piecaramba

Piecaramba! in Winchester is “a bloody good pie shop,” says Jay Rayner in the Observer.

Obviously, a pie must be fully enclosed in pastry. These are. They are wonders of golden shortcrust, cooked through from side to bottom. At £5.50 ordered at the bar and delivered to your table, they are also a fair bargain. The menu is lengthy and gathered from various suppliers. Some come from the well-known Pieminister, some from the Hampshire farmer’s market stalwart Mud Pie, with many more produced in their own stand-alone kitchen unit.

What’s impressive is the lack of repetition. A classic like the Holy Cow is filled with beef that has been slow cooked so that each piece is waiting to fall apart and bound in a gravy based on ale from Ballards Brewery. It has the necessary dark, savoury tones. The gravy is so effective I would have expected it to be used in a game pie of Hampshire partridge, pheasant and venison. Instead it utilises something altogether lighter and funkier, sweetened with redcurrant jelly and with the airy waft of bay. Another classic, the Freeranger, a take on chicken and leek, is rich in cheddar and grain mustard, as it should be.

There is creamy mash, or you can have it spun through with big spoonfuls of grain mustard. There is the offer of mushy peas, here boosted with a little chilli, but still the comforting, starchy green mess it should be. A shout out, too, for a fine onion gravy and for their old-school pie liquor, a classic parsley sauce by any other name.


“What’s issuing from their minuscule kitchen is little short of bravura,” says Marina O’Loughlin reviewing Smoke & Salt in Brixton, London in the Sunday Times.

We order almost everything from the short menu. (There are only two choices of red or white wines, too: I ain’t glugging prosecco during dinner, so we have a surprisingly lush sauvignon blanc from Gascony, La Bonne Franquette.) It’s a bit of a sensory mindwarp: all those techniques frequently jostling in a single dish. So, hispi cabbage is chargrilled to pleasing bitterness, texture and crunch added by pickled peanuts, heat from chilli, its mayo-like dressing smoked, whipped tofu. No, wait, come back — it works perfectly, light and refreshingly… well, new.

Constant menu changes mean this will be more impression than guide: batons of plantain with fleshy leaves of fresh oregano, a relish made from beer and onions, and — skewered by twigs of rosemary — bouncy little chicken hearts. Carrots, charred into sweetness, with walnuts and pickled raisins and a thin yoghurt dressing whose seasoning you struggle to name until it whispers “cloves”.

Crisp-fried new potatoes in pools of gorgonzola and chimichurri, a successful marriage of pungencies, perfect for the ferrous richness that comes from strips of chargrilled ox heart draped on top. Proley lamb breast is poshed up with their own spiced plum chutney and rounds of charred, astringent turnips. They like an off-piste cut round these parts.


CORE_Menu_dish02-1024x683

Grace Dent reviews Core, Notting Hill. “The staff are adorable” she says in the Evening Standard.

Yes, Core plays a bit of U2 and the kitchen is so very ‘open’ it’s like the staff have signed up for a BBC Two reality show with a name like Kitchens Uncut. But, menu-wise, this is still full bells and whistles faff and finery. That’s not criticism — I rather bloody loved it. Incidentally, if you know someone who gets their rocks off from kitchen over-cleanliness, bring that filthy niche bleach-buying pervert here because the Core kitchen is an ongoing paean to the beauty of gleaming surfaces. Alternatively, you could enjoy the food, which I did too. I arrived feeling like Core was merely a box to tick, so as not to have to bluff through end-of-year lists, yet it opened into something more. Tiny, sumptuous amuse-bouches began with a small scone-like tomato and basil ball of joy — sorry, ‘gougère’ — a sliver of jellied eel on toasted seaweed and a chunk of crispy smoked duck wing with burnt orange skin. Fine British produce served surprisingly. I won’t lie, Core’s lunchtime clientele are older couples with retirement funds and spare time to squander, so I’d suggest a glass of Chablis and a will to create your own party.

The staff are adorable in that manner I’ve only felt at The Ledbury, where the line between Michelin-type primness and being a best friend you want to take drinking is ever-so-finely danced. One of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year was the Charlotte potato topped with herring and trout roe on a heavenly white butter sauce. Yes, it’s a fishy spud; yes, it’s gone in three bites. A plate of ‘lamb braised carrot’ on sheep’s milk yoghurt, frankly, sounds like a wet weekend in Dudley on paper, but transpired to hold all the lamby sweetness of that mouthful of Sunday roast you enjoy most in the kitchen away from the hoi polloi you foolishly said you’d cook for. I was impressed similarly with an oxtail-stuffed Roscoff onion served with an abstemious but satisfying serving of short rib. A piece of skate festooned with Morecambe Bay shrimp and Swiss chard in a puddle of brown butter was delightful.


‘Vegetarian restaurants? Usually not for me. But Ceremony, London, is outstanding by any measure’ says Giles Coren in the Times.

Vegetarian restaurants? Yeah. No. Not for me. Swivel-eyed farty weirdos with blue hair serving trays of kitty litter and natural vegan wines that look and taste like they’ve been filtered through a tramp are not my bag. Or anyone’s. The new ones close within seconds of opening and the old ones live on, as far as I can see, only through donations from Yoko Ono and the Dalai Lama.

So when Ceremony – which calls itself “a new restaurant and bar serving modern British dishes that happen to be vegetarian” – opened not far from me last month, I was like, “No, thanks.”

And then Esther said, “Let’s go to Ceremony,” and I replied, “Yes, dear.”

The mains were utterly bang on to my taste though. The sweet potato curry (£14) was full of depth and interest and contrasting textures, nicely spicy from fresh chilli, bright and golden, and set off well by a blob of yoghurt. But that was surpassed by a white bean broth with cavolo nero and luscious, gnocchi-like dumplings (£16), in a stock made rich and muscular with … what?

“This place is going to be RAMMED,” Esther said to me halfway through her second manhattan. And she’s right. It is going to be huge. It is one of the most exciting small restaurants I can remember opening in years. And if the world follows suit, forgets about slow-cooked bloody mammal carcasses over charcoal for one goddamn minute and starts to think about what’s good for it, well then they might just help to change the way we eat for ever.


Serge et le Phoque

The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon is seduced by Serge et le Phoque in London, which he likens to “stumbling into a high-class underground sex den.”

The dining room was lit by candles. Our chairs looked as if they’d been fashioned from a job lot of Hugh Hefner’s smoking jackets. On the wall hung a graphically gynaecological painting of a naked woman having her right nipple tweaked by a disembodied hand. The voice oozing from the sound system was French, female and extremely breathy. What she was purring about, I couldn’t tell, but I don’t think it was the pen of her aunt.

A waiter materialised. He was almost unnervingly handsome. His shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest. I assumed this was just his personal style, until another unnervingly handsome waiter wafted past, also with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and it dawned on me that this must actually be the uniform.

I was wearing a navy-blue pullover and beige chinos. This did not feel like the place for a navy-blue pullover and beige chinos. I glanced at the woman on the next table. She was wearing a pink PVC miniskirt.

Not that I mean to put you off. Perhaps this sounds like just your kind of place. In which case, you’ll want to know about the food. As it happens, it’s pretty good.


Margot Henderson’s sophisticated cuisine excels in its new gallery setting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts The Mall in London, says the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler.

Aficionados of Rochelle Canteen and/or those lucky enough to frequent events catered by Arnold & Henderson will note signifiers on the menus, assemblies such as rillettes and pickled cucumber, celeriac soup and back fat, deep-fried sprats and tartare sauce, Barnsley chop, minestra nera and anchovy, roast brill, lentils and green sauce, St James (washed-rind sheep’s cheese), crab apple and oatcakes.

At lunch and then supper two days later items that particularly gratify are a huge heap of fat red radishes alongside a cream of pale pink smoked cod’s roe (taramasalata if you like); queen scallops — the diminutive ones — spiked with lemon and chilli; spatchcocked quail sprinkled with harissa before fearless roasting served with aioli that hoots garlic; a slice of douce, rich chicken liver pâté with the necessary salt and vinegar in the equation being provided by small, crisp cornichons; braised fennel sausages dense and peppery but tender to the touch surrounded by polenta rising like a soft reef in a sea of gravy; succulent lamb cutlets with bobby beans; an exemplary green salad with quite spiky personality.

Desserts deserve a rave of their own, particularly a smooth meringue with a chewy heart served with slices of faintly grainy quince and whipped cream flavoured with the juices, and a rustic apple tart with al dente fruit and the ideal lashing of yellow Jersey cream.


HOTELS

Fence Gate Lodge

Tony Naylor reviews Fence Gate Lodge, near Burnley, Lancashire for the Guardian.

When I arrive at Fence Gate Lodge, owner Kevin Berkins is busy with a tape measure on the staircase, checking the installation of a bespoke bannister. It is one of the finishing touches to the 24-bedroom addition to the creeper-clad Fence Gate Inn (50 metres away) in Fence, a village outside Burnley on the edge of the foodie Ribble Valley.

Like all new builds, it looks a bit too polished, and – as it is also a wedding venue – quite a glam affair. The marble-topped bar and chrome stools will be too blingy for some (me) but overall the Lodge, which incorporates the remnants of six listed cottages, is persuasively restrained. Statement pieces (designer light-fittings, huge ornaments, the reception’s faux-medieval fireplace) shine against autumnal tartans and grey walls.

And everything works: from the Yorkshire Tea, fresh milk and good, local Farmhouse Biscuits in the bedrooms, to instantly hot wet-room showers. Towels are thick. Beds comfy. It is serenely quiet. The guest wifi transfers seamlessly from lodge to pub.

An opening plate of average breads arrives with exceptional dips (£3.25), particularly the beef dripping, which tastes like a liquidised Sunday roast. My main course, a burger (£13.75), is touted as England’s best thanks to some historic award, but it looks drab: dressed simply with lettuce, tomato, cheese. No trendy Sriracha, mayo or kimchi here. But the well-seasoned, charred patty tastes – and this is rare – profoundly beefy, with the outsize bun moulding itself around it, creating a satisfyingly fat mitt of meat. And the onion rings are A1.


Kerry Pells reviews the Grove Hotel, Hertfordshire, for the Watford Observer.

Approaching the Grade II-listed The Grove Hotel, with its five-star rating and illustrious history, is admittedly a little bit intimidating. But the moment I stepped into the lobby, all my worries were immediately soothed by the friendly staff and the welcoming atmosphere.

This is a hotel that doesn’t take itself too seriously; glass tables filled with golf balls and horse-shaped topiary outside The Stables restaurant are just some of the quirky details found around every corner.

That night we had dinner at Colette’s, The Grove’s fine dining restaurant. Before dinner we sat in the small, candlelit bar for a quick drink. I opted for the Passionate Pear, a refreshing ‘innocent cocktail’ of handpicked lemon verbena from the hotel’s walled garden, with pear and passionate puree and homemade spiced nectar.

For the main course I chose the mouth-wateringly soft Cumbrian Herdwick lamb rump, which came with a side dish of lamb shoulder which ranks among the best things I’ve ever tasted. I finished the meal with the apple mille-feuille, caramel sauce and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Not too sweet, with just the right amount of crunch from the pastry, this was the perfect end to the meal.

We couldn’t miss the chance to explore some of the hotel’s 300 acres of grounds. Trees planted in the hotel grounds in the 18th and 19th centuries remain standing today, including a black walnut tree presented to the Earl of Clarendon by Captain Cook in the 1770s. Even though you’re less than an hour from London, you feel safely cocooned in the depths of the Hertfordshire countryside.


swan

The Swan Inn hotel in Ascott-under-Wychwood,Oxford: “This 17th-century honey-stone pub is now a welcoming boutique inn serving good food with adventurous flourishes” says Harriet O’Brien in the Telegraph.

The Swan’s chic makeover is courtesy of owners Charlie and Willow Crossley. They had already made a great success of the refurbished Bull in Charlbury and here have applied the same formula of wholesome food and relaxing décor with a glamorous edge.

On one side of the bar is a stylish dining room with bleached beams, a beautiful fireplace and walls lined with appealing animal prints. The other side is a Continental-type drinking area with a tall table at which you stand and imbibe, nibbling on smoked almonds and the like. Adjacent, adding a hotelly feel, is a comfy sitting room clad in quirky leopard wallpaper. There are plans to turn the upright piano here into a whisky bar. Other work in progress on my visit included a back dining room.

The eight bedrooms have been devised by eight different designers, each room a joy to behold. There are six on two floors in the main building – ranging from Willow Crossley’s serene combination of blues and green in room three to an elegant yet snug haven in the attic (bedroom six) by Christina Strutt of interiors brand Cabbages and Roses.

The menu is a celebration of local flavours and good, unfussy food. Pub classics such as steak and chips are offered alongside more adventurous dishes, the likes of pork belly with vanilla and pear puree. There are generous hours for breakfast, served from 8am until noon in the main dining room. Choose from a buffet of pastries, yoghurts, cereals and do-it-yourself toast; enticing cooked options include smashed avocado on toast.