Restaurant Review: Ugly Butterfly Carbis Bay St Ives

The stretch of the north Cornish coast around St Ives, jam packed with tourists in the summer months, overwinters in a quieter, more brooding slumber to emerge blinking in the springtime as fresh as meltwater streams on the moors and as keen as the prevailing onshore winds. This is a different Cornwall, an older, more introspective place where you can almost hear the pit ponies’ hooves ringing through the cobbled lanes, their slow rhythmic gait beating time along to the hammers of the long-silent tin mines. Cornwall was and remains a land apart, a wild Celtic place where sustenance has been scratched from the earth and trawled from the unforgiving seas for millennia.

In a small Atlantic-washed bay just outside the main town lies Adam Handling’s exquisite Ugly Butterfly. Pinned firmly to the beach, all weathered timber and a few modernist angles, it sits low on the horizon with wings furled against the worst of the winter gales. On the way to the main entrance, you pass the smartly appointed cabins still echoing with the babel voices of the G8 summit held here. Fear not, Mutti and Co’s political caravan is long gone leaving the bay as serene and resolutely English, or at least Cornish, as ever. You can stay in the G8 lodges if the mood takes you: they are rather lovely and come complete with a side order of pre-Brexit nostalgia.

The Ugly Butterfly’s bar is the first place you reach beyond the vast glass doors that suck you through into this gastronomic bell chamber. It has an understated opulence that doesn’t attempt to compete with the wrap-around glass and stunning sand-sea-and-stone views beyond. Genial folk, some mixologists by calling, move about the space with an unhurried professionalism that’s warm and convivial. They are cheery and welcoming, only too happy to share recommendations or whisk up something bespoke and fearfully alcoholic. I plumped for the Lost Garden – a nod perhaps to Heligan's whimsy on Cornwall’s south coast? It’s described as “Kernowfornia” – brilliant – and was all sorts of Monkey-Shouldered, edible-flowered bits of fun. It did a super job of startling the taste buds into action ahead of the evening’s foodie delights.

And they were delights. The restaurant proper, whose beautifully appointed lux lies quietly just beyond the bar, is cheffy territory par excellence. Importantly, however, it never loses sight of the need for deliciousness to take centre stage. Traceability, sustainability, beautiful presentation and service yes, but all in the name of impeccably tasting food. The kitchen was in the hands of a group of young and spry chefs on the evening I visited, Adam Handling off somewhere running an empire that now extends to the Frog and its sister Eve Bar in Covent Garden and The Loch & The Tyne gastropub in Windsor (although he could of course have simply been enjoying a well-earned night off). On site or not, his presence was clearly felt in menu design, execution and general demeanour of the staff. An obsessively tight ship, but hugely fun and one that manages a certain amount of informality as well. A winning mix that a surprising number of top restaurants fail to achieve.

It’s hard to resist a tasting menu displaying this level of imagination and execution. So we didn’t. The eight-courser we chose fell loosely into two halves. First, there was a succession of extraordinary small plates sitting somewhere between amuse bouches and starters. “Snacks” they called them, a name that belies their complexity and playfulness. The highlight was the obviously theatrical charms of porcelain eggshells served on a bed of dry ice and filled with a wonderful yolk emulsion of potato, truffle and chive foam. Each exploration with the tiny silver spoon revealed something new and delicious. We were cooing over our nests like a flock of broody hens by the end of it. Less showy but every bit as good were a cheese doughnut stuffed with Cornish Gouda and topped with shaved Tête de Moine, and a crisp croustade of unctuous beef tartare. Each was impeccably drawn with as much thought given to texture as to taste.

The smaller plates having been polished off without delay, four rather more robust wooden bowls arrived containing “roast chicken”. One bowl was furnished with the kind of sourdough you wish you could make but can’t and two others, seemingly mounded with crispy chicken skin, hid a chicken-fat butter of immense umami depth and a deeply scented chicken-liver parfait that was light as a cloud but wickedly flavoursome. A slick of butter, a smear of parfait and pinch of crunchy, nubbly chicken skin on the softly yielding bread seemed destined to be the highlight of the whole meal. That is until we discovered the final bowl. It held a fairly innocuous looking dark brown gravy. And it was definitely a gravy – neither sauce nor jus, it was the very antithesis of a foam or velouté. This was the essence of chicken gravy, simultaneously elevated to its Platonic Form and reduced down to a singularity of truly irresistible force. Transformed by some arcane alchemy into the quintessence of caramelised birdiness it provoked truly Proustian revery, pulling you back to the Sunday lunches of your youth and propelling you forward with the clinical skill of the modern fine-dining kitchen all at once. Dizzying.

Punch drunk from all this flavourful hyperbole, the main courses passed us by in a blur of accomplished cooking warmed by regular blasts from the creative furnace. Sweet Cornish crab meat was presented in a little nori tartlet seasoned with horseradish and the crunch of fresh apple. It came nestling in an upturned crab shell filled with the beach’s pebbly boon: simple and striking. A beautifully plump piece of halibut then arrived, perfectly pearlescent and firm, blanketed by a classic cream sauce spiked with shrimps and flecked green with fish-friendly herbs. It was accompanied by a lambent roucher of carrot purée whose sweetness complimented the salty seafood marvellously. The main course was a perfectly cooked and rested roundel of venison with what a lesser chef might have been tempted to call “textures of parsnip”. They don’t bother with such tomfoolery here: this was simply “parsnip” (a silky parsnip purée, parsnip crisps and a honeyed caramelised root, to boot). The sauce was exactly the right consistency – good body but not overly rich or demanding. It was also quite the shiniest of sauces I’ve seen for some time, rather a lost art what with the current obsession for modish emulsions and spritzes.

Puddings were an exciting rollercoaster of deconstructed shortbread, light and airy sponges, quenelles of sweet cicely sorbet and white chocolate foams, each matching sweetness with intriguing savoury notes. If you go some time soon, you’ll get Adam’s Food Fight, the pudding he took to the Great British Menu banquet. It comes complete with burnt-butter cake – words to fill any gourmand with joy. By the time the petits fours arrived we were replete and groaning. Somehow the promise of smoked Cornish-cream fudge, crisp dark-chocolate shells with cherry and a rather fab pear jelly managed to rally us. If only briefly.

Special mention should go to the sommelier. I didn’t catch her name, which is my fault. She served the wine with an assured hand that comes from deep knowledge, enduring fascination with the subject and consummate hosting skills. There is an exceptional wine flight if such is your bent, each glass chosen with a good eye and intelligent palate to enhance, but never overpower, the food. It ranges from glorious white Burgundies to intriguing Greek reds and felt, despite its hefty price tag, good value.

A peek at the wine list however may be enough to tempt you off-piste. It’s set out thematically, which can be irritating but does a good job here of directing the eye, palate and wallet. “Quintessential” is indeed just that, familiar but not thereby to be ignored. Current US regional darlings Paso Robles and Santa Barbara answer the call and in the under £50 bracket you can snaffle a lovely Burgenland Welschriesling from Andreas Gsellmann. There’s good hunting to be had on an “Adventure” too, which might take you off to Hárslevelű and Furmint territory or to Switzerland for Fendant/Chasselas. It’s good to see some of the more up-and-coming regions, as well: Washington State (hardly novel now but worth exploring if you haven’t) and Uruguay.

I was very excited to see something from Washington State’s exclusive Cayuse Vineyards (a Tempranillo) but as it came to more than the price of the tasting menu I left it sleeping in the cellar for some other lucky soul to discover. And there’s a Grenache from the similarly sought after Sine Qua Non knocking about if you have pockets deep enough for Californian royalty. Turn the page to “Opulence” and it’s a roll call of Burgundy, studded with the odd jewel from the Rhône and Italy’s chicer outposts. Then there are the “Supernovas”, largely Bordeauxs. There’s a nice section of stickies to finish, most available by the glass. You can also choose from a formidable array of whiskies which, all to the credit of the Dundee-born chef, makes the odd gesture beyond Scotland’s shores (the US, Japan, Ireland). There are some local beers and ciders to be had too: again, a nice touch.

What an extraordinary place I thought, as we wandered the Camomile-Lawn nostalgia of the costal path back to our little rental. Formidably expensive, certainly, but the quality of ingredients, the skills with which they were handled, presented and served, together with the setting, made it feel appropriate. Despite a little hyperventilating in the toilet over the bill, we left trailing a plume of bonhomie and promises to return soon.

Restaurant Review: Wild Flor Hove

Storm Elin had blown us along a decidedly wintery Church Road, past the parade of Hove’s steamy-windowed hostelries and against the tide of Christmas revellers some aglow with Yuletide bonhomie, others bleary-eyed already after one too many cocktails, one too many seasonal broken hearts. Tonight, the welcoming lights of our destination seemed truly charmed as we closed a relieved door on the gusty mayhem outside.

Opened by James and Faye Thomson with Rob Maynard in 2019, Wild Flor is a brasserie in the best tradition of the word. It’s a term that rather lost its sparkle under the onslaught of ‘90s chains who reimagined it as an excuse for bland uniformity. But here, it harks back to essentially French roots, naming a place of good food, intelligently conceived and honestly executed from a short, to-the-point menu. It should indicate an establishment that understands seasonality as key to proper eating at a fair price, too – a simple equation but one often forgotten in the scramble for rosetted and starred adulation. Wild Flor’s December menu reflected this traditional approach perfectly with nods to the seasonal table – goose, turkey, chestnuts and sage for example – handled with an unseasonal lightness of touch and seasoned with creative flair to boot.

Warmth of welcome is another essential brasserie feature: unobtrusive, solicitous service that is informal and comforting. Genuine friendliness radiates from the staff at this end of Church Rd, the kind that can only come from natural charm underpinned by a consummate grasp of the art of the professional host. It’s a dog-friendly place, too. And in a way that evinces heart-felt feelings rather than barely tolerant Barbara Woodhouse sensibilities.

Inside, the dining room is all wooden tables, exposed brick and blackboard specials. Familiar – comfortingly so – but also with a glint in its eye that promises something different, something a cut above. A couple of well-behaved dogs lay snoozing under tables but if that’s not your scene have no fear as there are tables specially allocated to the pooch brigade so those less canine friendly types can feast with impunity. Thoughtful, for all concerned. The human clientele, nicely eclectic, ranged from the goodly bourgeoisie feasting with scarce a thought to January credit card statements to younger couples quietly calculating if they could afford the better of the orange wines on offer. Nice, easy, convivial. Perfect for an old friends' get together (table to our left) or a romantic supper à deux (to our right). It even suited the odd jobbing gourmand gaily eating through as much of the menu as possible with Grüner Veltliner in one hand and dog lead in the other.

Menus were flourished with obvious pride. A pleasingly concise food menu and a wide-ranging wine list: exactly as things should be. “Snacks” were the first thing to attract our attention. Although it seems simple, homespun even, the cheese gougère is a tricky thing to master. Get it wrong and it has all the glamour of a supermarket profiterole – only filled with dismal cheesiness that would, quite literally make a cow laugh. Cheese can be a bit of a gamble as an opening number, in any case. The Americans are, in my opinion wrongly, obsessed with vast cheese-board appetisers. Such an umami onslaught can tire the palate before you’ve even begun. If it’s handled right, though, and in small enough quantities, the acidic hit and savoury hum of cheese can indeed whet the appetite. Cue excellent Wild Flor choux creations – crisp but yielding carapace and perfectly judged meltiness of decent-cheese credentials. Lovely, with the added piquancy of being slightly retro, if not downright unfashionable.

A second snack came in the form of an interesting chestnut number on pumpernickel – much more à la mode and virtuously “Pb” as the menu proclaimed (plant based, as I later worked out). It was tasty if somewhat lacking in the looks department. Heston Blumental famously gets round the problem by coating his similarly dun chicken-liver confection, Meat Fruit, in a natty coat of neon clementine jelly. Here, the mouse is naked and unashamed, the pallor of its three-day-hangover greige only just offset with deft cat’s ears of sage and dabs of bejewelled membrillo paste. First impressions of its slightly outré looks were completely erased however by the taste: a delightful balance of sweet and savoury, with well-handled chestnut textures (an ingredient all too apt to resolve into arid dryness or perfumed putty in the hands of a lesser chef).

I wanted the goose rillettes with redcurrant as well, but three snacks seemed a step too far this close to the holiday season. Instead, we moved on to a starter of crab tartlet with salsify and Vacherin, in part as an excuse for a glass of Koehler-Ruprechet’s Riesling Spätlese 2018 (crab and Riesling are an old Hugh Johnson trick). Pure and saline whites are more typical with seafood, but I prefer a more expressive stone-fruited warmth with crab’s sweet and briny tang. And besides, the Alpine sheen of Vacherin had already beaten the path between the seashore and the resolutely continental German wine region (Pfalz, in this case) breaking, into the bargain, the oddly intransigent Italian prohibition against fish and cheese. I’ve never subscribed to this nonsense myself. And neither, universally, do the Italians. Open the pages of Accademia Italiana Della Cuccina’s encyclopaedic Regional Cooking of Italy and you’ll find plenty of Pecorino with Puglian gratinated mussels for example or cheese hiding in Calabrian anchovy balls. Here, the Vacherin added both seasoning and textural boon to the shards of filo tartlet and the moist filaments of crab within. A bold move and a delicious one.

We chose a gratifyingly substantial, pleasingly rustic slab of turkey, liver and apricot terrine to go with. Deeply meaty and mouth-filling, it was lifted by a glossy tangle of celeriac remoulade. Tasty and simple and done really well. Goodly sourdough and exemplary butter were a non-negotiable accompaniment.

Veal chops are a welcome addition to any menu but as we’d recently cooked some at home we left these peppercorn-sauced versions for our fellow diners. Other lovely main courses beckoned: venison and stout-roasted onions, sole with bottarga and such like. But it was the duck that finally won my vote – delightfully pan roasted, served with a modern take on a citrus sauce and confit parsnip (another echo of the Christmas feasting just around the corner). In some ways quite a simple dish – classic is perhaps a better term – it was hearty and comforting fodder elevated by the clever addition of the Italian, Sicilian even, chic of bitter radicchio and a sweet-spiced melange of golden raisins and caramelised onions.

Whilst I’m certainly not going to be de-boning chicken wings or toiling over shellfish reductions at home – and so happy to leave such things to the professionals – a risotto seems in easier reach of the domestic cook. In fact, Risotto is now such a familiar part of the home cook’s repertoire that it is almost perverse to order it in a restaurant. Plus, the professionals are apt to give risotto too little love, too little attention and nowhere near enough butter. Or so I thought.

I was pleased to be proved wrong by the black futsu squash risotto whipped up by Wild Flor for our second main course. Without doubt one of the highlights of the meal, the cooking was spot on (to within the millisecond) and the dish incredibly flavoursome, not monotoned as risotto can be. The sage and smoked almonds strewn on top were a master stroke – deeply fragrant and a clever textural counterpoint to the rice’s nubbly silkiness. Bravo!

Side dishes weren’t strictly necessary, but it seemed rude to ignore something as promising sounding as artichoke and potato hash browns with crème fraîche. They turned out to be a sort of homage to caramelised roots, layered and butter-fried with a yielding, creamy underbelly and a fringe of refreshingly lactic proto-tartare sauce. Roots and indeed all things vegetal are given due respect at Wild Flor. Vegetarian, vegans and the properly vegetable-focused won’t go hungry or feel even a little disappointed. I didn’t see anyone order it (not even the couple by the window who looked as if they had resolutely Pb sympathies) but the meat-free main course sounded lovely: wild mushroom suet pudding with smoked oat sauce and truffle.

Three sweet puds were on offer that evening to finish us off. One was chocolate-based which seems sensible given that some folk become semi-riotous if not offered sweet things from the mousse/brownie/fondant stable. Here, it was the former: bitter choc matched with candied almonds. December feasting made its presence felt again in the form of a mince pie and Stichelton (Stilton’s wilder cousin). An interesting idea, but not quite enough to lure us from the promise of earl grey pannacotta with ginger biscuits. Pannacotta is another overly familiar dish that in the wrong hands is a ghastly, rubbery beast of a thing. This pannacotta was a completely different animal – with a wanton wobble only pure cooked cream can have, it was deeply and wonderfully milky, enlivened by a gingered syrup and served with two crisp biscuits of buttery-shortbread leanings. It was, I think, the second highlight of the meal and made me reflect again on just how good the classics can be when touched with the creative wand and realised with a skillful hand.

I wanted longer with the wine list whose breadth and depth promised to take me everywhere I wanted to go, up to and including a Riesling pudding wine. It’s an award-winning wine list, in fact, and good enough reason on its own to book a table. Plenty by the glass and the carafe (sensible folk) allows for vinous grazing. There was the refreshing but far from simple Grüner Veltliner from Christoph Bauer that did an excellent job of startling the tastebuds into action. The more Rubenesque charm of the Riesling with our starters was equally good. We followed it with some lovely Cabernet Franc in the guise of a Chinon from La Perruche. A good bit of Loire seasoning for the duck, it didn’t baulk at the risotto either.

Incidentally, if you are looking for somewhere for a good pre-dinner drink, then there’s a handy outpost of Brighton’s dark and sultry cocktail joint, The Plotting Parlour, a few doors down. A slightly more athletic stone’s throw will get you to The Gin Tub. I haven’t been there, I have to admit, but the name conjures up a more Hogarthian ambiance. Perhaps it was responsible for some of the red-eyed stumblers outside?

Restaurant Review: Hawkyns by Atul Kochhar Amersham

Sidling down the hill from the Metro-land modernism of Amersham into the old town feels like sloughing off a year or so with each step. By the time you’ve reached the bottom, you’re resolutely in Jane Austin territory flecked with an England older still with its ancient Market Hall and higgledy-piggledy fifteenth century roof lines. There are a number of tasty reasons for making the descent: the Michelin-starred, AA-rosetted elegance of the Artichoke, Gilbey's old-school comfort and the bright and perky tapas of Pluma for a start. But we were here to sample Atul Kochhar’s Hawkyns which occupies much of the ground floor of a beautiful, grade-II-listed coaching inn (The Crown Inn) famous for featuring in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

A tendril of spiced tandoor smoke reached us as we parked out back. It elicited an almost Pavlovian response that had us rushing across the cobles with ne’er a thought to Hugh Grant/Andy MacDowell shenanigans. Once through the ancient doorway, we were met by the smiling front-of-house staff and shown to our table in the back dining room. It was a lovely, airy space of vast-inglenook-fireplace and original-oak-flooring charm – all very mutton chop and pint of porter, entirely Tom Jones in fact (the foundling that is, not the Welsh crooner). There was something about the juxtaposition of this slice of Merrie England and the ravishing aromas of India that was genuinely exciting.

The restaurant’s trademark tasting menus (carnivore, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan are all options) are a pleasingly restrained 6 courses, 7 if you give in to the inevitable pull of additional poppadoms (which I suggest you do, as the accompanying mango and chilli chutneys are a delight). Introductory papads also allow you time to consider what to drink with the feast ahead. Beer and lassi are usually the best options with Indian food. For the former, Hawkyns offer a choice of Cobra and a local-ish (from Marlow) Indian Pale Ale as well as, for the died-in-the-wool Europhile, Peroni. Lassi sadly hasn’t made it on to the menu here which I do think is a shame. I’d love to see what Kochhar’s culinary imagination could make of it. With a profile that runs the gamut from salty to fruity sweet, it certainly has potential. Throw in a slug of white rum or some such (heresy of a particular delicious kind, I know) and we’d probably all be grateful. If that sounds too far in the direction of the pina-colada, feel free to clutch your purist pearls. But, really, who doesn’t like the blowsy charms of sweetened milk and booze in all its creamy-moustachioed glory?

Wine is a trickier customer to pair with the complexities of Indian spicing: it is apt either to founder on the reef of cumin, fenugreek et al or to compete in a somewhat bony-elbowed way for attention. Kochhar’s wine list is sufficiently broad in scope to allow for a good number of possible options. It stretches right up to the gates of Meursault and Gevrey Chambertin (courtesy of Dom. Denis Carre and Joesph Drouhin respectively) but I certainly wouldn’t opt for those here. I tend to favour more homey reds with Indian food, those with their own reasonably robust spicing that can stand up to a good bash with the handi. There are Malbecs, Mourvèdres and even a Pinotage here that might step up to the plate provided their tannins are well under control (tannins can get peevish and bolshy with spice and chilli heat). Alternatively the fuller-flavoured, even off-dry, end of the white spectrum (Viognier or a petrol-head Riesling from Aus or the US) might do the trick. All are on the menu, along with Planeta’s Syrah Rosé that has just enough oomph if you want something refreshing and summery. We opted to dive straight in with an Indian red, Sula’s full-bodied and warming Dindori Reserve Shiraz. It worked well – nice enough on its own but really shining with the food. Its pepper, liquorice and slight menthol appeal held its own against the complexities of the unfolding menu.

We’d just finished swirling and sampling when the fruity amuse bouche arrived a-top a rather fetching polished-concrete stand. More of a cleanser than an amuser per se, small cubes of ultra-ripe pineapple were paired with crunchy star fruit, pearls of tamarind and tropical coulis. Star fruit is more of a texture than a taste, but it worked well here to refresh the palate before the main events arrived.

First up was a single, beautifully plated representative of the joys of Indian street food. The entirety of the sub-continent being chaat mad, no street corner is complete without a stall or cart selling one of the variety of fried, spiced snacks. Dahi puri, like its close cousin pani puri, is one of the most popular. It is essentially a very small, crisp puri filled with something warm and spicy like chickpeas or potato and onion, then anointed with sour tamarind and chilli chutneys and any number of crunchy toppings. Designed to be popped into the mouth whole, it’s a riot of flavour and a textural rollercoaster. Hawkyns’ take on the crisp sphere was subtly spiced and elevated with the rosy crunch of pomegranate. The waiter quietly admitted that they were his favourite and that he had been known to scoff six or seven in a sitting – slightly galling in that we only had one a piece. Another one or two really wouldn’t have gone amiss, even in the context of the tasting menu, such were their crunchy deliciousness.

Next came a light soft-shelled crab fried crisp in a nicely salty carapace offset with a tropical-tasting fruit gel and tiny cubes of what I think was a mango salsa. Delicious both. This was quickly followed by a truly diminutive chicken seekh (the word kebab seemingly having been banished from the menu like a badly behaved uncle at a wedding…or indeed a funeral….). The spicing was insistent, fragrant and lifted with a slight chilli warmth. Little cubes of confit beetroot and a sweet/sour beetroot chutney complimented the earthy cumin profile of the meat nicely.

The menu then offered a choice of lamb chops or ribeye steak (for a supplement) as a main course. We all plumped for lamb, a meat whose flavour works so well with spices, herbs, yoghurt and fruit – basically anything the Indian kitchen can throw at it. The chops, or rather chop (for there was but one) came with aromatic chickpeas and what was described as a Chettinad gravy. Presumably this was inspired by one of the glories of Indian regional cooking, the wonderful spiced marsalas way to the south in Tamil Nadu. It was indeed lovely: deeply umami and cleverly shot through with spice. Rather smart little saucepans of light and fluffy jeera bhaat (rice with lots of ghee and cumin) and black lentil dhal arrived to accompany the lamb. The dhal, which had been cooked slowly for 24 hours, was exemplary – its wonderfully deep taste matched by a soft and creamy texture. It was the standout dish of the evening, quite a lot of praise for a relatively simple dish of lentils. Lovely garlic naans, all pillowy soft and puffing from the tandoor provided excellent-tasting sauce mops.

For a country so enamoured of sweets, India is not particularly known for its desserts (deliciously ripe fresh fruit aside). But there are some genuinely excellent options that again might have taken on a new life in the hands of a chef of Kochhar’s skills: kheer and seviyan kheer (rice pudding and vermicelli puddings, respectively), kulfi, halwa, gulab jamun and rasmalai for a start. A surprise then that the tasting menu should end with the resolutely European whimper of a Biscoff cheesecake. It was fine, nice even, but it was a puzzling choice and represented an opportunity missed for something much more exciting indeed.

Slight Biscoff misstep aside, the meal was lovely and the surroundings tickety-boo. Certainly worth the trip down the hill when you crave a little bit of elevated Indian cooking.

Restaurant Review: Benedicts Norwich

Benedicts (sans apostrophe) sits at the city centre end of St Benedict’s (mit apostrophe) Street, a road largely given over to restaurants, bars and other forms of slightly arty hedonism in Norwich. There’s a smart black anonymity to the restaurant’s exterior, the type that bespeaks confidence by dint its lack of self-promotion. The door opens on to a tiny entrance area with just enough room, with a little good-natured choreography, for cloak removal and umbrella parking. The place is soothingly low key inside: brassiere-style tables nicely positioned with space and elbow room. How a restaurant treats its solo diners speaks volumes. Here, they managed to avoid both tiny-table-facing-the wall shame and seat-marooned-in-the-middle-of-arguing-couples joylessness. Much appreciated.

I don’t usually kick things off by commenting on the front of house folk as it seems somewhat discourteous to the chef. Here, however, they do the kitchen such credit it feels ok. As I sipped my chilled Manzanilla (see below) I had time to observe and reflect on their comings and goings. Bainbridge’s team were bright and engaged, knowledgeable and genuinely interested in the food they were serving. The management of timings and the flow of service was exemplary: solicitous but unobtrusive. A succession of waiters brought food and drinks throughout the evening with genuine pride. Plus there was the odd, pleasant visit from the guys in the kitchen to introduce various dishes. All were, without exception, charming.

The kitchen offers two, regularly changing, tasting menus: 6 or 9 courses (if you include all the pre-desert and bread bells and whistles). I had every intention of opting for the shorter of the two in the name of restraint and parsimony. Such nonsense quickly went out of the window when I realised I would be missing both a carbonara mousse and a dashi custard. So I undid my belt a notch or two and settled down for the long, delightful 9-station option. 

First came some snacks, here called “the tease”: a light but deeply porcine croquette enlivened with apple confit and crowned with crispy sage; a crusty taco that shattered pleasingly in the mouth with sweetly dressed soya beans and wild garlic flowers; and, best of all, a tiny croustade, its exceptional pastry hiding layers of soft moussiness and salty spheres of roe within.

The next course , the “aperitif”, was intriguing: understated but utterly delicious. The most ephemeral of rice crackers arrived dusted black with onion powder and bejewelled with more roe. It was accompanied by a small bowl of fragrant sherry mousse. The cracker made for very tasty, if slightly impractical, mousse scooping and the combination of burnt allium and floral, saline sherry was intoxicating. 

The waiter had warned me to keep some of the mousse back to go with the bread that was due to arrive next. Great advice: it took on another identity again when spooned hungrily on to the Parker House roll (light, buttery Americana with brioche pretensions). It was the black treacle soda bread, however, that really allowed the mousse to shine – a marriage of sweet, salty, silky and nubbly that I suspect had been perfected with much happy sampling and discussion. The bread came with its own wild garlic butter and a little dish of beetroot purée spiked with Za’atar. Both were nice but paled before the sherry confection. 

I had opted for the accompanying wine flight and this course was scheduled with a Bodegas Hidalgo Manzanilla en Rama. I’d already spied it on the menu and snaffled a glass, so they kindly suggested trying another sherry from their cellar (a Tío Pepe Fino, again, en rama). Full marks for proper guest husbandry and for the sherry selection.

Local, new season’s asparagus provided the next course. Beautifully plated (I could almost hear the click of tweezers with this one), it was adorned with more seasonal garlic flowers. Another mousse was served alongside: a carbonara creation this time. Hidden within its pale depths were tiny cubes of asparagus and pancetta (not guanciale I suspect: don’t tell the Romans!). It made a lovely, scented counterpoint to the vernal greenness of the spears. 

Usually, they serve a white Burgundy at this point (a Mâcon-Villages from the range at St. John). As luck would have it, I had arrived just after a visit from their wine supplier and everyone seemed keen to experiment with something new with this course. I was duly presented not only with the St John’s wine but also a Douro red from the excellent Niepoort. Primata is from their new Nat Cool range and, slightly chilled, it was excellent fit for the food (and quite simply a lovely wine).

Up next was a deceptively simple dish of river trout with smoked butter. The fish – a thinner, just-medium fillet and a meatier, rarer cut – was expertly cooked and the sauce’s insistent but sweet smokiness well judged. It came crowned with Norfolk’s peerless samphire: a nicely patriotic move. A glass of rosé (“M” from Château Minuty) was served alongside, a summery and nicely textured choice to flatter the soft silkiness of the trout.

A dive to the bottom of the sea then brought back a sweet Cornish crab atop chargrilled bread (why no Cromer crab I thought to myself but forgot to ask). Alongside the shellfish was another interesting looking bowl, a custard this time made savoury with dashi and slicked with herb oil. It was a light and refreshing dish to perk up the palate before the main course. The accompanying Chenin Blanc from biodynamic Château de Suronde did much the same job, a wine with nice acidity and some textural interest from bottle ageing.

There was more fish, in the shape of hake with pickled daikon, on offer for the main course. I opted, however, for aged Norfolk lamb loin with roasted little gem lettuce. It was excellent meat but the dish was truly set apart by the two clever additions. First, there was a small spoon of (sheep’s milk?) yoghurt topped with black garlic: both flavours, the keen acidity of the yoghurt and the deep umami of the fermented garlic, set off the sweet lamb perfectly. Then, sitting quietly on the side of the plate, was something called a “Scrumpet” – not the offspring of a scone and a crumpet as one might expect, but finely minced lamb, seasoned and served in a crisp coating of breadcrumbs. It was crunchy, oily, unctuous. Accompanying the lamb was a very lightly chilled Pinot Noir from Spinyback in Nelson in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. High acid and with some oak, it was a good foil for the richness of the course.

By this point my stamina and palate were starting to fail. Just the moment for a cleansing quenelle of raspberry sorbet, an exceptionally good one at that. Even I baulked at the optional cheese course, but I did peer at the offering for “research purposes only”. A selection of artisan lovelies including local-ish Baron Bigod (a favourite from Fen Farm Dairy in Bungay), a Somerset goat (Little Lilly from White Lake Cheese) and Celtic Promise, a Caerphilly style washed-rind cheese from Caws Teifi. All lovely cheeses from great British producers but sadly a step too far that day.

Instead, pudding beckoned in the shape of a rhubarb and white choc millefeuille made with exceptionally buttery pastry. The final wine of the evening was a very interesting late harvest pudding wine from Chilean producer Morandé. Made from botrytised Sauvignon Blanc grapes, it was intense yet retained enough acidity and lift to bring the meal to a suitably refreshing close.

I’m glad I came here I thought as I spooned myself back into my, by now slightly tighter, coat. "Generous" would be my one-word review (of restaurant and, now, waistline). With a few more words, I's say it’s an excellent anchor of the Norwich fine dining scene, home to clever, assured cooking with flashes of inventive flair. It’s a place with good local, seasonal and sustainable credentials too, one doubly set apart by superb service. Bravo.

Restaurant Review: Crockers Tring

I had the good fortune to sample the cooking of Master Chef: the Professionals finalist Scott Barnard when he was based at his tiny outpost in Potten End, darkest Hertfordshire. One-horse town would not be an exaggeration, but it was a sound place to start if you happen to have the talent and enterprise to pull in the local, affluent foodie crowd. 

Scott had just opened his new venture after a good few years at high-end hotel restaurants the Grove (just outside Watford) and before that the Compleat Angler in Marlow. The first incarnation of his chef’s table affair was pretty much just Scott labouring away at the pass to the baying of said locals and the occasional stray Londoner wondering if taxis picked up this far from civilisation. It was a pretty heroic effort, enlivened by the chef’s keen understanding of flavour combinations and the good-natured, refreshingly unfiltered banter that we had come to expect from his TV appearances. I remember a sweet and fresh beef tartare (a wise, low-intervention move when you’re trying to juggle reductions and pastry cases single-handed), some nice fish cookery, a warm pile of good home-baked bread and a small, thoughtful wine list. Charming, slightly frenetic and waiting to unfurl his wings fully were my lasting impressions.

I hadn’t eaten with him since but am pleased to report that the food at his larger and more lux Crockers in Tring has grown in vision and skill along with its chef. Now supported by some keen-looking acolytes and a couple of delightful front-of-house folk, Scott is able to concentrate on sourcing and saucing to his heart’s content. The arrival of his fine dining concept must have been a breath of fresh air to Tring’s food scene which, with neighbouring Berkhamsted sucking up much of the independent glamour, had previously had a few nice-enough places but nothing more. Now there’s somewhere to go for your micro-herb and tweezer fix.

We visited at lunch time during the week when a slightly shorter tasting menu is offered at the pass upstairs. The more traditional dining room downstairs is presumably aimed at those who can’t bear interacting with other diners or with the chef. I do have some sympathy with that, but here the theatre is half the point and it would be shame to forgo the mise en scène of it all.  Our louche day-time visit started in the genuinely lovely cocktail bar hidden in the basement where cheery mixologists rustled up a couple of refreshing Rhubarb Gin Fizz cocktails (there’s an equally seasonal blood orange affair on offer too). Then, upstairs and seated at the horseshoe-shaped pass, the food kicked off with a light and crisply fried Westcombe Cheddar roundel that occupied a tasty hinterland somewhere between a croustade and a beignet. Seasoned with malty IP8 beer vinegar and dusted with burnt onion, it managed to be both unctuous and light at the same time. Excellent start. This was followed by a delicate tart case filled with a dice of salmon tartare lifted by yuzu and seasoned with furikake (the Japanese seaweed and spice condiment). 

An experience with a dodgy scallop years before precluded me from tasting the citrusy escabeche-inspired fish course, but Scott kindly prepared the fish dish from the extended evening menu for me instead. I certainly didn’t feel deprived - what arrived was a perfectly cooked piece of cod with young asparagus and a classic champagne velouté.

Much to our joy, a plump little loaf of bread appeared still warm from the oven. It had been made with beer from the local Tring brewery and came with a pat of France’s aristocratic Beurre Bordier. They take their butter seriously here: on my first visit I had marmite butter (way before it became commonplace in restaurants of a certain ilk) and the recent Valentine’s menu had apparently featured a delicious-sounding duck fat version. A cultured butter appeared later in the menu too, accompanying a moist and airy brioche glazed sweet with honey and gilded savoury with thyme leaves.

Two of our fellow dinners were enjoying the vegetarian menu which, as far as I could see without craning too obviously, was no afterthought: I saw a lovely fresh pea risotto pass by, garnished with a few cheffy bells and whistles. We were pleased we’d come with our carnivore hats on when the main course arrived, though. It was one of his signature dishes we were told proprietarily. Our suspicion that this was shorthand for “off the tele” was confirmed when the sauce was announced, with a self-deprecating grim, as the one that Marcus Wareing had really enjoyed. It needed no celebrity chef endorsement (not even from someone of Wareing’s stature) as it was a perfectly balanced little sauce with just enough anchovy umami to complement the lamb but not so much as to overwhelm. There was saddle and a little bit of loin I think, all nicely pink and perfectly rested. The other “Caesar” element was seared baby gem lettuce which was so much more delicious than it had a right to be: a proper vegetable rather than a novelty. We went for the suggested wine: an unusually deep-flavoured and nicely oaked St Joseph from one of the area’s quality producers, Domaine Courbis.

The menu then proudly declared an optional cheese course. When its Suffolk favourite Baron Bigod oozing over a crumpet and seasoned with truffle honey and copious truffle shaved fresh at the pass by chef himself, it can hardly be described as an option. The suggested wine pairing here was a Hunter Valley Semillon which can be a tricky customer (and is not a particularly well-known style on European shores). This one was from Tyrrell's however which, true to the style and the quality of the producer, managed to be both citrus fresh and show a bit of complexity from lees ageing. It was a good choice for the cheese, cutting though the fat but holding its own against the earthiness of the plate. We wrapped up with a fine desert: a light, deconstructed vanilla cheesecake showcasing the last of this year’s forced rhubarb. It was fragrant, with nicely judged sweetness. The little plate of sweets that followed might have seemed like overkill had they not been offered with such generosity and included a palate-cleansing, citrus/floral Calamansi jelly.

A quick tour through the sensibly sized wine list revealed some nice choices, most of which are available by the glass. Gusbourne rules the modish home-grown fizz and also supplies its most recent innovations - a still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet to be fully convincing, it’s nonetheless good to see these on menu. There are some decidedly different choices too: a Japanese white - Grace's Kayagatake Koshu (made from the citrussy Koshu grape) which I haven’t tried and didn’t intend to that day. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be excellent but there were more interesting glasses calling. Instead, I opted for a Puglian Vermentino (San Marzano's "Timo"), typically fennel-floral and surprisingly fresh for an IGP wine this far south. The Pinot Blanc (from Alsace’s Dopff au Moulin) was a misstep though as it just wasn’t complex enough to match the earlier part of the menu. Hands up: my mistake. They had suggested an unknown (at least to me) Petritis from Cypriot Kyperounda Winery (made from 100% indigenous Xinisteri grape) which may well have been a better match. I’ll never know.

Well done to all involved. Lucky old Tring to bag a great addition to their food scene. “Fine dining without the pomp” is their strap line - couldn’t agree more.