What the Critics Say


The service is old school but scatty, our waiter keen to push ‘special’ aperitifs and liqueur coffees and strongly suggesting the sea bass for ‘the lady’. Perhaps shocked that she decides to go for the veal cutlet with lemon and sage instead, her order gets muddled and she’s brought lamb.
Classic starters of oeuf en meurette (egg poached in red wine and served on a crisp circle of fried bread, its sauce enriched with mushrooms and lardons) and jambon persillé (a refined slab of jellied ham and parsley terrine) are the highlight of the meal. But the main courses: the aforementioned veal, a wild pigeon with kale and ceps and the rack of lamb (which we get to sample gratis), all suffer from over-salting, as does a side of overcooked runner beans, although not a fine, butter-heavy bowl of pommes purée.
Madame ignores advice on the passion fruit parfait as ‘something to die for’ and instead decides to live with a passable portion of profiteroles.
With bourgeois French cooking, served up in a retro-styled room, by waiters wearing waistcoats and long white aprons, currently about as thin on the ground in London as burger joints and chefs with tattoos, there’s a long list of places, old and new, that do a better job of this kind of menu.
Rating: 2/5
Price: about £150 for a meal for two with drinks and service


Artisan Manchester

It feels like a factory, a processing plant for poseurs who care more about being seen than what’s on their plates. (Not that you can be seen: the entire United team could be at the other end of this immense, raucous space and I’d be none the wiser.) And that food is impressively bad, too. There’s the pizza slathered with a bbq sauce that tastes like boiled-up Fisherman’s Friends, capped with shrivelled, biltong-textured “pulled pork” and shavings of pineapple. Its base is thin, cracker-crisp and scorched, like an overgrown water biscuit. The “Lyonnaise” salad that looks generous for its £10.95 price tag turns out to be volumes of flouncy lettuce caching waterlogged, unpeeled spuds, elderly croutons, a smattering of bacon and oikish garlic sausage. Worst of all is what’s called a “cassoulet”. Is it buggery: it’s an unconnected group of ingredients, introduced via the medium of tinned tomato and butter beans. The belly pork is tasteless; the duck less confit, more Kentucky fried quacker.
Actually, I lie. It’s not all terrible. Queenie scallops suffer from brackish “curry butter” and grouty cauliflower puree, but they’re bearable. And there’s a decent retro Arctic roll as a finale. Whoop-de-doo.
Rating: food 2/10, atmosphere febrile, value for money 3/10
Price: about £30 a head, plus drinks and service

Flesh & Buns

I chose the braised pork belly with mustard miso (£14) and was told that all this was far too much food for just one person (and that, implicitly, I was both a greedy bastard and a Nobby No-Mates).
I said it was fine, I was a big boy, and if I couldn’t finish then I’d take a doggy bag. “No,” she said. “No doggy bags.” And I am afraid that appalled me. Especially in a supposedly new and on-trend restaurant. First off, it condones the throwing away of food. Second, it is entirely unhelpful to your customers. And third, it is just bad business: you’re discouraging people from spending more…The flesh and buns part of the meal was, in fact, sensational full stop. Original, witty and thrilling. My meat was soft, sweetly sauced and aromatic, and the puffs of steamed white bun, split open to receive the torn meat and whatever salad you wanted to apply, were light and heavenly. It was do-it-yourself char siu pao, and pure genius.
Rating: 5.83/10 (food 6/10, fun 7/10, sustainability 4.5/10)
Price: 2kg pork and lamb shoulders for six, £62 and £75 respectively


Some old Trishna favourites were detectable amid the kebabs and tikkas, especially the Goan cafreal bream with a salsa of cherry tomatoes called katchumber. We shared lasooni wild tiger prawns, marinated for hours, astonishingly soft, tomatoey, garlicky and fiery, calmed down by red-pepper chutney. Main-course-sized lamb nalli barra meant best-end chops and lamb shank chops, marinated in turmeric, ginger and cayenne pepper, that were falling-apart tender and tasty. In a side order of spiced okra, the often-slimy ladies’ fingers were chopped up small and extremely yummy.
Chicken butter masala had a brilliantly smoked quality – the result, apparently, of charcoaling tomatoes in the tandoor before putting them in the sauce; it swarmed over the super-tender chicken like a yellow tsunami over a sea wall. Indian puddings often defeat me, but the ‘jaggery and black pepper caramel custard’, though unappealing displayed on a willow-pattern plate, was fine and treacly.
Rating: about £150 a head with cocktails and wine
Price: food 4/5, ambience 4/5, service 4/5

Abode Canterbury

Beetroot panna cotta came with wincingly acrid pickled vegetables, tasted like supermarket brand “essence of beetroot” and abandoned the dish’s conventionally smooth texture in favour of a sort of soggy tofu vibe. A mechanical ham hock terrine was colder than the atmosphere. An accompanying “green bean salad” proved to be a few limp legumes. These were at least green, as advertised. But the menu threw down the gauntlet to Bletchley Park in the cryptography stakes by rendering “a few blobs of apple sauce” as “mustard mayonnaise”.
By now, the transcendently joyless hush in the room – one of those psychic dehumidifier spaces that saps the soul out of you – was striking an unnervingly surreal contrast with the ribald shrieking from a hen party in a salon privé, closeted away behind the bar to our right. If these women found merriment in their main courses, I doff my hat to them. We were not amused by a pan-fried fillet of mackerel which “tastes very fishy, but not in a fresh way”, served with a puy lentil mush flavoured with bad chorizo. Roast sirloin of beef came not medium rare, as promised, but medium well, with studiedly soggy roast potatoes and viciously over-boiled broccoli and carrots – though the Yorkshire pud was fine.
Rating: 1.5/5
Price: about £65 a head for three courses with wine (a la carte); £15 for two/£17.50 for three courses (Sunday lunch)

Damson & Co

I eat cold meats, salad and ceviche followed by coffee and cake but I could have had eggs Benedict, fresh oysters or a bowl of granola. It might be wildly eclectic but everything hits the sweet spot. Some of that’s down to careful shopping; spicy Kent cobnut saucisson and sweet and fatty Shropshire ham lomo prove that British charcuterie is world-class, while lemon drizzle cake from Nick’s Fine Foods is a stunner with a crunchy caramelised top givi
ng way to a coarse crumb moistened with delicious lemon syrup. A flat white made with coffee from Ozone Roasters in east London is one of the best in the capital. The kitchen is on song, too. Peruvians might turn their nose up at Indian-spiced sea-bass ceviche but it’s a real cracker and perfectly balanced so you can still taste the fish.
Rating: 4/5
Price: about £45 for a meal for two with wine, water and service

Smokehouse Neil Rankin

I took a small crowd to Smokehouse for an early dinner on a Saturday evening, snatching a table at the last minute that we promised to return within a couple of hours, which wasn’t a hassle as the service from a warm-hearted American waitress was on point and the menu focused. We shared some fine plates of chopped brisket roll with gochujang (fermented red chilli sauce from Korea), very good squid with romesco sauce and a delicate plate of smoked mullet, sea purslane and pickled clams. There is a foie gras, apple pie and duck egg starter available, but it was 7pm and I couldn’t rouse any of my troops to face it. I loved the rich, decadent short rib bourguignon, eaten while picking at lamb stovies (a meat and potato dish that I haven’t set eyes on since I lived in Scotland). The ox cheek — smoky and tender — arrived with cauliflower cheese and was polished off rapidly.

Union Street Cafe

Chef Davide Degiovanni has a daily-changing menu that wouldn’t look out of place in a score of other mid-market Italian restaurants in London. The intentionally casual service and Italian style is undermined though by portion sizes which would be considered meagre in the boot of Italy. Our ‘secondi’ octopus dish was two meaty tentacles perched on a pile of braised borlotti beans; a seafood stew was soup-bowl sized, and very salty. Perhaps this is one Italian restaurant where you really can order antipasti (starters), and follow it with primi (‘first’ courses, often pasta) before moving on to secondi (‘second’, or main courses).
The high points of our meal were the ‘parmesan skin’ appetisers, puffed up like pork scratchings from a rind; and a brownie-like but mild chocolate and peanut butter cake topped with vanilla ice cream, with espresso poured over, affogato style. There’s a good list of wines grouped by style, a cocktail maker renowned for his talent, and a much more extensive bar in the basement.
Rating: 3/5

Rainbow Cafe Cambridge

The starters are pretty nondescript. Dad has a garlic bread with sun-dried tomato (£3.45) that is essentially soft, buttery bread infused with garlic and moist but slightly bitter tomato. Mum and I have the small goat’s cheese salad (over-priced at £5.25), which has cucumber, tomato, olive, lettuce, red onion and a good vinaigrette.
The mains are each an explosion of ingredients and colour – but not, alas, flavour. I have the Jamaican roti chips (£9.95), which involve fresh banana, rosecoco beans, black turtle beans, coconut milk, Jamaican spices, roasted sweet potato “and more”, served in a chapatti cup with rice’n’peas. That is a lot going on, and the competing flavours drown each other out, leaving a glorified mush. I can make out the banana but not the coconut milk, let alone the spices, and the rice’n’peas is overcooked and too starchy.
Rating: 6/10
Price: £35 for two, without drinks

Good Life Eatery

Why do health-food shops have to stress monastic, hair-shirted self-mortification? Why isn’t there a vegan, organic, pulse-rich room that’s comfortable and opulent, with chairs that like bottoms? Why is their aesthetic so antipathetic to sophistication? Why does gastro-hypochondria look like a cross between a Methodist chapel and a bike shop? And why is the service so purposefully amateur, so eagerly slow? 
The blackboard promised “skinny eggs Benedict”, which might have been a naked Kate Moss but was, instead, poached eggs on spelt toast with avocado, cherry tomato, almond pesto and a light saffron yoghurt sauce. Well, if that doesn’t add 10 years to your life and make you look like a Nordic god, then it’s not worth suffering. I passed and went for an egg-white frittata with salmon, tomatoes, spring onion and basil. What arrived was a cold, spongy triangle of roughly manhandled ingredients made without care or culinary knowledge. It tasted of little. And what flavour it did muster was burnt, vague, with a whiff of cold cud. Making anything other than a meringue out of egg whites shows an ignorance of what an egg actually is and how it works.
The Blonde’s muesli was made with something so slimy, it was like melted slugs with anonymous chewy bits. Perhaps a better description would be sucking a pig’s nostril. Mind you, I’d have paid for a melted slug to make the spelt toast palatable.
Rating: atmosphere 1/5, food 1/5
Price: £17.12 for two including 8% service 


Léon de Bruxelles

And finally, the mussels. They needed to be good. Being a mussel restaurant that can’t do good mussels is like being a cardinal who’s crap at praying, or a slaughterman who can’t stand the sight of blood. Léon de Bruxelles is all these things and far less. The meat inside the shells is small and shrivelled and dry; each shell contains what looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat. They appear to have been left to steam for too long. Those with Dijon mustard are vinegary. I order the Madras mussels, because it’s my stupid job to do so. It’s exactly as you would expect Indian food to be were it cooked by Belgians. It smells of old curry-flavoured po
t noodle; the flavour is not dissimilar. Eating these mussels is not meditative or compelling. It’s just disappointing.
Price: £75 for a meal for two including drinks and service

Walnut Tree

A tiny Thai crab cake, arriving unbidden, actually tastes like something you’d eat on the street in Thailand. It sizzles with flavour. Then there’s burrata (mozzarella’s naughtier, more buxom younger sister), exceptionally fresh and ridiculously creamy, lolling among tomatoes that taste of Southern Italian dusk. Hill moves from Asia to Europe with unforced ease and learned aplomb. An omelette Victoria is a sloppy, creamy, gloriously messy melange, with chunks of lobster perched upon  a just-cooked eggy base, scented with summer truffles. It’s an omelette Arnold Bennett (a version with smoked haddock) clad in silk pyjamas, the sort of dish every ambitious egg wants to be when it grows up. Squid comes scented with the warm breath of chilli, spiked with tiny, acidic shards of red onion. Pea aubergines add subtle bitterness, while even dill, that brutal bully of a herb, is tamed and made polite…And there’s more. Rabbit loin bursting with juice, plus slices of rabbit liver, unbelievably subtle, like a blushing, teenage version of its calf-sourced counterpart. And tiny kidneys, gleaming like garnets, as delicate as you could hope for. 
A crisp, sprightly salad of lettuce and shavings of radish makes a perfect partner, along with Dauphine potatoes, gilded fingers of deep-fried mashed potato. 
In fact, the only slightly bum note (and I really am nitpicking here) is a hunk of turbot. The chanterelle-spiked sauce is flawless, but the fish just a tad overcooked. Puddings, all manner of greengage tarts and wobbling buttermilk confections, bring up the rear in some style.
Rating: 5/5
Price: around £65 for lunch for two, minus drinks and service


Church House Midhurst

I simply love the place. The oldest part of the house is all low beams and cosy nooks, and opens on to the street. The rear is spacious and filled with light. Contemporary resides happily with antiquity in the two sitting rooms and a dining area. Modern Italian Caligaris table and chairs look sleek beneath oak beams, there’s a pretty vintage mirror in the black-tiled downstairs loo, and heavy perspex lamps atop delicate mahogany tables…Since this is a B&B review, however, I must focus on bed (a bateau lit, or sleigh bed, beneath beams and exposed brick, the room a luxurious encounter with silk, cotton and velvet), and breakfast, back at the refectory table. As with everything else, it is a work of art. From pink roses to fresh juice in cut glass, from bittersweet marmalade to pastries, and smoked salmon with scrambled egg scattered with chives and piled on to a toasted muffin.
Price: B&B doubles from £140 per night

Isle of Eriska Hotel

The family-owned hotel is run with a flamboyant touch by Beppo Buchanan-Smith, who serves early evening drinks in the lounge (or on the flagstone terrace on summer days). There are twenty-five rooms, including five spa suites with hot tubs in fenced-off gardens. The suites are huge, with conservatories with sofas and armchairs, lounges with gas fires, large L-shaped sofas and big flatscreen TVs. Bedrooms have thick magnolia carpet and massive beds and there are spacious dressing rooms and bathrooms with unusual touch-sensor lights on the mirrors and Molton Brown toiletries. They’re modern and ultra-comfortable, while the rooms in the main building have a more traditional style mixed with bright pink throw cushions and designer lamps. The menu changes every evening using seasonal produce. After a G&T with Botanist gin (distilled in the Hebridean island of Islay), I tucked into a sharp and tasty amuse-bouche of asparagus soup with a mustard vinaigrette, followed by a mackerel crêpe with cucumber and olive oil (fresh and palate-cleansing), then a main of roast loin of free range pork — carved at the table by Beppo and served with an excellent Bramley apple sauce. The pudding of Oban whiskey parfait was spot on.
Rating: 8.5/10
Price: Dinner, B&B from £370

Mistley Thorn hotel

A formerly skanky boozer is now run with panache by Californian Sherri Singleton, married to an academic at Essex University. Simple, homely and congenial – tiled floor, tongue and groove walls, wooden tables – it’s the sort of place where you immediately want to get stuck into the food. Which is just what we did. Sherri’s menu majors on local seafood, including Mersea oysters (available year round) and Colchester natives when in season. Suffolk Red Poll beef and Sutton Hoo chicken are also on offer and the puddings, such as Sherri’s mum’s cheesecake, go down a treat. It isn’t haute cuisine, but it hits the spot. Two of us chose cioppino, a Californian-Italian take on fish stew, with local fish, mussels, prawns and new potatoes in an intensely flavoured broth – delicious. And so to bed. Our top-floor room (room seven) was somewhat cramped, with little space for our things, but it was freshly decorated, thoughtfully equipped and had a good, airy bathroom. The view of the Stour was lovely, though surprisingly heavy and audible traffic marred our early morning.
Rating: 7/10 (location 8/10, style 7/10, service 7/10, rooms 6/10, food& drink 8/10, value 8/10)
Price: doubles from £90 per night, including breakfast ( dinner, bed and breakfast on Sunday and Monday nights, £95 for two)