Gastropub

Boca Grande at The Plough, Harborne

So I was sat in a pub recently not far from where I live, when someone I vaguely know from 6am house parties said to me ‘you need to stop dressing like you’re in The Plough, you live in Moseley now’. I look down at what I’m wearing; slip on loafers, no socks, Prince of Wales check grey shorts, a button-down Oxford shirt with sweater over the top. He’s right: I couldn’t be anymore Harborne unless I had two cars to drive, a labradoodle, and a relative in the Conservative party. Like Tuberculosis i guess living there is one of those things you never fully shake off. I had three glorious years living in Harborne, of which approximately two of those were spent in The Plough. Mondays for pizza, Tuesday burgers, the weekends were Connect 4 either in the extension or out in the garden. Do not take me on at Connect 4, I will destroy your constitution and break your soul. And I’ll enjoy every second of it.

On this occasion I’ve taken the long stroll back to Harborne for dinner with Rob of Foodie Boys. Us boys have to stick together in this game. The females dominate in this city, eating the males alive, akin to the Black Widow. Just like those spiders most have a nasty bite and hairy backs. We’re here for the tacos which form the Boca Grande takeover this summer. I have a lot of time for tacos, they’re like the bastard siblings of the burrito before they got fat on carbs and started dressing modestly.

Those tacos are very good, an improvement on the same product they served only on Wednesdays last year. The shell is soft, the fillings piled high. Chicken is as hot as the menu warns, with a ginger slaw that lingers long after the Almost Death sauce has killed my taste buds and done a runner. The delicate flavour of cod is not lost amongst its garnish of jalapeño, lime and ginger, whilst the prawn taco has a inherent sweetness allowed to shine with spring onion and a little chilli.

In my eyes the pick of the bunch is the pork, slow cooked to the point that it retains just enough bite to remind you its meat that we’re eating. Its smoky and rich, needing the acidity of the apple to cut through it. I like it even more with Pip’s hot sauce, but then that sentence can be applied to anything. A beef and bean chilli made from brisket works because of a chimichurri full of bright acidity. From the sides the guacamole is fresh with acidity and heat, but it is the sweetcorn that takes full honours with garlic, lime and butter. I go back for more until the bottom of the pot is visible. It goes with the chicken particularly well.

Service is the standard level of The Plough brilliance; I cant think of another pub anywhere which does it better. They never miss a beat: drinks arrive quickly followed by tacos, empty plates are removed, more tacos come, repeat process. It seems so simple, yet so many get it wrong. Boca Grande is just another example of The Plough’s brilliance, one that taps into a trend that fits perfectly with the Summer, further cementing their position as Birmingham’s best pub.

Want to see my ego get even bigger? Vote for me here in category 17.

Transport provided by the ever wonderful A2B Radio Cars

The White Post, Rimpton

The detour to The White Post on the way from Devon was supposed to add an additional 45 minutes each side to our journey. Unfortunately for us, Google Maps is particularly shit at accounting for Biblical floods on narrow Somerset county lanes, in the same way that Noah was particularly shit at accounting for all the animals under the same circumstance (where’s the mention of Koalas on the ark, Noah? Or the Kangaroos whilst we’re at it). What started as a bit of rain ended up with us descended into a river between hedges, with water up the bonnet of the car and Claire screaming white noise about repair costs and flooded engines and very possibly shoes. I wasn’t listening. And then after we’ve eaten the rain turned to fog and the ground got all skiddy and a crash near Bristol rerouted us over the Downs where I honestly thought we may slip off the side and die. I portion part of this blame on God and part on Claire, who had far greater trouble finding the fog lights than she does my wallet. It took us five hours to get home, which totalled seven hours of driving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The White Post do the best Sunday roast I’ve ever eaten.

Now before I break down why it is the best, please know that I really don’t enjoy Sunday Roasts. I find them nothing more than stoic patriotism; all overcooked carbohydrates and blistered brown meat. It’s Nytol on a plate and I swear they must have been invented by disgruntled wives who would rather watch the husband snore on the sofa than surrender him back to the arms of the pub. And it’s not like I have never had good ones before. My Dad does things with pancake batter and beef fat that produce volcanic spews of Yorkshire pudding. A fine lady called Fran showed me the correct way to roast a chicken and my future mother-in-law makes the best roast potatoes I have ever eaten. Correction. Second best. Apologies, Lindsey.

Now back to The White Post, a pub so at ease in its skin, the only thing it is unsure of is the county it belongs to. It sits right on the border of Somerset and Dorset, on the top of the hill with views of green and pleasant lands. When it is not pissing it down this part of the world really is beautiful. The pub itself is fully functioning; there is a bar with stools and a patio with benches if you only want a pint. The menu has one eye on feeding and then other firmly on impressing; there is salt chamber beef and sugar pit pork. Cous cous is Israeli, presumably because they also know a thing or two about questionable borders.

The first edible thing to arrive at table sets the expectations sky high. A skein of carrot slithers, fried to a golden bhaji crust, and sat in a puddle of soured cream. To this was poured a carrot soup as orange as Donald Trump and almost as thick. The soup succeeded in tasting only of the vegetable, the bhaji spice gently lifting it. Opposite me was liver parfait, textbook in execution and light in texture, studded with cubes of pear, gingerbread, and grains. There is a fat slice of brioche to smear it on and an unripe tomato chutney to stop it all getting a bit sweet. Both starters remind me of the first time I ate at The Hand & Flowers, when I realised that is possible to cook wholesome food with finesse. They do that with aplomb here.

And now the roast. They do not mess around when it comes to the roast. You order it and they bring everything on a board. Between the two of us we get slices of chicken breast and a leg each, the most perfect pork loin with shards of crackling, and lamb leg, pink and properly rested. There are potatoes cooked in beef fat with enough brittle edges to pummel with, parsnips and carrots roasted until the natural sugars caramelise and I start to weep, and giant Yorkshire puddings that are as good as any I’ve eaten outside my Dad’s. Apple and Horseradish sauces. A massive jug of gravy that tastes of animal. On the side is braised red cabbage and another bowl with cauliflower and broccoli cheese that could probably do with leaving the broccoli out on. It is everything that a Sunday roast should be but never is. It is a triumph to sourcing and to seasoning, to the virtues of an oven over a sous vide machine. We pile everything on to our plates and wonder how we will finish it. We do. It is remarkable.

Dessert divides us. I like the notes of anise and cinnamon in the spiced brulee, but Claire finds it a bit full-on. Its left to me to smash through the torched sugar and tip in the raisin ice cream. A cookie feels a little superfluous and unwarranted, though it does offer another welcome texture. I finish it. Of course I do, its delicious, but I wonder if the same rooted love is there for pastry as it across the savoury courses.


The bill, with a couple of boozy drinks for the passenger and a soft drink for the driver, is an absurdly low sixty quid. I felt almost embarrassed to pay it until they told us that they do a 10 course taster menu with overnight stay in the rooms above for two people for only an additional ton on top of that. Maybe its just this part of the world that wants to wants to be generous at lunch time, but it’s a welcome change from home where the best roast costs the same amount for half the size and a meal of similar quality would be double. It’s wonderful here, the passion is clear to see from the team, the love for food transcending on to the plate. The future is very bright for The White Post and I can’t wait to return when the drive there and home becomes a little less eventful.

9/10

The Plough, Harborne

It was three years ago, when this blog was in its infancy, I first wrote about The Plough. This was before the awards and the accolades, when the number of my twitter followers was lower than my sexual partners. It was the first place I ever gave a perfect ten to, but nobody read the blog, so frankly who cares. As the blog has grown I’ve continued to go The Plough and I’ve felt a tinge of guilt that one of the best places in Birmingham amassed a total of 600 views, whilst now a write-up of a shite brunch and subsequent fallout with a tv licence pilfering ‘comedian’ gets many multiples of that within 24 hours of posting.

So now I’m going to abuse my readership by jumping back on that Plough to churn up the ground once more. It’s still the best pub in Birmingham. The city continues to grow in its brilliance, with many excellent pubs coming since, and this little spot in Harborne continues to adapt and knock spots off them. I could bang on about the drinks, including a cocktail program curated by Rob Wood, a stellar whisky collection, and the damm right naughty wine list, but you’re here for the food. And quite rightly so.

A recent dinner proved they are much more than just pizza and burgers. Garlic bread sits in the small plates section, arriving dotted with mozzarella and ‘nduja, each cancelling the others more verdant qualities in all the right ways. It has now overtaken pork scratchings as my favourite partner to a pint. A tangle of pulled beef brisket with sweet potato is the dish I go to to find comfort. I break the yolk of the fried egg and load on to thickly sliced toasted bread. The meat is tender without being mush, and I suspect there is spice involved – maybe Worcestershire sauce – in the cooking of the hash. It’s rich, and it requires the apple chutney to cut through it all, but it’s also bloody lovely.

A fairly recent addition has been the Cubanos – toasted sandwiches to you and I. We have the chicken, smokey with paprika, with bacon and Swiss cheese. Much like the rest of the menu here, its unfussy in concept and massive in portion. It shares a plate with fries that we can’t get excited over, and a perky salad that we do thanks to the clever additions of black bean, feta, and avocado along with the usual suspects. Have this (or the pork, it’s equally good) and ask for all salad and no fries. This was not my suggestion if they say no.

I simply can’t go 38 months and not rave about the above pizza with ‘nduja and mascarpone. This has been on for about a year and is the dish we always order – the perfect balance of heat and cooling. The above picture is not from the recent dinner, but two weeks prior. Don’t @ me, whatever that means.

Looking back at what I wrote back then, it’s clear The Plough have mastered consistency – they still have staff that react to the smallest of gestures and yet know when to leave you alone. They still keep beer in impeccable condition and still only use the finest of ingredients. In short,they are still the best pub in Birmingham. Nowhere else comes close.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

The Plough Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Crown Inn, Hallow

It’s freezing on the late morning we set off for Hallow. Like teeth chattering cold, the kind of November day that sticks icicles on your testicles. Winter is here in full brutishness, taking away our drive and robbing us of sunlight. Not even the inside of the car can save us, my water starting to transition towards a more solid matter and my girlfriend’s hands too cold to handle my gearstick, or the one on the car. We need the comfort of comfort food. Of slow cooked meats and carbohydrates. I happen to know just the place.

I never saw The Crown Inn prior to the refurb, though I like what I see now. It has a mazy quality that reminds me of the adjoining rooms at The Hand and Flowers, with low wooden beams and walls with the girth of a building built to last. The pub has two wood burning stoves that sit both ends of the room like goals and we are positioned in front of one basking in its heat. I like it here. I also like the menu that speaks in a language I understand. It has a familiarity to it but also the ambition of a head chef that has come from the two star Le Champignon Sauvage. Amongst the pub food is game and souffles. We would order both.

Starters first. A croquette of breaded lamb shoulder is a dense bit of sheep made sprightly by a helping of vibrant salsa verde and a sharp redcurrant dressing. Little cubes of charred feta punch with saltiness, whilst the semi-dried tomato feels superfluous. It is a dish that works for its braveness, a potentially tightrope of various acidity and bold seasoning. It pays off. We mostly like a mammoth scotch egg, yolk just runny, breadcrumb coating crisp and golden. The ham hock filling is nice and piggy, though a little under seasoned and containing a few bits that should never have passed the picking process. Furthermore its too big. Generous to the point that this could easily feed one on its own.

It’s a this point that the cottage pie happens. Another gigantic portion, with braised and shredded beef shin at the core and crowned with potatoes that have had the right amount of fat introduced to them. And when I say the right amount I mean lots. There is a jug of thick gravy that delivers on its promise from the very moment it coats my finger. Carrots cooked in beef fat are the only accompaniment it needs and they too are wondrous things. It is a brilliant rethinking of a classic, pimped up and sent out looking as dandy as it tastes.

Our other main is pheasant. It’s a rustic plate of the good stuff, with roasted breasts just blushing pink positioned on on creamed cabbage, a buttery wedge of potato and onion labelled as a hash brown, and the filthiest of black pudding purèe’s. The dish is completed by black berries and a well sauce that has the back note of acidity needed to counteract the richness. It’s a lot of food for £17 and we tell them so. Apparently, there have been gripes that the portions here are small. I despair at those who clearly don’t know a good thing when it’s hit them in the face. And this pheasant is a very good thing indeed. Of the sides we try, roasted carrots and parsnips are glazed in maple, and potato gratin in gloriously cheesy with a back note of nutmeg. Only the chips could have done with a fraction longer in the fryer.

After a pre-dessert of lemon and mango which has perfectly judged levels of sweetness and acidity, before we share an apple soufflé to finish. The soufflé is textbook, proud in height with good apple flavour. The ice cream may be a little too subtle in salted caramel, but works well when we prise open the top of the soufflé and slide the ice cream in. I can only applaud any pub that not only shows the ambition to put this on the menu, but to also deliver it with aplomb.

There are petit fours but by now we’re both full to the point of bursting – I defy anyone to come here and eat three courses and not feel the same. The team here might be relatively new (the head chef, Chris Monk, has been in place for three months), but they are already showing considerable skill. It’s not perfect yet, though it is somewhere that I’ll be monitoring closely over the next year. It’s my style of food; clean and bold and still familiar. There is a clear market for taking traditional pub food and elevating it above the norm, and The Crown Inn are doing a great job at cracking it.

7/10

I was invited to dine at The Crown Inn

Lord Clyde, Bollington, Cheshire

I find myself in Macclesfield for the weekend, secretly shitting myself that I will make an idiot of myself in front of my prospective future in-laws.  I am on my best behaviour, something that I never knew existed, curbing my foul mouth, opening doors, and cooking meals badly.  It’s nice here, far nicer than others would have me believe.  It’s not even raining.  I know, I can’t believe it either.  We go for long walks in the Peak District that remind me of the beauty of the Lake District, only without the, err, lakes.  In the evening we are to dine at a pub in a nearby village where I will be grilled, possibly both in conversation and over flames should my answers not be correct.

The pub in question is the Lord Clyde, a quaint low ceilinged space in the village of Bollington, where the white washed walls jostle for attention with the darken wooden beams.  This week, and completely unbeknownst to us at the time, it reached the lofty heights of the 63rd best restaurant outside of London, which I believe makes it the 63rd best restaurant in the country without a God complex.  The menu is concise and well-formed, with starters topping out at eight quid, mains typically around mid teens.  It takes us some time to decide what to order.

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Whilst waiting for the starters to arrive we get a nibble of chicken liver parfait on a potato crisp, radish and a little dandelion.  The parfait is textbook; deep and full of offal flavour.  The rest works to play support to this, though the potato base is a little greasy and flimsy, as if the wet ingredients had been on it for too long at the pass.

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Three of the five starters are ordered.  We like the simplicity of the pork loin most, with it’s battered shallot rings, spinach, and black pudding puree that completes the dish once we have added a little more salt to it.  Asparagus with duck egg and hollandaise is a classic.  The sauce is correctly sharp, the addition of radish a clever one, but I would have personally have taken the woody stems of the asparagus a little higher.  Ham hock croquettes are properly crisp, with tussles of the pork lightly dressed in grain mustard.  Pickled red onion has enough inherent acidity to cut through it all, with a creamy aioli full of buttery garlic notes.  It’s rustic cooking in the best possible sense.

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I never order steak at a restaurant because I feel like I have a duty to write about more interesting stuff, but tonight I am that man.  I order it because the rib eye is aged for 50 days, a period of hanging that should only be reserved for bits of cow and all of Piers Morgan.  It’s accurately cooked to the medium rare I request, the thick pockets of milky white fat only just starting to melt.  It’s a very good bit of beef, a fraction under seasoned, but still deep in bovine flavour.  The peppercorn sauce is expertly made, as are the Jenga pile of chips that crack and fluff.

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The other two mains are a mixed bag.  The duck is genuinely lovely, crisp skin with a consistent baby pink meat.  There is another stellar sauce (sauces are an obvious high point here) with salty nuggets of pancetta that lift the seasoning across the plate.  Claire thinks that the gnocchi are not as good as the ones she made at Simpsons, but then she would say that.  I tried them and they were good.  It’s a very good plate of food.  The trout is more timid.  The lentils, samphire, and mussels are all coheshive, but it needs something else to get the dish going.

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Portions here are on the Northern side of generous and we debate whether to order dessert at all.  In the end we order one portion of sticky toffee pudding with four spoons, using only two of them.  The pudding is lighter than it looks, the additions of honeycomb and a very good vanilla ice cream more than welcome.  What lifts it is the salt content in the sauce that gives further depth to the sweeter elements.  It is a technically accomplished and well thought out way to end the meal.

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The bill hits fifty quid a head between four with a two bottles of wine listed without vintage.  We all enjoyed Lord Clyde, which delivered attractive plates of food cooked without skill.  That said, it was not without fault, namely some erratic seasoning issues that need addressing.  It’s a handy place to stop for food and with the trips up North looking likely to increase, is a place that I can see myself giving frequent returns to.

7/10 

Lord Clyde Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The One Elm, Stratford 

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The menu at Stratford-upon-Avon’s The One Elm makes me recall the late and very great AA Gills words on The Wolseley, where he lays claim that the very best menu’s are designed by restauranteurs who know their clientele, not by the chefs in the kitchens.   Whilst I don’t agree entirely with Gill – I firmly believe that the finest of dining should be an expression of the kitchen – I do see his point.  Not all kitchens reach for the stars; some are more than content with reaching for the top shelf pans and focusing on feeding the paying, and it’s at these places the work of a chef is to cook, not curate.  Within the grand white walls that home The One Elm the ambition is firmly rooted to the happy customer, one that enters hungry and leaves heavier in the stomach and lighter in the wallet.

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And back to that menu.  We struggled as a two to decide between us what to order.  We toy with the idea of chicken and tarragon croquettes, consider crab with blini’s as starters, or beef dandy ribs for mains.  It’s the kind of place you could eat in every week and not get bored, but I guess that is entirely the point.

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We opt for two starters that sit both sides of the spectrum.  The concept of a summer vegetable bubble and squeak is admirable; take the leftovers to Funky Town with a rich black pudding sauce and then pulls it back into the sunlight with a fried egg.  Unfortunately the ratio of sauce is all wrong and everything becomes a little lost in a vast puddle of spiced pigs blood. Whilst that bubble and squeak dish could have been eaten at any point time of the year, the other starter was only ever intended for the sunshine.  A risotto with Carnaroli rice tasted of time spent in quality vegetable stock, with semi-dried tomatoes and red peppers amongst the evenly cooked grains.  On top are plump scallops and a small fillet of monkfish, both of which are cooked are cooked precisely and well seasoned.  It all makes for a serious bit of food, one that you’d like to find on the menu of your local but seldom do.

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A seabass main was pretty much faultless in concept and delivery.  The fish had been shown heat on one side only, a more technical approach that crisps the skin and gild’s one half of the fillet with a golden crust.  The pairing of chorizo, new potatoes, and green beans give light and shade, whilst chive crème fraiche binds it all together.

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Our other main of lamb hits similar levels.  Yes, I would have liked my lamb a little pinker, but the meat had been properly rested and offered very little in the way of chew.  What impresses most about this dish is the balance; the crushed peas are boldly seasoned, the salsa verde bright in high notes.  There are unexpected tangles of caramelised onion in amongst the potatoes that make me reminisce the Boulangere style of cooking.  These are the best bits.

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Dessert is a Pavlova which we share amongst the two of us.  It’s a pretty thing; the meringue holding cream and summer berries.  It’s too sweet for me but not for her, who quickly finishes it.  It’s a lovely fresh note to finish on.

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We drink healthily from a wine list that offers value and plenty of options by the glass, all whilst sitting in a courtyard with the sun beating down on us.  On the day that we visit the place is full with locals, perhaps a perk of its location ten minutes walk from the tourist hotspots on the Avon river.  It all makes for a rather lovely lunch, affordable, refined Gastropub grub.  The One Elm knows exactly the kind of place it wants to be, and it’s absolutely nailed the execution. 

8/10

My meal was complimentary

The Yew Tree Inn, Bunbury

The entrance to The Yew Tree Inn proudly lists the various awards they have won in recent years.  Rural Pub of the Year?  Check.  Cheshire Pub of the Year?  Double check.  Cheshire Dining Pub of the Year?  Double check again.  There’s more, too.  Prior to our visit they were recently awarded their first AA rosette, had another mention in the Michelin Guide, and secured a place in the Top 50 Gastropub list.  All of this points towards a rewarding lunch as we work our way back to Birmingham after a long weekend in Cheshire.  Yet I’m sceptical of these awards.  I know all too well that the best man doesn’t always win after losing out on a Food Bloggers award last year to a discount card that could be described as a blog if you took the boundaries, tied them to the back of a car, and drove them off a cliff.  I’m not saying that these awards are not important, because they clearly are, but what I am saying is that there are many factors other than the worthy winner, such as popularity and PR intervention.  And I say all of this fully expecting to win said award this summer.

img_8446 Now lets move away from my ego and back to the pub.  Is it worthy of all of these accolades?  No.  Not by a long shot, based on my visit last weekend.  It started well enough with chorizo croquettes from the snack section.  The outer was crisp, the filling full of the spicy sausage, with a chilli sauce that clings and heats.  These are worth four quid of anyone’s money.  A ham hock terrine starter was rustic and comforting, the meat chunky, with the occasional bite of carrot set within the aspic jelly.  It works well with a not overly pickled piccalilli.

img_8449img_8448We also like the wellington of roast vegetables, the ratatouille covered in an upturned field mushroom and lattice pastry.  It is the kind of vegetarian cooking I admire, a change from the usual half-arsed pasta offering, and enough to make an ex non-meat eater turn the protein down for a day.  And she was pleased, which is more than I have managed this year.

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And then it all falls to pieces.  A stone cold pie takes an age to return to the kitchen.  When it returns it is passable, but not much else.   The beef is a touch tough and considering that the word ‘pepper’ makes a third of its description, it is woefully under seasoned.  A hockey puck masquerading as a beef burger has an odd soggy texture throughout that breaks down the brioche bun it sits on.   It’s tough going, though we take solace in the bacon and fried egg being decent.  I bet they do a good breakfast here.  Chips on both dishes had the back note of fat and were far from crisp.

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We order a hot chocolate and salted caramel because the next tables reaction as it oozed across their plate merited one.  Ours was overcooked by several minutes and ended up more akin to a Rolo than the liquid dessert expected.  I assume that the wedge on top of this was honeycomb.  I assume this because my teeth would let me nowhere near it, in the same way they couldn’t crack the spun sugar decoration on top of a rhubarb and orange tart.  In that case the pastry was good, the filling bland.  We should have seen the signs and quit long ago.  We only have ourselves to blame.

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Service was pleasant, though slow and there is no apology offered in any way for the cold pie.  The bill for the sits around £30 each, hardly a fortune, yet still disappointing given the expectations.  And there lies the problem; rightly or wrongly these accolades do come with expectation, expectation that they fell well short upon.  I could list a dozen pubs nearer to home more deserving in my opinion.  But that is all subjective.  What matters is we had a lunch that was littered with errors, where nobody left satisfied.  And that simply is not good enough.

5/10

The Physician, Edgbaston

If I spent much of last year eating in and around Edgbaston, I did it because it is the most exciting place in Birmingham right now. The leafy suburb has flourished in to an eating and drinking hub, all in and around the bottom part of Calthorpe Road which has housed Simpsons for the last decade and a half. Over the last month or so I’ve popped in to Blue Piano for that carrot cake, had lovely cocktails at both Rofuto and The Edgbaston, beers at The Highfield, and a spankingly good boozy luncheon at El Borracho De Oro. Oh, and I also went to The Physician on Boxing Day, though I’m trying desperately to forget about that.

No one can fault The Physician for trying to fit in. They have the white Georgian building, itself a maze of rooms, hard wooden floors, paintings and soft furnishings. They have a focus on ales, wines, and game. So far, so very Edgbaston. It just happens that whilst all around have their individual niche polished to a mirrored sheen, The Physician are far murkier in their delivery. To use the name of the establishment cheaply, they are in need a heart operation, not a boob job.

I enjoyed the first thing we ate, even if it was an exercise in shopping over cookery. A sharing board features some very good salami amongst the cured meats, a slightly grainy pate, good quality olives,  with bits of veg, pickled, stuffed, blended and deep fried.  As far as grazing goes, it works, and is fair value too at £17.00.  The only other starter was a wedge of brie, coated in a breadcrumb mixture devoid of seasoning and fried until the innards have given up.  The pickled cranberries are not sharp enough to balance out the cheese, whilst pecans are superfluous additions that add nothing other than taking up a third of the plate.

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And then the bit that I’ve thought long and hard about including, now deciding that if its served to me, it should be mentioned.  Two hairs, long, dark, and way too thick to have ever resided on my bonce, nestled nicely in amongst the horseradish mash that came with an ox cheek Bourguignon.  It matters not that the cheek was meltingly tender, nor that the sauce was short of the depth of the flavour I would expect, they are hairs that are not mine.  The plate is taken away with an apology, an replacement is offered.  I am struck with a sudden loss of appetite and decline.  Instead I poke away at my girlfriends decent deep fried haddock and plunge limp chips into a well made tartare.  I try a bit of a game pie where the suet crust is lighter than expected and filling is full of bits of long braised rabbit and venison.  The long wedge of carrot is practically raw.  It sums up my day in one failed bit of detail.

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They take the hair and other contents of the plate off the bill and offer a complimentary dessert that transpires to be one of the better things we would eat.  A cheesecake with a delicate base, a punchy caramel mouse, topped with a layer of chocolate.  A raspberry sorbet has real depth and cuts through the richness.  There is hope here and it is to be found in the pastry department.

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We settle a bill that feels too high for what was served and head to 60 metres down the road to the Highfield.  Inside we enjoy well kept beers and, later on, a couple of snacks.  For once, I stop being such a self-opinionated bastard and seek the views of those in our party.  Was I letting the kitchen mishap ruin a potentially good meal?  No.  All agree that it was lack lustre and disappointing.  The Physician has all of the right ingredient’s to succeed and the wrong recipe to work with.  I simply cant see a reason why I would go back when there is so much more to found locally.

5/10

The Howard Arms, Ilmington

 

The Howard Arms looks like it belongs in a film. The kind that involves a murder in a sleepy village. Or Hot Fuzz. Or worse, one involving Hugh Grant and a tenuous love story. The pubs sit one side of the village green in Ilmington, itself perched on the northern borders of the Cotswolds. Its a building of character, externally traditional and quaint and inside where it takes a new warmth of flagstones, deep leather seating and a roaring open fire. Each wall and corner tells a story of yesteryear, with pictures of equine and serious looking folk. The evening is settling in when we arrive and the place is buzzing with locals. It exudes a warmth far beyond that roaring fire.

We drop the bags off in our room and head back down for food in the raised dining area. Here the room feels more grand, more attuned to the buildings 400 year history. We order a decent bottle of new world sauvignon blanc and peruse a menu that has a mixture of safer pub classics with flashes of more elaborate offerings, all of which begs to be eaten. A starter of goats cheese soufflé has been baked twice so that it stands on its own with ease, topped with candied walnuts that add a softened nuttiness. Its mild mannered and needs the sweet and sour piquancy of the Cumberland sauce to cut right through it. Koftas are meaty skewers of lamb and cumin, tightly packed and just cooked through. They are a delight when piled on to soft cushions of flatbread and lightly dressed with a spicy red pepper salsa and soothing tzatziki.

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They do things the traditional way here; indeed, if there ever has been a sous-vide machine in the kitchen it has long been hidden in the storing cupboard. Pork fillet is rolled in parma ham and roasted gently so that the outer layers are crisp and the centre of the loin blushing pink. It comes with a comforting puree of sweet potato, shitake mushrooms, and crab apples that provide the much needed acidity. It demonstrates considerable skill in the kitchen, in particular the sticky jus that holds everything together in one big autumnal hug. Also equally tasty was a slab of gammon, smokey and tender, with a fried egg that oozed and coated the meat. As with the pork fillet and the soufflé before that, one eye was firmly kept on acidic element, this time from a piccalilli full of crunch and vibrancy. The only slip were chips, under salted and flimsy.

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Desserts were genuinely top notch in taste. A white and dark chocolate cheesecake could have easily been too heavy, yet managed to balance the flavour with a light texture that ran down to the buttery base. A bakewell tart was simply delicious; the frangipane not too sweet, the pastry crisp and thin. It doesn’t need the kitsch presentation or the out of season strawberries, its perfect enough on its own.

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With both starters and desserts creeping in at just over a fiver and only steaks over fifteen quid for the mains, The Howard Arms is exceptional value for money. It also happens to be a lovely place to stay, a gateway from the north in to the utterly charming Cotswolds. The following morning we drive fifteen minutes away to Broadway where we burned off the previous evenings calories by walking the steep incline up to the tower.  Its a simply beautiful part of the world with some of the countries best produce on its doorstep.  Those looking to make the most of their trip could do far worse than staying and eating at The Howard Arms.

8/10

I was invited to stay and dine at The Howard Arms by Shakespeare’s England, the official board of tourism for Warwickshire. For more information please see http://www.shakespeares-England.co.uk

 

The Almanack, Kenilworth

 

 

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A deli board, being the first thing which we ate, seems an obvious place to start. A collection of meats; some cooked, others sourced, designed to share and graze.  To feed with variety.  All this food leaves the question of where to start.  We do by draping slithers of air dried ham over of toast.  The ham thinly sliced and almost opaque, with ribbons of fat that dissolve on the tongue.  We move on to slices of rare roast beef that come alive with the liberal application of a tart pickle and piping hot croquettes which ooze with cheese and tangles of ham hock.  Thick cuts of brioche are filled with pulled chicken and drizzled with sriracha sauce that instantly becomes the best sub that Subway never made.  There are leaves for those that seek reassurance in their diet, but this is a protein heavy board with comfort and delight at every twist and turn.

And so to The Almanack, Kenilworth’s arm of the mighty Peach Pubs empire.  I like this group, for they are equally individual and familiar.  At first glance menus look the same, though have subtle differences.  They source ingredients carefully and seasonally.  Meat is supplied from Aubrey Allen, which is a statement of intent in itself.  Whilst The Alamanack may not have the physical presence of The Highfield or Rose & Crown’s exterior frontage, it makes up with a luscious interior of deep blue booths, an imposing bar and a contemporary feel that suits the building.  Its a buzzy atmosphere with a more relaxed approach to service, which was fine with us.  We order a bottle of good Cote du Rhone and declare ourselves as in no rush.

A salad of scallops and monkish is given an Indian touch with deftly spiced brinjal potatoes, raita, and little poppadum’s for texture.  Slightly overcooked monkfish aside, everything was accurately seasoned and timed; the queenie scallops in particular with a lovely crust and only just cooked through.  A well dressed salad provided the required acidity to cut through the seafood.  Every bit as good was a lamb main ordered straight off the specials board.  The cannon cooked accurately to the requested medium with courgettes, tomatoes and aubergine which all add a freshness counteracted by a smokey puree of the aubergine at the base of the plate. Crisps of the aubergine work in the same way as the poppadoms on the fish main.  This is a kitchen which understands the need for touch as well as taste.

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Desserts stayed on familiar territory.  A lemon posset leant nicely towards the sharper side of the spectrum, with stewed summers that added another profile of flavour and pistachio biscotti for the much needed crunch element.

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The high note was a perfectly made treacle tart, dense and sticky and sweet, with ice cream that punched heavily with vanilla notes.  It has wobble in its filling and snap at the base.  It characterises everything that is right about The Almanack; dishes that you think you could muster at home, but could never execute this well.  It takes considerable skill to cook food to this level and still make it look simple on the plate.  With starters just over a fiver, that deli board fifteen quid, and mains in mid-teens, it’s a wise idea to put down the knife, book a table here and leave it to the professionals.

8/10

The Almanack Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My meal at The Almanack was complimentary