Fine Dining

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

We start dinner as we usually do; me knocking back a negroni like I’ve never seen one before, my more delicate other half nursing the most expensive cocktail on the list, this time a £19 mixture of champagne, aquavit, and bitters. From our centrally positioned table we can hear Chef Patron, James Cross, speak to the table next to the pass. “Any chef who tells you he has invented something is a liar. We are all borrowing from something. Most of my techniques are 700 years old”. I like the man already.

Four hours later we leave, stumbling back to the hotel discussing one of the best meals we’ve eaten in recent years. Lake Road Kitchen might look unassuming from the outside, but this is one of the best in the UK. The techniques of pickling and fermentation and cooking over flames may well be as old as time, but here they have taken them and stamped their identity on them to produce dish after dish of winners, each bringing a distinct narrative to the central story. The thin sheets of ham with gossamer ribbons of fat have little to do with the course of barbecue quail tacos other than they are both delicious. I could eat a hundred of those tacos. In between these comes possibly the UK’s best bread with an almost cheese-like butter. Again, another hundred portions, please.

Then prawn toast happens. Or prawn Kiev, whichever way you want to view the starting point of the dish. Should we make it to the end of 2020 – which is doubtful at present – I’ll look back and see this as possibly the year’s best plate of food: plump prawns bound in a mousseline of the same shellfish, itself set within a casing and a pocket of garlic butter. Pick up slice, dunk into tomato ketchup. Regret nothing.

The langoustine in a light tomato broth which follows lacks the same punch and is more a study of floral notes and gentle spice, before a beef and onion broth that works as a bread-less French Onion soup with the gratings of Beaufort that mingle and add much needed layers of fattiness. A risotto of pine nuts rich in saffron – and slightly too high in salt – is funky, umami driven, with raw slices of button mushroom and slithers of 7yr old parmesan. We tilt the bowl to get the last out of it.

Gigha Halibut cooked to a gelatinous texture somehow, served with a beurre blanc sauce that pops with trout roe salinity, is the only time the food doesn’t feel original. I’ve had similar dishes at several restaurants in the last twelve months. Then pig, specifically an entire chop of Saddleback for two. First as a singular slice of glistening meat and fat, with carrots both puréed and pickled, pickled onions, and a sauce studded with pickled ransom capers. Then a second plate this bearing the rest of the chop, complete with bone. Some of the best pork I can remember eating; the meat glaze on the outside almost sweet, bathed in bright acidity throughout. Pretty much perfect work.

We finish on three dishes which take us seamlessly from savoury to sweet. Herbaceous, almost hay-like, woodruff ice cream is followed by a blackberry marshmallow ice cream and cassis with the most incredible viscosity that will live long in the memory. Final course is baked cheesecake reminiscent of La Vina, light and creamy in texture, with apricot compote and ice cream. It’s fun and original, a rarity in fine dining.

Service is great and the wine pairings – almost all leaning towards the acidity of alpine regions – is excellent value at £70. It’s a meal that stands out for it’s singular vision; James Cross’s CV starts at Simpson’s, before moving on to a 3* in Rome and a lengthy period at Noma, yet none of these appear on the dishes in an obvious form. Lake Road utilises the best of its Lake District larder and turns it into something unique which has it’s own identity. It’s without question one of the best restaurants in the land.

The Coach, Marlow

I started the week convinced I had COVID, which is regrettable in every way apart from the symptom of lack of taste and smell, which I was intrigued to experience so that I can know what it’s like to be other food bloggers. It turns out I don’t, which is a result given that it was my birthday weekend and tracking would have been a nightmare. Last week we did the Rishi thing, then the pre-birthday drinks in the cocktail bar, then the other cocktail bar, then the hotel cocktail bar because everywhere else is closed. Then the birthday trip away, then back for the birthday dinner with my mate, before the inevitable trip to a couple of pubs. Sunday went back to the pub, and the cocktail bar, and then the different pub. Then Monday night it’s like, okay, this doesn’t feel right at all. If anything it’s made me realise that I should slow down at the moment. Less groups of people over less locations and time from now on for me.

The trip away started with lunch at The Coach. Marlow is a pretty place with pretty ex-London faces spending pretty sums of money on pretty much anything. There are houses that sit on the banks of the Thames with boats just for the hell of it, and butchers which promote their wines of the week for the paltry amount of £40 a bottle. It is a mix of old Buckinghamshire money and new London money with the common denominator of money. Tom Kerridge has a two star pub here which I’ve been to before, and a one star pub which I’m about to write about. To call either the Hand & Flowers or The Coach a pub is a statement I’m not going to back-up with substance here.

It’s a nice spot. Cosy and well appointed, the palate of Victorian green and white so de rigueur, to join the small plates menu that is a very easy way of scaling up a bill quickly. Knowing that we have dinner in a few hours time we keep the order small, and it proves to be a wise choice.

I can’t pretend to love everything we eat. A venison chilli is a wholesome bit of cooking, but is a bit gritty and over seasoned, whilst the caramelised onion and Ogleshield cheese scotch egg is technically sound but the Parmesan veloute it sits in is underwhelming stuff. If it sounds like I’m giving it a hard time, I’m not, but this is a pub with one Michelin star that is presently ranked no.5 on the Top 50 Gastropub list.

When it’s good, it is so very good. The strongest dish of the day is chicken from the rotisserie. Brined and cooked until it’s borderline done, it comes swathed in opaque sheets of lardo and crisps of Jerusalem artichokes. Hidden underneath the lardo is a scattering of seeds and finely chopped herbs, whilst at the base of the dish are a dice of the Jerusalem artichoke bound in, I think, a purée of the same veg. It’s cohesive and rich, the poultry an ideal companion to the earthy, buttery tones of the veg. A chicken Kiev relies on the same meat and one veg (not me, stupid) tactic, using courgette this time as the foil. A courgette purée spun with basil is the highlight of a very nice plate of food.

A word on the chips. I’ve said for years that I consider the chips at Hand and Flowers to be the best chips I’ve ever eaten. These are better; chunkier, with a different cut that benefits the triple-cooked process and gives more potato. You might sniff when I tell you they are £7.50 for a portion including bearnaise sauce, but we’re paying and you’re not. And I’d pay it a lot more frequently if I was local.

Dishes are mostly over a tenner and all under £20, and whilst we escape with a bill under a ton, slightly bigger appetites should allow a bit more including wine. Overall I enjoyed it; the standard is similar to that of Kerridge’s other pub, and the menu is appealing. The best dishes are very good indeed. And those chips. You have to try those chips.

The Crown at Burchetts Green, Berkshire

I’d like to think that a place like The Crown could only exist under its own circumstance. How the unconventional approach of having chef patron Simon Bonwick completely alone in the kitchen allows him to play out the Escoffier tribute without another chef whispering otherwise in his ear. How the front of house, made up of a third of his nine children, are able to talk through the tiny wine list, haggle on the extra bottles on the blackboard, and explain the eccentricities on the menu like a ‘rather nice sauce’, or that day’s ‘nice’ dish. Right down to one of the team jokingly telling us that their Dad would not be happy to see a prawn topple from a main course, it’s an experience which defies convention in its usual sense.

The overall effect is a timeless restaurant that focuses on the roots of fine dining as opposed to the ever changing colours of the leaves on its many branches. The endless towers of cookbooks which litter the bar area have each served a purpose to take the restaurant to the heights of a Michelin star, via a special recommendation from the same guide the previous year. Not bad for a space of just six tables and one chef.

A little canapé arrives alongside the champagne we start with; a delicate thimble of pastry holding a purée of chickpea, lemon, and smoked almond, then a cup of chilled squash soup with clusters of seeds and a hint of spice. Bread is a hot pillowy affair, a little dense, served with slivers of butter pinned together with spikes of lavender and rosemary. A trick we’ll be stealing for dinner parties in our home.

For starters we take a huge cylinder of dressed white crab meat, thatched with batons of apple and a solitary tomato petal. There is a dressing of something sweet and acidic, and a few spiced cashews for good measure. The result is up there with the very best crab dishes I have ever eaten, a tribute to the beauty of the more subtle white flesh. A terrine of pork belly studded with lentils is lovely yet not on the same level. Acidity to cut through the fatty pig is everywhere; a blob of something mustardy, a teeny quenelle of chutney, or the bite of the pickles. They all work.

A beef main is ‘cooked on a string’ and, I’ll be honest, I’m still none the wiser as to what that involves. My guess from the texture of the fillet, is that it is both poached and steamed, resulting in an excellent piece of meat that is very rare but not the slightest bit bloody. With this is spud squared; a fondant and the most buttery of mash with a little confit garlic, some spinach, and mushrooms cooked in plenty of butter. But what makes it is the sauce, reduced so heavily you could varnish a fence with it, and so glossy it could serve as a mirror. Full of bovine notes and with something piquant lurking in the background, it reminds me of the sauce I had with beef at The Ritz, only better.

If I’m launching into hyperbole it’s because we were both having the best time. There is something magical about being somewhere so at ease with itself. The other main of halibut owes much of its majesty to the Breton prawns it shares the plate with, being some of the freshest and tastiest I can recall eating. Like the beef it has the mash and the spinach, though this has a verdant pesto and a little tomato concasse to bolster the summer flavours it speaks of on the menu. A really outstanding dish.

Saint Marcellin cheese gives me happy memories of Mere Richard in Lyon, so when it’s on the menu as cheesecake, I’m ordering it. In truth it’s the one dish I’m not mad on. The cheese flavour comes through nicely, but it’s a little dense and the base is a little chalky. Lovely raspberries though. But frankly who cares when they have steamed syrup sponge as good as this. A light, pillowly bosom, sweet and unforgiving to the hips. A proper dessert. I get a macaron with a candle in because it’s my birthday. It’s a good macaron and a great birthday.

Starters and desserts sit mostly in the teens, whilst the mains above are £40 and £44 respectively. The total bill of over two hundred for two including wine isn’t cheap, but it is worth it. We simple loved The Crown. It defies trends and fashions to serve the food which they are comfortable with, in an environment which they have curated to suite them. With the exception of a few other favourites of ours, it stands out for having a true identity. I can see many other visits happening in the future.

Craft, July 2020

I booked a table for one at Craft with the best of intentions. They had launched a new menu with a ‘picnic’ section that I wanted to try; £25 for five small plates seemed a bargain lunch, throw in a glass of wine and I’m back within the hour, fed and watered for £35. Sign me up. Except life doesn’t always go to plan. Let’s be honest, it never goes to plan. Well not mine, anyway. I turn up, take to my table, and two of my friends, who I had no idea would be there, do the same. They offer a seat at their table, I take the seat and that in and out quickie ends up five or six bottles later, with a headache that keeps on giving well into that weekend. I still need to try the picnic meal.

I knew the food was going to be good. The two weeks we do ‘Craft At Home’ over lockdown turn out to be two of the tastiest meals we have. Two pies; one ox cheek with a deep gravy, the other a chicken, ham hock and leek number which is at once creamy and rich, with notes of fennel from the seed and tarragon. Is this a sign of a simpler new direction? No, not really. The only new direction is the entrance, which comes straight off Brindley Place, through the ‘garden’ that houses the pods, past the bar and down the steps into the restaurant. Inside there are less covers, the space more intimate. It’s leaner. Lockdown has done them good.

We start with a croquette specifically requested from the picnic menu, full of smokey chorizo notes and cauliflower. Then a millefeuille of crab and apple, with precise pastry work and lots of brown crab flavour cut through with acidity from the fruit. Two courses in and it’s clear that the flavours are stripped back; two or three core ingredients, strong technique which allows them play off each other.

For main I have pork and pineapple. The loin is beautiful, blushing pink and tender, as is the belly that has been braised until the layers of fat and meat amalgamate. I find a pineapple caramel on the sweet side – the cube of the same fruit provides enough contrast for the rich mangalitsa breed. The mashed potato is glorious. I get to try a lamb dish which is superb. Deep and smokey from aubergine and black garlic, the loin and belly cuts treated with care and attention. Apricots reinforce an almost Middle Eastern feel to the dish. Andrew Sheridan can really cook. I mean really cook.

By now the three of us are on bottle number four and I’m really regretting skipping breakfast. A creme brulee Cambridgeshire burnt cream is spot on for luscious texture, whilst donuts with coffee ice cream hit all the right spots. We leave the table happy and head outside for more wine.

The supreme pontiff of the trio offers to pay the bill and this drunk accepts, meaning I have no idea what the bill is. Craft is lovely, slowly taking things up a gear to the high level it now operates at. I’m a big fan of what they are doing; how the drinks are all British, how the focus is on affordable premium dining using the finest of seasonal ingredients. And I gather there may be a few twists in store for later on in the year. With prices starting at a little over £20 and with them utilising the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, now is the ideal time to check them out for yourself.

Pictures by Conrad because mine were awful.

You can’t drive after drinking this much so we take an A2B

Staycations at Hampton Manor

If the intention of this press trip was to get bookings for the staycation then they succeeded before we left. At midnight after a fair amount to drink, a whole lot of fun, and a severe beating at pool, we succumbed to the inevitable and asked if we could book a stay for September. I’m already excited about it.

Hampton Manor has that effect on us. It almost certainly will on you, too. The way the drive meanders through the estate and the manor comes into sight on the right-hand side, before it fully reveals its majesty direct and to the left. How the scale of the house becomes immediately apparent when you step into the reception hall, with ceilings that could house a beanstalk and the most immaculate of interior design. It helps of course when the very small party are being watered on Nyetimber magnums.

We are given a tour of the new Nyetimber summer house, a beautiful space where the staycation starts with the afternoon tea on arrival. Then a walk through the extensive gardens where much of the produce is grown, through to the smokehouse, another new area which is where we are having dinner tonight, and is the dinner location for the first of the two nights in the package. The old stable building is transformed, with a large communal table and wine on tap, its shell still its beating heart with bare brick walls and stone flooring. We have two starters from the Michelin starred Peels restaurant, both vegetable led with fish used mostly for accent: first tomatoes with sourdough crumb and turbot roe, then a roast potato with xo butter and garden herbs. The potato is good enough to make lockdown worthwhile; absorbing the curry and crustacean notes of the butter with sharply dressed salad of fennel, dill, and chervil adding layers of intrigue.

Whilst eating these our mains cook in the fire in front of us. Rolled pork belly, barbecue lentils, broccoli, and apple sauce. Looked great, ate better. Washed down with a lot of natural wine from a team who are clearly passionate about grapes crushed in a particular way. Dessert was toasted almond cake, raspberries, and ice cream with an almost indistinguishable note of lavender. Simple and delicious. A description that’s also my Tinder profile.

So what’s the craic with the staycation? Two nights, £360 per person. Your money gets you afternoon tea on arrival, dinner in the smokehouse, a bed, breakfast in the morning, craft/wellbeing/food workshops, wine tasting, five or more courses over dinner in the 1* Peels restaurant, the same bed, breakfast in the morning, and a wave goodbye. They operate an honesty bar in the day, and if like us you have no idea when to stop, the midnight hours can be filled in the new pool room, in the bar listening to vinyl, or sat at the whisky bar. It’s not a small amount of money, nor should it be; this is luxury. We’ve debated booking it since they announced it a month or so ago, but after last night decided that we should go and make a weekend of it with friends. I’d spend that amount getting abroad for a couple of nights, we deserve the break.

This was a press event and as such was complimentary. The subsequent booking will be paid in full.

Opheem, July 2020

Almost six years ago to the day I was sat in the Eiffel Tower, eating a wild strawberry vacherin dessert, in the Ducasse restaurant which once occupied the central section of the iconic landmark. That dessert was arguably the highlight of a very expensive lunch; a Ducasse signature, less well known than the baba, the vacherin is a tidier sibling of the pavlova or the Eton mess, with fruit and meringue and cream. The reason it dazzled was the gariguettes, my first experience of those prized wild strawberries that are vibrant and intensely sweet. I said it was the best strawberry dessert I’d ever eaten, which was likely true at the time, but certainly isn’t now. On my subsequent travels I’ve eaten far better strawberry desserts several times over. I ate better strawberries at Opheem last weekend.

But it’s relative, isn’t it? Six years ago, I had been to less than 10 Michelin starred restaurants, wasn’t on that much money, and was recovering from a severe road accident where I thought I may never walk properly again. We’d saved hard to go, dropping in our change into a box designed to save up for special occasions like eating in the bloody Eiffel bloody tower. Everything tastes better when it’s hard earned. I used to spend hours sat at my desk scouring menus on the internet for value in places to eat, then we had a good joint income and it became more about where we wanted to go and less to do with how much the these things actually cost. How very privileged. Now value is a factor again; as of last week I’m redundant. Until work comes my way I’m going to have to consider the final bill whilst the sum for twelve years service heading towards my bank slowly dwindles down.

The lunch menu at Opheem is value. £40 for three courses, with the nibbles in the bar, and the bread would be value by itself. Add half a bottle of wine per person and it’s up there for best value Michelin starred lunch in the country. I know, I check these things. We start in the bar area, gently throbbing with pre-lunch energy, with a bone dry negroni and canapés. An oyster emulsion with jalapeño juice and pickled onions, then a kind of caponata in a pastry case with just enough warming spice to remind you that this is an Indian restaurant at its core. A shard of flaxseed cracker dotted with gels of vinegar and mustard complete the opening scene. Claire remarks that it tastes like a burger, but I can’t be sure as I’ve lost my sense of taste and smell. This is a joke. I’ve just had a negroni; I feel great.

The dining room has always been spacious and here it proves no problem to socially distance, as staff on both floor and kitchen deliver dishes in a uniform which now includes branded face masks. We have milk bread with an onion butter studded with lamb offal. Then starters; one a zingy tartare of aged friesian beef which requires a little jaw work to get the best of the flavour out, the other bowl of pink fir potatoes, I think pickled then barbecued, with a puddle of tamarind purée and a foam of potato. We both agree we could eat a mixing bowl sized portion in front of the telly and be gladly content. It’s comfort food of the highest order.

We both take chicken for the mains because it closely resembles the jalfrezi dish which I had as my top dish of 2019, if not quite as magical; chicken breast cooked in a water bath them finished under the salamander to crisp up the crumb of reapplied skin. Charred spring onion, a baby onion stuffed with keema, a vivid green purée that tastes faintly of (I think) coriander and could be bumped up a little. On the side is a jug of makhani sauce which is the best makhani sauce you’ll ever try, anywhere, from any man, women, or child to make makhani sauce. The key to Aktar’s talent is to make the most familiar of flavours feel uniquely special.

In a callback from the first paragraph that only the most talented of unemployed writers looking for work can manage, you will now recall I had a strawberry dessert. It’s based on a lassi, but really it could have been a vacherin. The meringue is crisp, the strawberries with a deep hit of flavour and the faintest note of vinegar in the background. Take that Ducasse, you big old Frenchy. The other dessert was better. Pear and ginger and pandan, each a clear and distinct flavour which layers up and sings in harmony. It gets real murmurs of happiness as opposed to the fake ones I’m used to hearing. I try it. The murmurs for once are justified.

The wine is lovely. A buttery white and a red that is a true expression of what Tempranillo should be, leaving a bill for £110 for two that includes the negronis and service. Now, I have no idea what your financial situation is, but that sum of money is a relative bargain. To be sat in one of Birmingham’s six starred restaurants – in what I think is the best of the restaurants across the country in the Indian category – and have a meal of that standard is a steal. I’ve already agreed to come back twice in August with friends so that they too can experience it.

Harborne Kitchen, Bar Menu

Not that I’ve been counting, but it’s been 108 days between the time I sat and ate pizza in The Plough, and this, our first meal out since lockdown was eased, some 250 metres up the road in Harborne Kitchen. And whilst some of you are reading this having already rushed out like we did, I believe it’s likely that the majority have decided against it. I’m not going to judge either way, like the self-defence calling card of the most basic of bitches; “you do you, Hun”, whether that be accepting the risk involved with going out, or staying inside quietly judging those who do. We have accepted the risk and we are here, in a room whose skeleton now holds a post lockdown body. It has extra lines and curves, with deep blue partitions fringed with gold, and a glass screen around the kitchen that still allows the counter seats to function. It feels as safe as a room outside your home can feel, which is the best that we can hope to achieve under the circumstance.

Our visit is purely for the new bar menu. I have a feeling it’s going to be good. Some week before our dinner I bump into Jamie, the chef patron, outside his restaurant. He is full of vigour and romance for the reopening, clearly excited for the separate bar and restaurant menus, along with a transitional space in the centre that allows them to react and change booking sizes depending on which of the two are busier. “I can’t wait to sit in the bar and eat the whole menu” he tells me. I offer to be his company. He quickly changes subject.

In truth I could be sat in McDonald’s and be overcome from thrill of eating out, but this is special. Really special. The bar menu maintains the essence of the restaurant, stripped back and accessible. The only crossover is the liver parfait with sourdough which is the first dish to arrive. It’s big and brash, full of iron offal notes offset by macadamia nuts and strawberry. Then a light courgette dish with pops of olive and buttermilk dressing which would be the only dish I wouldn’t reorder. The most expensive dish is a scallop that clocks in at £12. The shellfish is cloaked in lardo and nestled in a puddle of gazpacho water; a clean, fresh essence of tomato, garlic, and red pepper. It quickly disappears. We drink the last of the liquid direct from the bowl.

The dishes that I happen to think will be most popular are the crowd pleasers. Two chicken skewers are yours for £8, yakitori in style with smokey caught edges and delicate flesh, these need nothing more than the discs of sweet pickled cucumber it is served with. We take two pork belly tacos at £4 each, then two more as soon as we are finished. These are too good. Way too good. The meat is yielding and unctuous, a pineapple salsa sweet and acidic. Our future visits will see us order a portion of skewers each, two tacos apiece and a bowl of barbecued Jersey Royals bravas that tick the boxes between booze food and downright delicious. That food order will come in at £19 a head; a steal for this quality.

This bill doesn’t check in at that figure. Instead we get overexcited about being out and splurge from the little black book of fine wines they have, which are hardly marked-up and available to those who know to ask. We also drink excellent cocktails including a cola bottle old fashioned and a punchy rum number. The total bill is a lot and is no way reflective of an average spend more likely to be about £40 a head. This blog is going to be a little different this year; no scores and no review if it’s not positive given we all have a responsibility to support an industry presently on its arse. No such problem for Harborne Kitchen who have hit the ground running with a new area which is sure to be the hottest reservation this summer.

SY23, Aberystwyth

Never let it be said that I am not invested in this blog. Whilst the rest of the city sit around waiting for their next Captain’s Table invite for a communal get-together of poor food and even worse company, we made the call to continue with our plans to visit SY23 despite the threat to life warning from Storm Dennis. How bad can it really be, we never asked ourselves, as the wind blew both the sea and beach on to the promenade, conveniently closing public access to the bit outside our hotel. Really really bad, is the answer to the question we never asked, as we fought against nature to get through the narrow streets of Aberystwyth and to the restaurant tucked into a corner of a square by the clocktower.

When we do arrive, it’s pretty much as I imagined it would be. This is the first restaurant from the previous head chef of Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s trailblazing restaurant. During his tenure there Nathan had used his previous occupation as a tree surgeon to tap into the local birch for their syrup and helped produce some of the wooden items still found there. He built some of the grills they cook live fire over. And it’s the same here: tables hand built, grill system for cooking over fire hand built, hand-cut sheet of metal bearing restaurant logo. This is very much his work even if the shades on the walls, the cutlery and the plates feel familiar to anyone who has visited his old workplace.

This means it is of little surprise that the dishes follow the same formula of protein heavy, umami-packed flavour bombs. But no complaints here, not when the lunch menu of three courses for £25 might just be the biggest bargain in the UK, backed up by a wine list that offers serious value throughout. Glass of crémant for £6? Don’t mind if I do, and I’ll take a glass of that silky red from Roussillon for the same price whilst you’re there. A loaf of sourdough for the two of us appears that right away confirms we are in safe hands. The texture is good, as is the strong flavour from the local grains. Miso butter brings enough acidity and the entire thing disappears before the first course appears. When that does we are treated to the highpoint of the meal; John Dory topped with nori, soy, with queenie scallops and a crumb made from dehydrating the scallop fringe and then refrying it. It’s an ode to its surroundings; the bounty of the ocean which ends on the coast 100m away. It also has that ideal balance of natural sweetness and lip-smacking savoury. One course in and he’s nailed it.

Main is served in two courses. The first a delicious hot and sour lamb broth with wild mushrooms that is to be drunk from the bowl, the second a lamb rib and slow cooked shoulder combo that feels very familar without stepping into plagiarism. Here the slow cooked meat is fuelled with the deep tang of black garlic and a sticky jus, relying on little croutons and puffed grains for texture and additional nutty character. It’s all perfectly cooked with accurately judged acidity and the kiss of fire lurking in the background. Then the optional cheese course, which, at £6, is far too cheap. A local blue cheese of which the name eludes me, a drift of buttery breadcrumbs, in a puddle of sherry and raisin dressing which is all boozy sweetness. Top produce, not messed about with. It’s exactly what I hoped we would find.

Dessert, in keeping with the rest of the meal, is great. A zesty, fragrant, set lemon cream, with yogurt sorbet, and a burnt meringue. It serves a purpose to finish on a light note, cleaning up the umami and acidity that runs through it’s predecesors. There is a heady burnt butter fudge with the bill that comes to under £40 a head with one us drinking a decent amount of wine.

Now, if I’m being entirely honest, it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. The restaurant sits above a cocktail bar whose staff were very quick to stop us from going up despite us arriving bang on time. We were then sat for twenty minutes without the offer of a drink until it was alright for us to go upstairs. That silliness needs to stop, especially when Aberyswyth is going to swell with the kind of tourist who might not be forgiving. But after that, once the food and wine arrived, we knew we were going to have a great meal. The guy can really cook and I personally can’t wait to see how his own style develops over time. That said, SY23 is already a restaurant you should have on your hitlist. Get there whilst it is this cheap.

9/10

Ynyshir, February 2020

I hate Valentines Day. Hate the forced romance and the uplift in prices, the public displays of affection, the hand holding, and then the kisses that resemble two fish gulping at air. I hate being told when I should do nice things for a person that I try to do nice things for all the time. I hate the snobbery around it, how it becomes socially unacceptable to eat Pizza Hut on a night when you might normally eat Pizza Hut, but it is okay to eat four courses in a restaurant you would usually only order one in. I hate the marriage proposals. I really hate the marriage proposals. And the price of flowers, and the heart-shaped food that should never be heart-shaped, doused in a sickly amount of saccharine and sold to randy teenagers or adults who really should know better. I hate the cards; either signed or anonymously stalked, with poorly constructed poems and lewd puns about melons, choppers, and jugs. I hate that dining rooms are full of people who are only there because society tells them they need to be. I hate that I did this for seven years because the girl I was with expected it as the norm, and I love that the last two years have been spent on the sofa, watching shit TV and eating homecooked food because she too understands that it’s just another night. And it is just another night.

We spent Valentines Day in our favourite place in the world. It was an accident: honestly. We knew we wanted to return to Ynyshir some time ago, and a look at the diaries left only a few weekends, of which we ended-up knocking the day off and going on the 14th. If you are going to spend that day anywhere, I suggest you do it here, in the middle of bloody nowhere where no additional concession has been made, starting with a duck broth and martini in the bar listening to Boxer on the vinyl record player. Then I suggest you head to the pre-specified room one, washed in petrol blue paint, where the feature windows make it feel like you’re sleeping in the world’s most picturesque cave. We drank Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs and headed back to the bar to drink more cocktails.

The resulting meal is, I think, the best I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world, over the last fifteen years that I’ve taken food seriously. Michelin’s present assessment of one stars is ludricous. Ynyshir are cooking with the world’s best ingridients to a standard that very few are hitting globally. We saw lots of tweaks from our last visit; the Not French Onion Soup is now so unlike it’s starting point it’s dropped the title completely and now just goes by it’s initials. We now start with a chawanmushi base — a silky savoury Japanese custard — dotted with pickled shallots and teeny croutons, and then an onion broth that splits the custard. It’s a more elegant, richer, creamier start that serves its purpose of prepping the mouth for the forthcoming onslaught of flavour. Then crispy duck glazed in hoi sin sauce, and that chicken katsu skewer which I could gladly eat ten of, but only ever receive as a singular no matter how many times I write that sentence on this blog.

Course four brings the first of the new dishes to me. A skewer of otoro tuna belly, sourced from what I understand to be the same Spanish supplier as The Araki, just warmed through so that the fatty cut starts to loosen. This was wonderfully rich, coated in a terayaki sauce that never gets in the way of the fish. Following this is the chilli crab, a dish I called 2018’s best and if anything has got better. The crab is in larger pieces, the sauce with more chilli kick, and now comes with a steamed sweet bun to mop up the bits which evade the fork. Sensational. Mackerel aged in the salt chamber with furikake seasoning, then the two-part cod; the first a slice of black cod, followed by a broth of the bones with shitake mushrooms. Scallop with elderberry vinegar and aged beef fat has gotten bigger; stronger; more defined. A crumb of what I think is dehydrated roe now shifting the centre point of the dish from cow to crustacean. Five consectutive world class fish courses. They might want to change the board near the kitchen which says, amongst other things. ‘Meat Obessessed’.

Next up is the duck liver and smoked eel dish I love, followed by more duck, and the char sui pork belly that has me gobbling down the slices of meat and slurping the liquor like I’ve never seen food before. That pork gives me a boner and I’ve not said that since watching ‘Babe: Pig in The City’. Then the lamb rib which seems less acidic, but maybe that’s because I’m drinking better wine. We get the best version of the cawl dish yet with strands of lamb neck bobbing in a broth that again has me slurping from the bowl.

Now is fireworks. Not genuine fireworks because they shouldn’t be fired indoors, but the proverbial ones that make you stare in amazement and occasionally use obscene language. Because if one thing has changed it is that this restaurant is now sourcing the absolute best in ingredients. The Welsh wagyu once used here was great, but it wasn’t the best, because that happens to A5 Hida from Japan. So that’s what they serve here now; the same beef dishes ramped up to twelve because eleven isn’t loud enough. We get the burger that has a more buttery burst of flavour now, then two courses later the shortrib dish that has a depth of flavour I never knew could come from a cow. Sandwiched in between this is a new dish which could well go on to become Gareth’s signature: a tartare of the sirloin and tuna otoro, a grating of fresh wasabi root, and a generous amount of Imperial caviar. It’s the Ynyshir surf and turf, where the belly works like bone marrow amongst the beef and the rest smashes you in the face with salinity and heat. It’s perfect. Not just a three star moment, but one that stands up alongside any dish I can recall eating.

It was always going to be hard living up to the beef courses, and so the cheese one fell a little bit flat in comparasion. Keen’s cheddar is spun with macaroni that comes out of the machine seconds before and is cooked in the molten cheese, before being topped with pickled truffle that has taken on a dampness and a flavour reminscent of Branston pickle. It’s not my favourite thing of the night. That is rectified by a slushy of rhubarb that takes me long for the sun, and then the white chocolate with fermented black bean that has crazy salted caramel tones throughout. We hit a home run with the nigh on perfect finish of sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb with that insanely indulgent custard, and tiramisu, which I’ll say once again is a three star dessert all day long. Wagyu fudge and dinky rhubarb tarts are served in the bar. I think. I was drinking negroni by now so anything is possible.

A night like this doesn’t come cheap. Dinner is £180 a head in the main room, more where we sat, and there is a hefty (but entirely justified) supplement for the A5 beef. I’ll spare you the total bill but suffice to say that when you include the room, the several bottles we had over dinner, and the cocktails, you could go abroad for a holiday. I mention this because when you book in you should be fully aware of how much it will cost and equally how much it is worth it. The present position of one star in the Michelin guide is ridiculous; more realistic is the Good Food Guide’s assessment of Ynyshir being the third best in the UK. I grab a rum with Gareth in the bar afterwards when he tells me that the plan for the restaurant is to create the best restaurant in the world. Looks to me like he’s heading in the right direction.

Would A2B take me to mid-Wales? I’ll ask them next time

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low