Archive for March, 2020

Chef Interview: Roberta Hall, Little Chartroom, Edinburgh (March 2020)

Posted on: March 30th, 2020 by Simon Carter

Few restaurants in Edinburgh have received immediate critical and popular acclaim than The Little Chartroom on Albert Place, Leith Walk. Opened in the summer of 2018, it has garnered adulatory reviews by notable critics in the Edinburgh and national press, as well being awarded Best Newcomer 2019 in the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards. Placed in The Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards Top 100 list, and winning an Eating & Drinking Award from The List Magazine, it also has entries in the Michelin Guides of 2019 and 2020, and the Good Food Guide, 2020.  Joint owner and head chef Roberta Hall won the Young British Foodie chef award 2018 and Breakthrough Chef of the Year at the Food and Travel Awards. Her national profile will be further boosted this spring, as she represents Scotland in the BBC’s Great British Menu.

Welcoming, friendly, relaxed, honest and unpretentious, Roberta’s demeanour and personality mirror the engaging qualities of her intimate 18 cover restaurant. Fortunately, she found the time after a busy lunch service on Thursday 12th March to give an interview to Daniel Darwood of Fine Dining Guide.

[Shaun McCarron alongside co-owbner and chef Roberta Hall, The LIttle Chartroom restaurant]

Roberta’s father owned three butcher’s shops which expanded into a meat factory specialising in curing bacon and producing sausages and haggis, so an interest in food began at an early age. A love of baking in particular developed into a more serious interest in the profession during a week’s work experience, which she loved, at the Tower Restaurant in the National Museum of Scotland. This was followed by a part time job there, which became full time after she left school. Subsequently, two years at Glasgow cookery college provided a grounding in the basics but proved less appealing than practical experience gained in part time jobs in the evenings and her days off.

After working in the kitchens of Edinburgh’s Balmoral hotel, and eighteen months in Dubai at the world-famous Burj Al Arab, Roberta returned to her native Edinburgh in 2008 to work at Tom Kitchin’s Leith restaurant, where she stayed for three and a half years. It was here that she absorbed the chef patron’s totally fresh and passionate approach to food. She found his use of all parts of the animal, and his respect for, and showcasing of, the finest Scottish meat, game, fish and vegetables, truly inspirational. Equally driven with an infectious enthusiasm as a mentor was Dominic Jack, with whom she eventually left to set up The Kitchin’s sister restaurant, Castle Terrace. Her three years as sous chef, then three as head chef, helped to establish its reputation as a destination restaurant in central Edinburgh.

Nine and a half years under two of Edinburgh’s leading chefs have inevitably left their imprint on Roberta’s cuisine. Their uncompromising love of top quality, seasonal ingredients and their devotion to their craft are unquestioned. Whilst Castle Terrace’s more refined attention to detail involving more cooking processes contrasted with the less complicated, but equally accomplished methods of The Kitchin, both approaches, together with Roberta’s distinctive style, have been integrated into the food of the Little Chartroom.

Using regional and seasonal ingredients wherever possible, Roberta combines French techniques and her own creativity when elevating classical combinations to a higher level. The limitations of her small kitchen, with fixed top burner and pull-down oven, and the absence of a water bath and other specialised equipment, have not prevented her from producing dishes which surprise and delight. Moreover, the acquisition of a small Konro BBQ grill will enable her to experiment with the flavours of the southern USA, a more recent interest.

As her menu changes roughly every three weeks to embrace what is best in the market, there is no signature dish. However, much thought goes in ensuring balance on the a la carte menu, always offering meat, fish and vegetarian options on the starters and mains, with cheese as an alternative to two desserts. Menu descriptions list the main ingredients but give little idea of the creativity, multiple processes and meticulous attention to detail involved.

Little Chartroom Potato

This was particularly true of a starter of “Potato soup, Arbroath Smokie, quail’s egg and cod’s roe and blini, an original and playful take on Cullen Skink. Pink fir potatoes were baked, passed through a sieve and blended with an infusion of the fish, to maximise the soup’s smoky flavour. Flakes of the smoked haddock were topped with deep fried Pink Fir crisps, together with sweet and sour pickled red onions. Garnished with a soft-boiled quail’s egg, dusted with a powder of dehydrated potato skins and specked with parsley oil, the dish was accompanied by a potato blini topped with cod’s roe and caviar. Finally, as the dish was bought to the table, it received a spray of vinegar, to give that classic fish and chip shop aroma. Harmony and balance were achieved through a combination of smoky and creamy flavours, soft and crisp textures, and warm and cold temperatures. The use of the whole potato in various forms was equally impressive.

Little Chartroom Monkfish

Another inventive yet seemingly simple dish was a main course of “Monkfish, braised squid and saffron butter sauce.”  Harmony was achieved by matching the hearty, meaty pan-fried fish with strongly flavoured accompaniments. Squid, which had been braised in fish stock for four hours, was then finely sliced and flavoured with its ink. Turnip tops and asparagus, pan fried in butter to retain their al dente texture, balanced the softness of the monkfish and squid. The velvety smoothness of the verjus based saffron beurre blanc added a rich, earthy flavour and a distinctly vibrant colour.

Little Chartroom Meringe

Roberta claims not to be as strong on desserts as on savoury courses, with new creations being trialled before appearing on the menu. Nevertheless, her meringue dessert showed considerable imagination, skill and sophistication. A base of hazelnut dacquoise was topped with layers of praline paste, chocolate and feuilletine flakes, meringue and coffee parfait. Not too sweet, the gentle bitterness of the coffee and chocolate balanced the sweetness of the meringue and praline. There was also contrast in the crisp, nutty and soft textures and the different temperatures.

Consistency across the menu and over time is achieved by her multifaceted team. With just three options on the three course a la carte menu, which is changed roughly every three weeks, the kitchen has ample time to perfect the dishes. Together with three chefs, only two of whom are on duty at any one service, Roberta and husband and co-owner Shaun McCarron who is front on house, do everything from meet and greet, taking orders, making drinks to cooking and serving food and washing up. Team work is also involved in helping to judge a new dish before it goes on the menu. More importantly, staff are not overworked to maintain a healthy work life balance, which feeds through to a more polished performance in the restaurant. Shifts range from two and a half to four days maximum and they are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

A set, no choice three course lunch for £19 is only one indicator of the restaurant’s value for money. Although prices are higher on the a la carte menu, what must also be considered is the impeccable quality of the produce, the skill involved in cooking and the modest mark up on the wines. Engaging, knowledgeable service, with the personal touch in relaxed surroundings, also encourages repeat custom, an acid test for success. Indeed, one guest recently dined for the 50th time.

As for the future, Roberta will strive to improve even further having already secured her place in the highly competitive restaurant scene. She is looking forward to guest chef appearances during the year; hopefully the current coronavirus crisis will not affect these and her business too drastically. Roberta has achieved much and has much more to give, so it would be sad if factors beyond her control prevent her from achieving her full potential.

Fine Dining Guide wishes Roberta continued success and will follow her career with interest.

Restaurant Review: Umi, Edinburgh (March 2020)

Posted on: March 27th, 2020 by Simon Carter

Umi at 18-24 Deanhaugh St, is the third Japanese restaurant of owners Kenny and Jimmy Zhang. Following the success with Bentoya in Fountainbridge (2014) and Kenji Sushi in nearby St Stephen’s Street (2016), they opened Umi in this historic and vibrant Stockbridge district of Edinburgh.

Located in a basement, like other restaurants in central Stockbridge, the interior arrangement and décor of Umi are a cross between  a Ryōtei – a type of luxurious traditional Japanese restaurant  – and a typical Izakaya, an informal gastropub. Shoji sliding doors offer privacy to the seating areas around low horigotatsu tables. Elsewhere, a variety of seating, from comfortable individual wicker style seats fixed on wooden bases to simple stools, is available. The thatched effect ceiling contrasts nicely with the bare wooden floor. Ceiling lights are brighter than the more decorative red paper lanterns. Bamboo screens helped separate some closely arranged tables. The walls of exposed brick and bare concrete are decorated with street art and murals. Overall, this is a worthy attempt to replicate an authentic Japanese ambience.

The menu at Umi, which means ocean, specialises in fish and ramen, although there is more  variety than this, including Korean style hot stone bowl rice dishes. The colourful, pictorial menu gives clear details of the specialities on offer. Generously portioned, beautifully presented dishes are freshly and precisely cooked.  Prices are fair given the excellent quality of expensive ingredients and the skill in preparation. Up to five chefs man the kitchen covering cold starters, sushi and ramen. Service is friendly, prompt and knowledgeable, without being intrusive.

Many of the patrons of this 35-cover restaurant are young who prefer a healthy diet for which Japanese food is renowned. Umi is also popular with families, especially at weekends.

Fine Dining Guide visited on a midweek evening in March. House manager Saki gave helpful advice in choosing a balanced range of dishes.

Aubergine Goma (£4.50) scored and fried for speed of service (instead of being baked in the oven), and glazed in an umami rich miso paste enhanced with a mirin and sugar glaze. Amazingly, the result was soft, non-greasy and meltingly sweet and savoury flesh.

The tempura dish featured five king prawns (£8.90) in an ethereally light, transparent and crisp batter accompanied by a soya based dipping sauce.  Other options include sweetcorn, the best seller.

Kara-age fried chicken (£4.90), comprised seven pieces of boneless thigh deep fried in a potato starch batter. Whilst the use of thigh (instead of the ubiquitous breast in western restaurants) guaranteed succulence, the batter needed to be crisper to do the dish full justice. There were no problems with the seven spiced mayonnaise dip.

nigiri sushi

A selection of nigiri sushiSalmon, Tuna, Yellow tail, Tora and Sea Bass (various prices) – was generous in its toppings of spankingly fresh fish.  The light, fluffy and slightly sticky rice was perfectly cooked.

Hamachi Carpaccio

Of the sashimi dishes Tuna tartare is the most popular. However, following the recommendation of co-owner Kenny, who popped in for a chat, I was served Hamachi Carpaccio (£8.50). Delicate slices of firm, white king fish (yellow tail) were dressed in a light ponzu dressing infused with tangy yuzu which cut through the slightly oily fish. Grape puree added sweetness and black garlic cloves a contrasting tartness. Edible yuzu flowers and shredded mouli gave contrasting flavour and textures in this perfectly balanced, beautifully presented dish.

No visit to Umi would be complete without sampling a ramen dish. The secret to the Crazy Tonkotsu ramen (£10.90) was the deeply flavoured 24-hour pork bone broth. Added to this was tare (a soya based secret recipe), and chilli oil paste to add heat. Sliced chashu, braised belly pork, had a meltingly soft texture and a gentle sweetness to balance the salt of the broth. Home made pulled noodles, of al dente texture, reflecting the correct amount of protein in the flour, gave substance, soft boiled egg gave richness, and grilled jalapeno and chilli strands finished the dish with a lively freshness.

Overall, there was much to admire in quality, quantity and variety of food offered at Umi. The well-heeled residents of this prosperous district are discerning diners, voting with their feet if restaurants are sub-standard.  Happily, Umi has a healthy amount of repeat custom, which augurs well for its continued success. Fine Dining Guide will revisit and follow its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: The Avenue, Lainston House (March 2020)

Posted on: March 18th, 2020 by Simon Carter

Phil Yeoman’s return to Lainston House, now as Executive Chef, allows full scope for his creative talents. He runs a calm kitchen of five chefs, an approach which aids retention which in turn promotes consistency in cooking. Ideas for new dishes are bounced around his team and adapted before appearing on the menu.  They may appear first in The Avenue, the Chef’s Table opposite the passe, where six diners can comfortably watch Phil and his team dress dishes on the six course tasting menu. This theatre of food showcases the depth and breadth of his rejuvenated passion for cooking.

[Executive Chef Phil Yeomans at The Chef’s Table]

Phil’s cuisine, based on the classics but employing modern techniques, is unashamedly complex. Dishes are multi-component, showing a skilled approach with a clear understanding of technique and flavour. Invention is tempered with a keen culinary intelligence. Combinations of ingredients may occasionally surprise, but all satisfy in terms of taste, texture and temperature. Often using seasonal and local ingredients, including those from the hotel’s Kitchen garden, dishes might also include more exotic produce reflecting his travels as a chef. Cooking is accurately timed, seasoning is judicious, and saucing accomplished but restrained. Presentation is clean and precise, devoid of elaborate flourishes, each element serving a purpose on the plate.

Fine Dining Guide visited The Avenue on a mid-week evening in March, finding much to admire in the chef’s tasting menu – there is a vegetarian alternative –  and flight of wines.

Lainston Canapes

A trio of canapes served with pre dinner drinks delighted in their creativity and meticulous attention to detail. These included freshly cooked crisp coated arancini exuding the heady aroma of truffle; dainty lemon emulsion tarts; and delicate chicken crackers with chicken crumble which simply melted in the mouth.

Lainston Bread

A selection of well baked breads comprised seeded roll, herby rosemary focaccia and, best of all, an accomplished brioche with paprika and cheddar.

Lainston Mousse

An amuse bouche featured an ethereally light foam of Lyburn cheese from Winchester layered onto sweet onion puree seasoned with Worcestershire sauce. These deep, rich flavours and soft textures were balanced by crunchy croutons, fresh apple cubes and a drizzle of spicy lovage oil.

Lainston Trout

Another local ingredient was expertly employed in the first course.  Chalk Stream Rainbow trout, farmed in Romsey on river Test, cured in Bombay Sapphire gin and spices had a firm texture and vibrant flavour. Dressed in yuzu to cut through the oily fish, it worked well with candied and pickled beetroot with beetroot jam, which provided an earthy freshness. Finally, a brilliantly innovative yuzu, white chocolate and horseradish ice cream, at once giving elements of sweet, sour and spicy tastes, elevated the dish to higher plane. The zesty Chablis with orchard flavours did full justice to this composite fish dish.

[Wine: Chablis, Domaine Colette Gros, Burgundy, France 2018]

Lainston Celeriac

A complex autumnal vegetarian course saw the distinctive earthiness of tender salt baked celeriac and celeriac puree paired with the creamy nuttiness of gruyere cheese. These were complemented, but not overwhelmed, by crispy onion crumb for a little acidity, pickled blackberries for sourness, and Marsala jelly for richness. Shitake mushrooms (from Fundamentally Fungus), black truffle oil and micro rocket gave contrasting elements in taste and texture. As a final flourish which imitated the shaving of truffle, caramelised white chocolate which had been cooked at 90 degrees for 12 hours, was grated over the top at the table. This was not just a playful theatrical effect as the chocolate gave a gentle sweetness, reminiscent of Caramac, the dish needed. Overall, this was a tour de force of vegetarian cookery which balanced a variety of flavours and textures in satisfying mouthfuls. The matching white wine, with its hint of oak and citrus notes, proved a well-chosen partner.

[Wine: Vidal, Reserve Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand 2017]

Lainston Halibut

Perched on a base of sweet cauliflower puree, an accurately timed fillet of halibut had glistening white flakes of meaty fish. These mild flavours were given a lift by an intensely rich crab bisque, a crisp crab and tapioca crisp and a light crab foam. Fresh apple and calamansi jam added a zingy freshness, making this another perfectly balanced dish. The accompanying fresh white Burgundy, with notes of white peach with a hint of chalk matched this course well.

[Wine: Bourgogne Aligoté, Domaine Roux Père & Fils, France 2018]

Lainston Pork

The beautifully presented meat course starred pork belly which had been cured for 3 days in wild garlic salt cure, smoked in house, then slow cooked for 24 hours. Inevitably, the result was a beautifully succulent, fully flavoured, melt in the mouth porcine treat. A bon bon of pork shoulder added a barbequed smokiness. Turnip puree and pickled baby turnips, and compressed fresh apple compote were suitable accompaniments, while a baby potato croquette with wild garlic, apple blossom, and a light sauce served separately completed the dish. My only reservation, as a greedy carnivore, was that I would have liked a bigger portion of pork, but this understandably would have imbalanced the whole tasting menu! Nevertheless, such a refined and elevated classical dish needed a classical, rich red wine, in this case served Coravin style

[Wine: Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Tollot-Beaut, Burgundy 2017.]

Lainston Souffle

The first hot and cold dessert proved to be an excellent palate cleanser. Passion fruit souffle was well risen, fluffily textured with an appealingly sweet tartness. The accompanying coconut Malibu sorbet was smooth and intensely flavoured. The lingering citrus finish of the sweet wine worked well with this course.

[Wine: Royal Tokaji Late Harvest, Furmint, Harslevelu, Hungary 2016]

Lainston Dessert

The skills of the pastry section were also shown in the second layered dessert. The gentle bitterness of dark chocolate and lemon ganache was balanced by a honey cremeux of velvet like texture. A ginger biscuit base gave texture and a quenelle of honey ice cream gave added richness with a contrasting temperature. This accomplished, boldly flavoured dessert deserved the glass of rich Maury which partnered it.

Wine: Lafage, Maury Grenat, Vin Doux Naturelle, France 2017

Lainston Chocolates

Homemade orange, caramel and Baileys chocolates, worthy of a master chocolatier. completed a memorable meal, one showing harmony and balance within each course and across the whole menu. The chef himself was at hand to explain the composition of the dishes and the techniques employed. In addition, sommelier Alberto, who has served Lainston in various roles for 19 years, showed an extensive knowledge and expertise which enhanced our enjoyment of the wines.

Clearly, the Chef’s Table at The Avenue is the highlight of the food and drink offering at Lainston House – a true gastronomic experience. Phil Yeoman’s reputation as master chef is well established, and his current tenure shows him at the height of his powers. Fine Dining Guide wishes him continued success and will follow his career with interest.

Chef Interview: Phil Yeomans, Lainston House (March 2020)

Posted on: March 14th, 2020 by Simon Carter

Phil Yeomans’ career has taken a strong and positive path, having started as a young commis chef at the Dorchester Grill, he then worked his way through luxury properties in the USA and Bermuda before finding his kitchen home coming at Lainston House in Winchester.  Now into his second spell at the property and this time as Executive Chef, Phil delivers culinary treats to expectant guests of the Exclusive Group property – a hotel Group itself led by a man (Danny Pecorelli) who is renowned for his passion for food.  Here, Phil finds time to chat to Simon Carter of fine dining guide about his kitchen journeys and philosophies.  The interview took place at The Avenue Restaurant, Chef’s Table at Lainston House in early March 2020.

Give a brief overview of your career to date

Phil’s training was at college in Basingstoke before taking the plunge as an 18-year-old commis chef at The Dorchester Grill. After a successful year he moved to the original Soho House in Greek Street, both kitchens were exceptionally busy and provided extraordinary experience for the young chef.  The Fifth Floor at Harvey Nicholls offered the next role in the days when it served great food and was packed with around 150 covers lunch and dinner every day.  After three action packed years in London and the turn of the millennium, it was time for Phil to have a change of scenery.

North Carolina and a Relais & Chateaux AAA Five Diamond property called Fearrington House Inn, Pittsboro gave Phil an excellent challenge as well as broadened his horizons.  The cuisine varied between influences of modern British, southern state American and Mexican.  After two years, via an interested guest and a sequence of events, Phil found himself in Bermuda at Coral Beach club, a famous members club with cottages, which at the time was next door to the Mandarin Oriental on Elbow Beach.  After a relatively short period Phil was promoted to Head Chef, which was a real learning curve as the majority of produce – non seafood – was imported, “If you got your chip order wrong, there was trouble” jokes Phil as potatoes were expensive to import.

It was time to settle down and Phil moved back to the UK where his love affair with Exclusive Group of hotels started.  Lainston house would be his home for the next eight years, working his way up to Head Chef and being part of the great ‘food culture’ at the Group – at the time there were Michelin Stars around the properties with Michael Wignall, Simon Davies and Matt Gillan (Pennyhill Park, Manor House and South Lodge respectively) leading the various brigades in the Group.  Phil was ideally looking for the Executive Chef role and the opportunity arose to fulfil that ambition at Marwell House where he spent the next five years. However, he had always hankered for the same role at Lainston House and in mid 2019, when the chance came, he managed to secure the top position at the property.

Who have been the chef inspirations in your career.

Two decades ago, as a young chef in London, Phil was most inspired by Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road and Phil Howard’s The Square on Bruton Street.  Flavour packed food, elevated by iconic chefs with very strong classical foundations.  Phil respects Royal Hospital Road as it has continued to evolve and modernise to the present day, while remaining true to its classical roots.  Andrew MacKenzie at Lainston House was a mentor during his development and Phil credits the way he runs a kitchen down to Andrew’s approach – calm, efficient, structured, prepared and no drama!  He also taught Phil more than about cooking; how to manage people, manage costs, to manage and consider other strategic issues like the environment and so on.

How would you describe the desired cuisine at Lainston House

Flavour first with a strong classical base.  There are some modern touches or talking points that are subtle but not to challenge the diner.  Working with local producers to support the community as well as utilising the hotel’s kitchen garden.  The identity of the restaurant is in the identity of the clientele.  Knowing your audience is half the battle in a country house hotel.  Phil feels perfectly capable of producing more esoteric dishes, however the house has a classical with a modern twist identity, an identity which Phil is delighted to deliver to the discerning and happy guests.

chef's table lainston House

[The chef’s table at The Avenue Restaurant, Lainston House]

What are your favourite dishes on the menu?

The celeriac dish perhaps pushes the boundaries for me and for guests.  The feedback is amazing for this dish and so much time and effort has gone into perfecting this vegetarian feast of tastes.  A main course that has just come onto the menu is the pork dish, which is classical, elegant and straight forward – apple, turnip and pork.  Even though it is a simpler dish, the same focus has gone into making it just right and the flavour impact is truly exceptional.  For dessert, the souffle and sorbet work so well and when constructed well there’s nothing better, a classic, enough said!

Tell us about the Chefs Academy at Exclusive Group of Hotels?

The Chefs Academy is an amazing project set up around six years ago by Andrew MacKenzie (who has worked with Exclusive Collection for around thirty years).  Well supported by Danny Pecorelli, the opportunity to invest in people has gone hand in hand with the opportunity to solve the Group’s situation with regards to the general industry recruitment challenge.

Every year, each of the kitchens in the Exclusive Collection will get two new year one and two year two trainees.  In their first year, the trainee chefs are rotated around the kitchen for a year before moving to a sister property to do the same.  At the end of two years they graduate and are invited to apply for a full-time position within the Exclusive Hotel Group – a kind of unofficial year three.

Alongside the practical kitchen work experience, the trainees will be completing modules of training.  Every other week, for two days, they will be with Andrew (MacKenzie) learning about different aspects of the chef profession.  One such module may involve Portland Shellfish, where they would go down to Portland, go out on the boats, to see how to pick a crab and so on.  The next day they will return to the in-house cookery school, where they will learn how to cook, plate and present crab dishes. 

Likewise, there will be game module, a cheese module and so on, where the trainees learn in the classroom or out with a supplier or working on the job to give first class, all round, training and education.  Over the two years they will learn everything from tempering chocolate to breaking down fish, the kind of apprenticeship that was had thirty years ago but doesn’t exist elsewhere today.

The Group is proud of the level and strength of quality of learning provided, so Andrew MacKenzie is able to scout the colleges and get the pick of the graduating bunch. There is still a highly competitive recruitment process involving interviews and cook-offs.

Due to the success of the chef academy, Exclusive Group has started a front of house academy to replicate this success.

Tell us more about the passion driving employee wellbeing from the top?

The food culture and welfare of the chefs filters through from a passion from the top.  There’s 800 plus employees in the group and we have a “family” feel and a staff brand called Exclusive People.  Significant pride is taken in looking after people, a small but relevant example is in the staff rooms which are furnished and managed to a standard as if they were front of house.  The wellbeing and morale of staff reflects in productivity. From a chef perspective, there’s a fixed hours contract and it is ensured over a period that this balances out to give a proper work/life balance.  There’s also continuous investment in people and their work environment, for example we have new kitchen equipment here at Lainston House as part of a constant awareness that reinvestment is the answer to staying ahead in modern economic times.

How many front of house and how many are in the kitchen brigade?

Kitchen team is eighteen , front of house eleven in the restaurant and six in the bar.

What are the menu structures and how often do you change them?

Seasonal, four times a year, although in summer the menus may change to maximise freshness with the vegetables coming through.  There a seven-course tasting menu with a vegetarian and vegan option.  The Carte is a five starter, five main and five dessert choice menu.  The focus is now on dinner, lunch time is now more geared towards afternoon tea, which is supported by a bar menu.

What are your plans for the future?

Right from the top the drive is to see ahead and deliver on identified objectives.  Something that is now mainstream but started at Lainston House ten or so years ago was Exclusively Green.  For example, in the kitchen Lainston House have stepped up to be gas efficient.  Phil hopes to be putting the property firmly on the culinary map, in the context of achieving the changing requirements that reflect a successful, modern, relevant and thriving business.

Phil Yeomans is enjoying his Executive Chef role at Lainston House, at the pinnacle of his career.  Guests of The Avenue, based on fine dining guide’s experience, leave satisfied in stomach and impressed by quality in equal measures.  Long may this continue!

Interview: David O’Connor & Joe Mercer Nairne, Medlar (March 2020)

Posted on: March 11th, 2020 by Simon Carter

Fine Dining Guide had the pleasure of interviewing David O’Connor (right) and Joe Mercer Nairne (left), who in April 2021 will be celebrating 10 years as the proud owners of the restaurant at 438 King’s Road, Chelsea. The partnership that gave birth to Medlar Restaurant was the coming together of two fine exponents of their trade from the Nigel Platts-Martin group of restaurants: David, with a calm authority and unassuming charm in front of house and Joe a rising star in the kitchen at Chez Bruce.   They both found time to sit down and discuss their journey with Daniel Darwood in an interview that took place during late February 2020 at Medlar Restaurant.

How did David come to open Medlar with Joe?

David always imagined running his own restaurant but envisioned his home of the Wirral.  His parents had owned a restaurant in Heswall so he was steeped in the trade. His career, however, took a turn to London. David met the then sous chef, Joe Mercer Nairne, at Chez Bruce in Wandsworth Common. They hit it off straight away and shared the same ambition, so it was only natural that they should join forces. The search for a site took in Turnham Green and Farringdon, where they faced competitive bids from wealthy chains, before settling on The King’s Road.  The chosen site had the benefit of proximity to Sloane Square, along with a history of longevity of businesses on and around the site.  David and Joe could also move forward with financial independence which would free up their decision making going forward.

Who have proven your greatest mentor(s) and what have they taught you?

David’s early front of house training came at a privately-owned hotel, managed by his brother.  His career would gather significant pace under Patrick Fischnaller, General Manager at Orrery in Marylebone High Street.  The ambition of the restaurant combined with the level of intensity of service meant he learned so much so quickly – concentration, speed of thought, technical service skills – high standards at all times were demanded, which stretched him to the limit. Indeed, such was the success of this training that each of the front of house team subsequently opened their own businesses!

At the two Michelin starred The Square restaurant, which itself was delivering relentlessly high standards, David was hired as a chef de rang.  Restaurant manager Jacques Carlino taught him the art of creating regulars from customers. In an almost exclusively French Front of House team, “the English Waiter” was trusted to engage in discussion with the well-heeled clientele. David feels that perhaps his biggest gratitude has been owed to Bruce Poole and Nigel Platts Martin, the owners who nurtured his potential by providing his first management role at a sister restaurant in the group, Michelin starred Chez Bruce.  Having proven himself in every way, several years later, the vacancy came up to go back to The Square as restaurant manager, David took the opportunity with both hands.  Always learning on the job, as well as dedicating his otherwise leisure time, David’s management skills continued to blossom over twelve years with the group, establishing him as a national leader in his field. The natural next step was his own business.

For Joe, places he liked to eat would be places where he wanted to work. He enjoyed his time as sous chef with Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce and also travelled to Australia where he worked with Neil Perry at Rockpool in Sydney. Experience at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill proved the hardest place to work, engendering a solid discipline and work ethic, something he has subsequently felt confident to ask of others. He laments these traits are lacking amongst many of the current generation of chefs, who look for the easiest route to success without undergoing the often repetitive work that each section requires.

What is the structure of the brigade at Medlar?

David and long standing assistant Voula oversee the front of house team, managing reception, taking orders and ensuring guests are comfortable and happy. Waiters are allocated tables in two or three sections. Sommeliers are given scope either to converse knowledgeably with wine connoisseurs or to address more modest requests. The unsung heroes are the runners who bring food from the basement kitchen, drinks and coffee from the first floor bar, and collect wine from fourth floor wine cellar.

In the kitchen there are five sections with one chef on each. The chefs move around each section as required. There are 10 chefs on a rota with a natural turnover. Happily, Joe’s two sous chefs have been with him since opening, ensuring high quality and consistency of the finished product.

[Medlar Sample Menu March 2020]

What would you say makes great service from the front of house?

David is uncompromising in his pursuit of friendly, professional, welcoming, attentive and unobtrusive service.  Staff are trusted to enhance the guest experience by improvisation through to reading the customer’s preferences.  The flexibility afforded to the staff avoids a stilted, formulaic approach.  Essentially David’s mantra is to get the basics absolutely right and the magic dust of customer interaction will add value naturally.

What proportion of your clientele are locals and regulars?

At least 75% are locals and regulars at most services, something which makes David and Joe proud but not complacent. They agree that the essential pre-requisite for repeat custom is consistent delivery of high quality food and service, a complete hospitality package.

What is your view of Trip Advisor?

The biggest compliment customers can pay after an enjoyable meal is to post an online review. Trip Advisor is used to access feedback and reviews, which are mostly positive, rather than a means to interact with customers. Negative reviews are investigated internally as far as possible. Experience suggests that 90% of mistakes usually occur if the service team fail to recognize a potential issue, which when continuing unnoticed, may fester and lead to repetition or escalation of the issue. To fix any potential challenges, positive action by a competent and perceptive front of house will prevent any further escalation and resolve them immediately – essential with the more demanding customers.

Joe, what inspired you to become a chef?

Joe’s curiosity about food, born of enjoyment but with no cooking skills to match, resulted in two terms at Leith’s Cookery School and a kitchen job after he graduated from Oxford. Although not a chef junkie, he enjoyed watching repeat series of Keith Floyd and Rick Stein, which combined travel with cookery.

Where have you worked and what did you learn along the way?

Joe enjoyed the chef lifestyle, if not the type of cooking, in his first position at Carluccio’s – then a much smaller operation – which inspired him to continue with a career with a focus in high end restaurants. Joe enjoyed the classical training of the Savoy Grill, and whilst the hours were long and punishing, it instilled a belief in everyone there that they could cope with just about anything.   The structure was similar at Savoy, Chez Bruce and Rockpool.  Perhaps the Savoy was slightly more hierarchical, but he enjoyed working at all of them.  All three of the kitchens instilled great discipline and work ethic:  Something which younger chefs today seem as if they would like to do without.

How would you describe your cuisine style and how often does the menu change?

Joe’s style is based on the core principles of French brasserie cooking, elevated and refined with his own spin. Joe enjoys eating at the great Parisian brasseries where the cooking of classic dishes such as duck confit is irreproachable.  Menus at Medlar reflect the seasons, although signature dishes remain throughout the year. There are occasional international influences, the Asian ones being learnt at Rockpool in Sydney. True to his love of offal, Joe sometimes offers lamb tongues or sweetbreads, despite their increasing cost and difficulty in sourcing. 

Describe three of your signature dishes and explain why they have been particularly successful

Duck egg tart is, for Joe, his most prized dish, which had been evolving since his Chez Bruce days.  It is a take on the brasserie staple oeufs en murette.  Fried duck eggs replace poached hen’s eggs, a crisp pastry base substitutes for fried crutons, turnip puree and sautéed duck hearts are innovations, whilst meaty lardons and a deeply flavoured red wine sauce remain. 

Crab raviolo which was only meant to stay on the menu temporarily, given there were many similar dishes available elsewhere, has proved a winner, accounting for at least 50% of the starters ordered. The silky pasta is generously filled with white crab meat, the brown meat incorporated in the rich bisque. Dressed with samphire, brown shrimps, and a fondue of leeks, this labour-intensive dish, not easily made at home, remains a popular favourite.

Rump or under blade of Belted Galloway, served at dinner or lunch respectively, is another popular main course. Under blade in particular is a reasonably priced, difficult to source cut favoured by the kitchen. Cooked medium rare for full flavour, and served with café de Paris snails, stuffed portobello mushroom, shallot puree, a rich jus and bearnaise sauce, it is served with a side of lightly dressed frisee to give freshness. A composite dish in itself, most diners will order a side of triple cooked chips (enough for two) to complete the gastronomic experience.

How value for money is achieved?

Both David and Joe agree that if customers leave not hungry, fully satisfied with the food and service, then value for money has been achieved. This applies to all levels of restaurant – it is the quality of the experience not the amount on the bill which is relevant.

What are your plans for the future?

David will consider expansion – perhaps a coffee shop, pub or another restaurant – if the correct opportunity arises. He prefers London, but is not averse to country pub location. Joe who lives in Putney when working but whose family is based in Winchester, would prefer to expand within the capital, where he can keep his highly experienced team.

Overall David and Joe have forged a winning business partnership – Medlar restaurant is widely recognised in London as a reliably high quality, restaurant delivering first class hospitality in a relaxed atmosphere with the finest classical food.  Long may it continue!   

Chef Interview: Tom Kitchin, (March 2020)

Posted on: March 4th, 2020 by Simon Carter
Tom Kitchin

What inspired you to become a chef?

I started working in kitchens at the age of 13, doing the dishes and working my way to the starters. I loved being in the kitchen and saw it as a gateway to leaving school. I then left school at 16 to attend cooking college, followed by an apprenticeship at Gleneagles hotel when I was 17. It was tough but was really inspired me to continue working in kitchens.

Where have you worked and what did you learn along the way?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in some of Europe’s leading kitchens, including La Tante Claire in London under Pierre Koffmann and Guy Savoy in Paris as well as Le Louis XV in Monaco under legendary Monsieur Alain Ducasse.  In 2006 my wife and I opened our first restaurant, The Kitchin, in Edinburgh and since then we’ve opened four more. I’ve had an incredible journey, one that has allowed me to learn all about different cultures and ways of life and I feel that has all really helped make me the chef I am today. 

Describe three signature dishes

Starter: Rockpool
A rockpool of local seafood, sea vegetables, ginger and a Newhaven shellfish consommé.

Main: Roe Deer
Roasted loin and braised haunch of roe deer from the Borders, salt baked neeps, rhubarb and red wine sauce

Dessert: Rhubarb crumble souffle

Talk generally about the provenance of ingredients in your kitchen

We’re so lucky with the variety of local produce and local suppliers available in the area; we have some of the best produce in the UK on our doorstep.  The high-quality produce available here in Scotland allows us to be more innovative with our recipes and cooking methods. The variety of produce available means we have such large a range of ingredients to work with, for example; freshly caught lobsters from the fishermen’s boat, or game which has just been shot that day and brought in by the gamekeeper straight to our doorstep.  

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t tend to make plans, I like to take each day and new venture as they come, assessing opportunities along the way. I just want to make sure all my businesses are running as efficiently as possible and my family are happy.

Review: Feathered Nest, Nether Westcote, Oxon. (Mar 2020)

Posted on: March 2nd, 2020 by Simon Carter
feathered nest ext

The Feathered Nest, a food-led restaurant with rooms, has been under new ownership with a new head chef since August 2019. Adam Taylor, chief executive of Nested Hospitality, and Michelin starred Matt Weedon are aiming to exceed the pre-existing high reputation for food, service and accommodation. Between them, they have a wealth of experience to make their new venture a success. Adam’s passion for hospitality, especially regarding polo events, has taken him across the world but The Feathered Nest realises his dream of having his own restaurant. In Matt Weedon he has a master chef of distinguished pedigree, having won Michelin stars at Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire and Lords of the Manor in Gloucestershire. 

Chef Matt Weedon (Left) and owner Adam Taylor (Right)

Situated on the edge of the tiny Oxfordshire village of Nether Westcote, six miles from the historic market town of Burford, The Feathered Nest’s location in the heart of the Cotswolds boasts panoramic views over the Evenlode valley, best admired from the attractive terrace and extensive gardens. Off the beaten track, it became a destination restaurant with three AA rosettes under the previous ownership, a status already retained under the new ownership.

Housed in a handsomely restored 17th Century malthouse, complete with oak beams and stone floors, The Feathered Nest is entered through a traditional bar area leading to small lounge with leather chairs and sofas around a stone fireplace. Beyond is the main restaurant with its well-spaced tables, the lower level with banquette seating spilling out to the terrace. All three areas exude a comforting, relaxed informality.

With a maximum of 75 covers across the various dining areas and a staff of 15, this is a serious operation. Changes have been gradual to minimise disruption but the decision to offer lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday (as well as Sunday lunch) is an astute one, promoting a good work-life balance amongst the staff, helping to ensure consistency in the kitchen and front of house.  Community supper clubs and Sunday music nights have been introduced to retain existing patrons and encourage new ones.

Whilst retaining high-end cuisine, there is now a more flexible approach to the food offering. The same menu is available in all three areas, so patrons can opt for a six-course tasting menu or a single dish from the carte. Dishes from a bar board are also on offer.

Seasonality. sustainability and locality, given their unquestioned quality of the region’s produce, are key facets of the menus. Indeed, Matt, who lives in the next village, and has been a regular patron of The Feathered Nest before becoming Head Chef, intends to extend the range of local suppliers.

Matt Weedon’s cuisine is unashamedly classical, forsaking faddish trends and gimmicky flourishes. There are some contemporary touches but these are kept in moderation. Fundamentally, cooking techniques are highly polished, with precise timing, judicious seasoning and accomplished saucing. Dishes reflect a harmonious combination of ingredients, with balance in tastes, textures and temperatures. Attention to detail, which helps elevate each dish, is immaculate. Portions are generous whilst presentation is clean and uncluttered, each item on the plate serving a distinct purpose.

The a la carte menu is extensive enough to showcase the chef’s range but short enough to ensure consistency. Five starters (£14 to £22) and five mains (£28 to £38) are supplemented by two steaks from the Josper grill (£29 to £70 for Chateaubriand for two) and four desserts (£9 to £18 for tarte tatin for two) and a cheese option (£12). A six-course tasting menu (£65) featuring smaller portions taken from the carte, is the best introduction to Matt’s cuisine. Prices are realistic and fair, considering the quality of the produce and the expertise in cooking. Meals will also include complementary amuse bouches, home baked breads and pre dessert.

The wine list is ambitious and international, with a focus on France and Italy but with a good selection of New World vintages.

A weekday dinner in February captured the essential qualities of the food and service offering. A warm welcome by owner Adam Taylor, who also acts as front of house, put us at our ease and provided useful background information on the new regime.

Anthony, the engaging Restaurant Manager, ensured the seamless service was helpful, informative and unobtrusive.

The meal began with an amuse bouche of cornets of local estate curried lamb breast, yogurt, apricot puree and cucumber. This proved a delectable and dainty combination of savoury and sweet flavours with soft and crisp textures. It certainly whetted the appetite for the subsequent courses.

Next came a silky smooth and deeply flavoured soup of butternut squash and cauliflower, dressed with coriander oil for a contrasting herbal hit. Of the two miniature loaves served with it, the warm Guinness sourdough was outstanding in its malty sweetness and soft texture. These came with soft home churned butter and marmite beef dripping and lighter rapeseed oil and raspberry vinegar

A starter paired grilled chicken wings with home-smoked eel. The soft textured glazed boneless chicken worked well with the oily richness of the cured eel. The dish was enlivened by dots of hoisin sauce, the strong savouriness of which was moderated by the sweetness of the compressed carrot. Finely sliced cucumber and spring onion added freshness and crispness to this deceptively simple dish with Chinese influences.  

Next, shellfish was partnered with pork. Long, slow-cooked Oxford and sandy black pig’s cheek produced meltingly soft, full-flavoured meat in contrast to the accurately timed Orkney scallops with their seared crusts and sweet, translucent flesh. Celeriac puree gave a gentle aniseed taste, balanced by caramelised apple. The necessary crisp element was provided by crumbled pork crackling.

A beef main course was not for the faint hearted. A fillet of Aberdeen Angus was cooked medium to maximise its elegant, subtle flavour and tender succulence. Partnered with rich, boldly flavoured ballotine of oxtail, this combination was a carnivor’s delight. Equal attention was paid to the veritable cornucopia of vegetables:  smooth smoked mash and crisp potato wheel; sautéed morel mushrooms; onions and carrots in beef dripping; and vibrant kale and tenderstem broccoli. Finished with a powerful red wine sauce, this dish exemplified classical cooking at its elevated best.

Equally accomplished was the seafood main course. A fillet of roasted halibut – a fish notorious for drying out if not treated with respect – was timed to perfection, giving firm flakes of delicately flavoured white flesh. This was accompanied by a raviolo of langoustines, the thin, silky pasta encasing the sweet crustacean bound in a shellfish mousse. But the star of the dish was an exquisite shellfish bisque, light but fully flavoured and lifted with the addition of vanilla and a well-judged degree of acidity to balance its richness. Chargrilled leeks provided a smoky, mild onion taste and crisp texture which complemented the other elements well.

A pre dessert of banana, apple and passion fruit curd, topped with pina colada foam and coconut tuile proved a refreshing and light palate cleanser.

For dessert we shared a tarte tatin of pear, well worth the advertised 25 minutes wait. The puff pastry was exemplary in its buttery taste and flaky texture, whilst the use of pear instead of the usual apple gave a degree of acidity to balance the caramelised fruit. Pear sorbet rather than ice cream and blackberry gel also helped to cut the richness of the dish. For those who wished for further indulgence, two contrasting sauces – mildly bitter caramel and vanilla custard were also offered separately.

Good coffee and chocolate teacakes by the open fire completed a memorable meal which exceeded our already high expectations. Clearly, Matt Weedon’s cooking goes from strength to strength, fully justifying the accolades he has won.

The Cotswolds is a highly competitive market, bursting with food led restaurants with rooms. However, only the best will survive as destination venues, largely due to the quality of their food. The Feathered Nest undoubtedly takes its place in this elite group. Fine Dining Guide enjoyed its visit, will definitely revisit, and will follow with interest its progress in the national restaurant guides. We wish Adam, Matt and their team every success.