Pub

The Square Peg, Birmingham

In hindsight, asking Twitter to choose my dinner via a poll was a teeny bit stupid. For a while it looked they may do the good deed and send me to Folium, but no, right at the end there was a surge for The Square Peg, a Wetherspoons of local legend for all of the wrong reasons. I hadn’t been in here for maybe twelve years and if anything it’s succeeded in getting worse. The one time I leave my chair in the stale smelling room is to visit the gents. There I find no lock on the cubicle, the loo roll on the floor in a puddle of piss and an empty coke bag, not that I have any idea what one of those looks like. I decide to not to dump in this dump and hold it in. Back out in the pub and it’s thriving, arguably as busy as anywhere in the city. There are young people enjoying cheap booze, old people enjoying cheap booze and families eating, though whether you eat here for enjoyment or necessity is debatable.

With Eau de Blàgger running through my veins, I conjure a plan to eat as much as possible for free whilst allowing the Twitter Twats to have a little more fun. The Wetherspoon app is one of those things that was built to be abused. Intended as a waiter service to order food and beverages without leaving the table, it has become misused by those who can send menu oddities, like a bowl of peas, to tables without ever being near the pub. I tell Twitter that I am in the pub, give them my table number and challenge them to send whatever food and drink they wanted.

I get those peas, the first to arrive along with a shot of Apple Sourz, swiftly followed by a pint of piss in a Carling glass. The peas are tragic, lifeless and devoid of any taste or texture. These are followed by halloumi, a dish I order from the app because I assume 75 more portions of peas are to appear. Shock alert: it’s actually edible. Really salty halloumi charred on both sides with a sweet chilli dip. I’d quite gladly eat it again, though next time I’d request that the dead salad be given a proper burial instead of being left on the side of my plate to rot.

Also edible was the chips in curry sauce, so thank you to whoever sent that. Fat bits of potato in a slightly Chinesey sauce that is better than my local Chinese. Yes, it may be a little heavy and greasy but so is the woman on the table behind me. We can let that slip, we’re in a ‘spoons, remember. One thing I never want to see again is the child’s portion of chilli con carne that arrives with an Archers and coke. I know who sent this and as much as I want to say it’s better than Low’n’Slows (you absolute bastard), I can’t. This is all blunt tomato notes and bitterness. Two forkfuls and I’m done. A non-alcoholic beer arrives. I laugh at first and then wish the prick who sent me this an ingrown toe nail.

By now the incredibly charming bloke who is serving me is in on the act and Wetherspoons Birmingham are following me on Twitter. Another shot arrives. Very good. And then some very nice strawberry ice lollies with a congealed semen dip that the menu lists as yogurt. I know congealed semen when I taste it, how do you think I pay for all of these fancy meals? The ice lollies are followed by a fried egg. Which genius knew that I always eat a fried egg after a dessert? My girlfriend the evil fuck. The egg is fine, free range I think, and totally devoid of seasoning.

Another pint of piss in a Carling glass turns up with burgers following soon afterwards. The beef one first with a gin and tonic (thanks Holly). It’s okay, dense and under-seasoned; I’ve certainly eaten worse at establishments with far bigger reputations. I draw the line at the buttermilk chicken which is nothing of the sort. The reformed meat is cotton wool in texture, the outer coating a sweetened saw dust. I tell the chap who serves all of these to stop any future orders. I’m done, the mutant chicken thing has finished me off.

By now I’m quite pissed and starting to enjoy the slightly threatening atmosphere. It’s loud and people are genuinely enjoying themselves. The Square Peg might be a little bit dirty but it is also very cheap and accessible; nobody, apart from this grumpy bastard, comes here with any preconceptions, they come because the drinks are affordable, the beers well kept, and the food basic and filling. Would I personally come here by choice? No. But I would if I had to and I could probably eat here too, though I’d keep it strictly vegetarian. Wetherspoons like this are a national institution and I am totally fine with them continuing to serve those who visit them. The Square Peg ain’t that bad at all, it just ain’t that good either.

4/10

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

The Fleece Inn, Bretforton

The villagers of Bretforton have it lucky – it is as idyllic a central England spot as you could wish for.  The homes are crafted by stone, with lamb grazing openly in the fields that occupy the spaces in-between.  The only shop is a community store hidden away that sells local produce with the level of proudness only the location could warrant.  For here is the country’s finest larder, where the heavy top soil in the Vale of Evesham turns out the best in fruit and veg.  I digress, but this is my food blog so I’ll do as I please.  Still, as we watch the rugby from the barn of The Fleece Inn, and a band later on the evening, you get the impression that only thing that fails around here is the internet streaming signal.

IMG_8566

Central to the village community sits The Fleece Inn, a quintessential English pub some six-hundred years old, clearly popular with the locals.  From the outside the half-timbered walls looked warped from the application of gravity over gradual time.  Inside these make for pocket sized rooms, with uneven slate floors, a roaring fire, chairs and tables of solid wood, and doorways not suited to a man of my stature.  Upstairs there is a solitary bedroom, functional and comforting.  We would sleep well until the church bells chime early the following morning.

The place is heaving come dinner time where it soon becomes obvious that the desire to feed takes precedence over the need to dress a plate fancifully.  Indeed, I doubt anyone has ever left here hungry; very few disappointed.  The ham hock terrine was a soft press of pork meat, herbs, and mustard seeds, loosely bound in a jelly from long braised pig bones.  It was four times too large and far too cheap at £6.00.  I mean this as a compliment of course, as I finish half by trowelling it on to bread with sharply dressed salad and a chutney that warms.

IMG_8571

The main dishes are split up into two sections; ‘finest’ and ‘favourites’, from which we choose one from each.  From the Finest comes a chicken breast in a cream-based sauce the sort of deep orange David Dickinson would approve of, with onions, garlic, and peppers, coloured with a liberal hand of smoked paprika.  The chicken is the star here; a plump lump of protein with the texture only a life outdoors would bring.  The veg taste like they were just plucked out of the ground, which given the location, they probably were.  I order a pie based purely on the advice of our charming waitress and then completely forget to take a photo of it.  Its another hulk of a portion, the burnished short crust is seemingly sculpted by hand, the tender chunks of braised beef inside an ideal bedfellow for the umami rich ale sauce.  We get more of that ale sauce as a gravy because they know it makes sense.  They may not have a potato ricer to make the mash potato, but they have a firm hand in the salt pot.  Everything is seasoned accurately and punches with distinct clarity.

IMG_8574

And they can do pastry here.  A fat wedge of bread and butter pudding would finish us off, rich and satisfyingly squidgy.  An unsubtle whisky glaze has enough personality to hold its own, whilst clotted cream is there as a reminder that any dish can be made more indulgent with its addition.  We roll out of the main doors and in back in to the stable to watch that band and very good they were, too.

IMG_8576

How do you score a meal like this?  I’ve been asking the myself same question all week.  There is very little refinement and portions are far too large, though I assume that is exactly the  point; the food here is not designed for arse-on-seats-at-the-office, city dwellers like me – it’s for locals who have earned a pint and a good feed after a hard day at work.  We ate way too much food because it was so enjoyable; the seasoning is accurate, the ingredient’s obviously very carefully sourced – the very basic staples I would look for in every restaurant that I visit.  The Fleece Inn is one of those places that is impossible to dislike.  It has bags of character; the building, the food, it’s people.  We may have finished dinner several belt buckles looser than when we started, but we left far more content than we would at many more glamourous establishments.

8/10

My stay and dinner at The Fleece Inn was complimentary thanks to Shakespeare’s England.  I paid for my own drinks, which is a good job as I drink far too much.  For further information please see http://www.shakespeares-england.co.uk/

The Almanack, Kenilworth

 

 

almanack_will_warr_edits-24

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.

009

011

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.

017

013

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

Talbot Inn, Newnham Bridge

image

It seems obvious, yet so few abide by a simple rule of cooking; start with great ingredients and you will end up with a great dish. I am living proof that with a good butcher (Roger Browns of Harborne, if you’re interested) and a trusty place to get veg, even the most inept of cooks can rustle up something edible. Transfer the produce to someone much more capable and what you have is culinary fireworks. The Talbot Inn, a sleepy pub in Newnham Bridge, doesn’t have far to look for its raw material. Nestled in amongst the borders of Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire, it has some of England’s finest bounty on it’s doorstep. From the windows of the former coaching inn it is possible to see tomorrows dinner grazing up on the hills.

image

It is pleasing to know that the Talbot is making the most of its location by sourcing as much as possible from its doorstep, and its at these moments that the menu really sings. Bubble and Squeak, a leftover dish often relegated to breakfast in our household, came with a poached egg and a sharp hollandaise that made for a gutsy starter. In between the mound of veg and egg sat a piece of back bacon from a pig that had led a happy life; the porcine flavour present with a layer of unctuous fat to coat the mouth.

image

A hefty portion of goats cheese was warmed through came with some lightly pickled pear that provided contrast and acidity.  A fig and balsamic dressing balanced the whole dish out by further interplaying the sweet and the sour.  A fish cake of salmon and crayfish that  benefited from not being overloaded with mash potato nodded politely at the far east with a salad of spring onions and sweet chilli sauce.

image

image

A carefully roasted beef dinner and another of pork both had some good roasties, creamed cabbage, and heritage carrots that were seemingly plucked out of the ground just hours before.  We sat around the table discussing how the meat was of obvious quality whilst agreeing that the carrots were the best things on the plate.  Another plate had more of the superb carrots with a compression of sweet potato and parsnip as the centrepiece.  A tomato and herb sauce added vibrancy to the earthiness of the root veg, all of which were impeccably fresh.

image

image

image

 

After all this, desserts failed to reach the expectations set from earlier on.  Not because they were bad in any way, but because they followed the same rustic lines as the savoury courses and lacked the refinement required to make it stand out.  A fruit crumble was well made, though a lemon and lime posset was the pick of the bunch; the marginally over-set cream was sharp with citrus and worked well with both the sweet mango salsa and coconut shortbreads.

image

image

Speaking to our waitress after the meal I got a sense of the ambitions here. The Talbot’s website may play down the cooking here as “relaxed rustic food”, but it’s obvious they are aiming much higher than that.  It’s a well thought out operation with real care made to the sourcing and cooking of its food.  For a business that has only been operating for two years it has found its feet remarkably fast;  it can only be a matter of time before the accolades and crowds come trotting along just as quickly.

8/10

Talbot Inn on Urbanspoon

The Hand and Flowers, Marlow

Two years ago The Hand and Flowers was cast into the national spotlight when a French tyre maker decided to endow it with the pressure of being the only two star pub in the world. I remember trawling across the internet reading up on it and coming across an article in The Daily Mail with a typically bashful comments section: “It’s not a pub, it’s a restaurant with a bar” some UKIP follower shouted, whilst a lady with a particular affliction to Princess Diana said something about them probably not selling pork scratching, which of course is the litmus test for any public house. It seemed tragic that the majority was more interested in the argument of whether or not it was a pub, rather than embrace the accolade that goes with cooking that is deemed worthy of “a detour”

IMG-20141105-WA0011

Two years on and the two stars is still going strong. The chef here, Tom Kerridge, is everywhere; you can’t flick on BBC without seeing his ever decreasing frame and wonderful range of checked shirts. He has become the nations favourite chef through cooking gutsy, flavoursome food that you know will taste good. All very well, but I’ve eaten in enough of these places to know that gutsy doesn’t translate well in the world of Michelin. How wrong I was.

IMG-20141105-WA0013

There is still finesse here, though it has to find its own place in amongst the big tastes, which is what Kerridge and his team do with ease. A starter of truffle demi en-croute may look sophisticated and sound posh, though really is all about the bold flavours. The whole truffle wrapped in sausage meat, itself encased in a hot water pastry that enhanced the meatiness of the pork. The jug of port sauce that came with it was a stunning thing, all glossy and deep, that highlighted at the core of Kerridge’s cooking is classic French cuisine. It wasn’t the easiest thing to eat elegantly, but Oh My, it was divine.

ATT_1415175994440_IMG-20141105-WA0003

It was BBC2’s Great British Menu that cast Tom into the public eye, so 2011’s winning main course of slow cooked duck was an easy choice. The breast, as tender as it was, was overshadowed the other elements of the animal; a shard of crispy skin, a smear of liver parfait and a sausage with a tang of offal. Served alongside this was another stunning sauce, savoy cabbage with confit duck and the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a fitting tribute to a animal that had died with the sole purpose of being eaten, with every part of bird used to its full effect. Another poultry main saw half a chicken served alongside autumnal squash glazed with maple and malt. The chicken moist from the brining process, had a subtle beer flavour at its core and extra earthiness from a dusting of truffle at the table. The Hand and Flowers do protein well, but then again, maybe it was expected. The chef does look like a man that enjoys a good slab of meat.

IMG-20141105-WA0001

Chicken

The vegetarian main wasn’t listed on the menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a bit of an oversight here. Wrong again. It was tart, with a pastry akin to filo containing flecks of onion. Sitting prettily on top of this were various veg, all cooked accurately. A serious amount of work went into assuring The Veggie was pleased, if a little overly full.

IMG-20141105-WA0004

Desserts were truly top class. A perfectly risen blueberry souffle was given balance by an ice cream that tasted exactly as the childhood favourite, parma violets. I tried them both with a drizzle from the small jug of lemon verbena it came with and decided the dish didn’t need it. An apple tart had a bramley sorbet so good that we asked for the recipe and a chocolate and ale cake left us all speechless. It was of perfect balance – just sweet enough with a lingering savoury note from the ale. The salted caramel pool it was sat in and the muscovado ice cream it cradled adding moisture and further contrast.

IMG-20141105-WA0009

Apple Tart

Choc and ale

I could go on and on about the well priced wine list and the charming service, but I’ll save you the time. All that you need to know is that The Hand and Flowers is an establishment of exceptional quality. The nayslayers who say that it doesn’t have the cooking precision or the service of other two starred restaurants should really consider their argument. You cant compare here to The Square any more than you could compare Sat Bains to Helen Darroze or L’Enclume to La Gavroche. What they all have in common (okay, maybe not Darroze) is food that makes you sit up and take notice, and the food here certainly does that. I left thinking it was as a nine out of ten meal, though having brewed over it for a few days, I realise it was the most I’ve enjoyed myself since I sat down to twenty-odd courses in Cumbria a couple of years ago. It’s proper food, just how the chef intends it.

10/10

Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon