2 Star

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Core by Claire Smyth, London

I don’t think you ever fully get over losing a parent. Almost four years on, with the pain all but diminished and just the good times lingering on in the heart, I am still reminded of Mom in the smallest of gestures. A few weeks back it was in the bathroom of a flat she has never visited, me bent over the sink, taking that beard of mine down from unkempt to preened. I cleaned out the sink to the best of my manly capabilities; a few hairs remained dotted around the peripherals. I laughed internally. These dozen or so specks of my face will probably go unnoticed by Claire, but to my Mom they would have been the catalyst for war. In her world you left the bathroom as you found it or you risked her wrath. And we never risked her wrath; we were too wise to that. More recently we were sat in Core by Clare Smyth when it happened again; a carrot cooked in lamb fat and topped with straggly bits of the meat, sat in a puddle of heavily reduced cooking liquor. Once again I was a child; six, maybe seven years old, dunking thick slices of Warburtons bread into Mom’s lamb stew whilst watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on telly. A happy place. My mother was generally an awful cook: everything was left on the heat for far too long, which is what made her stews so special. The cheap cuts would be braised down over endless hours so that the fat became wobbly nuggets of flavour and the sinew broke down to nothing. Vegetables would be cut too chunkily so that the edges crumbled and the insides a soggy mess, whilst the sauce had globules of meat fat dotted around the surface and was thick enough to paint a wall with. Everything tasted of lamb. I adored it and this starter in a two star restaurant in West London served as a reminder of why I did. It conjured up memories of the smell wafting through the house whilst Mom and I played cards on the living floor. Of how regardless of how swanky the location the most important ingredients are love and the desire to feed. I could have cried, had I not been very conscious that every member of the floor team had an eye on every movement of every table at all times. Nobody likes a crying diner. They ruin the appetite.

We’d been looking forward to this lunch for some time. I’d eaten the food of Clare Smyth before, a few years back when she was chef patron of Ramsay’s three star gaff on Royal Hospital Road. At that point in my life it was the highlight of my culinary experiences, the first time that food and service of the highest quality alligned. I met her briefly afterwards and thanked her. It is another great memory. Fast forward to a freezing cold November afternoon and we had fought through the tourists of Portobello Road to the smart white-fronted building that bears her name. The inside is deliberatly unfussy. No tableclothes, books elevating lights, neutral coloured walls and tasteful art. The touch of a women is obvious. Nothing is harsh; it is soft and appealing. Claire is obsessed by the dried flowers that are tucked neatly in to the menu and spends ten minutes taking pictures whilst I peruse the menus. £65 for three courses is a bargain, less so the wine list. We take a Beaujolais at £90 that you can pick up for about £30.

Tables are quickly rearranged for the opening play, a spread of small bites on an array of custom made surfaces. A tartlet of eel with dashi jelly, nori, and vinegar is exceptionally well balanced, as are cheese and onion gougeres made with the lightest of choux. Crispy duck wings arrive under a cloche of orange smoke and are quickly devoured. Best is the foie gras tartlet with madeira jelly that is silky smooth and massive in flavour. A wholegrain sourdough follows with butter from Normandy. I’ve become a little obsessed with sourdough of late: this is up there with the very best.

I had that carrot and lamb dish as a starter, the memories flooding back as the rich ovine flavour surrounded everything, with only a dollop of sheep milk yogurt and carrot top pesto for respite. On the side was a little bun made with lamb fat that had more confit meat in the centre. It was designed to mop up the sauce, which we do with great pleasure. Claire had a dish she had long been eyeing up on social media: A pan fried sweetbread with a gently cooked langoustine, pickled carrot and the hint of anise from fennel seeds. To this was poured two sauces that met concisely in the centre; a vin juane and the lightest of lobster bisques. Proper three star cooking that balances the rich and the acidic with ballerina-like poise. It was the sum of equals, where nothing outdoes its counterparts. Harmonious perfection.

There has been much talk of Core’s emphasis on vegetables, though to me the most obvious skill was the continuation of flavour. Just like the lamb carrot dish, my main may have listed Roscoff Onion as the main ingredient but the dominant flavour is that of beef. The onion is beautifully decorated with flowers and stuffed with oxtail that melts in the mouth, with a rectangle of short rib braised for two days. A cylinder of confit potato topped with bone marrow tastes like it has been basted in animal fat, though that could just be the sauce that joins the dots and speaks of multiple days labour. If anything the duck main served opposite is even better, with a breast that has crisp rendered skin and meat the colour of Provençal rosè. To the side is a tart of braised duck leg and grapes. Magnificent. Clever additions of Timut pepper and a gel of honey and thyme add light floral notes. But that sauce! Oh my, that sauce. The greatest I can remember, made with duck juices, Madeira, and probably much more. I lean over to swipe some with my bread; a pot arrives of my own to save me the bother and Claire her lunch. Three star service.

Pre-dessert is an apple in appearance and unadulterated flavour. A caramelised apple mousse contains a centre of diced apples in brandy, which combined riffs on the flavours of toffee apple. It’s about as simple as the meal gets. Of the two desserts I am less fussed with the carrot cake that mimics the appearance of the starter, and more taken with their take on the malteaser. It’s a crash of malt, chocolate, and hazelnut on a plate of elaborate feathers. For the first time I finish a course faster than my other half. It is that good.

Petit fours of molten chocolate tart and jellies of sweet wine traditionally conclude the meal before a tiny birthday cake arrives. It’s the little touches that count. Lunch clocks in just shy of £300 and for once I don’t bat an eyelid. It feels value given the level of food and service received. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had, where the flavours are massive, the presentation beautiful, the service slick. It evokes memory of the past whilst pushing boundaries. In the year since Core opened they’ve attained a perfect ten in the Good Food Guide and two Michelin stars, whilst Clare herself has been awarded the world’s best female chef. It seems only a matter of time before Core emulates the previous home of its chef and is awarded the ultimate recognition. Make no doubt about it, this is a true three star restaurant in every sense.

10/10

Pictures by Claire

Tin Lung Heen, Hong King

Hong Kong is a city punctuated with sky scrapers. From the ground they pierce the horizon like needle points, each a place of work or home for people who don’t mind not having a garden. The highest of these concrete high points is the ICC tower, ninth tallest building in the world, to be found via a maze of ground level building sites that will one day be the new financial district. The top floors of the building belong to the very swish Ritz-Charlton hotel, itself home to this afternoons lunch at the two Michelin star Tin Lung Heen, which must be the highest starred restaurant on the planet. It’s trivial, of course, and the height should hardly matter, but there can be few places on the planet where the view is quite as spectacular.

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The restaurant is a pretty one; ornate and comfortable, elegant and demure. Tables are dressed in thick white linen, spaced well apart over the thick cream carpet. There are flourishes of red that cut through the glossy black walls, whilst the back wall is reserved for Chinese wines and sakes for those whose budget is non-existent. Indeed, this is a place to splurge; we had to search the wine list for a bottle under £75.00 and held our breath when the bill showed mineral water to be £11.50 per bottle. Those dining here come for Catonese food with the most precious of ingredients – they do not come expecting a bargain.

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We start with two dim sum: Excellent cuts of Iberico pork shoulder, barbequed to a dusty pink and glazed  with honey, are stunning – the meat dissolving on the tongue without any effort.  The other was a steamed dumpling with dried scallop, fish maw (dried bladder, if you really want to know), and shrimp.  It was the taste of the sea if the sea had curled up and died, all wrapped up in a soggy polythene casing.  This won’t be the first time that I say this, and I am sure this was exactly how it was supposed to be prepared, but it wasn’t for me.  The flavour was too stagnant, the texture too alien.  It was lost on me, and I’m quite happy for everyone to know that.

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My face said it all on the next course.  A murky soup with lumps of boiled pork shin so grey they could have passed for British summertime, with winter melon of no distinct taste and more of the dried scallop.  There was dried longon, a bit like lycee, which added the faintest of acidity.  It was not nice and none of us got close to finishing it.  Our waiter, the brilliant and affable Leo, tried his best by offering an alternative soup, but by now we just wanted to move on it from it all.

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We moved on to accurately cooked scallops, with souffled pastry pieces and a finely chopped salsa of green onion and ginger.  On the other side of the plate was Chinese kale, which tasted a lot like tenderstem broccoli, and pine nuts.  The precision of all the elements was two star cooking; the veg precisely prepared and cooked, the scallops with a gently caramelised crust.  It was just dull.  Nothing slapped you around the chops or gave you a hug. The morsels of duck that followed were so tender that canines nor molars were required to work, sat in a deeply flavoured black bean sauce to which we piled in rice full of interest with bits of goose, abalone and shrimps.  Lovely, yes, though hardly two star worthy.

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We finish on a dessert that would divide the table.  A set milk cream (panna cotta, if you so like), with a gelatinous peach compote and a fat slice of black truffle.  Whilst my dining companions hated the way that the truffle bullied its way through the dessert, perfuming the milk and overpowering the peach, I actually quite liked it and ended up with three lots to eat.  The honeyed bit of pastry on the side was a nice sweet note to end on, the over set grapefruit jelly less so.

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I’d read a bit about the dubious nature of Michelin in Hong Kong prior to my trip and this meal confirmed pretty much all I read as true.  Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing struck me as truly two star cooking.  Yes, its precise and yes they use luxury ingriedients, but many of those ingredients added nothing to the meal other than an increased cost.  Maybe it’s me and my uncultured western palate.  We indulged a little in the wine list and left with a hefty bill that quickly soared into the hundreds.  For that we had the loftiest of views in a lofty city and a distinctly average meal that left me feeling a little cold all over.

5/10

Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

I wanted to wait a while before writing this. To give it a week or so to allow the emotions to settle and the sheen of alcohol to disperse from the bloodstream. On too many occasions over the last year I have been guilty of bashing away at the keyboard the morning after and letting the previous evenings emotions take over. Scores become a product of the overall experience, rather than the meal itself, which, I hate to break to you, is the purpose of this blog. In truth, a very good meal late last year was probably bumped up to the score it got because straight afterwards we went up The Shard and got pissed on cocktails. Fast forward twenty-hours and I am still high from being high up, waxing lyrically about the day to one and all, with it now reflected over an exaggerated 500 words.  Not this time.  I need clarity: Time to digest, both metaphorically and physically, which is what I have done with last week’s two and a half hours at Le Champignon Sauvage. Now I can confidentially tell you that my initial reactions were correct: It was one of the greatest meals of my life.

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The legend of the kitchen here that may go some way to explaining the quality on the plates leaving the pass.  The man behind the stoves is David Everitt-Matthias; a cook’s cook by some stretch.  Whilst others are working their way through the BBC food roster, the chef here is yet to miss a service since they opened in 1987.  He has little care for the modern frivolities of the cooking world, choosing to focus on feeding the diner over his ego.  It is David’s wife, Helen, who presides with grace over a dining room which at best can be described as composed, or dull in other eyes.  Little does this matter for the fireworks are all reserved for the cooking.

From the start we knew we were in for a treat.  Brioche tuile, a bacon muffin of impossible lightness, a cube of something gelatinous coated with chorizo powder, all gone in seconds.  This is followed by a small ceramic pot with a set cabbage cream at the bottom, a bacon foam and some crunchy nuggets of black pudding.  It tastes like the very best of Irish home cooking condensed into a couple of mouthfuls.  The other half half has the same base, with shavings of cauliflower and hazelnut atop.  Miraculously it is the same earthy notes, minus the meat content.  Bread is presented, the star of which is the bacon and shallot brioche.  I ignore the rule about not filling up on carbs and go back to it three more times during the meal.

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We order fairly priced wines from the Loire and Gironde which come with the seal of approval from Helen and descend into our chairs a little further.  Starters appear, my partners a faultless combination of Jerusalem artichoke and truffle.  The choke, both water bathed and fried, offset against a truffle shaved, grated and reduced it a tar like substance that I would like to take home and slather on some toast.  A scattering of bitter leaves and dots of apple puree balance out the richness.  The one word note in my phone says it all.  Perfect.  It overshadowed my well-timed pigeon breast with baby carrots and spiced carrot puree, but then it would overshadow anything.

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Cheap cuts and brawn may not be to everyone’s taste, but to those who it is not, I’m sorry, we can’t be friends.  The wobbly bits of soft porcine meat and fat from the pigs head that lay at the base of my plate would be the starting point for one of the very best things that I have ever eaten.  Add to the mix bits of braised cheek and belly and what you have is a winner.  Croquettes that open up to be molten sweetcorn provide interest and sweetness which would be levelled out by tenderstem and pickled wild mushrooms.  Its intrinsic cooking of flawless work and ballerina like poise.  I find myself scraping the plate for last of the head meat with a crispy bit of pig skin.  If there has ever been a more masculine sentence written than that, I would like to go for a pint of beer with the man that wrote it.

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Whilst I was lost in a piggy haze, the veggie was working her way through a dish equally exceptional.  Translucent discs of turnip gently folded over a smoked onion puree, silky smooth and potent in flavour.  It shared the plate with more wild mushrooms, wilted lettuce and peas, both fresh and pureed.  As with the starter, the dish was set up so nothing detracted from the purity of the vegetable flavour.  It is cohesive and expertly judged.

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A pre-dessert of set mascarpone with chocolate sponge and coffee nods successfully towards a tiramisu without ever really touching the heights of the previous courses.  It’s a welcome break, though we are quickly back with a mille feuille of peaches and raspberries intertwined with a lemon verbena cream.  I am not usually a fan of shrubbery in my sweet course, though here the floral notes were restrained and in harmony with the fruit of stunning quality. The accompanying peach ice cream was a thing of beauty.  I’ve eaten my far share of mille feuille’s; this may be my favourite.

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We finish with petite fours that are a step too far for our bulging waistlines.  Amongst them are mini baba doused in rum and a chocolate dusted in liquorice that slips out of my fat fingers and on to the crisp white linen.  I take this as our cue to leave, even if the waitress greets the black smudge with the same cheeriness that has met us with every course this evening.  Le Champignon Sauvage is a lovely place where wonderful things happen on plates without any evident pretence.  My only issue is with my scoring.  The top score I am obviously going to give it puts it up with some very good places, but this is a special restaurant, worthy of top billing on its own.  The clarity of flavour.  The ambition to match the execution on every dish, flawless from start to finish.  I’ll repeat it once again:  One of the greatest meals of my life.

10/10

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The Hand and Flowers, Marlow

Two years ago The Hand and Flowers was cast into the national spotlight when a French tyre maker decided to endow it with the pressure of being the only two star pub in the world. I remember trawling across the internet reading up on it and coming across an article in The Daily Mail with a typically bashful comments section: “It’s not a pub, it’s a restaurant with a bar” some UKIP follower shouted, whilst a lady with a particular affliction to Princess Diana said something about them probably not selling pork scratching, which of course is the litmus test for any public house. It seemed tragic that the majority was more interested in the argument of whether or not it was a pub, rather than embrace the accolade that goes with cooking that is deemed worthy of “a detour”

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Two years on and the two stars is still going strong. The chef here, Tom Kerridge, is everywhere; you can’t flick on BBC without seeing his ever decreasing frame and wonderful range of checked shirts. He has become the nations favourite chef through cooking gutsy, flavoursome food that you know will taste good. All very well, but I’ve eaten in enough of these places to know that gutsy doesn’t translate well in the world of Michelin. How wrong I was.

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There is still finesse here, though it has to find its own place in amongst the big tastes, which is what Kerridge and his team do with ease. A starter of truffle demi en-croute may look sophisticated and sound posh, though really is all about the bold flavours. The whole truffle wrapped in sausage meat, itself encased in a hot water pastry that enhanced the meatiness of the pork. The jug of port sauce that came with it was a stunning thing, all glossy and deep, that highlighted at the core of Kerridge’s cooking is classic French cuisine. It wasn’t the easiest thing to eat elegantly, but Oh My, it was divine.

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It was BBC2’s Great British Menu that cast Tom into the public eye, so 2011’s winning main course of slow cooked duck was an easy choice. The breast, as tender as it was, was overshadowed the other elements of the animal; a shard of crispy skin, a smear of liver parfait and a sausage with a tang of offal. Served alongside this was another stunning sauce, savoy cabbage with confit duck and the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a fitting tribute to a animal that had died with the sole purpose of being eaten, with every part of bird used to its full effect. Another poultry main saw half a chicken served alongside autumnal squash glazed with maple and malt. The chicken moist from the brining process, had a subtle beer flavour at its core and extra earthiness from a dusting of truffle at the table. The Hand and Flowers do protein well, but then again, maybe it was expected. The chef does look like a man that enjoys a good slab of meat.

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Chicken

The vegetarian main wasn’t listed on the menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a bit of an oversight here. Wrong again. It was tart, with a pastry akin to filo containing flecks of onion. Sitting prettily on top of this were various veg, all cooked accurately. A serious amount of work went into assuring The Veggie was pleased, if a little overly full.

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Desserts were truly top class. A perfectly risen blueberry souffle was given balance by an ice cream that tasted exactly as the childhood favourite, parma violets. I tried them both with a drizzle from the small jug of lemon verbena it came with and decided the dish didn’t need it. An apple tart had a bramley sorbet so good that we asked for the recipe and a chocolate and ale cake left us all speechless. It was of perfect balance – just sweet enough with a lingering savoury note from the ale. The salted caramel pool it was sat in and the muscovado ice cream it cradled adding moisture and further contrast.

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Apple Tart

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I could go on and on about the well priced wine list and the charming service, but I’ll save you the time. All that you need to know is that The Hand and Flowers is an establishment of exceptional quality. The nayslayers who say that it doesn’t have the cooking precision or the service of other two starred restaurants should really consider their argument. You cant compare here to The Square any more than you could compare Sat Bains to Helen Darroze or L’Enclume to La Gavroche. What they all have in common (okay, maybe not Darroze) is food that makes you sit up and take notice, and the food here certainly does that. I left thinking it was as a nine out of ten meal, though having brewed over it for a few days, I realise it was the most I’ve enjoyed myself since I sat down to twenty-odd courses in Cumbria a couple of years ago. It’s proper food, just how the chef intends it.

10/10

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