Monday, 21 October 2019

The Crown, Burchetts Green, Berkshire.

We were going to a family wedding down south so used that as an excuse to visit the much venerated The Crown, Burchetts Green. It seems impossible to write such a review without using the phrase 'a family affair', but chef Simon Bonwick is always in the kitchen, whilst apparently several of his children work here too. We met two of them and professional and friendly they were too, and even chef popped his head out to say hello.
It's not really a pub, although it looks like one from the outside. Nobody really comes here for a drink I'm told. It is worth the four hour journey from Manchester. We weren't messing around so just went for the taster menu as follows.
Canapés and bread.
 Crab signature.
Duck with a rather nice elderberry and rowan sauce.

Lemon Tartlet, bramble sorbet.
Prune with heather baba.
Everything was all rather nice, faultless really, I especially liked the duck. I would have preferred an extra fish course over a dessert (although the desserts were very good). All in all a very pleasant lunch, it left me wanting more and eager to return next time we're down in this neck of the woods. As Michelin say, well worth a detour.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

White Swan at Fence, Lancashire.

Whenever I see the word 'challenging' to describe a chef's food, alarm bells go off in my head. I think, that's fine but you can do it with somebody else's money. I don't want challenging, I really just want delicious. This is the reason why we've never been to Mugaritz in the Basque Country. We all know that Tripadvisor is generally awful and terrible for the industry but take a look at the reviews for that particular 'challenging' restaurant, it certainly makes for interesting reading. I'm not in the market for gambling €350 each for what at least half of the customers writing reviews on TA agree is challenging but also unsuccessful and unpalatable.
I am however very much in the market for two Michelin star courses for £27 or three for £35 in the Lancashire village of Fence.
I wouldn't describe chef Tom Parker's food as challenging. I would call it absolutely gorgeous and packed full of flavour like the wonderful style of his mentor Nigel Hawthorne of Michelin starred Northcote.
 I've been to the White Swan twice now, firstly on my own when I had a spare day off shooting food professionally. We then returned together for my recent birthday and we took our two dogs. Can you name anywhere else in Britain where you can eat Michelin star food and take your furry friends? * This is not a rhetorical question, I would like to know so I can visit.
On this second visit first, we ordered dishes to share so we could sample as much as possible. There is also a 6 course tasting menu for £60.
The excellent home made bread rolls to begin on both occasions are good and crusty, served with a richly flavoured foie gras liver paté and a lovely creamy whipped butter. 
Tomato Consommé. Hebden Bridge Goats Cheese Gnocchi, nocellara olives, basil and marjoram. Absolutely lovely, a warm taste of the Summer, the tomatoes explode with flavour on your tongue.
Warm Salmon Gravalax. English Wasabi buttermilk, apple and dill. I had something similar to this on my first visit and I loved both (with cucumber and radish on that occasion, picture below). Such a beautiful dish.
Suckling Pig. Garden Courgette, basil and crab apple. The crispy crunchy skin is just right, with the soft fleshy pork underneath, it's perfect. (*Note the plating was perfect before I accidentally stuck my finger in it).
Whitby Cod, Smoked Bacon, Scottish girolles and onion. I think this one was our favourites, we love the flavoursome liquid broth that accompanies the delicate fish.
Veal Sweetbreads, Artichoke Madeira and thyme (pictured below) was another richly flavoured beauty from my first visit in May.
Desserts were also strong on both visits. Tiramisu. Banana Ice Cream, Michel Cluizel Chocolate, coffee bean and caramel may well be my perfect dessert. Mrs B loved her Blueberry Crumble Soufflé. Beetroot Ice Cream and white chocolate custard. It's well worth the extra £5 surcharge.
Over two visits I'm yet to eat a dish that didn't work and wasn't beautiful and I love those odds. White Swan at Fence is in my favourite three places to eat in the UK overall, it's certainly my favourite pub. It's incredible value, the food is always superb and full of flavour, it's in an unpretentious setting, they serve Timothy Taylor Landlord and the staff are all absolutely lovely. Even the coffee is decent, not always the case in good restaurants.
My advice is this, avoid those places that may attempt to try and 'challenge' you, they're rarely as successful as you'd hoped, (with a few exceptions) and they're rarely as good as here. You can keep your cutting edge, I'm just sticking to safe bets like this where lovely people just simply serve you wonderful food.

10/10. Everything was perfect over two visits. We couldn't fault anything.
* Dog Friendly tables in the bar area only not on Friday/Saturday evenings. We specify this when booking.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The Black Bull Inn at Sedbergh, Yorkshire.

We no longer go camping. Too many times we had to pack the tent away in the rain. It was the packing and unpacking that became tedious. So whilst most of our friends upgraded to camper vans, we'd save ourselves the 20K that we don't have, and book into the nearby pub for a weekend away with friends. The problem though was that more often than not, these places are chosen based on their proximity to the local campsite. So the pub might have some decent beers on if it were in Yorkshire or Cumbria, but the food would be average. Despite the so called 'food revolution', the food offerings at many pubs in the UK remains quite poor I think. A recent trip to The famous Tan Hill Inn for instance, whilst a fun weekend, the food was awful and the staff were pretty poor.
So I always have low expectations and have become quite good at ordering the least worst thing on the menu. I would order the pie more often than not as it seemed a safe bet. Even then, I might be presented with one of those abominations, the puff pastry lid. This is not a proper pie!
The Black Bull in Sedbergh is a different kettle of fish. It's only a short drive from the M6 making it an easy journey up from Manchester. We wandered through the quaint little village past the little stalls selling local gin and artisan cheese. The sun shone on the bunting and everything was right in this lovely corner of the world. We even have time for a quick brew at The Three Hares Café, a place I later find out is owned by the same people, James and Nina. The bread and cakes look impressive but we're saving ourselves for lunch.
We get a warm welcome at the Black Bull too. We enjoy a marvellous lunch in the dog friendly bar area whilst our room is being prepared. The Maple Pea Hummus (£3.50) is a must order and excellent value, it comes with lovely thin, crunchy home made crackers. It seems all the things that can be home made or sourced locally are, down to the beautiful pottery. If only all pubs were like this.
The Drovers Platter Served With Bread Home Cooked Ham, Artisan Cheese & Sausage Roll (£12.50) is another fine choice. Again all the elements are very good. The cheese and ham is so much superior to the usual supermarket standard and the bread that they make themselves, superb. "I love this place" I say to Mrs B. We are so impressed.
Her order, the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, proper chips & salad (£10.50) again, is beautiful with good quality meat. The chips are perfect.
Following lunch we check into our room. It's beautiful, modern and spacious. The cute little details like the bespoke toiletries (local of course) and the dog blanket and water bowl for our dog.
We returned later for dinner. The beer range looks impressive, I couldn't get enough of the unpasteurised naturally hazy Budvar beer.
To start we both order the Mansergh Hall Pork Belly, Hand Dived Scallop, Date & Kohlrabi (£9.95). My pork belly is a little over. I'm looking for that almost jellied soft texture with a crispy skin. This, I think maybe had been left on the pass and dried out a little. The scallops are beautifully cooked.
Also, Luing Beef Sirloin, Beetroot Ketchup, Cavolo Nero & Chips (£22.95). It is a good flavour steak with a pleasing texture. I swerved the cold Beetroot Ketchup (this doesn't work for me with steak) and personally I would have preferred the meat served on a plate rather than a wooden board. But I rarely order steak in pubs but would certainly make an exception here.
Desserts are good too. Our party were taken by the home made liquorice ice cream, "more intensely  liquorice than liquorice itself".
One thing I must mention, one of our party has some food intolerances and I thought it was quite telling how this was dealt with in a helpful and most professional manner. (She gave it a 10/10).
Unlike a recent abysmal unprofessional experience elsewhere (both during and after the meal), here what is already a great restaurant and a wonderful hotel, is made stellar by the people working here. All the staff are professional and clearly well trained. It also helps enormously if you have natural charm as everybody does here.
I think that at The Black Bull Inn, they understand that all the smaller elements are important but the people working here make our weekend from what would have been very good to one of the best weekend trips we've ever had away in the UK.
The following morning, the breakfast is excellent as we expected. The scrambled egg is perfect, made I guess with eggs from their own chickens in the beer garden in the back. All the elements, the bread and the freshly squeezed OJ are as good as they can be.  They strive to make everything is as good as it can be at The Black Bull in Sedbergh.
Dinner Bed and Breakfast cost us £205 for one night (including a £70 dinner allowance for two of us) plus £25 for the dog.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Armeni Restaurant, Oia, Santorini, Greece.

Thinking back, the most memorable meals are those that are so engrained in specific a time and place, those unique singular moments in life where there's almost magic in the air. So it was with our dinner at Armeni Restaurant, Santorini.
It was the last night of a wonderful trip away, mainly in Naxos but with a few days in Santorini before we were due to fly home. The island itself is just as breathtaking as you imagine it to be. The picture postcard white villages and blue domes hanging on to the top of a volcanic crater are already so familiar from stock photos of Greece, you can hardly believe you're actually there.
I'd pre-booked a table at  Armeni as I'd got a tip from a pal on twitter. It shuts at 9pm so actually a 7.15pm booking is pretty much the latest you can eat in the evening without rushing. Google maps told me it was just a short walk from our apartment in Oia. I knew it would be downhill but it was slightly treacherous in parts with a minor landslip of small rocks but nothing that can't be handled if you're fairly able. Actually the walk down the cliff face was part of the whole experience.
We arrive to a warm welcome as is usually the case in Greece. Greek people really are the most hospitable folk. The taverna is at the very bottom of the volcanic crater right on the seafront. They have sun-loungers for customers going out to the quay and kids are running round with locals cats. The whole scene is so Greek with an informal slightly scruffy sea swept charm.
We order loads of smaller plates althought they offer you a look at the catch of the day.
All the dishes pretty much came at once which we didn't expect but it was all great, anchovy, smoked mackerel, octopus, scallops and smoked eel... It's just one of life's joys to eat food like this on the seafront as the sun is setting.
After we'd eaten they mentioned to us that we could have arrived on their complimentary water taxi from a nearby port as it is easier to manage the return walk up the cliff to Oia. So we took up their kind offer of a return boat ride back around the cove.
The water was choppy and a the ride a bit bumpy but right there and then was one of those moments you never forget. Fortuitously just as we turned the corner into the little port, the sun was setting on one of those famous Santorini sun sets. We couldn't have timed it better if we'd have tried. It was one of those rare moments in life when just fleetingly, life is perfect.

Thanks to Markos on twitter for the tip.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Mana, Manchester.

It’s 2.30 in the morning of the hottest, sweatiest night of the year and I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about our meal last night.
Mana Head chef, Simon Martin appeared to be in a massively bad mood which permeated throughout the huge dining room. He did not look happy at all. Unsmiling and and none communicative on occasions when he brought the food over to our table, it really did put a dampener on the night’s dinner. Was it something we did? I try to find a reason why it might be our fault as you do at 2.30am and you can’t sleep.
Early on in the evening we had mistakenly ordered a bottle of white rioja but taking a sip, I immediately realised it wasn’t the right wine for us all. The highly rated Viña Tondonia White Reserva (I think) was just way too mature and sherry like for what we were looking for. We asked to change it to a different wine and were told they’d have ‘to try and sell it to someone else’. I think it was our fault in hindsight but It felt like we had really put them out and it wasn’t the reaction I had expected.
Or had we been too loud or too drunk? I hadn’t thought so, no more than usual anyway.
Was it the presence of the Guardian photographers who were there shooting for a new, yet to be published review? I also got the distinct impression that me snapping away wasn’t going down too well either. (I later ask for permission to photograph the chef).
The narrative of the story I‘d assumed I was going to tell, is that I’d been wrong to leave it until now to come to Mana, that it had been amazing like everybody else says it is and a fine night was had by all. It didn’t turn out quite like that for us.
Firstly, the food. It was good with flashes of Michelin star brilliance. It wasn’t the overly challenging style that I had mistakenly believed that I wouldn’t like. The flavours are generally all there. The oyster with chicken fat was beautiful, the yakitori-style eel, is now one of Manchester’s best ever dishes. That tartare, again, such a gorgeous mouthful. That bread is superb. He’s a talented chef.
It was just that we were hugely let down by the service. If they’re attempting to win a Michelin star, then on this occasion, they fell well short of that. It made me realise again that front of house and service is at least as important as the food if not more so, as it has the capacity to completely spoil a night and overshadow everything else, even if the food is good. Dining at the best restaurants can make you feel like a million dollars, this just made me feel regretful and disappointed.
Service was slow and inconsistent. Dishes were explained on some occasions but not others. If the chef is going to bring the dishes, maybe it’d be better to smile, be friendly and chatty rather than have a face like thunder and leave the table just as one of our party is in the middle of asking you a question. This happened twice.
It just doesn’t put us, the customers at ease. Two dishes of hogget were brought out but there were three of us eating it. When we asked where the third one was, they explained two dishes were to share between three of us. This didn't seem quite right to us.
I never felt the presence of a manager who was taking care of us and was steering the ship as such. A strong character with effortless charm like the brilliant Kamilla Plonska of the French or Fernando Marques of Tast. I believe they had a manager, Anthony Barnes but he seems to have left.
At one point I asked if it were possible to speed up the pace a little as it seemed an age between each course and was told that essentially this pace could not and would not be changed. That he could ask the kitchen but ‘it wouldn’t really make any difference’. Really? Is all this for the benefit of the kitchen or the paying customers? 
Earlier on in the evening Mrs B politely asked them if it were possible to turn the music down a little because it was quite loud. She was told, “I’ll ask the chef!” Everything seemed to be for the benefit of keeping the chef happy and the customers were just an after thought.
I’d like to make a suggestion that if the restaurant wants to achieve Michelin star levels of service that perhaps they take extra training by a true experienced specialist. We were saying that they need someone along the lines of Didier Fertilati, (manager of the Quique Dacosta restaurant and the greatest FOH manager we‘ve had the pleasure of meeting), to observe and give them some pointers.
I’ve asked my dining partners their views on the evening too.
Dr Dawn is a GP. She’s also the most level headed person I know. She’s been with us on countless restaurant trips to here in the UK and Spain. On this occasion she wasn’t drinking much so her memory of events are likely to be even clearer than mine.
 What were your impressions of Mana and the whole night?
Let's start on the happier part, the food. Some of my dishes were great (not amazing), the oyster, the eel, the starter snacks. My main (none meat) was disappointing as it had no real flavour.
How was the service? Possibly the worst  service I have ever had at any level of dining. I was made to feel uncomfortable,  and there was an awkward atmosphere. I suspect  this may have started at 'winegate' but at this level of dining you must be able to say when a wine is not suitable. Some wine advice should have been  given at the start. This was  a very expensive meal for a none Michelin restaurant and at this price the service should have been at top level.
Would you return? 
I would not return and would not recommend it. If  an inspector gets a similar experience I would not expect it to get a star, there was a 'we are too cool to be trying to serve you' attitude and the chef rules everything. The chef was obviously not that keen on bringing us any food and  had a pained  expression of ' I have to do this' and there was no communication. Plus 'hogget gate', were they trying to  recoup the wine money? There was no info given.

What would you score it? 
6/10 for food, 3/10 service.  3 points for the young girl bringing out the food and the nice man with the beard and the wine man.

As we left, Dawn said "I don't think the chef liked us."
Can you imagine that as a paying customer that this is even a fleeting thought you have when leaving a restaurant you’ve just paid a lot of money for? If you’re in a bad mood and in the service industry, you would probably need to be able to cover it up I’d imagine. Or does it not matter as you’re fully booked for months anyway?
 Ms Arroz, a pharmacist, has also been on all of our restaurant based trips. Again I've asked her for her feedback.
What were your impressions of Mana and the whole night? It felt very modern in layout. There wasn’t much room for waiting, staff were Ok until the wine incident, I think this was the start of the surly service. Overall it was a great night out with friends. The food was good but not that memorable except the eel. The atmosphere was blighted by the house staff and ‘the hogget incident.‘
How was the service? As above. The front of house made too many excuses not to deal with our requests and questions. I thought it was interesting that the sommelier is leaving after only a few months. I thought the chef could have made more of an effort.. And the Hogget thing? Maybe that was payback for wasted wine....
How was the food? It felt it was trying for a Michelin, some dishes shone. I was expecting the food to be challenging but it wasn't, it was not the NOMA type food I was expecting.
Would you return? Only if another friend wanted to.
What would you score it? 6
Will it get a Michelin star do you think? They might if the inspectors went on a good night.

Pinned to his twitter page chef Simon Martin has this quote:“I’m a firm believer that the most important thing in my role is making sure every single person who walks through our door is blown away by the time they leave..”
This is a wonderful sentiment and aim but I’m really sorry but we weren’t blown away. The food was good but the bottom line is that we didn’t feel welcome and that ethos comes from the top. I can’t recall ever having such an experience in a restaurant at this level. We were sadly, hugely disappointed and nobody is more sorry than me especially as we’ve paid a not unsubstantial amount of money for the pleasure. Mana didn't feel to me like a happy place to work or to dine as a customer.
Simon Martin is clearly a talented chef but food is only a part of the experience.
I really wanted to love it but they desperately need an experienced manager who has had worked at the highest level and is able to put customers at ease. I might add that I think that we’re very easy going customers.
Despite our experience, I still hope they get a star in the new guide as they’re clearly aiming for one and the food probably deserves it. It will be wonderful for Manchester. But if a star is partly based on service as well as food (I believe it’s for food alone Michelin say) then they may be as bitterly disappointed as we were.
Food: 7/10
Service 4/10.
Mrs Bacon's Score.
Food: 7/10
Service 3/10. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Le Cochon Aveugle, York.

We're sat in one of my favourite restaurants in Britain and me and Mrs Bacon are sharing stories with co-owner Vicky about how much Anthony Bordain meant to us. As huge fans for so many years we all feel like we knew him personally.  Of course we didn't but this is why his death has effected so many of us. We immersed ourselves in all of his books and TV shows so his became the most saddening of any 'celebrity' deaths. We're still not really over it. I still think of him often. We followed Bourdain to Spain to wherever he recommended, and I know Vicky and chef Josh travelled around Paris to where he ate.
It's no secret that we're huge fans of chef Josh's food and that I've been commissioned to photograph their restaurant a few times but we decided to return as punters for our wedding anniversary. After a quick drink at their sister bar, the wonderful Cave du Cochon, and finally deciding on our favoured wine with Vicky, we make a start on the taster menu as follows:
Crispy chicken skin, chicken liver parfait & pickled walnut ketchup.
Whitby crab & wasabi tart.
Ken Holland's carrots & goat's curd.
Boudin noir macaron. (Pictured below). This is as good as it looks.
L'Arpege egg. Just so lovely as ever.
Oyster flamboir a lard. Gorgeous.
Homemade sourdough, cultured butter, beurre noisette & sea salt. Embarrassingly, I possibly had three or four portions (servings not pieces) of this fabulous bread.
60 day-aged beef tartare, cauliflower & sauce tonnato.
Hand-dived Orkney scallop cooked 'a la ficellel in sea urchin butter. This is the finest scallop I've ever eaten. Even better than the one we had at Hedone in London. The quality of this product is seriously impressive.
Pollock cooked over coals, smoked butter, Yorkshire asparagus & confit lemon.
Fattened guinea fowl, 36 month-old Parmesan, wild garlic & Vin Jaune sauce.
'Guess' Elderflower panna cotta, frais de Bois, wild strawberry sorbet & vinegar granita. I'm afraid we failed in the taste test with this one, I blame the booze.
Pain d'Epices egg. A wonderful end to a supreme taster menu from chef Josh.
Le Cochon Aveugle is a seriously good restaurant with wonderful food and fine service from Vicky and the team. They deserve all the accolades they get.
I'm sure Anthony Bordain would have loved it here and at Cave. There's not much more of a recommendation I can give than that.