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@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.

Lunch@The Dundas Arms, Kintbury

Today I’m catching up with Gary at The Dundas Arms. The Dundas Arms is a picturesque 18th century riverside pub in Kintbury, Berkshire. In the past the food here has been very good but neither Gary or myself have been here for a while, so…it will be interesting to see if the food is as good as we remember.

Gary has the grilled Cornish sardines to start with herb buttered toast and tomato & bacon jam. I have the scotch egg with date & apricot chutney. Gary really enjoys the sardines, while my scotch egg is not as exciting as some I’ve had recently but I love the chutney.

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The breast of free range chicken has Gary’s name on it and he also gets Wye valley asparagus, lemon crushed potatoes and a salsa verdi. I decide to be adventurous and try the pork belly, spring onion & herb potato cake served with tenderstem broccoli and a red wine sauce. Interesting and enjoyable.

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I can rarely resist a crumble and I don’t even attempt to resist today. The apple and raisin crumble is served with vanilla ice cream – I should have resisted, it is good but I really don’t have room for it. Gary, though, polishes off the sticky toffee pudding with honeycomb ice cream….without any difficulty at all.

Great to spend time with Gary and great to find that the food at the Dundas Arms was worth the trip!

Sunday lunch@The Woodspeen

Going out for Sunday lunch can be a challenge if you don’t want a traditional roast. We are with our good friends Rufus and Lani and, with this in mind, we want to introduce them to the wonders of The Woodspeen. Late changes to our plans meant that we were late booking a table and, as a result, there are no free tables until 2.15pm.

We arrive early, knowing we can sit in the bar area, with the hope that a table will become available earlier. The restaurant is absolutely packed – even the bar area is busy. Lani has a glass of champagne, Rufus a G&T, Rock has an elderflower pressé and I have a Cavalier bitter from the excellent Two Cocks Brewery. Our hopes for an early table dissolve and we are finally seated at around 2.35pm.

Rufus starts with the pigeon, pickled parsnip, apple, watercress and malt crumb. Rock has chosen the game terrine with duck parfait, quince, smoked apple & raisin chutney. Lani has the cured mackerel with horseradish remoulade, crab croquette, fennel and orange dressing. I cannot resist the roasted scallops with pork cheek, mulled wine pears, thyme and shallot purée. We may be late to the table…. but it has been worth the wait.

We order a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine du Colombier that should work well with game dishes. It is a medium bodied red with flavours of dark fruit and spice…perfect. Rufus and Lani are both having the venison pave and faggot with mustard mash, bacon choucroute, swiss chard & blackberry jus. I have picked the partridge with home-made black pudding, blackberry & apple compote and cavolo nero. Rock does not ignore the game theme and goes for the rabbit tortellini with pumpkin soup, sherry vinegar syrup and celery cress. We are all very happy with our choices though my black pudding was maybe a little too moist for my taste.

We are enjoying ourselves enormously and it would be unreasonable to leave without looking at the dessert menu. Rock and I share the pistachio and olive oil cake with fennel, honeycomb & goat’s cheese ice cream. Rufus and Lani share the spiced cranberry and orange pavlova with lime cream. Both desserts are truly beautiful.

We came looking for something other than a traditional Sunday roast and, once again, The Woodspeen has delivered. Creative cooking, fantastic flavours and, apart from the initial wait for our table, great service.

2016 Food Awards – Part 1

WadeandRockandFood Awards 2016

The WadeandRockandFood Awards 2016 follow another year of dining out in hundreds of restaurants, pubs and cafes. The awards aim to celebrate the very best eating experiences we have had over the last 12 months. Awards 2016 part 1 will focus on restaurants, part 2 on pubs and part 3 on small independent food providers.

We have had an extraordinary year in terms of visiting restaurants of the highest quality. As usual, we have narrowed it down to 3 UK restaurants that we loved the most, plus a new award for the best international eating experience. The top UK restaurants are listed in alphabetical order followed by the winner of the international award.

UK

Aizle, Edinburgh

This place creates a 5 course menu from monthly ‘harvest’ ingredients that are all at the height of quality and seasonality. They create dishes and cocktails that are sensational. Aizle Review

Carters, Moseley

3,5,or 7 course set lunch menus cleverly balance big flavours and a variety of textures. It was a joy to find such a diamond of a restaurant in a relatively unassuming suburb of Birmingham! Cart Review

The Woodspeen, Woodspeen

This beautiful airy restaurant was featured in the 2015 awards and we couldn’t resist going back. They spoil diners with exceptional service and consistently fabulous food. Wood Review – Jan 16. Wood Review – Aug 16.

International

Kodbyens Fiskebar, Copenhagen

Skilful kitchen teamwork helps to create fish dishes and desserts that are fantastic to look at and even better to eat! Despite the restaurant being very lively, the service is still superb. Kod Review

Parts 2 and 3 will follow over the next few days.

Lunch@The Woodspeen – take 3

If you really love a place…. you just have to keep going back to check that it is as good as you think it is. We first went to The Woodspeen in November 2015 and now we are back for a third visit. Today we are meeting our friends Jem & Sassy for lunch. Coincidentally, one of our favourite food critics, Jay Rayner, reviewed this place in the Observer at the weekend and he seems to like it almost as much as we do.

Jem & Sassy are Woodspeen virgins and they are immediately impressed as we enter the nordic minimalism of the smart restaurant interior. Sassy, being sassy, orders a glass of Château de Beaupré – a well-balanced rosé from Provence. Jem has a Peroni while I have a Cavalier golden ale from the Two Cocks Brewery.

Jem selects the smoked salmon with quail’s eggs and a potato & onion salad. Rock the soused mackerel with pate, cucumber and Horseradish. Sassy has the burratta (a pouch of mascapone filled with curd and cream) with peas, broad beans, white asparagus and hazelnuts. I have the crayfish cakes with a guacamole coriander salad. The smoked salmon comes in rich thick slices and Jem is very pleased with his choice. The burratta is a revelation – fabulous but not something any of us have come across before.

Our conversation, mostly about travel and the bizarre current state of world politics, is interrupted by the arrival of the next course. A fabulously colourful dish of broad bean filled courgette flower with nettle pesto, tomato and feta is placed in front of Rock. Jem is having the guinea fowl with sweetcorn orzo pasta, chard and a coriander dressing. Sometimes I really love the mix of fish and meat and so I am trying the turbot with ox cheek, broad beans, girolles and mustard mash. It is good but, for me at least, the combination does not work quite as well as I’d hoped. Sassy has chosen the sea bream with crushed peas, sundried tomato, spiced aubergine and a plot salad – presumably a salad made from some of the produce of their vegetable plot.

After seeing several portions of the egg custard tart with nutmeg ice cream being delivered to other tables, Jem cannot resist ordering one for himself. I always struggle to resist a panna cotta and I don’t put up much of a fight this time. The elderflower panna cotta with strawberries and a cucumber & lime sorbet is simply divine. Rock has the lemon meringue with white chocolate and Sassy the mint & raspberry pavlova.

Although my turbot & ox cheek fell slightly short of my high expectations…it was the only bum note in a fabulous symphony of flavours, colours & textures. As ever the service, on this occasion from Bianca, was superb. We still love this place and Jem & Sassy now understand why!

Postcript: after the minor coincidence of the Jay Rayner review, we turned on the TV last night to find two of the key men behind the Two Cocks Brewery being featured in an episode of Grand Designs! Spooky… Even spookier….a review of the farmhouse & brewery featured on Grand Designs appeared last month in a Daily Mail article written by a former colleague and old friend of mine.

Lunch@The Woodspeen 2016

We have been completely unable to resist returning to The Woodspeen. This time we are meeting our good friends José and Matilde to see whether this place can live up to the premier league standards of our last visit!

We are seated opposite the pass of the open kitchen – it feels like we are at the chef’s table.  Matilde kicks things off with a glass of prosecco while José and I both have Curly Rascal – a bespoke golden ale from The Two Cocks Brewery. Rock has relegated alcohol to the sidelines.

Last time we came here we loved the crab raviolo and Matilde decides to give it a try. José selects the hand dived scallops, chicken wings, homemade black pudding, piccalilli & cauliflower. As I love scallops & black pudding and Rock loves chicken wings & piccalilli – we decide to use teamwork and share. We all agree that the kitchen has sailed through the first round!

We are moving into the main draw and I make a play for the pan fried monkfish, spiced pork belly, curly kale, carrot & swede terrine and roasted shallot. It is the best monkfish I have ever eaten – a real matchwinner! Matilde is really enjoying the line caught cod, a midfield of mustard choucroute, artichoke and a really beautiful mixed seed scotch egg. The local pheasant breast with cranberry stuffing arrives for Rock together with a coachload of creamed bacon sprouts. José is attacking the Red Sussex sirloin steak served with a mushroom gratin & a tub of chips offside.

Now it’s time for the final. José & Matilde decide they cannot manage a dessert each and share the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream. I choose the mincemeat strudel with a mulled wine sorbet, pear and honey granola. Rock is promoting the custard tart with nutmeg ice cream. The desserts are all a blend of artistry and skill.

There is no doubt in our minds that The Woodspeen is at the top of its game. By the end of the season we think they will be one of few in the mix for the top honours!