Fine Dining

The Oak Room at Ettington Park

The long driveway into Ettington Park could be straight out of a movie. The road slowly bends around as the trees begin to disperse and the mansion looms majestically at the back. The side profile, being the first full look, is impressive enough, though the gothic turrets and dramatic arched windows really come into their own from face-on. It’s a handsome building within beautiful grounds, the ideal romantic getaway. Oh, and it’s allegedly the country’s most haunted hotel. Given how the weekend would pan out, a ghost would be the only thing going bump in the night in our room.

The proportions here are of those built a long time ago with little care for budget. Staircases unwind into large receptions, drinks are enjoyed in drawing rooms larger than some homes. Our room is functional without being flash, spacious without the excess the rest of the building has. It has the benefit of a view across the sprawling grounds that succeeds in making me want to leave it and explore. The bed is deep and provides a good night sleep before breakfast the following morning.

The restaurant here is The Oak Room, a beautifully appointed space of dark woods and low light. It is exceptionally romantic, an ideal space for two people to relax and enjoy the two AA rosette food. Except I am here alone. My girlfriend is in bed, laid low with the finest that the Indian water sanitation system could send her back with, just 24 hours from landing. It’s not an ideal situation, though a bottle of good red from a top-heavy wine list proves to be an adequate companion. My mood does not improve with the amouse bouche, a goats cheese mousse with crouton and cherry. The first mouthful is great; the crouton is buttery and light, the sharp sweetness of the cherry an ideal counterfoil, but once they go it is just three more spoonful’s of goats cheese on its own. It needs a rethink in how it is plated.

A pork cheek starter is sat on a dice of celery and apple that gives a subtle nod toward Waldorf. There is a smear of cauliflower purée and a charred floret from the same brassica. It eats well, but once again we have issues with proportion; not enough of that tender cheek to go with all that veg.

And then fireworks happen. Monkfish loin rolled in spices, with picked carrots and cauliflower, and a bowl of dhaal full of smokiness and gentle heat. Yes, the dish is very obviously inspired by Purnell’s winning fish course on GBM, but frankly who cares when it is this good. I’ve eaten both and this probably pips it on the basis that the flavour is more pronounced. I love the additional tangle of fried onion that they call bhaji and I am calling paradise, and the yogurt dressing which tempers the heat when liberally applied. It’s a super bit of cooking.

The same applies for dessert, a beautifully worked homage to the apple. At the base is a silky smooth set cream, blanketed in a sharp jelly and balls of macerated fruit. On the side are two perfectly made cinnamon donuts. It’s apple pie without the scalded mouth. The flavour is fantastic, each layer pronounced and overall cleansing rather than too sweet.

The meal may have improved with every course but the service was polished to a high gleam throughout. They have a smart operation here that is seamless in delivery; wine is effortlessly topped up, dishes nudged in and out of place from acute angles. It works as a restaurant on its own, not just as a facility for a hotel. I want to return when we can enjoy for what it is, not when I am sat bullseye in the room, with a room full of couples wondering who the weirdo on his own taking pictures of his food is. But that’s fine with me. I return to the room, where I find the TV on and madam fast asleep. Ettington Park is a beautiful place to spend a night or three, she too will understand this one day soon.

7/10

Our stay at Ettington Park Hotel was complimentary, and they subsidised a proportion of the dinner bill. The stay was arranged by Shakespeare’s England. Www.shakespeares-england.co.uk

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Adams, Birmingham

Given that Claire whisked me away to Ynyshir for my birthday, it was always going to be a struggle to get close to her efforts for her birthday. My idea was a simple one; to saturate her with saturates, to become the quintessential feeder and ply her with good food over a sustained period of time. We end up doing eight meals in eight days, lots of daytime boozing and as many late afternoon naps. Central to this was a meal in the multi award winning Adams, which also has the added bonus of being the only decent restaurant in the city in which I have not been on a date to with a girl. I’ve been several times before with mates, on those long boozy lunches that end with hazy memories and self loathing.

The interior is smart here, with a polished team operating on a level way above the one star currently bestowed by Michelin. The noise levels are low and it is more intimate than I recall, but perhaps that is a more a reflection of the company I’m in keeping of tonight. We quickly receive a number of amouse bouches; artichoke crisps with earthy purees of the same vegetable and black truffle, and squid ink macaroon with creamed cod’s roe filling. This is followed in rapid succession by tuna sashimi with ponzo jelly and a tartare of steak with charcoal mayo. The last of these is the star, the meat of real quality and the charcoal mayo giving the flavour of roast beef without heat touching it. It’s not my first encounter of the use of charcoal in a similar ilk, but it’s right up there with L’Enclume for precision delivery.

This is a kitchen that means business, that much is clear from the off. Bread comes as two types of sourdough with whipped lard and the richest of butters. First course is a successful pile of lightly dressed crab meat shrouded by pickled kohlrabi, with dots of a puree of apple and another of soy mayonnaise. It is precise in the balance, a light yet punchy dish to properly start the show with.

And then comes the only technical error of the meal. A veal sweetbread with finely sliced raw mushroom blanketing a mushroom ketchup, and a cup of shitake broth on the side. The umami rich mushrooms are the perfect foil for the creamy sweetbread had mine not been undercooked and gummy in texture. It is worth pointing out that Claire’s sweetbread, smaller in size and with a requested black pudding dish from the a la carte, was perfect, and I watched in envy as she demolished it with pleasure. We move on to a thick fillet of monkfish, the fish meaty and pearlescent, with crayfish and bisque. The bisque was astonishing; bold and with a good acidity level from vinegar and lemongrass. Ginger provides a sophisticated background heat that lingers.

We share an optional course of lobster with peanut satay. I say share – the cold chunks of crustacean disappear so quickly I only get one piece. The bit I try is superbly cooked without a hint of chewiness, the satay an unusual match that seemingly bolsters the meatiness of the lobster through the use of umami. Indeed, much of the food here relies on an almost Japanese use of vinegar and umami to give clarity and depth to dishes. This is again apparent with a pigeon dish that has another unique pairing of Colton Bassett and brambles. Who knew that pungent blue cheese went so well with the gaminess of pigeon? Not me, that’s for sure. Yet they sit side-by-side with one another, separated only the tart flavour of the berry. It’s really very clever.

The following course is without doubt my favourite of the night. Scallop, seared heavily and opaque in the centre, with a various onion preparations and a tempura of eel. It’s up there with the best dishes I’ve eaten this year, true to the scallop and perfect in balance between the sweet and acidic elements. We love the lightness of the tempura almost as much as the purée of white onion that showers everything in acidity. It overshadows the duck that comes afterwards. The rectangle of breast meat is perfectly tender, the heart of the bird an accurate blushing pink. We finish it, of course we do, using the last of the bread to mop up the last of the light jus, all whilst talking about the dish that came before.

If I remember one thing about our first dessert it’s how quickly it was eaten. The tart plum only marginally tempered by the sweeter elements as a transitional course into the final sweeter moments. The pistachio sponge (microwaved, El Bulli style?) threatened to disappear into thin air whilst the brown butter added a wonderful nuttiness to the plate. This is a grown up dessert, which is great, because I think I am one, though I’m not sure that Claire’s age qualifies her to be one yet. The last course is listed as ‘raspberry, lemon curd, clotted cream, sherbet’. I could probably stop this right here and leave you with that. It’s brilliant, a riot of the sharp and the sweet and the playful, the star being the raspberry sorbet that had astonishing depth of flavour. It’s everything a dessert should be.

This being a birthday treat I’m not going to say how much it cost, other than pointing out that with a good bottle of champagne and a nice bottle of red it would be a mortgage payment to some. Sweetbread issue aside, if was for me a clear indication that Adams is up there with the absolute finest in the city, with inventive cooking that nudges the boundaries without trampling all over them. Some of the dishes, like the crab, the tartare amouse, and the scallop were truly outstanding and as the seasons change it will be a place that we will come back to soon. And for Claire, she loved every second, grinning for days on end and sharing pictures of the meal with anyone who feigned interest for more than a second. That is all the reaction I need to tell you that Adams is worth every penny. It’s a special restaurant worthy of any special occasion.

9/10

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Lasan, St Pauls Square, Birmingham

It is impossible to mention the new Lasan without referring to the old. It is a restaurant that I am very familiar with, one widely regarded as the best of it’s kind in this city, thanks in part to it’s association with TV food mahatma, Aktar Islam. Aktar has now parted with the group and the restaurant has had a well needed spruce. Gone are the hard wooden lines and non-existent lighting, in comes a softer, more approachable look of pastels and patterns. It’s almost colonial in feel, like they play fine jazz to those awaiting food on the curved bar that sits adjacent to the dining room. And they do play jazz. I’m a massive fan of the refit.



Without wishing to play down the offering, you get the feel that the chase of a Michelin star has gone, replaced with a desire to feed with more traditional methods whilst still keeping to the refined style that has made it so popular. This is reflected with an ease to the service; staff are happy to chat, some dishes are rustic in their presentation. It’s less stuffy and more congenial – a place to return to time over rather than just special occasions. Accolades are excellent, but it’s paying customers that pay the bills.


It starts as it always has, with umami bombs of pani puri, filled to the brim with a pungent tamarind water and as good as they ever get. These come with greaseless poppadoms and dips to range from a familiar made from mango to a pineapple one that’s new to me. We try samosas made with the lightest of filo pastry, the filling of minced venison more than capable of standing up to the spicing.



Another starter of chicken is a solid piece of  workmanship. From the kebab made with coarsely ground mince, to the paté patty with the background funk of offal, and precisely trimmed drumstick, it sings with deft spices and well judged heat. Soft shell crab has the lightest of chilli batter that packs the biggest of flavour, with a crab cake packed with brown meat that reinforces the crustacean flavour. It’s hard to pick fault with any of the starters. Looking back, I can think of no fault at all. 


The biriyani that follows has cubes of goat at the base, braised so that they collapse under the interagation of the fork, with a dry curry that packs real power and crowned with a flurry of rice, crisp shallots, and herbs. I wish that the dish arrived wearing a pastry cap so that the aromas are released tableside, but this is a small detail given the quality of it all. We scoop on to excellent garlic naan, and, even better, roomali roti that is so thin it could be parchment paper. It’s great to see this bread, the most tricky to make, being properly showcased.



A steel tray comes bearing a shank of lamb, coated in marinade and slowly cooked. It’s an accurate bit of cooking; the meat coming away from the bone with ease. Pickled onions have enough astringency to cut through the chilli heat, with pots of raita and dhal for light and shade. That dhal returns in a larger pot – it has to, it’s glorious. As good as any dhal I’ve eaten anywhere. The lentils slow cooked and as smokey as a jazz club. 


Dessert course defeats us, and I sense a dissapointment from the waitress that we are really missing out on something. It’s okay, we’ll be back. Soon. This was my most consistent meal here to date, wholesome and confident in it’s new identity on the plate and in it’s space. I have no doubt at all that Lasan is currently the best Indian we have in Birmingham. 

9/10

I was invited to dine at Lasan

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Ynyshir, Elgwys Fachs, Wales

My girlfriend is a fellow food blogger, a statement which, if you know my general disdain for the term, is something that will require therapy on my behalf to overcome. It’s not her fault; she’s one of the good guys whose interest extends further than the pique-assiette culture of never paying for a dinner. Plus, it has it’s upsides. She acts as a sub editor for my piss-poor grammar and provides the funnier observations over dinner that I steal for my writing.  And, loving food in the same way that I do, she takes me to Ynyshir for my birthday. Whadda woman.  I still can’t believe that my greatest love sprang from my greatest enemy. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only far shitter to watch.


And so, let’s move onto Ynyshir, a beautiful white walled residence in the middle of bloody nowhere, or, as the locals would prefer me to say, in Elgwys Fach, at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, near Machynlleth.  I have this theory in remote restaurants in that the journey makes a part of the experience.  Anyone can hop on a train to London, but to commit to here, or The Three Chimney’s, or L’Enclume takes a certain amount of commitment.  And boy, are we committed to food, as the next nine thousand (I’m guessing) words will show.  Those with a short attention span may want to look away now.  Those with a culinary porn problem may want to cover their modesty:  This is going to get Filthy.



The dining room pans out towards the rolling green hills of the Dyfi valley at one end and straight into the open kitchen at the other.  It is as much as a blank canvas as interior designers will allow it to be, with warm purples occasionally interspersing wooden floors and thick white linen table clothes. It is all about the food here with the first course making us sit bolt upright – a position that we would remain in for the two hour lunch and then some afterwards.  ‘Not French Onion Soup’ would transpire to be a bowl in which kombu stock was poured onto onion puree, tofu, onion oil, and pickled shallots.  It’s a whack to the face of umami, followed by a kick to the balls of acidity.  It’s big and brave, with the first sign of Japanese influences such as the dried kelp stock and miso in the onion puree.  It is perfect.  And this was just the first course.


What follows is a further ten courses that would set the marker for what I consider to be the UK’s most exciting restaurant.  A sourdough bread features a crust blacker than my soul, served with a Wagyu fat spread that overshadows an excellent miso butter.  Mackerel follows, barely cooked and draped in a pineapple jelly. Charcoal oil adds a depth, beansprouts and puffed rice texture.  As with so much of the food that follows, every flavour is amplified to eleven.



A cube of Wagyu short rib, cooked until it is only just holding it’s shape, is served with shitake mushroom, puffed rice and seaweed. The umami rich accompaniments are present to bolster the flavour of the beef, the seasoning as bold as it possibly can be. Following on from this was Mayan gold potato lightly dressed in pheasants egg, with shallots and truffle butter sauce.  We are back on the now familiar territory of umami and acidity, with the potato dice coated in a little yeast paste and the slight tang of vinegar in the sauce.  It’s a brilliant blend of two of the five basic tastes which give the dishes light and shade.  Claire says it is one of the best dishes she has ever eaten.  She’s right, but better is to come.



Lunches main protein came in the way of two courses of lamb.  The first is a rib glazed with soy and shizo that disappears as quickly as it arrives, the meat undressing from the bone at the slightest of suggestion.  The barbeque neck which follows is the first time that we would notice a familiar theme which would run through *spoiler alert* dinner the same night, in that dishes have a familiarity on the palate far removed from the world of fine dining.  The neck fillet is topped with a kombucha (a fermented Japanese herb tea) gel which echoes the best lamb with mint sauce you will ever eat.  It’s astonishing in delivery and concept, moreish to the point that it will eventually end up with it’s own addicts group.  In a day where the high points kept on rising, this was for the me the real eureka moment.



Not foreseeing the later bout of gluttony, we take the optional cheese course.  It’s cauliflower cheese, just like grandma used to make it.  Of course it’s not, I’m shitting you.  Cauliflower is compressed with -8 vinegar and topped with Beauvale that oozes and fills with a richness.  It is cauliflower cheese, right down to the breadcrumb topping, just not as you know it.  ‘Lager and lime’ really is just that, a cleansing course of yogurt panacota prepared tableside with continental lager and lime.  It takes me back to my teenage years when I used to drink my pints with a splash of cordial.




Our first dessert arrives, a blueberry dish that for me drops down to one Michelin standard – an achievement given that the restaurant presently has one star.  It’s good – the fermented berries bright in flavour, the buttermilk adding a subtle layer of fat.  We finish with a take on tiramisu.  It is glorious.  Various dots of coffee and vanilla, a shard of something crisp and see-through, with mascarpone granita and grated bitter chocolate.  It’s balanced and refined, a real statement that the sweeter courses can be to the same impossibly high standard of everything else.  We walk through the open kitchen for liquid nitrogen poached meringue filled with fennel purée, seemingly inspired by the aniseed sweets you get at the end of a curry.   I like that idea.  Anything inspired by curry houses is fine with me.  




Now that should be it.  I should surmise about a perfect meal worthy of a special journey and we should all move on with our lives.  Except I can’t, because as I alluded to earlier, that girlfriend of mine couldn’t turn down the chance to extend my birthday lunch into twenty or so more courses at dinner.  I argue that I’m not worthy of that expenditure for all of about twenty seconds before concluding that I probably am. I’m sorry but you’ve come this far to no avail, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it.

Dinner starts with the dish that is most definitely not a French onion soup, moving on to what is most definitely a glazed slice of duck leg topped with sesame.  Another mackerel dish follows, this time with a sweet and sour ketchup made from bramble, with wood sorrel and grated lardo.  The cured pork backfat is the inspired part, coating the mouth and improving the flavour.  And we’re back on that word again.  This place is all about flavour.  Everything else is secondary to the question “does it taste the best that it absolutely can?'”.  And I like that idea.  I like it a lot.  



The following two courses are two of my favourites.  Crab and sweet corn is remiscent of chowder, light and clean in profile until you hit the dark funk of a crab soy.  Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, glazed with birch sap syrup, and topped with spelt and a grating of smoked eel.  It’s smoked bacon.  Honestly.  The fat content, the back note of sweetness, the meatiness and the smoke.  I want this with a thick slice of bread and a cup of coffee.  But I can’t, so bottle number three of wine will make do. 



Duck with pickled black beans and black garlic is, of course, duck with black bean sauce.  Likewise tomato, lardo and basil is a BLT.  You get the picture; inspiration from the everyday took to a level up there with the very best.  You have to taste it to believe it.  



I can’t pinpoint the inspiration behind the barbecued langoustine but I can tell you it was damm right delicious.  It’s grilled to a meaty texture with wild garlic and a glorious dressing of roasted shells and soy sauce.  The pollock that came afterwards is, in my opinion, the weakest of the evening.  I  see what they are aiming at with the miso glaze on the fish and the dashi stock to slurp afterwards, it’s just disjointed and lacking the brutal hit of flavour of everything else we ate.  A deconstructed Caesar salad pulls it back.  The lettuce emulsion is vibrant, the Parmesan whey and anchovy crumb full of umami.  It needs the grated cured egg yolk to pull it all together, which it does brilliantly. 





Wagyu returns for three courses.  The first makes me shout “it’s a burger!” a little too loud with the addition of pickled gerkins and a genius addition of bread mayo.  This happens before a piece of sirloin that has been aged for 192 days – I’ve had engagements that have lasted less time.  The meat is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, a bastardisation of beef and blue cheese.  Served only with a grating of fresh wasabi, this is as close as I am likely to get to the prime steak houses of Tokyo.  Wagyu fudge concludes the trio.  You read that right, it’s fudge made with wagyu fat.  A genuine game changer.  Thorntons should nick the idea.



And this, Dear Reader, is where the post concludes, despite there being many courses left.  It was at this point that the days beers, the champagne, the cocktails, and the four bottles of red wine took hold.  It all became a little fuzzy and if I can’t remember it properly, I simply can’t write about it. I remember the lager and lime again, a brilliant strawberry dish that tasted like Summer Cup, and raspberries on toast.  Indeed, looking through my notes now, the dishes maintain the same form; most at the two star standard, with more at three star than one.  It seems a given to me that this restauarant is gaining a star this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it joins the top four in the coming years.  It is exhilarating; a riot of taste and precision, all hand delivered by a team of chefs who clearly love working here.  It is the best meal I’ve eaten, trumping all of the two and three star places I’ve been fortunate to dine at. And for once I wasn’t the one picking up the bill.  Gareth Ward and his team at Ynyshir have created a restaurant which rivals the very best in the country.

10/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The promenade of The Dorchester hotel is full of those having afternoon tea.  It is a curious mix of ladies who lunch, those celebrating, and hotel guests.  The class and the crass, if you like.  There are pearls and gowns beside velour tracksuits.  Cut glass English accents are interspersed by shouty American ones.  It is a lovely space where new money meets old money with a shared interest in the most luxurious of hotels.

We walk through that promenade and turn left into the dining room of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.  It is bigger than I expected, with washed grey walls, immaculate white linen, deep chairs, and an army of staff.  The latter are everywhere, an orchestra of tailored suits and foreign accents who are trained into pouring wine simultaneously and expertly covering up stains with smaller sheets of linen.  Each are aware of their individual roles in us leaving replete and suitably poorer than when we left.

After turning down the attention of a champagne trolley we are presented with a generous pyramid of gougeres – those lovely savoury choux buns flavoured with cheese.  These are nice, a little light on the emmental cheese flavour, and not as good as those at Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (an obvious comparison given it is London’s only other 3*).  The less said about the amouse bouche the better – a curious blend of cured John Dory, lime and peanut that was never going to work.  If 2017 serves up a more ill-conceived dish I shall be very unfortunate.

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We tried much of the bread to mostly great success.  A farmhouse bun was as light as a pillow and delicate with the back note of pork lard, whereas a black olive was a little muted on flavour.  Best was a bacon fogasse that had us going back for seconds, thirds, and, in my case, fourths.  Who said not to overfill on the bread course has never eaten this.  It’s the ultimate breakfast of knotted bread and cubes of fatty bacon.  We smear it inch thick with a lovely salted butter that has been shaped into an onion, whilst sneering at the aerated cream cheese option that looks and tastes like hair mousse.

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Our first course hit the mark.  A crumbed egg gave way to the brightest of yolks that served as a sauce for the smoked corn, chicken oysters and onion stuffed with chicken mousseline.  A corn tuile was a superfluous addition that the dish did not need, but the rest was indulgent and cohesive.

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And then, well, it all slumped for a while during mains.  A lamb rump was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and rested, with chickpeas, a hummus like puree and pickled onions.  It was nice.  In the same way that Songs of Praise is nice, or making daisy chains.  Impossible to fault, but equally hard to get excited over.  The thrill of dining here is lost amongst the fear of being anything other than perfect, as if the weight of Michelin hangs more heavily here than anywhere else I have dined at it in the country.  There are no risks being taken.  A word on the sauce though, it was an incredible thing that only a classic French approach can result in.

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The other main was a technically astute squid stuffed pasta, with various preparations of octopus hidden under a canopy of leaves.  The overriding flavour is one of citrus that lifts and occasional dominates all it coats.  The octopus was tender, the pasta silky, but three stars?  Really?  It’s all far too safe.

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You get the mignardises here before dessert, why I simply could not tell you.  What I can tell you is that they are all delicious, with some of the best macaroons I have eaten, cocoa coated almonds, nougat, and chocolates.  A lot of work goes into these and it pays off, with a salted caramel toffee disappearing to a nothing on the tongue.  Really lovely stuff.

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Desserts were true three star calibre.  An almond sponge has the lightest of textures, with poached apricot’s and almond granita.  Like the savoury courses there is nothing to fault but this has character; it stands up and demands attention.  Before I move onto my dessert, we were given an additional course because we were celebrating.  Its strawberries and cream for the child at heart, one perfect quenelle of milk ice cream, another of strawberry.  Little meringues of raspberry provide texture, with a singular fruit crowning it all.  The depth of the ice creams are truly staggering.  There is obvious skill in this part of the kitchen.

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The best course of the lunch deserves a post of it’s own, but I have a liver to kill and only  limited time to do so, so you’ll have to make do with this paragraph.  Chocolate and passion fruit.  It sounds simple enough.  Wrong.  Two tempered chocolate domes, one filled with a white chocolate mousse, the other a passion fruit mousse and topped with passion fruit seeds so that it resembles a halved fruit.  Have a look for yourself.  I couldn’t believe it as I cracked into it and I was 30cm away.  More chocolate as a creme, tuile, and crispy covered puffed rice.  Central to this was a vivid passion fruit ice cream that perfectly balanced it all out.  I’m not a dessert man because they are too often an afterthought, but this is up there with the very best sweet courses I have ever had.

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We finish with coffee and a tea trolley where you choose your own plant for an infusion.  It’s a lovely concept, typical of a place where every thought has been considered for the consumer.  Apart from the food that is. See, my biggest problem with Ducasse is a simple one:  Exactly one week one after dining here I have to refer to notes to remember much of what we ate.  I remember the splendid company and wonderful service.  I remember how charming the restaurant manager was.  I remember that the desserts were unquestionably three star level.  But the savoury stuff was mostly forgettable safe cooking, hovering around the two star level if they were lucky.  It’s nice.  But then nice just doesn’t cut it when this sort of money and reputation is involved.

7/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It was on a whim that my new girlfriend and I decided to have lunch at Harborne Kitchen. We’ve both had it rough of recent, both slightly hungover and tired, in need of a stomach lining fill and a top-up of alcohol levels. We initially looked to the greasier end of the spectrum in the city centre, before deciding that The Plough in Harborne would be a good option to while away the day after lunch. So, Harborne Kitchen it was. It would turn out to be one of the better decisions that the indecisive shit has made this year. The girl done good.  It’s stuff like this that got her the gig.

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We arrive on very wet Saturday afternoon, when the restaurant space is peppered by the dark grey sky looming through the skylight. It is a lovely dining room, arguably one of the cities more charismatic, all royal blue and white, the centre dominated by the open kitchen and stooled seating around the beech wood counter. A flurry of nibbles start us off. Cod skin arrives looking like a gilded pork puff, the salty whack of the sea ramped up by a spritz of rosemary vinegar.  These are excellent, as are the cauliflower cheese pastries they share a space with.  Lightly pickled carrots with a little of the liquor and buttermilk feel like work in progress, a little too refined and clever for its own good.  We end the procession with a gorgonzola donut that erupts through the brioche casing in the mouth.  It’s bites like this that make me go out for dinner.  It was as corrupt as a Tory MP, only far more appealing.

The first course might just have been my favourite.  Just cooked jersey royals, soured, no, sorry, cultured cream, with a wild garlic veloute poured tableside.  The veloute is bold and intense, as good as any I can recall eating.  Also lurking in the bowl is caviar that gives pops of salinity and toasted rice for bite.  We race for the last piece of sourdough to wipe the bowl clean.  It’s good enough to make me want to punctuate this sentence with swear words.  Absolutely nailed on one star cooking.

The duck liver dish that follows is all about the texture.  The combination of duck and cherry is one that harks back to Escoffier, the fruit having enough tartness to cut through the rich liver.  Sandwiching the parfait are two shards; one like a ginger melba toast, the other some wafer thin chicken skin.  It’s complex and intriguing.  Every mouthful is unique.

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I ask for a replacement to a salmon dish and get a salad of heritage tomatoes, a baked bean fondue, basil, and a tomato essence poured tableside.  It’s light and fresh, a beguiling mix of temperatures.

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Our main was a mammoth of a dish.  Lamb, as rolled shoulder, neck fillet, and tongue, with (wait for it), lovage, potato puree, radish, black olive puree, curd, spiced aubergine, and lamb jus.  There was a lot going on, with some parts better than others.  The rolled shoulder was glorious, as was the livery profile of the tongue.  Both were more than enough to stand up to the big flavours of the tapenade-like olive puree and aubergine.  The neck fillet was a little lost, as was the lovage.  We finished it because it was delicious, but both agreed it would have had more clarity with a couple of items stripped away.

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Desserts were frankly brilliant – there is obvious talent in the pastry department.  A yogurt ice cream is the perfect foil for orange segments frozen with liquid nitrogen in front of us.  There is a sharp curd that sits underneath that ties it all together.  It is exceptional.  Even better is the final dessert of honey parfait with milk ice cream, honeycomb, dehydrated milk shards, and honey.  It is good enough to induce tears of joy – balanced with ballerina-like poise.  It has character, texture, and flavour.  Another nailed on one star course.

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The price for the above lunch?  Thirty five English pounds.  Yes, you have read that correct.  I was on the beer (don’t judge), the other half on the G&T and we fail to hit £90 between us.  And they don’t charge a service charge, despite a slick operation that will have a certain guide going weak at the knees.  Evening visits and wine will ramp up the bill, but even so, this place is worth it.  It’s clever cooking, with a focus on big flavours and complexity.  Book up and go before word reaches the rest of the city in the same way it did with Carters.  It stops raining as we finish eating and light pours through the skylight and on to our table.  It feels like a sign.  Harborne Kitchen is a very special place that can bring sunshine to the darkest of days.

9/10

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards, where Harborne Kitchen is also nominated in the Best Fine Dining.  Please give us both a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

 

Cheal’s, Henley In Arden

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I once referred to Matt Cheal on Twitter as ‘Birmingham’s Phil Howard’, a massive compliment I’m willing to stick to based on a recent lunch. I’ve eaten his food several times before, back when he was Head Chef at Simpsons, and it has always struck me as a style similar to how The Square used to be; bold flavours, classic French sauces that shimmer, and conventional ingredient combinations tweaked with modern flourishes.  In my humble opinion, he is a chef that is defined by a desire to feed, something that reflects on his menu’s, which read like a Shakespearian sonnet.

Cheal’s has been open just over a year now, housed in the black beam and white plaster building where Le Filbert Cottage won one of the countries first Michelin stars.  The downstairs is a maze of rooms and open doorways, with crisp whiten linen adorning the well spread tables.  It wears it’s ambition proudly.  The menu, the service, the interior.  This is a place that wants a star, and, I firmly believe, will get one this autumn.

We get a teeny nibble of cod croquette that accompanies the crisp champagne, followed by an amouse bouche of soup of cauliflower cheese sent spiralling with an umami rich parmesan foam and drizzle of curry oil.  There is sourdough bread that is better than a wholegrain option, both with salted butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy bacon bits.  I told you the ambition was obvious.

We start with a rectangle of pork belly, softly cooked and compressed so that the fat is nothing but a glue holding the layers of meat together. It sits on an Asian inspired dice of smoked pineapple and leek, some crushed hazelnuts, and bitter chicory to cut through the richness. I’m not crazy about the jus being poured directly on to what started as a crispy piece of skin, but the rest is an assured bit of cookery that manages to balance out some big flavours.

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A crispy duck egg yolk is the centrepiece for another starter, bread crumbed and deep fried so that the oozy centre is released by the teeniest of pricks (pun intended – I was holding the knife).  There is a jumble of asparagus, peas, broad beans and shallots on to which the silkiest of asparagus veloute’s was poured.  A grating of Old Wincester provides enough tang to counteract the fresh spring flavours.  Fish comes in the way of skate, seemingly pan cooked in browned butter, with the plumpest of mussels and a collection of things found on coastal ground.  It whacked of the sea, with the salt flavour bolstered by strips of crisp salsify that offered more than merely texture.  The metallic notes of a saffron infused cream an inspired choice.

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Back in my favoured land of protein we get a roast chicken and chips.  Well, kind of.  The supreme is perfectly cooked with a bruleed skin that melts to a nothing on the palate, with a confit leg that can be deconstructed with the lightest of tugs.  I have no idea what they have done to the tomatoes to make them sweet and sour at the same time but it works.  Triple cooked chips on the side snap and fluff as they should.

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Spring lamb is perhaps the lightest course in terms of flavour we try all day.  The rack is a consistent medium, the fat correctly rendered down.  It needs the little croquettes of shoulder to smash that ovine flavour in fully.  The accompaniments of peas, potato terrine, sheep’s curd and artichoke puree all make perfect sense on the plate.  It’s food that you want to eat every week if the budget allowed.

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For the second time in seven days we have a seriously good beef dish.  Fillet comes as rare as we’d requested, crowned with a flurry of trompette mushrooms.  There is a square of brisket, and carrots, both roasted and as a rich orange puree.  The best thing on the plate was the beef fat mash, an indulgent thing that works in harmony with the red wine sauce at holding everything together.

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Of the three desserts ordered, I find it hardest to get excited over a wave of vanilla parfait with various elements of strawberry. It’s technically accomplished, in particular the buttery shards of shortcrust biscuit, but it’s all a bit too obvious and all a bit too sweet. Far more balanced was a moist honey and chrysanthemum cake with lemon sorbet. The floral note from the chrysanthemum cake in unison with the honey, the sorbet providing the acidity to cut through it.

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The star dessert was the milk chocolate and banana delice, draped in a ganache that reflects light like a disco ball, and topped with popcorn. It’s beautiful to look at, and made with obvious skill. A passionfruit sorbet is the ideal sharpness, and yes, the four components are hardly ground-breaking in their use together, but I’ll say it again, this food that you want to eat.

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They do carafe’s of wine around the mid teens, and we take food off both menu options (at lunch either £30 or £50 for three courses), leaving a total bill that almost touches £70 a head.  The value of that is there to be seen with your very eyes.  I am going to state the obvious here, but the food was of a similar ilk and quality to the time when Cheal was fronting the kitchen at Simpsons.  If the cooking then was worthy of a star, the food here surely must be.  Mark my words, come October the B postcode is gaining its seventh Michelin star.  And that star is going to Cheal’s of Henley.

9/10

Simpsons, Birmingham

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I’ll get the truth out from the start; Simpson’s is a special place for me. It was the first Michelin starred restaurant I took my girlfriend to, the place where we had our first year anniversary, where I celebrated my 30th birthday, and where I’ll be eating on my birthday this year. It’s a distinct kind of place, opulent without ever being flashy, polished without the stuffiness. It used to be much more rigid before the refit, whereas  now it has a Scandinavian vibe, with plenty of natural light bathing the bare wooden elements of tree, tables, and floor. It’s clean and casual, yet still romantic enough for a date night to ask your long suffering girlfriend of seven years for her hand in marriage. The last part is merely a suggestion.

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With the refit came a new Head Chef and a fresh approach. Nathan Eades joins Executive Chef, Luke Tipping, in the kitchen creating food that is identifiable with the old Simpsons, yet lighter and more modern in style. I have eaten here more frequently than any other starred restaurant and can gladly report that the food is better than ever. Not only have they moved straight to the top of Birmingham, they are now competing with the big boys across the country.

The opening act sets the scene for the evening. A tapioca cracker given the Just For Men treatment with squid ink is the ideal foil for the creamiest of taramasalata dip, whilst a delicate cracker made from chickpea flour is topped with truffled mayo and flowers almost too pretty to eat.  Almost.  We save the pigs head until last for good reason. The unctuous meat is encased in tiny shards of pork crackling – try telling me you don’t want that now.   It is as fulfilling as two mouthfuls of food can get. Bread comes as a flaky tapenade roll and a sourdough that is almost as good as that from the Hedone bakery. For those familiar with the latter they know this to be the highest of compliments. The crust has bite, the crumb slightly elastic with large pockets of air. It is dreamy when smeared an inch thick with the salty whipped butter.

We are yet to reach the dishes ordered from the A La Carte menu and had already eaten some seriously good food. A starter of veal tartare exceeds this by being one of the best raw meat dishes I have ever eaten, the entire plate basked in light acidity from balls of apple and slices of kohlrabi.

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A carrot broth jewelled with herb oil is poured tableside onto a slow cooked duck egg with meaty hen of the wood mushrooms, and tangles of crispy pork for bite and saltiness.  Nasturtium add a gentle pepperiness not unlike watercress.  It’s a joy, and a visual joy at that.  Salmon is cured so that the texture firmed up, with sweet raw obsiblue prawns seasoned with a little lemon juice, caviar, cucumber, and a buttermilk dressing.  The dish requires little in the way of cooking and an expert hand in balancing the sweet and the acidity.  It nails it, producing a bowl full of complexity that celebrates the best in produce.

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Beef comes as a rare cannon of rump and a wedge of brisket so softly cooked it concedes at the merest suggestion of pressure.  Add to this a fat spear of white asparagus, petals of charred shallot, mushrooms, potato puree seasoned with crisp bone marrow, and what you have is a plate that produces new combinations with every forkful.  It is rooted in classicism, which is fine by me when it is done as well as this.

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I’ll cut to the chase with the other main course; it is the best lamb dish I have ever eaten.  The meat is a perfect medium, so tender it could have been cut with a palette knife.  Garlic is represented both as subtle wild leaves and a pungent fermented emulsion, with a sheeps curd that seasons and elevates.  The sauce is a thing of beauty which we used the last of the bread to mop up, then our fingers to chase the last dots when that runs out.

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Pre dessert is a clever little ice cream made from buttermilk with lemon gel that evokes a healthy breakfast with its crunchy oats topping, whilst successfully transitioning from savoury through to sweet.  One of the sweet courses is batons of poached rhubarb with a sorbet of the same fruit, shards of muscovado sugar, and a burnt cream that works in a similar style to a crème brulee, albeit in a much more cheffy, modern fashion.

IMG_8814 The other dessert.  My God, the other dessert.  A caramelised rectangle of filo pastry is the canopy for a serious amount of work that riffs on the flavour profile of coffee.  There is white chocolate, aerated, and again as a mousse, chocolate sponge, Nesspresso granite, and an ice cream made from spiced speculoo biscuit.  It is dark and funky.  Creamy and indulgent.  It delivers on every level.   It is one of the very best desserts I have eaten.

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Perfect.  It’s not a word I use too often, but Simpsons delivered a perfect evening.  The bill, creeping in at just over a hundred quid a head including a lovely Hungarian red and a couple of ports, felt very fair for food that was clearly to me at two star level.  It was intriguing, elegant cooking with real personality.  It’s surely just a matter of time before Michelin acknowledges this and elevates it to the level it belongs.  Simpsons is up there with the very best in the country, and we, the good folk of Birmingham, should embrace our finest restaurant at every opportunity.

10/10

Simpsons Restaurants Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Wilderness, Birmingham

I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I’d use The Wilderness as evidence as to why. The restaurant is a forced move; previously Nomad, a concise space where nature and provenance were key, short-lived when the lawyers from New York’s NoMad started stamping their feet. Nomad is now long gone, existing only as a tattoo on Chef Patron Alex Claridge’s arm. I won’t dwell on bygone times, but I enjoyed its clear linear and identity. Fortunately the new offering takes it to a higher level. It’s evocative. It’s bat-shit crazy. It’s pretty much perfect.

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The association with nature is still there. Living moss pads the walls of the tiny 22 cover restaurant, whilst a tree seemingly rises from the floor to the ceiling on one side of the room. In direct juxtaposition, the floors are concrete, tables a glossy black. It is comfortable in it’s own skin.  We take the Saturday lunch food and drinks flight and are asked if we would prefer to swap the duck for venison – of course we do.  Snacks (2017’s amouse bouche) are a celeriac remoulade on a linseed cracker and a delicate tuile with crab meat and scorched corn.  The former cleansed the palate, the latter punching it straight in the gob with a whack of the sea held in to check by the corn which had the sugars heightened by flaming the edges.  There is dense sourdough with a butter seemingly lightened with crème fraiche.  The two make for a good pair.

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I think what set this lunch out so far apart from anything I’ve eaten in the last year is the complexity of Claridge’s  cooking.  We are going through a period of minimalism in cooking; two or three elements on a plate as way of showcasing an ingredient is in vogue .  The cooking here could not be further from that.  With every mouthful something new evolves, another flavour announces itself.  A slab of trout is first, which I forget to take a picture of before dismantling it.  The skin is crisp, the fish correctly medium.  It is elsewhere that the fun is at – little pops of dyed herring roe for the whiff of the salty sea, a tassel of fried moss to pull it back on to land; the two flavours that echo the dashi stock which is poured tableside before we tuck in.  A loin of Iberico pork is blushing pink, advertised with artichokes as discs, puree, and crisps, pickled mushrooms, and buds of wild garlic.  The stuff not on the menu are the clever additions; hazelnut’s, which reinforce the nutty characteristics of the animals diet, a luxurious port sauce, and a fish sauce dressing that sends the dish spiralling out East.  I told you the cooking was complex.  It’s a conversation killer.  A sit down, shut up, collection of things on a plate that stop you dead in your tracks.

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We move on to the best venison dish I have ever eaten.  The same precision cooking of protein as before, with a squash puree, broccoli and a venison jus took to the deepest of places with the addition of stout.  A word on the drinks pairing for this – the old fashioned heightened with sake was the perfect counterbalance for the venison.

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The first of the desserts was rhubarb sorbet, with poached strips, gels and puree’s.  The only sweetness on the plate coming from Italian meringues flavoured with a little vanilla.  It’s a bold plate of food that shows considerable skill in showcasing an ingredient at the height of its power.  We finish on a course as detailed as any served prior.  Chocolate and cherries.  Oh, and that familiar dessert addition of cep mushrooms – how can I forget that?  Silly me.  It’s a dish I can comfortably say I wasn’t looking forward to on account of not really being a fan of chocolate desserts, and less of a fan of mushrooms in my sweets.  But what do I know?  Absolutely nothing, apparently.  The cep powder never bothers with the front row, choosing to sit at the back and call the shots.  It gives the chocolate more length, it stops the cherries from being too sweet.  Throw in a chestnut puree that occasionally makes everything go a bit Mont Blanc, a splash of salted caramel which works a little too well with mushrooms, and what you have is a dessert that could have come from the mighty David Everitt-Matthias.  And I mean that with the upmost of respect:  When it comes to chefs I can think of none finer than the man who works the stoves at Le Champignon Sauvage.  We finish with chocolate skulls, sprayed gold and filled with salted caramel, which I assume is a nod to the present menu entitled ‘Things Fall Apart’.

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I liked it.  You may have gathered that by now.  The Wilderness put on a show over two hours of some of the best food I have eaten in a very long time.  This is top-end cooking, delivered with theatre and exacting execution, undoubtedly worthy of a Michelin star come October.  I haven’t given a ten since September 2015, but The Wilderness leaves me with no choice. A restaurant this exciting deserves nothing less than top marks.

10/10

The lunch tasting menu with drinks pairing should have been £70 per person, though I used the Independent Birmingham card offer to reduce this to £50.  For more details on them please see http://www.independent-birmingham.co.uk

Cuisine Wat Damnak, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cuisine Wat Damnak is Cambodia’s sole entry in Asia’s Top 50 Restaurant list, itself a sub-list for the World Top Fifty List. It is to be found in the tourist melting pot of Siem Reap, gateway to Ankor Wat, a short tuk-tuk ride from the bright lights, bad food and dance beats of Pub Street. Housed in this serene colonial building, tasteful and understated, with heavy wood panelling offset with licks of baby blue, is head chef Joannes Rivierre, a Frenchman bringing his classical technique to traditional Khmer cuisine. The ultra-seasonal menu changes fortnightly, with all ingredients sourced from within Cambodia. Six courses come in at an absurdly cheap 28 USD, for which there are two options, plus a vegetarian option.

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Many of the ingredients here were new to me, though the chefs skill at balancing flavour was obvious from the start. An amouse bouche had minced pork at the base of the bowl, the meat spiced heavily with garlic and chilli heat.  Shavings of coconut and palm sugar are beguiling, scattered, as nearly all dishes were, with fragrant fresh herbs.  It was as opening courses should be; a shock to the taste buds, a clear signal in the direction of the meal.  From here we take a fillet of chhlang, a river fish not too dissimilar tasting from trout, with marinated jack fruit and tree cucumber.  The former has a rich piquancy, the latter the acidity to cut through it.

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Scallops come lightly seared with the roe still attached.  They are a little fleshy and a million miles away in quality from those caught around the coasts of the UK.  Far better is a fried cake that tastes purely of cauliflower sitting central to the plate, and the rich garlic sauce that ties everything together.  Another pressed cake may have been my favourite course.  Confit duck oozed experience and technique, the soft meat bound with a little rice for texture.  On top was more of that acidic tree cucumber, with a puddle of homemade oyster sauce completing it.  The oyster sauce in particular was fantastic; rich, deep, and fruity.

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There a couple of soups that I forgot to take pictures of.  I know we had them because they are on the menu, but that’s about it.  Blame the wine.  Far more memorable was the pork shank in the rich sauce flavoured heavily with anise.  Strips of pork breast were all crisp fat and tender meat, with a softly boiled quails egg for luxury.  Only the bamboo shoots spoiled the party.  It turns out I don’t like bamboo shoots, which is hardly a surprise given I am not a panda.  Still, this was one of those dishes you can’t leave alone, moreish to the point that the government may want to classify it as illegal.  We remove the anise from the last of the bowl and pour the rice in, ensuring that no waste is left.

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Put bluntly, desserts were not up to same high standards.  A stodgy pancake is bad, the caramelised banana and chocolate crème with it less so.  It ate alright, but, honestly, it was nothing that couldn’t be done at home for a dinner party.  A coconut panna cotta was of a similar ilk – a little overset, served with pineapple salsa and sorbet which failed to set my world alight.

The wine list is great and very fairly priced for a part of the world not known for cheap wine.  With this we drink imaginative cocktails, lots of them, given they worked out around £4.00 each.  It all makes for a pretty fantastic experience; Khmer food cooked with a precision that you just don’t see in this emerging country.  Should you ever find yourself trekking through this part of the world, Cuisine Wat Damnak is a must do.

It should end there, but there is one more place I wanted to mention in Cambodia before I leave this fine country alone.  We spent a week on Lazy Beach, a little bit of paradise on Koh Rong Samloem, an island roughly two hours boat ride away from Sihanoukville.  It is understated luxury; twenty bungalows over a kilometre of private beach and a main hut serving some of the best Asian food I’ve eaten.  It is lazy for a reason – no TV’s, no Wi-Fi, just those views above and a good book to get through the day, whilst nights are spent snorkelling in a sea that shimmers with phosphorescence.  I could have easily wrote an entire piece on just how perfect Lazy Beach is, though I am not sure that Chris and the team would want that; they seem to have a lovely existence based almost entirely on word of mouth.  Once I got through the gecko’s sleeping in room it quickly became the best place I have ever stayed.  If they want word of mouth recommendations, here is mine:  The world is a big place and I’m not going to be around long enough to return to anywhere twice if I want to see a lot of it.  I draw an exception at Lazy Beach.  Whenever I find myself out travelling in the East I will do all I can to include a stay here.  It’s simply too perfect not to.

8/10 (For Cuisine Wat Damnak)

For information on Lazy Beach see www.lazybeachcambodia.com