Monday, 11 November 2019

Erst, Manchester.

I had no real intention of visiting Erst. Not because I thought it wouldn't be good but really because I had kind of given up blogging and I'm also trying to economise. So we don't really get out much these days, which I'll also put down to pure laziness. There are fewer things I like doing more on these cold wintry nights than staying in by the fire, stuffing my face and watching Netflix. More often than not, pushing the boat out can lead to huge a disappointment and an empty wallet.
Besides, we've been to some top small plate restaurants in London of this ilk, and in the case of say St. Leonards, we were not blown away.
So as we were invited down to Erst, we thought we'd give it a go and we were pleasantly surprised. Surprised at how accomplished the food was. We actually preferred Erst to the much rated St Leonards and even enjoyed it more than their high end neighbour.
The small plates 'modern European' menu is well designed and refreshingly small. They've honed it down, kept it simple and everything we ate as far as we're concerned actually works well. The interior is clean and modern but like many places in Ancoats, a little chilly inside in these winter months. I'm sure it warms up later on in the service. We liked the first white wine we tried, (rare for us) a 2018 Eschenhof Holzer, Gruner Veltliner Wagram from Austria. It worked perfectly with the food.
We sampled:
Carlingford Oyster with Apple and ginger mignonette. I mentioned at the time I'd prefer my oysters naked as for me this accompaniment is overpowering but this is really down to personal preference. The produce, lovely plump oysters are excellent.
Pickles & Ferments.
Flatbread with Whipped Lardo. I bloody loved this. You can just inject this lardo into my veins and the flat bread was perfect as you might expect from Trove bakery.
Salt Cod, Tomato, Capers and Oregano. Beautifully fresh and clean dish. The tomatoes are reminiscent of the flavoursome fragrant ones you eat abroad. A favourite. Followed by Mussels dashi and pork fat oil. This has a wonderfully rich broth.
Pork Collar, plum and rosemary.
Partridge, ajo blanco & grapes.  As Mrs B said at the time, 'this is how we prefer our game, roasted and not raw'.
Finally dessert, a lovely rich Wintry Baked Apple, pecan and vanilla ice cream.
The moral of this story is never try and judge a restaurant you've not visited yourself yet. Erst is an absolute delight and good value. You could come here at least twice instead of higher end options. I'd prefer to visit here myself, the staff are lovely, it's unpretentious and everything actually works well. Highly recommended.

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.