Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Wynyard Hall, Teesside

Strolling through the vast walled gardens attached to Wynyard Hall, with its acres and acres of bedding groaning with all kinds of very healthy looking fruit and veg stretching almost as far as the eye could see, I naturally assumed that a large proportion of the produce would be offered in the garden shop or sold to a number of local restaurants. There seemed to be enough growing to singlehandedly feed most of Darlington - I mean just look at the scale of the place from space - and even though the hotel itself is hardly a small operation - everything about Wynyard is exaggeratedly grand and imposing - it seemed unlikely they'd need quite this amount of onions, kale, carrots etc. just for themselves.

So that night, settling down for dinner in a dining room so vast the ceiling seemed to be above the cloud layer, I brought up the subject with one of the very affable front of house. What happens to all the fruit and veg the restaurant doesn't use?

"Oh, we use pretty much all of it," came the reply, "there's very few bits left over for the shop."

Which, when you think about it, is quite extraordinary in what it implies for any other restaurant with the ambition of growing all of their grocery needs on-site. Wynyard Hall's dining area isn't tiny, but it's not exactly stuffed full of covers - the tables are nicely spaced out and there's plenty of room to move about - but even this medium-sized operation requires a kitchen garden the size of a football pitch to keep it stocked. It's great for them, obviously, that they have the space and the gardening expertise to do it, but I certainly came away with a newfound appreciation for anywhere attempting such an ambitious control of their ingredient offering.

And speaking of which, as you might hope, the ingredients at Wynyard Hall are absolutely blinding. The first bite to eat is this, a little potato that had been in the ground mere hours before, soaked in butter and topped with what I think was a lovage purée. I can honestly say I've hardly eaten a better potato in my life, it was that good, and so from the very first morsel served that evening, it became very clear that all the trouble and effort of the kitchen garden had been absolutely worth it.

In fact the next dish was not just supplied by the garden, it was actively inspired by it. The "Walled Garden Salad" contained a bewildering number of flowers, vegetables and herbs, each treated according to maximising their potential (fennel bulb was braised, I think, while a mini courgette was lightly grilled) and artfully presented. What's the point in having a vast walled garden if you can't show off the results of it, and though it's probably fair to say the kitchen's intervention here was deliberately minimal, the odd blob of clever sorrel mayonnaise and some kind of (quince?) jam added a few reminders that they can be serious and cheffy when they need to be.

Smoked eel had a meaty texture and strong, salty flavour, and came in a lovely subtle fresh pea and milk "soup" which complimented it very well. There's not much else to say about this really - it wasn't uninteresting, but just uncomplicated, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Next came a scallop, with another tasty little morsel from the garden (a tiny young shoot of baby gem lettuce) topped with bacon. Bacon and scallop is of course a time-honoured match, but this bit of seafood had been topped with a fiercely sharp citrus glaze, which took a bit of getting used to. Once all the flavours settled down in the mouth, though, it worked rather well. And what a good strong dark crust on the scallop, too, which I always like to see.

The last of the savouries was a lamb chop, meltingly tender and blushed pink, with a number of elements lamb should always come with, namely a mashed potato consisting of mainly butter, some glossy vegetables and herbs, and most importantly of all a thick, dark, glossy sauce to bind it all together. Needless to say, this dish ticked every single one of my personal pleasure points and I completely demolished it - it's essentially all of the reasons I go to restaurants, on one plate. There was even a bonus piece of sweetbread in there, and although I wasn't completely in love with the "molasses butter" it was cooked with, I still ate it quite happily because hey, sweetbread.

"Toffee Apple Parfait" was a delicate little thing, sweet and summery and laced with just enough salt on the pastry to make the tastebuds tingle. In a grand old hotel such as this, afternoon tea is obviously a major part of the experience - most tables on the terrace overlooking the lake were occupied by families tucking into cakes and scones on the Saturday we arrived, and there are fully two (huge, naturally) other rooms inside serving the same - so it's probably no surprise the pastry section know what they're doing.

Finally, a strawberry tart - colourful, seasonal, flatteringly accessible and yet, with its blob of slickly-Pacojetted marscapone ice cream and swoops of gorgeous strawberry jus, clearly the work of a kitchen that has produced many such elegant offerings before. Have you got the picture by now? Wynyard Hall is good.

True, I was hardly likely to travel all the way up to Darlington without being pretty sure I was going to enjoy both dinner and a good night's sleep (the beds are super comfy, by the way, and they give you a little vial of "sleep aid" room spray which I can confirm really works - I slept like a log) but even so, none of this is inevitable. Hotel restaurants, ambitious hotel restaurants like this at least, have a very difficult job to do in keeping your average honeymooner or wedding guest happy whilst also serving the kind of food that gets you noticed on sites like these, and they could have very easily, under a lesser kitchen, fallen awkwardly between two competing philosophies and satisfied nobody.

Instead, Wynyard Hall is that rarest of things - a palatial country hotel set in hundreds of acres of stunning surroundings that doesn't just let the décor do the talking. For your money (and it's not even super expensive, £55 for the tasting menu) you do, admittedly, get quite a bit of jaw-dropping scenery but you also get the kind of ambitious, ingredient-led Modern British food, supported by top suppliers and a record-breaking kitchen garden, that any corner of the country would be exceedingly proud to call their own. And for aiming so high and getting so much of it so right, Wynyard Hall should be very proud indeed.


I was invited to Wynyard Hall and they wouldn't let me pay for so much as a glass of brandy (though I did offer) so many thanks to them for everything. Lovely people, lovely place.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Siren, Victoria

Workplace management training always advises 'bookending' employee criticism between two elements of good news or encouragement. "You've always got nice clean shoes," you would start, before moving on to "...but your mislabelling of laboratory chemicals yesterday led directly to the deaths of 300 people. That said, it should be a lot easier to find a seat on the bus home from now on!". And so on. The bad news is still bad, but cushioned so closely by the psychological props of the good news, you're less likely to take it to heart.

I'm going to try that trick in this post on Siren, a seafood restaurant in Goring Hotel, because although - sorry to say - the main event proved a bit of a letdown, there were, and forgive the corporate-speak, positives to take away from the experience. First of all, it's impossible not to be completely smitten by Siren's dining area. Constructed partly of reclaimed former Goring bar area, and partly by building a conservatory out into the garden, they've ended up with a bright and beautiful space with - weather and time permitting - nothing to separate you from the manicured lawns below. Unfortunately, mid-evening the windows get shut - probably something to do with neighbourhood noise levels - and I think I'd feel a bit miffed if, like the couple arriving at 9pm, they had fully 2 minutes to soak up the view before that amenity was removed.

I wasn't a huge fan of the Grasshopper cocktail - it tasted rather like mouthwash, and looked like it too - but although the Garden Negroni had a similarly dentist-y look it managed to taste pretty normal so that was a relief. Staff, both in the bar and the restaurant (is there a distinction? I couldn't work it out) were enthusiastic, and friendly, and win points for advising us not to order too many chips and mix up the sides a little. But whether from inexperience or the sheer unworkability of the concept generally, they struggled when it came to making sense of the main courses.

But before that, starters. I may as well admit now that I didn't get to try all of them - this monkfish tartare with fennel and ginger looked the part and was declared "nice" but I can't give you any more detail than that...

...and lobster and pea tart, which also looked very pretty, was in fact slightly less well received. A bit subdued in flavour, by all accounts, though again I can't confirm.

Of the ones I did get to try, the scallops with rosemary and orange butter would almost certainly have benefitted from a more confident crust, and I don't think I'm being too unreasonable in thinking £11 per scallop is a little on the dear side, even for a 5 star hotel, but they had a nice sweet flavour and weren't terrible.

And it's hardly Siren's fault that just a week previously I'd been given one of the greatest sardine dishes of my life, although you might expect a dedicated seafood restaurant in a 5 star hotel in central London to take at least as much care over their product as a £39 tasting menu in the Calder Valley. The flavours were nice enough - the toasted hazelnuts made a great foil for the oily fish, and I enjoyed the faintly pickled, julienned veg - but there were so many tiny bones that they fair shredded my tonsils, which just seems sloppy to me.

The way Siren present their fish options tableside is presumably a nod to steakhouses that do the same with their different cuts of beef. I've never really been very comfortable with the practice - it seems wasteful to parade the same bits of slowly-expiring meat around the shop floor all day, and I don't really know how you're supposed to make any kind of judgement on what a steak will taste like based on looks alone anyway. It feels even more disconcerting when applied to an arrangement of sad, floppy, cloudy-eyed fish, their ice bed melting into a foetid puddle, especially alongside the cheerfully-announced news that 1/3 of the species on offer - slipsole, and weaver - had "already sold out". Here's a tip - if a fish is sold out take it off the bloody platter - we'd have been none the wiser if they hadn't been waved under our noses like we were unsuccessful gameshow contestants.

The next bit of weirdness was in the portion sizes. I don't know if you can tell from the photo - I should have probably tried a bit harder to get a better angle, sorry - but from what I remember the plaice (2nd left) the megrim sole (3rd left) and John Dory (4th left) all looked very similar sizes on the tray. But while Siren decided to serve the plaice and sole whole, the John Dory had been divided into two pretty miserly steaks. And they gave no indication that was going to happen when we ordered.

In the end, bizarrely, the John Dory was the nicest of the fish - a great, firm texture like this fish often has, with a fantastic salty, spicy skin laced with plenty of chilli. Just, you know, look at the size of it.

Plaice was also perfectly edible, and just as well as there was plenty of it, falling off the edge of the plate and drowning in butter and capers.

Now I have to be careful throwing around words like 'overcooked', as Google tells me that megrim sole does have a softer flesh than dover sole. Perhaps this texture was entirely deliberate. But if megrim even at its best has all the form of wet tissue paper then I'd suggest they probably shouldn't be serving it at all, as this really was fairly unpleasant.

Sides were inoffensive - tomato salad could have done with more salt and there was something unsatisfyingly "soily" about the "crispy potatoes", Perhaps they'd left the skins on, I didn't look closely enough. I'm afraid by this stage I'd run out of steam a bit.

To be fair, desserts were pretty good. My raspberry choux bun was a damn sight better than a version I'd been served at Le Gavroche a few months back, and even nicer drowned in all the chocolate sauce they gave me in one go. Yes, I am a child.

Brownie was decent, too, with a nice soft ice cream and plenty of salted caramel. This is me finding nice things to say after six paragraphs of whingeing, although I'm not sure it's really going to make up for it, is it?

No, overall I found more to complain about at Siren than I liked. In this price range its competition are seafood restaurant stars like J Sheekey's, or Bentleys, where the portion sizes are sensible, sole is offered off as well as on the bone, and the menu is bulked out by genuinely exciting shellfish selections. At Siren there were no langousine, no clams, no whelks, crab (except in a risotto), razors or crayfish, no seafood platters at all, just a fairly standard offering of dayboat fish, not always cooked very well. Perhaps at half the price and set outside of a Leading Hotel of the World I could have forgiven some of the issues, but certainly not all of them. Siren, from the menu to the service, feels like a neighbourhood restaurant that's somehow found itself trapped inside a luxury hotel.

I've failed at offering the bad news in between the good news, I know. This is almost certainly the reason I could never be a manager. But all I can do, in the end, is point out that there are better ways of spending this amount of money (about £140/head) on seafood, and go and find something else to moan about. So I'll do just that. There are, after all, plenty more fish in the sea.


Thursday, 8 August 2019

Mr Wong's, Holborn

Mr Wong's describes itself as a "Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil". Having walked past it dozens of times on the way to work, it always confused me, and having now eaten there I can't say I'm much the wiser. Surely you can have a traditional Malatang hot pot restaurant, and a Louisiana boil restaurant, but there's nothing traditional about the smashing together of Sichuan/Beijing hot pot and Southern USA cajun cooking. Perhaps it can be done - never say never - but if it does ever happen, it would struggle to attract the adjective "traditional".

As it turns out, Mr Wong's is a traditional - if somewhat eccentric - hot pot restaurant, the kind of which have sprung up in the dozens in the Bloomsbury area over the past few years. And this is all perfectly fine - there's absolutely no such thing as too many hot pot restaurants - I just wondered where the idea of attaching the words "Louisiana boil" came from, given they weren't serving any crayfish or corn or sausages or Old Bay seasoning or anything like that at all. Perhaps the words "Louisiana Boil" accidentally fell out of the Mandarin - English dictionary in the same way as the foot-high "EXTRA SITTING[sic] UPSTAIRS" text somehow accidentally found itself glazed into the windows of Mr Wongs, as we soon discovered said "extra sitting" proved just as elusive as crayfish and corn bread. With the grand total of 9 downstairs seats already taken we asked about overflow accommodation. "No, just here" was the firm reply. I thought about gesturing towards the promise of "extra sitting", hovering in reversed text just in our eye line, but decided against it.

We didn't wait long, anyway, and were soon sat down waiting for a menu. A short while after that, it turned out there wasn't one, and we were instead given a small plastic laundry basket and told to fill it full of anything, from the refrigerated shelving at the end of the room, that we wanted to form part of our Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil. Now, I don't know if you've ever loaded raw chicken into a laundry basket, and I hope very much that you haven't outside of the context of a hot pot restaurant, but I'm here to report it feels very strange, like being asked to pour gravy directly onto the dinner table.

To accompany my chicken I chose wood ear fungus, glass noodles, bak choi, enoki mushrooms, spinach and finally a large helping of tripe, because if I was going to construct myself a complete disaster of a hot pot I may as well fail in style. My order was weighed - £17 worth - and whisked off in the dumb waiter to be (presumably) stir-fried and added to broth. Having noticed that all of the drink options - milk tea, iced tea, Coca Cola - contained caffeine, I asked if I could just have some tap water.

"We don't have any cups," came the confident response, clearly indended to be the end of the matter. After clocking my stunned expression, though, they helpfully added, "but you can use one of those?", nodding towards a pile of small metal bowls on the shelf above the trays of "beef aeorta". Politely declining their kind offer to lap tap water out of a metal bowl like a dog, I slunk back to my window seat and hoped things wouldn't get any more weird.

In the end, though, the food was quite lovely. It turns out that even if you haven't got a scoobie what you're doing when selecting hot pot ingredients, by the time it's all fried up together and drowned in Sichuan peppercorn broth you end up with something that looks remarkably edible. It's actually quite flattering. With a definite punch of chilli and dressed in fresh coriander and spring onion it was, if not quite worth £17 then at least a damn sight better I was expecting given everything that had led up to it. I would even come back, to have a better stab at filling my laundry basket, remembering of course to bring my own bottled water.

More than anything, I'm glad Mr Wong's exists. There are surely better hot pot restaurants, and there are definitely better Louisiana Boil restaurants (try Plaquemine Lock in crayfish season, it's great) but what kind of city would this be if we didn't allow the odd expression of confusion-fusion madness, of putting raw meat in a laundry basket, and of drinking water from a bowl. Such is life's rich tapestry, and there's enough room in this old town for it all. Maybe one day, in this city of innovators and entrepreneurs there will indeed open a Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil and if there is, you can be damn sure I'll be first in the line to try it.


Wednesday, 7 August 2019

The Moorcock Inn, Yorkshire

One of the best things about building an entire weekend away around a meal in a nice restaurant is that to a large extent it insulates you from many of the issues that would spoil other kinds of weekends. The main thing being, of course, as this is the UK, the weather. It absolutely battered down in Sowerby Bridge for almost the whole time we were there, but we happily traipsed through a sodden Piece Market in Halifax, and sheltered from the driving rain in Riddlesden Hall because we knew however wet our feet got, at the end of the day we could change into nice dry socks and sit down to a Modern British tasting menu.

Of course, if said Modern British tasting menu turned out to be a load of rubbish, that really would have meant a wasted weekend but fortunately I'd done my research and the Moorcock Inn, perched on the bleak moors above the Calder Valley and looking for all the world like the "local shop for local people" from League of Gentlemen, was as close to a sure thing as made no odds. With a short, seasonal, insanely reasonably-priced menu (£39 for nine courses!), and a very trendy-looking drinks pairing including beer and umeshu, it was clear, from the moment we were cheerily ushered in from the squall outside, we were in for a good time.

"Snacks", an unusual arrangement of vegetable cuttings and charcuterie, looked at first like it was going to be rustic to the point of careless, except every single item on this plate sung. The sausage had a lovely deep flavour, not too lean or too fatty, the peas had been treated to some kind of gentle pickling but retained a great fresh crunch, and the green shoots (some kind of weed that grows in the fields around the Moorcock that I'm afraid I've completely forgotten the name of) were buttery and salty. But best of all were the sweetcorn which had been glazed with a special kind of seaweed that made them taste of "truffled lobster" - their words, and they weren't wrong.

Next up was chilled courgette soup, a clean, colourful dish gazpacho-style thing dotted with various bits and pieces from the garden including nasturtium flowers and micro herbs. Cold, vegetable-led soups live or die on the quality of their raw ingredients, and in fact sail pretty close to disaster much of the time even with good ingredients, but this was lovely - summery, comforting, and perfectly seasoned.

It's a brave soul indeed that serves whole sardine in a fine dining restaurant - I don't mind personally spending 10 minutes picking out pin bones, but I can understand why others wouldn't. But some poor soul at the Moorcock had gone through these little beasties with tweezers and a magnifying glass, and even after that somehow meticulously cross-hatched the skin (presumably to make it easier to eat as well as to soak up more of the marinade), and what you end up with is all of the meaty, salty, oily flavour of these most underrated of fish, and no scratched tonsils. It's brilliant.

"Onion and rhubarb tarte tatin" would be a minor stroke of genius presented undressed - soft, sweet onions made a perfect filling for a savoury tart, and this was a genuinely innovative idea. Indeed, on the pescatarian menu it came just like this. But lucky meat eaters found theirs draped in a silky-smooth sauce made of chicken livers, which lifted the whole thing onto another level entirely. You'll have probably noticed that the ingredients at the Moorcock, tasteful, high quality and seasonal though they are, are not super premium - there's no grassy Mediterranean olive oils used, no fish roe or expensive crustacea. Instead, by making the most of cheaper meats, by literally picking "salad" from the field next door, and presenting it all with intelligence and cheffy flair, the Moorcock are able to offer what is surely one of the country's most exciting tasting menus for less than a glass of wine costs in some places.

Mutton, for example, is not an expensive cut of meat, more often found in pies than modern British tasting menus. But this beautiful cut - rump I think - scattered with sea salt and dressed in lavabread and lemonbalm, made me wonder why you don't see it far more often. It was so tender, so full of grassy, gamey flavour (13-year old animals apparently, that had quite clearly lived a good life) that I can't imagine even the finest lamb - or any other protein for that matter - beating it in comparison.

The pescatarian main was plaice, perfectly cooked to retain a dense, meaty texture, glazed with brown butter and topped with samphire and various other coastal succulents they presumably came across when foraging for lavabread. It was, as well, beautiful.

Pineapple weed ice cream (aha - perhaps that was the green plant from the snacks) had an interesting sweet/vegetal flavour - not pineapple but not savoury either, somewhere in between. Topped with a little compote of gooseberries and verbena, it was, like much of what had come before, appealingly rustic in presentation and intelligently balanced in taste, and quite unlike anything you're likely to be served anywhere else.

Finally, parkin - something you admittedly are quite likely to be served somewhere else, especially round this part of the world - but very nicely baked, and spread with an obscene (this is a good thing) amount of house cultured butter and fermented honey. Inexpensive ingredients, chosen well, presented honestly and with style - perhaps the formula isn't groundbreaking, and yet why does the way the Moorcock Inn go about things feel so fresh and new?

Perhaps the service - friendly, capable, knowledgable - helps, and the cozy rooms of this ancient building in which the rustic, hyper-local produce feels right at home. Perhaps it's all the little touches, from the crusty house sourdough to the open-hearted idea of giving you more cutlery than you'll ever need in a pouch at the start of the meal, to save faffing. Perhaps it's the atmosphere in the no-reservations bar next door where much of the tasting menu is listed on a blackboard and can be ordered for similarly pootling amounts of money (crispy smoked potatoes, £3.50), and where happy tables of families and their dogs sit and sip on superb Cloudwater beers and natural wines. Perhaps it's just that every single element of what makes a great food pub has been considered and lovingly implemented, a holistic, wholesome adventure in hospitality and seasonal dining that's impossible not to fall in love with. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Moorcock Inn is a perfect restaurant. Yeah, I'm going to go with that.