Stratford

Salt, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The last time we stayed in Stratford the head chef of the restaurant we dined at told us to eat at Salt. We come home and a blogger friend of mine (I do have them, they’re not all horrid) tells me I should go to this great place she went to called Salt. The Good Food Guide comes out and the newcomer of the year is a little place in Stratford called Salt. We get the hint and book Salt. Ages ago actually, so much so that shaggy headed giant Jay Rayner tells the world just how great Salt is two weeks before we go. We expect it be great. Of course we do. Everyone else thinks it is. Even the blogger, and heaven forbid she even paid to go.

And guess what? It is great. Maybe the best £130 that I’ve parted with for two hours of fun since that stag party in Prague. Paul Foster has created a space with bags of character, where the only attitude can be found on the plate. It’s a star from the off, with smoked almonds that leave an imprint on the soul and impeccably sourced green olives that greet us on the table. Warm bread rolls first appear to be a little underdone though transpire to be a denser crumb with a nutty backnote. These are lovely; even better when smeared thick with butter so yellow it radiates warmth. For those who want it, there is a salt pot on the table. Of course there is.

The first of the lunch tasting menu is a belter. Pink fir potatoes wearing a coat of lardo, and a dusting of roasted yeast that echoes the taste of a jacket potato. It’s neatly layered in flavour, carefully controlled and ego free. The same applies to fillets of hake, flesh golden and just holding shape, sharing the plate with caramelised cauliflower puree and lightly dressed fennel. It is food that begs to be eaten as much as admired. We do both.

A bowl of carrots would be my favourite thing that I ate. Protruding out is a baton of bright orange veg slow cooked in chicken fat that I would be tempted to put a ring on, had I not wasted enough on diamonds already this year. There is a broth of sorts at the base cut through with a faint kick of vinegar, pickled carrots, a rye tuile, and blitzed crispy chicken skin for seasoning, because using only salt all the time must be boring for them. The result is a beautiful interplay of sweet and acidity, that is homely and comforting at the same time. It’s one of my dishes of the year, and I’ve been lucky to eat some seriously good food in 2017.

A pheasant breast would be the first time that it was obvious a sous-vide machine was in action, the meat cooked perfectly but lacking the depth that a slow roast provides. A purée of black garlic adds a fermented funk that needs the pickled shallots to cut through, whilst roasted yeast adds a deep savouriness. There is light and shade everywhere with only the cavolo nero and breast sitting central. It may not hit the heights of some of the previous courses but it’s still seriously impressive.

Desserts were on paper more challenging, though less so in reality. a brown bread ice cream was gummy in texture to the point that it clings to spoon and mouth, with a brown bread tuile, and sorrel granita hiding poached blueberries. I enjoy it much more than I thought I would, the sorrel and blueberry flavour seemingly lengthened by the ice cream coating the roof of the mouth. A similar story was had with a dark chocolate ganache, pumpkin cream, with chocolate tuille and shard of caramelised white chocolate for texture. Together it is a cohesive blend of soft and hard bits, working in unison with much more clarity than expected. The last mouthfuls are some of the best; choux buns with raspberry and Douglas fir oil. It is old school pastry work with flavours firmly rooted in the present.

The lunch tasting menu above totals £45 per head, which must make it one of the best value lunches in the country given the quality and volume of food. Despite its relative infancy, Paul Foster and the team have created a restaurant where seasonal ingredients are cooked with real technique. The accolades that follow will be just a matter of time. Every single recommendation for Salt has been justified.

9/10

The One Elm, Stratford 

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The menu at Stratford-upon-Avon’s The One Elm makes me recall the late and very great AA Gills words on The Wolseley, where he lays claim that the very best menu’s are designed by restauranteurs who know their clientele, not by the chefs in the kitchens.   Whilst I don’t agree entirely with Gill – I firmly believe that the finest of dining should be an expression of the kitchen – I do see his point.  Not all kitchens reach for the stars; some are more than content with reaching for the top shelf pans and focusing on feeding the paying, and it’s at these places the work of a chef is to cook, not curate.  Within the grand white walls that home The One Elm the ambition is firmly rooted to the happy customer, one that enters hungry and leaves heavier in the stomach and lighter in the wallet.

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And back to that menu.  We struggled as a two to decide between us what to order.  We toy with the idea of chicken and tarragon croquettes, consider crab with blini’s as starters, or beef dandy ribs for mains.  It’s the kind of place you could eat in every week and not get bored, but I guess that is entirely the point.

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We opt for two starters that sit both sides of the spectrum.  The concept of a summer vegetable bubble and squeak is admirable; take the leftovers to Funky Town with a rich black pudding sauce and then pulls it back into the sunlight with a fried egg.  Unfortunately the ratio of sauce is all wrong and everything becomes a little lost in a vast puddle of spiced pigs blood. Whilst that bubble and squeak dish could have been eaten at any point time of the year, the other starter was only ever intended for the sunshine.  A risotto with Carnaroli rice tasted of time spent in quality vegetable stock, with semi-dried tomatoes and red peppers amongst the evenly cooked grains.  On top are plump scallops and a small fillet of monkfish, both of which are cooked are cooked precisely and well seasoned.  It all makes for a serious bit of food, one that you’d like to find on the menu of your local but seldom do.

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A seabass main was pretty much faultless in concept and delivery.  The fish had been shown heat on one side only, a more technical approach that crisps the skin and gild’s one half of the fillet with a golden crust.  The pairing of chorizo, new potatoes, and green beans give light and shade, whilst chive crème fraiche binds it all together.

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Our other main of lamb hits similar levels.  Yes, I would have liked my lamb a little pinker, but the meat had been properly rested and offered very little in the way of chew.  What impresses most about this dish is the balance; the crushed peas are boldly seasoned, the salsa verde bright in high notes.  There are unexpected tangles of caramelised onion in amongst the potatoes that make me reminisce the Boulangere style of cooking.  These are the best bits.

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Dessert is a Pavlova which we share amongst the two of us.  It’s a pretty thing; the meringue holding cream and summer berries.  It’s too sweet for me but not for her, who quickly finishes it.  It’s a lovely fresh note to finish on.

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We drink healthily from a wine list that offers value and plenty of options by the glass, all whilst sitting in a courtyard with the sun beating down on us.  On the day that we visit the place is full with locals, perhaps a perk of its location ten minutes walk from the tourist hotspots on the Avon river.  It all makes for a rather lovely lunch, affordable, refined Gastropub grub.  The One Elm knows exactly the kind of place it wants to be, and it’s absolutely nailed the execution. 

8/10

My meal was complimentary

Sabai Sabai via Deliveroo

Given the shortage of good Thai restaurants in Birmingham, Sabai Sabai is the kind of place that I should be going to more often. Except I can’t. Because I may have upset someone affiliated with the restaurant by being a self-entitled arse on Facebook, and now I may be too embarrassed / pig headed to show my face in the little restaurant down the road from where I live. Will I ever learn? Of course not, being an arrogant arse is ingrained in my DNA.  But my stupidity is Deliveroo’s gain. When I am feeling flush it is my takeaway of choice. And sometimes its rescued me, like on last valentine’s day when it saved me paying for an overpriced set menu and allowed us to fake romance from the comfort of our own home.

It’s nearly always the same order; sweetcorn cakes, almost bhaji-like in texture and devoid of grease, to start, along with their crackers which are thick and crisp. We always order the Pad Thai noodles, silky and moreish, with perfectly judged acidity from the lime. We scatter it generously with both peanuts and chilli flakes and entwine the chicken with the noodles.  It captures the very essence of Thai food.

I’d written about the holy basil stir fry before, so I’ll spare you the finer details again.  It’s my favourite thing on the menu here – spicy enough to hold interested, with enough veg to nourish.  It gets even better with the addition of egg fried rice that soaks up the salty sauce and ensures the plate enters the kitchen clean.

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We both agreed that this was up their with the best we’d ever had from Sabai Sabai – proof that food can travel and still be as good.  The only thing stopping us from having it every week is the cost; both mains are about a tenner, starters around a fiver, rice £3.55,  and crackers a hefty £2.25.  Add that up and it doesn’t come cheap.  My opinion?  Treat it as a meal out – order it and crack open a decent wine.  Make a night of it. It’s worth it.

Deliveroo kindly provided the credit for this meal.  Sabai Sabai can be found in Moseley, Harborne, and Stratford-Upon-Avon.  For free credit on your first order please see use the code roo.it/simonc3898

Waterside Brasserie, Stratford-Upon-Avon

I seem to have spent a lot of my summer in and around the Stratford-Upon-Avon area. When the sun is shining I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend a day than rowing its river, or nestled up on its banks supping on a cold glass of wine.  When the sun is locked behind stormy clouds, such as on our last trip, we wind down our days by submerging in its rich history, visiting the home of some bloke called Shakespeare, who wasn’t in on our last trip but seems to be very popular judging by the queues.  I have a lot to thank Shakespeare for, because it wasn’t for the hordes of tourists who come to pay tribute to the mans words in this wonderful part of the world, those lovely folk at the Shakespeare’s England would not have kindly arranged for this particular trip.

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Our base on this occasion was The Arden, a fine boutique hotel directly opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.  From the window of our spacious room we had a full view of the theatre, with the river Avon peeking out from both sides.  Its a glorious place to be, opulent, and seemingly aimed at a more affluent traveller and theatre goer.  The restaurant here is the Waterside Brasserie, a large dining room with hues of purples and brown which looked positively bustling pre Shakespearian show and far more lonely when we sat down at the exact time the room departed for some theatre.

The Arden, Stratford

Copyright 2010 Matthew D. Shaw. See licence supplied with this image for full terms & conditions. Copy also available at: http://www.matthewshaw.co.uk/copyright.html

From the off the talent in the kitchen is clear.  Accurately seared scallops, milky white and medium rare in the centre, with ricotta and bacon wrapped in most delicate of ravioli.  Moisture comes from a vivid green puree at the base which creates enough interest to not require a sauce.  My girlfriend declares it her second favourite dish of the year, high praise from a lady who probably could find fault in the life of Mother Teresa.

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And then there was butter poached chicken breast, supple and dotted with tarragon, paired with charred bits of sweetcorn and leek that added a subtle sweetness to the dish.  At one side stood a croquette of the darker bits of the bird that offer a depth of flavour more attuned to working muscles.  As with the scallops, it was a concise plate of food with not an ingredient wasted.

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A lamb main course was generous in size, with thick cuts of rump and two rolled spirals of crispy breast. The rump was cooked correctly to medium and would have benefitted from another two minutes resting, whilst the breast was a lovely thing, all unctuous and sweet meat that offered little resistance to the knife.  The accompaniments of dauphinois potato and a smokey aubergine puree helped along by a light lamb jus and garlic notes that underpinned the entire dish like a French dressmaker.  It’s a proper bit of cooking, sizable in portion and price at just over £20.00.  A tranche of cod cooked separately in a bamboo steamer was a minute overcooked, yet still ate well when added to the bowl of the mixture of glass noodles and various stir fried veg dressed loosely in a sauce heavy on soy.  There was a nice lime acidity which cut through the deep umami notes of the dish.

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We struggled to find room for dessert, plumping for a butter milk panacotta that looked to be the lightest option on the menu.  The panacotta was well made; just set and quivering, with fresh blackberries, a coulis of the fruit, dainty rippled meringues, and more of those blackberries, this time poached in a balsamic.  As the pan pipe version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ threatens to spoil what has thus far been a lovely evening, we find that balsamic blackberries are far too sharp on their own and an absolute delight when taken with crunchy bits of egg white and a soothing set cream.

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We never saw a bill on this occasion though we totalled up our food and wine to be around £80.00, both agreeing that the meal is good value for the quality served.  Afterwards we sat at the curved bar which anchors the room and enjoyed a cocktail, soon to be joined by the throngs of theatre goers with similar ideas.  In an area with such concentrated tourism it would be easy to make a quick buck serving low quality food at high prices, and others do, as we found out the following day.  Instead The Waterside Brassie is intent on producing clever cooking, executed to a level well above the norm of other brasserie’s.  It is the best food that I have eaten in Stratford and in a cracking location to boot.

8/10

My meal at the Waterside Brasserie and stay at The Arden was complimentary , organised through Shakespeares England, the official tourism guide for Warwickshire.  For more information please see www.shakespearesengland.co.uk

Waterside Brasserie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

The Bell at Alderminister

It takes us all of ten minutes drive from Stratford upon Avon to Alderminister, where we have lunch booked at The Bell.  It feels like a lifetime away; the touristy bustle of Shakespeare’s home fades out to a lush greenery, with only cars and cows for company.  The air is clean here, the pace of a life a yard slower than the rushed city steps we are used to.  It makes me hanker for a simpler life.  One where I don’t have a choice of where to go for falafel, or which Pokémon Go player to mow down next.

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Our arrival at The Bell only enhances these emotions, more so when we are seated in the garden to make the most of our four days of British Summertime.  Here the chairs may be harder on the back, but the view gets no better.  The hedges open up to sprawling fields that roll and promise to never end.  We look inside to the airy white dining room, ornate and filled with washed wood.  It looks a nice place to have dinner but today we will bask in the warm rays.  Its safe to say we will be back to sit in the room when the weather is less generous.

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The menu is a list of things you want to eat, all a cut above normal pub grub.  We opt for the set menu – a bargain at £17.50 for three course – and order a pint or two of local beer to see us on our way.  A salad of pickled vegetables, tomato, parmesan and prosciutto is a simple thing, well executed.  It is a sum of parts, all of which are sourced and handled with respect.  The bite of the pickled veg releases just enough acidity to cut through the salty ham.

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The best dish we ate all day would be pork and pepper meatballs, meaty and heavily seasoned, with a saffron risotto and confit chorizo.  Everything is accurately cooked but it is the risotto that makes it; as good as any I’ve eaten since Gauthier two years ago, light and rich with metallic saffron notes.  This is stellar cooking for a pub.  A vegetarian main sees a thick slice of aubergine grilled with a smoky tomato sauce and parmesan as a nod towards the northern Italian melanzane.  The side salad has bits of bulgur wheat clinging on to  fat cubes of feta. Dots of pomegranate give pops of sweetness and slivers of pickled red onion for a sharp tang.  All the flavour profiles are here.  Its a clever bit of vegetarian cooking.

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Sweet courses are on familiar ground. Eton mess is a comforting blend of cream, strawberry and meringue, whilst a sticky toffee pudding is all sweetness and no respite.  Both are well made and constructed, the attention to detail there with the coloured and decorated meringue.  I should point out that the desserts on the a la carte look far more appealing.  Next time, eh.

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And with that we say goodbye to our utterly charming waitress, pay our way and stroll out the back for a walk across the fields.  We came with no expectations other than a feed out in the sticks and left wishing that we lived closer.  The Bell at Alderminster is a great place which I know we will come back to time and time again.

8/10

The Bell at Alderminster is part of Shakespeare’s England.  For more information please see shakespearesengland.co.uk/