Wednesday 25 November 2015

Noma, Copenhagen

Noma is, as people will occasionally tell you, the Best Restaurant In the World, a title that somehow means precisely nothing and also paradoxically carries with it a massive weight of expectation. Regardless of how much of a difference it makes to the bookings sheet (and I'm reliably informed the answer to this is a lot - all previous winners of the 50 best list have reported a vast jump in demand), it's never good for a restaurant to have guests arriving expecting nothing less than The Best Meal Of Their Lives. Excited and hopeful, yes, but not The Best. Because if you're expecting The Best, only The Best will do.

So as our small party of brave food adventurers slid and shivered through the harsh Copenhagen winter towards that famous grey-brick warehouse building in our completely inappropriate London clothes, we were trying very hard to keep our expectations in check. We knew, largely, what we were letting ourselves in for - experimental New Nordic cuisine, unusual foraged plants, perhaps a few insects here and there; we knew there was a very good chance we wouldn't enjoy everything we would be asked to eat. But we were determined to enjoy ourselves, we were up for the challenge and we were ready for anything. Well, at least we thought we were.

The greeting at Noma, from fully 30 or 40 front of house staff screaming "HELLO!" in unison as you step through the door, is at first intimidating. But the shock is almost immediately replaced with a kind of theatrical anticipation; staff seem genuinely excited for you, for what you're about to go through, and you soon feel that sense of being a part of something very special; that no matter what else happens your time here is going to be an experience. At some of the most notable restaurants I've been to, the welcome has been fairly low-key - at the Fat Duck someone just takes your coat; at Can Roca we were ignored by a useless waiter for a good 15 minutes. The only other time I've felt this level of electric expectancy was all the way back in 2009 at El Bulli, where the photo next to the Bull's head and handshake with Ferran Adria was all part of the curtains going up for Act 1.

And so, without further ado, house lights down, quiet please, let the show begin. A CD-sized disc of sugared fermented plums, topped with a layer of wild beach roses, and scattered with a collection of alien-looking buds, berries and powders. Visually arresting and clearly painstakingly constructed, after admiring it the only thing to do was eat it. Which we did. It tasted... of soggy, bitter rose petals on a crunchy base. Silence. Chewing. Then finally to my right, "I don't like it", slurred a mouth still full of a first bite of roses. The warm-up act had fallen on its face.

Ushered hurriedly off the stage, the first course was followed by "apple marinated in aquavit", pucks of compressed apple topped with more seasonal weeds and I think a little blob of miso. The flavours were, similar to the plums and roses, sour and sharp, though the miso (or whatever it was) added a vaguely pleasant umami note. I didn't like the texture of the apple though, which was a bit crumbly and potatoey.

After that, "beet tartare", slivers of roast beets carefully layered according to texture so that the base layer is slightly chewier and firm than the softer top layers. This was topped with roasted ants (well of course), and a few more pieces of soggy vegetation. The ants were interesting in of themselves, citrussy and intense, but there wasn't enough of interest elsewhere. Soft beets and weeds (not to mention the creatures often to be found living amongst them) do not make a particularly inspiring combination.

At this point the bread arrived, and we set upon it in the manner of a group of people fearing that this may be the only recognisably terrestrian morsel of food served that day. It was absolutely gorgeous, up there with the very best restaurant bread with a perfect thin flaky crust and a moist crumb, but had it been a pack of Jacob's Water Biscuits we still would have demolished it all and asked for seconds. We asked for seconds.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the next course, whilst not quite worthy of a standing ovation, was at least enjoyable. A single large leaf of crunchy cabbage, on top of another grilled bit of greenery, in a bowl decorated I think he said with "parsley paint". Over all this was poured a delicate vegetable consommé of some kind, perhaps the mentioned "white currants" I have printed on my menu here. It was a pretty, and comforting dish, which went some way to settling our nerves.

This was also fun - foraged seasonal shoots, some raw, some char-grilled to a slight crunch, on a plate painted with "scallop marinade", explained as the sweet, fudgey crust that develops on scallop flesh when it's seared. I don't know whether it was the (largely natural, needless to say) wine doing its work or the relative safety of the last couple of courses, but by this point we slowly began to accept that the most challenging stuff may have been behind us. Little did we know.

"Grilled onion" was pretty much exactly that. Nice, but... a grilled onion, with a few herbs rolling around inside. I like a grilled onion as much as anyone, don't get me wrong, but it would have been even better eaten with, I don't know, a sausage or something. And even a bit of gravy.

The big man himself René Redzepi came out to introduce the next course. It was sea urchin and walnuts, which if you're thinking is an odd combination then, well, yes you're not wrong. The sea urchin had an oddly muted flavour and colour, certainly next to the powerfully salty and deep orange examples I've tried in Spain and California, and its weird creamy texture and faint seafood tang sat uncomfortably - at first - next to the sliced walnuts. And yet, somehow, as the flavours settled in the mouth, something kind of worked. The balancing act of matching just the right amount of sea urchin with the soft snap of fresh walnuts was obviously a tricky one, but I was still thinking about this dish even as many others after it had come and gone.

Much the same can be said about the "sliced raw squid and kelp" as for the sea urchin dish. At first, all you notice is cold, slimy seafood and cream. But after a few moments the delicate balance comes through and you get a feel for the fresh seaweed notes and the surprisingly rich and complex white sauce it all rested in. It goes without saying that cooked squid would have been better than raw (I'm not taking any argument on this; think about it, you know it to be true) but I still found the overall effect to be oddly satisfying. Subtle, but comforting.

"Mahogany clam" split our table down the middle. Not literally (any personal anguish was by this stage still internal), but insofar as two of us hated it, and two (myself included) enjoyed the fresh meaty flavour of the clam and the delicate grains and dressing in the shell. I think it was a samphire powder that was dusted on the rim, but it didn't taste of a great deal - this was all about the Arctica islandica which we were told could live for hundreds of years. The clams we ate could conceivably have been around when Elizabeth I was on the throne, and had they not been harvested could even have lasted until I paid off my Noma lunch bill. Makes you think.

Monkfish liver also divided opinion. Being a huge fan of foie gras myself, I was very much taken by this dish which bore a striking resemblance (at least in the mouth) to "real" duck liver. But I can't deny there were others on the table who - understandably perhaps - weren't completely happy eating frozen slices of fish offal. All the more for me!

I wasn't a huge fan of "pumpkin, caviar and barley" mainly because I've never knowingly enjoyed pumpkin. There's something about the strange bland flavour and tapioca-like texture that gets to me. But I think everyone else happily ate theirs. Another one of those nice creamy sauces too.

"Egg yolk, potatoes and nasturtium" was excellent, one of the highlights of the meal for me, and I didn't hear much grumbling from anyone else. Around a high-quality, deep-orange slow-cooked yolk was arranged a fan of teeny sweet slices of potato, and a lovely light nasturtium sauce, studded with drops of green oil, was draped on top. Nothing bitter or blobby or raw here, just some nicely seasoned egg and potato in a vegetable sauce.

I really liked these "vegetable flowers", apparently made from black garlic. The appearance, and indeed texture, was of soft liquorish, but the taste was pleasantly vegetal - sweetish, but with an interesting savoury taste alongside. I should point out that one of our party thought these were the most disgusting things she'd ever eaten, which just goes to show how deeply personal each of our reactions had been to all the dishes. There was barely a single course that passed with either universal approval or universal disapproval, which combined with the very generous measures of matching wines had created a slightly hysterical atmosphere.

A whole roasted wild duck was by far the most "normal" thing we'd seen all day, and was perhaps not surprisingly the most universally enjoyed. With a beautiful smoky chargrilled skin (lovely seasoning too), and expertly roasted to just-pink inside, this was a masterclass in game, and the way they'd pre-carved the slices of duck breast into the carcass of the bird was a fantastic presentational flair. It was eaten - with an enthusiasm bordering on frantic - in seconds.

As the carcass was taken away to be jointed, we were given something called "aebleskiver", traditional Danish pastries best described as miniature spherical pancakes. Usually these are filled with jam, which I would have been quite happy with, but this being Noma they were in fact stuffed with clumps of metallic lovage and parsley and topped with truffle. I do not like lovage.

Leaving the other half of my aebleskiver, I was able to distract myself with the rest of the duck, which had now arrived back neatly divided into leg, wing, and breast strips. Oh, and the head, from which we were brightly encouraged to scoop out the brains and tongue for extra zombie points. The brain had the texture that brain usually does - like cottage cheese - but tasted enough of the wonderful seasoning on the duck, and the smoke from the charcoal grill, that it was still worth the effort.

First of what I'll loosely describe as "desserts" was this, "roasted kelp ice cream and lemon thyme". Much like the very first rose petal and fermented plum dish it closely resembled (albeit in a different traffic light colour), it was more admirable than enjoyable, with metallic vegetal notes clashing with bitter acids and seeds. I quite liked the ice cream hiding underneath (kelp-flavoured, obviously) but not much else.

This thing, looking like a bar of soap drizzled with balsamic vinegar, was called "A dessert of Gammel Dansk [a bitter spirit a bit like Fernet Branca] and hazelnut oil". Most of the interest was down to the texture, a supremely light, aerated construction which dissolved in the mouth like candy floss. The flavour was muted but gently enjoyable, which to be quite frank we'd take over anything else at this point.

A bowl of "forest flavours" was a variety of surprising (I'm using the word with eyebrows raised to the ceiling) flavours teased into the shape of chocolate truffles. The mushroom shaped one was - you guessed it - mushroom flavoured, and the capsule on the left contained a shocking liquid inside that tasted of pickle juice. By this stage one of our party - who had struggled more than most with the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 20 courses - had taken to closing her eyes and throwing food down her neck without chewing, like a child told she could only go and play once she'd finished all her broccoli. An egg liqueur, looking like egg nog but tasting not really anything like egg nog, washed it all down. And all of a sudden, breathless, hysterical, and more than a little drunk, we were done.

I'm trying not to resort to one of those mealy-mouthed "it's not you, it's me" summary paragraphs, where I profess that, on this occasion, regrettably, and with a heavy heart, I didn't quite get what the vast and undoubtedly experienced kitchens at Noma were trying to do, and that while I greatly admire the effort and techniques that went in to everything we ate that day, perhaps New Nordic cuisine isn't for me. And indeed, the huge amount of talent Noma has at its disposal was very evident at every stage - nothing felt unfinished or work-in-progress. Nothing was underseasoned, overseasoned, overcooked, undercooked (at least not by accident), overwrought or clumsy. Nothing even was pretentious or showy, or either needlessly overcomplicated or lazily unadorned. Every single dish was the absolute best it could be.

The problem, I realised halfway through the meal as I came across yet another clump of lovage lurking in an otherwise harmless looking morsel of food, was that there's only so many pickled weeds I really want to eat. There will no doubt be a huge number of people for whom this is the zenith of restaurant culture, the natural end-point of the hyper-local and clean, light flavours that characterise New Nordic cuisine, and Noma will be - is - their temple. And I don't regret a moment of that lunch, which passed in a blur, accompanied by gales of laughter and ending with shots of aquavit and a tour of the kitchens. Kitchens, by the way, populated by people so enthusiastic and lovely (not to mention blindingly attractive) that we wanted to stay the night. Maybe help out with a bit of wild duck plucking, or have a go on the aeration machine.

But anyway, I've said my bit, and perhaps for a while, chastened and discombobulated, I'll stick to eating kebabs and steaks and burgers, and not worry that one of the most successful, influential and important restaurants of the last 100 years isn't quite to my taste. Because I'm sure as hell nobody else should be worrying about it. And maybe in a few years time when Noma's reach has spread even further and its ideas are even further integrated into modern restaurant culture, I'll go back to Copenhagen (assuming they'll have me), and realise I was completely wrong all along. It has happened. In the meantime, I'll just do what I normally do and reduce thousands of man-hours, one man's life work and the passion and creativity of hundreds of people down to one brutal mark out of ten. The show must go on.


Tuesday 24 November 2015

Les 110 de Taillevent, Marylebone

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event held to publicise the launch of a range of new flavours of Kettle Chips. Ordinarily, I would not be that interested in a new flavour of Kettle Chips, and I suspect Kettle Chips know this as well because to ensure a very healthy attendance from London's gathered foodie people they paid Simon Rogan to cook us a three course dinner. So we started with Wensleydale cheese dumplings with butternut squash (a light, herby dish that brought to mind a Westcombe Cheddar course from a life-changing meal at l'Enclume a few years back), then had Gressingham Duck breast and leg with creamed kale and Wiltshire truffle (all kinds of wonderful, nuanced and rich with the flavours of late autumn) and finally Maldon salted chocolate and jasmine with sorrel (soft/crisp textures and chocolate/citrus balanced to world-class effect). It was, in short, a masterclass by what I'm going to go ahead and call the UK's best chef, whether he likes it or not. Oh, and the chips weren't bad either (my fav was the Wensleydale cheese).

But adding to the thrill of the food itself was the knowledge that so much of what made it good was home grown. Rogan may have been trained in classical French techniques under the likes of Marco Pierre White but his style is so unmistakeably Britain 2015, and the ingredients he uses so specific to these islands that he just couldn't be working anywhere else. After a recent fairly uninspiring trip to Paris, coupled with a weekend in Cornwall where everything we ate was in some way exciting, new or interesting, I had pretty much decided that the UK was in fact now the best place to eat in the world. France? Pah.

And yet, here comes Les 110 des Taillevent to remind us all that, actually, there's no such thing as bad cuisine, just bad restaurants, and though it may not be very trendy to admit it these days, French food can still be thrilling when they pull out all the stops.

There's a history of famous foreign brands or high profile restaurants coming to London, expecting to be treated like the Second Coming then having their sorry arses handed to them. Keith McNally's Balthazar is the most obvious recent example, a temple of New York restaurant culture recreated painstakingly in Covent Garden to almost every last detail, except somehow also serving hopeless sub-Cafe Rouge food. It's inexplicably popular but don't let that fool you. There's also Five Guys, which I've enjoyed when I've visited in the US but over here has morphed into something sloppy and tasteless, but also oddly expensive. It's also wildly popular, because people are idiots.

Anyway hopes weren't high for Les 100 de Taillevent, who have a flagship 2 Michelin star restaurant in Paris (where a dish of Lièvre de la Beauce - hare pie - costs €138) and have chosen a grand room on Cavendish Square to open their first UK venture. And a quick glance at the menu on the way in did little to reassure - a £29 lobster salad starter, £21 for saddle of lamb, and a very confusing arrangement of wines by the glass in odd 70ml measures, it all pointed towards another flashy, expensive failure; arrogant French, coming over here, thinking they know how to run a restaurant! The nerve.

And yet, from the moment we were sat down and the lovely smiley service appeared, it all seemed to click into place. The wine list is big, and initially rather confusing, but is actually a rather neat way of tasting some pretty big wines for not much money. For example, I don't know how many people could afford a full bottle of Louis Roederer Rosé 2010, but how about £15.50 for a 70ml shot? Each of the 110 wines are matched with a particular course, in four price categories; none of them are exactly cheap, but it's at least honest and it's quite good fun choosing your own matches.

But that's the wine. What about the food? Poached duck egg with lardons, champignons de Paris and baby onions was a warm, hearty dish of bold flavours and soft textures, like a walk through a forest after a rainstorm. Nothing foraged, no cubes of aerated watercress or pickled Alexander, just mushrooms, onions, bacon and a poached duck egg, seasoned to perfection. I loved it.

Similarly langoustine ravioli with basil and citrus butter, a very cleverly balanced dish, which spoke of real skill in the kitchen. The silky, just-so pasta, the smooth butter sauce with a gentle tang of lemon, the meaty seafood filling, this was precise, confident cooking, hardly groundbreaking but still deeply enjoyable, and the kind of thing you rarely see in London. At least, not if you're the kind of person who just leaps from one Foraged Modern British opening to the next, confident you're not missing out on anything interesting in some stuffy French temple of fine dining. Ahem.

Pâté en Croûte was a beauty, pink chunks of tenderly layered meat (pork definitely but I think also perhaps pigeon breast?) studded with pistachio nuts and topped by a glorious ribbon of meaty aspic. You would not want for a better pâté en croûte, and if you're wondering why you don't see many of them in London, Google a recipe. Only the French could come up with a method so ludicrously time consuming and difficult. So thank you L110dT for making the effort.

When was the last time you ate a vol-au-vent? Personally I think it may have been at a family gathering at my grandmother's house in Liverpool in the 1980s, frozen pastry casings filled with a mixture that tasted like Heinz mushroom soup. Which of course meant they tasted great, albeit slightly unsophisticated. Here, L110deT have given them the full fine dining treatment, with luxurious strips of lamb sweetbread and meaty crayfish, in one of those complex meaty sauces that the French do so well.

Another main course of saddle of lamb was literally just that (alongside a roasted garlic clove and a twig of raw rosemary) and so needed the suggested side of ultra-French Robuchon-style buttered mash. But it was cooked well and had a good flavour and still disappeared without complaints.

I'll forgive a couple of service issues (staff were very reluctant to bring tap water for some reason, and forgot one of the sides) because it's early days, and because so much of everything else was so good. The room, too, is worth a mention - grand but not intimidating, and with soft furnishings and seating so plush and comfortable you want to stay overnight. It's for the most part already a mature and self-assured operation from top to bottom, a fantastic place for a celebration or special occasion. Oh, and though we didn't have room for them, I've heard on the grapevine the desserts are wonderful; all the more reason to go back.

So thank you Les 110 de Taillevent, not just for the effort you've clearly put into the food and the room but for being such a great cultural ambassador for French cuisine, at a time when it threatens to be dismissed (and I've been as guilty of this as anyone in the past) as irrelevant, expensive and dull. L110dT may stretch the wallet a bit (the bill was about £50 a head), but it's great fun and there are desperately few other places in London doing this kind of thing to this standard. It turns out the French can run a restaurant after all. Who knew?


Les 110 de Taillevent Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour: Cornwall 2015 (part 1)

Have you ever wondered why there are so many great places to eat in Cornwall? Perhaps you haven't, if you don't obsess over these things to quite the same worrying degree I do. But take it from me, there are loads, from crab huts and oyster bars to multi-Michelin-star fine dining, to any number of exciting, seasonal gastropubs in between, this is a part of the world that geuinely hosts a mature restaurant scene as opposed to the "couple of ludicrously expensive fine dining restaurants and nothing else" that seems to pass as a restaurant culture in most other parts of the country.

So again, why Cornwall? The most obvious answer is that's where the ingredients are, and it's certainly the case that the area can boast a staggering range of producers and masses of fantastic seafood. But then so do many parts of the south, north west and east coasts and the most you'll find there is a fish & chip shop and a Pizza Express. Clearly something special happened in Cornwall. But what?

Skip back to 1975, and after the police are called one too many times to his Great Western Nightclub (those fishermen can get a bit fighty with a few pints in them) a young Rick Stein and his wife Jill have been told in no uncertain terms that they need to find another way of making money on the site. Reluctantly, and with no professional culinary background, the Steins open the Seafood Restaurant, cooking - it hardly seems possible now - frozen prawns and monkfish (labelled simply "white fish" on the menu; in 1974 nobody knew what a monkfish was) to some vaguely-remembered recipes of his mother's. It was a restaurant born of necessity, in a fishing village where tons of fresh crab, lobster, oysters and sardines were landed every day yards from their front door, packed onto refrigerated lorries and sent to Spain and France where people were willing to pay for them.

At some point, the penny dropped. Why on earth were they selling frozen fish at great expense in a fishing village where the stuff is being hauled in from the sea fresh every day? So they got talking to fisherman, who sold them some of their catch to sell in the restaurant. And, quite understandably, given the choice between fresh fish or something chipped out of the freezer for a few quid less, customers chose the former. Cutting a very long story very short, the Steins had created their own nascent market for local seafood, and the seeds of a Cornish food revolution were born.

And so, in 2015 we end up with somewhere as lovely as St Petroc's bistro (bought by the Steins in 1988 but a very different beast now to how it was then), where people do lovely things to lovely ingredients in a bright, friendly old townhouse up a quaint old street, in a way that couldn't exist anywhere but Cornwall. The menu is the platonic ideal of what a great local bistro should be; namely, local ingredients wherever possible, nothing too fussy or overworked but still making intelligent use of modern techniques where appropriate (they have a Big Green Egg and aren't afraid to use it).

This isn't a normal review so I won't go into the usual exhausting detail on all the dishes, but it's worth pointing out a few highlights. Firstly, two vegetable dishes caught the eye - a plate of very odd-looking "padron" peppers, and something else called "flower sprouts". Both are from a local producer called Ross Geach who is the man in charge (well, along with his dad) of Padstow Kitchen Gardens just out of town. At this point we knew very little about Ross and his farm; but we did know that the padrons served at St Petroc, some weird little gnarly things the size of a 10p piece, some much bigger and looking more like a green bell pepper, had far more flavour and certainly far more chilli burn, than anything in a pack from Brindisa.

Secondly, the flower sprouts. Again, by this point we didn't know where they came from, but were told only they were a bio-engineered cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. The frills of the miniature "kale" leaves soaked up all the lovely butter they were cooked in, whilst the "sprout" element adds those earthy, brassica notes. And on top of all that, they look really pretty, like miniature heads of kale.

The rest of the menu was no less newsworthy. Local Cornish charcuterie could genuinely hold its own next to anything from France or Italy; I don't know why I should still be surprised when British charcuterie turns out to be brilliant - we're very good at this kind of thing now - but even so these were very impressive. Sardines wrapped in vine leaves were the star of the proper starters, cooked tenderly in the Big Green Egg and full of meaty, oily flavour. And the onglet steak, gently smoky from the charcoal and beautifully rare, was further proof that Hereford may be Britain's finest eating cattle.

The point is, it was all good, and not just because there were chefs in the kitchen that knew how to cook (though there were) and front of house staff who know how to serve (though that was also the case). It was good because this was a Cornish restaurant, confident in its ability to showcase the best local produce without it feeling forced or gimmicky, comfortable in its setting and place in the grand scheme of things, and able to do all this without feeling like a London-cool or Parisian-style bistro transplanted to the West Country. St Petroc's Bistro couldn't exist anywhere but here, and is a perfect gleaming example of why Cornwall, and Padstow in particular, is a world-class food destination.

With all that in mind, there are two events coming up in the next few weeks - both sponsored by GWR which not uncoicidentally is your best way of getting to the West Country in the first place - that will shine an even brighter light on this extraordinary part of the world. The first, on Saturday 28th November at Watergate bay, is the Fifteen Cornwall Winter Fayre. Ross Geach from the aforementioned Padstow Kitchen Garden (which you'll hear more about on my next post) and Fifteen Cornwall chef Jack Bristow are doing cooking demos, and there'll be all sorts of food producer stalls as well as the Southwestern Distillery on hand with samples of their gin and pastis. Yes, that's Cornish Pastis. Geddit?

Anyway, all the details are here; it's free to attend so you don't have to worry about getting tickets, just getting yourself down there for the day.

The second - and higher profile - event is the Padstow Christmas Festival, which takes over most of the center of Padstow for the period of Thursday 3rd to Sunday 6th December, and brings together almost every top chef working in Cornwall today as well as a good number from further afield. It sounds like an absolute riot - demos from Rick and Jack Stein, Angela Hartnett, Paul Ainsworth, Mark Hix, Mitch Tonks, James Knappett, Nathan Outlaw, Ashley Palmer Watts, Michael Caines and (barring divine intervention) James Martin, and an even greater number of producers and stalls spread out around the harbour. I know a lot of foodie people from London who are travelling over for it (though don't let that put you off) and I'd be there too if I'd organised myself a bit sooner. Still, there's always next year.

Meantime, next time somebody sneers about "Padstein" or celebrity chefs consider how far we've come since the dark days of frozen chips and chicken in a basket, and how wonderful it is we now get to eat most of the fantastic seafood our fishermen bring in instead of it all being shipped off to France or Spain. And for that we have to thank not just the Steins but anyone producing, consuming or appreciating the finest local, seasonal food and drink, not just in Cornwall but up and down the country. It took a long, long time to get here, and in many areas we've got a long, long way to go. But if you need inspiration, just look West.

GWR is a sponsor of both the Fifteen Cornwall Winter Fayre and Padstow Christmas Festival. Meals at St Petroc's Bistro kindly provided by Rick Stein co.

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.


The Black Rat Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato