Henley In Arden

The Bluebell, Henley-In-Arden

This little blog of mine brings out different reactions in restaurants. Some are totally ambivalent to me being present in the dining room, others noticeably different when I start taking pictures and notes. Some don’t want me there at all. I’ve had chefs tweet me from the kitchen to tell me to eat my food before it goes cold, or be annoyed with me because I took the liberty of booking under a different name. Recently I received a phone call from a chef who told me to cancel the reservation I had with the restaurant he worked at because the new menu was, in his words, ‘shite’. Food blogs are a funny thing. Chefs often dismiss us as the underbelly of gastronomic society, but they clearly care way more than they let on. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy drinking with them so much: you’ll get no annoying over-excitement or smoke-blowing bullshit out of a chef; cooking all day for fake dietary requirements has beat that out of them.

I guess that a lot of this reaction stems from a fear (and dislike) of some untrained gobshite daring to criticise their craft and vision. I get that; I can’t handle people judging my Monopoly purchases, let alone my livelihood. But sometimes a rarity occurs. A chef will actively ask me to eat his food, to sling that massive nutsack over his (or her) shoulder and cook without fear of my opinion. Joe Adams did that and I respect him massively for it. I saw him at some awards which I can’t remember the name of and he asked when I was coming to eat at The Bluebell. I said soon and returned to polishing my award. Fast forward a year later when I’m sat in said pub having a glass of wine and he comes out of the kitchen to ask why I still haven’t been. He doesn’t want to give me a free meal; he just wants to show how good he is. It would take a further eight months and another polite ear bashing to finally get there. The man is persistent amongst other things.

It turns out that Joe has the ability to back up the confidence. From the beautifully quaint pub of low beams and lower lighting (apologies about the pictures), he delivered one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a while, turning out smart food that gently coaxes reaction without stepping outside it’s boundaries. The dishes tend to riff on a couple of flavour profiles at a time; nuanced yet homely. All technically competent and boldly seasoned. Fat scallops with a seared hat from brown butter could easily have been lost within the umami rich smoked potato puree and caramelised onions, had batons of fresh apple and a spritely chive oil lifted it all. Same with the chicken liver parfait under a drift of nuts and seeds. It needs the orange marmalade as a counterpoint. Both are impeccably balanced.

A chicken main has the breast cooked expertly to a crisp skin whilst avoiding drying out the meat. A fondant potato sits to one side with the less than conventional additions of puffed rice, coconut milk and a big tomato sauce spiced with loads of garlic, fenugreek, and chilli. From what, on the face of it, is a simple dish has complexities throughout; it may be rooted in Henley but its heart is in India. A hake dish takes top billing for the evening, with the puddle of shellfish bisque the highlight. It’s restrained in its approach, concise with every element warranting its place on the plate. It shows an egoless approach to the cooking, one where everything makes sense. We have desserts, though the wine was flowing a little too freely and I forgot to take pictures. There was a cheesecake and semifreddo from memory, nothing desconstructed and everything working properly. They are sweet, as desserts should be but seldom are anymore. The plates go back to the kitchen cleaned.

Service is friendly and professional, led by a chap called Johnny who knows the menu inside out. It’s easy to see why The Bluebell has gained the listing in the Michelin guide and the rosettes it has in the two years since it opened; it is approachable and refined, priced ideally for its location. I’m treated to dinner tonight by friends who live locally, though I’ll be back soon and won’t be requiring a chef to ask me.

8/10

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Cheal’s of Henley, Henley in Arden

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to Cheal’s is that over 5 days of eating in Birmingham, Henley, and London, taking in several Michelin stars, the food we ate in the black beam and white plaster was easily the weekend’s best. It is beyond me how certain guides continue to overlook what is sharp, accurate and above all tasty food. Moving swiftly on, lets have a quick run through of our recent lunch.

They do things the classical way here. Your chairs will be deep and comfortable, there will be crisp white linen over the table. There will be little gifts from the kitchen in the way of canapes and bouches that have been amoused. The former was little cheesey dumplings with a blob of Worcestershire sauce gel, the latter a warm espuma of parsnip, with curry oil and yeast flakes. Two familiar flavours, cheese on toast and curried parsnip, re-worked as dainty bites that pack massive flavour. We get bread via a sourdough and a roll so good it sends my girlfriend into shock.

Looking back, the pork cheek starter was probably my least favourite course. Nothing wrong with it – its very pleasant – it just hasn’t left the same thumbprint on my psyche as the rest of the courses. The cheek is meltingly soft, with a sage and hazelnut pesto to lift it and earthy cauliflower to pin it back down. Claire has lentil and celeriac risotto full of purpose and bite, with mushrooms and a crispy duck egg yolk that lets loose at the sight of a knife. Its super rich, old school cooking, impossible not to get woozy over.

Skate is scored so that the browned top is staggered like ladder rungs, the gaps filled with the opaque centre of the fish. Joining it is pickled carrots and a purée of the same veg, with fat Israeli couscous licked with lemon juice. A tangle of onion bhaji with the faint whiff of cumin gives additional texture, a yogurt dressing all the moisture it needs. It is unbelievably good, the type of dish that stops you clean in your tracks, reducing table talk to lusty looks.

Slices of pink duck arc around the perimeter of the plate, the leg meat formed into deep fried bonbons. Batons of pickled rhubarb and conical fermented kohlrabi cut through the rich meat. The best bit is a little pot of barley, meaty and rich from a slow braise in chicken stock. We race to chase the last scraps off the plate. The other main is rare venison, the loin hiding a loose ragu of haggis, with a pie of the less dear bits of deer. That pie! All golden and flaky with the same tang of organs that echoes in the haggis. It’s grown-up food for people with no fear of gout. The only respite is butternut squash, sprouts and torn sourdough that soaks up the glossy sauce spiked with Madeira.

Dessert is the perfect soufflé, proudly standing from the rim. The flavour of gingerbread is strong throughout, a bergamot sorbet a clever match. Combined the fragrant citrus fruit lifts the spice up a notch. It’s as good a soufflé I can recall eating. There are petit fours including a passion fruit macaron which sends us nicely on our way.

The wine list is well curated and has a lot to offer at under £40 a bottle, and we take off two menus (£33 and £55 respectively) leaving us with a bill of under £200 with a fair amount of wine, though you could eat as cheap as £50 per head if you were more prudent with the booze and menu choice. Whichever way you take it this is an absolute steal. Beautiful food in a lovely setting half an hour away from Birmingham on the train. If classical technique with modern flourishes is your thing, you really should be seeking it out. I’d eat here every week if I could.

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Cheal’s, Henley In Arden

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I once referred to Matt Cheal on Twitter as ‘Birmingham’s Phil Howard’, a massive compliment I’m willing to stick to based on a recent lunch. I’ve eaten his food several times before, back when he was Head Chef at Simpsons, and it has always struck me as a style similar to how The Square used to be; bold flavours, classic French sauces that shimmer, and conventional ingredient combinations tweaked with modern flourishes.  In my humble opinion, he is a chef that is defined by a desire to feed, something that reflects on his menu’s, which read like a Shakespearian sonnet.

Cheal’s has been open just over a year now, housed in the black beam and white plaster building where Le Filbert Cottage won one of the countries first Michelin stars.  The downstairs is a maze of rooms and open doorways, with crisp whiten linen adorning the well spread tables.  It wears it’s ambition proudly.  The menu, the service, the interior.  This is a place that wants a star, and, I firmly believe, will get one this autumn.

We get a teeny nibble of cod croquette that accompanies the crisp champagne, followed by an amouse bouche of soup of cauliflower cheese sent spiralling with an umami rich parmesan foam and drizzle of curry oil.  There is sourdough bread that is better than a wholegrain option, both with salted butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy bacon bits.  I told you the ambition was obvious.

We start with a rectangle of pork belly, softly cooked and compressed so that the fat is nothing but a glue holding the layers of meat together. It sits on an Asian inspired dice of smoked pineapple and leek, some crushed hazelnuts, and bitter chicory to cut through the richness. I’m not crazy about the jus being poured directly on to what started as a crispy piece of skin, but the rest is an assured bit of cookery that manages to balance out some big flavours.

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A crispy duck egg yolk is the centrepiece for another starter, bread crumbed and deep fried so that the oozy centre is released by the teeniest of pricks (pun intended – I was holding the knife).  There is a jumble of asparagus, peas, broad beans and shallots on to which the silkiest of asparagus veloute’s was poured.  A grating of Old Wincester provides enough tang to counteract the fresh spring flavours.  Fish comes in the way of skate, seemingly pan cooked in browned butter, with the plumpest of mussels and a collection of things found on coastal ground.  It whacked of the sea, with the salt flavour bolstered by strips of crisp salsify that offered more than merely texture.  The metallic notes of a saffron infused cream an inspired choice.

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Back in my favoured land of protein we get a roast chicken and chips.  Well, kind of.  The supreme is perfectly cooked with a bruleed skin that melts to a nothing on the palate, with a confit leg that can be deconstructed with the lightest of tugs.  I have no idea what they have done to the tomatoes to make them sweet and sour at the same time but it works.  Triple cooked chips on the side snap and fluff as they should.

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Spring lamb is perhaps the lightest course in terms of flavour we try all day.  The rack is a consistent medium, the fat correctly rendered down.  It needs the little croquettes of shoulder to smash that ovine flavour in fully.  The accompaniments of peas, potato terrine, sheep’s curd and artichoke puree all make perfect sense on the plate.  It’s food that you want to eat every week if the budget allowed.

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For the second time in seven days we have a seriously good beef dish.  Fillet comes as rare as we’d requested, crowned with a flurry of trompette mushrooms.  There is a square of brisket, and carrots, both roasted and as a rich orange puree.  The best thing on the plate was the beef fat mash, an indulgent thing that works in harmony with the red wine sauce at holding everything together.

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Of the three desserts ordered, I find it hardest to get excited over a wave of vanilla parfait with various elements of strawberry. It’s technically accomplished, in particular the buttery shards of shortcrust biscuit, but it’s all a bit too obvious and all a bit too sweet. Far more balanced was a moist honey and chrysanthemum cake with lemon sorbet. The floral note from the chrysanthemum cake in unison with the honey, the sorbet providing the acidity to cut through it.

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The star dessert was the milk chocolate and banana delice, draped in a ganache that reflects light like a disco ball, and topped with popcorn. It’s beautiful to look at, and made with obvious skill. A passionfruit sorbet is the ideal sharpness, and yes, the four components are hardly ground-breaking in their use together, but I’ll say it again, this food that you want to eat.

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They do carafe’s of wine around the mid teens, and we take food off both menu options (at lunch either £30 or £50 for three courses), leaving a total bill that almost touches £70 a head.  The value of that is there to be seen with your very eyes.  I am going to state the obvious here, but the food was of a similar ilk and quality to the time when Cheal was fronting the kitchen at Simpsons.  If the cooking then was worthy of a star, the food here surely must be.  Mark my words, come October the B postcode is gaining its seventh Michelin star.  And that star is going to Cheal’s of Henley.

9/10

The Butchers Social, Henley-In-Arden

The origin of The Butchers Social can be traced some fifteen miles north of it’s present home in Henley-In-Arden, back to the suburban site that is now Harborne Kitchen.  Back then it is was a pop-up in the old Walter Smith’s butchers that overstayed it’s intended tenancy by well over a year.  We went occasionally and liked it, even if we failed to see where the local hysteria stemmed from.  The chicken wings were good, the brunch dishes a little more erratic.  Others liked it a lot more than we did, clearly.  Chef Jamie stayed put and is making a big impression with Harborne Kitchen (I still haven’t been), whilst Chef Mike took the name and moved to a pretty spot opposite Cheal’s (I am going very soon).

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We’ve had a couple of fleeting visits prior to our first proper meal on Mothering Sunday. The building is split in two; up front is a bar and small dining room, with a galley leading through to a larger area overlooking the garden. It’s muted and comfortable, with splashes of burgundy and turquoise to add interest and warmth. The menu is short and concise, today priced at two courses for twenty pound, or three for thirty. There is a starter of artichoke soup that packs an earthy punch, topped with crisps of the same root vegetable for crunch and texture. Another has thin roundels of salami that pop with aniseed, compressed lettuce and blood orange. It needs more acidity and doesn’t ever really come together, which may be down to the dish featuring slithers of brie instead of the advertised fat-heavy burrata. Pick of the starters is a venison croquette that is gamey and dense,  with an earthy celeriac puree and dots of astringent beetroot seemingly heightened with a little vinegar.

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I’ll start the mains with the flawless one and let it slip from there.  A supreme of chicken with gilded skin is as good as gets.  It is a lesson in understanding ingredients and textures, of how to prise the best from the seasons.  The entire dish is underpinned by the flavour of malt from the barley the bird is rested on and a yeasted gravy that speaks of long roasted carcass. A smear of butternut squash puree and slightly charred parsnips are enough to add a vegetal sweetness to the plate, with blanched kale stopping it from all getting a bit too rich.  I stopped ordering chicken in restaurants a while back because it nearly always disappoints.  This was good enough to convert me back.

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Other mains, well, they didn’t go so well.  We’re told that the sirloin comes either rare or well done.  Fair enough.  When it arrives they are actually neither, though the medium one ends up in front of my sister-in-law who requested well done, and the medium-well in front of my future mother-in-law who takes hers as rare as it gets.  The meat is okay, both overcooked and a little on the chewy side, the accompaniments much the same as the chicken, save for a decent Yorkshire pudding.  The same applies to the lamb, which we are told comes pink and arrives closer to grey.  Add deep fried sweetbreads that needed a tad longer in the fryer to stop them being slimey and its all a bit miserable.  It’s a shame given that the broccoli and creamed beans were lovely.

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Fortunately the pastry section is producing some seriously top work.  Both desserts were classical in approach and restrained in sweetness.  A custard tart has fine pastry and a dusting of earthy nutmeg.  The figs are an obvious pairing, the subtle saltiness of the goats curd less so, but it works purely for being perfectly balanced.  A banana and white chocolate delice is much of the same thanks to a dark chocolate cremeux that has enough bitter to hold everything down.  Top work on both accounts.

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Given the inconsistent nature of the mains, the food here was around the 7/10 mark, but I feel the need to pull that down by one.  Service was considerate but slow, and there were oddities with the bill that I only noticed when I got home.  When the soup arrived we asked for bread to accompany it, which took almost twenty five minutes to arrive and appeared on the bill at £6 – a number bearing no resemblance to the £3.75 charge on the menu.  A similar story with an extra Yorkshire pudding that arrived after we’d finished and was charged £1 for.  Indeed, as I look at the bill now, I appear to have been charged for a more expensive red than I actually drank.  Now, perhaps I should have been more thorough with checking this, but we had a car quickly running out of time; hence why I paid the bill and ran.  And I expect it to be correct, anyhow.  The bill here actually works out at about £40 per person with a modest amount to drink; fine if you ordered the chicken, less so if you got the overcooked beef.  We left with the feeling that they have the bones for a very good restaurant here, though with several creases to iron out first.

6/10