Monday, 9 October 2017

The Rat Inn, Northumberland

Being a restaurant fan is, for the most part, being a restaurant critic fan as well. It's how I got into this blogging business in the first place, and the broadsheet restaurant reviews are still a huge influence on where I decide to eat. I followed Marina to Where the Light Gets In, and fell in love. I followed Jay Rayner to the Parkers Arms, and it was wonderful. Grace Dent told me to go to Jamavar, and I did, and by golly I'm glad I did. These people are professionals (and, it has to be said, have other professionals telling them where to go). I am merely an amateur.

But the Rat Inn is mine. All mine. There's nobody significant outside of the occasional unhinged Tripadvisor report that's covered it, and because I'm not a Marina or Jay the chances of me completely ruining the place by recommending it wholeheartedly (because I do) are far reduced. With any luck, you'll have a good while before the rest of the country catches on and you can grab a table for 2 on a Friday night without too much bother.

I can't promise that will last, though. Once the word gets out, they may have to start charging in advance and reserving places in the public bar. But till then, bloody hell, just go.

I found them on Twitter - Twitter's had a hard time recently, what with you-know-who threatening nuclear war and the Nazis being given a bit of a free run, but for finding likeminded food lovers it's still second to none. I knew I'd like the Rat because conversations with the owners always ended the same way - with us agreeing, and me wishing I could eat there.

So, eventually, I did. Here's how the evening started - home made focaccia, unbelievably buttery and lovely, an instant assurance we were in good hands. Of all the places that make their own bread, I'd say about half would do better to buy in from elsewhere - and there's absolutely no shame in doing so. But the Rat know exactly what they're doing.

Rock oysters came dressed in what I think was a kind of cucumber jelly - very nice anyway, the oysters nice and lean and briney and complemented well by the dressing.

Shetland Mussel broth was hearty and comforting, containing plenty of seafood and perfectly seasoned. It was also a remarkably generous portion size for a starter - a theme that would continue throughout the evening.

The Kimchi Scotch Egg was the Rat's entry in the Young's Scotch Egg Challenge in the Canonbury back in February, and though they didn't win, this is still a beautiful thing, expertly timed runny yolk and surrounded in a punchy, chilli-spiked layer of sausage meat.

Last of the starters, chicken & morcilla terrine was another deeply generous amount of food, an inch-thick slab of nicely seasoned charcuterie and two softly-toasted slices of brioche. Apologies for the dim photo, lighting at the Rat on this autumn evening was rather "romantic" but if I ever turn into one of those people who brings their own offset lighting rig, feel free to slaughter me in my sleep.

One of the clever things about the Rat Inn is how they've managed to hold onto the spirit and atmosphere of a traditional, unpretentious country pub while still offering ingredients and preparations that you don't often see outside specialist restaurants. Grouse, for example, tricky to persuade the average pub-goer to shell out for in its fancier preparations, here was served as a rustic Wellington on a bed of creamed cabbage, and felt quite appropriate. It helped that it tasted great, too - soft, flaky pastry containing a neat medallion of pink game.

It's probably down to nothing more sinister than the inconsistency of British cattle that my peppered local steak was a teeny bit on the chewy side. It had plenty of beefy flavour but was rather lean, meaning despite being cooked quite accurately to medium-rare it required a bit of jaw-work to get through. However, I'd take the character of British beef, where one steak can be mediocre and another extraordinary, over the consistent-but-consistently-dull USDA standard any day of the week. Plus, chips were brilliant - great big golden brown crunchy things with bags of flavour.

This is a roast parsnip, stilton and red onion tart, and though I couldn't bring myself to try any of it - the portion sizes at the Rat Inn were defeating - I was told it was great. And huge. The wimpy Londoner in me wishes that the plates of food generally could be reduced by 30% but I was told in no uncertain terms that in this part of the world, that would be signing your own death warrant. So full marks, really, to these guys for keeping extremely reasonable prices and offering genuinely exciting cuisine whilst also loading up the plates with enough chow to keep all but the most rabid TripAdvisor user quiet.

The problem - I know it's not really a problem, but still - the problem with being quite so obsessive about restaurants as this food blogging thing makes you, is that you end up with a rather skewed opinion of the state of dining generally in the country. I know, at the back of my mind, that places like the Rat Inn and the Parkers Arms and the Sportsman represent a miniscule percentage of the food pubs in the country and that most people do not have the time or the resources to seek them out.

But then, if you lived in Canterbury and weren't aware of the Goods Shed, or lived in Bristol and had never come across Bell's Diner, how much more wonderful would your life become if someone pointed them out to you? Well here I am, now, pointing out the Rat Inn - and if it brings you half as much joy as dinner there brought me, it's still well worth the journey to this lovely part of the world. You're welcome.


The Rat Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As at the Parkers Arms, the lovely people at the Rat Inn knew I was coming and I think a round of drinks and a plate of oysters wouldn't turn up on everyone's table. However, you can't fake cooking as good as this and even at full price most dishes are a bargain.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Salt Room, Brighton

On paper, or rather PDF, Salt Room looked like an absolute sure thing. A proper, grown-up seafood restaurant in a town that knows a thing or two about eating well, it seemed to fit the bill exactly; we were aware of big Brighton names like 64 Degrees, Pascere and Chilli Pickle but had settled on the Salt Room because we wanted something informal yet sophisticated, somewhere we could get messy on fresh shellfish and drink good cocktails and then spill out onto the pier for faded Victorian seaside fun.

And things started well. Happy to escape the insane number of people that flock to Brighton of a weekend - good lord, this place is busy - the warm welcome of the Salt Room bar and the attentions of their head barman soon settled our nerves. Martinis were ice cold, made with an interesting gin from Islay, and a cute Bloody Mary style thing came with a mini pot of nacho chips and pineapple chilli salsa as a garnish. We were about halfway through these when a 20-strong crowd of hen-doers arrived so, thanking our lucky stars we'd got our drinks order in already, we headed for the restaurant.

Apparently all the nice, bright, quiet window seats had been taken by people who had been here before, and knew to request them, so we were sat near the toilets between two massive tables of noisy families with toddlers. Quite why anyone would bring a 3-year-old to a smart seafood restaurant is beyond me - even if they find anything to enjoy about the food they'll be bored witless after ten minutes and want to race around the place screaming.

Amidst all the darkness, chaos and the screaming, there were bits and pieces to enjoy. Clams in sherry with chorizo and beans were a tad on the salty side but contained plenty of plump bivalves if not much chorizo.

Fishcakes had a nice smooth consistency and delicate crust, even if it was a bit low on fish - still, I can enjoy a deep-fried potato croquette as much as I can a fish cake, so this wasn't too much of an issue.

Some of the slices of bread were a bit stale on one side, like they'd been sliced a good while ago. Again, not a terrible failure once they'd been dunked in the leftover clam sauce or spread with the nice homemade tartar sauce but it all added to the impression that their attention wasn't on the details. Even the menu contained a few spelling mistakes (we think they mean XO sauce that came with the crab, not ox...), and details, in a place like this, are eveything.

It all rested, then, on the main seafood platter. If it had been up to scratch, all the issues with oversalting and stale bread and the squealing toddlers would be forgiven. We'd have knocked it all back, polished off a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet and been back on the streets of Brighton with a spring in our step. Sadly, it wasn't to be. But first, the good bits - oysters were full of brine and flavour, and the house mignonette was good. Raw scallop was nice, too, gently dressed with lime.

But the rest of it? I was immediately suspicious that the Salt Room, a specialist seafood restaurant, only offers crab claws and not whole dressed or cooked crab. This makes me think that rather than buying in whole fresh crab, they're getting hold of frozen claws separately. I can't say they do this for certain, but that's the impression I got, and having tasted the end result I'm going to need a lot of persuading that they don't. Similarly the langoustine, desperately overcooked to mushy, had strange, bendy shells - again, if they were cooked from fresh I'd be very surprised. Prawns were similarly mealy and bland. And the less said about some terrible soily, chewy chips the better.

Of course, the tragedy of poor seafood platters is that they still generally cost quite a whack. After having drowned our sorrows in a second bottle of Picpoul the bill came to £62.30 a head, a decent amount to pay for a good seafood lunch perhaps, but for this half-hearted display, served with only the occasional glimmer of competence from an Italian member of staff that, to be fair, was acting as half-waiter half-babysitter for most of the afternoon, it really didn't feel like value.

I hesitate to denigrate an entire city based on one dodgy meal, but I wonder if at least some of the problems with the Salt Room are that they operate in an area so oversubscribed with day trippers that even the mediocre places do well. Maybe when they first opened they served fresh crab and bought in live langoustine and made their mark, but have gradually realised they make just as much money buying in frozen and using yesterday's bread. Who knows.

What Brighton does have going for it, though, is faded Victorian seaside attractions, and lovely cozy old pubs. So we had a go on a ricketty old roller coaster, and a couple of pints in the Pull & Pump, and soon disappointing crab was a distant memory. I will try Brighton again - and very soon in fact, I'm booked in at Pascere next month. But for now, I'll choose my fruit de mer more carefully. Life's too short for mediocre seafood.


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Parkers Arms, Bowland

Though it's often painful to share the world with their kind, the sad fact is that some people just do not enjoy eating out. I don't just mean that they are intimidated by posh dining rooms or tasting menus, that they can't face the queues at Tayyabs or baulk at restaurant prices; I mean that no matter what the situation, no matter how good the food or reasonable the cost, even if there's no cost at all, there will be some people that can't enjoy any part of the business of restaurant-going.

My grandfather was one such person. Brought up in working-class Liverpool, it's tempting to assign his restaurant allergy to a lifelong dedication to frugality, and given he would hoard ketchup and mustard sachets from motorway service stations there was certainly an element of that. But even if the money had not been an issue, I still doubt he would have been comfortable in restaurants; I think he'd always rather be the person organising and helping rather than being waited on, and he had little interest in food generally - his preferred lunch was cold baked beans eaten out of tupperware, straight from the fridge. Hey, don't knock it if you ain't tried it.

After a nearly perfect lunch at the Parkers Arms, cossetted by warm service and fat on dishes of hyper-local, seasonal brilliance, I wondered if even my grandfather could have remained immune to the charms of this idyllic place, nestled in the hills of the Bowland in Lancashire. It's a picture-book ideal of a pub, the kind of thing you mean when you talk about going "somewhere nice in the country" but so very rarely find.

Outside, the Victorian building is handsome without being austere, with a large beer garden overlooking the rolling Lancashire countryside. Inside, it's clean and spacious and charmingly un-modernised, two dining rooms split by a wooden bar, with a gentle buzz from families, young and older couples, and their pets. Pubs like this are my own personal heaven, and I could have happily spent all day here sampling the local ales and feeding pork scratchings to the pub dogs, even if the Parkers Arms didn't also happen to serve some of the finest food in the country.

But yes, on top of everything else, the food here is utterly wonderful. Stosie Madi is the chef in charge, and she colours a menu of attractive pub favourites with Middle Eastern touches - their lamb rump is cooked with kamouneh, and kibbeh is occasionally spotted amongst the starters. Above is turbot roe made into a kind of light tarama, drizzled with dill oil and with bright, crunchy radishes for dipping.

Another table snack were potato skins, presumably a by-product of the creamed mash, aggressively crunchy and great dipped in the tarama.

Nothing on this stunning dish came from more than a couple of miles from the Parkers Arms' front door. Venison fillet, seared to medium-rare, dressed in foraged blackberries, cobnuts and girolles and drizzed with some kind of herb oil, it was the ultimate expression of the power of locality and seasonality. Far from ham-stringing a kitchen, the ability to step outside and use ingredients that have been a part of the nearby environment up until a few hours previously lends the food a vibrancy and immediacy that you just don't - can't - see in most restaurants.

This wild (local) rabbit and (local) pork was chunky and full-flavoured, studded with pistachio nuts and served with a sweet house piccalilli. The portion size was so generous that some of it made it into our lunch the next day, and I can confirm it only improves with age.

Grouse was on the menu, so obviously I had to order it. It arrived meticulously filleted off the bone, soaked in a fruit/butter gravy (local blackberries) and on a bed of yeasty bread sauce. There was so much plump, powerfully gamey meat that it almost looked like two birds' worth - it's amazing how much more protein a professional kitchen can extract from a carcass than my own ham-fisted way with a fork and steak knife. And if all that wasn't enough, there was a bonus skewer of heart and liver. Heaven.

Even the chips were faultless - golden brown casings of smooth, buttery potato. I dipped them in the grouse gravy and ate them, eyes closed, in rapture.

Other dishes, that I completely forgot to take a photo of because I was enjoying myself so much (naughty blogger) were equally brilliant. The aformentioned lamb rump in bulgur wheat salad was salty and crisp around the edges and smooth and pink within, boasting a massive amount of lamby flavour. And it's like a dagger through my heart seeing the menu items we didn't order - "Salt marsh lamb & cockle pie, lamb fat pastry", "Pork & venison pie in pork fat pastry", "Potted Lancashire cheese & Bowland ale rarebit" - careful, considered, intelligent dishes that read like poetry.

I know, I'm gushing. Again. There's been a lot of it from me recently, what with Moor Hall and Coombeshead Farm and Where The Light Gets In; I am just as determined today as I was when I first started the blog that 10/10 scores will only be given out when the experience of eating at a particular restaurant is as close to perfect as makes no odds, but I'm thinking maybe I need a new definition of perfect. The standard of restaurants in this country, at least from the mid-range upwards, continues to astonish and delight, and Parkers Arms is a pretty much ideal gastropub experience, but I can't rule out somewhere else down the line - perhaps even one of the PA's neighbours in Bowland such as the Freemasons at Wiswell, or the Swan at Fence, both of which are on the list - impressing even more. What happens then?

Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. And anyway, what a lovely problem to have. Meantime, know only this - that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be completely smitten by the Parkers Arms; if you can't enjoy yourself here you may as well just give up and stay at home eating cold baked beans out of tupperware. I will be back as soon, and as often, as circumstances allow.


In the interests of full disclosure, I'd known the Parkers Arms on Twitter for a few years before this, my first visit, and so I can't pretend we didn't get a couple of extra bits and pieces that maybe the average walk-in wouldn't. However we paid for all our main courses and drinks and would obviously quite happily do so again.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Crown, Burchett's Green

Whatever your thoughts on Uber's corporate policies, the fact is their expansion out West has turned a day trip out to Berkshire to sample one of their surprising number of very nice gastropubs from a rare treat to a far more attractive and affordable proposition. Where once the last leg of the journey involved being ripped off by official cabs whose minimum charge for any trip, no matter how insignificant, appeared to be £15, the hop from Maidenhead station to Burchett's Green is now £7. Bargain.

Which means I and a friend arrived at the 18th century village pub The Crown with extra money in our pockets for a nice cocktail, one unfortunately I've forgotten the name of but which involved fizz and bitters. Like everything at the Crown, it's heavily French-accented; the building - and service - may be as charmingly English as tea and crumpets but chef Simon Bonwick's style is very much traditional gallic haute cuisine in a way you sadly see very often these days.

The closest thing I have to compare it to in recent years, in fact, is a meal at Little Barwick House in Somerset, which also served to remind us how much we have to thank the French for so many of our culinary achievements. Whether we like to admit it or not...

In the bar before lunch alongside our cocktails we got to nibble on these cute little canap├ęs, containing hummus, olive and almonds. On a doily, because you really don't see enough doilies in modern restaurants. I should also take a moment here to mention our table at the Crown, in a cute low-ceilinged space overlooking the main room which is one of the more quaint and cosy spaces I've ever had my lunch, and I highly recommend you asking for the same if you ever make a booking.

First of a four-course "surprise" menu offered by the restaurant (and which we weren't likely to say no to) was this frankly vast pile of fresh crab meat, offered with the advisory "just watch out for shell, dad's eyesight isn't what it was" which just made me love the whole thing even more. They needn't have worried, anyway - there was no shell, and even if the reality of ploughing through so much white meat was more attractive during the first few mouthfuls than the last, you at least can't fault their generosity.

Fish course was monkfish, dressed simply in a herby tomato dressing and topped with silky, buttery pulses. This was Mediterranean-French cooking of a kind I'd not seen in a little while, and it was nice to be reminded how nice monkfish works in this rustic (albeit expertly constructed) style.

Main course was so French if you listened closely you could hear it sing La Marseillaise. A neat little medallion of what I think they said was veal shoulder, tender and perfectly-seasoned, was draped in a jus so thick, salty and syrupy it probably took three years off my life just looking at it. With that, a vast sweetbread, crisped-up and golden brown and without a hint of the mealy dryness that can affect these things, and some vibrant root vegetables, "turned" into neat little shapes that would have made Escoffier proud. Of course this wasn't a groundbreaking arrangement of ingredients but there are so few restaurants willing - or indeed able - to turn out such unashamedly haute cuisine dishes that you can't help but applaud them.

Oh, and a word on the potatoes, bubbled up and brittle outside and silky smooth inside - there's probably a very fancy French term for them but I don't know what it is, so "world's best roasties" will have to do.

You also have to admire anyone going to the effort of making their own canelles, a process I'm reliably informed is about as tortuous and difficult as pastry work gets. This version involved salted caramel, which is a twist on the traditional I fully support.

Desserts came in two forms at once, for sharing. This is "Tulasmeen raspberry bavarois and sorbet", a pleasant arrangement of summer fruit which charmed with old-school silver-service vibe even if the overall effect was somewhat less than stunning. Lovely sorbet, though.

Similarly, "White chocolate and praline cadeau" wasn't quite the gift that kept on giving - it was rather an overwhelming amount of sweet, creamy white chocolate and not much else - but perhaps by this point it was possibly rather more the fact we were quite full than anything particularly wrong with white chocolate and praline that meant we didn't quite finish it.

The bill, with 2 wine tastings, a coffee and two very nice Armagnac to finish came to £147 - an incredibly reasonable amount of money to pay for what had been an enjoyable and technically proficient dinner, and all served with an easy, family-run charm (some of the Bonwick clan trained in some serious multi-Michelin-starred restaurants in France but have since returned to the nest). We toddled home (again, thank you Uber) very happy indeed, which really tells you all you need to know.

No, food like this isn't very trendy or fashionable - when was the last time you saw veal on a menu, never mind turned vegetables - but who cares? Far better for Simon Bonwick to cook the food he likes to eat than pander to any ridiculous fads and start littering his menu with nasturtium oil and sea buckthorne just for the sake of it. This was a lovely lunch, a reminder that the French culinary traditions are still right about things far more than they're wrong, and The Crown at Burchett's Green comes highly recommended. Vive la France.