Tony Turnbull of the Times very much enjoys his time at Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms in Witney, Oxfordshire, which has recently been taken over by Artist Residence.
It’s certainly more welcoming than it was in its previous incarnation, as Gerry Stonhill’s Individual Mason Arms. “We don’t like children, mobile telephones or media restaurant critics. We do like our guests to arrive by Hispano-Suiza, Bugatti, Ferrari, in a Helicopter or on an MV Agusta,” the cigar-toting owner wrote on his website.
Mr Stonhill has now taken his prejudices into the sunset and in has stepped Artist Residence, a small chain I’ve never heard of which has boutiquey hotels in Penzance, Brighton and London.
We weren’t here to sleep, though, but to eat, and, like the pub itself, the menu never gets lost in the cleverness of its own conceit. The chef, Leon Smith, spent time with Tom Aikens before burnishing his upmarket pub credentials with spells at the Michelin-starred Pony & Trap near Bristol and the Royal Oak at Paley Street.
There’s a mission statement attached, of course (isn’t there always?) and his cooking is “all about rummaging through nature’s larder” and “an ode to the Oxfordshire countryside”, but don’t let that put you off. He wears it very lightly, certainly on his Sunday lunch menu, and it just means he has the confidence to let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves: the cooking is refined without straying into the falderol of foams and gels that can blight young chefs in too headlong a rush for fame and fortune.
We kicked off with herb gnocchi, mussels in cider and a smoked ham hock and black pudding terrine (that’s three separate dishes, you understand – like I say, the cooking here is less out-there than the art), and each a model of its kind. Five soft pillows of gnocchi had been pan-fried after poaching – standard chef MO to elevate a midweek supper dish into a restaurant worthy one – and came with diced beetroot, parsnip puree and some deliciously sweet carrots brought in line by serious charring action from the grill.
For mains, 32-day aged rump of beef, served rosy pink, with Yorkshire pudding and duck fat roasties; a huge loin of pork whose crackling was the ideal mix of splinter and gumminess, and a generous darne of Loch Duart salmon with turnips, salsify and clam velouté, plus a cauliflower cheese for the 11-year-old vegetarian who didn’t have the stomach to tackle a pearl barley and Jersualem artichoke take on risotto.
The Observer’s Jay Rayner can no longer love London’s Simpson’s in the Strand following its refurbishment and relaunch, he writes in the Observer.
It no longer smells of old food. The saggy seating has been replaced with genuinely comfortable booths and banquettes. The staff are polite. For comedic effect I could now declare it a disaster, but these are, of course, the good things about the relaunch. A cheery, enthusiastic waiter is a delight, and the new Simpson’s is full of them.
The problem is the food. They’ve worked exceptionally hard to revive and refresh it and in so doing have lost everything that made the place what it was. They talk on their website of chefs cooking “with the hand of history on their shoulder”. It would have been better if history had been standing over them shouting: “Stop it! Stop it now! For God’s sake, just do it like they always used to do it!”
Steak tartare is pointless if the texture is wrong. Here, the beef hasn’t so much been chopped as puréed. The smoked egg yolk is a nice touch, but one that’s lost to something that could be sucked up through a straw. Accompanying grey splodges are described as Gentleman’s Relish, which should be a big powerful rush of anchovy. This is a toned down, mild- mannered condiment which needs a testosterone supplement. A ham hock terrine is served far too cold and far too dense. It comes in Minecraft-style blocks, under artful curls of pickled carrot and radish. The accompanying pease pudding fritters are blunt nuggets of deep-fried something. They beg you to call back the menu, run your fingers down the list and mutter: “Oh, that’s what it is.”
Marina O’Loughlin of the Times says everything is just what you hope it’ll be at Partick Duck Club in Glasgow.
Everything that arrives is just what you hope it’ll be: cauliflower burnished to a crisp bronze, scattered with pomegranate and perched on a puddle of tahini yoghurt. Very Yotam Ottolenghi about three years ago, but sparky and satisfying. Toasted sourdough topped with torched Highland brie — who knew? — drizzled with truffled honey, the menu’s hardest-working dish, pressed into service for dessert and brunch, too. Cheese on toast as a starter? I’m so in.
There are buns stuffed with comté and slow-cooked short rib, or Orkney crab with chilli and spring onion. Rare-breed pig ragout, a sultry squelch of meat cooked for eight hours or so and spiked with mushrooms and pancetta, dolloped over the butteriest mash with a little flourish of pine nuts and vivid green garlic and parsley oil. Fish pie is fantastically soothing, creamy and rammed with all manner of seafood — haddock, smoked salmon, prawns — once you brave its incendiary, fennel rosti crust. It’s what you wished your mum would make you when you were wee and a bit peaky.
Not forgetting the duck. It arrives in a bun with slaw, soy and ginger, or — my choice — a confit leg served with almost-scotched egg (fried carapace, no sausage, oozing yolk) and vivid homemade chilli and pineapple relish. This is all kinds of great: crisp-skinned, juicy-fleshed bird, a complicated dish made to look easy. Plus chips. Oh sweet, weeping mama, the chips, the crunchy, fluffy, duck-fat savouriness of the chips. And that’s before they load them up with tangles of tobacco onions and aïoli, or foamy hollandaise and the ripe blast of Black Bomber cheese. Help.
Grace Dent of the Evening Standard reviews the ‘ever entertaining’ Otto’s in Clerkenwell
I’m not suggesting one go to Otto’s with the purpose of behaving dishonourably. But, if you were to let lightly loose, then owner Otto Tepasse, who worked in Mirabelle in the 1980s, has certainly seen it before. Otto opened this heavily, painfully, classic French restaurant in 2011, yet from the gist of the place it might have been 1911. I met my friend James, an Australian, there and arrived to find him sat wide-eyed and gleeful in a chintzy, silverware-festooned velour banquette, beside a mechanical duck press, watching Otto in full high dramatis.
I’m almost certain that when Otto goes to work each day, this is precisely his aim — this conviviality. Not that it’s a charity mission, God no; we swept through almost £200 while erring on frugal. But still, Otto is a force for good. I won’t lie, what I ate did not set my heart on fire. A honey glazed tarte fine au fromage de chèvre with fig was a syrupy, claggy affair. The smoked salmon, covering a large oval plate, sliced thinly is deeply unobstrustive. Over recent years, in hipper places, smoked salmon has began dominating the table in thick, devilish chunks served with fresh soda bread. Otto’s salmon is from a simpler time.
No sides are offered on the menu. ‘The hake with root vegetable comes fully dressed, you will not need more,’ I was told, finding out an hour later that the hake’s ‘outfit’ was simply mashed root veg, fennel syrup and two leaves of kale. This is not a ‘go home via McDonald’s drive-thru’ dinner, but it’s certainly ‘a handful of peanuts as you take off your eye make-up’ kind of night. We rolled out of Otto’s at midnight. We were far from the last to leave. Otto was dispensing glasses of wine and convincing diners to linger. ‘The one unforgivable sin,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘is to be boring.’ If Otto’s had a motto, then it would be this.
Tom Chesshyre of the Times describes the £6 million revamp of the Swan hotel in Southwold, Suffolk, as “a marvellous update of a famous inn”, but warns that prices are steep
Inside, a slick lounge with a blazing fire, designer lights and a picture of a mysterious woman in a flowing green dress leads to the flashy restaurant and jolly back bar. There are no “standard” rooms. The categories are: excellent (the cheapest), fabulous and outstanding (the best). All have a bold look by the east London designers Project Orange. Expect copper-coloured bed lamps, pink throw cushions and wine-bottle pattern carpets.
The Tap Room offers good ales, steaks, oysters (£3 each), mussels, scallops and gin-cured salmon. The main restaurant, the Still Room, is a grand affair with a high ceiling and banquettes. Dishes include seafood such as scallops, sea bass and lobster, plus guinea fowl and partridge. My “cod, chips, peas, scraps” starter was a fancy mini fish and chips, while my main course of poached lobster was excellent, with a satay sauce. The banana and chocolate mille-feuille was gooey and moreish.