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Bell Inn

“On the final day of 2017, I had not just the best mouthful of the year, but the best mouthful of my life” Giles Coren of the Times says about the Bell Inn, Oxfordshire.

The pub is old and small and cosy. Sixteenth century, in fact, so built halfway between the foundation of the church (called St Matthew’s, Langford) and now. In fact, very possibly by the same guys who put the two flying buttresses against the north side of the north aisle at the behest of some long-dead Tudor benefactor.

And then, no doubt, they repaired for lunch to the pub they had just built. But they won’t have had a chance to eat the best thing I ate in the whole of 2017 (on the last day of that year, as it happens) because it came out of the pizza oven that [owners] Peter [Creed] and Tom [Noest] had only just had put in.

No, it was the garlic, parsley and bone marrow flatbread the kitchen sent out with a few slices of the roast dry-aged sirloin, which I had wanted to try alongside my healthier-sounding fillet of bream.

It was so pure, so honest, so tear-jerkingly real and true that I wasn’t surprised when my eye, once it had dried and looked up from the plate, focused immediately on the spine of Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating, on a shelf behind Esther. For this heartbreaking celebration of all that is right in the world was nothing more nor less than Fergus’s roasted marrow bones with parsley salad and sourdough toast … turned into pizza!

But perfection can always be improved. This happened when I took a sliver of the fat, gamey sirloin, which was one of three roasts they had on (along with Kelmscott pork loin & apple sauce and roast chicken, pig in blanket & bread sauce), and spread it with fresh horseradish, then laid it into the garlic bread, folded it over and dipped it into a little steel pot of the sticky veal reduction they use for gravy, then bit and swallowed. Best mouthful of the year? Best mouthful of my life, more like.


Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard reviews Indian Accent, Mayfair, which she describes as a “dazzling new take on Indian food”.

Manish Mehrotra is an Indian chef whom I first encountered over a decade ago in charge of pan-Asian food in a nightclubby restaurant called Tamarai under the New London Theatre in Drury Lane. Cut to 2009, when Tamarai owner Rohit Khattar installs Mehrotra in his Manor Hotel in New Delhi to run a restaurant called Indian Accent.

In 2015 Indian Accent opens in New York, a city usually baffled by or indifferent to the cuisine but Pete Wells, restaurant critic of The New York Times, is eloquently impressed and it takes off. As of the end of last year the prodigal son, now aged 41, is back in London to open Indian Accent in what was previously Khattar’s Chor Bizarre in Mayfair.

A little ceramic mug of pumpkin and coconut chorba (soup) is served with a diminutive blue cheese-filled naan. Spices dance and dazzle in the broth but not so much that the two main elements cannot be identified. The naan gives a shout out for all the breads woven into the menu such as phulka, dosa, pao, roti, papad and kulcha, the bedrock of Indian eating and often the saving grace in Indian restaurants far less blessed than this one.

Millet khichdi, beef laal maas (Rajasthani curry), Parmesan yoghurt, a far cry from what the British took from Indian in the name of kedgeree, is extraordinarily rich and savoury. This is Indian food but not as we know it, Jim. It is as if a new life-giving force has entered. Delicate potato sphere chaat (snack) with white pea mash is the twinkle-toed good fairy at the christening.


Ceremony

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph reviews Ceremony, London: “Morrissey would probably hate it, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay.”

In his entire life, Morrissey declared, he has never eaten an onion. Bear in mind: this is someone who has spent the past 35 years urging the public to renounce meat. In other words: Morrissey is a vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables.

In my 18 months of reviewing, I’ve come to suspect something. Most chefs think all vegetarians are like Morrissey.

Oh look, yet another bog-standard risotto. Oh yes, and another bang-average salad. If you didn’t know in advance that Ceremony was vegetarian, you’d guess as soon as you walked in. It’s a spartan little cell of a place, with cramped metal tables and bare walls. Everything looks modest, frugal, nobly self-denying.

Still, the food took my mind off it. To start we had the charred leek rarebit and the crispy duck egg, polenta and wild mushrooms. Both were outstanding, in particular the duck egg, oozing beautifully into the gorgeous polenta.

For my main I had the pappardelle: delicious thick waggly streamers of pasta with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress and salsify (a root vegetable with a mysteriously oyster-like taste).

On the whole, we liked Ceremony a lot. Vegetarian food that, for the most part, a meat-eater can enjoy too. Morrissey would probably hate it, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay.


Sanxia Renjia in London’s Deptford provides enough excitement for a month for the Observer’s Jay Rayner.

From a list of “clay pot” dishes comes seafood and tofu, in a velvety broth full of the restorative hit of ginger. Almost everything in this bowl is pale and interesting. It’s Chinese food as designed by The White Company. There is the pearly white of the scallop and of the fish ball, of the slashed and curled squid, and best of all of the silken tofu. This is balanced between solid and liquid. It slips from bowl to spoon – don’t even think about doing this with chopsticks – to mouth. It soothes the throat and caresses the soul. It’s a dish that makes you think you know how to live forever: just eat a serving of this every day and the Grim Reaper could never claim you.

We have similar feelings about the black fungus salad with its dressing of fresh red chilli, sesame oil and vinegar. The fungus is both slippery and crunchy. It is gaspingly, achingly fresh. Likewise grilled green peppers, tossed with black beans, soy and vinegar, are like padrón peppers that have been hanging out around the back of the bike sheds with the tough boys, learning brilliantly filthy habits.

From the darker side of the ledger we get the classic ma po tofu. This time the bean curd is in denser, more robust cubes which lend themselves to a bit of chopstick action. They are swimming in a sauce the colour of rusting pig iron. It is a big punch of fermented broad beans, chillies and black beans. There are unfathomable depths of flavour here. It is a culinary Mandelbrot set, the flavours – of umami and salt and chilli and more umami and more salt and more chilli – unfold endlessly into the echoing crevices of my head.


Sorrel

The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake has a “highly polished” meal at Sorrel in Dorking, Surrey.

Comfort seems to be a dirty word in restaurant design circles these days, but after a long, damp trek from the railway station (you try getting a taxi in Dorking on a wet Friday evening), it’s pure pleasure to collapse into Sorrel’s plump, velvety banquettes and be spoiled rotten for a couple of hours.

I could get used to this, I think, as no fewer than three amuse-bouches appear before us – “to keep you going while you look at the menu” – though I’m not sure I’d say the same about a broccoli mousse with kiwi and green tomato that seems an unnecessarily provocative start to proceedings. Apart from a similarly unsettling pairing of blue cheese and rosewater towards the end, it’s one of the few missteps in a meal that otherwise proves as highly polished as the silverware.

Highlights of the nine-course tasting menu include a yolk-yellow warm pumpkin mousse studded with sweet, crunchy praline that packs a glorious parmesan punch; a yoghurty goat’s cheese and beetroot dish that’s so clean and fresh, we’re momentarily silenced (though I regret polishing off the accompanying polka dot of douglas fir mayo without stopping to consider if it tastes of trees); and, perhaps best of all, a plate of duck from nearby Leith Hill. Having slogged up that particular unforgiving hummock more than a few times on two wheels, I wonder if it’s all the exercise that gives these birds their fabulous flavour; their lacquered fat, sticky with a spiced date glaze, speaks to our most basic taste for sugar and fat, even in this most refined of settings. Two meringue sandwiches filled with liver paté turn up alongside, the kind of joyously weird idea that makes you grin inanely in surprise and delight.


HOTELS

nw-eden-locke-66

Mark O’Flaherty of the Sunday Telegraph loves the look of Eden Locke in Edinburgh, despite it being a case of style over function

“This is gorgeous,”, I said aloud, gazing around the pale peppermint lobby. Then I realised there was nowhere I wanted to actually be. The wicker chairs are photogenic, not comfy, and the shiny Hay side tables are ravishing little sculptures rather than functional for rounds of drinks.

It is a shame, because the space is a trying to double up as a snazzy cafe and bar – Hyde & Son – with interesting, if saccharine, cocktails, and an attempt at third-wave coffee that is a fair competitor to Artisan Roast and Fortitude nearby. I met a friend here for drinks and we agreed that even the Wetherspoons across the street looked more welcoming.

I did, however, like the layout of my studio (from £74.52), with a mini-lounge, L-shaped sofa and a super smart kitchenette situated down a few steps from the bedroom. I did not cook, but I have lived for extended periods with infinitely lesser kitchens.

Every Smeg appliance and brass utensils at Eden Locke was a thing of liveliness, even is some of the styling brought an eye roll. On the kitchen counter: tea from T2, the retail chain trying to do for English Breakfast what Aesop did for hand soap, but with constantly empty shops.

Yes never needed a makeover. On the coffee table: the recipe book fromDeath & Co, one of the most annoying bars in New York – always a clipboard, always a wait, always seemingly empty inside. Other in-room annoyances: reading lights controllable from one side of the bed – guaranteed to exasperate every couple without symbiotic sleeping patterns. Also: an eccentric air conditioning system that froze me t 18 degrees and suffocated me at 19. Trying, and failing, to open multiple-glazed windows leads to the kind of despair you only appreciate at 4am in the dark.


Tom Chesshyre of the Times describes the Bull Inn in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, as ”a convivial, reasonable-value choice”, but is disappointed by the food.

The L-shaped bar serves good ales and an array of wines, and there’s a big beer garden, plus a cosy lounge with stripy sofas and a crackling fire, where it’s easy to strike up conversation with other drinkers (who included friendly antique dealers on my visit).

There are four rooms in the main building and four in a barn. Decoration is in shades of cobalt blue, forest green and pale pink (nothing offensively flashy). Bathrooms are smart and shiny with Bramley toiletries. The rooms above the pub, which do get some bar noise, are reached via a narrow spiral staircase. Most cost from £99 B&B midweek or £160 B&B at weekends.

Expect pub standards such as burgers, pies and fish and chips. My starter of salt-and-pepper squid was lemony and came in a crunchy batter, and my roast turkey wrapped in streaky bacon with apricot-and-thyme stuffing was decent enough. However, I wasn’t too sure about the rubbery cheesecake. Three courses come to about £25. In the morning, poached eggs proved surprisingly tricky to deliver because there was a “lack of hot water”.