Lunch@Sosharu, Clerkenwell(2)

We’ve arrived early at Sosharu in Clerkenwell. This gives us the chance to have a drink at the bar and chat to Emily, the pastry chef, until Karla arrives to meet us for lunch. Kirin Ichiban, described as ‘Japan’s Premium Beer’ seems like a good way to start. It is highly carbonated, quite malty and not too sweet – it will work well with my lunch!

We watch the sashimi chef delicately shaving a variety of vegetables and neatly preparing fish with a huge knife and continue to chat to Emily as she creates a series of beautiful desserts. Sosharu is one of Jason Atherton’s restaurants and Emily has worked for Jason for 9 years. Very soon, however, she is leaving to work in a top New York restaurant. Karla soon arrives and we head to our table.

Karla always has the Bento Box when she is here at lunchtime and we cannot persuade her to change this habit. It is not surprising though – set out on a wooden tray (rather than a box) the seafood bento contains salmon teriyaki, a selection of seasonal pickled vegetables, a chirashi bowl of sashimi and sushi rice and a summer salad. It also looks fantastic.

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The seafood bento box

Rock and I decide to mix it up a bit though. We select: the tuna open temaki with scallion tobiko, sushi rice, avocado and fresh wasabi; the chicken karaage with lemon salt; the stuffed chicken wings with pickled turnip; and the Kyoto stuffed peppers. The open temaki is sensational and easily our favourite savoury dish.

Another Kirin Ichiban helps me toward the dessert course. Normally, Rock and I share a dessert but we are keen to try Emily’s creations and choose one each. Rock picks the strawberry & matcha roll with yoghurt & yuzu, I have the matcha mille crepe with matcha sorbet. This is a mistake – matcha is a green tea and has quite a distinct flavour – my dessert has too much matcha for me! Rock’s dessert though is beautiful to look at and beautiful to eat. This is Emily at her best!

Overall, the food has been a fabulous array of fascinating ingredients and beautiful flavours. Great service delivered in a relaxed and sophisticated environment.

Sunday lunch@Churchill Arms, Paxford

Nick Deverell-Smith, the head chef and owner of The Churchill Arms in Paxford has recently appeared on two culinary TV shows – the Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. Although this is not the usual way we choose where we are going to eat, it has led Sebastien & Rebecca, to suggest The Churchill Arms as the place to meet for Sunday lunch. Sunday lunch menus tend to be traditional & boring so, we are hopeful that with Nick’s pedigree, there will be some more interesting options.

Sebastien & Rebecca are already there when we arrive. In terms of interesting options, I am immediately pleased to find an ale that I’ve not tried before. Shagweaver is an award winning pale bitter from the local North Cotswold Brewery. This is a refreshing ale – perfect for a warm summer’s day.

Before any starters arrive we are presented with a very pleasant amuse-bouche of artichoke and bacon arancini – light, crisp coated and well flavoured risotto rice balls.

Rock starts with the pea &spinach soup. Sebastien and I both go for the smoked haddock soufflé with a chive velouté. It is very well flavoured but I’m not sure that I like the consistency. The soufflé, originally quite light & fluffy, has become thick and heavy after the velouté has been poured over it. Rebecca chooses the most interesting dish in terms of presentation – heritage tomato with avocado & quinoa.

The main course selection is not as interesting as I had hoped. Rock has the leg of Cotswold lamb with roast potatoes, local greens & gravy. Sebastien & Rebecca have the pork T-bone with apple, crackling, sage & roast potatoes. All good quality but very traditional, the roast potatoes were excellent. I have the only non-traditional dish – whole roasted mackerel with bobby beans, peas and broad beans. It is very good.

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Sebastien and I both examine the dessert menu and there is one that really appeals – the gooseberry tart. Sorry, we are told, we have just sold out! If Churchill was here, he would have settled for a Havana cigar and a cognac – but he would have to sit in the garden…

This was a typically British menu but I think we may have been better to visit Nick’s kitchen on a Saturday!

Lunch@The Bell, West Overton (2)

We first visited The Bell in West Overton in 2016. We really enjoyed the food and so we are going back for a second time to meet Jem & Sassy for lunch. The Bell is run by Hannah & Andrew McNaughton. Hannah leads the front of house team while Andrew, who has cooked at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor and at the Oxo Tower, leads the kitchen team.

I begin by revisiting the beer I had last time – Moles Best from the Moles Brewery in Melksham. It is a malty copper coloured bitter with a hint of floral hops. No one else at our table is drinking alcohol but, without the need for liquor, they are still all in good spirits.

Curried smoked haddock & prawn fishcakes served with lime pickle and coriander are brought to the table for Jem & Sassy. They have a crisp coating, are generously filled and taste fantastic. I have the duck liver parfait with onion confit and toast. Smooth, highly flavoured parfait. Rock has the warm potato pancake with hot smoked salmon, watercress and crème fraiche.  Well balanced and delicious. All good choices – what a great start!

Another beer but this time I’m going to try something new. Birdman is from the Flying Monk Brewery in Malmesbury. It is a refreshing full-bodied pale golden bitter – a nice contrast to the Moles Best. Jem & Sassy not only have the same starter but the same main course. It is some sort of gentle conspiracy to give me less to write about. Their pan fried fillet of sea bream comes with roasted cauliflower, chorizo, sautéed potatoes, almonds and tomato.

I have the slow braised venison with beetroot, mushrooms and sauté potato gnocchi. The venison arrives looking like a small haggis but it is absolutely superb its rich flavour is complemented by the beetroot and mushrooms. The light and delicate gnocchi is also very good. Rock enjoys a tasty local rabbit ragu with tagliatelle, peas and basil.

A good measure of how much we like the food at any place is whether we have dessert when we don’t really need to. Rock and I share the basil pannacotta with basil wine and fresh raspberries. An unusual and very nicely flavoured pannacotta that fully passed the ‘wobble’ test. Jem has the vanilla cheesecake with blueberry confit and Sassy the warm treacle tart with clotted cream. The desserts are every bit as good as the starters and the main courses.

The second visit to The Bell has been even better than the first – partly because we shared the experience with Jem & Sassy. A third visit is definitely on the cards for us and a second for Jem and Sassy!

Lunch@Bill’s, Newbury

Bill Collison used to be a greengrocer but these days he has a string of restaurants around the UK. We are visiting Bill’s in the Market Square of Newbury for lunch.

I start in my usual way by examining the beer menu and I find that it would be inappropriate to order anything other than Bill’s IPA. Brewed exclusively for Bill’s restaurants by the Adnams Brewery of Southwold, it is a light and golden India Pale Ale with just a hint of citrus.  Rock has Bill’s elderflower cordial with sparkling water and, as a connoisseur of elderflower cordials, she is impressed.

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The lunchtime menu is an interesting mix of British favourites, with other dishes influenced by Italian, Asian and Cypriot cuisines. Rock and I decide to mix and match – we pick dishes that will work together and I’ll swap some of mine for some of hers.

Rock’s choice is easily the most interesting. Roasted aubergine, lentil & chickpea dhal served with cherry tomatoes, coriander chutney, toasted almonds and a grilled flatbread. It is beautifully put together and works extremely well with my Thai green chicken curry. The green curry is fiery, boosted by the flavour of fresh lemongrass, sugar snap peas and served with coconut rice.

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I’m briefly fascinated by a conversation at the next table. The couple want to order a ham omelette from the breakfast menu but they stop serving breakfast here at midday on weekdays. However, these diners are incredibly insistent and the manager is called. He explains that the breakfast chef has finished for the day but says that he will personally cook them ham omelettes. I think the manager deserves a pat on the back.

We are impressed enough by our food so far that we decide to share a dessert. The banana and honeycomb cheesecake served with frozen yoghurt and salted caramel sauce tastes like a variation on a banoffie pie but the frozen yoghurt brings it back from the overly rich sweetnees of banoffie. It is good.

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Bill’s is not fine dining but it does appear to be a restaurant chain that can produce both simple, familiar dishes and more interesting international plates.

Lunch @Bulrush, Bristol

If there is ever a good time to get out to a decent restaurant for lunch it is in the week of a General Election and the fallout from an unexpected result. We are seeking refuge from the continuous media commentary by meeting Ralph & Chedzgal at Bulrush in Bristol. Bulrush is a coalition of George Livesey’s culinary skill in the kitchen and Katherine Craughwell’s passion for wine and seasonal cocktails.

We all take our seats and, on Katherine’s recommendation, Ralph & Chedzgal both elect to have a glass of Terres Falmet Carignan, an aromatic fruity red from the Languedoc region. Rock has a glass of Loureiro, a refreshing and well-balanced white from the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. I’m choosing a past favourite, Nor’hop, a floral pale ale from the Bristol based Moor Brewery. We are already starting to relax.

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We are presented with an amuse-bouche. It is a broccoli mousse with port & cider vinegar and served with an alliance of Guinness crackers, crème fraiche and oats. It looks and tastes fabulous.

Rock starts her campaign with the barbecued asparagus with elderflower hollandaise and Roscoff onion. It arrives looking like an elegant haystack of asparagus and onion sitting on bright yellow hollandaise. She loves it. Chedzgal bravely votes for braised pig trotter with smoked eel and an apple dashi. To me it looks as unelectable as it sounds – but Chedz is clearly enjoying herself. Ralph and I both swing toward the blowtorched sole with gazpacho, almond & pickled grape. Another dish that is beautiful to look at and beautiful to eat.

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Barbecued asparagus, elderflower hollandaise & Roscoff onion

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Blowtorched sole, gazpacho, almond & pickled grape

I labour under the impression that great starters do not always mean great main courses but remain hopeful. Skate with crab, pickled peach & radish liberally decorated with flower petals and circled by a bisque arrive for Ralph & Chedzgal. Wow! I’m taking the conservative option of Hereford beef with seaweed and baby turnips. It is sensational. Rock is having the plaice with peas, broad beans & salted strawberries. I’ve run out of superlatives….

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Skate, crab, pickled peach & radish
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Hereford beef, seaweed, baby turnips
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Plaice, peas, broad beans, salted strawberries

 

The decision as to whether we have dessert is something of a landslide! We’ve lost any ability we may have had to be strong and stable. Chedzgal has the pine mousse with lemon sorbet, toasted almonds and frangipane. Rock & I share the BBQ apricot, apricot stone ice cream & rosemary meringue. Ralph has the Cheddar Valley strawberry, strawberry sorbet, chamomile & wheatgrass parfait. Another wow from everybody in our constituency.

And yet, one of the best moments of the meal is still to come! If you order coffee here, you also receive a party of petit fours. Bulrush petit fours are unlike anything I’ve had before. They look and taste like turkish delight, liquorice allsorts and toffee fudge but they are much better than that. A brilliant trick of design and taste.

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Throughout this meal George, and his colleagues in the kitchen, have shown great skill in their use of unusual ingredients and a fantastic touch when balancing unconventional flavour combinations. No room for debate  – this is quite simply one of the best meals we have had in the UK.

Lunch@The Ibex Inn, Chaddleworth

Today I’m meeting Antonio at The Ibex Inn, Chaddleworth. The Ibex Inn is a country pub in a small, picturesque Berkshire village. I’ve read positive reports about their food and their chef, Kai Taylor, seems to have some interesting ideas. Antonio loves his food almost as much as I do – so this should be a great place to meet.

Antonio gets there before me and, as he is by himself, he orders a pint of Billy No Mates.  It is a very decent pale ale from Chaddleworth’s Indigenous microbrewery. When I arrive the sun is shining and so I order another beer from the Indigenous range – the Summer Solstice, even paler and refreshing on a summer’s day.

The menu consists of British pub classics with a modern twist and all the produce is sourced from within a 40 mile radius apart from the fish – which is delivered daily from Brixham. Antonio decides to try the Ibex steak burger with bacon, cheddar & fries. It is a very high quality burger, well presented with fabulous fries. He loves it.

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I want to be slightly more adventurous and ask for the curried crispy Brixham cod loin with fries and a Bombay mayonnaise. When it arrives the cod is covered in a beautiful crisp batter, with great fries and the Bombay mayo carries just the right amount of curry spices. Fantastic. Kai comes out of the kitchen to check we, and other diners, are enjoying the food. He talks to us about his approach and shows a real desire to please his customers.

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We have enjoyed our food so much that we are now tempted to try the desserts. I pick Kai’s bounty bar torte with textures of pineapple. It is artistically presented, the chocolate torte is rich, I’m pleased that the coconut element is not too pronounced and the mix of fresh pineapple, pineapple pearls and coulis are refreshing. But, overall, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as I enjoyed my main course. Antonio likes the sound of the caramel pudding & brownie sundae. When it arrives, he really likes the taste of it too.

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The Ibex Inn is a really good find. Friendly and excellent service and a clear desire to produce pub food that is better than most. We will definitely be back.

Dinner@Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen

Ahead of tomorrow’s flight to Romania, we are at Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen in the Heathrow Hilton. Cyrus Todiwala, the chef patron, is known for being one of ‘The Incredible Spice Men’ on TV and for his central London restaurant Cafe Spice Namaste. We need another taste of fine UK cuisine before we leave for eastern Europe.

We begin with beer. Both Rock and I have a bottle of Curious Brew IPA. A fine Indian Pale Ale brewed by Chapel Down in Tenterden. They use pale ale malt and a balanced blend of three different hops to produce a distinctively flavoured IPA. We both love it.

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We spend a long time looking at the menu – there are just too many fabulous sounding things to choose from. We are also mindful of the fact that we almost always over order and we hate food waste with a passion! However….I have a cunning plan.

We share the vegetarian thali and the tikka platter – in effect, a small amount of several different dishes. But before that arrives we receive an amuse-bouche of saambaar, a spiced vegetable & lentil soup. It is very spicy and awakens parts of my digestive tract that have been hibernating for some time.

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Just as I am about to order a big pot of calming yoghurt – the vegetarian thali and the tikka platter arrive. Each element of the dishes is carefully explained to us in detail and I quickly regret having no shorthand skills. So, this is what I think we had: the thali includes tadka dhal, baingan bharta (a smoked aubergine dish), cholay paneer ( paneer & chickpeas in a gravy with pomegranate seeds), bhindi aur mushroom ki jalfraezi (a spicy dish of okra, mushrooms & tomato), a raita, rice and a roti.

The tikka platter consists of Barbary duck, Denham Estates venison, Scotch beef, chicken, paneer and salmon all cooked, tikka fashion, in a clay oven. Wow! To calm myself I order another Curious Brew IPA.

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Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen is a calm and stylish place. The service is excellent, the quality of the ingredients and the cooking skill of the open kitchen is very high. Even the beer is first rate. It really feels like our holiday has already started and we haven’t even taken off yet!