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Restaurant Review: Southside Scran, Edinburgh (November 2019)

Posted on: November 26th, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
SouthSide Scran Tom Kitchin

[Tom Kitchin at Southside Scran]

The Auld alliance is alive and kicking at Southside Scran bistro in the affluent Bruntsfield district of Edinburgh.  Opened by chef Tom Kitchin in November 2018, it combines the ambience of a French bistro with the cuisine of a Scottish master chef. It is the third of his venues in the capital, alongside his eponymous Michelin starred restaurant in Leith and the Scran and Scallie gastropub in Stockbridge, which holds a Bib Gourmand.         .

The attractive, spacious interior, designed by Michaela Kitchin, evokes a distinctly Parisian feel, enhanced by French background music. Plain wooden and tiled floors, mirrors and brass fittings, including an impressive mesh screen, blend harmoniously with the dark green and brown colour scheme. Different table arrangements in the split level dining area are paired with a variety of seating, featuring comfortable banquettes and classic bistro chairs in a range of materials and textures.  

Southside Scran Interior

[Southside Scran Interior]

Natural light cascading through the wide picture windows give the restaurant a bright airy feel.  At night, cleverly positioned wall, pendant and spot lighting, together with a roaring fire in the bar area, give the restaurant a comforting, snug feel, especially in winter. 

Pride of place must go to a magnificent Maestro Rotisserie, a boon for daily poultry, meat and fish dishes.

Southside Scran Head CHef Hearty Derlet and Head Waiter Diego Carrozzo

[Head Chef Hearty Derlet and FoH leader for the evening Diego Carrozzo]

Hearty Derlet, Head Chef, comes from the Kitchin fold, having spent two years in Leith before moving to China and returning for the bistro’s opening as sous chef, before being promoted. Leading a team of seven, he ensures that Tom Kitchin’s philosophy of “From Nature to Plate” is given full expression in the varied menu. This involves the sourcing of the finest, mainly Scottish, seasonal ingredients as the basis for cooking French bistro style dishes. Consistency in cooking standards is maintained through limited opening – Wednesday to Sunday lunch and dinner – relieving pressure on the kitchen, and a modest range of dishes, each of which can be perfected.

The November menu featured four starters, £12.50 to £18; five “From the Land”, £16 to £26; three “From the Sea,” £15.50 to £19.50 and fish of the day at market price; three salads in two sizes; four vegetarian dishes, £8 to £14; eight sides all £4.50; and five desserts, £8.50 each. To these are added daily starter and main “specials.” Prices are fair and realistic given the outstanding quality of the produce, the skill in cooking, the generous portions, the well-judged service and the refined surroundings. They also compare favourably with similar restaurants in Edinburgh. For those on a more limited budget, a set lunch (3/4 courses (Including cheese) for £21.50/29.50), with three choices in each course, offers excellent value for money with no reduction in the standard of the cooking.

Heading the front of house team on the Saturday lunch time we visited was Diego Carrozzo, another veteran of the Kitchin fold, whose undoubted charm was matched by his extensive knowledge of food and wine. His warm, welcoming, relaxed yet professional service quickly put us at our ease

Our lunch began with a good selection of nibbles: crisp baguette with good butter; a well flavoured, smooth chicken liver mousse with calvados jelly, homemade crisps and cornichons. Whilst lesser establishments often charge for these basics, here they are offered freely.

Southside Scran Salmon Raviolo

A first course of salmon raviolo featured exemplary thin pasta encasing a generous, well-seasoned, textured filling of the subtle tasting fish. Balancing this was a vibrant, deeply flavoured, rich yet not too creamy shellfish bisque. An acid test of an accomplished kitchen, this passed with flying colours.

Southside Scran Crab Pancake

The earthiness of an open, thin chickpea pancake worked well as the base for the beautifully fresh white meat of Newhaven crab. This was spiked with as a well-judged oriental kick of chilli, ginger and coriander’ which did not overwhelm the delicate crab. It was also pleasing to see good use made of the brown meat in a mayonnaise served separately. Little gem lettuce added the crisp salad texture the dish needed.

Southside Scran Veal Sweetbreads

A “special” of veal sweetbreads saw this delectable piece of offal accurately timed to produce a   caramelised crust and soft, smooth, creamy flesh. Roasted and pureed pumpkin gave an earthy sweetness which contrasted with the mild, savoury taste of the sweetbreads. Soft pillows of sautéed gnocchi added substance to the dish which was finished with crisp sage leaves and pumpkin seeds. Overall, this was a beautifully conceived and well executed dish.

Southside Scran Mallard en Croute

Scottish mallard en croute from the main menu was not a dish for the faint hearted. The two very generous slices comprised a meal  in itself; had I known, I would not have ordered a starter. With a mild gamey flavour and slightly coarse texture, the fatless breast and leg meat of this wild duck, together with a vegetable farce, was wrapped en crepinette and pancetta, before being covered with puff pastry. The result was moist, tender meat encased in a crisp, flaky, golden crust with no soggy bottom. Finished with a smooth, gently sweet parsnip pure and a rich red wine reduction, this was a tour de force of game cookery.

SouthsideScran_Turbot

A whole small turbot, expertly cooked on the plancha grill, was deftly skinned and filleted at the table by Diego, adding a little theatre to the service. The large flakes of the gleaming white flesh retained their moistness, and it was good to see the often overlooked but delicious cheeks also being served. Sauce Grenobleoise, with its beurre noisette, lemon and capers gave a rich and sharp lift to the mild flavoured fish; brown shrimps added a stronger seafood note and croutons gave a contrasting crispness.   

Three side dishes – a ragout of lentils and lardons, fondant potatoes, garlic and spring onions, and warm French beans, hazelnuts and shallots were given the same care and attention as the main courses. The large portions were designed for sharing.

Nor was there was any deceleration in the desserts, often the Achilles heel of bistro menus

Southside Scran Sea Buckthorn

From the set menu, a Sea buckthorn tart had crisp pate sucree and well balanced sweet and sour filling, the berries reduced down with sugar and carrot juice to moderate their intense bitterness.  A cold and acidic quenelle of yogurt sorbet provided the ideal foil in temperature and texture.

Southside Scran_Pear

Finally, from the main menu, a pear poached in red wine was suitably soft and yielding. Stem ginger gave a warming note, and crème Chantilly was well flavoured with vanilla. This fruit and spice combination, balanced by the richness of the cream, worked well in this simple yet well executed dessert.

Good espresso finished a memorable lunch, one enhanced by relaxed ambience and the exciting buzz of contented diners as the restaurant began to fill. Now in its second year of trading, Southside  Scran has made its mark in the vibrant Edinburgh dining scene. Well above the average bistro standards in its food, service, design and décor, it can only go from strength to strength in a highly competitive market. Fine Dining Guide enjoyed its visit and will follow its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: Aizle, Edinburgh (November 2019)

Posted on: November 22nd, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

This feature will outline chef/owner Stuart Ralston’s background and career as a chef before analysing his cuisine against the criteria Michelin use for awarding a star. Aizle currently enjoys 6/10 in the Good Food Guide and is aspiring to a first star.

[Chef/Owner of Aizle, Stuart Ralston]

Cooking is in Stuart’s blood. His inspiration to become a chef came from his parents and brother, all of whom were chefs. Growing up in an environment of restaurants and hotels, he started working for his father at the age of 13 as a kitchen porter. From 16, he began to take the industry more seriously, gaining placements in other leading Scottish restaurants. Ian McNaught at Roman Camp and David Williams at Greywalls in Guillane became his teachers and mentors. Stuart also had experience at Inverlochy Castle. Aspirationally, Stuart’s inspiration was Gordon Ramsay, whose blossoming career he avidly followed, with a keen desire to work for him.

This finally happened when he trialled at Gordon Ramsay at the Connaught. Then came Stuart’s biggest break when he was transferred to Ramsay’s eponymous two Michelin starred restaurant in New York. Over two years, he was able to work in all sections, moving from commis chef to senior chef de partie. This huge leap in his career, in a team who progressed to become top chefs around the world, and with connections made through Gordon Ramsay, boosted Stuart’s reputation and international standing. Thus he was offered jobs in two and three star New York restaurants, settling in a position at the three Michelin starred Jean-Georges. This was cut short by the financial crisis, but he gained another top position executive chef at the exclusive Core Club.

After five years in the Big Apple, Stuart returned to the UK, being appointed Head Chef at Lower Slaughter Manor where he gained three AA rosettes and was inspected for a Michelin star. However, a year later, the company went out of business, a bittersweet moment as coincidentally he was offered the Head Chef position at the opulent, world-famous Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados. He stayed there for three years, part of a culinary team that oversaw five kitchens with 120 chefs and massive revenues.

Having been away from Scotland for ten years, Stuart decided to make his name in his homeland, and Edinburgh in particular, where leading chefs such as Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart had given the capital gastronomic credibility in the buzzing restaurant scene.

Passionate about being independent, finances enabled him to open Aizle in Edinburgh’s Southside without the need for investors. “Humble, small and low key” – the opposite of Sandy Lane – it made a quick impact as a tasting menu only restaurant, the first in Edinburgh. Over five and a half years he has gained a large and loyal clientele, demonstrating that a no-choice menu can have wide appeal if done well. Consequently, amongst other accolades, Aizle has been voted fifth best restaurant in the UK and second best in Edinburgh by Trip Advisor. After three years of inclusion in the Good Food Guide, the 2020 edition has finally appreciated the hard work and incremental changes it has made over time, awarding the highest mark so far of 6/10.

Aizle’s pastel blue frontage with large picture windows displays an ingenious nature inspired graphic design which incorporates the restaurant’s name above the entrance. Inside, the shades of blue, grey and cream give a warm, comforting feel. Décor in the high ceiling room is kept to a minimum, the main features being two blackboards listing the ingredients of the dishes on the menu. Clearly, the focus is on the food, with few distractions. Even the menu cannot be read until the end of the meal, when it is handed to the diner. Instead, the engaging and knowledgeable staff, who may include the person who cooked it, present and explain each dish as it arrives.

The rest of this feature will analyse Stuart Ralston’s cuisine against aspects of the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star: cooking techniques employed; balance and harmony in flavour; consistency across the menu and over time; provenance of ingredients; and value for money

Stuart uses mainly classical techniques with modern flavour combinations. A simple chocolate mousse is executed in a classical way involving emulsification and is often paired with salty, umami Japanese elements. Aged beef with cherry mustard, involving barbequing and grilling on a Japanese grill to produce a simplistic beautiful flavour has been skilfully employed, hence the dish is available often throughout the year. Conversely, a summer dish of Cod with sweet corn succotash with katsuobushi sauce, involves the classical techniques of fermentation and pureeing.

Sous vide is not employed on a day to day basis.  It is never used to cook fish. Game birds are roasted whole. Cooking meat and fish in a pan is the preferred classical method. Confidence, and actually being present to ensure precise timing, is essential for success. As Stuart is present at every service, consistency is guaranteed. He agrees that sous vide can be employed successfully in the highest level restaurants but can be misused in lesser establishments.

Whilst balance and harmony are taken into account in the creation of a new dish and menu, Stuart believes some ingredients in a dish may be (say) dominantly rich or acidic with good reason, to allow the flavours and profile to be bold. This does not mean a dish cannot be in equilibrium.

Consider the first, labour intensive, snack on the tasting menu: fresh, very rich goat’s curd encased in a sweet, delicate beetroot glass tube, with an acidic gel in the middle which helps balance the other two elements. Pine nuts add an interesting harmonious background. Essentially sweet and rich, a combination common with cheese, such as cheese and chutney, this snack is a successful “one bite, one shot opener which grabs the diner’s attention at the start of the meal.”

At the other end of the meal is chocolate mousse. The main ingredient from the celebrated Norman chocolatier, Michel Cluizel, has a malty, salty, caramel quality. It rests on Black sugar from Okinawa reduced right down with Scottish whiskey. A wafer thin nut praline is topped with Kinako ice cream of roasted soya bean flower. These elements give a quite tonal and therefore balanced character, with the combination of chocolate, nuts, milk and salt, giving a balanced, rich and comforting feel.

Harmony and balance across the whole menu is also carefully considered in terms of tastes, textures, temperatures and range of ingredients. Dishes also progress from small to large.

The second snack, sweet potato with teryaki and sesame is hot and fried, comforting and warming, with a very different robust profile.

By contrast, the third snack, a crab tartlet with caviar and apple is luxurious with delicately thin filo pastry

The first course always highlights a vegetable, in this case a super comforting and fragrantly luxurious dish of girolles served with ricotta tortellini, aged parmesan and Italian black truffle.

Bread is served as the next course to balance the previous smaller snacks and as a prelude to the more substantial fish and meat courses.  Served by the pastry chef, the mother base of the sourdough named Roger is four and a half years old. The warm rolls are flavoured with caramelised onion, lemon thyme and black garlic and served with cultured butter made in house.

The fish and meat courses flow naturally in succession:

Isle of Gigha halibut with Shetland mussels and Ken Holland broccoli, employs prime ingredients precisely timed to maximise their inherent delicate flavours

A game dish features breast of wild partridge topped with smoked sausage haggis and served with cabbage, Pommes Anna and a blackberry gel captured more robust, earthy flavours and textures.

Vacherin Mont d’Or baked with Edinburgh blossom honey, and served with quince purée and homemade focaccia, provides a stimulating savoury and sweet, hot and cold cheese course

To balance this, a pre dessert of sea buckthorn (reduced down with sugar and carrot juice to moderate it is intense sharpness), yoghurt and lemon balm is suitably cold and acidic to act as a palate cleanser before the final rich dessert.

A rich chocolate mousse, described above, and dainty petit fours complete this sensational menu.

Consistency at a basic level involves everything being weighed: for instance, fish portions at 65 grams, bread rolls at 55 grams, tartlets have the same amount of crab and are of the same size and shape.

Consistency in standards is achieved by ensuring each chef cooks at the same station in each of the four open evenings, Wednesday to Saturday. Changes only occur when Stuart is convinced mastery has been achieved in his or her section. Closing three days a week ensures staff are not exhausted, retaining their energy, passion and enthusiasm. The team is energised as they feel ownership of the restaurant as part of a team with important responsibilities. Everyone takes holidays at the same time to negate any problems if Stuart is absent. Overseeing the service each day, Stuart himself ensures that no dishes leave the passe without his approval.

Consistency with suppliers is achieved by good relations built over 10 to 15 years. They know the high quality Stuart demands. Only big fish are bought for flavour and only wild fish and game are sourced. Daily orders are checked to ensure quality, size and presentation..

At Aizle, Scotland’s bounteous larder is exploited to the full for its seasonal menus: Gigha halibut, Shetland mussels, wild partridge, girolles, blackberries, sea buckthorn and blossom honey all feature in the autumn menu. Other top quality and seasonal ingredients are sourced from notable suppliers: broccoli from specialist grower Ken Holland’s farm in Northumberland; Aged Parmesan and black truffle from Italy; and Vacherin Mont d’Or and Martin Cluizel chocolate from France. Given Stuart’s extensive knowledge of Far Eastern ingredients, Katsuobushi, Okinawa black sugar and Kinako, roasted soya bean flour, are sourced from Japan. As mentioned above, daily deliveries are thoroughly checked for quality, size and presentation.

Stuart sees value for money partly in terms of how people feel when they leave a restaurant: have they got something for their money; have they been looked after; have they been impressed with the standard of ingredients? Examining the list above, wild fish and game, caviar, truffles, expensive French cheese and chocolate are quality, luxury ingredients that come at a cost which most guests appreciate. That many are repeat customers, some having eaten at Aizle 40 to 50 times over five years, is testament to its success in this respect. From an economics point of view, there has to be value in the meal, as certain costs have to be achieved, these being pushed to the limit in buying the best yet keeping the restaurant sustainable. Overall, a huge effort is made at Aizle, including learning from previous mistakes, to achieve value for money at its price point.

Having cooked for 23 years, Stuart’s energies at the age of 36 are still undiminished. Indeed, August this year saw the opening of his second restaurant, Noto, in Thistle Street. More casual than Aizle, and open all week, it has a neighbourhood feel. Serving a small plates menu with Asian influences, Noto has received good reviews, keeping its strong team constantly busy serving 48 covers with 110 on Saturdays. Stuart aims to keep cooking at Aizle, but splits his time between the two restaurants, empowering managers and senior staff, who have been loyal to the company. In the long term, perhaps another restaurant on the lines of Noto may be envisaged.

[Richard (chef de partie), Danielle (chef de partie) Stuart Ralston (chef owner), Tobias (pastry)]

Aizle, which means a “burning coal, a glowing hot ember, a spark” will undoubtedly continue to burn bright. Stuart’s investment in people, at Aizle and at Noto, has clearly paid dividends. With its team of four chefs and four front of house serving fifteen tables, Aizle has gone from strength to strength.  It will remain Stuart’s main focus of attention, as he cooks here each service. Fine Dining Guide enjoyed its meal and meeting with Stuart and will look forward to the restaurant’s increased recognition in the national restaurant guides. A Michelin star cannot be too far away.

Review: MacDonald Holyrood Hotel, Surf and Turf Concept (Nov 2019)

Posted on: November 22nd, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

“Scottish fish and seafood is by far the best in the world…Aberdeen Angus…it’s the most sought after beef on the world.” Such is bold claim on the menu of Surf and Turf, the new dining concept at the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel.

For those of a mature age, the term “Surf and Turf” may evoke memories of blackened, well done steaks of dubious origin, and seafood the texture of cotton wool, the mainstay of a well-known Steakhouse chain in the 1960s and 70s.

This could be no further from the truth with the Surf and Turf concept where great care has been taken in sourcing the finest quality Scottish ingredients and constructing an appealing, adventurous menu. Originally trialled at Macdonald Rusacks Hotel in St Andrews, the Surf and Turf menu is the creation of Glenn Roach, regional executive chef for the hotel group.

[Concept Creator Executive Head Chef Glenn Roach]

A runaway success, the concept was also transferred to the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel in August 2019.

Head Chef Dan Mellor who heads the kitchens has 17 years’ experience cooking in Edinburgh hotels, most recently at The Raeburn in Stockbridge where he spent two years. He has overseen the transition from the previous fine dining restaurant to Surf and Turf which started in August 2019. Popular with American guests during the Edinburgh Festival, custom has picked up since then, confirming the concept’s winning formula with guests.

At the heart of the menu are the signature dishes, 21 day aged rump, rib eye, sirloin and fillet steaks sold by weight, 200 grams to a kilo! Adding seafood – lobster, king prawns or scallops – creates a dish where the succulence of beef and freshness of seafood create a harmonious combination of tastes and textures..

But the menu is far more than this, incorporating an exciting range of dishes from simple to luxurious. Mini tacos of chilli beef, avocado, sour cream and chills and lobster arancini appear in the “Bites and Starters” section; a charcuterie platter is an option on the “From the Farm” section; Venison Wellington appears the “Classics” section; and sweet potato gnocchi and wild mushroom risotto are choices on the “Vegetarian” section.

Given the quality of the ingredients and the skill required in cooking, prices are realistic: starters range from £4 to £7; Classics £15 to £50 (Venison Wellington for two); and fish dishes £15 to £17. Sides are £3.50 to £6 and sauces for steaks £3 to £3.50. From the Surf and Turf signatures, a 200 gram rib eye costs £27; paired with king prawns an extra £9.

Many fish and meat dishes require precise timing and adequate resting to maximise flavour and texture. This applies even more to expensive cuts of beef and fresh seafood which command premium prices. In this respect Surf and Turf scores highly, fully respecting the inherent qualities of first class produce. A degree of invention and creativity is also evident in some of the other options, where ingredients complement each other. Presentation is clean, with no overcrowding of the plate.

Although the restaurant has been rebranded, the actual décor and furnishings remain the same. Not that the room needed changing. The spacious wooden floored dining room has an inevitable corporate feel but is no less attractive for that. With a bar at one end, it is dressed in warming tones of brown, grey and cream, with well positioned wall and spotlighting. Comfortable leather banquettes and smart curved backed dining chairs are arranged around well-spaced, marble or wooden topped tables, providing a maximum of 80 covers.

A midweek dinner in November proved an enjoyable experience

A starter of beetroot cured halibut saw delicate slices of flaky white flesh, tinged with the colour of the marinade which did not mask the deliciously creamy flavour of the fish.  Pickled shallots added a gentle acidity which balanced the sweetness of the beetroot puree dots. Celeriac remoulade gave a contrasting texture and charred lime a slight bitterness. Served on a white plate, this was a vibrantly coloured dish of ingredients which complemented each other well.

Another starter of seared scallops was accurately timed to produce a caramelised crust and soft, translucent flesh. The saltiness of samphire worked as a seasoning, balancing the sweetness of the scallops, and giving a crisp texture. Dressed with caviar, salmon roe and curried cauliflower puree, which contrasted in temperature and colour, and finished with a chive oil, this was another well executed, visually attractive dish.

Next came a carnivore’s delight: a main course of a 350 gram of 21 day aged rib eye. With a beautifully seared crust, it was cooked medium rare to retain succulence and optimise flavour. Judicious seasoning and precise grilling and resting to reach the correct temperature did full justice to this popular, well marbled cut of meat.  Served with cherry vine tomatoes, caramelised shallot, skin on French fries, the dish was finished with a deeply rich, piquant peppercorn sauce.

The other main course was a surf and turf combination of three elements. It was pleasing to see the much neglected hake employed here to good effect. A fillet of this soft textured, mild flavoured fillet was correctly cooked and served with a croquette of beef shin and seared king scallop. The croquette had a crisp coating and hot creamed potato filling but needed a little more of the delicious shin. The scallop itself was well executed and rested on a caper and pomegranate dressing which gave salty and sweet flavours. Perhaps dish needed some acidity to balance these and lift the seafood elements. Swirls and dots of spinach puree added visual impact.

Two  competent desserts finished the meal

Sticky date pudding was well flavoured, light and not too rich. The indulgent element was given by the butterscotch sauce which, thankfully, was not oversweet. The accompanying vanilla ice cream was smooth and velvety and the apple crisp gave texture 

Apple soufflé with calvados, cooked in a shallow dish instead of a ramekin, had an airy lightness and perfect texture with no hint of egginess. Added sweetness and contrasting texture was given by finely diced apple and an apple crisp.  A little more calvados would have taken this dessert to an even higher level. In its 20th anniversary year, the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel has adapted its restaurant offering away from fine dining to the more popular alternative of Surf and Turf, with a more informal, relaxed service. Now only it its fourth month, the rebranding has already shown signs of success with a growing clientele. Fine Dining Guide wishes the new concept continued success and will follow its progress with interest.

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.

The Boxing Hare, Swerford, September 2019

Posted on: September 23rd, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

The Boxing Hare in Swerford is a relatively new and exciting addition to the north Oxfordshire dining scene. Having opened only two years ago, it is located on the A361 between Chipping Norton and Banbury, in a region of highly competitive dining pubs. Its chances of long term success are ensured by the distinguished pedigrees of its owner and head chef. Restaurateur Antony Harris has 30 years’ experience in central London, notably at the Canal Brasserie (1987) and the highly acclaimed First Floor Dining Room and Private Dining Rooms in Notting Hill from 1998. Equally successful is head chef Nick Anderson, who was given his first head chef role by Antony some 30 years ago. His career, after working four years with Antony in the 90s, included the winning of three AA rosettes and two Michelin stars. Moving to Oxfordshire, he spent seven years cooking in Hampton Poyle before being reunited with Antony in 2017, when both were seeking new challenges. They saw encouraging opportunities in the Masons Arms which they rechristened the Boxing Hare, a name chosen by Nick and which, unlike many country pubs, is unique in the UK, (except for a pizzeria in Belfast!)

With ample parking space and spacious gardens with scenic Cotswold views, the handsome red bricked building, embellished with a giant white hare above the door and a huge model of the animal on the pathway, is entered through a cosy bar. The main low ceilinged, oak floored dining room features handsome panelling in the darker raised level and Cotswold blue green tones in the lower level window area. Well-spaced, undressed pine tables accommodate 80 diners when the restaurant is full. Discrete lighting and monochrome prints of the grounds of Blenheim Palace by Peter Seaward adorn the walls of this room and the smaller dining area adjacent to the bar and kitchen. Rather than pumping major expenditure into creating a luxurious ambience, the owner has retained the charming, rustic atmosphere of a country pub: warm and inviting, relaxed and informal. The focus is very much on the food.

[Left Antony Griffith Harris and his partner Stacey C Elder, alongside chef Nick Anderson and his partner and sous chef, Kate Anderson, right]

Locality and seasonality are paramount in the sourcing of top quality produce. In particular, ribs of beef are bought from nearby Paddock Farm and dry aged for 50 days in two cooling cabinets. Indeed, speciality steaks are a very popular choice on the menu. Autumn sees a variety of game dishes offered, with deer sometimes supplied by local farmers. However, quality may necessitate buying from further afield such as Scottish girolles, Creedy Carver Duck from Devon or Jamon from Spain.

Sharply honed skills are shown in the harmonious composition and execution of dishes. Balance of flavours, tastes and textures are much in evidence. Accurate timing, whether in preparing a la minute, as with the steak dishes, or in long slow cooking, as with slow roast pork belly is precisely gauged. Saucing is another strength, whether in a red wine jus for duck confit or mustard sauce for smoked haddock. Desserts, the speciality of Kate, sous chef and wife of Nick Anderson, are equally accomplished. Presentation of dishes are clean, avoiding any contrived, and portions are generous.

With only four in the kitchen, the menu offers a surprisingly wide choice. Unlike other places, a good value prix fixe menu, £15 /£19 for two / three courses features smaller portions from selected choices from the carte rather than separate dishes. The main menu has 3 appetisers. Seven first courses, 13 main courses including, three steak options, and seven desserts.

In a September menu, a variety of tastes are catered for, from humble comfort food to ambitious, luxurious creations.  Choices include a range of British and French classics, such as sausages and mash, fish and chips, Provencal fish soup and duck confit. There are some Italian and Spanish influences – witness Burrata Pugliese with Isle of Wight with heritage tomato and olive oil salad, basil oil, pecorino and summer truffle, and Jamon de Teruel DOP, rocket, shallots, shaved parmesan and Arbequina olive oil. Essentially, the Boxing Duck cooks what people like to eat, shunning outlandish or fashionable dishes which have minority appeal and a limited lifespan.

Prices are sensibly realistic given the skill in cooking and the excellent ingredients. First courses range from £7.50 to £12; mains from £14.50 to £40, with a 300 ounce cote de beouf at £68 for two; and desserts £2.50 per scoop of ice cream or sorbet to £8 for chocolate fondant. Cheese is priced individually at £4 or £9 for three.

Given the varied nature of the clientele, from butchers and farmers to the well-heeled guests of the nearby Soho Farmhouse and families who flock to the popular Sunday lunch, both the wide choice menu and the attractive pricing are well-judged to maintain customer loyalty.

Fine Dining Guide visited on a midweek evening in September, finding much to admire in the cooking and service. Although tempted, we decided to avoid the steak dishes and sides, which probably did not need starters or desserts, opting instead for three courses which show the breadth and depth of the cooking skills.

The first courses did not disappoint and augured well for the following courses

Twice baked soufflé, with its rich, mature cave aged cheddar, parmesan crust and accurate seasoning, had a perfectly balanced flavour and light, soft texture, with not a hint of egginess. Blanched spinach added contrast in taste and texture with a degree of freshness, whilst the sauce was mercifully not too creamy, unlike another famous version. This dish, perfected by sous chef Kate, was indeed, a tour de force of vegetarian cookery.

Classic Provencal fish soup was fittingly thick and deeply flavoured. Accompaniments of croutons, grated gruyere and a brilliant saffron and garlic rouille, invited the diner to float the anointed bread on the soup creating an even richer, more indulgent mouthfeel.

Both these starters could be viewed as acid tests for an accomplished kitchen: tests passed here with flying colours!

Duck confit is ubiquitous in many pub menus, but rarely executed as well as here. Creedy Carver duck was properly salted and marinated with star anis, fennel seeds and other spices for extra flavour. Slow cooked in fat to produce succulent flesh falling off the bone and finished in the oven to crisp the skin, it was a model of its kind. Partnered with gratin dauphinoise and fresh peas and broad beans, the dish was bought together by a deep red wine jus reduced to a smooth, rich consistency and pronounced flavour.

Smoked haddock and mash was another accomplished dish. The fish, sourced from Alfred Enderby in Grimsby, had been gently poached in butter to add richness and balance the gentle smokiness of the delicately flaking fish. The potato mash and spinach were well seasoned whilst the poached egg enhanced the wholegrain mustard sauce which finished the dish.

For dessert, chocolate fondant is one where there is nowhere to hide. Perfectly timed to produce that much anticipated oozing centre, the salted caramel sauce helped balance the richness and sweetness. Chocolate and almond crumb gave contrasting texture as did a silky smooth, well flavoured vanilla ice cream.

Peach Melba is a dessert which, over the years, has often been adulterated with superfluous garnishes. Here it simply presented in stemmed glass dish, allowing the three main ingredients to shine: soft poached peach, the same velvety vanilla ice cream and a sieved, smooth and not overly sweet raspberry coulis.

Cheerful, welcoming and knowledgeable service was at pains to put us at our ease and enhanced the whole experience.

The Boxing Hare is certainly worth a second visit, perhaps to try a signature starter of Cotswold gin and beetroot cured sea trout, or a 50 dry aged steak, or iced peanut butter parfait with honeycomb and caramelised banana or all three! Fine Dining Guide will monitor its fortunes with interest, confident that its reputation will increase as time progresses.

Restaurant Review: Condita, Edinburgh (Feb 2019)

Posted on: February 27th, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

 “Small is beautiful.” This maxim could well apply to Condita with its lack of reception and bar, two in the kitchen, three at front of house, six tables, only two dining options, and a wine list of 20 bottles.

Condita Restaurant, Edinburgh

The exterior and location are distinctly low profile: the unremarkable white frontage bearing the name Condita, with blinds obscuring the view from outside, gives little indication this is a restaurant, except for a small notice in the window. Its Salisbury Place address in the Newington district, south of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town, lacks the advantage of a central location or the gastronomic reputation of Leith or Stockbridge.

These limitations are seen as virtues by owner Mark Slaney who opened Condita in November 2018. Certainly, a reception and bar are impracticable given the small size of the room. Two tasting menus make economic sense, minimising food waste. The need to book in advance reinforces this. A short, mainly organic and biodynamic wine list from artisan producers, also reflects the owner’s experience in his parents’ restaurant and as a commercial wine buyer.  Six tables facilitate a high staff to guest ratio, giving well-focused personal service and enables the kitchen to function at optimum level.  The understated exterior belies the eclectic décor and gastronomic delights inside, whilst the location in an area bereft of fine dining establishments, offers a much needed neighbourhood restaurant of quality. Indeed, with detailed records kept of diners – an advantage of a small restaurant – repeat custom is already evident, including one couple visiting three times in the three months since opening.

Conor Toomey and Mark Slaney (Pic: Neil Hanna)

Not that Condita only aims at a local clientele. By engaging Conor Toomey, a chef with a highly distinguished pedigree, it will inevitably attract discerning foodies from further afield. Conor built his reputation as Michael Wignall’s sous chef at the Latymer restaurant at Pennyhill Park in Surrey, which held two Michelin stars, and as head chef at Storrs Hall hotel in Windermere, Cumbria and Amberley Castle in Sussex.  Most recently, he led the kitchens at the Michelin starred restaurant at the Isle of Eriska hotel in Oban.

His current position, far removed from those large, corporate establishments, allows him greater freedom to develop his repertoire in line with Mark’s strategy of championing artisan producers and keeping the operation small. Although it is still evolving, Conor’s cooking, based on classical roots but using contemporary techniques, has already reached stellar levels. Highly technical and complex, it employs organic seasonal produce, including fruit and vegetables from a Victorian kitchen garden in the Borders. As Conor says, “It’s all about the ingredients.” Dishes involve harmonious tastes, textures, temperatures and colours, with care taken to avoid over elaboration.  Invention, moderated by a clear understanding of how to maximise natural flavours, are much in evidence. Precise timing, with judicious seasoning and saucing, showcase seafood, meat and game at their best, reflecting great respect for the raw material. Attention to even the tiniest detail is astonishing. Beautiful presentation, on a variety of porcelain, slate and stone, is clean and precise without being too contrived.

An element of fun is also evident. The only clue to the eight or five course surprise tasting menu is a single strip of card with hand drawn images of an ingredient for each course. These may comprise the main or a minor component – the diner is left guessing. Added to the mystery is the addition of “snacks” which may arrive between courses and be larger than a course itself!

Prices – £80 for eight courses, £50 for five –  are realistic, given the quality of the ingredients and expertise in cooking. They also compare favourably with London restaurants of a similar standard.

A visit on a weekday evening in February finally revealed Condita’s high ceilinged, white walled interior, adorned with cascading hand-painted paper drapes designed by Rachel, Mark’s artist partner. In keeping with the food and drink philosophy, the décor moves with the seasons, the silver and black design reflecting the tone and mood of winter. Well-spaced polished wooden tables, which usually seat two or four but can be extended for six, are arranged in lower and raised areas with spotlighting and candles giving discreet lighting.

Initially, from a choice of three autumnal beverages, we chose a non-alcoholic pear juice. We declined a wine flight with each course, opting instead for just three tasting glasses.

Mussel

A playful first course featured a Shetland mussel poached in seaweed, resting on cod roe mousse, encased in a delicate “shell” of thin potato. This was a delightful composition of fresh tastes and contrasting textures.

Haddock

Similarly inventive was the second course of poached haddock, where the mildly sweet flakes of soft white flesh were sandwiched between crisp sheets of chicken skin. Smoked creme fraiche and egg yolk puree added richness, whilst pickled seaweed gave the required degree of acidity. The presentation of this dish, on grey slate garnished with tree bark and leaves, was stunning.

Next came two “snacks.”

Snacks

Slow cooked ox tongue and tail (above left), meltingly tender morsels of deliciousness, showed how excellent use could be made of humble, neglected parts of the animal. Enveloped in a potato foam of ethereal lightness, the effect was rich, but not heavy, fittingly appropriate for a snack.

A glazed chicken wing (above right) cooked on a Japanese barbecue had a gentle smokiness which complimented the richness of the smoked eel hidden inside. This marriage of modest and extravagant ingredients worked particularly well.

The vegetarian course saw different preparations of celeriac: salt baked and puree, both of which accentuated its sweetness; in a lively, crunchy remoulade; and as delicate crisps. This well-conceived and deftly executed dish demonstrated the versatility of the ugly looking vegetable.

At this stage, and presumably to stop diners gorging themselves ahead on a multi course menu, we were presented with a warm sour dough loaf baked daily by sous chef Spyros. With a crisp crust and firm, mildly lactic crumb, it was a model of its kind.

Pheasant

Expecting another vegetarian course, this time showcasing salsify, we were surprised and delighted to be served pheasant. A notoriously difficult bird to master, it was cooked to perfection with moist, crisp skinned breast and a flavoursome pastilla of its leg meat and offal. Salsify, with its creamy white flesh, added a crunchy texture and a taste similar to oyster. The dish was bought together by a light, well balanced thyme and bay jus, which complimented the gentle gaminess of the pheasant.

Venison

Misled again by the “menu” into expecting celery as a main component, we were spoilt with a second game course! The loin of venison was accurately timed to a blushing medium rare, maximising its deep flavour and smooth, firm texture. A disc of black pudding provided a softer, earthy element that worked well with the venison. Golden beets and apple puree gave sweetness and acidity to balance the richness, scurvy grass added a peppery note, and celery offered a crunchy freshness. Finished with a light jus, this inventive dish was a tour de force of game cookery.

The cheese course of brie, fresh and pickled pear, pear gel, hazelnuts and wafer thin flatbread, showed yet another imaginative approach to simple, seasonal ingredients.

Desserts, often the anti-climax of tasting menus, did not disappoint, being equally if not more accomplished than the savoury courses.

Parsnip Dessert

Parsnip in a dessert has been tried elsewhere, but rarely as successful as here, where the parfait and puree were of exemplary consistency and smoothness.

Rhubarb Dessert

Even better was a composite dessert featuring forced rhubarb with white chocolate, almond custard in edible silver, white chocolate panna cotta, and rosemary crumble. Although unapologetically rich, the herbal and sharp elements from the rosemary and rhubarb ensured it was not too sweet.

Black coffee with home-made Garibaldi biscuits and beetroot and raspberry teacakes completed a memorable meal. The gastronomic experience was enhanced by welcoming, knowledgeable and unobtrusive service involving the whole team: Rachel conducted the meet and greet and served the pre-prandial drinks; Marisol, our waitress, served some of the courses, assisted by sous chef Spyros and Conor himself; and Mark took our order and presented the wines – a floral and honeyed Fiano, a rich and spicy Le Mani, a full bodied red Pignatello and a sweet Jurancon – with a succinct description of their provenance and characteristics.

Condita Team: Marisol, Rachel, Spyros, Conor and Mark

Condita comes from the Latin to “set up”. The evidence after just three months opening in the low season for restaurants is most encouraging, well on the way to meeting Mark’s vision of “making people happy” with an intimate dining experience of fine food and wine. Overall, the team have now established a restaurant of which they can be justifiably proud. Fine Dining Guide wishes Condita well and hopes to return to sample a different seasonal menu. We look forward in eager anticipation to its inclusion in the respected national restaurant guides.

Restaurant Review: Bistro Deluxe by Paul Tamburrini, Edinburgh (Feb 2019)

Posted on: February 25th, 2019 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Paul Tamburrini
Bistro Deluxe by Paul Tamburrini

Bistro Deluxe by Paul Tamburrini at the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel is a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding high end restaurant scene in Edinburgh. Located near the base of the Royal Mile, adjacent to the Scottish Parliament, it fills a much needed gap in Edinburgh’s Old Town which is  which largely bereft of fine dining establishments. At least SMPs have a neighbouring restaurant of quality away from the bustle of their own establishment. However, it is attracting attention from a much wider field of discerning foodies.

Interior

The spacious wooden floored dining room has an inevitable corporate feel but is no less attractive for that. With a bar at one end, it is dressed in warming tones of brown, grey and cream, with well positioned wall and spotlighting. Comfortable leather banquettes and smart curved backed dining chairs are arranged around well-spaced, marble or wooden topped tables, providing a maximum of 80 covers. Dominating the view as you walk in is the PT motif of the eponymous chef.

Paul Tamburrini’s impressive CV includes leading positions in prestigious Scottish restaurants. He was executive chef at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow, then head chef at Cameron House, Loch Lomond, and, most recently, chef director at the Honours Brasserie in Edinburgh. His association with Michelin starred Martin Wishart is therefore well established, so it was only a matter of time before Paul set up under his own name.

Chef Paul Tamburrini

Paul’s confident cuisine is inspired by renowned French chefs Guy Savoy, Michel Bras, and Frédéric Anton but bears its own creative hallmark. Sourcing of the finest, mainly Scottish, produce is the essential prerequisite for dishes with sometimes unexpected yet compatible combinations. Variations in taste, texture, temperature and colour give interest to precisely timed, finely tuned cooking. Plates are not overcrowded, sometimes with only three ingredients, allowing the main one to shine, and letting flavours to speak for themselves. Presentation, on a variety of porcelain and earthenware, is clean and precise.

The a la carte menu, which moves with the seasons, has six to seven choices in each course in addition to oysters, five steaks from the Josper Grill, and two sharing dishes – rack of Scottish lamb and cote de beouf. This is a sensible balance between the creative and more established, safer offerings. Pricing is realistic, given the quality of the ingredients and the skill in cooking. Appetisers range from £7.50 to £12.50, mains from £17.50 to £25, and desserts from £8 to £16, the latter being a tarte tatin and panna cotta ice cream for two.

A wide range of Old and New World countries feature on the 80 bottle wine list, with prices mainly between £20 and £50.

A visit on a quiet evening in February lacked the exciting buzz of a busy weekend service but was no less enjoyable for that. Moreover, without major distractions, we could concentrate on the food, which certainly did not lack sparkle.

A tasting menu, featuring smaller portions from the carte, delighted in its range of deftly prepared courses.

Foie Gras and Potato Mousse

We began with simple yet sophisticated starter: a seared tranche of foie gras with warm potato mousse. The delectable piece of buttery offal was partnered with an ethereally light, silky potato mousse. Although both elements were rich and fully flavoured, the overall effect was not heavy, indeed, we were left wanting more! Overall, to marry the extravagant with the humble was an inspired idea which worked well, reflecting an assurance in the cooking. (Wine: Weitgasse Gruner-Veltliner, Mantelhof)  

Beetroot

Next came a pressed terrine of baby beetroot, which, unlike many inferior versions, was not too gelatinous. Vibrant in colour with a good balance of sweet and earthy flavours, it was accompanied with a yogurt foam topped with dried broccoli crumbs which gave contrasting textures and tastes.  (Wine: Semillon /Sauvignon Blanc, Fraser Gallop Estate)

Orkney Scallop with Cauliflower

Orkney scallops are one of the treasures of Scottish seafood. Here, the cooking did full justice to this highly prized bivalve.  Accurately timed to produce a seared crust with soft opaque flesh, it retained its essential sweet flavour and succulent texture. Along with a smear of – now ubiquitous – cauliflower puree, the scallop was paired with caramelised cauliflower florets of contrasting texture and dressed with a fragrant, but not overpowering curry oil. These elements complemented each other well and with only three ingredients on the plate, there was nowhere to hide, not that was there was any need with this dish. (Wine: Weitgasse Gruner-Veltliner, Mantelhof)

Ox cheek and mash

Equally accomplished was a course of ox cheek braised in red wine. The meltingly soft texture and deep flavour of the meat, the result of long slow cooking, was enhanced by the addition of mushrooms, baby onions and lardons, giving a bourguignon effect.  Smooth, smoky mash proved the perfect accompaniment, soaking up the rich sauce, more of which was offered separately. (Wine: Pinot Noir, Garzon Single Vineyard)

Key Lime Pie

Finally, key lime pie proved a suitably light, tangy dessert to end the meal. The lime curd had a good balance of sweet and sharp flavours, whilst coconut sorbet provided a refreshing counterpoint. Shards of meringue gave height and crispness to this well-conceived and attractively presented dessert of contrasting tastes, textures and temperatures.

Good coffee and petit fours completed a memorable meal. It was enhanced by the welcoming, knowledgeable, efficient and unobtrusive service led by manager Adshead who also selected the flight of wines and gave a succinct description of each. His extensive experience at other top Edinburgh hotels ensured the service would be seamless.

Paul Tamburrini’s restaurant has entered a highly competitive market in the gastronomic capital. Given the strengths demonstrated on our visit, its chances for long term success are strong. Fine Dining Guide will revisit to sample other dishes from the menu and will follow its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: Roux at Skindles, Dec 2018

Posted on: December 24th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

rouxatskindles

Maidenhead, a prosperous Berkshire town on the banks of the Thames, has long existed in a gastronomic vacuum. Its entries in the restaurant guides have been few and far between. Even the recent improvements to the town centre have culminated in the opening, on a prime site, of another chain eatery. This has been a major anti-climax to the town’s culinary fortunes or is that misfortunes?

However, neighbouring towns and villages – Marlow, Henley, Cookham, Burchetts Green, White Waltham, Paley Street and, of course, Bray – have filled the gap; that is, until this October, when Roux at Skindles opened its doors.

Skindles Raj Chef

Located on the east side of the Thames, adjacent to Maidenhead Bridge, and at the entrance to a prestigious Berkeley homes development, it stands of the site of the legendary Skindles Hotel, which had become derelict by the mid-1990s. The handsome three storey yellow bricked building finished to a high specification houses a spacious reception, brasserie and terrace on the ground floor; a cocktail bar and balcony on the first; and the Chairman’s Room for private dining on the second floor. The brasserie itself has a raised area with banquette seating opposite the open kitchen and a brighter area, the floor to ceiling windows of which give views of the terrace and Thames. Undressed, well-spaced tables have a capacity for 80 covers.

Skindles_Exterior

Roux at Skindles is the joint project of Michel Roux Senior, OBE, and his son Alain, Chef Patron. Their aim is not fine dining – the surrounding area is crowded with Michelin Stars, including the Roux’s triple starred Waterside Inn – rather to showcase classic and contemporary French brasserie cooking at reasonable prices in comfortable, convivial and relaxed surroundings. In typical French tradition, children are welcome with the provision of special menus. Breakfast, afternoon tea (May to September), lunches and evening bites are also available in the Cocktail Bar, allowing guests flexibility of choice.

With Maxime Walkowiak as General Manager and Rajkumar Holuss as Head Chef, both with considerable experience at the Waterside Inn, the impeccable Roux stamp is firmly embedded from the start. It is also seen in such dishes as “grandpa Benoit Roux’s country pate with sourdough” on the menu.

The well-judged carte allows a good choice for diners without putting undue pressure on the kitchen. Nine starters are priced from £8.50 to £14; ten mains from £15 to £27; (sides £3.50); and six desserts £5 to £8.50. There are also daily specials and a festive course set menu, (£36) with four choices at each stage. Skilful cooking and simple presentation do full justice to top quality ingredients. Classics include fish soup, snails with parsley and garlic butter, moules marinieres and coq au vin, whilst Merrifield duck pie and goat’s cheese soufflé are amongst the more innovative creations

The following comments refer to dishes sampled on two lunch time visits.

fish soup

Fish soup had good colour and a pleasing depth of flavour. Served with croutons and rouille, which added substance and garlicy richness, this brasserie stalwart was suitably hearty and warming.

Skindles_ClamChowder

Less robust but equally satisfying was a daily special of clam chowder. This smooth and creamy soup showcased the delicate sweetness of its seafood ingredient.

Skindles Goats Cheese

For those who find goat’s cheese too cloying, a starter of warm goat’s cheese soufflé should win them over. Light, fluffy and full of flavour, it was twice baked and mounted on a tomato coulis enriched with a little cream. Reminiscent of the Roux’s soufflé suissesse, but less rich, the combination of tastes and textures was most satisfying.

Skindles Snails

Less successful was a starter of 12 Burgundy snails which needed more garlic and parsley butter for dunking – an essential ritual of this popular dish.

Skindles Monk Fish

A special of the day main course saw two Monkfish fillets accurately timed to retain their mild lobster-like flavour and firm texture. A rich, earthy sauce, based on lentils and chestnuts worked well with the fish.

Skindles Coq au Vin

Coq au vin featured two flavoursome thighs – surely the sweetest part of the bird – properly garnished with lardons, mushrooms and baby onions. Silky, fresh tagliatelle pasta helped to mop up the intensely reduced red wine sauce.

Skindles_MerrifiedPie

Another successful main was Merrifield duck pie, with a golden dome of crisp puff pastry – similar to a pithivier without the spiral markings – and a well-seasoned duck farce filling. Suitably partnered with sauce Rouennaise, a red wine Bordelaise sauce enhanced with duck livers, this rich combination was balanced by the freshness of sautéed sweetheart cabbage.

Skindles Chocolate Fondant

For dessert, warm chocolate fondant proved a winner. Precisely timed to produce a decadent, oozing centre, it sat on a pool of coffee sauce, both elements happily being not too sweet.

Rum baba with yuzu cream had a light texture but would have been improved with a touch more rum in its sugar syrup.

The wine list sees prices rise quite steeply, although there is a good selection by the glass.

A meal at Roux at Skindles impresses in its range of technically accomplished dishes, and its knowledgeable, attentive yet unobtrusive service. Attractive pricing and the vibrant buzz of contented diners in a full restaurant, as was the case in both of my visits, will also encourage repeat custom. Overall, this new and much awaited addition to a previously arid dining scene, cannot fail to be successful. Fine Dining Guide will certainly return and monitor its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: Le Roi Fou, Edinburgh (October 2018)

Posted on: October 15th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

le roi fou

I had to cancel my first reservation at Le Roi Fou (The Crazy King), at short notice. A few months later, during the Edinburgh Festival, I was perusing the menu outside hoping there was a spare table for walk-ins when a familiar voice greeted me by name. It was Jon Hemy, ex manager at The Pompadour, who, unknown to me, had moved to this smaller operation. Not only was there a free table, but he also remembered my previous cancellation. Now that’s what I call personal service!

Few new restaurants in Edinburgh have made such an immediate impact as Le Roi Fou. Within a year of opening it gained the 2017 Best New Restaurant at the Scottish Food Awards. 2018 saw three more accolades: Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year (Edinburgh News), Classic Cuisine Chef of the Year, (again from the Scottish Food Awards), and Winner of the Eating and Dining Awards (List Magazine). An encouraging mark in the 2019 Good Food Guide has consolidated these achievements

Located at Number 1 Forth Street in the Newtown district of Broughton – a stone’s throw from the York Place tram terminal – on the site of a former hamburger restaurant, Le Roi Fou is the joint venture of chef Jerome Henry and Isolde Nash, his creative director. Their aim is to promote a “joint appreciation of art, culture and food…in a bijou restaurant for bon vivants”

The brighter part of this“Restaurant des Artistes,” with window tables either side of the entrance, leads to a high tiled wooden bar and the more intimate “salon” at the back with its grey green walls dressed with fine art, and subdued lighting. Throughout, banquette seating, walnut chairs, fine napery and gold velvet curtains give a stylish, luxurious feel in an atmosphere which is relaxed and informal.

Heading a small team in the kitchen is French-Swiss born Jerome Henry. His is a bold move away from his twelve years’ experience in London: five years as head chef at Les Trois Garcons, a celebrity haunt in trendy Shoreditch, then seven years at Anton Mosimann’s Private Dining Club in pricey Belgravia. With such a distinguished CV, expectations would inevitably be high, and in this respect he does not disappoint.

A seasonally changing a la carte menu currently offers a wide choice of twelve starters (£7.50 to £17.50), ten mains (£15 to £31), and desserts and cheese, (£5 to £9.50). While vegetarians and pescetarians are well catered for, it is also pleasing to see such iconic dishes as oysters Rockefeller, seared foie gras and steak tartare. For a true gastronomic experience, there is a five course tasting menu (£50) with an optional cheese course (£9), and flight of wines for £40.

Prices are eminently fair, especially for lunch and pre theatre sittings – three courses for £24.50 – considering the quality of ingredients, the skill in cooking, and the generosity of spirit. Portions are generous even in the tasting menu with courses of a la carte proportions.

John Henry’s accomplished cooking is deeply rooted in the classics, free from faddish techniques and presentation – no smears, foams or spherification! Top quality raw materials are treated with respect, combinations showing a well-considered balance of tastes, textures and temperatures. Timing in meat, game and fish cookery is precise, allowing the natural flavours to shine. Saucing is a particular strength, elevating dishes such as lamb’s kidneys and sweetbreads with a grain mustard sauce. Occasional contemporary influences can be seen, say in a chimichurri sauce with calf’s liver or white miso and aubergine sauce dressing a scallop dish. Presentation is clean without being showy.

The select and mainly French wine list, overseen by sommelier Sam Webber, avoids greedy mark ups, with pleasing options by the glass. The flight of wines to accompany the tasting menu has inspired choices which complement the dishes perfectly.

My August tasting menu began with a amuse bouche of pleasingly light and crisp comte gougeres with a savoury dip.

A second amuse featured two oysters Rockefeller, the aroma from the toasted shells complementing the flavour of the warm spinach and herb crumbed topping enveloping the plump bivalves. The buttery, briny juices of this decadent dish were greedily mopped up with the excellent focaccia bread.

A giant hand dived scallop was grilled to produce a gently charred crust which contrasted with the delicate sweetness of the opaque flesh. Partnered with braised octopus, with its soft, texture and clean taste, the dish was bought together by a velvety sauce of confit Isle of Wight tomatoes at room temperature to maximise its flavour. This was a real triumph of seafood cookery in its combinations, timing, textures and temperatures.  Wine: 2016 Loureiro, Dócil, Projectode Dirk Nieport, Lima Valley, Vinhos Verde, Portugal

Then followed three “tasting” dishes which, given their generous size, would easily pass for main courses elsewhere.

Equally accomplished as the previous course was a generous tranche of halibut, streamed to retain the moistness of its thick white flesh. Cucumber and radishes added freshness and texture whilst a salsa verde featuring pistachios and rocket gave a deep herbaceous lift.   Wine: 2016 Pouilly Fumé, David & Hervé Millet, Domaine De La Loge, Loire, France

Cooking rabbit has been the downfall of many a good chef, but here it was handled with consummate skill. Braised and wrapped in pancetta, the meat was succulent in texture and mildly gamey in flavour. Sweetcorn in puree and kernel forms added different textures and sweetness, to contrast with the tangy bitterness of wilted cavolo nero. A light, flavoursome jus bought the dish together. Wine: 2015 Syrah, Alain Graillot & Ouled Thaleb, Tandem, Morocco

leroigrouse

The final savoury course showcased a finely judged breast of new season grouse. Being only a fortnight into the season, the gaminess was – thankfully – muted whilst the texture had the melting softness of butter. Girolles and pearl barley added earthy elements to a dish finished with a sublime bread sauce and a rich jus with great depth of flavour.  Wine: 2004 Chateau Musar, Gaston Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

leroi_strawberry

With such robust savoury dishes, a light, delicate dessert which encapsulated the tastes of summer was offered as the final course. This took the form of beautifully sweet Blacketyside Farm strawberries with fragrant elderflower curd, a silky smooth strawberry ice cream and shards of crisp meringue.  Wine: 2016 Bugey, Cerdon, Renardat Fache, Method Ancestrale, France

Without doubt, this was one of the most impressive tasting menus I have eaten, and such a refreshing change from the dainty, insubstantial sous-vide courses, with their smears, blobs and foams encountered elsewhere. Flavour was paramount, with refined classical techniques doing full justice to the well sourced ingredients.

The whole experience was enhanced by the welcoming, knowledgeable and unobtrusive service overseen by John Hemy. Given the scale of the operation, the adage that “small is beautiful” definitely applies to dining at Le Roi Fou.

Fine Dining Guide will certainly return sample more of Jerome Henry’s exquisite cooking. No doubt 2019 will bring further accolades in the guides, especially from Michelin and the AA, which have yet to grant Le Roi Fou the recognition it deserves.

Restaurant Review: Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux, Edinburgh (Oct 2018)

Posted on: October 4th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Two empires meet at the stately Balmoral Hotel in the first co venture of the Roux and Forte dynasties. Alain Roux and his father Michel Roux O.B.E. of the three Michelin starred Waterside Inn, Bray, have joined forces with the Forte family, in particular Lydia Forte Rocco Forte Hotels’ Bar & Restaurant Development Manager and Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte Hotel’ Director of Building and Design and sister of Sir Rocco Forte, to establish Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux. Its opening in June marked a watershed in the culinary progress of Edinburgh, being the first serious attempt to recreate an all-day dining venue inspired by Parisian models such as La Coupole and Le Train Bleu.

princes brasserie

Whilst not as ornate as either of these French counterparts, Brasserie Prince with its marbled bar, large windows, brass fittings, banquette seating, antique mirrors and chandelier lighting bears all the hallmarks of classic brasserie fixtures and fittings. However, renowned restaurant designer Martin Brudnizki and Olga Polizzi, have integrated regional materials and colours into the design. Wood panelled walls, leather dining chairs and woollen cushion covers are used judiciously, whilst the blues and greens of the banquettes and armchairs in the library mirror the predominant colours of the Scottish landscape.

princesbar

The green and white stripes of the outside awnings are repeated at intervals on the dining room ceiling, to break up its long length. Overall, a brighter, fresher feel is evident throughout.

The Auld Allaince meets in the food offering which features French bistro classics in a seasonally changing menu, employing the exceptional produce of Scotland and France. . Anticipating possibly a large French clientele, the menu is printed in English with French on the back. As Signature Chef, Alain Roux has created an extensive range of dishes, from seafood platters from the raw bar, sharing plates and light bites such as Croque Monsieur or hard boiled eggs mimosa with anchovy from the long bar, to three course meals in the main restaurant. Of particular interest are the “Grand-Mere Specials” of the Roux family, (all at £17.50) which vary throughout the week, from Tripes de Saint-Mande on Monday to Beouf Bourguignon on Sunday. Starters which include Grandpa Benoit Roux’s country pate with sourdough cost between £8.50 and £18.50. Main courses from the carte (£16.60 to £21.50) include bistro standards – albeit elevated to a higher level – such coq au vin with tagliatelle, steak tartare and Bouillabaisse. Desserts and cheese (£6 to £19) showcase favourites such as dark chocolate mousse and truffled Brie de Meraux

Prices can be challenging, but are also realistic given the quality of the produce, the skill in cooking, the comfort of the venue and central location in an iconic hotel, There are also bargains to be had at this level: a three course lunch special including the Grand Mere dish of the day, a starter and dessert from the carte and a glass of wine costs £32. Some dishes accommodate more modest budgets such as a hearty and filling Normandy soup at £9 – a popular choice on the day I visited – or Parisian gnocchi gratin at £9.50. It must also be remembered there is no requirement to order multiple courses; indeed a light lunch might consist of just one starter or small dish from the menu. Some might baulk at the £3 charge for bread, but given its quality and quantity – greater than other establishments adopting the same practice at the similar or even higher prices – this is unjustified.

prines team

Maxime Walkowiak (above, left) from the Waterside Inn was seconded to oversee the transition from Hadrian’s to the Prince Brasserie Taking over as Director of the Dining Room is Hubert Laforge whose extensive experience of the exclusive world of five star hotels will enable him to reconcile the standards of luxurious accommodation with the more relaxed and informal ambience of the brasserie. Managing varying expectations will be a challenge.

The welcoming, knowledgeable and unobtrusive service by (above, centre) liveried front of house staff encourage an informal, relaxed ambience. A large brigade in the kitchen, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner is headed by Phillip Hickman from the Waterside Inn is able to cope with a maximum of over 200 covers. The acid test is always on a busy service where standards of cooking and service have to be maintained.

On a weekday visit during the Edinburgh Festival in August, I opted for half a dozen oysters from the carte (£12.50) followed by the lunch special.

A basket of sourdough and baguette, exemplary in their crisp crusts and firm crumb, arrived with unsalted butter and good olive oil. In addition there was a surprise amuse bouche of blinis with a guacamole dip.

Properly presented on a bed of ice with of lemon, red wine vinegar, shallot and pickled cucumber, the oysters with their creamy texture and briny aroma oozed the taste of the sea. A ritualistic dish, anointing the bivalves with the garnishes was a true gastronomic indulgence.

prince oyster

My choice of starter, given its rarity even on brasserie menus in France, was a foregone conclusion. Sauteed frogs’ legs Provencal exuded the heady garlic and parsley aroma of its persillade, of which there could have been a little more. A squeeze of lemon lifted these delicious morsels of finger food with sour dough used served to mop up the garlicy, buttery juices.

prince frogs legs

The Grand Mere Special of the day was lamb cutlets Germaine, with couscous, sorrel and mint sauce. Three generous partly French trimmed cutlets – a thin layer of fat was retained for flavour – were well seasoned if a slightly over done. Sorrel and mint added piquancy to the intense veal based sauce which the couscous helped to soak up. Accompanied by a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon included in the lunch promotion, this was an highly enjoyable dish.

princes lamb

For dessert, a little theatre was employed in the serving of a signature mille feuille from the trolley. Slicing the delicate buttery leaves of puff pastry sandwiching a well flavoured vanilla crème patissiere required a swift, deft approach, which was perfectly achieved.

Double expresso completed a memorable meal, one enhanced by the seamless service and congenial atmosphere. Visiting Brasserie Prince was a joy, as it is with all Roux restaurants. Fine Dining Guide will doubtless visit again on a future visit to the Scottish capital to sample different dishes from the embarrassment of riches on offer. We wish this new venture every success and will follow its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: Black Pig and Oyster, Edinburgh (Oct 2018)

Posted on: October 4th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Black Pig and Oyster is an exciting new addition to the Edinburgh dining scene. Specialising in Spanish cuisine, in particular dishes featuring the celebrated Iberian Black Pig, its tapas, street food and small sharing dishes alongside an a la carte menu make it ideal for both casual and special occasion dining.

bp interior

Located on the Commercial Quay in Leith, and housed in what was originally a whiskey warehouse, it finally reopened in May this year after being flooded from the dentist above. The contemporary glass and steel frontage belies the warm, inviting décor of the interior. The original arched ceiling of red brick has been retained, giving it a cavernous feel, emphasised by stone pillars and up lighting. Parquet flooring, large, well-spaced tables and leather-backed chairs give a cool, sophisticated look to the dining room which can take up to 80 covers. At one end of the long room, adjacent to the wine cellar and with a clear view of the kitchen passe, is the chef’s table for to ten diners.

Clearly, considerable investment has gone into this venture which is very much a family run operation. Owners Bryan the chef and wife Michelle leading front of house, are assisted by son Jack on the pastry section and waitress daughter Yasmine. Overall, there are four in the kitchen and four front of house.

The ambitious menu is extensive, with a variety of tapas, street food and sharing options, popular at lunch time. Although the main carte contains vegetarian dishes, it emphasises the carnivorous and pescatarian elements. Five Iberian Black choices (£25-£28) include smoked and schnitzel versions. Five Butcher’s Finest dishes, (£18-£25), include wild mushroom and garlic chicken and crispy lamb with Picos blue. Shell and Fish ((£18-£25) include halibut and prawns and Iberian fish supper. Four desserts, (£6.95-£7.25) range from tempered chocolate brownie to Mojito panna cotta. An artisan cheese board is also offered at £8.95. Prices are fair given the quality and quantity of the raw materials, the skill in cooking and the comfort of the venue.

An agreeable wine list is prefaced by an interesting range of cocktails such as Madeiran Punch (Couvosier, lime and orange juice at £7.25) and De-Licious (Baileys, Frangelico, Crème de Menthe and fresh cream at £7.50)

A visit on a weekday evening during the Edinburgh Festival enabled me to same dishes from the carte. The ambience was relaxed and informal,

bp oysters

Loch Fyne oysters came in three preparations – natural with pickled shallot and sherry dressing, deep fried in a crisp and transparently thin tempura batter, and grilled with mahon cheese to reflect the Spanish theme of the restaurant. These gave satisfying contrasts of taste, texture and temperatures, a promising start to the meal.

bp scot pie

Next came a regional classic, Scotch pie, but not the flat, soggy unappetising specimens often encountered elsewhere. Here, the burnished water crust pastry was deliciously thin and crisp, encasing a well-seasoned mutton filling. Standing proud, it was topped with a flavoursome haggis bon-bon and paired with a smoked tomato chutney, which helped to cut the richness of the pie.

bp surfturf

The main course was “Black Pig Surf and Turf” which showcased some of the best ingredients the restaurant has to offer. Two thick slices of Presa, the leanest cut of the acorn fed Iberian Blackpig from the lower back of the animal, had a steak like texture and rich, porcine taste, although any charred element was lacking. Equally enticing were the three giant grilled prawns, dressed with garlic butter which were accurately timed to enhance their succulent sweet flesh. The best part, however, was sucking the heads, where most of the flavour is! This combination would have been improved if the pork and prawns had been gently charred which would have boosted their flavour. Strangely, the lemon garnish was charred. Aioli and sauted potatoes completed this generous dish.

bp eton mess

“The not so messy Eton mess” was the creation of son Jack, who has trained under a winning patissier of Crème de la Crème. A suitably light dessert to end a heavy meal, it featured toasted and dehydrated shards of meringue, cream, cubes of Chambord jelly, and fresh raspberries and strawberries with their coulis attractively arranged around the edge of a dark plate.

Overall, dinner at the Black Pig and Oyster was a most pleasant experience, enhanced by the unobtrusive and knowledgeable service overseen by manager Marian. It deserves to be successful, not just because the misfortunes forcing it to close temporarily, but, more importantly, because of the accomplished cooking based on first rate Scottish and Spanish produce. Fine Dining Guide will return to sample some of the smaller dishes and will follow its progress with interest.

Restaurant Review: Mono, Edinburgh Old Town (Oct 2018)

Posted on: October 4th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

mono exterior

The opening in June 2018 of Mono marked a watershed in Edinburgh’s gastronomic fortunes.  Whereas most fine dining restaurants are to be found in New Town and Leith, Mono’s location at 85 South Bridge, in the heart of the Old Town’s student quarter, represents a deliberate attempt to elevate the level of dining in an area replete with fast food and takeaway outlets.

Mono is also ground breaking in using progressive northern Italian cuisine to “highlight the relationship between raw nature, the ingredients used and the cultural history.” This joint vision of chef Maciek Zielinski, who has worked in one and two starred Michelin restaurants in Rome and Milan respectively, and Joseph Crolla of Crolla’s Italian Kitchen in Musselburgh, is supported by a research lab / development kitchen in which dishes are invented, tested and refined, employing both classical and contemporary techniques.

monoint3

Serious investment is also seen in the restaurant design and materials used. A Nordic/ Eastern European theme where wood predominates has been chosen, although here it is brighter and lighter than other restaurants of similar design. Untreated walls, partly lined with cork, parquet flooring and comfortable upholstered smooth wooden chairs exemplify the “textural” element of the promised “multi-sensory” experience, whilst an open kitchen and beautifully presented dishes qualify for the “visual” descriptor. A wood burning stove, pendant and spotlighting together with piped music are encompassed in “sound and all kinds of stimuli” The overall effect is pleasing in its natural simplicity.

The ground floor dining room and long bar is mainly used for lunches and pre dinner drinks, whilst the heart of Mono lies downstairs, where guests can enjoy dinner with a view of the open kitchen.

mono brigade zielinski edinburgh

Chef Zielinski’s (far left, above) cooking is unashamedly complex and labour intensive. Modern Italian approaches fused with Scottish and Asian produce and influences reflect a degree of invention and creativity that is measured and assured: unusual combinations work, with each component harmoniously adding to the finished whole. Dishes are multi component with layers of bold flavours. A balance of tastes, textures and temperatures is evident throughout. Presentation is stylish without being over contrived. Uncompromising in their seasonality and locality, the finest Italian and Scottish ingredients are sourced, menus being changed every six to eight weeks. With a maximum of 70 covers, including the private dining room, a brigade of six in the kitchen and 4-5 front of house are kept busy.

The dinner menu has six starters from £10 to £12; six mains from £19 to £27; and six desserts all at £10. A six course tasting menu at £75, with an optional wine flight at £60, features dishes from the carte in smaller portions and is the best way to sample the range and versatility of the kitchen. Menu descriptions are terse and understated, giving an element of surprise to the diner. Prices are high but realistic given the skill in cooking and the exceptional quality of the ingredients.

Mono is open seven days a week – highly usual for restaurants of this quality – which facilitated a visit on a Monday evening to sample the tasting menu.

The assortment of breads, Focaccia with rosemary, rye, crispbread and grissini stick, were exemplary in their crusts and crumb, the focaccia being especially moist and fragrant. Dipped in the extra virgin olive oil, they were a delight.

mono amuse

The meal began with four stuzzichini or amuse bouches: a succulent cube of crispy lamb belly dressed with a punchy bagna cauda of anchovies, garlic and olive oil; earthy, rich butternut squash puree with crispy rice; a delicate jellied rabbit consommé with parsley; and a caprese bomb of mozzarella, basil, and tomato which captured the essential flavours of Italy in one melting mouthful. These dainty morsels, inventive and with great attention to detail and bold flavours, augured well for the courses to come.

mono octopus

Next came a unique take on an Italian classic: octopus alla piastra. The slow cooked tentacle, tender in texture and clean in flavour, came with an ethereally light potato and paprika foam, a salad of dehydrated oyster mushrooms and a deeply flavoured dashi mushroom sauce which bought the dish together. This was a tour de force of fusion cooking, embracing Italian and Japanese elements in an umami taste sensation.

mono rabbit

A dish of accurately timed rabbit loin came with its more flavoursome belly and kidney. Strips of lardo added richness and mustard seeds gave an aromatic touch which did not overwhelm the delicate flavour of the rabbit. The vegetable accompaniment came in a variety of forms – baby carrot, carrot sponge, carrot purée and powdered carrot – each demonstrating a different cooking technique. Nasturtium flowers added a peppery note, whilst a light jus rounded off the dish.

mono beetroot

Although not as visually appealing as the other dishes – it being essentially monochrome in appearance – the next course was equally accomplished. The silky pasta of beetroot tortellini encased Katy Rodger’s rich and crumbly crowdie cheese. With discs of fermented and dehydrated beetroot, and a fermented beetroot soup, this comprised a successful marriage of flavours and textures demonstrating considerable technical skill. Here, the union of an Italian staple with Scotland’s ancient cheese was a truly inspired creation.

mono mullet

Fillets of crisp skinned, firm fleshed red mullet were accompanied by seared spring onion, crispy courgette flower and a head of zucchini encased in a cube of fried bread. The most innovative element in this Italian – Indian fusion was the mild curry butter sauce which complemented the delicate flavour of the fish.

mono lamb

Scottish and Italian influences were clearly evident in the meat course. A noisette of Borders lamb saddle was cooked and rested to a perfect pink, maximising its rich flavour and firm texture. Seared sweetbreads had a delicate creaminess, adding contrast and a luxurious touch. Puffy pillows of gnocchi Romana, smooth pea puree and slightly bitter chard proved suitable accompaniments, whilst powdered capers and a chilli, lamb and lovage sauce lifted the whole dish.

mono parmesan

The cheese course proved a finely judged combination of Parmesan cream, tarragon sorbet, roasted apple purée, and chicory marinated in star anis, all topped with a Parmesan buckwheat shortbread. The dairy, herb and spice elements worked well together, enhancing the soft and crisp textures and salty and sweet components. This was another highly creative dish.

The following coconut and curry sorbet served its purpose in refreshing the palate for the final two courses

A rich and creamy saffron risotto was balanced with Scottish berries, lemon balm sorbet and meadowsweet for sweetness and herbal fragrance. Puffed rice gave contrasting texture and, as a playful flourish, a block of white chocolate and pepper, masquerading as Parmesan, was shaved for at the table.

mono choc

The second dessert, billed as “Cherry and chocolate” was Mono’s novel interpretation of Tiramisu. Mascarpone cream, flavoured with cherry Grand Marnier, was paired with a sorbet of tonka bean and cherry to imitate the feel of a cherry stone in the mouth. Aerated chocolate and coffee and cacao nibs crumb dressed with cherry and balsamic vinegar finished this sophisticated dessert of contrasting tastes and textures.

A cherry habits and coffee cocktail, specially invented by bartender Mattia and sommelier Roberto to accompany this dessert, proved a delicious, perfect match.

Overall, this was a most memorable meal, full of excitement and surprises, reflecting the creativity and dedication of the kitchen. The whole experience was enhanced by the welcoming relaxed formality of the seamless service, overseen by assistant manager Lukasz.  At my table Roberto was able to describe each course in detail and with enthusiasm – something rare in even top flight restaurants – while Alessio served matching wines with a maturity and passion of someone truly engaged with his craft.

Although having only been open for three months, Mono is rapidly establishing its credentials as a destination restaurant. Certainly, it deserves to be successful in the highly competitive world of Edinburgh high end restaurants and there is a market for adventurous cuisine of this type. Fine Dining Guide hopes to visit again and will follow its progress with interest.

Top End Dining Analysed, Chef Niall Keating, Whatley Manor (May 2018)

Posted on: May 15th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Whatley Manor

This article is the third 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.  This is something slightly different.  In this article the chef will analyse each of their dishes sampled against the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star. How so? Discerning foodies will recall that at The Michelin Guide GB&I launch event for the 2018 Guides, a slide was briefly discussed by Michael Ellis (WW Director of Michelin Guides), which for the first time highlighted the five criteria followed by inspectors in the awarding of Michelin Stars.  Michael Ellis confirmed these under interview on that day, as a reminder he explained:-

“The first and most important criteria is the 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 plate must be in balance, so the sauce is not, for example, overpowering the flavour of the fish or that the seasoning of the dish is found to be exactly as it should be. The fourth criteria is regularity (or consistency) and this means starter, main and dessert are all of the appropriate standard and that each are also consistent over time. Finally, value for money is the fifth criteria.”

niall keating

Niall Keating has enjoyed a remarkable eighteen months or so in the context of his 27 years. Last September, with Niall as head chef (and after but a handful of months) Whatley Manor’s The Dining Room was awarded a Michelin star at the launch of the 2018 GB&I Michelin Guide, a moment that signaled the beginning of a life changing sequence of events. Three months later Niall was taking in the Tokyo food scene on holiday with his fiancée, when he received a message from Michelin to get in touch. It transpired that Niall was to be invited to attend the launch event for Michelin Main Cities of Europe 2018 in Budapest and further that he was to be nominated by the GB&I Guide (editor Rebecca Burr) for the inaugural Michelin European Young Chef of the Year 2018. Come the day and come the young chef to win the award; in receipt of the accolade, Niall was described on the day by Michael Ellis (WW Michelin Guides Director) as displaying the right character to represent food in Michelin’s eyes in the present and for the future – a comment that sits proudly with chef Keating. Shortly afterwards Niall and his fiancée Laetizia enjoyed an exclusive use, Michelin starred wedding at Manor House Hotel, Castle Coombe. So good things are happening to Niall Keating and long may that continue.

So, now to the food and a review of those five criteria for a Michelin star. To begin, an explanation from Niall of regularity or consistency of output and value for money criteria that are generic across the menu, followed by a look at each individual dish for provenance, cooking technique and equilibrium on a plate.

In terms of consistency, first of all there is one menu so the kitchen know exactly what will be prepared that service, so whilst the menu does evolve naturally throughout the seasons we have a clear idea in advance of what is going out the door each evening. We document recipes so everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, at the same time I see every single dish leave that kitchen and will have, for example, taste checked the risotto or the seasoning on every mackerel tartare. I orchestrate the service within the kitchen and with the front of house. I see every plate being dressed and every dish being cooked. It can be really intense on busy weekends or when there’s forty plus covers in The Dining Room but ensuring everything is prepared, tasted and checked keeps me in my safe place. Together these practices ensure there is regularity in the dishes that reach the customer and that is so important to our restaurant.

The aim is to balance out the costing of dishes to provide value and at the same time to make a profitable business. I do have a base percentage to work to that is generous to the business, however this is weighed alongside the Brasserie outlet and the new Green Room – collectively these outlets aim for a target overall kitchen percentage. Where the kitchen target is 100% my responsibility there is also an overall F&B target and certain aspects of the business will do well on beverage. The Dining Room has the one menu which means zero wastage and therefore efficiency and effectiveness. We also have a clear idea of numbers dining the night before and order accordingly; fresh fish and meat need daily deliveries. For the brasserie, the menu offering can be designed to offer (apart from fresh fish) braised meats or dry aged steak that we can keep for a few days. Week to week, month to month, season to season we may find ourselves in a different place in terms of what is possible to offer in the outlets thanks to volumes of business, this is something which is also taken into account. So, in a way, providing the right product at the right price is as much an art as a science. We aim not to get too bogged down in the finer points so as to maintain focus on the creativity of the kitchen to ensure the customers receive the best possible menu from Whatley Manor.

Now to examine, again in Niall’s words, the dishes against the other three criteria, the risotto dish, the tortellini black, the Roquefort and an overview of the very locally sourced fully organic Aberdeen Angus beef.

Whatley Risotto 2.0

The risotto is potentially a signature for the future, whilst it was on the original launch menu, it came off but has recently come back, having evolved significantly into risotto 2.0. The inspiration was in Copenhagen when simply eating left over rice with XO sauce! To explain, while at Benu (Michelin Three Star, San Francisco) working under chef/patron Corey Lee, something that was done exceptionally well was risotto made from Arborio rice (which is the classic risotto rice from the north Italian region of Piedmont). However this idea was with a more sushi style of rice so it remains in individual grains and never gets any other texture or taste or consistency than that of the grains. So I took polished single grain Arborio rice that stays individually grained through cooking, let it down with a little crème fraiche, Parmesan and a little XO Sauce. This was the origin.

I decided to do something individual with the basic concept instead of an imitation of XO Sauce. This involved chorizo, garlic and shallots that were confit to become fatty and spicy, to balance this out, diced Scallop for extra texture and sweetness plus dried grated scallop roes. To enhance and bring together in “risotto 2.0” we add a kim chi glaze: kim chi is salted, rubbed with spring onions, ginger and Korean chilli flakes before being left to ferment for a couple of weeks. Overall the dish is something I’m so proud to have on the menu at Whatley Manor.

Whatley Beef

We are in the process of putting on a (very locally) sourced beef dish, the fully organic pedigree Aberdeen Angus are reared literally at the farm next door by Tom Wakefield. The quality of the meat is very exciting indeed and we have a dish in development that will excite diners during this summer. My eyes literally light up thinking and talking about amazing produce that we can find so locally.

Whatley Cheese

The Roquefort dish is a little different. I guess the inspiration came from Bo Bech at Restaurant Geist in Copenhagen, where I first tried blue cheese with caramelised white chocolate. We had a waffle machine in Copenhagen and we’ve fortunately managed to get hold of one here. We do a waffle, Roquefort (blue cheese) baked in the oven topped with caramelized white chocolate with caramel, compote of berries and candied fruits and nuts. The salty and sweet balance each other and the crunch and softness textures contrast.

whatley_tortellini

The tortellini black is a nod to a dish from Corey Lee at Benu Restaurant in San Francisco. In general, the creativity and structure in the kitchen was extraordinary – respect, hard work and friendship underlined what that kitchen meant to me. So the tortellini black: Corey Lee does an amazing version of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) which are steamed and are light, encasing meat or shellfish that also contains a liquid that pops in the mouth. So here I take a black pasta, I do a pork farce with pork jelly, and because it traditionally comes with a vinegar dipping sauce I do an acidic black garlic vinegar and split out with black garlic oil.

For certain Niall Keating could not be delivering the success he has enjoyed from this platform without the strength and support from the top. By way of background, sometime around the middle of 2016, the owners were considering a re-investment cum re-launch of the property and looking for a dynamic but safe, strong but gentle, passionate but measured General Manager to take them forward. They found Sue Williams.

Sue Williams General Manager

Sue had very successfully taken the decaying shambles left by Von Essen at Cliveden House and managed the re-launch and re-invigoration under the new ownership of the Livingstone brothers. The property was reborn and within a short number of years, fully restored to – if not beyond – its former glories of the halcyon days of the early 1990s. Sue also enjoyed hotel GM experience of Michelin kitchens at Bath Priory and Gidleigh Park as well as years of management development at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. The extent of Sue’s success at Whatley Manor can partly be measured by her being the current holder of the most prestigious accolade to a Hotel GM in the industry – The Hotelier of the Year Award.

What may customers expect of the food at Whatley Manor? Well at the time of Sue’s arrival the numbers were not so good, in spite of The Dining Room holding two Michelin Stars under Martin Burge. fine dining guide are big fans of (new) classical cooking and Martin’s menus were always a pleasure on visits to Whatley. While Sue was familiar with the character of Niall from his time at Bath Priory, he had subsequently travelled the world of the Michelin firmament, working under some great head chefs and developing the potential to deliver a cooking style that finds influence from three continents, including elements of the most modern of thinking and techniques. So while there existed this potential, energy and bundle of ideas, it could be clearly contrasted to the two Michelin starred, John Burton Race trained veteran.

niall keating

The leadership inexperience of Niall Keating and the question of the suitability of the expected contrast in the food style, thus remained a brave decision, perhaps a significant country house hotel gamble. Just over a year ago, to test the water, there was a private tasting of the proposed new menu under Niall and one left admiring the boldness of ideas and flavours on a single tasting menu but possibly fearing that this might engender a love it or not effect amongst the regular clientele of such a hotel, especially given its former cuisine style. Perhaps the subsequent months demonstrated a little of that but my view is that two significant things happened. Firstly, the single tasting menu, which itself is an ongoing question of relevance in country house hotels, is now backed up by a strong brasserie offering that provides the opportunity of choice to multi-night diners. Secondly, and far more important, like a fine wine the food has developed layers of sophisticated taste complexity, elegance and accessibility that demonstrates a maturity in Chef Niall Keating beyond his years. This latter development must have caught the eye of Michelin and diners alike to the great benefit of Whatley Manor. It will be fascinating to follow Niall’s progress and continue to sample the creations presented at Whatley Manor and celebrate his progress through the industry over the years to come..

Restaurant Review: The Dining Room, Chewton Glen (April 2018)

Posted on: April 3rd, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

This article is the second in a series designed not to provide ‘A N Other’ opinion about a chef’s output, to be lost in the now ‘me too’ sea of increasing ‘noise’ about top end dining.  This is something slightly different.  In this article the chef will analyse each of their dishes sampled against the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star. How so? Discerning foodies will recall that at The Michelin Guide GB&I launch event for the 2018 Guides, a slide was briefly discussed by Michael Ellis (WW Director of Michelin Guides), which for the first time highlighted the five criteria followed by inspectors in the awarding of Michelin Stars.  Michael Ellis confirmed these under interview on that day, as a reminder he explained:-

“The first and most important criteria is the 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 plate must be in balance, so the sauce is not, for example, overpowering the flavour of the fish or that the seasoning of the dish is found to be exactly as it should be. The fourth criteria is regularity (or consistency) and this means starter, main and dessert are all of the appropriate standard and that each are also consistent over time. Finally, value for money is the fifth criteria.”

Simon Addison - Head Chef - Chewton Glen (1)

So here we ask Executive Head Chef Luke Matthews and The Dining Room Head Chef Simon Addison (above) to elaborate on their work at Chewton Glen Hotel’s The Dining Room.

First of all, Luke Matthews sheds some light on the challenges of delivering consistency in a large professional, luxury hotel restaurant kitchen. Luke explains that in the first instance the accent must be on the needs of the customer; so if a customer requests something, if it is possible to deliver, the first reaction is to think “yes” and then work out how. This is tough on the chefs as they need to demonstrate their flexibility, adaptability and creativity. Simon Addison added that the always something going on; lunch, afternoon tea, treehouse service, room service or buffet in the pool bar then dinner service – so keeping on top of processes and practices is vital. Chewton Glen also enjoys ‘house favourite’ classic dishes in The Dining Room that stay on the menu out of customer demand and sell in large numbers – like the twice baked Emmental soufflé on the starters, or Thai lobster curry on the main courses or The Chewton Glen honeycombe parfait with honey from the Chewton Glen estate.

The set lunch provides a vent for creating new dishes and Simon Addison explained the example of a team member getting a Hake dish on that week’s £26 for three courses set lunch menu. This creative opportunity and inclusive process raises morale and maintains focus and impetus for the whole team, Simon included.

Luke Matthews feels that The Dining Room kitchen has found that they are able to operate the menu at a consistent and sustainably high level through discipline and management. What does he mean? Well, to ensure consistency, the kitchen may have all the documented recipes, methods, processes and practices in the world but in the reality of a very large brigade of chefs in a professional kitchen, taste is the predominant consistency check; it may be a chef is not quite following the recipe, for whatever reason, and it is up to the management team in the kitchen to ensure consistent quality output to the table and that comes from “taste, taste and more tasting” – at every level, at every stage.

With value for money, Luke understands they have a little more flexibility in the Dining Room than in the more casual dining Kitchen Restaurant. In the latter volume is more critical but they do manage volume in The Dining Room too, so therefore they have scope to provide a few more luxuries on a plate. The Kitchen restaurant benefits from the same ingredient sourcing suppliers as the Dining Room, so Luke is happy that the quality standards of produce are impeccable in both outlets.

Chewton_DIning Room Sumary

Head Chef of The Dining Room Simon Addison now takes us through each of three dishes for sourcing, cooking technique and balance and harmony on a plate. The three dishes are Scallop, Halibut and Cheesecake based. While these dishes do not specifically describe local ingredients, sourcing in this way is important to Chewton Glen, with quality of ingredient being the deciding factor. Sustainability is also key in determining  a menu item, where for example, The Chewton Glen ethos is to offer only those fish which are sustainable. Simon also pointed out that the kitchen generally attempts to use as fewer added fats as possible, not ‘no butter’ but made use of in moderation.

The hand-dived scallops are sourced from a company called Keltic Seafare (http://www.kelticseafare.com/) (Orkney Islands.) Simon may ring them in the morning and next day they arrive with consistent volume and quality. To meet demand of 200-300 scallops a week, it is natural for the kitchen to maintain support suppliers, however this is predominantly only relevant in the midst of winter.

Chewton_Scallop_Web

The cauliflower puree is designed to keep the natural flavours. Firstly, it is cut really fine so it cooks quickly and keeps the freshness, then vacuum packed and steamed on its own until it is cooked through, then blended with a little of its own water and a little milk added for the smoothness. Granny Smith apple is pickled for acidity, the mooli is sliced very thin on the meat slicer and shaped into a disk and compressed in a rice wine vinegar for light pickling.   There are some little florets of cauliflower that have been roasted. The caper and raisin puree; equal quantities (500g) of lilliput capers and raisins – the capers are washed to reduce the level of natural saltiness, then barely cover them with water and simmer for ten minutes until everything is tender, drain them off, then blend and add a little of the cooking water back to the puree should it be needed for smoothness. The Morteau sausage is from Oakleaf (http://oakleafeuropean.com/), which is straight out of Rungis Market.

In terms of balance and harmony or equilibrium on a plate, the quality and depth of flavour will come from the sourcing of the ingredients and here it is the best, I want to enhance where possible and certainly not take away from the main ingredient. So in this dish I’m looking at flavours, textures and temperatures – The dish has the silky smooth mellow cauliflower flavour, in contrast to the roasted florets that are heavily caramelised and charred. A little smokiness from the Morteau and the acidity comes from the pickled apple and mooli. Capers and raisins bring the sweetness and saltiness.

Chewton_Halibut_web

The Halibut dish is sourced from Gigha (http://www.gighahalibut.co.uk/) who create farming pens at sea, they have a specific feed and while the fish swim they naturally (as if wild) build the texture and quality of the fish. The dish is more Asian inspired than most on the menu. Pak choi is cut into quarters, steamed in a bamboo basket, the water for the steaming is infused with lemongrass, ginger, szechuan peppercorns and garlic and so on as flavour enhancers to the steam. Some Julienne of cucumber and wasabi to create “noodles”, which are wilted very simply in a light butter emulsion (shown to a hot pan) they wilt as they rest and retain some texture, then some crab meat added, meanwhile some dulse seaweed, which tastes of the ocean – a salty flavour – is blanched in a little butter emulsion. The peelings from the cucumber used in the julienne are then blended into the beurre blanc sauce with some wasabi for a gentle heat.

The balance and harmony comes from cucumber and crab together and the saltiness of the dulse provides a form of seasoning coupled with the warmth of the wasabi assisting the beurre blanc in bringing it all together.

chewton_cheesecake

We use Brillat-Savarin as a core ingredient for a cheesecake, the taste I find absolutely stunning and menu wise it is a personal favourite. There are a few pivotal moments into getting it absolutely right. The first is oven temperature, the second is in the timing to use the residual heat from the oven to allow it to set. The base has some texture, it also comes with passion fruit and lime leaf – I feel it has sweet and sour, creaminess and floral, richness and acidity. It is actually something that has a significant number of behind the scenes multi-stage processes and a good number of ingredients to get it just perfect and overall to produce something on a plate that appears so simple. Perhaps the best example of what professional kitchen fine dining is really all about.

Overall, Chewton Glen’s The Dining Room restaurant offers excellent variety across a broad menu to suit multi-night guests perfectly.  The addition of The Kitchen restaurant on site has expanded that variety to ensure the longer stay guests have no need to leave the property to dine for the duration of their stay.  The Dining Room exudes confidence, quality and consistency combined with the service and hospitality that you can come to take for granted from The Iconic Luxury Hotels Group.  Simon Addison leads a large and well drilled brigade while reporting to the long standing Executive Head Chef, Luke Matthews, who counts fifty-five employees across all food operations.  As a food and beverage success story Chewton Glen goes from strength to strength.

Restaurant Review: Wild Honey, Mayfair (Feb 2018)

Posted on: February 26th, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

wildhoneydemetre

Anthony Demetre’s Wild Honey, in the heart of Mayfair, celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2017. This is no mean feat in the highly competitive world of fine dining, where casualties greatly outnumber successes. Yet Anthony Demetre is a true veteran – in the best sense of the word – of the London gastronomic scene. It is a rare pleasure to chat with a chef whose experience with two of the greats of the last three decades – Gary Rhodes (at The Castle, Taunton), and Bruno Loubet (at The Four Seasons and Bistrot Bruno) – existed alongside a glittering world that also featured Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, to name but three.

Along with many fans of “bistronomy” (although not familiar with the term at the time), I was a regular visitor to Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street and later at L’Odeon overlooking Regent Street, where skilful, inventive cooking and relaxed, efficient service could be had in simple yet comfortable surroundings at attractive prices. These two restaurants, where Anthony honed his skills, were always packed, so booking was essential.

Awarded Michelin stars at Putney Bridge (where he was chef/director) and his first two restaurants – in partnership with Will Smith – Arbutus and Wild Honey, all in their first year of opening, Anthony’s culinary reputation was assured.

His cooking style is rooted in the classics, eschewing the latest fashions and fads. Use of the hob, grill and oven, without the use of sous vide, are the preferred methods. This needs precise timing in cooking and resting, essentials lost in less worthy kitchens. Flavours are bold and combinations are harmonious, showing balance in tastes and textures. Plates rarely exceed four ingredients, allowing each one to shine. Vegetables serve not as a mere garnish but an essential components in the success of each dish. Presentation is clean and attractive without being contrived. Although perhaps a little less adventurous and experimental and using more luxurious ingredients than Arbutus, where the mackerel and squid burger was a signature dish, the menu at Wild Honey still delivers in terms of finely executed contemporary cooking.

The winter a la carte menu features a winning formula of seven starters from £8 to £16; seven mains, £17 to £29, with rib of beef at £49.50 for two; cheese at £14; and five desserts at £9, with tarte tatin serving two, three or four at £20. Given the superb quality of the seasonal ingredients and the sharply honed skill in cooking at this level, not to mention the Mayfair location, these prices are eminently fair, offering perhaps the best value in this part of the West End. This applies even more to the £35 three course set lunch and early supper (6.pm to 7.pm) menu, which includes some dishes from the carte.

WildHOneyInterior

Revisiting Wild Honey after a few years’ absence, I found the renovations – completed in 2012 – had improved the restaurant considerably. Brighter chandelier lighting, the removal of booths, and the relocation of the mirrored bar to the centre of the restaurant gives a more spacious feel to the long, narrow oak panelled room. More comfortable too are the rounded sofa tables replacing the banquette seating. Colourful photographic artwork, curated by Maxine Davidson remains as before, adding a contemporary note to the club-like atmosphere.

Not that service is haughty or over formal. Overseen by David Durack, the relaxed formality is in keeping with modern trends, putting guests at their ease. It is attentive and knowledgeable without being intrusive.

A mid-week dinner for three in February began with an Apple Negroni, a variation on a classic cocktail, the red apple, Campari and vermouth complementing the botanicals of the in house distilled gin. This is a new, exciting addition to Anthony’s repertoire.

In addition to the extensive, 100 bin wine list, which includes organic and biodynamic selections, it was pleasing to see on the daily menu two wines by “Coravin.” This is, after all, Mayfair, where budgets can stretch!

A starter of Cornish mussels saw the creaminess of the flesh balanced by the inspired additon fo blood orange, the sweet acidity working well with the plump bivalve. Sea purslane acted as a seasoning, giving a measured degree of saltiness.

WildHoney_moules

Grilled quail – not the most flavoursome of game birds – was lifted by lacquered coating of honey and sweet spices – amchor, sechuan pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin. Kumquat puree gave a counterpoint with its sweet bitterness whilst winter vegetables provided the necessary textural contrast.

WildHOney_Quail

Grilled Galician octopus was precisely timed, the gentle smokiness not overpowering its mild flavour and tender texture. Paired with a finely judged creamy squid ink polenta, adding flavour as well as colour, the dish was dressed with a salsa verde, the grassy piquancy of which enlivened the dish. If only there was more of this!

WildHoney_Octopus

The fourth starter, a smooth Guinea fowl and foie gras boudin blanc – a rich but light pairing – was poached and browned in the pan to perfection. Celeriac tagliatelle with its subtle celery like flavour and nutty overtones added texture whilst pickled quince gave a tartness that worked well with the other components.

Wildhoney_boudin

A main course of Lancashire (Goosnargh) duck was accurately timed and well rested, doing full justice to the deep flavour and dense texture of the thick breast. An accompanying pastilla of the leg meat resting on a bowl of herbed grains,was lightly spiced and well-seasoned. Silky caramelised cauliflower puree – possibly the best way to treat this most uninteresting of vegetables – young parsnips, and red cabbage all complemented the duck well.

WildHoney_Duck

A second main featured rabbit, that notoriously difficult protein to cook. The saddle and farce, wrapped in pancetta, seared in the pan and finished in the oven, retained its moisture and delicate flavour. Equally impressive was an accompanying cottage pie featuring the slow cooked shoulder meat topped with a potato puree of exquisite smoothness and creaminess. Caramelised endive and chestnut mushrooms completed this tour de force of game cookery.

WildHoney_Rabbit2

The same skill was shown in the third main course of roast loin of Dartmoor venison. Cooked to a medium rare to showcase its mild gaminess, it was paired with sweet potato, beetroot and onion, all of which emphasised the essential earthy flavours of the dish.

WildHoney_Venison

For dessert, we all opted for the irresistible tarte tatin. The not too sweet dark amber caramel enrobed generous wedges of soft apple and fine pastry in this classic, well executed dessert.

WildHoney_Tatin

Good coffee and signature cannele completed a memorable meal, one enhanced by the seamless service and the lively buzz of contented diners in a busy restaurant.

Wild Honey is a class act, but nothing less would be expected of a chef whose wide experience and refined skills transcend the more ephemeral developments of the restaurant scene. No doubt Fine Dining Guide will return to sample the remaining abindance of riches on the menu.

Top End Dining Analysed: Chef Tom Clarke, L’Ortolan (Jan 2018)

Posted on: January 23rd, 2018 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

exterior lortolan

The purpose of this article is not to provide ‘A N Other’ opinion about a chef’s output, to be lost in the now ‘me too’ sea of increasing ‘noise’ about top end dining.  This is something slightly different, something not seen before, this is an attempt at a new concept.  Discerning foodies will recall that at The Michelin Guide GB&I launch event for the 2018 Guides, a slide was briefly discussed by Michael Ellis (WW Director of Michelin Guides), a slide which for the first time highlighted the five criteria followed by inspectors in the awarding of Michelin Stars.  Michael Ellis confirmed these under interview on that day, as a reminder these are:-

“The first and most important criteria is the 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 – a piece of fish, for example, might have a window as small as 30 seconds where it is perfectly cooked, before that it is undercooked and after that time it is overcooked. Our inspectors are looking for this mastery; albeit something the average diner may not realise but is in actual fact critical to the consistent quality of the experience and a key factor should the restaurant be seeking Michelin star recognition. The third criteria is equilibrium and harmony in flavours; the plate must be in balance, so the sauce is not, for example, overpowering the flavour of the fish or that the seasoning of the dish is found to be exactly as it should be. The fourth criteria is regularity (or consistency) and this means starter, main and dessert are all of the appropriate standard and that each are also consistent over time. Finally, value for money is the fifth criteria.”

So fine dining guide decided that it would be a great idea to sample a Michelin starred restaurant’s output and then interview the chef to discover how they believe their efforts meet those criteria described by Michelin.  This would involve the chef analysing each dish prepared, against each of the five criteria.

Tom Clarke

First stop Michelin starred L’Ortolan restaurant, the only such garlanded eaterie in or around Reading.  Chef Tom Clarke (above) has some broad influences and inspirations to his cooking; including Asian cuisines, where he particularly appreciates the flavour impacts of certain ingredients which Tom suggests can add great value to strong tasting menus. Naturally, Tom is grounded in the classical style, forged at Le Manoir and further developed under his former mentor Alan Murchison.  At interview, Tom appears fairly quiet but very quickly shows his confidence when discussing his home subject, and clearly within burns a desire to succeed shared by all these elite level chefs, indeed one harnessed by a quiet but unmistakable competitive spirit.  So to the food but first an overview of a couple of criteria that span the menu – consistency and value for money.

The accent at L’Ortolan is on tasting menus, supplemented by a set menu at lunch time and an a la carte that looks like it has two, two and two choices – in fact there is a separate vegetarian choice on request that effectively brings this up to three, three and three.  What I was about to discover over a 40 minute conversation with Tom Clarke was that the level of preparation and multi-stage complexity found in the food, was such that limiting the choice may help ensure consitency of such elaborate dishes. This not to suggest that food is over engineered, far from it, the guiding theme of enhancing flavour results in uncompromising dedication to deliver the processes that meet the optimum flavour punch, admittedly sometimes this is complex, but that is why customers pay for a craftsman’s work, the true wonders of Michelin cooking and the flavours delivered.

L’Ortolan owner Peter Newman has provided Tom Clarke and team with the best of technology to help with recipe, ingredient and cooking process management for the team.  There is a L’Orotlan database and a set of iPads for the kitchen to serve as a productivity tool for the chefs while tracking what is happening for the business ensuring the long term efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of the restaurant.  Larder, garnish, sauce and pastry are digitally documented, plus each dish that is on the menu along with all methods and recipes.  A resulting affect is that in the event of a chef leaving, a stronger foundation is in place to pick up where that chef left off for a new chef on the team.  Further, there is clarity of actions required for the kitchen at all times rather than referring to written recipe folders or whatever form of manually written documentation that may happen to have been produced.

In terms of value for money, perhaps the most typical kitchen target is GP on a plate, like any top end restaurant these targets are a moving challenge, why?  The costs of ingredients are themselves fluctuating on a regular basis; Tom sites vegetable, fish and dairy costs.  For example, over a year, a 10 kilo block of butter was £42 but is now £72 so this forces the kitchen to be creative and find ways to deliver the same or better end product while using less dairy.  So, for example, Tom will finish with rendered beef fat for beef or rendered duck fat for duck and not use butter.  Wild sea bass is £30 per kilo; langoustines, scallops or turbot and so on are all reaching price points where the restaurant might struggle to source the right quality that would enable combining these ingredients on the same plate.  To avoid any compromise on quality in L’Ortolan dishes, the focus is to therefore have the highest quality sourced core ingredient stand out through its individual quality, further enhaced by creative cooking technique.

I have to say none of these honest observations of kitchen cost management were evident in the end products on a plate, which you will see and read below, were quite stunning in conception, deftly skilled in their execution and delivered by a Michelin starred kitchen on full throttle!

Tuna

The opening starter dish comprised yellow fin tuna which has proven to be of consistent quality when sourced from different areas via Kingfisher.  Tom marinaded the tuna for a couple of hours in a mixture of soya sauce, mirin, kecap manis and wasabi.  The tuna was then taken out of the marinade and sealed off quickly before chilling down.  The marinade was then reduced down to make a glaze in which the tuna was rolled with sesame seeds. The idea was flavour enhacement upon flavour enhancement.  The cracker was for texture, which was a sushi rice cracker made with crab stock to provide an adiditonal but complimentary layer of flavour.  Torched water melon for freshness, compressed in sushi ginger giving the sensation of the flavour of having sushi, freshness and acidity of pickled mooli and lemongrass to lift everything and kecap to bring it all together.

foie gras

A goose liver parfait rolled in pain d’epices crumb, along side a pan fried goose liver so you have the texture, taste and tempature contrasts of the liver. Pineapple gel, poached pineapple in caramel then torched provides some acidity and sweet wine jelly with a pain d’epice meringue, pineapple meringue, pineapple and coriander chutney and coriander cress. Smoked duck ham add a further dimension of flavour and texture.

Tuna

Torched mackerel with Bonito gel and wasabi buttermilk.  The Cornish mackerel was marinated along with soya and blowtorched for a smoky flavour and caramalisation. Dried Bonito flakes were used to make a stock which was then made into a gel which covered the mackerel to provide a flavour punch – again the theme is flavour enhacement on top of flavour enhacement and you get both elements in your mouth together.  Wasabi buttermilk provided heat and freshness and was created via the process the kitchen developed for making their own in house butter.  Some texture is provided by puff rice with seaweed powder for saltiness gives further seasoning.

Beef

L’Ortolan had a truffle evening a few months ago and from that came this concept for a beef dish.  King oyster mushrooms cooked whole and then cooked down in rendered down beef fat with aromats, then broken down to look like a bone marrow.  Traditional truffled pomme puree, seasonal carrots, seasonal girolles and confit shallots.  Then the blade of beef is marinated in red wine with plenty mirepoix for 24 to 48 hours to tenderize it, make it juicier and more flavoursome.  Tom then sealed it to get smokiness into the meat and then waterbathed for 16 to 18 hours.  The sauce is reduced red wine and shallots with port and parsley and so on…to really pack in the flavour!

dessert

Peanut mousse with a wafer and a feuillantine chocolate base and some gold leaf; coffee and banana work well together with peanut so coffee ice cream sitting on dyhadrated banana and a peanut brittle.

Overall Tom Clarke’s food is well engineered; everything has a purpose to deliver the theme of depth of flavour punch upon depth of flavour.  In his maturity the plates are generally getting less technically complex to look at but the skill and craftsmanship in bringing out the true enhanced and deep flavours of his star ingredients goes from strength to strength.  For this reason, for me, the beef and mackerel dishes shone through.  This is surely a penny dropping.  The best food from a great restaurant can look simple but taste sensational, why does it taste sensational? Because countless hours of technical achievements have brought things together in the processes behind the scenes to give the customer the optimum end product experience.  This possibly signals to the Michelin aspiring world exactly what they should be aiming for…