Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Old Stamp House, Ambleside.

I've been wanting to try the food of chef Ryan Blackburn since Jay Rayner's great review of Cottage in the Wood a few years back. He has a very impressive CV, including previous positions at Michelin starred Holbeck Ghyll and Martin Wishart. My budget just won't allow me too many visits to these established high end restaurants unfortunately. Luckily for me, several months ago he opened up for himself (with his brother Craig) still in The Lakes, in the centre of Ambleside. As I'm a pauper with very expensive tastes, my problem can be overcome by going to restaurants like this. Young talented chefs who are very well trained and really know what they're doing but perhaps they're not quite so well known yet. So they're not charging an arm and a leg for essentially a similar standard of food.
In this case, the taster menu at lunchtime is an absolute steal at just £35 for 7 courses. (It's a shade under £50 in the evening).
We'd both had bouts of illness and were forced to cancel our reservation once, so when it came time to our weekend away, we were in desperate need for a treat.
The Old Stamp House is in a cave like downstairs, a series of small adjoining rooms. Simply decorated yet still cosy, apparently this was the former work place of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth, at the time 'Distributer of Stamps', hence the name.
We began with Black Pudding Bon Bons, Cumberland Sauce. Great little bites, I can imagine the same thing but with the sauce inside, giving you an explosion of liquid as you bite into it.
Potted Shrimps, cauliflower and spiced mead velouté was our first real 'wow' moment. That silent exchange of nods and raised eyebrows as we dug in. Gorgeously silky smooth, with a beautiful, buttery, luscious texture and so wonderfully bold and flavoursome. The bread was used to full effect to mop up every single drop.
Ravenglass Crab. Avocado, pink grapefruit and radish. As the last course impressed with the full strength of flavour, this was delicate, light and fresh. Nothing is extraneous on the plate, those little green blobs of avocado sorbet were gorgeous little bursts of flavour that melt on your tongue.
Another real winner next, the Glazed pork cheek, queenies, artichoke and chestnut. Again, faultless.
We opted to swap a course. I wasn't coming all this way without trying a signature dish of sorts, Herdwick Hogget from local Yewtree Farm, braised shoulder, seared loin and crispy breast, cheese gnocchi, broccoli purée. If you've never tried hogget before, you have a real treat coming. It's just so rich in flavour, you can see why Simon Rogan is so fond of using this 'young sheep' (it's older than a lamb, not yet mutton). Easily one of the dishes of the year, just so bold and powerful. Again, the devil is in the detail, the green broccoli purée, a lovely accompaniment.
There was also a cheese course with a difference, Blue Winnow cheese, fig and Westmorland pepper bread like everything else here, just worked so well. 
Forced Rhubarb Cumbrian Gingerbread is about a perfect a pud as you can get for me. I adore rhubarb anyway, the slightly sour flavour with the sweet creamy sorbet, so measured and so effective.
The taster menu we had at Old Stamp House was completely faultless. It was such an enjoyable experience with polite, friendly service that was never over intrusive. (I'm personally not a fan of them taking your water and wine away from you and insisting on pouring after every single mouthful, who needs that? This never happened here.)
The food here is well considered and accurate, using local ingredients to full effect. It was a place I could imagine taking my parents to. As none 'foodies' I know they too would appreciate the food which is an extremely superior version of traditional Lakeland cuisine if you like. Perhaps you wouldn't come here for mad innovation but who needs that when the food is so enjoyable? (And that is now available elsewhere in the town, more of that later).
The bottom line is that Chef Ryan Blackburn really knows how to cook. He understands flavours that work and how to deliver them perfectly on the plate, simply and without fuss. It's a guaranteed dead cert this place and at these prices I really couldn't recommend it highly enough.

Old Stamp House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Bacon on Beech Road.

I live just off Beech road in Chorlton hence the name Bacon on the Beech not beach. Here's a round up of all the places just on my doorstep. Starting on the green itself and walking up Beech road and back down again.
The Horse and Jockey.
I've made my feelings about this place very clear. It's a soulless chain pub with a menu designed by corporate head office rather than by a chef. It's a fake 'gastro' pub in disguise with cheap quality meat I wouldn't feed to my dog. They've cut food prices now which would indicate to me that this approach just isn't working here.
However they have kept the existing events ran by the previous owners, a very impressive firework display recently and the quaint markets on the green. The beer ain't bad. It could be so much better though.
The Beech.
My local pub and favourite boozer, it still retains it's old school charm despite an onslaught by the 'yummy mummies'. Shame about Parlour dogs having to to shut down though and the Hungry Gecko leaving.
Thai Spice.
Pretty average Thai food and not that cheap either. Nice sticky ribs though.
Parlour.  Famous for their Sunday dinner which is still a winner. A good range of ales and interesting looking specials too.
Bar San Juan.
More of a Spanish bar first and foremost than anything else with a good atmosphere and pretty standard, simple tapas.
Beech Road Cafe.
We've never been here but have heard pretty good reports of their breakfasts which we can easily do at home. Bizarrely, it never opens in the evening.
Beggars Bush.
Not a regular haunt of ours as it doesn't have real ale, it is a pleasant bar with a nice vibe and friendly staff too.
Epicerie Ludo. We love this deli, especially the croissants, proper baguettes and stinky French cheese, like Époisses. That's your Saturday night tea right there. Lovely customer service too. A middle class dream.
Essentially a newsagent, but so much more. They sell top local Barbakan bread and Frosts sausages and bacon. If we ever get fully snowed in, you could survive just from this shop alone for as long as you wanted.
Beech Rd chippy.
Apparently the 'only English' chip shop in Chorlton. Standard soggy, greasy chips and tasteless thickly battered fish if that's English enough for you.
The Laundrette. 
Unfathomably popular place on the corner overlooking the park. A re-visit is due soon to see if they've learnt how to make proper pizza yet. I know they're looking at getting a wood fired oven which will definitely be an improvement.
The Love Juice. 
Essentially the opposite of everything I'm into but I have enjoyed one of their juices. If being healthy and vegan is your thing, then this is the place for you.
JB Richardson; The Bakery.
Proper ace, popular old school bakers. Fantastic granary bread, pies pasties and cakes such as this vanilla slice.
The Leadstation. 
Big in the 90's, they've just not moved on food wise. Needs a fresh direction.
Cute teashop. 
Royal Balti Palace Indian Take-away. 
This is our Indian takeaway of choice and it's pretty good too.
King City Chinese Takeaway. Standard gloopy Chinese. For sale. 
We went once and that was enough. I think they may need a bigger sign.
The 'Famous' Trevor Pub.
Rumours about this being turned into a 'gastro' pub I think are probably premature although there are plans for a whole revamp including a kitchen adding.
Chorlton Green Brasserie.
We like what they're trying to do here, a re-visit is due soon. Last time the food just wasn't good enough in all honesty. 
So in conclusion, for things like great bread and booze we do very well on Beech road. We're in need though of somewhere a little better for food I think and just slightly higher end. I'm hoping Chester's wonderful bistro, Sticky Walnut choose us for their second location Burnt Truffle. 
Ideally I'd also like a Belgian mussel/beer bar and a Basque Pintxos bar but you can't have everything can you?



Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Stouts and Porters.

I've not done a blog post on beer for a while, in part because it's so bloody expensive these days. Also because I find the craft beer 'scene' a little bit tedious. When people discuss at great length about whether 'craft keg' constitutes real ale or if beer is superior in cans or bottles, that's where I bail out I'm afraid. It reminds me of hi-fi buffs pontificating on how much better the sound is with decent speaker cable. It is, but I just don't need to hear about it because I think it turns the subject into a trainspotting, nerdy pastime (and I know I can talk being a food blogger), in that case just listening to the music, in this case simply enjoying great beer.
Anyway, as I was ill I had a craving for some medicinal winter stouts and porters. Specifically Imperial Russian stout, a style of rich strong black beer named because it was originally exported to the court of Catherine II of Russia in the eighteenth century.
Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Imperial Stout. This is my 'go-to' Imperial Stout as it's pretty widely available. Thick, dark black, all the elements are there, coffee, chocolate, roasted malts etc. 8/10.
Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.
Like a beefed up stronger version of the standard Guinness, which I also enjoy from time to time. I probably lose craft-beard-nerd points for this but it's pretty decent I think. I'd like to taste this next to the Belgian export version to see the difference. 7/10.
Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter.
So rich and strong but smooth and velvety. Love it. 9/10.
Left Hand Milk Stout.
I think it was probably unfair to compare it to the others, as being a sweet milk stout, it's a different beast. But this did nothing for me and tasted bland in comparison to what I was looking for. 6/10.
De Molen Rasputin.
This is more like it, roasted espresso, intense, jet black, bitter dark chocolate, ooft it's good! I love everything from this brewery I've tried too, you just need take out a mortgage to buy it. 9/10.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Yep, this did the job too. I'm running out of descriptions for this kind of beer, but it's those roasted malts again, fruit cake, sweet and bitter. 8/10.
Siren / De Molen Empress Stout. This has black pepper in it, and I'm not normally a fan of beer with extra stuff in it. You can taste there's another element in it but on a blind tasting I wouldn't have guessed it as black pepper. Interesting but not a favourite. 6/10.
Thornbridge Wild Raven. I crowbarred this beer in but it doesn't really fit, being a black IPA. It's a very decent beer though. 7/10.
I continued with another tasting session...
The Kernel Export Stout London 1890. 
This is so gorgeous, silky, velvet, pitch black. A very good one. 9/10
Unfortunately, it was so good that all the others I sampled afterwards paled in comparison.
Arbor Breakfast Stout tasted weak and watery. 5/10.
I just didn't rate the others much above average; Sierra Nevada Stout and Porter, and even a usual favourite, Odell Cutthroat Porter couldn't compare. (All 6/10).
So my favourites were Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter, De Molen Rasputin and The Kernel Export Stout London 1890.
These beers were bought from The Chorlton Off Licence, Tiny's Tipple in Chorlton and The Epicurean in Didsbury.