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!

Sunday lunch@The Inn at Penallt

After a cold early morning start, we are excited after successfully finding some elusive Hawfinches, and now we are in need of Sunday lunch comfort food. We have crossed the border into Wales to arrive at the Inn at Penallt. This is a 17th century country inn in the Wye Valley with great views over the Forest of Dean.

I am delighted to find local ales on tap and start with a pint of HPA from the Wye Valley Brewery. This is a very pale, pale ale with vibrant citrus notes – refreshing and smooth. We decide to share the Italian ham, pea & basil arancini served with a spiced tomato sauce. The arancini is crisp, full of flavour and works beautifully with the home-made tomato relish.

We are not huge fans of a traditional Sunday roast unless we are at home or at a place where the chef can match or surpass the quality that Rock produces in our own kitchen. Is the Inn at Penallt up to the challenge?  I choose the roast rib of rare breed Gloucester beef, served pink with Yorkshire pudding & roast potatoes. Rock goes for the slow roast version of the same dish but her cut is a top rib slow roasted for 8 hours.  I move on to a pint of Wye Valley Bitter – a darker ale with more malt than the HPA.

Overall, the Inn meets the challenge – good selection of vegetables and Yorkshire pudding – though maybe not quite as good as at home. My beef is very good but Rock’s slow roasted top rib is fantastic – absolutely packed with flavour. Plus, great gravy, and plenty of it.

After that, for dessert, I want more hot comfort food but there are no hot puddings on the menu! Instead, I pick the lime & ginger panna cotta with a lemon tuile. The panna cotta is beautiful, the lemon tuile is fascinating – a crisp, sharp slice of lemon and there is a smear of berry compote with tiny chunks of fresh lemon and a trail of crumb to decorate the plate. Not hot but delightful.

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Plus we have had great, friendly service from Wendy, Becky and others.  It has been a good day – we found the elusive Hawfinch and we found another elusive creature – a decent place for Sunday lunch!

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.

Sunday lunch@The Avenue, Sparsholt

Sunday lunch is not my favourite time to visit a restaurant or gastropub. There are just too many places who simply offer a traditional Sunday roast made with little or no imagination. However, as it is my birthday we are visiting The Avenue, a restaurant attached to the rather beautiful Lainston House Hotel in Sparsholt, Hampshire. The restaurant has a decent reputation and it runs a cookery school – so I’m hoping they will offer something more interesting than most.

The 17th century hotel is in a building originally commissioned by Charles II and built by Sir Christopher Wren. Located in the countryside north west of Winchester, it soon becomes clear where the name for the restaurant comes from. Outside, opposite the terrace, there is a mile long grassed avenue of lime trees that stretch into the distance almost as far as the eye can see. It is a fabulous setting.

For a celebratory beer I choose the Punter, a light amber craft ale from the local Upham Brewery. It is just what I hoped it would be – well-flavoured with malt and good fruity notes. We are served an amuse-bouche of celeriac and cauliflower espuma with baby onion and chorizo. This has raised our expectations of what is to come.

Rock has the chicken terrine with rhubarb, beetroot and parsley to start. She loves it – the terrine is brought to life by the rhubarb jelly, tiny beetroot crisps and flaked almonds. I have the poached egg with chorizo, hollandaise and chives. The egg is perched on a small slice of toasted bread and I feel like I am eating the most sophisticated version of egg & bacon on toast.

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The kitchen has not let their imagination run wild with the Sunday lunch main courses but I am operating in the hope that the execution of roast beef with yorkshire pudding, horseradish, watercress, roast potatoes and roasted vegetables will be more creative than it sounds. The beef comes in thick, medium rare slices and the roast potatoes are beautiful. There is nothing interesting about the vegetables. A decent Yorkshire pudding has been completely filled with horseradish – a nice surprise if you really love horseradish but it makes the batter inedible for anyone who doesn’t. I would have preferred a little horseradish on the side to have with my beef and my Yorkshire left well alone. I am comforted by an excellent glass of Rioja Crianza.

Rock is having the confit sea trout with watercress pearl barley, lemon yoghurt, chorizo and pine nut. She is similarly underwhelmed – it is just not as interesting as she had hoped. There has been nothing wrong with either main course except that both failed to live up to the quality of the starters. We order coffee and petit fours which, as they have discovered it is my birthday, do not appear on the bill. We’ve had good service from Steve throughout  and this is a really nice final touch from the restaurant!

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Overall – The Avenue has a beautiful location, good beer and wine, and the kitchen can clearly produce very good quality dishes. But, unless you are a real fan of the traditional Sunday roast, you should probably choose a different time to get the best possible Avenue experience.

Sunday lunch@Greens, Bristol

We are meeting Edda at Greens in Bristol for Sunday lunch. The Good Food Guide describes Greens as a ‘welcoming bistro with wonderful food’ and some of Edda’s colleagues have told her that it is ‘amazing’. We can’t wait to see Edda and we are definitely looking forward to a colourful lunch.

We arrive first and the restaurant is quiet with only two other sets of diners. Edda soon arrives, and so do other diners, as the place starts to get into the lunchtime swing. Greens has a set lunch menu, a Sunday lunch menu and a vegetarian menu. A kaleidoscope of choice for all.

Edda picks the carrot & leek roulade with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes & vegetables that include a vibrant purple cabbage. I have the pan-fried sea bass with Jerusalem artichoke puree, roasted tenderstem broccoli and a citrus sauce that brings orange & lemon to my dish. Rock goes for the fillet of pollock with chickpea casserole, cavolo nero & pancetta. We also share a side dish of broccoli in a superb golden yellow hollandaise with chestnuts. The sea-bass and pollock are cooked perfectly and all the dishes are well put together with beautiful purees and sauces.

For dessert Rock tries the vanilla pannacotta with a red citrus compote. Edda has the blackberry sorbet and, as it’s my turn to be seasonal, I pick the christmas pudding tart with brandy cream. The white pannacotta is delicate and sublime to taste – plus it passes the important ‘wobble’ test. The sorbet is both rich in taste and colour. The tart is full of spiced fruit and surrounded by melt-in-the-mouth pastry. We are over the rainbow and having a blast.

Sunday Lunch@No.131,Cheltenham

Yesterday we put the clocks back an hour – so today’s blog incorporates time as a theme. We are having lunch at No.131 in Cheltenham. It is a seemingly huge place on several floors and we are shown downstairs to somewhere that resembles a cross between a basement and an old conservatory.

The moment has arrived to order beer and I pick the Best Bitter from Brooklyn Brewery. Even though we are not against the clock, we decide to skip starters and get straight into seconds. Rock is having the fillet of hake with puy lentils, lardo and sherry vinaigrette and it takes me only a minute to decide to have the braised ox cheek with horseradish mash and caramelised carrots.

The cooking of the fish has been timed to perfection, crispy skin and flaky flesh and it works really well with the lentils. The ox cheek is very tender, has a great flavour and is complemented well by the mash. The caramelised carrots are not as exciting as they sound. I decide to up the tempo with a second pint of best bitter.

Rock cannot face watching me eat dessert alone and so we order two spoons for the treacle tart with clotted cream. It delivers…big time!

I have to hand it to them, I really cannot think of any reason to delay coming back here soon.  Now, where’s the calendar?

Sunday Lunch@The Box Tree, Ilkley

This could be the last time in Yorkshire for a while and our trip needs to finish on a high – so we are driving to The Box Tree in Ilkley with my Rolling Stones playlist on the iPod. Some song titles may find their way into this review…

After being led to our table, we are initially surprised by the elegance of the butter that has been shaped into the form of a rose. Rock picks the fillet of sea bream with aubergine purée, while I select the crispy Arlington hen’s egg with celeriac purée and pea shoots to start me up. The bream and the hen’s egg are both cooked perfectly, crisp on the outside but soft where they should be. Indeed, both dishes are so superb that, with the thought of a long journey home on our minds, they act as a form of emotional rescue.

After such great starters, we are really looking forward to the main course – but will we get satisfaction. My slow cooked loin of pork with a cep Madeira jus arrives alongside Rock’s confit leg of duck with braised red cabbage, pomme purée and a red wine sauce. Our high expectations are brought down to earth by the pork and duck – I would be a fool to cry but these dishes are only good, not sensational.

We are still enjoying ourselves and the temptations of dessert and cheese help to ensure that our high spirits do not fade away. Rock has never been under my thumb and not only asks for the sticky toffee pudding with Tahitian vanilla ice cream but also a glass of the Pedro Ximénez San Emilio Jerez to go with it. This fine sherry is unbelievable with almost as many brown sugar notes as the sticky toffee pudding. We share a fabulous cheeseboard – the cheeses individually selected, after a chat with the very helpful Daniel, and we are both happy.

It’s all over now, we are out of time, but wild horses could not stop us from returning to The Box Tree. (if you’re interested there are at least 12 Stones song titles in this review)