Archive for October, 2019

Pub Review: The Plough Inn, Cold Aston. (October 2019)

Posted on: October 28th, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

The Plough Inn lies in the centre of the beautiful Gloucestershire village of Cold Aston. Accessed from a single track road off the A249, between Stow and Cirencester, the honey coloured stone walled, slate roofed buildings and wide open spaces typify the near idyllic attractions of Cotswold village life. Little wonder that roughly 30% of current residents are second homeowners.

This is where owner Oxford graduate and management consultant Thomas Hughes and his partner Josie have chosen to raise a family and establish a business which gives full expression to their passions of food, drink, hospitality and design. Thomas’s previous experience, including leading roles at the Wheatsheaf Inn, Northleach and at Peter de Savary’s Cary Arms and Spa in Devon, has clearly stood him in good stead.

The Hughes took over in 2017, adding to the extensive renovation which had already taken place under the previous ownership. In particular, the three renovated and decorated ensuite double bedrooms have allowed Josie to demonstrate her talents in this field. 

Dating from 1687, The Plough Inn retains many of its older features. In the front half of the building there are heavy oak doors, flagstone floor, mullioned windows, an inglenook fireplace, and a low beamed ceiling with candle and wall lighting. Renovation in the brighter back dining area beyond the bar includes wooden flooring, French windows, skylights, spotlighting and splashes of designer wallpaper. These contemporary touches harmonise with the historic charm of the Grade 2 listed building. Well-spaced striped pine tables accommodate up to 85 diners, whilst the outside terraces, complete with Rattan furniture and parasols, allow for al fresco dining.

[Chris Hopkinson Barman; Thomas Hughes owner; Jonathan Grey chef]

Thomas Hughes and his chef, who has worked with Michelin starred John Burton-Race, have designed an attractive food and beverage offering which has already attracted a loyal following, including those from the two neighbouring villages which lack a hostelry. Being close to Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach, The Plough can also gain custom from those who prefer village to town pubs.  

A sophisticated beverage selection is much in evidence. As a Free House, a wide range of craft beers and real ales is on offer.

The wine list has a good selection from Old and New Worlds which avoids greedy mark ups. The range of spirits, especially gin, is impressive. Also of interest are the “Nightcaps” such as the White Russian of Black Cow Vodka, Kahlu and cream.

The provenance of high quality local ingredients is a priority: Cotswold leg bar eggs, local wild mushrooms, Rollright Chipping Norton cheese and Gloucester Old Spot pork all featured on the current menu. 30+ day aged ruby red steaks and other meat products are sourced from Martin’s Meats and Ruby and White where animal welfare is important. Fish is supplied daily from the renowned Kingfishers of Brixham. There are reliable local suppliers of seasonal game and vegetables.

Bar snacks such as chicken wings with harissa glaze (£5.50) or Padron peppers with olive oil and salt (£4.00) are available to those who prefer a lighter bite.

The seasonally changing carte is competitively priced, offering a good range of traditional pub classics with more innovative dishes. Vegetarians and pescatarians are also have an embarrassment of choice.

On the current Autumn menu eight starters priced £7.50 to £9 feature popular dishes such as Devilled kidneys and Steak tartare alongside the more adventurous Palourde clams with nduja, smoked lovage and spring onions. There are seven mains, £12.50 to £18, two salads, £15-£16, two steak dishes, £17 to £24, with a choice of sauces, and two sharing dishes, cote de beouf or whole sea bass with accompaniments, £60 and £35 respectively. Five desserts come at £6.60 each with ice creams and sorbets at £2 per scoop. Three English cheeses from a choice of five are priced at £9.00. At weekends two or three specials are added to the menu.

A good value weekday lunchtime fixed priced menu offers two courses or three courses £15 or £17 respectively.

In addition, there are special deals: Steak nights on Tuesday (steak frites for two and a bottle of house red for £30); Winter Warmer Wednesdays (e.g. pie, coq au vin, beef bourguignon for two and a house drink for £30); and Dirty Thursday ( a sharing BBQ platter – all home produced – and a can of craft beer for £15 per person).

Given the quality of the ingredients and the expertise of the kitchen, the pricing is keenly judged and weighs favourably with similar establishments in this highly competitive field.

The skills shown in kitchen are high. Dishes are precisely timed and balanced in their ingredient composition, taste and texture. Sauces benefit from stocks made from scratch and meat dishes, in particular, benefit from the use of a “Bertha” charcoal fired oven, which is also used as an in-house smoker. Overall, this is honest, robust cooking with a degree of flair.

A warm greeting from owner Thomas Hughes on our Friday lunchtime made us feel most welcome. Throughout the meal, the service was friendly, informative and unobtrusive.

A charcuterie board starter was generous in quantity and attractive in presentation. Suffolk chorizo had a gentle smokiness and not overpowering spice; the sweet earthy flavour of venison salami was enhanced by an appropriate amount of fat; pulled barbequed pork  was rich and indulgent; celeriac remoulade added a lively mustardy crunch; and cornichons gave a tart, mildly sweet freshness. Served with toasted sourdough and good quality butter, this was a meal in itself.

Simpler, but equally delicious was a dish of sauteed Chanterelles on toasted sourdough topped with a Cotswold Legbar fried egg. The meaty textured mushroom with its velvety consistency had a rich, earthy flavour with a hint of pepperiness. The creamy, dense flavoured egg yolk served as a sauce whilst the toasted bread gave contrast in taste and texture. The shaved black truffle did not overwhelm, but the dish did not need this expensive ingredient.

The cooking of a flavoursome Tomahawk pork chop in a main course was accurately timed in the Bertha oven to retain its moisture and succulence. A wholegrain mustard sauce cut the richness of the meat. Bubble and squeak, tender stem broccoli and green beans were well judged accompaniments to this hearty, comforting dish.

A schnitzel of guinea fowl breast ran the risk of becoming too dry if not treated with care. As it was, the cooking was well judged, leading to a soft, moist interior and crisp crumbed exterior. The gentle gaminess of the bird was lifted by a butter and caper sauce which gave richness and a moderate piquancy. Parmentier potatoes were well-seasoned and seasonal greens properly cooked to al dente texture.

Two contrasting desserts were selected

Warm sticky date pudding, moist and fluffy, floated on a rich butterscotch sauce partnered with a velvety smooth vanilla ice cream. This indulgent dish of contrasting tastes, textures and temperatures has proved an irresistible dessert in many restaurants, and here was no exception.

Cotswold gin and tonic cheesecake was an innovative take on a popular dessert. It might have been improved with less gelatine and more acidity, the small pieces of fresh lime being insufficient to boost the taste. Although the shards of meringue gave contrasting texture and sweetness, the main element of this dessert needed a lift.

Despite this hiccup, our visit to the Plough Inn was an overall success. The buzz of contented diners on a busy Friday afternoon was a testament to the popularity it has already gained.  A great deal of investment and hard work has been ploughed – excuse the pun – into this exciting addition to the Cotswold dining scene. Fine Dining Guide hopes to visit again to sample other items – perhaps on one of the special nights – and may even book an overnight stay. In the meantime, we will follow its progress with interest.

Map: Britain’s Top Restaurants (2020)

Posted on: October 23rd, 2019 by Simon Carter

This is a map that brings together the leading restaurants of Great Britain according to three leading inspector-led guides as at the release of the 2020 Guide editions.  Each of the Guides outlined below provides data in publicly available press releases each year, or in the case of the AA Guide through cumulative twice a year releases.  The points of note are as follows:

* The Waitrose Good Food Guide 2020 Top 50 are included and mapped.  The number in brackets next to the GFG score is the restaurant’s position within their top 50 list.

* The AA Restaurant Guide 2020 all 4 and 5 Rosette restaurants are mapped.

*The Michelin Guide 2020 all GB 2 and 3 Star restaurants are mapped.

Further points of note are as follows:

*The numbering of the labels is significant as it reflects the fine dining guide ranking – an FDG score derived from a specific formula applied to the three guides marks. The highest is 53 marks out of a maximum possible 58. 6 Points per Michelin Star, 3 Points per GFG Mark out of Ten and 2 Points per AA Rosette.

*There are many overlaps with these three guide mark catagories such that the final number of restaurants is 85.

[Britain’s Top Restaurants]

The embedded map is below, the recommendation is to click on the expand box in the top right corner to take you into google maps where you may manipulate the map more easily…

Top 30 (Thirty) Restaurants GB 2020 (October 2019)

Posted on: October 22nd, 2019 by Simon Carter

Below is a formula applied to the scores in leading guides to discover the top 30 (thirty) restaurants in Britain. This is up-to-date as at October 2019.

The weighting is toward Michelin with six points per Michelin star, three points per Waitrose Good Food Guide mark out of ten and two points per AA Restaurant Guide Rosette.  The number in brackets under GFG is the restaurant’s position in the GFG’s Top 50 published list. All three guides are the 2020 editions.

London’s Top 100 Restaurants (October 2019)

Posted on: October 19th, 2019 by Simon Carter

Below is a formula applied to the scores in the 2020 editions of leading inspector led guides to discover the top 100+ (one hundred) restaurants in London. This is up-to-date as of October 2019.

The weighting is toward Michelin with six points per Michelin star, three points per Waitrose Good Food Guide mark out of ten and two points per AA Restaurant Guide Rosette.  The number in brackets under Waitrose GFG is the position in their 2020 Guide Top 50 restaurants of Great Britain list. Each Guide is the 2020 edition.

London's Top Restaurants Part I
London’s Top Restaurants 1 to 37
London’s Top Restaurants 38 to 76
Top London Restaurants 77 to 113

A newly Michelin starred restaurants in London – Maos – in Bethnal Green is yet to feature in either of the other guides so is unable to register a score of 15 or more to feature on the list.

Scotland & Wales Top Restaurants (October 2019)

Posted on: October 19th, 2019 by Simon Carter
Guides Covers 2020

Below is a formula applied to the scores in the 2020 editions of leading inspector led guides to discover the top 25 (twenty-five) restaurants in Scotland and the leading restaurants of Wales. This is up-to-date as of October 2019.

The weighting is toward Michelin with six points per Michelin star, three points per Waitrose Good Food Guide mark out of ten and two points per AA Restaurant Guide Rosette.  The number in brackets under Waitrose GFG is the position in their 2020 Guide Top 50 restaurants of Great Britain list. Each Guide is the 2020 edition.

Top Restaurants Wales 2020 Guides
Top Restaurants Scotland 2020 Guides

Both Condita in Edinburgh and Isle of Eriska were awarded a first Michelin Star in The 2020 GB&I Michelin Guide but neither as yet appear in either The AA Restaurant Guide 2020 or Waitrose Good Food Guide 2020 editions.

Interview: Nick Parkinson, Royal Oak Paley Street (October 2019)

Posted on: October 16th, 2019 by Simon Carter

[Above: Restaurateur and front of house leader at The Royal Oak at Paley Street Nick Parkinson.]

As a young teen, Nick’s first weekend job to earn some pocket money was bottling up at The Crown at Bray.  It was very local to where Nick was brought up and Bobby King owned the pub.  Nick would collect the empty soda syphons and split bottles that had been discarded and crate them up, Schweppes would collect them and give a credit for the returns.  For the next few years, right up until leaving school, Nick had grown up working around that pub.  The experience was such a positive one that it led him to pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.  Indeed, Nick had enjoyed a glimpse of the chef world in the kitchen at The Crown so went straight in at the deep end by applying for a chef apprenticeship at The Savoy Hotel in London.

Nick spent the next four years in the incredibly tough environment of the kitchens at The Savoy.  In total, Nick spent around seven years working as a chef but a couple of moments swayed his attention away from the engine room of a restaurant and toward the front of house.  First of all, he realized that to be a great chef took something really different, some special spark of flair in creativity.  He felt that while he was a good chef, he perhaps didn’t have the natural attributes of a couple of his contemporaries. At the same time, he would see the food going out from the kitchen and wonder what happened to it in the dining room.  Nick started chatting to his first inspirational career figure, the indefatigable host Angelo Maresca, who for twenty years was the legendary Maitr’ d’ of The Savoy Grill.  This relationship opened a new pair of eyes for Nick, who was able to see the stage, the theatre, the formal suits and the sommeliers as they worked the floor.

This stayed with Nick when he went on his travels, landing in Australia where he was to spend thirteen years building a life and career in the hotel industry.  One funny story from quite early in his Australian hotel career came when Nick was Room Service Manager. The rule in the hotel was that should anything be handed into lost property and not claimed within three months, the item became his to keep.  On one occasion Nick was called to lost property after an elapsed three months, he had no idea what he would be collecting, the item turned out to be a prosthetic leg.  Hard to imagine how the person could forget something so fundamental, a memory that stays with Nick and still brings a wry smile. 

Overall, the front of house of the hotel world felt like a much better fit, however as Nick climbed the career ladder to be F&B Director at The Intercontinental in Sydney, he was to realize that perhaps he had once again become too distant from the customer.  A form of epiphany happened one day in the lobby of the hotel: Nick was sharing the lift down to reception with Lady Fairfax (of Fairfax newspapers) but at the time didn’t know who she was, so when the lift reached the ground floor and the doors opened, he saw an old lady needing help with her luggage.  The conversation went something like this,

Nick: May I help you with your Luggage?

Lady Fairfax: Oh Yes, thank you, that’s very kind!

Nick: Are you checking out, today?

Lady Fairfax: Yes I am.

Nick: Have you enjoyed your stay?

Lady Fairfax: Yes, very much so…

Nick: How long have you been staying with us?

Lady Fairfax: Two years…..

Nick neither knew that any guest had a two years permanent suite at the hotel nor that Lady Fairfax was in residence.  He realized he had been buried in administration for too long and had renewed determination to get back to the purest form of customer facing roles. 

Nick felt that it was time to ‘come home’ and at the same time his father was looking at buying the Belgian Arms pub in the local village of Holyport.  Nick fondly remembers the day in 2001, sitting on a banquette in the front section of The Royal Oak at Paley Street and having the vision of what the space could become.  His father was sitting next to him and Nick remembers hearing the words “are you mad,” which was fair comment to Nick, as at the time the run down walls were painted Salmon pink.  The paint colour and state of the property were apparently the result of a dispute between the former licensee and his sublet.  With some tender loving care and a family passion for the trade, the pub was to become not only a popular food destination for locals but through various recognition systems, nationally renowned.

Nick’s philosophy of hospitality is to keep it simple, he aims to provide a warm welcome that will allow the guest to leave happier than when they arrived.  A number of factors help in this pursuit – a cosy atmosphere, quality food, a 600 bin wine list, an eye-catching display of art and a virtually ever-present host.  In today’s competitive world, customers look for social experiences that tick all these boxes and it is perhaps the people at the front who differentiate the better places. A significant natural skill is the ability to enable the guests to renew acquaintances with a host who remembers details of conversations as if they’d never been away.  Indeed, Nick has made many long-term friends as the face of The Royal Oak. 

“As well as forming these friendships at The Royal Oak, it’s been a real pleasure to see people from diverse backgrounds form lasting friendships of their own under this roof,” Nick’s observation is perhaps one of the beauties of what is left of the pub culture that is unique to Britain. 

As a restaurateur, Nick sees the most pleasurable part of his responsibilities as being the host, the front of house, orchestrating the service and working directly with customers.  Occasionally the service may go wrong but that’s the challenge of the role and to Nick the odd bump in the road is far outweighed by the enjoyment of engaging with new people every day.  Nick would suggest that the hardest part of being the restaurateur is all the operations that are involved in running your own business, the day-to-day tasks that take up a lot of time and can be a constant nagging stress.  It is actually the delivering of happy satisfaction to customers that drives the excitement and motivation going forward.

Nick had the pleasure of hosting President Macron of France and Prime Minister Theresa May at The Royal Oak, however the crowning glory of service (so to speak) was perhaps when Nick had the opportunity to serve Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh.  In April 2017, it was the 65th anniversary of The Grenadier Guards serving The Queen and they wanted to mark the occasion by taking her out for lunch and making a presentation. It was a Monday and while Nick had been given plenty of notice that a ‘VIP’ was visiting it was only two days before that he was notified that it would be Her Majesty.  Both occasions went well and fit in with the overall achievements of the pub over the eighteen years under his stewardship. 

Nick is proud of the long association the pub has with the ‘Top 50 Gastropubs,’ which has been a constant since the inception of those awards, it has featured on ‘Top 100’ restaurant lists, scored 6/10 in the Good Food Guide, held three AA Rosettes for nine years, a Bib Gourmands for two years and a Michelin star for eight years.   Significant coverage across the broadsheets over the years has all helped the establishment of a small national institution.  Of course there are ups and downs with such accolades but Nick maintains the mantra of quality first in all that he does and that serves the restaurant in good stead going forward.

In terms of legacy, there have been plenty of staff who have come through the doors and gone on to Michelin related success in their own right, be it as blossoming chefs or front of house managers.  There is always a sense of ‘one team’ at The Royal Oak, no egos allowed in dining room or kitchen and a harmonious philosophy of service to please the customer.  This ethos epitomizes all that is The Royal Oak and is a credit to all the teams front and back, past and present and those that will follow in the future.

Chef Interview: Ben Murphy, Launceston Place. (October 2019)

Posted on: October 4th, 2019 by Simon Carter

This article is in a series designed not to provide ‘A N Other’ opinion about a chef’s output, to be lost in the now sea of increasing ‘noise’ about top end dining. In this article the chef will analyse three of their signature dishes against aspects of the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star. As a reminder the five criteria were explained under interview by Michael Ellis (at the time WW Director of Michelin Guides) and are given below as he described:-

“The first and most important criteria is the provenance of ingredients, all great cuisine starts with great product – the actual product itself is considered for freshness, quality, flavour and texture and so on. The second criteria is mastery of cooking technique. The third criteria is equilibrium and harmony in flavours… The fourth criteria is regularity (or consistency) and this means starter, main and dessert are each of the appropriate standard and that each are also consistent over time. Finally, value for money is the fifth criteria.”

[Chef Ben Murphy of Launceston Place]

Ben Murphy’s first love was sport, football in particular, indeed he was on the verge of signing professionally for QPR when a broken collarbone brought a premature end to that fledgling career.   Leaning on school experience of an enjoyment of food tech and history of art, Ben had the opportunity to take a three year course at high-end catering college Westminster Kingsway. 

Fresh from graduation, Ben grasped the opportunity of a role as a commis at the opening of Koffmann’s at The Berkeley.  With over twenty-six chefs in the kitchen, Ben started on pastry and over a three and a half year period developed his skills across the sections under the watchful eye of his mentor, Pierre Koffmann.  With Pierre’s assistance, Ben moved to Les Prés d’Eugénie under the legendary Michelin three star chef Michel Guérard, before a year spell at the likewise Michelin three starred Épicure at Le Bristol in Paris.  When Ben returned to London it was to be under Michelin two starred chef Arnaud Bignon at The Greenhouse.  Ben also enjoyed brief stagiaires in New York with Per Se and Eleven Madison Park as well as at Michelin two star Sat Bains in Nottingham.

The first Head Chef role was to come about at the Woodford in East London, where Ben earned the accolades ‘chef to watch’ in the 2016 Waitrose Good Food Guide and ‘Breakthrough Chef of the Year’ at The Food & Travel Awards.

Since joining D&D’s Launceston Place as Head Chef in January 2017, Ben has further developed a signature consistent throughout the menu, that compromises a pleasing on the eye approach with apparent simplicity.  This style, like most top end restaurants, belies the complexity of the multi-stage cooking techniques and processes that sit behind each dish’s production.

[Launceston Place Restaurant]

The three signature dishes to be reviewed by Ben Murphy are the ‘Egg and Soldiers’ from the tasting menu, the ‘Lobster’ from the dinner à la carte and the ‘Presa Ibérica’ dish.  Each will be discussed in terms of cooking technique and balance and harmony on a plate.  This will be supplemented by a general overview of how consistency across the menu and over time is achieved. The method of quality and consistency of provenance is also considered.

The egg and sourdough ‘soldiers’ dish is based on a childhood memory: Ben would invariably be cutting the top off an overcooked egg and eating shell at the same time with his slices of white bread.  At Launceston Place, Ben has an egg cutter that removes the top of the egg shell, the remainder is washed and readied as a vessel for a heady mixture of luxury.  Firstly, a foie gras royale provides the initial layer – a sublime taste, temperature and texture seduction.  The warm foie gras custard is steamed for five to six minutes and set.  Scrambled egg is blended into a mousse and put into a syphon gun so it is aerated and fluffy and provides a second layer.  Sourdough bread is made in house and cut into slices and fried.  In fact, as Ben makes his own bread in house, the restaurant may rightly take credit for the production of dishes on the menu from canapé through to petits fours and everything in between.  There’s textural balance and harmony through the smoothness of the foie gras Royale, the fluffiness of the egg and the crunch of the bread.  The webbed foot crockery presentation of the dish further appeals to the sense of sight on top of the flavour, texture and temperature impact.

Ben talks about consistency as a key mantra of his kitchen.  There are folders for recipes and everything is weighed to ensure the same results each time a dish is produced, to the extent that even the salt and pepper seasoning is measured out.  Prior to each service Ben will personally taste every gel, foam or purée as well as tasting through service.  The kitchen is small and compact so Ben sees everything that goes past him. This helps reaffirm the quality standards found in the dishes sent out by the kitchen.

In terms of the lobster dish, Ben likes to use the whole of the crustacean.  The restaurant receives live lobsters that are then cooked in a lobster bouillon.  The claws are cooked for two or three minutes depending on size, as are the knuckles, the tails are tied and cooked for three minutes.  Ben lets the meat cool naturally, not putting it on ice.  A celery gel is produced using kappa, which is a skill Ben learned while at the Michelin three star restaurant Épicure at Le Bristol.  In the finished dish, the richness of the lobster meat is cut by the freshness of the yuzu cream and garnished with lobster oil. Ultimately, customers get the full rounded lobster taste and texture experience with coriander to further lift and enhance the flavours.

The Presa Ibérica dish has been on the menu for two and half years but in different forms – it originated as two separate dishes.  The protein first came with aubergine and the carrot was a separate vegetarian tasting dish.  Ben realized these would work so well together that he  amalgamated the dishes.  A medium sized carrot is coated in a carrot crumb then from the green top of the carrot an emulsion is produced.  The trimmings make a carrot purée and further a carrot infused pork sauce provides a finishing touch.  The pork is cooked in a pan for four minutes seasoned with timut pepper – nothing is sous vide in the kitchen.  The large potato chips take four minutes to fry and the carrot garnish will be ready in unison, Ben will orchestrate plating to ensure immaculate timing in dish creation.

There are five chefs covering the service although Ben gets one more chef in for the busiest services.  The same suppliers over three years have seen and tasted the food, so Ben has a great relationship that helps with consistency of provenance.  There’s no pressure on the kitchen to use the D&D Group suppliers so to a degree the restaurant stands independent as a destination restaurant.  Indeed, Ben can’t fault the level of support the Group has provided in aiding the evolution of the offering at Launceston Place.

Overall Ben Murphy strikes the diner as a chef that has completed a form of journey to deliver a consistent theme of his personality on a plate.  They say that a great chef’s protégés can achieve one Michelin star by producing, to a high standard in a subsidiary restaurant, a subset of their mentors’ creations.  For a dozen years from the millenium, Gordon Ramsay Holdings were a great example of this observation and exemplified a comment made by then editor Derek Bulmer in a fine dining guide interview of 2005.

There is another set of chefs who work in independent restaurants who assume their first head chef role and produce tasting menus that in part are their own creations but also display dishes that are an homage to mentors of their past.  The first star is perhaps a hurdle on the path to displaying a full repertoire in line with these chefs’ own consistent creative instincts and personality.  “Wherever I ate this dish I would know it was Michael Wignall’s food” is perhaps a compliment befitting a chef that reaches two Michelin stars as opposed to one Michelin star.

Ben Murphy has his own distinctive signature and although there are the five criteria by which these standards are measured, he is surely knocking on the door of a first star and with his playfully themed consistent offering on full display, he must enjoy the significant potential to go further.  Fine dining guide senses that if there are gains to be made they are at the edges of touch rather than the search for anything fundamental.  The full dining room and growth in customer base year on year are testament to that fact.  No doubt under the watchful eye of the likes of Michelin, long may his career continue to blossom and fine dining guide looks forward to following Ben’s career with interest.