Tuesday 7 December 2021

Tallow, Southborough

The Twenty Six was a restaurant in Southborough near Tunbridge Wells. I know only two things about it, based on reports from locals - firstly, it served a fairly undemanding all day / brunchy-type menu for not a huge amount of money, and secondly that it was generally impossible to get a table there. It's a constant mystery to me how some places with seemingly not a great deal going for them end up so popular - I mean look at bloody Breakfast Club - and, more tragically, how so many great places fail to find an audience.

Twenty Six is now gone, and in its place is objectively one of the best restaurants in Kent. I feel fairly confident making this announcement because firstly, I've eaten there, and secondly the pedigree of the team is unassailable. Rob and Donna Taylor previously ran the amazing Compasses Inn, Crundale and though I do miss the atmosphere of that ancient pub buried deep in the Kentish countryside, at Tallow the skill and ambition of the food served is raised another few notches. It is, already, inevitably, impossible to get a table there. But being the hopeless nerd I am, I had booked before the electronic ink on the first press release was dry, and so here we were sheltering from the rain on a Saturday lunchtime, about to be treated to a lunch of the very gods (treated as in they served it to us and it was a treat, we still paid).

Firstly, I want all restaurants to ask themselves a question. That question is, "Are you serving warm croissant with chicken liver parfait for your bread course, and if not when are you going to start?". It seems obvious that silky-smooth liver parfait, easily Quality Chop House standard, paired with a crackly, buttery cruffin would always end up being the bread course to end all bread courses, and so why haven't I ever had it before? Maybe we just needed Tallow to show us the way. Anyway, you saw it here first.

Next nibble was crispy pig (head?) with black garlic. Though Tallow have by no means gone Full Fordwich, the appearance of little unannounced extras like this is certainly a step towards the Gastropub Plus category. Very nice they were too, richly flavoured and greaselessly fried, with the black garlic rounding out the flavours nicely.

This was either very, very good pigeon or the Tallow kitchen have stumbled across a way of cooking the bird so impressively that I don't think I've enjoyed it more anywhere. In fact, it's most likely both. Beautifully pink and so tender you could cut it with a spoon (I didn't, though, you'll be pleased to hear), it also came with a delicately crisp, salty skin that you'd struggle to imagine could be improved at all. With it, cute little balls of pickled cucumber, miso mayonnaise, and a thick, rich game jus which of course I wound up scooping up with my fingers. Literally perfect.

This was wagyu beef risotto, not on the menu but a trail dish for the December menu which was going on the week after our lunch. Coated in a liberal amount of truffle, it was both densely flavoured and incredibly light and easy to eat, not an easy task for a risotto let me tell you.

I barely need to tell you how good the hake was - I mean bloody hell, just look at it. Not only was the fish itself perfect (there's that word again) but it came with cute little potato balls which were marvellous fun to eat, as well as a seafood/stout sauce spiked with mussels which provided seasoning and extra tastes of the sea. The best places make this kind of dish look easy - why wouldn't you want a flaky, bright-white flesh alongside a crisp, salty skin? It seems so obvious - but they really, really aren't.

I'll be the first to admit roasted squash isn't really my thing, but I should point out that my friends said it was one of the best things about the entire lunch, so I'd take their word over mine if you are a bigger fan of the evil orange things than me. Truffled mac and cheese really is my kind of thing though, and I demolished as much of this as I could before other greedy forks did.

Use the word 'barbecued' in a dish description and you'd better fulfil that promise. Fortunately this tender slip of ribeye announced its arrival under a delirious cloud of charcoal smoke, and tasted of the very finest grass-fed cow. That was in fact all I tried - this was someone else's main - but I'm pretty sure everything else on that plate was great too.

Of course, not wanting the lunch to end, we moved on to desserts. After being so cruelly denied a tarte tatin at the Loch and the Tyne last month, I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. I can't imagine, either, this wonderful thing, golden and glistening in all its glory, could be any worse than the version in Old Windsor. Probably better, in fact, no offense Adam Handling. Sadly, I didn't get to try any chocolate financier, but look, you can see how this meal is playing out. It's hardly likely to be horrible is it?

I make no apologies for gushing about Tallow. It really is that good, the kind of place you'd want to revisit as much as humanly possible, a magic combination of all the things that make a restaurant experience glow, from glorious food to pleasant, airy surroundings and a front of house you'd happily invite to your wedding. There isn't a thing you could criticise about the place - even the bill, which even though we went a bit mad on dessert wine still came in at £80/head which was a good two hours of brilliant fun and well worth the cost. And for all those reasons, ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves another perfect score. 2021 goes out on a high.


Thursday 2 December 2021

Sonny Stores, Bristol

Trips away from home have taken on a certain extra wide-eyed, frantic edge since the beginning of the pandemic, a nerve-shattering combination of not knowing how long these freedoms will last and a disbelief we've even been allowed out at all. In Bristol for my birthday weekend I felt a particular obligation to fill each day with as many bars, and restaurants, and activities as possible and so within 5 minutes after we'd arrived at Temple Meads we'd checked in at the Hilton Garden Inn (£50/night, clean, lovely staff, very highly recommended) and flagged an Uber to take us to Southville and lunch.

Sonny Stores feels, at first, like an unlikely location for a dynamic young modern Italian restaurant, tucked away at the end of a quiet terraced street and with only residential buildings visible in every direction. In fact, its isolation is somewhat of an illusion - bustling North Street with its shops, restaurants and breweries is barely a few steps away, and besides, Bristol isn't exactly the biggest city in the world. One of the joys of spending a weekend here is that you can essentially walk everywhere, and there are some fantastic pedestrianised routes through places like the Christmas Steps and Clifton which really show off the place to stunning effect.

The Sonny Stores cocktail list is short and - with one bizarre exception - traditional. The list is on a small chalkboard and read (from memory) something like "Negroni / Aperol Spritz / Bellini / Spaggly Waggly". Of course, we had to ask, and it turns out a "Spaggly Waggly" is a "supercharged Negroni" which of course made us want to order it even more. And very nice it was too, with a dash of (presumably) prosecco sitting very comfortably beside the usual vermouth, Campari and gin.

Very soon after arrived a little bonus unordered nibble of fried polenta, all soft and light and lovely. As an introduction to the way they do things at Sonny Stores it was very impressive - good ingredients treated well, straightforward without being simple (as anyone who's ever had horrid crumbly mealy polenta before will attest). *SEE EDIT

Sweetbreads came draped in lardo, because... well, because everything about the idea of sweetbreads draped in lardo is brilliant. Some chicory - sorry, tardivo - shoots added a bit of vegetal bitterness, and a delicate buttery dressing tied it all together. Like polenta, sweetbreads aren't always the most cooperative things when it comes to getting a good texture, but these were absolutely perfect, crisp and golden brown on the outside and soft inside.

A pizzetta arrived next, obscenely inflated around a central reservoir of Reblochon-a-like Rollright cheese and studded with shallots (I think), guanciale and rosemary. There was a lot going on here, but it all worked thanks to a genuinely great pizza base and - again - absolutely top-notch ingredients.

Paying someone to open a can of anchovies for you is a situation that I know some struggle with, but then the same people are often quite happy to order wine in a restaurant and I can't really see a difference. There's only a problem if it's bad wine - or bad anchovies - but these were of course excellent, firm and meaty in good oil.

Cuttlefish, served in their own (I assume) ink with braised fennel and gremolata brought not only a riot of herby, salty flavour but also the joy of seeing your friends tongues turn black as the afternoon wore on. We should all be eating more cuttlefish, too - it's one of the best types of seafood in terms of sustainability and it tastes great. Well, it tastes great when it's cooked by Sonny Stores, at least.

And so to pasta, and given the pedigree of the kitchen (ex- River Café chef Pegs Quinn) you'd expect their work on this front to be world-class too. And cavolo nero pappardelle certainly were, gently al-dente, soaked in butter and richly flavoured with a generous topping of pecorino. At £15 for not a huge amount you could sense the influence of the River Café in another way, but this was still a lovely thing and definitely worth the outlay.

Unfortunately, pork agnoli were not quite so enjoyable thanks to some catastrophic overseasoning. The pasta was still excellent, and 'nutmeg butter' lived up to the billing and then some, but the pork filling was so salty it just made the whole business a bit painful, a shame given how everything preceeding it had been spot-on. A mis-step then, but not enough to derail the entire meal.

In fact we were so confident the agnoli was no more than a blip that we ordered both desserts (along with, ahem, a round of Fernet Branca). Tiramisu was ethereally light and delicately coffee-fied, and so easy to eat you could practically inhale it.

And a chocolate cake was straightforwardly excellent, gooey but still holding an attractive shape, and cooled with crème fraîche.

Though it's fair to say I raised an eyebrow at the prices of the pasta dishes, the fact our huge, hugely boozy and hugely enjoyable lunch came to just over £50/head in my opinion puts it firmly in bargain territory. I pretty sure you'd pay more at my favourite London pasta joint Bancone (though not much more) and if this was the River Café itself... well, let's not even imagine. These last couple of years have been traumatic enough.

In a weekend full of good food, good booze and various other not entirely unrelated incidents (well done the staff at Bristol Royal Infirmary A&E who managed to patch up a broken foot in just over an hour on a Monday morning) this lunch at Sonny Stores stands as a shining example of the best of Bristol's restaurant scene and I couldn't have imagined a better birthday lunch. While not absolutely perfect, it overwhelmingly impressed in so many areas (service was also fantastic) and for such a reasonable amount of money that it goes right to the top of my list of favourite restaurants in the city. And next time I'm in town, whenever that may be (and who knows anything any more), I will be returning.


EDIT: These were in fact not polenta but chickpea pancakes, which explains why they were better than the usual polenta...