Sunday 29 November 2009

The Fitzwalter Arms - Goodnestone. Kent

Saturday afternoon, it's a beautiful autumn day. Crisp. The slight chill of the approaching winter is in the air but not yet cold enough to be anything other than invigorating.
The car is winding through the beautiful Kent countryside. I'm now well off the beaten track.... seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The comfort of two laned tarmac clad roads has long since been replaced by a single lane 'track' threading it's way through fields and woods which every now and again give just the briefest blurred glimpse of one stunning ancient home after another as we speed our way along at some speed. I'm late. I have a table booked for lunch at quarter to two, and I've miscalculated how far away it is. A pretty village crossroads just comes into view through the trees.

"In 100 yards, turn Left" announces the unflappable voice of the Sat-Nav. I carry out the instruction and my destination, The Fitzwalter Arms becomes apparent at the end of a sleepy village road.

It's exactly quarter to two, perfect. I park and take in my surroundings. Goodnestone is the kind of sleepy hamlet you imagine belonging to an England long past. The pub, obviously the heart of the village is situated next to a lovely old church, ancient tombstones lean this way and that at impossible angles, a pheasant struts urgently and pecks in the grass amongst the graves.

The beautiful pungent and distinct smell of woodsmoke fills the air and there is complete silence, Incredible silence in fact, broken only by gentle birdsong. I'm charmed. Goodnestone feels like life hasn't changed here for hundreds of years, and I love it.

The Fitzwalter Arms has a bit of a reputation. The Chef David Hart has previously worked at the renowned Sportsman in Whitstable, and it's sister restaurant The Granville as well as The Square in London. The pub is also mentioned in Diane Henry's rather useful book 'The Gastropub cookbook, another helping'. I am looking forward to lunch immensely.

Entering, past the pile of muddy Wellington boots in the porch, and through the heavy wooden door into the bar, where a solitary regular is whiling away the hours; propping it up. An ancient clock ticks heavily, and a real fire lazily pops and crackles in the fireplace. It all feels rather cosy.

We are greeted cheerily and shown through into a bright but fairly unadorned and simple dining room, with windows overlooking the graveyard next door. There is a large table of happy diners in evidence polishing off their lunch. From the county attire, the cheerful yet slightly plummy accents and the heap of assorted shooting paraphernalia... cartridge belts, jackets, shotgun cases lazily heaped in a corner, it is obvious the local hunt is in for a pre-shoot lunch.
A chalkboard with today's lunch menu is posted on the wall. A jug of tap water is proffered without having to be asked for, and a plate of bread is brought over. It's gorgeous and obviously homemade, soft but with a yeasty crust it's very good. I ask the passing landlady to confirm it is indeed made on-site. Apparently yes, twice a day and it's "Seriously moreish".

I order the Cep risotto to start, whilst the GF declines a starter (sigh) and continues to munch on the fantastic bread.
It's not long before my plate arrives, It looks great, steaming, it smells rich and mushroomy. I dig a fork in, slowly lifting and it's oozing rich and creamy, exactly as a great risotto should - it tastes fantastic studded with beautiful meaty ceps, and I start to demolish it in short order. The GF asks for a taste....she agrees it's very good and then tries to have another taste. moving back in with her fork which prompts me to leap to action.

"Woah there,...Get away, what are you doing?.... You didn't want a can't have any".

Rejected but resigned she draws back to her side of the table.
Harsh perhaps, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, you want a starter? order your own. But I did let her mop up a bit with her bread - I'm kind of soft like that.

Welcome at this point, our mains arrived to distract us from the mutual, silently mouthed obscenities, threats and associated hand signals backed up with reproachful stares and hard looks.
I've ordered Rabbit Saddle wrapped in bacon with roasting juices, it comes to the table looking very nice indeed, simple, no frills. It's served with roast potatoes and cabbage. My choice of rabbit had pleased the GF no end. She is apparently still quite unrecovered from a heart-rending attachment to a long dead childhood pet named "Bubbles". Taking this information in blankly, I take a bite of the's beautiful, meaty, subtly gamey.....I subdue a sudden urge to belch whilst simultaneously barking the word "Bubbles". The thought makes me giggle to myself. The GF asks what I'm laughing at, I tell her... and get a frosty look in return.
Meanwhile, the GF is eating her dish of Poached organic salmon fillet with potted shrimp butter. She's enjoying it, and despite the tension raised by the spectre of Bubbles, she offers me a taste. Again, as with my rabbit dish; it's simply but beautifully cooked, flaky almost buttery - I detect a hint of nutmeg.

I'm polishing off my main, it's all I can do to scrape the last of the delicious roasting juices up. Stuffed silly but happy and content. Studying the desserts chalked on the board. I'm thinking about the Earl Grey creme caramel with prunes in Armagnac. For some reason I have a thing about Earl Grey flavoured desserts and find myself drawn to them. But, on this occasion I decide to enlist the help of the landlady and ask for her opinion, as she's 'no doubt tried them all - what does she recommend?'

The 'Warm chocolate mousse, almonds and praline ice-cream' is apparently massively popular and as such is a constant on the board. I take that recommendation and place my order. The GF goes for the cheeseboard.
The chocolate mousse arrives in a large scaldingly hot bowl, its scattered with almonds and the ice cream sits in the middle melting in a creamy puddle. I have a taste and its gorgeous, the light warm mousse mingling with the rich praline ice-cream and almonds, the sides are a baked gooey sticky chocolate crust. It's a lovely dessert, the best I've eaten in a gastropub for some time. I can see now why it's never taken off the menu.
Meanwhile. the GF is digging into the cheeseboard, it looks a little uninspiring, but its a nice selection. The GF comments it could do with some kind of chutney or quince paste. The portions are pretty generous and I lend a hand.....there's easily enough for two to share.

Coffee's are ordered, and a large cafetiere is placed on the table, along with some rather nice nougat to nibble. The pot is huge, and the coffee is pretty good. We easily get two cups each out of it. It's £2 each. (The Bell take note).

Lunch finished, we pay and make our way outside, its starting to get dark and the pub lights come on - it looks cheery and very picturesque. Off in the distance I hear the feint pop and echos of shotguns - the local hunt finishing their shoot. I'm quite jealous of the village's inhabitants having such a fantastic venue in their midst, the pub is charming, entirely un-mucked about with....there's nothing fancy or showy, and the food is the same, unpretentious, beautifully cooked and seriously tasty. It's very hard to fault. It's one of the best lunches I've had for quite a while.

Our lunch for two, with two glasses of wine, coffees and tip came to £65 which is, by anyone's standards a complete bargain.

The Fitzwalter Arms
The Street

Telephone:01304 480303

Sunday 22 November 2009

Towards a Fluid State - (or how I survived a liquid brunch)

A couple of Saturdays previous saw me invited to a 'brunch' in Hackney's Broadway Market. The event in question was a preview for press and bloggers of 'Towards a Fluid State", which is a forthcoming festival to be held on the 5th December at a warehouse in Dalston.

I had no idea what to expect really, apart from knowing that alcohol would feature heavily. The brunch being run by the founders of 'Tasting Sessions' Angela Newell and Hayley Sudbury, who have held some much talked about events in the past featuring interesting booze, and who's ethos is all about, and I quote "bringing interesting people together over fine drink and food. The events are highly interactive and showcase life and culture across art, design, fashion, music and architecture"

Now I don't know about you, but that sounds like just the sort of thing a sophisticated and hip young groovecat like me should be attending....So, a bright Saturday November morning saw me fresh faced and alert making my way to a cafe in the bustling Broadway Market, and from there being immediately guided down some stairs at the back to a dimly lit basement bar area.

Taking a proffered test tube (as you do) bearing the legend 'Join the movement' and which, when examined, was full of a clear liquid (I subsequently found out it was 80% proof alcohol) I took a exploratory sip....potent, but not unpleasant and tasting strongly of mustard - very strange. At this point I was handed a Bloody Mary and I (rightly) suspected my liver was about to undergo a bit of a workout.

Meanwhile gazing around I realised the space was now filled with bloggers, media, press and some very hip and trendy looking types. Naturally, I was in my element.

What followed next was quite frankly a bizarre experience.
It's hard now to put things in order, or even to adequately describe what exactly I ate or drank. There are two reasons for this.

1) Much alcohol was consumed, and as you can imagine - the brain cells were being killed off at an alarming rate as I became more befuddled.

2) Despite written lists of all the food and drink consumed being handed out at the beginning of the brunch, Angella Newell then proceeded to eat hers and encouraged the by then, rather merry mob of onlookers to do the same. All record of what exactly I partook in is gone forever.
In any case, I'll do my best to record what I can remember, and my impressions. After some pretty good Bloody Mary's, there was barely a pause before we were handed flutes of vintage champagne. We were then offered canapes to taste along with the champagne. These worked pretty well and appeared to consist of caviar on some kind of savoury base, but it turned out the whole thing was made from vegetables cleverly hocus-pocus'ed to throw us.

This was then followed with Whisky - two types, one I seem to remember being rated (by those who know) as one of the best available - matched cheese was offered along with the whisky!
Next - Sake was passed around in traditional square wooden drinking vessels handed out by two men dressed as Geisha's. A representative from the sake producer then gave a small talk on it's properties before we were encouraged to get stuck in. It was extremely unusual, soft, subtle - to me it tasted strangely reminiscent of porcini mushrooms....which is not actually as awful as it sounds. It certainly wasn't unpleasant.

By this point, I was to put it bluntly - munted. I'd started drinking a mixture of very unusual and expensive spirits at 11am and basically hadn't stopped for the past couple of hours. I was musing on just how this was affecting me as a stream of people came running into the room dressed in black cloaks and strange black V shaped hats and proceeded to pass out balloons and pins to the assembled throng, before disappearing again.
We were then encouraged to use the pins to burst our balloons in unison after a countdown, and then breathe in instantly. The smell that hit us was of Brandy, which linked to the next drink experience, a rather expensive blend of Courvoisier cognac which was accompanied by some really rather nice jelly produced by infamous "jellymongers" Bompass and Parr which also had a subtle brandy kick.

Next, events taking a rather strange turn, as I'd only seen him as a contestant on Raymond Blanc's TV series - 'The Restaurant' a couple of nights previously "JJ" in his regular guise as a mixologist, introduced a cocktail which due to some kind of molecular jiggery-pokery was full of tiny capsules, each containing the flavour of a number of different cocktails. The idea being that each sip you took would provide a different taste each time. I'm not entirely sure it worked as stated, each sip tasted the same to me. But, by this point I wasn't in tip-top condition.

Finally we were informed that if any of us were Cognac lovers - we should speak to the rather glamourous looking Courvoisier representative who had something 'a bit special'. This turned out to be a bottle of L'essence Cognac, blended from eaux de vie from years significant to Courvoisier's history - including some from the Napoleonic era this came in it's own black lacquered cabinet box, complete with internal light (but sadly no blast of dramatic heavenly singing when the doors are opened). The cognac comes in a Baccarat crystal decanter which apparently took forty five artisans to produce, the Courvoisier rep put on special gloves to handle it! The taste? incredible stuff - smooth, subtle - everything your cheap ass fire breathing cognac isn't. But the price of this elegance and sophistication? getting on for £2000 a bottle. I drunkenly put myself down for a dozen.

So, I staggered upstairs and out, squinting into the bright afternoon sunlight. Utterly hammered but pleased I'd been invited to such a bizarre, interesting and surprising event.

Just to gild the lily as it were - I joined some of my fellow food blogger's at the handily located pub down the road, and proceeded to carry on drinking into the afternoon.....

Not surprisingly perhaps, 6pm found me sprawled on my train home from London, no doubt snoring and dribbling....normal behaviour for me on any given night perhaps - but not for a late Saturday afternoon when I was supposed to be taking my parents for dinner at 'The Bell' (See previous post!)

Tickets for the 'full' 'Towards a fluid state' warehouse experience on December 5th are now on sale, starting at £16-50, and can be purchased here:-

If all that wasn't enough excitement for one post, here's a video taken at the brunch, and if you look carefully towards the end, you may see my drunken yet surprisingly boyish good looks briefly staring back at you. Enjoy!

One final important note. Please, always drink responsibly....It leaves more for the irresponsible people like me.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Bell - Horndon-on-the-Hill - Essex

As I've mentioned before, my corner of Essex seems to be somewhat lacking in decent gastropubs, I long for something akin to The Sportsman at Whistable in Kent to open. It would totally clear up... there is practically zero competition in the area. (Although saying that, which foodie worth their salt doesn't long for 'a Sportsmen' to open in their area?). But all is not lost. There is at least one respected and well thought of pub restaurant no more than a 25 minute drive away from home. 'The Bell' located in the tiny and ancient hamlet of Horndon-on-the-Hill.

I've eaten here before, a few times in fact... back in the dark ages before this blog existed (Before Blog or 'BB' as I like to call it). When incredibly, I didn't feel the need to heft a large camera to every meal, startling and blinding fellow diners, momentarily frozen as if in a nightclub as the Nikon flash erupts.

I'd liked it then, but what really drew my attention back to it now was that I recently discovered it features in Diana Henry's respected 'The gastro pub cookbook' (A book, which I should point out was recommended to me by Browners of the excellent Blog 'Around Britain with a Paunch' - Thanks Jonathan!)
Diana Henry gives it a good write up, it's apparently had the same owners for 30 years, the meat comes from the butchers next door, the herbs from the back garden. I knew I had to re-visit and write about the experience on this blog.

It's Saturday evening, and we crunch our way on the gravel, across the darkened car park located at the back of the attractive, jolly and brightly lit Bell. It's a 15th century coaching inn with a colourful history. Supposedly an area out back was once used to burning heretics at the stake. (A perfect place to site a Barbecue in the summer I'd say). From the street you enter through the arch that originally allowed coaches bound for London into the Inn and through a side door up some steps into the bar.

Upon entering you are immediately struck by just how Dickensian and cosy it is. Heavy dark oak beams project upwards, a roaring fire in an ancient fireplace, beamed floors sloping away at crazy angles....regulars from the village crowded around the bar, it has a nice atmosphere. We move through to another dark panelled bar area with snug bench type seats (Which can't be booked - first come, first served for these). We're greeted and led to our table in a dining room just beyond the bar. (Tip - when booking, specify downstairs if you can, its a much more atmospheric area than the upstairs dining room).

Couple of things I need to point out before we talk about the food, my dining companions were the GF and my parents. And, I had an early evening utterly steaming hangover after attending the 'Towards a Fluid State' bloggers brunch that morning in Hackney. (More about this in a future post).

I began badly by choosing 'crispy confit pigeon with artichoke veloute and deep fried shallot rings' I was intrigued to see what this would be like, and I'm afraid to report that despite it arriving nicely presented, it was pretty bad. The Artichoke veloute was tasty enough but I wasn't entirely sure how I was supposed to eat it? It didn't come with a small neck it in one, shooter style? dip the pigeon in? pour it over like a sauce? I tried all three, and nothing seemed to work. The confit pigeon wasn't quite how I imagined, tiny bone dry flakes of pigeon heaped on a lettuce leaf, itself balanced on a pile of puy lentils. It was chewy, I was cack-handed, it was a nightmare to eat. intermittent bomb bursts of lentil and pigeon skittered this way and that across the table as I tried to shovel it into my mouth. I suspect I got more around the plate than I actually ate.

My fellow diners had more luck with their starters. My Dad's Loch Fyne smoked salmon parcel with crayfish, orange and fennel salad looked lovely, was a generous portion and tasted great.
My Mum's 'Crispy chicken ravioli with wilted rocket and parmesan cream' was also very good - the parmesan cream advertised more of a be honest, I wish I'd ordered this instead.

The GF's 'Baked squid, stuffed with crab, grilled razor clam, chorizo, herb crust and pane tiger prawns' looked good.....I say 'looked' because I didn't get a taste, by the time I'd finished chasing dessicated pigeon and lentils all over the table - she'd eaten it all.

Starters cleared away, it was onto the Mains and here things looked up for me dramatically. Both myself and my Dad went for 'Roast prior hall suckling pig with cinnamon roast apple and swede puree'. This arrived again, very nicely presented and in huge portions. Pork, cinnamon and apple is hard to beat as a combination and it was gorgeous. A rich, nicely cooked thick slab of suckling pig. It made up for my car-crash of a starter nicely.

The GF was pretty happy with her choice of 'Roast guinea fowl breast with saute wild mushrooms, mushroom veloute and baby gem' It was I must admit, beautifully presented. I had a sneaky taste and it was very good, with a nice subtle depth of gamey flavour.

My mother, to my horror (and no doubt the kitchens as well), ordered her main 'well-done' 'Roast chump of lamb with celeriac puree, diced celeriac and pancetta lardons'. Which was a bit of a shame. Despite being horribly overdone at her behest, was nicely presented and tasted pretty good. (Mum if you read this, sorry.....but your a gastronomic Philistine).

So, top marks for the mains all round. Beautiful stuff.

Now, the desserts I'm not going to dwell on too much. Frankly compared to the great starters (my awful dish excluded) and the Excellent mains, they were just OK, workmanlike and solid....but just not upto the same great standard as the previous courses. It seemed to me that desserts were the real achilles heel of the kitchen. I'd have much preferred to see some British gastro-pub classics on the menu, with perhaps a bit of a modern twist. The offerings were all a bit too poncified and fussy but didn't really deliver.

For the record, I ordered a 'Lemon parfait baked Alaska with chocolate sauce'. it was ok.
Other desserts ordered were 'trio of autumn fruit brulee with their own sorbets' and a 'rasberry cheesecake with pistachio ice-cream' all were "Ok" but weren't really memorable in any way.

Just to bang home the final nail into the coffin that was the dessert course. We ordered coffee's to finish and they weren't very good at all. Grim actually. Grey, dead and tasteless. Much improvement needed there I think.

Overall - despite the somewhat crippled crawl to the finishing post and the subsequent 'coup de grace' to the back of the head delivered by the coffee. We had a fantastic meal. The Bell is a beautifully charming and historic pub. The Starters and Mains were spot on with some extremely ambitious and interesting cooking, granted, it didn't always work (Exhibit A m'lud....the confit pigeon). But the huge portions offered mean you'll never leave hungry. The service was fast, efficient and smiling. If The Bell could return to basics a bit with the dessert menu, which just isn't on a par with the rest of the cooking; and sort out the dismal coffee. I feel it could only improve it's good reputation.
The meal for 4 with wine and service came to £180

The Bell

High Road
SS17 8LD
Telephone: 01375 642463

Saturday 14 November 2009

The Half Moon - Warninglid, West Sussex

We are lost. The night is black as pitch, we seem to be moving down a country lane that winds through a forest. I say 'moving' but 'careering' perhaps would be a better choice of word. The tight packed indistinct blur of tree's just visible through the twilight veil of mist enclosing us. We are really shifting, we hit a bump in the road and I feel myself momentarily lifted from my precarious perch, lighter than air, before slumping back again heavily at a crazy angle. I frantically tighten my grip, and swallow down the acid taste of bile rising in my throat, fighting the wave of nausea that's threatening to overcome me.

I look around in the darkness, just able to pick out the features of my fellow passengers in the feeble glow offered by the sat-nav up front. They don't acknowledge me. They're all grim faced, eyes fixed forward, fighting their own solitary battles against the sickness, enduring this ride from hell. We drunkenly swerve around a tight bend, I can feel the G-force pressing me hard against the side of this, my tomb. I seriously might throw up, it passes... but only just.

Suddenly out of the darkness ahead I see the glimmer of lights, habitation and hope. Momentarily dazzled by this glimpse of apparent salvation and almost punch drunk from nausea I'm thrown forward as we come to a crashing halt, braking hard and skidding on the gravel. I'm thrown back again hard with a final jolt. The internal light comes on, illuminating the carnage in the back and adding to my disorientation. The taxi driver turns unruffled, smiling and says in broken English "Twenty five pounds please" we pay thankfully... desperately, practically tumbling out of the cab into the cold autumn night. We say nothing at first, survivors shock perhaps. Our tormentor abandons us in a spectacular display of revving engine and wheel-spinning, tearing off into the gloom at breakneck pace, two crimson dots rapidly sinking into the inky cloak offered by the forest at night, which seemingly surrounds us completely.

It's Halloween night, and we stand at a crossroads in the small village of Warninglid, the brightly lit and attractive Half Moon pub stands before us, practically a beacon in the gloom. I can hear muffled laughter, the clinking of glasses, an occasional guffaw. At this moment, It's the best sound I've ever heard and all four of us stumble crazily towards it, like survivors from a shipwreck.

The heavy oak door closing behind us, we step from the night chill into the cosy glow of a really rather nice, good-looking, very old but obviously renovated pub. A fire glows in the grate, It's buzzing and very busy with diners, belying it's seemingly remote location. We catch glimpses of another attractive bar area as we are greeted and shown to our table in a newer and loftier dimensioned dining room beyond the bar. I step carefully around a very interesting feature in the floor, an extremely old well, glazed over with glass and lit. I can see water at the bottom. It's obviously fine to walk across it, but I have an irrational, almost primal fear that the glass will crack and I'll plunge down and drown.

There are four of us dining tonight. The long suffering Girlfriend or "GF" as she is known. We are accompanied by friends Ron and his wife Lyndsey.

The menu is interesting offering a mix of good hearty British gastro-pub classics such as Beef suet pudding, calves liver and beer battered cod punctuated with the odd 'off-piste' dish such as lamb tagine. We pick at some rather nice olives and study the menu. So far, so good.

Myself and Ron order starters, our respective partners holding off for now. These arrive quickly. My 'celeriac and white onion soup with bread' is a rather large portion, it's good and hearty but fairly unspectacular.
Ron has chosen a much better dish, 'king prawn scallops, pea cream and black pudding' it looks fantastic, the massive scallops surrounded by a lurid green sauce. I try some, and it's very good, the scallops meaty and perfectly cooked and working well with the rich black pudding and the more subtle flavour of the pea cream.

On to the mains, and my first choice of 'Steamed beef suet pudding' has unfortunately been popular this evening and sold out. I order 'Confit belly pork, mustard sauce, dauphinoise potato, green beans' instead. The GF and friends order variously 'Lamb tagine, lime cous-cous and mint creme fraiche', Beer battered cod and chips with tartar sauce' and 'Calves liver, smoked bacon, bubble & squeak, savoy cabbage and Madeira jus'.
We don't wait too long for this to arrive, and it all looks fantastic. My piece of Pork Belly is absolutely massive, with perfectly crisp puffed up skin it hasn't been messed about, simply cooked with the mustard sauce and offered dauphinoise potatoes and green beans it's exactly what you want from a decent gastro-pub really... Classic, uncomplicated and filling. I'm happy.

In fact, all of the portions are whopping. The beer battered cod on Lyndsey's plate is huge, with a mound of very nicely cooked chips, again as with my Pork Belly dish, competent assured cooking, nothing fancy -but solid.

On the other hand, a quick sneaky fork full of Ron's Calves liver dish confirmed that it tastes as good as it looks, liver cooked just so, complimented well by the other ingredients and the rich Madeira jus. It's probably the best dish ordered.

The weakest is the GF's Lamb Tagine, it's very nice but tastes a bit too 'safe' lacking any real punchiness or stand out qualities.

Sitting back and composing ourselves after the seriously huge portions consumed, we have to wave away the waitress proffering dessert menus, asking that she try again in ten minutes or so.

At last, recovered... but only just; on the waitresses recommendation I order a 'Citrus trio - lemon cheesecake, mojito sorbet, orange sponge pudding'. Ron and Lyndsey decide to share a classic sticky toffee pudding with ice cream. The GF goes for the more savoury delights of cheese and biscuits.
My dessert arrives, and I'm impressed. It's basically three, almost full size desserts. My dining companions are aghast and seriously doubt my capacity to eat it all. Happy to prove them, I adopt a workmanlike attitude and dig in. The Mojito sorbet is v.nice and refreshing sitting in its brandy snap basket, out of the three desserts on the plate its probably the best. The cheesecake is also good, well made, but doesn't stand out. The orange sponge pudding is the weakest, needing much more of an orange hit to impress.

Lyndsey and Ron are happy with their sticky toffee pudding, I try a bit and it's very good. Excellent in fact, I love this classic dessert and have eaten them all over the place. This one is a very good example, rich and sweet.

The GF's cheese and biscuits contains a fairly generous selection of British cheeses, and the owner did pop over to describe what they were in detail, but by this point being half cut on the incredibly reasonable wine, for the life of me can't remember what they were, apart from one which was the very moreish Blacksticks Blue.

At this point, before coffee's, myself and Ron decided that a glass each of LBV Port would round off the meal nicely. I mention this, as when the bill finally arrived I couldn't believe how good value the whole meal was. Drinks when we arrived, two bottles of Wine, Port, desserts, coffee's....£77 per couple....including tip!! Seriously good value the food was very good, extremely competently cooked with glimpses of brilliance. As I mentioned before, it's exactly what I'd look for in a decent gastro-pub. If your ever in the Gatwick area. I recommend the Half Moon strongly. Visit.

A strange end to the evening unfolded. The village of Warninglid, being a little remote from the nearest habitation offered by Crawley and Gatwick, and being a Saturday night meant we had to wait 30 minutes for a taxi to arrive from civilisation. Whilst waiting, we wandered outside. It was well into the witching hour, and as the last guests left, the pubs door locked behind us and the lights that had welcomed us so warmly earlier flickered off, extinguished. All was now still, dark and quiet, the sound of the wind rushing through the surrounding tree's the few houses in the village dark. Kind of creepy, especially as it was Halloween. Headlights suddenly approached in the distance down the forested road and our taxi emerged. Offering silent thanks that it wasn't the total lunatic from earlier, and getting the impression that at the very least this driver was in the possession of a driving license, we drove off into the night and home.

The Half Moon

The Street.
West Sussex
RH17 5TR
Telephone: 01444 461227

Sunday 8 November 2009

COCO - Eating the Book

Regular readers of my blog will know that I love a good cookbook. My shelves sag under their collective weight but still, like every addict; it's never enough I want 'more' and 'better'. Which is where my latest acquisition comes in, because it certainly fulfils both requirements.

COCO is a beautiful, weighty, glossy, large and rather sleek book. It is the first of it's kind, in as much that it is at once, a reference book, a recipe book and a up to the minute snapshot of the serious talent working in kitchens across the globe today.

Interestingly, all of the featured Chefs were selected by their peers. Ten Internationally respected leading chefs (Including such luminaries as Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, Fergus Henderson and Gordon Ramsay), who were asked to nominate their pick of contemporary talent. 100 of these Chef's are featured.

What you get in this beautifully laid out book, is an introduction by the nominating Chef on why they picked this particular personality, a Biography of the chosen chef, a tasting menu representation of the Chef's dishes that best represent them; with accompanying photos. And then, best of all as far as I'm concerned, the actual recipes for those dishes.
Given the concept, it's surprising to find that not all, (in fact hardly any) of the Chef's featured are who you would expect, the usual well known, celebrity Michelin starred brigade. For example, Fergus Henderson chose Kitty Travers, a London based independent ice-cream maker. The selections have serious integrity, and are interesting in themselves when you consider the whys and wherefores of that particular persons inclusion in the book.

Despite this being an International selection of Chef talent, it's fantastic to see so many British Chef's represented throughout the book, the likes of Tristan Welch, Tom Kitchin, Theo Randall, Care Smyth and Skye Gyngell to name but a few. I think this solid showing is a glowing testament to how far Britain has risen in the global gastronomy stakes in the last 20 years or so.
So, I have the book, I was sent it free to review and I'm very pleased with it indeed.

But, what's this? There's more? Would I like to accompany a small group of my fellow food bloggers to four of the Chef's featured in the books restaurants and eat a course consisting of a dish also featured in the book in each? Possibly meeting the chef's along the way?

Let me ponder this carefully...

Who am I kidding with the careful pondering... SIGN ME THE HELL UP PLEASE!!

So, last Wednesday evening found me briskly making my way through Soho, in an extremely agitated and excited state and giving off just the sleight whiff of alcohol after indulging a quick pre-event sharpener in Rules with some of my fellow bloggers.

The Destination? The House of St Barnabas on Greek Street, a rather lovely members club, where we were greeted and ushered up a grand staircase to a function room. There to indulge in more drinks (don't mind if I do) and to sample some frankly incredible canapes prepared by Lyndy Redding of Absolute Taste. Lyndy is featured in COCO and provides Michelin standard event catering with celebrity clients including Gordon Ramsay and David Beckham.

I can honestly say I've never had canapes like these, Salt and Pepper crusted beef tenderloin skewers with horseradish cream, Tuna Tataki with radish, apple and mustard (which were artfully served, suspended on chopsticks), Pea and Mint Tartlets with feta and fresh mint...incredible cheese straws... I was slightly overwhelmed...I mean, I was trying to make polite conversation with my fellow bloggers, PR's from Sauced and Phaidon and Lyndy Redding herself (Who I should add was charming and extremely interesting), but my eyes were bulging out on stalks at the sight of all this fantastic food and my stomach was making urgent grumbling noises, it was all I could do not to grab hand full's of the incredible beef skewers from the proffered trays and consume them in a spectacular orgy of feasting. But, being from Essex, obviously I'm extremely refined (as those who have met me will testify) and I restrained myself, remaining just slightly over the tipping point of greedy without drawing attention to my gluttony. It's a fine art.

By the way, I've since found that recipes for all of the canapes we ate are featured in the book. Excellent.

So, from there it was outside to the waiting mini-bus and on to our starter, cooked by Jason Atherton at Maze.
I'd never been to Maze before, and we emerged as a group into a moodily lit contemporary space and wound our way to our table through a profusion of expensively suited, well-heeled customers lounging, drinking and eating. It's strange, I've eaten at a Gordon Ramsay outpost before (Claridges) and the service was first class, friendly and surprisingly informal - but there was a vibe in Maze that I couldn't quite put my finger on, the service was excellent but I somehow felt the waiters and front of house were slightly frosty and aloof. Like I say, it's hard to define but my spidey senses were tingling and not in a good way.

Nevertheless our starters of Cornish red mullet, rabbit bolognese, cuttlefish tagliatelle, squid paint and asparagus arrived. Yes that's right, Fish and a Rabbit Ragu... not a combination I've ever encountered before. I have to say, the presentation of the dish was immaculate, absolutely beautiful to look at. And I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it, not least because I've never eaten Red Mullet or Cuttlefish before. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to meet Jason Atherton, the kitchen apparently being extremely hectic and busy while we there.

Rising slightly unsteadily, (the wine at Maze was excellent), we headed outside into the night air to board the mini-bus and head off to our next destination, Theo Randall at the Intercontinental on Park Lane.
Warmly welcomed, we took our seats and offered more great wine (Yes please) plates of excellent focaccia and bruschetta were brought out for us to pick at. (I found the focaccia particularly good, being incredibly soft and moist). At this point Theo Randall himself popped out of the kitchen to welcome us and describe the main course we were about to eat 'Monkfish with prosciutto, artichokes, capers, parsley and Charlotte potatoes'. Theo Randall was very chatty and friendly but also obviously extremely passionate about his food and ingredients. He spent some time explaining why the Cornish Monkfish we were about to eat was such a fantastic ingredient due to the way it was fished. It was fascinating stuff. Theo, as I now like to call him. (See reason "here"...By the way, he's definitely not trying to escape my drunken new best chum attentions), returned to the Kitchen.

Our main arrived and it looked stunning, the monkish being rich and meaty working incredibly with the flavour of the prosciutto, artichokes, capers, parsley and lemon. A simple dish in some ways when compared to Jason Atherton's offering at Maze, but this was all about the fantastic quality of the ingredients paired immaculately together. To be honest, I could have eaten it all day. Seriously beautiful food, it's making me hungry just thinking about it.

Towards the end of the meal, Theo Randall popped out of the kitchen again to chat and ask us what we thought of his food. He comes across as an extremely nice guy and happily signed our menus and posed for photographs, I would love to return to eat a whole meal there.

Boarding the mini-bus in a drunken staggering fashion for our final hop of the evening, we headed excitedly to Launceston Place and dessert supplied by the Chef Tristan Welch.

Pulling up outside I was immediately struck by what a lovely street Launceston Place is located in, with the darkened boutiques and the quite Georgian terraced houses it felt very homely. Launceston Place itself is also an extremely attractive looking restaurant from outside, extremely warm and inviting. Which is exactly what we got as Tristan Welch was in the reception area to greet us and shake our hands as we were shown to our table.

Our sommelier came over and introduced himself as Mickey, explaining which wine he had selected for us to partner with the dessert, why he had chosen it and some background on the wine itself. The timbre of his voice had an almost hypnotic quality and we all listened fascinated as he described the wine in a measured, well-delivered and immaculately well-spoken fashion. If he ever gets tired of being a sommelier I suspect a career in politics awaits. Oh, and the sweet wine (Jurancon ‘Syphonie de Novembre’ Domaine Cauhape 2004) was incredible.

At this point Chef Tristan Welch appeared to chat briefly and introduce pre-desserts consisting of raspberry jelly and lemon sorbet topped with a black pepper tuile by way of a palate cleanser. They were beautiful to look at, and the flavours worked very well together - sharp, but not too much so with a surprising heat from the cracked black pepper on the tuile. Lovely.

Tristan Welch appeared again to introduce our main course properly and showed that he'd done his homework extremely well by commenting on recent blog posts we'd made. Very impressive and a nice personal touch.
His Pastry chef and other members of the kitchen brigade arrived carrying large slates loaded with the most incredible selection of desserts I've ever seen. Eveyone's jaws dropped at the sight of these platters. The Pastry chef carefully described what each of these were, but by this point I had serious trouble taking it all in, being quite overwhelmed by the desserts on offer and the excellent wine. I've since learned that the slates contained, an Assiette of Tristan's desserts....

Rice pudding soufflé, raspberry ripple ice cream
Lavender cream, violets, raspberry
Apple parfait, toffee, walnut
Dark chocolate, iced milk, crumble
Set custard cream, caramel and praline, malt ice cream
Banana sticky toffee pudding, Guinness ice cream (Created by Steve Grove, Winner of Master Chef 2009, who works at Launceston Place).

And if this wasn't enough, Tristan Welch then brought out the most incredibly caramelised tarte tatin I've ever seen, this was served with home made clotted cream.

Silence. The table was momentarily stunned by this offering before everyone started noisily digging in... there's just too much to describe but a particular favourite of mine was the apple parfait, toffee, walnut presented in an apple shape complete with stalk! The tarte tatin was incredibly good as well, rich and sticky as a good tarte tatin should be. The final act of the evening was excellent cognac and coffee and Tristan Welch happily posing for photos and signing menus. He was incredibly friendly, chatty and approachable and extremely generous with his time. As soon as I get the chance I'll be heading to Launceston place for a complete meal.

I left, as with Theo Randall's restaurant earlier in the evening incredibly impressed.

What an evening! Without a doubt the best event I've been invited to as a food blogger, made all the easier to write about because I can honestly say the COCO book, which the evening was promoting is excellent. I wouldn't say it if I didn't think so, yes, granted If the price is right, I may be easily bought (drop me an email all offers considered) but when it come to my blog, this very blog which I have invested 11 months of effort in!... I have the integrity of one of Eliot Ness's untouchables - I cannot be bought. It's Definitely worth picking up.

Thanks to all the Chefs and restaurants mentioned above, and to my fellow diners for the excellent company Gastrogeek, Foodurchin, Scandilicious, Gastrogossip, Laissez Fare, Mathildes Cuisine, Meemalee, The girls from Sauce Communications Danielle, Laura and Chloe and finally, from Phaidon; Jenny.

COCO is available from
Amazon, RRP £29.95

Maze (Jason Atherton)
10-13 Grosvenor Square
Telephone: 020 7107 0000

Theo Randall at the InterContinental
1 Hamilton Place
Telephone: 020 7318 8747

Launceston Place (Tristan Welch)
1a Launceston Place
W8 5RL
Telephone: 020 7937 6912

Absolute Taste (Lyndy Redding)
14 Edgel Street
SW18 1SR
Telephone: 0208 875 4090

Sunday 1 November 2009

The Pipe of Port - Southend

Southend in Essex is famous for a couple of things, the worlds longest pleasure pier (and the subsequent disasters that seem to regularly befall it), and the beaches, which every summer play host to the dog eared and sadly faded Victorian glamour that only a day at a British seaside resort can provide. What Southend regrettably is not famous for, is it's food. In fact, for a town of it's size, with it's proximity to the sea and the availability of fresh seafood, the choice and quality on offer is shocking...I'd even go as far to say, abysmal. I'd seriously struggle to recommend anywhere decent to eat if I was asked.

But, here and there, among the sheer endless, turgid, characterless, greyness provided by the nationwide restaurant and pub chains which seem to have a complete monopoly on many a British high Street nowadays, the odd beacon of hope glimmers. In Southend, adrift on a life-raft, riding this sea of banality is The Pipe of Port.

Something of a Southend Institution, this wine bar/restaurant first opened it's doors in 1976. Located just off the high street and down a flight of stairs this dark, wood panelled, flickering candlelit, sawdust on flagstones cellar bar is surprisingly atmospheric, cultivating the almost Dickensian image of a Georgian style chop house with it's dark, snug, booths, and bench type seating.

The food, not deviating from the image presented by the interior, is described by Harden's as "English Traditional Rustic" which is fine by me. In fact, I was there to sample a particularly traditional type of English dish that the Pipe of Port is rightly famous for.... the Pie.

Mention the Pipe of Port to anyone who's eaten there, and they'll mention the homemade pies. They're so famous in fact, that they're now being produced and sold in Delicatessens for cooking and serving up at home (Although, these pies may contain the same fillings and perhaps even the same pastry I strongly suspect they just cannot compare in sheer girth to the whopping pies that are served up in the basement wine bar - accept no substitute).

With all this in mind, visiting Saturday lunchtime, I surveyed the short but tempting selection of "celebrated pies" The GF opting for the "very large" (as helpfully described by the menu) steak, kidney and mushroom pie. I went for the "equally large" chicken and chestnut pie. These were priced at £9-35 each, both coming with a choice of boiled, sauteed or baked potatoes. (The remaining choice of pies on the menu being 'pork, plum and Celery', 'vegetarian' or a 'Trawler Pie under creamy mash, topped with cheese').

The pies when they arrived were something to behold deposited on the table with side portions of boiled potatoes, huge steaming pie dishes completed, in the case of my chicken and chestnut pie with a towering flaky crust lid. The GF's steak and kidney pie was topped with some very nice shortcrust pasty. A gorgeous, rich, strong, meat and aromatic sage smell wafted from the pies into the void between us across the table.

I broke through the golden lid to be confronted by the steaming chicken and chestnut filling, the aroma was amazing. Digging deep into the gravy filled well for a forkful, I exclaimed to my partner in Pie "Look at the size of that" spearing a huge chunk of chicken glistening and dripping, holding it aloft for brief inspection before shoving it into my mouth. Seriously good, rich and tasty - down the years I've eaten my fair share of pies and this before me was a shining example of the pie makers skill.
Across the table my GF was busy demolishing her Steak, Kidney and Mushroom pie and - obviously.... I had to have a try. It was equally impressive, thick gravy, pungent with the smell of Sage, large chunks of soft steak and kidney with a beautiful shortcrust pastry. Again, outstanding.

Between the two of us, we managed to eat both pies and accompanying potatoes - but only just. The sheer size of these pies have to be seen to be appreciated. It's a serious exercise in lunchtime eating to finish one.

Bill paid, we staggered happily, full and heavy up the stairs from the subterranean cellars into another world, squinting, and shielding our eyes momentarily in the bright October sunlit afternoon.

The Pipe of Port is rightly famous for it's excellent pies. I think It's fantastic to see an independent Wine Bar/Restaurant/Producer in Southend excelling at the food it produces (Utopia Cafe for it's incredible coffee is another), I wish there were more like them. Southend (and in fact Britain as a whole) needs more great quality independent restaurants and pubs to take on the chains which, are slowly sucking the life and character out of the British high street... methodically
replacing what was once interesting with bland, identikit and soulless.
Vote with your feet.

The Pipe of Port

84 High Street

Telephone: 01702 614606