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.

Dinner@The Three Hares, Sedbergh

After an extraordinarily beautiful day spent on the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail we are heading for dinner at The Three Hares in Sedbergh. We are with our good friends Thorkell, Amy, Alaya and we have even lured Ziggy away from his American football. The Three Hares is run by James and Nina. James is front of house – looking after the customers. Nina, using her experience of baking in Germany and of growing up with Japanese parents, is in the kitchen looking after the food.

Three pints of Saison, a spicy pale ale with all the strength of a quarterback, arrive for Thorkell, Ziggy and myself plus a bottle of Ventoux – a French red which should work well with most of the dishes we have ordered. I don’t normally pass comment on the bread we are served with our food but here it is fantastic – several varieties, all beautiful and we will return tomorrow to buy more!

The menu looks very ambitious. I kickoff with the pigeon, black pudding, celeriac & watercress which is very good. Thorkell has the very interesting looking heritage tomato crostini. Rock has the aubergine & feta pie for her starter. Everyone else is happy with the bread, olive oil & Balsamic.

Most of us have now moved onto the red wine in time for the mains. Alaya and I both punt for the hare loin, confit leg & truffle risotto with kohlrabi and a formation of chantenay carrots. The loin is pretty good but I struggle with the strength of the truffle in the risotto. Amy tackles the Tamworth pork loin with salt baked beetroot, radish, wild garlic & mash.

Rock & Ziggy both have a fair catch of stone bass with a huddle of maple peas, pancetta, swede and sea herbs. The fish is expertly cooked and well flavoured. Thorkell has the Howgill hogget loin & shoulder with a touchdown of hotpot vegetables and red cabbage. For anyone that does not know, hogget is meat from a sheep aged between one and two years old. Some people think it is better than lamb or mutton. Thorkell absolutely loves it!

We can still find room for dessert and between us we order: blackberry sorbet with caramelised white chocolate crumble, and an end zone of apple & poppy seed; Yorkshire rhubarb with duck egg custard & gingerbread; and a block of sticky toffee pudding with real ale ice cream and oat crumble. All the desserts are excellent.

The menu today at The Three Hares is very game orientated with much less of a Japanese influence than we had hoped for. It has an adventurous approach to its dishes that many foodies will adore. After spending most of the day with Thorkell & Amy, the real pleasure here for Rock and I, was to also pocket a little quality time with Ziggy and Alaya.

Lunch@No Man’s Grace, Bristol

Today we are meeting Ralph & Chedzgal at No Man’s Grace in Bristol. No Man’s Grace is a small restaurant in the Cotham district of Bristol that was named as the Best Newcomer 2015 in the Bristol Good Food Awards and by The Times as one of the Top 25 coolest restaurants in the UK.

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I am immediately excited to find that on draught they have Bibble, an ale from the Wild Beer Company of Somerset, which has both malty flavours and citrus notes. I have a pint and Chedzgal a half. Ralph has a glass of Mas Delmera, Monastrelle – a rich, full-bodied and fruity red. The designated driver has an elderflower crush. 

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Salt baked beetroot with ewe’s curd & candied walnuts

Our starters are preceded by an extra dish – small, delicate airbags of cheese choux pastry. The starters themselves split our group by 3 to 1. Rock, Ralph & Chedzgal all steer toward the salt baked beetroot with ewe’s curd & a clutch of candied walnuts. The beetroot is tender and full of flavour and all the items on the plate work really well together. But I’m manoeuvring toward the hand dived scallop with fennel & blood orange. The scallop is perfectly cooked and the dish beautifully presented. 

The lunchtime conversation seems to have a driving theme…we talk about the length of time it takes to drive from our respective homes to the restaurant, the nature of Bristol’s parking regulations, the prospect of a world where some or all vehicles are driverless and even the potential route of our next UK roadtrip. After really enjoying my Bibble, I decide to change gear with a glass of Yealands pinot noir – a lovely, soft pinot with notes of plum and spice.

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Potato gnocchi with braised leek, kale florets, chanterelle & field mushrooms

Main courses also split the group 3 to 1. Rock sticks to the inside lane with potato gnocchi, braised leek, kale florets, chanterelle & field mushrooms. Ralph, Chedzgal & I have accelerated into the outside lane with brill, violet artichoke, samphire, gnocchi and a crab bisque. It is one of the best brill dishes I have ever tasted – firm, fresh flesh driven to new heights by the bisque.

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Brill with artichoke, samphire, gnocchi & crab bisque

We are all still along for the ride when it comes to dessert. Ralph & Chedzgal both choose the high octane chocolate cremeux with malted milk sorbet. I taste Ralph’s – it is intense and fabulous. Rock & I indicate a desire for the forced rhubarb with vanilla yoghurt and pistachio. Another beautifully presented dish that manages to be both comforting and refreshing.

We have had a fantastic time here. Really great company, high quality food & drink and attentive, knowledgeable service from Julu. I’m very confident that No Man’s Grace will be a driving destination for us in the future!

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.

Lunch@Rick Stein’s, Marlborough

The Rick Stein food empire has finally spread to Wiltshire and we are meeting our friends, Sassy & Jem, for lunch at his new restaurant in Marlborough. The Restaurant is in an 18th century listed building called Lloran House and it opened just a few weeks ago. Between us, we have experienced many of Rick Stein’s other eating establishments with some mixed results, from fabulous to poor. Here’s hoping today will be at the fabulous end of the spectrum!

Rock and Jem both have mackerel to start but prepared in different ways. Jem has the grilled mackerel fillets served with pickled autumn vegetables, chervil and chilli oil. Rock has the mackerel escabeche, fried and then marinated in olive oil, white wine vinegar and herbs. Sassy has the gigantes (giant butter beans) with tomatoes and greens. I have the crab linguine with tomato, garlic, chilli and spring onion. So far, so good.

Jem and I decide to sample the wine list. I have a glass of the Le Tuffeau, a zingy French sauvignon blanc and Jem has a glass of Rick’s own Spanish white made from viura and verdejo grapes. Both wines are very good.

Unlike everyone else at our table, I am not having fish for my main course. I have been tempted by the prospect of the pithivier filled with duck, porcini, red wine and Armagnac. The pithivier is enormous, big enough for at least two people, and served with new potatoes and cavolo nero. It is rich in flavour and tastes beautiful but, if I eat the whole pithivier, I may have to be carried out.

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Rock and Sassy both have the pan fried fillet of hake served with champ mash potato and wild mushrooms. The hake is perfectly cooked and the champ is beautifully smooth, though they would both have preferred less champ and more vegetables. Meanwhile, I am still working my way through the pithivier.

Jem is having the John Dory a la Carlina, pan fried John Dory fillets with a rich sauce of tomatoes and capers. The conversation moves from travel to books to TV and then onto live music. I’m too busy to talk though – I still have a quarter of the pithivier to deal with!

On a trip to the loo for a lie down… I discover that the restaurant is much larger than it looks from the outside. It has two floors and there are at least two dining rooms on each floor. I resist the temptation to run up and down the stairs a few times to aid the digestive process and hope that, over time, I will find a tiny space for dessert.

We continue talking and, when the time comes to order dessert, I know I should follow Rock’s lead and simply order coffee. But, I don’t. In a moment of abject greed, I order the marmalade cheesecake served with a blood orange granita. Sassy has the Riz Au Lait, a warm rice pudding with spiced pineapple – which she says is her favourite dish of the day and Jem has the crèma catalana – a catalan crème brulee.

Even though I have clearly eaten far too much today and may spend the night dreaming about a giant pie, with the wings of a duck, flying towards me…..the overall experience has been towards the fabulous end of the scale!

Lunch@The Porter, Bath (take 2)

The political balance of the world has recently been destabilised by unexpected results on both sides of the Atlantic. Concerned, we are aiming to bring a greater degree of sanity to our lives by having lunch with our good friends Ralph and Chedzgal. We are back at The Porter in Bath, for the second time this year, to meet them. For an hour or so, by proxy, we will be in an alternative reality! 

The Porter is civilised without being too stuffy. Chedzgal and I both launch our campaign with a carafe of Lacrimus Rioja, a bright young tempranillo with some primary notes of aged oak. In a concerted effort to create some sort of culinary coalition of eating experiences – we all vote for different candidates from both the starter and the main course menus.

Rock elects to have the pheasant and smoked bacon terrine with rosemary focaccia and a deposit of fig purée. Ralph has the braised pedigree pork rillette with pickled apple, Bramley apple purée and toasted sourdough. Chedzgal lobbies for the Little Haven crab with Bath Harvest lemon infused rapeseed oil, pickled carrot and a party of lavosh biscuits. I have the beautiful Pembrokeshire crab with squid ink spaghetti. We all make noises of approval, except Ralph, who ignores the majority…. he is not enjoying the rillette.

Ralph is happy to move on to the grilled plaice with a convention of hand-cut chips, leeks, spinach and a fish velouté. Chedzgal selects the slow roasted shoulder of lamb on a platform of smashed swede & potato and served with a port wine sauce. I have the honey roasted duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, roasted carrots, cassis sauce and a marginal amount of celeriac purée. Rock’s choice is the corn fed chicken breast with a landslide of savoy cabbage & chorizo, sauteed potatoes and a Madeira sauce. All these dishes are very good indeed… even Ralph joins the delegation in having a good time!

Rock and I swing toward sharing the vanilla pannacotta with warm apple & blackberry compote and oat crumble. Ralph has the clementine crème brulee in congress with blood orange sorbet and candied almonds. Chedzgal opts for the salted caramel chocolate mousse with peanut butter ice cream. We all embark on a policy of bringing the proceedings to an end with a mint tea.

It is difficult to trump the experience of fine food and wine enjoyed with fabulous company….it may not put the world to rights but we feel better for it!

Dinner@Bica do Sapato, Lisbon

Last night in Lisbon and last night in Portugal….we need to finish on a high. Bica do Sapato is a smart restaurant housed in an old port building. Glass walls on one side give fabulous views over the waterfront and photographic panels on the other walls change every now and then to create a more interesting environment. Music plays gently in the background and the whole feel of the place is very sophisticated.

Nearly every time we have dined in Portugal we have been presented with bread and olives while we look through the menu. We usually send them back because we know there is a cover charge and we don’t want to pay for something that we are not going to enjoy. Here, however, the bread selection and the olives look beautiful and are accompanied by a chicken liver paté and a lightly spiced butter. We’re not sending any of this back…

Once we have decided on food we ask about which wine would complement our dishes and we both have a glass of the Casa de Santar Reserva, a fine and fruity Portuguese red.

Rock is having the stewed pork cheek with creamy potato purée and a poached quail’s egg. It is absolutely beautiful. I have chosen the grilled swordfish served with couscous, tomatoes, lemongrass and ginger. It is superb – the swordfish is meaty enough to work well with the fabulous flavours of the lemongrass and ginger.

For dessert we decide to share the lemon meringue tart with red fruit sorbet. Instead of simply giving us two spoons – the kitchen divides the tart onto two plates each with a quenelle of sorbet. Fine pastry, tangy lemon, delicate meringues and a lovely sorbet. A fitting end to an elegant and enjoyable meal. We would have stayed for coffee, and maybe a port, but the gentle background music has changed…

Earlier we were getting music similar in style to Richard Hawley or I Am Kloot and these helped to enhance the ambience of the restaurant. This changed to something that sounded like a cross between Bon Jovi and Anthony & the Johnsons – the volume has been turned up and some of it sounds like harrassed wailing. It all feels very intrusive and entirely inappropriate.

Overall, we loved the food and the service. The restaurant is a fabulous and sophisticated setting. Whoever is in charge really needs to make sure the music is in harmony with the food, the setting and the people who are paying the bill!