Monday, 2 November 2015
The Black Rat, Winchester
For all my whingeing about Michelin over the years, and there's certainly been lots of whingeing, I do begrudgingly admit that the Red Guide probably get it right more often than they get it wrong. Most of the starred restaurants in London and the UK thoroughly deserve the recognition, and whilst there's a list of places whose continuing lack of a star threatens to make a laughing stock of the whole business (the Dairy being right at the top of that list, I mean come on), a star is more often than not an indicator of a very decent standard of food and drink. A star means something.
But while it's often frustratingly difficult for restaurants to win a star, with some of the capital's finest restaurants ignored year after year, I also get the very strong impression stars are very difficult to lose as well. I can think of more than a handful of restaurants who probably should have been quietly dropped a few years ago, and it's these places, coasting on their reputation and relying on the fact that Michelin seem to grant a few years' "Benefit of the Doubt" grace period, that pose the greatest risk for the diner.
For all I know, the Black Rat in Winchester used to be a really good restaurant. As I say, it's not easy to win a star, and they must have done enough at one time to convince Michelin they were worthy of one. Perhaps at one time they were serving food "prepared to a consistently high standard", to use Michelin's own description of the one star category. But I'm afraid there was very little in a recent meal to suggest this is still the case, and compared directly with other Michelin-starred meals elsewhere - hell, even plenty of restaurants without a star - the Black Rat falls uncomfortably short.
You can tell a lot about care and attention to detail in a place from their house bread. At the Black Rat there are two styles; one shocking black squid ink and parmesan (I think) which was pleasant only insofar as it's not really possible to cock up parmesan bread, and one very ordinary wholewheat which tasted a bit like what happened when I once had a go at baking at home. Not inedible (since you ask, thank you very much) but not very exciting.
Beef cheek ravioli[sic] with onion squash and pumpkin seed crumble was a very odd dish. The flavour of the beef cheek was fine, a bit thin and wine-y perhaps but otherwise OK. But the strange grey pasta casing was way too thick, and it sat in a sweet, cloying squash purée that didn't work at all, either as a side or a sauce for the raviolo. And yes, despite being listed as "ravioli" on the menu, there was in fact only one bit of pasta. It's the details, guys.
Trout with salsa verde & red chicory was similarly disappointing. I don't think "soft baked" is a more appealing way of serving trout than the usual pan frying to a nice crisp skin, so I wonder why they tried to make a feature of it on the menu. And chicory is almost always too bitter to serve raw; braise it or leave it out altogether is my armchair advice.
The pigeon itself was the best bit of my main; a lovely deep-red, moist bit of bird, nicely seasoned and cooked well. And though a bit of "butter-basted" cauliflower showed no signs of having been anywhere near butter, it was nevertheless nicely charred and a decent accompaniment. But a sort of paté made with the pigeon offal (I assume) had a crust baked onto it for having been under the lamps too long, and the other ingredients - quinoa, raisins and a completely bonkers sprig of alexander leaf that just tasted of weeds (still, there's the "foraging" box ticked I suppose) - were just unpleasant distractions.
Grey mullet was pan fried to a lovely crunchy skin in the way that the trout should have been, so at least we got there in the end. And there's nothing wrong with a bit of boiled broccoli but I don't think I'm unjustified in expecting a bit more from a Michelin-starred main course. Mini cubes of duck fat potatoes were nice though.
Had things gone a lot better up until this point there's every chance we would have stayed for dessert. And who knows, perhaps desserts at the Black Rat are a triumph, worth the journey from London in their own right and the reason Michelin granted them a star at all. But I'm afraid we weren't about to take the risk so we paid up and slunk out.
Of course every bad meal is a shame; I'd have loved to have told you that the food at the Black Rat was worth the money and the journey time (£29 for a return ticket and 45 minutes from Clapham Junction) and there's no pleasure for anyone in reporting bad news. But if nothing my experience is a timely reminder that not one guide, or for that matter blog, or restaurant critic can be relied upon 100% of the time, and for all their industry clout and respect, even Michelin can get it wrong occasionally.