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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