A Rose by any other name…..

So here it is. The last proper day of my holidays and with it the last single lunch review I will be doing for a while. Next week whilst I am not going back to school after a luxurious week of holiday – yes I did spend most of this week sleeping- I am off to intern at Delicious Magazine in hope that sometime in the next ten years they might have an opening for a job…. Unfortunately I have realised that much as I am enjoying a weekly solo lunch adventure there is simply not enough restaurants in Oxford that are independent and affordable and also I’m lucky enough to boast that my social engagements have overtaken the ability for time to myself. I’m aware this isn’t a bad thing. Of course I’ll still be reviewing. There is a rather favourable review of a Hampstead Heath gastropub on its way, a date with my ex housemate, watch this space. 

At least I’ve chosen a rather nice way to finish the holidays. It is a beautiful day in Oxford. It’s cliche, but the architecture in Oxford does seem that bit more impressive against a clear blue backdrop. It’s as if those grey rainy days were merely a rehearsal for the really performance. It’s just a shame that this often feels like a once a year show. I’ve whipped out my new sunglasses, I’ve dusted off my spring coat (let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we are still in England, a coat is necessary) and I’ve headed to The Rose. A staple of the Oxford afternoon tea scene, I happened to come across a review which said it was the best lunch in Oxford. However as I sat for a rather late lunch in the window basked in sunlight, people watching the street, my heart sank when I looked at the menu. The goats cheese salad whipped into memory a weedy limp salad leaf attempt from a health care I’d had a few weeks ago. The ciabatta sandwich options suggested the dry thin offerings from various sandwich outlets around and reminded me why I never order ciabatta if offered. The £6.95 charge for a plate of ‘home cured salmon’ which sounded suspiciously like 3 slices of Sainsbury’s finest laid on a plate, taking barely 5minutes to eat. But…..I am prepared to stand up and admit how wrong I was. Just to be clear. This is the place that all the aforementioned cafes should take their cue from. This is the place where the menu doesn’t lie. In case you need it in bold letters BEST LUNCH IN OXFORD.

  
I chose the home cured salmon and asked for some bread and butter on the side with some trepidation as the only offering for bread was ciabatta. I sat undisturbed for an hour and a half reading The Versions of Us (an excellent book by the way) and enjoyed a large salad plate, loaded with salty gravlax trimmings with dill. Pesto and an excellent shallot dressing. It was accompanied by warm, soft ciabatta and excellent creamy yellow butter. I could well have eaten a couple more rolls. I don’t eat bread a lot but when it tastes that good…. I consoled myself that I only had the one ciabatta by ordering some cake. Again I’m not usually that into cake, I prefer a bar of chocolate or a creamy dessert if I’m going to treat myself but I thought if the bread is that good and they call themselves an afternoon tea shop, the cake is probably pretty damn good. I was not disappointed. An incredibly moist carrot cake studded with walnuts with the thinnest spreading of tangy cream cheese icing cutting through the sweetness but without making the cake too rich. My only criticism is that the staff could have been a little more attentive especially as I was only given a small glass of water which I finished pretty quickly and had to keep waving to try and get refills despite the cafe being pretty quiet at this time. But it’s only a little thing and mostly the staff were friendly and helpful and clearly knew the dishes which is always a bonus. And for a total of £12, I will certainly be coming back. 

  

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Portabello, Oxford 

One of the first lessons you learn at cookery school is that there is my way and then there is the Leiths way and you are there to learn the Leiths way. Whether that be using cutlery knives to rub butter into pastry, hand mixing water and flour on a counter top for pasta or finding the bloody oysters before you even think of jointing a chicken. The theory is that we should learn a basic solid level before we experiment and branch out on our own, and it’s a good method. Every day we follow a recipe or 5 from the Leiths book and serve it to our teacher at an allotted time and get marked and given feedback. – apparently soon we’re going to start to be given freedom with our choice of accompaniments, pressure.- We’re given a grade for things like meat cooking, sauce consistency, knife skills, you get the picture. I bring this up because I’ve realised that I’ve started viewing every dish I eat like this and marking it in my head…..
It was my own fault. I shouldn’t have ordered the chicken with red wine jus, bacon and celeriac puree. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious. As my teacher Michael would say: ‘It’s nice warm plate, food piping hot and served in good time. Good presentation, nice portion size, maybe a little extra colour next time, some green or something to add freshness but nice clean plate. Fibres nicely set on the chicken but there’s still some moisture, beautiful rendering down of the skin and nice carving of the supreme, still served in the bone, good. Lovely sauce consistency, see how it’s syrupy but still runs down the plate, that’s what your looking for. Bacon, on the less crispy side but works on this dish. Puree isn’t gloopy, nice flavour, hint of pepperyness coming through but good punchy flavour of the celeriac. The consistency though, see how you can still taste those fibrous textures from the celeriac? I’m looking for silky, creamy smoothness, maybe next time pass it through a chinoise (very thin sieve) and add a little cream or Creme fraiche, but otherwise lovely dish, just think about the veg as well as the main event’. I’m being pinickity here because mostly it was a delicious dish, a lovely atmosphere and really great friendly waitresses, but this is what cookery school does to you. As you can see I might not be able to have McDonald’s ever again! ( I’ll cope, I’ve only eaten there about 5times ever anyway #foodsnob). Also I don’t mean to brag but I did nail the celeriac puree when I made it on Friday in my duck, dried cherry and almond sauce, celeriac puree, artichoke crisps and sautéed kale. I’m allowed to say this mostly because my sauce was too thin and my duck wasn’t portioned right, Portabello won anyway.      

   I should also mention the wine and quails eggs I began with. I knew already that the owner of Portabello served exceedingly good English wines as we had previously been to another of his restaurants, the Perch, where we had had a lovely Oxford retreat white wine. The rose, whilst overchilled (another annoying hangover from now having an interest in food and wine, you realise most white and rose wine is served far too cold in restaurants, kills the flavour) was fresh and dry, with strawberry and raspberry flavours, beautiful. I highly recommend Portabello, it’s not the most easily accessible but the cheerful atmosphere and reasonably priced food make it worth a visit. 

My Saturday ritual 

I have a guilty secret to confess. I’m afraid it’s not quite as scandalous as it seems but apparently it is still taboo in our society. I like going out to lunch in a restaurant, ON MY OWN. I know, what a weirdo right? It’s become my little Saturday ritual. despite being at cookery school I am actually really missing eating. Yes of course there is plenty of food around but given that I frequently run over lunch cooking or in meetings most of the time food I can grab is pretty scarce and fast. On top of that by the time I get back to Oxford after the 2hour+ commute the last thing I want to do is eat the food I’ve cooked, mostly I’d rather grab some cereal and head to bed. Don’t get me started on breakfast, when do I find time for that between the 6am get up and morning traffic on the bus, thank god for tastings in demonstration lectures is all I can say. That and my increasingly worrying caffeine habit. I miss the ritual of taking the time to sit down and savour food, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the buzzing but luxurious time at a restaurant. Therefore I see it as not only necessary but part of my education to take an indulgent lunch on a Saturday. I’ve even got structure now. It has to be a different place every time, ideally not a chain. I have to review it (as of today), I have to eat exactly what I want to eat, and I have to enjoy a reality ice glass of wine of something I’ve chosen to compliment the meal. The last prerequisite is also new but inspired by how much I loved the wine lecture we had the other day on food and wine matching. I want bore you (or give away my secrets) too much by gushing over the details too much but essentially we have been instructed to try as many different wines with as many different flavours as we can. The sooner you taste wines back to back and realise how different and why they taste differently the better, include food in that flavour balance and you reach about the level of fascination I’m at now. The more you learn the more you want to know. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course I am open to including other people in my now sacred Saturday lunch ritual but I am enjoying focusing on the flavours and not the socialising. Applicants apply below. Foodie: necessary, intelligent conversation: required, putting up with my gushing: essential.  Plus they have some vicious competition from the cryptic crossword puzzle, I haven’t got that far yet but they say you can only get better. 

This week I tried out Branca in Jericho, Oxford. I’d spent the morning making homemade bread with homemade butter (my new craze) but restrained on trying any because I was saving myself for lunch. So when the first thing Branca brought to my table was lightly salted foccacia with olive oil and balsamic, I felt they’d read my mind. As I left the house my dad had said to me that Branca was overpriced and not tasty. My analysis is that he had a bad meal. I went I with incredibly low expectations but from the second they brought out the burrata (creamiest I have ever tasted) with pesto and sweet roasted red pepper as a tapas , I was converted.

   I followed this with two started portion size salads, a chicken Ceasar and a chickpea, aubergine, broccoli salad. Not only was it all a pretty substantial meal for one, it cost about the same as a main, I had lucked out. I started with the Chicken Ceasar, a highlight. Simply done, moist chicken, crunchy but not greasy croutons, a perfectly soft boiled egg, creamy dressing and fresh salad. It almost made the second salad tasteless and dull in comparison. But luckily th smoked aubergine topping lifted an otherwise well proportioned salad. All I can say is you shouldn’t have given me that a,axing bread Branca, I had no room for dessert. 

  Where I was let down was the wine. The wine list was impeccably written. Promising interesting flavours, long finish and good prices. Unfortunately most of the wine lacked aroma and (as I can actually now read a wine list) I soon realised the wine was pretty much all the same style and pretty uninspiring. The Viognier I had was mid priced, specially recommended and featured exotic fruits and crisp finish, all I can say is where were the exotic fruits? I know I was pairing it with salty food but the description promised so much.  Since I know they’re not a wine bar I won’t criticise but simply say ‘ could be improved’. All in all bravo Branca, I know picked the right dishes but you’ve earned a return visit. 

  

The Oxo restaurant: midweek meal

I have a strict rule of thumb since I’ve started cookery school; no late nights/drinking during the week. Since I am commuting from Oxfrd to London on a daily basis I can’t afford to get tired or turn up hungover while wielding a knife. But then again rules are made to be broken, and what a way to break my rule. Remember the amazing dinner at Le Manoir I blogged about a few weeks ago? Le me refresh your memory. 7 course tasting menu, fantastic conversation, caught up with Raymond Blanc?  Well when the same line up invited me out for dinner again at the OXO tower in London I wasn’t going to turn it  down. 

    
 I have been to the OXO tower once before, but not to eat. Since my sister moved to a London we’ve gone out of our way to find fun, quirky things to do in London together, preferably cheap, in order to spend time together (apparently my scintillating conversation isn’t enough….) one of our favourite things to do is a treasure hunt . We might both be suffering from Peter Pan syndrome but there is just something about walking around and discovering London (new for us Oxford-folks) through a series of cryptic clues sent to your phone. http://www.inthehiddencity.com/london-treasure-hunt/ I sound like I advertise for them, I don’t (I wish, maybe I should….please let me!! ) go anyway. One of our hunts we ended up on the top of the OXO tower. I can’t exaggerate the view enough. It is phenomenal. You can see the entire line the river, St Paul’s, the Shard, Buckingham palace, and guess what, it’s even better at night. 

  I arrived 15 minutes early and twiddled by thumbs at the bar. Normally I am never so impolite (although seriously- who really believes you should never be on time for a dinner party, clearly someone who has never cooked a dinner party) but storm Jonas was raging outside and I was cold. So consequently I stared at the view for 15 minutes. I probably could’ve stared at it for 30mins and it would’ve still been as mesmerising. I know we go to restaurants for the food, but actually for me (a major foodie) if the atmosphere isn’t there, the restaurant falls short. On the other hand, if the restaurant has amazing atmosphere I might forgive it a few food points. It might have been necessary here, but I can’t complain, I lucked out. I started with a melting salmon confit on a sweet potato pancake, beetroot and horseradish cream; other table dishes included the addictive salty langoustines with garlic butter and a platter of duck for two with Jerusalem artichokes and gingerbread. 

  Then. What a main course. I reluctantly agreed to share the Chateaubriand, just to help out a fellow foodie. It was cooked perfectly, a dark pink centre, complemented by melting buttered girrolle mushrooms and an intense beef jus. The Gruyere cheese mash was also something special. I apologise for not getting a photo, I was too busy savouring the meal. My only complaint would be that the carrots, while beautifully presented as whole baby carrots complete with tops, were hard as rocks, a little hard to eat. Unfortunately the Venison Wellington (shared by one set of father/son) fell short. Restaurants really ought say if they include such a dominant flavoured blue cheese in a dish. The beef fillet with cauliflower and walnut dressing promised a lot but seemed a little dull and small for its price. Again the vegetarian at the table commented that whilst ok, her butternut squash dish was nothing special, a shame when vegetarianism is being explored in such an exciting way at other restaurants currently. 

 Despite being rather full from the main, my pudding stomach was fairly excited by the array of desserts. So of course we decided to split a few. The Rhubarb mousse, gin sorbet and earl grey meringues boasted some impressive flavour in the meringues, less so with the sorbet (honourable mention to the octopus inspired presentation plate). The lemon meringue pie and cardamon ice cream melted in the mouth and the chocolate plate lived up to its reputation. It was rich (probably a good thing we were sharing) but the smoked white chocolate mousse alone was worth it. Finally a quick mention about the drinks. Well worth a try is the martini menu. A perfect martini should be ice cold, but not watery, biting and either salty or faintly sweet and the Oxo tower had something for everything on the spectrum. I enjoyed tantalisingly labelled 1953 or the Vesper (yes I do think I’m James Bond) gin, vodka and aromatised wine with a lemon twist, shaken not stirred. I could easily come back just for the view and another martini. The Atmosphere gets a 9 from me, the food a solid 7, the drinks push up to an 8 and the company is always a 10. 

Le Manoir: The Guest Experience.

I often realise how lucky I am with my family. When I read the articles about ‘preparing’ for Christmas where others talk about throwing ornaments, seating plans and drinking to mask uncle Alfred’s stories, I thank god that my family are rather good company. I have in the past lamented the fact my family are not large enough for my Christmas spread and how much I need some teenage boys to wolf down the 11 side dishes I provide. It is a very small, first world problem I face in my family, but then again not many people have 8 in the extended relations category. Let me introduce them. There’s my grandad, this 93 year old world traveller can proudly claim that he recently flaunted an 80years or over ban on a submarine exhibit (swinging through the port holes), travelled on the train down to visit us on his own and gleefully was in charge of twister spinning last Christmas which got more and moreI agitative as he abandoned the spinner. On the other side of the family is the 93 year old, mildly racist grandma, who recent asked my (happily married) mother if she had a nice young man, said to me ‘you look really good, it’s good you’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m sure it will help you find a boyfriend’ and whilst in hospital for a hip replacement ‘ are you alright? Why am I in bed when it’s you who needs a hip replacement?. There is my aunt and One Direction/Justin Bieber loving cousin. Then we have my mother, fiercely intelligent but constantly busy, my father, with a headmaster’s presence which makes you think he’s a lot taller than his 5″10 height and my sister who is living the city life with a job in property – I still have no idea what she actually does…-.

So it’s rather nice to catch up with more distant relations who we don’t see at christmas and realise that I’m lucky that even my over-extended family are extremely good company. I was not going to turn down the opportunity to go to Le Manoir Quatre Saisons with my grandma’s sister’s grandson and his family. They do do things rather well at Le Manoir. It is the little details, from the fairy light lit drive and impeccable valet service (they even retrieved my bag from the car) to the perfect decor, dietary tailored menus and exemplary level of attention – neither too much nor too little-. I may have got a bit excited when we arrived because Le Manoir is my old stomping ground and first experience of working in a professional kitchen. My time at Le Manoir inspired the realisation I actually wanted a career in food and I haven’t looked back, well except the following year when I went back to do more experience…  

I could waffle on for ages about the perfect gin martinis I had pre dinner and the beautifully presented canapés but let’s cut to the chase of the 7 course tasting menu. Our first surprise was the selection of bread on offer. I wish I could remember all the different types but highlights included sun dried tomato ciabatta, pecan and raisin and the intriguing beer and mashed potato bread which the couple of foodies around the table decided to try. Surprisingly light and moreish it has been added to the list of things to attempt. 

 

Butternut Squash Soup

 
Our first course was the best butternut squash soup you have ever tasted, displaying what Le Manoir does impeccably, highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients. It was accompanied by a perfectly cooked scallop and blue cheese garnished crouton, which I actually enjoyed despite my normal dislike of blue cheese. The courses just improved with the next being a highlight. A melting salmon confit, topped with a little caviar to enhance the flavour and accompanied with a little potato salad and lemon, apple and cucumber to compliment rather than overwhelm. Then came a perfectly poached duck egg in a round ball (hitting my attempts far far far out of the water) with wild mushroom tea. I’m scraping the barrel for criticisms but I will say I would’ve preferred a slightly richer mushroom flavour in the broth and possibly an individual teapot the customer could pour themselves just to add a little theatre. This is possibly the only area some other restaurants have the edge on Le Manoir. My personal favourite is Midsummer House in Cambridge which for me finds a great balance between the theatricality of The Fat Duck and the simple flavours of Le Manoir.  

Salmon Confit

Poached Egg

 Anyhoo. The next course was, I believe, my favourite, – which when I looked at the menu I wouldn’t have said – but the subtle flavours of cucumber against a poached brill fillet, scallop and a little kick of wasabi was literally heaven in bowl. It was at this point I regretted earlier getting excited about wine after some phenomenal champagne and letting slip about my wine course last summer; as the pressure was on to pick a perfect more floral white. Luckily even the non-white wine drinker enjoyed it, dodged a bullet there. Next was the venison, thin slices of perfectly rare meat with a simple red wine jus and potato cake topped with caviar again, a surprise addition. Another unusual garnish was the chicory leaves and microherbs adding a fresh burst of colour and texture, lifting the dish from a traditional venison, blackberry or like combo, giving Le Manoir the edge.  

 

Venison

 
I would usually judge a restaurant on its desserts as from experience it is sometimes where restaurants try and cut corners, failing to hire specialist pastry chefs. But having been behind the scenes I knew Le Manoir had one of the most exciting pastry kitchens I’ve ever seen. Think Willy Wonka’s workshop. There is a rumour the pastry chef at Le Manoir is judging the upcoming professional take on Great British Bake off and I don’t doubt it, desserts are a serious business at Le Manoir. They didn’t mess around with dessert no.1. It promised apple and it delivered an overwhelmingly intense flavour of apple, unmarred by any others. Layers of compressed apples matched with a highly distinctive apple sorbet which we all agreed we could probably have had a bowl of on its own. The meal ended in style with a beautiful chocolate and coffee concoction. A praline layer, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, even gold leaf and espresso mousse gave an intense hit. Oh and then Raymond Blanc came over to the table to say hi. Even gave me some advice about my chocolate making ambitions, but that would be telling. Not a bad end to the  night.

 

Chocolate, Espresso Delice

 Le Manoir excels at stripping food back to ingredients, generally favouring to streamline one or two flavours rather than wacky combinations or too many. Some chefs should take note of the cooking style: sometimes simplicity is best; the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. What an evening. Good Food, Good Wine, Great Company. As my uncle said, we should live our lives through experiences and I will be dining out (pardon the pun) on and remembering this one for a very long time.  

  

Cambridge hot spots: a few reviews

I may call myself a food blogger, but I am shamefully bad at what food bloggers are meant to do, write reviews. You know, the archetypal wanker who takes out their phone at the dinner table and snaps a quick pic of everyone’s food before anyone is allowed to touch it. That used to be me! But recently I’ve been mostly posting recipes, a much more egotistical version of food blogging. So I’ve decided to cover a few staples of the Cambridge culinary scene. Some of the places I would be most likely to frequent when socialising, with the exception of the. Maypole pub, I don’t think it needs much more endorsement as I am probably single handedly financing it.

Catesby’s

Ok so shameful plug, this is where I work. But they do have a fantastic Welsh Rarebit which generally keeps regulars coming back time again. Their simplistic approach to lunch is perfect for when you are craving a light classic lunch and the homemade cakes are a welcome change from the manufactured coffee shop chains. Plus I’ve heard the service is excellent. 

Bills

Bills is a staple for breakfast whenever the parents are in town and they rarely fail to disappoint. I particularly recommend their vegetarian breakfast. It’s unusual to be able to find a veggie version that doesn’t just disappoint or try to replace meat with weak vegetarian versions, in Bills the meaty elements are replaced with tasty humours and guacamole, making it better ( in my eyes) than the original. Another highlight on the Bills menu are their cocktails. Not the first place you would think for a pre dinner drink but they have a modest menu of a mix of classics and more unusual cocktails. I highly recommend the Bramble Mojito, which (despite its bright purple appearance) packs a punch and carries a strong blackberry flavour without being too sweet (a fault happy hour cocktails often carry…). Of course when you have a drink there, you cannot fail but accompany it with some giant spicy tortilla chips, guacamole, tzatziki and salsa. The German Gal and I are addicted. So. Much so that I am ashamed to say on one particularly decadent occasion, we had one plate each to accompany our bramble mojitos… Crunchy, mildly spicy, giant, fried pieces if tortilla dipped in so creamy-you-won’t-believe-it’s-yoghurt tzatziki is fast becoming my idea of heaven. The one thing I have been let down on my Bills unfortunately is the main event, which seems a shame. When I went there for dinner with my family my chicken leg in a cremy sweetcorn sauce was tasty, but a meagre portion for £15 with no vegetables and barely any actual meat on the bone. Likewise when I came and had the chicken skewers with couscous salad and pitta on another occasion, the couscous salad was dry and lacked flavour. Maybe I’m just choosing the wrong things, especially when they get other things on their menu so right. 

 

Bills’s vegetarian breakfast

 
Cote

Cote is the posh dinner out for the Cambridge student, whether it’s date night, extravagent birthday dinner or parents in town. I recently went with a group of girl friends to celebrate the German gal coming back from Germany for the weekend. One of the main things that always confuses me about Cote is their insistence upon serving water in weighted bottles, which, whilst pretty, never seem to hold much water and also mean that you constantly forget you’ve run out of water as they always feel full. Cote usually get the food right though. They do a decently priced set lunch/ early evening which offers three courses for £11.90 or 2 for £9.90, one lunch there I had a buttery, sweet crumble with melt in the mouth vanilla ice cream oozing creaminess on the top.  

Apple Crumble

Back to the girls dinner.since Cote is ostensibly a french restaurant, I decided to go for the traditional cassoulet dish. I was not disappointed. There were large chunks of melting meat, especially the on-the-bone lamb fillet, and a thick comforting tomato sauce, full of punchy, meaty provencale flavours. My only criticism was that the pork belly was too fatty and would have benefitted from being roasted or flash fried before being added to the cassoulet so that you weren’t just faced with lumps of fat but scored morsels of flavour. The Queen soprano had opted for the Cote staple, pan fried steak with their signature chips, whilst there are many good steak houses in Cambridge (the best has to be Cau, closely followed by  Cambridge Chophouse) Cote definetly wins the price for simplicity and flavour. Their steak doesn’t apologise for being flash fried, medium rare as the Parisians like it and with the ultimate french fries, think as moreish as McDonalds after a night out, if they used less chemicals, less saltand gave you a real napkin. All in all with Cote, you know what you’re getting. They do classical french well, a chain that doesn’t feel like a chain. Having said that, they rarely change their menu which can mean that you feel a tad bored after the 5th visit in so many years.

 

Cassoulet

Steak and Chips

  

Jamie’s Pizzeria

I made a sneaky visit to Jamie’s pizzeria with an old friend when they came into town. Zizzi’s had failed me on a Saturday night, but the 17seater pizzeria upstairs in. Jamie ‘so was practically empty. It was a shame. It’s not outrageously expensive, it has a simple menu in the vibe of a rustic Italian trattoria and has decent wine served in short wine glasses in an eclectic fashion. Admittedly the pizzeria is tucked away upstairs and can be intimidating with the intimacy of the setting, but it more than makes up for it with some of the best tomato sauce I’ve tasted in a chain italian restaurant. The pizza base is that thin, scorched crisp bread variety which I last had at the pizza show in Rome.  ( literally what it sounds like, a five course pizza tasting menu for €10 – I love the italians the tomato sauce carried an incredibly punchy tomato flavour, I dispersed with dollops of half melted mozzarella for the authentic rustic Italian meal. This pizzeria lacks the finesse and diversity of the pizza express pizza but it is way more authentic and dare I say it, much more tasty. 

 

Pepperoni Pizza

 
Stickybeaks

Finally the to go venue for the yummy mummies of Cambridge. Stickybeaks is the ultimate kitsch home-made style cafe. The sort of place that students playing ladies who lunch would aspire to go. Which is exactly where the anthropologist professor,  Labours secret weapon and I went, in a break from choir rehearsals. (Admittedly it was more because we wanted a different scene to the monotonous chains of pret and Eat than we aspired or had the time to be ladies that lunch but you get the idea). It’s the sort of place where you share tables, newspapers and food magazines are offered as a courtesy and iced coffees are served in tumblers. However despite the fact Stickybeaks could very well adhere to this cutesie vibe and overcompensate with the food, the simple salads and warming treats (such as the sumptuous sausage roll, thick tortilla or layered coconut granola pot) are well made and fairly priced. We were never talking subway prices but you have to be be willing to give independent cafe a bit more, plus the ambience. My Chorizo and egg salad is the main reason I include Stickybeaks on the list, well worth the money, the salad was flavoursome, eggs cooked to order to perfection and served with crunchy croutons for a filling (healthy feeling ) lunch.  

 

Gin in a Pint Shop

Gin in a Pint Shop

The end of exams calls for a celebration and what better time to try out the most recent addition to the Cambridge restaurant scene, The Pint Shop. I have often popped into this relatively new addition to the Cambridge restaurant scene for one of their amazingly diverse gin and tonics, from the more classically flavoured  Junipero 49.3% 12 Botanicals, Strong Juniper to the exciting  NB Gin 42% Grains of Paradise, Orris Root, Cassia Bark. (I am yet to find out what Grains of Paradise are…) I am also reliably informed that you can have the pint of the name there as well, although that’s  not really my style. These Gin and Tonics are made even more exciting by the sophisticated presentation of a sliver of lemon peel, plenty of ice and juniper berries, Wetherspoons take notice.

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So directly after spraying U4 with champagne as the final finalist, the staircase crowd plus extras headed down for lunch in plainly decorated back room of the shop, the back being the restaurant, the front the bar. One of the most appealing aspects for the students round the table was the set price lunch menu, 2 courses for £10, friendly to the student budget. We were immediately presented with hefty chunks of sourdough bread and slabs of butter gratefully received by the majority of the party who had missed breakfast due to their own exam celebrations the night before. (My only gripe was that the butter was unsalted, but it was nothing a little sea salt couldn’t fix).

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The girl Muso, Phantom and I all started with the intriguing sounding spiced cauliflower fritters with yoghurt sauce. I was impressed. They were light, but less pungent than an onion bajii and went well with the neutral yoghurt sauce. However the classicist next to me made me immediately jealous, a roast cauliflower, Raddichio and walnut salad (cauliflower is clearly in season) which looked amazing and I was assured tasted as good. I later found out that this is a bit of a house speciality in various forms, missed a trick. Altogether the starters were basic but showcased their produce.

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The main courses were pretty much along the same vein, basic but showcased seasonal produce. My mackerel with potato salad cannot, I’m afraid, be referred to as the best dish I ever had, but it was well seasoned and the mackerel melted in the mouth. Apparently those who had the pork were not so lucky. While the pork with roasted apple and mustard sauce was nice, the whole dish was severely let down by the rather odd large pickled fennel which was taking up most of the plate. Initially I thought that the girl Muso was exaggerating…but after tasting I can definitely say fennel is one of the few things that shouldn’t be pickled ever.

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Of course the real winner was Leporello, who decided to treat himself off the set menu. His steak with fried egg and bone marrow looked impressive and judging by the empty bone and plate it was pretty damn good. His and U4’s meals were accompanied by the sort of food I would normally have after 3am post clubbing but turned out to be an inspired choice. The Pint Shop is the only place I know that can elevate the humble chips with curry sauce to a sophisticated side order for lunch.

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All in all the Pint shop is a great place to go, but stick to the classic pub food, they do that best. Their cricket ball sized scotch eggs are next on my list, apparently they’re worth the trip to Cambridge.

When In Bruges…

When In Bruges
If you haven’t yet been to see the 39 steps in the Criterion theatre I would strongly advise getting a ticket (not that it seems to be going anywhere soon, they just celebrated their 3000th performance….). After you’ve been to see the fast paced, british slapstick comedy piece of genius, you might be peckish (we certainly were at 10pm). We headed over to what can be described as possibly too trendy for the group of Cambridge students that encountered it but I was very glad that we did go there because despite the overly trendy feel of exposed piping and industrial staircase the food was delicious and very good value. A restaurant called BELGO. I’ve been told the beer was rather good but I’m afraid the meagre sip of honey beer I tried just tasted like beer to me – I clearly haven’t had enough beer to taste the subtle nuances of different flavours. I did like the exciting looking test tube that one of the beers came in, and exciting presentation does always make me like things better, but I’m still not sure I would’ve liked any of the beers their no matter how superior their glassware.
Having ordered and declaring ‘I am a Snob’ to order the Snob mussels (well employed someone else to do it on my behalf – I was chicken), we were impressed when the starters came within minutes – did I mention it was 10pm? I made a very wise choice with the duck salad. It came warm with soft and crunchy croutons ( I do mean this), a perfectly on the cusp of soft boiled egg, some sort of delicious dressing (I would love the recipe) and hidden treasure troves of black pudding. Passing the salad round it got approval from all areas. Although a close second was the chicken liver pate which came with giant sourdough croutons and was rustic but spreadable with a salty smooth flavour – pretty sure I can create this one at home, watch this space. The melting gruyere cheese croquettes were never going to be my choice not only were they too cheesy for me, but also served with beer relish… however I was assured from all sides that they lived up to the hype and a very popular option round the table. There was also the lobster bisque which looked like a rather dull butternut squash soup but one sip was enough to show the there was a really deep seafood flavour, it wasn’t grainy and it wasn’t too thick or thin, I was almost jealous but luckily I was having the snob mussels for main, champagne, cream and lobster.

 
The blondie decided to splash out on the ‘add half a lobster for £10’ deal, although all of us were questioning whether surf and turf really expanded to include pork belly… As I’m afraid has been the case before I think the lobster was some what of a disappointment. The lobster lovers out there will probably heavily berate me for saying this but as my opposite dining partner said, lobster really only tastes properly fresh if it is cooked from living in a pot of boiling water (now I’m off to hide before the witch hunt comes) and this one was probably frozen… The sauce on my mussels was absolutely heavenly, full of flavour, decadent and the mussels weren’t chewy or overcooked. My only gripe was possibly I would’ve preferred to be offered bread to mop up the sauce, the fries were nice, but they were nothing special. I believe the same was said of the classic mussels, they were excellent too. I’m afraid I didn’t here much about the pork belly and half chicken as they were sitting down the other end of the table.

We finished the meal around midnight with a surprise plank of shots appearing from somewhere. I am still not entirely sure what these shots were but the menu described them as SCNAPPS SHOTS: MIXED SHOT STICKS IN A VARIETY OF FLAVOURS. I believe I smelt, apple, vanilla, chocolate… etc
Probably should’ve gone for the waffles/ice cream, the salted caramel flavour looked really good. Belgo – I shall be coming back!

Italian in the Isle of Man

Italian in the Isle of Man
If I told you that the traditional dish of the Isle of Man was the grand choice between herring and boiled potatoes and chips with gravy and cheese you might get the idea that this place isn’t perhaps known for its grand haute cuisine. However that wasn’t why we were there, it was no Italy. But luckily we were provided with the most lovely selection of home cooked meals (particularly a melt in the mouth lamb shank, fluffy trifle and copious wine on the last night) and a few of us were impressed with the traditional kipper roll (gutted I missed this), manx beer (NOT me), goats milk strawberry cheesecake ice cream (definitely me), and of course the Manx Knobs (humbug like sweets). In fact we were given so much food, tea, cake and sandwiches here there and everywhere, that a walk up the ‘mountain’ was definitely well received.
One thing I can definitely attest to is the quality of the food in the Italian restaurant La Piazza in Douglas. Lovely and filling, the highlight was unfortunately dessert by which point I was really full, any other time I would have just eaten several portions of that! More later.
The choice of starters was unfortunately limited due to the lateness of the hour, but the newbie and I shared between us a rather disappointing Caprese salad (literally just mozzarella and tomato, no dressing or pesto or nothing) and retro vol au vents (two the size of a pie each) with a lovely creamy mushroom sauce, possibly again could have a done with a touch more seasoning. However I’m glad we shared because one of them alongside the considerably lighter salad was a better size for a starter than two giant puff pastries. Im likewise pleased I didn’t opt for the garlic bread as it was literally a pizza size, if I’d have had that alongside a second pizza…..

Talking of which I opted for the house specialty, classic margarita base with garlic butter and parma ham. It was very tasty, the garlic butter added an extra layer of flavour and the parma ham was very good quality, added at just the right moment. The main issue was again finishing my plate. I have always been the good little girl that finishes everything on my plate as my mother told me to…. in this case it was possibly a mistake. Likewise the newbie had a large plate of carbonara which she couldn’t finish but the historian next to me made solid work of the volcanic looking calzone. The best moment of the night was when the northerner got confused about the sea bass dish believing that bass couldn’t possibly be a fish, but rather a manxian assortment of seafood, I believe she was rather surprised when the dish arrived.


At this point the meal deteriorated as only choir tours can and a game of pass the string bean mouth to mouth. It was probably a good thing we were basically the only people left in the restaurant at this point, although I believe one unsuspecting customer was treated to possibly the loudest, most overly harmonised and operatic Happy Birthday she had ever heard…What happens when you mix a choir and wine.
Then came the grand finale, dessert. I wisely passed on the profiteroles (I believe a good profiterole is one in a million and as expected they were soggy and too much plain cream) and grudgingly passed on the pannacotta which ran out, although I was mainly excited by the jam smiley face, and was rewarded with one of the best tiramisu’s I have ever had. Rather than a disappointing mountain of plain whipped cream, soggy lady fingers and bitter cocoa powder, we were treated to a sweet boozy zabaglione (sort of custardy but sweeter and thicker) layered with spongy lady fingers, strong coffee and dark chocolate shavings. I could have eaten another couple. La Piazza I salute you

The Lobster Quadrille: The Yorkshireman part 2 – Brown’s Brasserie

The Lobster Quadrille: The Yorkshireman part 2 – Brown’s Brasserie

In my last post I described the beer cake. It had one of the best responses to a cake I’ve had, simply because I walked in the room for the sparkling wine drinks, the birthday boy and gathered assembly were drinking large pints. However following the drinks we all headed over to Browns to continue the celebrations.
It was a little surreal approaching the restaurant for their weekly lobster night to walk through a throng of hand horns and placards being thrust in our plates by protestors protesting against lobster killing, but luckily once you got in the restaurant the regular blasts of horns and shouting dispersed into vague background noise.
I was quite hungry at this point and there was just one starter calling out to me and my neighbour, the sharing plate. This I would strongly recommend! I particularly enjoyed the calamari which were crisp but not chewy inside and went well with lime and chilli mayonnaise, which lacked heat but was tasty nonetheless. The honey mustard chicken again lacked a huge hit of the promised flavour but was still tasty and very well cooked. I really liked the prawn cocktail, chunky prawns and a hit of marie rose sauce which didn’t try to pretend it was anything other than what it should be, mayonnaise, worcester sauce and ketchup (it may have been more fancy then this but I loved it’s lack of pretentiousness). Again I really enjoyed the duck crispy chilli duck which was full of flavour but perhaps should’ve been described as hop-sin duck because that is what it was in reality. The chorizo sausage roll was very good and definitely lived up to its description, as did the lavish breadsticks which were so much more than breadsticks, more like morish buttery pastry sticks (this was not one for the figure conscious) which went so well with the rich lime and chilli mayonnaise for absolute decadence, carried the actually quite spicy harissa houmous and were complimented by the more plain and light aubergine caviar. Altogether perhaps browns could do with rewriting their description, but the finished product was delicious, although most definitely for sharing, perhaps we were a bit ambitious only sharing between the two of us…

 For the main I was told that I absolutely had to have the lobster surf and turf and was even offered sponsorship to order it (which of course I gratefully accepted -don’t judge, food lover+student – all donations accepted). The problem I had with the main was that having advertised this as a dish for lobster lovers, the lobster was significantly smaller than others I’ve had in the past (see dubai and Brussels) and was slightly overcooked and lacked flavour. For £25 you would have thought they could at least have run to a sauce for either the steak or lobster. Having had my rant the turf bit of my meal was lovely. I do like my steaks virtually mooing on the plate and I know a minute steak is quite hard to cook medium rare so I really should’ve asked for rare. Despite this they managed a good medium rare which I was impressed with and the fluffy thin chips were really good especially when dipped in Brown’s homemade ketchup, which I have had before and absolutely adore, it is so much better than Heinz (which for the record I love on brunch – this just goes the extra mile!) The steak doesn’t quite beat Cau, but at the moment that is a tough act to follow.

All in all in Brown’s, choose wisely and you will be rewarded. (I probably chose a little unwisely as I should’ve remembered Cambridge is as far from the sea as humanly possible.) Sometimes the most expensive choice isn’t necessarily the best, but what they know well they pull off well. (And trust me they know chips, calamari and breadsticks very well apparently)