Friday 30 August 2019

Chef's Table, Chester

I don't know when it was exactly that London lost its monopoly of great places to eat in the UK. As with so many things, change is gradual - perhaps when l'Enclume won the Good Food Guide's Best Restaurant award back in 2012 it signalled a certain shift away from the capital, but then the odd fine dining establishment has always existed nestled in well-heeled countryside - the Manoir aux Quatre Saison in Oxfordshire, for example, or Gidleigh Park in Devon. L'Enclume was different, of course, because it made more of the bounty of its location and its partly foraged, rustic-yet-refined menu was genuinely groundbreaking, but even so, back then London was usually still where you first went to open a serious restaurant.

So what changed? Well, rents didn't help - to turn a profit owner/operators have had to really think hard about their margins and the creep out of zones 1 and 2 into newly be-restauranted areas like Lewisham and Leyton is well documented, but then when have London rents ever not been an issue? The grabby mitts of the Shaftesbury Estate have been around much longer ago than 2012. And Brexit has surely made a lot of the people who might be cooking and serving your dinner feel like they might be better off in a non-racist country that isn't about to detonate 40 years worth of trading networks for no good reason, but show me any member of the hospitality industry that's ever found hiring staff easy and I'll show you a liar. Brexit was, is, and always will be, a disaster, but restaurants have shuttered for want of decent personnel well before 2016.

The simple reality is, London restaurants got more boring - becoming increasingly gimmicky and superficial, relying on (that awful word) Instagrammable signature dishes and unusual interiors - at the same time as independent gastropubs and high street bistros came to realise that the availability of top producers and a nearby field full of wood sorrel is something very few places near a tube stop could use to their advantage. This is, of course, a brutal generalisation - there are still great restaurants in London, but a vast majority of the most exciting meals I've had in the last few years have been in locations up and down the country, far outside the M25, serving food with the kind of immediacy and honesty that you rarely see in the big smoke.

And so to Chester, where a little high street bistro called Chef's Table is serving fantastic food, with a smile, at prices that would make a London restaurateur weep. First of the 'snacks' were these frog's legs, cutely trimmed into mini drumsticks, breadcrumbed and fried, and resting in a thick pea soup. They were lovely, every bit of them, the peas having an incredible flavour (they own a kitchen garden not far out of town, apparently) and the protein full of tasty fat without being greasy.

And further evidence that Chef's Table aren't afraid to offer unusual ingredients, a lamb's tongue "yakitori", bronzed with ponzu and accompanied by a colourful coleslaw of pickled cabbages, carrots, and sesame oil. Asian seasonings and sauces abount on the Chef's Table menu, but are never clumsy or jarring - this is a kitchen in supreme command of its influences.

A generously proportioned cube of tonkatsu, full of melty fatty pork and dressed in more of that zingy ponzu - just enough to offset the pork but not enough to set your teeth on edge - was one of those things that you wish you could eat forever, free-flowing arteries be damned. Those on the top, by the way, aren't strings of saffron but finely-chopped smoked chilli, which was a clever little touch.

Kitchen Garden Salad was quite breathtakingly pretty, a medley of miniature vegetables and shoots all woven in and out of each other, with croutons for texture and bound with a large poached duck egg. It was all good but I was particularly taken with a bit of what I think was turnip pickled in beetroot juice for colour, a little nod to Middle Eastern comfort food.

Chef's Table put just as much emphasis on vegan dishes as non-vegan, with a whole separate plant-based menu to choose from. This is, in fact, how all restaurants should approach veganism - as you're probably more than aware, simply removing dairy from a vegetarian dish is a surefire way to end up with something inedibly bland. This mushroom and avocado crostini didn't suffer at all from lack of animal product - mushrooms cooked in oil provided an earthy, meaty base note while whipped avocado played the role of mayonnaise admirably. And although I didn't order it (obviously), I would happily have eaten it, which tells you all you need to know.

Given that everything that had come before it was so artful and precise, the vegan main - a huge falafel burger and chips - came as a bit of a shock. I suppose we only had ourselves to blame in ordering a burger and underestimating the generosity of Northern restaurant kitchens, but nice though it was there's only so much falafel and bread you can wade through before waving the little white flag. That said, the romesco sauce was cracking, and the triple cooked chips utterly brilliant - golden brown and crunchy on the outside, and creamy within.

My own main was chicken, and though beautifully presented with a nice golden brown skin, it was rather underseasoned and strangely unsatisfying, which was a shame. But I loved the stuffed courgette flower, and the girolle mushrooms, and the sharp saffron-spiked hollandaise sauce, so all was not lost at all.

A second vegan main of pea and lovage risotto got us back on track though. Full of late summer colour and enhanced with something called "tomato essence", much like the crostini the lack of dairy was a complete non-issue, and unlike the falafel burger the portion size was spot-on. And isn't it a pretty thing?

Desserts were highlights of a meal not short on highlights. A raspberry a white chocolate delice, sat in a fruit syrup, had a beautifully balanced flavour, and a sorbet made with anise hyssop was soft and smooth.

And finally honey and lavender steamed pudding is absolutely the best thing to happen to honey and lavender, so rich and comforting it drew gasps from all at the table. It was topped with "apple crumble ice cream", which is probably the best thing to happen to apple crumble as well. Just brilliant.

The bill, with plenty of booze but without service which they didn't even ask for, came to £40 a head, which I hardly need to point out is pretty astonishing value considering the amount of thought and care that had gone into the dishes. True, I had my issues with a couple of bits and pieces but it's worth stressing that, cosseted by attentive and knowledgeable staff in that cosy little room, we left Chef's Table with our spirits in the clouds. Very, very few restaurants are quite this joyful an experience, and quite so easy to enjoy.

So, another point for the North West, and yet another fantastic restaurant Not In London. I can unhesistatingly recommend a meal here in much the same way I can unhesitatingly recommend the Parkers Arms or indeed Sticky Walnut just around the corner - in short, if you don't enjoy Chef's Table then eating out just isn't for you. They are absolutely nailing on the head everything that makes a good restaurant, and most of what makes a great one, and is a reason to visit Chester all by itself. Lucky, lucky Chester.


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.