see that more vegetarian restaurants are serving this kind of imaginative, well-presented fare these days. One of the nicest things about Vanilla Black though, is the price. For two courses, no matter what you have, it's £24. For three courses, it's £30, which is pretty good for food of this standard in a London restaurant.

On the way home, my fellow diner who isn't veggie like myself, mentioned that he'd quite to visit it again as some of the other dishes on the menu sounded great. That has to be a great recommendation for Vanilla Black, and I totally agree with him.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Weight Watching...

There is a certain stereotypical image of vegetarians, that of a pasty-faced and skinny person. Personally, I don't know any veggies that fit that description and I certainly don't. One of my biggest problems is that a large amount of my protein comes from dairy products, and I seem to end up piling on the pounds.

I've never been very good at diets, but some pictures I saw of me at the New Year and the scales hitting 15 stone, made me decide to lose a few pounds.

I decided on the Weight Watchers diet. My wife used to belong to a local group, and has belonged to the online community. We have plenty of their books and there are plenty of good vegetarian recipes in them.

Now, as it quite obvious from this blog, both my wife and I love our food, so I decided that I wouldn't forgo my favourite hobby, but I would follow the diet at home, cut out snacks and join a gym. Okay, so it would take a little longer to lose the weight, but I hoped that by not being quite so strict I would be able to achieve some success.

So that's what I did. And after six months I've lost two stone and am still going.

The most pleasant surprise is how good some of the recipes are. One of my favourites is Thai Green Pumpkin Curry, pictured above. One of the difficulties with doing anything Thai for a vegetarian is the fish sauce or shrimp paste that appears in just about all the "Thai" sauces and pastes on the market. Normally, I use an Indian paste instead, which tastes just as good. Occasionally, if I've got the ingredients I'll make my own.

However, I discovered that Blue Dragon do a Thai Green Curry Paste that is suitable for vegetarians, but be careful though as they also do one that isn't. They do a Red Curry Paste in the same range that is fish free too. Boy, is it spicy - and I ended up having one of the hottest curries I've had for quite a while!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cantina del Ponte, London

Butlers Wharf, 36c Shad Thames,
London SE1 2YE Map

I joined Toptable a while back, and its really good. It makes booking really easy – no hanging on the telephone for hours only to be told that the day you want is fully booked – you just book online and wait for an email to tell you whether the booking is confirmed or not. In addition to that, you get told of special offers that the restaurants are doing, and some of them are really good. That, in itself, is worth joining for (and why wouldn’t you anyway – it’s free) but in addition, for every meal you book and review through the website, you earn points, and when you have reached a certain amount, you can have a free meal from a list of selected restaurants.

So it was, that having gorged ourselves at enough restaurants to earn a free meal for two, my wife and I decided to have a day out in London spending the afternoon at the theatre watching Dirty Dancing and taking advantage of a free lunch on the way.

The restaurant we chose was Cantina del Ponte, which is set on the bank of the Thames, just down from Tower Bridge. As it was a rare sunny summer day, we had a table outside with a nice view of the bridge and the river.

The free meal deal was from a set menu, from which we had the choice of two courses. Of course you could decide to pay for a third course if you so wished, however as we were also planning to go out in the evening - just to finish the day off - we decided to limit ourselves to starters and mains.

To start, I had a fairly basic parmesan salad that was well presented, very fresh and crispy.

For mains, I had an aubergine and smoked cheese ravioli in a pesto sauce. The smokeyness of the cheese really came through and complemented the pesto sauce really well. The aubergine seemed to be there more for texture rather than taste. It was very good. My wife, who has very rarely found a fish dish in the UK that she likes, went for the swordfish, but didn’t enjoy it at all. To accompany it, she ordered some rosemary potatoes, of which I had a taste, and they were very nice – and perfect for mopping up the last of my basil sauce!

The service was very friendly and efficient, and the setting was lovely. We paid for coffee, the potatoes and a couple of glasses of nice wine which came to about a tenner each. Okay, so not a completely free meal, but that’s not bad for a two course lunch in London!

As for Dirty Dancing, well the less said about that the better – it really wasn’t my thing at all…

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Soprano, Tunbridge Wells

Old High Street,
Tunbridge Wells TN1 1XF Map

Despite its name, Soprano is a Tapas restaurant, a stone's throw from the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. It's a very popular restaurant and is always full.

We were lucky enough, one Friday night, to arrive when they had a spare table. We were told when we arrived that they had two sittings and that we would have to leave by nine. As far as I'm concerned, it is down to the restaurant staff to make sure that happens by making sure the the food is delivered with enough time to eat it. If they do their job, then they'll be able to turn the table around.

The menu at Soprano is pretty good, with a host of vegetarian options. One surprise was that there was a vegetable paella, but not a seafood one which we both though was a bit strange. We chose a selection of dishes between us which included Patatas Bravos (potatoes in a spicy sauce), Vegetable Paella, Artichokes and Berengena Gratinata (Aubergine with cheese gratin) all washed down with a rather nice Sangria.

It was all very tasty, especially the artichoke, but some of the the portions were quite small and when we left we were still a bit hungry. Each of the main dishes was around £3 - £4 which can make the meal quite expensive if you have three or four dishes for your main course - which we did - especially so, if it doesn't fill you up. That aside, the service was friendly and the restaurant, although small, is quite well set out making it quite cosy.

The big test is whether we would go back or not and, providing we weren't really hungry, we probably would do, as the food was very tasty.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sankey's, Tunbridge Wells

39 Mount Ephraim
Tunbridge Wells TN4 8AA Map

My wife is from Australia and, for the past seven years, she has been searching for some really good seafood that can match that of her native country. Until now, the best she has had has been at San Bas in Westerham. For Saturday lunch she and a friend went to Sankey's after it was recommended on Eating Out in Tunbridge Wells.

She came home raving about the halibut she had and said that the veggie option sounded good, so we ended up there for Sunday lunch.

The restaurant/brasserie is reached by taking the steps next to the main pub entrance and this leads down into a fairly large room that opens out onto an umbrella-protected terrace. It was a lovely day so we sat on the terrace.

There is only one veggie option, which is fine as this is a fish restaurant (there was only a single meat option too...) and it was a Samphire Risotto, which quite excited me as, in my experience, it is quite rare to see this on the menu and it is something that I enjoy.

After asking the waitresses opinion - and it was nice that she seemed very knowledgeable about all the dishes - my wife decided upon the tuna with nicoise salad.

While we were waiting for our orders to arrive we were watching the dishes being delivered to other diners and they all looked very well presented with large portions. The table next to us received a mixed platter for two and it was enormous.

The risotto I had was no different. The samphire was perfectly cooked, the rice had just the right amount of bite and mixed into the dish was the odd basil leaf which gave a nice extra pocket of flavour every so often.

My wife was extremely pleased with her tuna dish which she said was nice, but given the choice she would have the halibut, which she described as "perfect".

Dessert was a no brainer as there was a creme brulee on the menu. My wife had ginger pear with mango sorbet. I had a taste of this and it was lovely.

Oh yeah, the creme brulee. Well, the eagle eyed among you will have noticed that the chart has a new number one. Yes, it was really good. The caramelised sugar was perfect and the custard was excellent. I think that a few more vanilla seeds would have made it a perfect 10.

Although occasionally there was a slight delay in service, the staff were really friendly and would pop over to the table to explain the delay and apologise, which goes a long way to alleviating any frustration.

This was a great improvement on Thackeray's, which I visited the night before which, although the food was exceptional, still haven't improved on their service since the last time I visited.

Sankey's has been firmly added to our list and I'm sure we'll be back there in the not too distant future.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Raj Mahal, Tiptree

Station Road
Tiptree, CO5 0AZ Map

The Raj Mahal was my local Indian restaurant when I lived in Essex. It's been through a few names over the years - "Tiptree Tandoori" and "Balti Raj" are a couple that I remember. At the moment it's calling itself the Raj Mahal. Every so often, when I visit friends and family over that way I pop in for a take-away or a meal.

They do a great Vegetarian Set menu that includes Aloo Puri, Vegetable Balti, Vegetable Mossala, Vegetable Samosas, Bombay Aloo, Pilau Rice and a Naan. This is a meal for two, but there is so much there, that with an extra rice it is easily enough for three or even four if you're not overly hungry. It all tastes great, especially the balti and the mossala and at about £20, it's a bargain!

Dedham Art & Craft Centre, Dedham

The Dedham Art and Craft Centre is a converted church in the middle of Constable country. It has three floors of furniture, crafts and pictures and tucked away in the corner of the ground floor is the tearoom.

It claims to be totally vegetarian, however when we popped in for lunch the blackboard advertised a dish with tuna in it. Aside from that however, the rest of the menu was meat and fish free.

I started with a broccoli and stilton soup which was very nice. Not too strong, it had a nice cheesy taste. It was served with a couple of slices of sliced bread and would've been much nicer with a fresh roll, or a chunk of unsliced bread.

Following the soup, I chose one of the quiches that was on the menu. There were quite a few of them and I had one with Brie and Cranberry. I'm not a big fan of quiche, but this one was really nice. It came with the choice of salad or jacket potato, and I had the potato.

I was there with my parents and they had a vegetable and herb crumble which I tried a mouthful or two of. Again, it was very nice. Oh, and the portions are very good.

The service was very friendly and the prices are reasonable. If you're in Essex and want a tasty, filling lunch then pop along to the Dedham Craft Centre.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Brasserie Blanc, Tunbridge Wells

Five Ways,
Lime Hill Road,
Tunbridge Wells TN1 1LJ map

I'm quite a big fan of Raymond Blanc, having eaten and cooked at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and received a signed copy of Blanc Vite, which has some great veggie recipes in it, for my birthday.

I'd heard and read some very mixed reviews of Blanc Brasserie, but I was keen to try it out for myself so, on a bright and sunny Saturday lunchtime, we popped along to give it a go. As it was such a nice day we decided to sit outside on the shaded patio.

They offer a set lunch menu called "Dine with Wine" which I decided to try. This offers two courses for £11.50 or three courses for £14 each with a glass of wine. My wife decided that she didn't fancy anything from there and decided to order from the a la carte.

For the first course I had Smoked Potato Croquettes with Cranberry Dip. The croquettes were very nice and had a deep smoky flavour. They didn't, however, go with the dip at all. My wife had Maman Blanc’s Miscellany of Salads which was a selection of different salads dotted around a plate.

It looked really pretty and some of the salads were very tasty, especially the tomato one, which had a dressing that was made to be soaked up with the remaining bread on the table.

For my main course I had a Goats' Cheese and Almond Risotto. It tasted fine, but the rice was overcooked giving it a "rice pudding" texture rather than the al-dente crunch that risotto should have. It also appeared that the chef had left the skin on the goats' cheese as I found two strips of something that I hope was the cheese skin. I dread to think what else it might have been. I pointed it out to the waiter and he looked as mystified as me, but I heard nothing more about it.

My wife had Salmon Fillet and Chips which she said was really nice.

The service was friendly, but a bit slow between the courses. After about a fifteen minute wait after the starters we had to enquire as to the whereabouts of our mains, but apart from that it was fine.

Overall, the lunchtime offer was reasonably good value for money, even with the overcooked risotto. The a la carte is a bit on the pricy side - starters are around £6 and mains average out around £13 -£15, although the only vegetarian main was a bargain at £7.50!

Brasserie Blanc wasn't as bad as some of the reviews I've read have suggested, but it could be better. If the a la carte menu was more reasonable, we might be tempted to go back one evening, but as it is, the quality of the menu, in my opinion, just doesn't justify the cost.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Palio, Tunbridge Wells

84 - 86 Grosvenor Road,
Tunbridge Wells, TN1 2AS map

We walk past Palio just about every time we go into Tunbridge Wells, yet it's taken us about a year to actually walk through the door.

The restaurant itself is very bright and airy and we got a friendly welcome as we entered and were shown to a table.

The menu is pretty good, with quite a few veggie options on the starters and pasta menus. They also have a pizza menu available at certain times. For starters, I had Vegetali al Forno, described as oven roasted vegetables drizzled with mint flavoured extra virgin olive oil. The dish consisted of peppers, fennel, courgette, globe artichoke, aubergine and provolone cheese. It was very nice. The artichokes, especially, had a lovely flavour and, for me, an antipasti like this is a perfect start to an Italian meal.

My wife chose a starter of Melanzane Parmagiana of which I had a taste. Now, this is one of my favourite dishes - the best I've had was at Trattoria Bagutta in Milan, so I'm a bit fussy when it comes to this dish. Palio's version was okay, but nothing special. It was obviously cut from a larger dish and tasted a bit bland.

For main course my wife had Pollo Alla Griglia, which was grilled chicken breast served on a large musgroom. The menu noted that the chicken was free-range, which was good to see. My wife said that, again, it was okay. The sauteed potatoes that were served with the chicken were very nice, tasting quite strongly of garlic.

My main course was Crespolini, spinach, ricotta and parmesan pancakes in a tomato and bechamel sauce. It arrived a the table impossibly hot, but once it cooled down, it was a quite pleasant dish, and the aforementioned potatoes did a very good job of mopping up the last of the sauce.

The portions at Palio are very generous - the vegetables I had to start could easily serve two wih some accompanying bread - and the prices are fairly reasonable. The service we had was very friendly and professional, which made a fairly regular meal that little bit better. We were discussing on the way home how much difference good or bad service can make to a meal, and we both agreed that the service at Palio made the difference for us to add it to our "one to go back to" list.