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Reviews: Jay Rayner pans the “mediocre cooking” at the House of Commons’ Strangers’ Dining Room; while Michael Deacon enjoys the fondue at Alpes

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Reviews: Jay Rayner pans the “mediocre cooking” at the House of Commons’ Strangers’ Dining Room; while Michael Deacon enjoys the fondue at Alpes

The Observer’s Jay Rayner pays a visit to the Strangers’ Dining Room at the House of Commons in London but deems the prices “shameful” for what he calls “mediocre cooking”

White crabmeat is mixed in with too much crème fraîche, until loose and floppy. It’s meant to slap you with mustard but doesn’t. There’s a disc of flavourless kohlrabi over the top. It claims there’s fresh chilli in there but we can’t find it. On the other hand, there are lumps of pineapple. What I have thus learned: pineapple and crab hate each other. Another starter brings a serviceable salt beef terrine with capers and what is called “beef dripping sourdough crisp”. Look, if you’re going to promise me rendered cow fat, I want to taste cow fat. I can’t.

Both mains are roast dinners that have been at Mum’s dressing-up box. They look like grown-up plates of cooking but the more you dig in the less you get. There are over-reduced Marmitey sauces, and vegetables that have been less trimmed than given the full Brazilian. What the hell happened to the rest of them? My lamb dish looks like Mr McGregor’s garden. They’ve sliced all the baby carrots off at the knees so they stand vertical. There are two small pieces of lamb and “almond croquettes”, which taste not of almond. The potatoes on a chicken dish are so small and turned they look like those grooved dowling rods Ikea gives you to assemble a set of bookshelves called Billy or Hemnes.

Meal for two including drinks and service £180


alpes

The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon enjoys the friendliness of the ‘Laborador puppy’ waiters, the quirkiness, and the cosiness of the experience at Alpes in London’s Pop Brixton, along with the fondue

One of the Labrador puppies staggers to your table clutching a cheese about the size of a tractor wheel, but chopped in half, and with the bit down the middle ready-melted. He then uses a long sharp blade to scrape the melted cheese into a bowl – great thick oozing slobbers of it. Also in your bowl, now engulfed by the slow-moving lava of hot cheese, you’ve got crispy, crunchy pancetta (Italian bacon), cornichons (tiny gherkins) and rainbow potatoes. A lovely cartoony gloop of textures and flavours.

The fondue, meanwhile, is a molten blend of three cheeses (Gruyère, ogleshield and raclette), into which you dip your bread and cornichons. The fondue itself was intense, nutty, peppery. Would have preferred it if the bread had been freshly baked, though.

Price: £50 for three courses for two (not including alcohol). Score: 4/5


st-leonards

The Sunday Times’s Marina O’Loughlin has added St Leonards in London’s Shoreditch to her list of ideal restaurants

Each dish that arrives from the various sources — grill, raw bar, expansive kitchen — is, in one way or another, revelatory. Peak brilliance is a bravura riff on the Japanese savoury set custard chawanmushi, to whose depths foie gras adds lubricious meatiness; on top lie slivers of remarkably good, almost fondant-textured smoked eel and the porky, Quavery crunch of chicharrones. Man, you’d have to have some kind of warped imagination to come up with this little number. I suspect the hand of the co-owner (with Jackson Boxer) Andrew Clarke, an amiable, tattooed Viking of a man whose creativity I’ve long perved over. His work, like that of a contemporary artist, is rooted in classicism and technique, over which he basically goes a bit tonto.

Tamworth pork, after hours and hours of absorbing the smokiness of the grill, is dressed simply with splashes of rowanberry vinegar and garum (aka fish sauce), its fat silky, the meat a caress. Potatoes breathe out the muskiness of fig leaves; broccoli is laced with an almost-too-pungent relish of ham knuckle and smoked chilli — kapow. Oysters are vivid with pickled garlic scapes, an inspired play on mignonette. Strips of pearly brill come topped with discs of virtually raw carabinero flesh and tiny leaves of purple basil; pooled around is butter, scarlet with the concentrated essence of the singular shellfish. Excellent bread dredged through this makes my pupils dilate with something approaching unspeakable lust. And I’m agog at the mad genius of charred margherita onions in “tuna bone caramel” — a dark, sticky reduction of the fish’s bones, slow, slow-smoked over the grill till Guinness-rich, the onions’ sugar adding sweetness.

Total: For two, including 12.5% service charge £175


neptune_centre-banquette_final_jan2018-copy

Neptune at the Principal London hotel is “just a pretty room serving fish suppers”, writes Grace Dent in The Guardian

We order Exmoor caviar, which comes with a quenelle of creme fraiche flecked with lemon and chive. The hash browns that accompany it are a pleasingly decadent idea, but are neither delicious nor useful as a vessel off which to eat caviar, because they shatter to the touch. Two large, nicely coloured and inoffensive scallops arrive in a subtle kaffir lime butter with a smattering of al dente peas. A plate of perfectly cooked, buttery asparagus and a handful of hazelnuts sits on a large, wobbly mass of allegedly “smoked” cream with a runny egg yolk.

My friend orders lobster with ginger and a white pepper butter that supplies only the merest rumour of ginger. We peer at a piattoni bean and dandelion side salad that feels a little like undressed coleslaw with dried apricot. A humble green side salad, peculiarly, was one of the best parts of the meal: a zingingly fresh bowl of baby gem leaves in a wonderful vinaigrette. My main of turbot with artichokes was perfectly fine. Turbot is everywhere right now, being cooked on fire and charcoal, so this pan-fried version on an olive-oil hollandaise felt rather pedestrian.

About £35-40 a head, plus drinks and service. Food: 3/5; atmosphere: 2.5/5; service: 4/5


There’s nothing to dislike about Howard Street Restaurant in Belfast now the room has been renovated, writes Joris Minne in the Belfast Telegraph

Food and service were always good in Howard Street and, while the interior looked charming, there were flaws.

All that crumbling bare brick and moody lighting worked in certain parts of the restaurant, but not in others… As if that wasn’t bad enough, the clash ‘n’ bash acoustics, wherever you sat in the restaurant, would have driven you bonkers. Until now. Because everything has been fixed. There are no bad tables and the acoustics are calming, producing a comfortingly upbeat hum.

The Thai curry and hake have dropped off the menu, but instead there are exotics such as monkfish and prawn coconut curry with peanut and Thai basil pesto with jasmine rice, and robust Irish plates like slow-cooked glazed beef cheek with potato and onion gratin, broad beans, charred sweetheart cabbage and tomato vinaigrette.

The crispy pork belly is bolstered by caramelised onion mash, grilled asparagus, black pudding fritter (I’m a sucker for these little treasures – they are what makes me order a dish in the first place) and apple and cider puree. It’s all delightful and there isn’t a feature out of place. It’s balanced in flavours and textures and generous, too.

Price: £95.75.


inver-restaurant

Apart from an inedible caramel sauce, Ron Mackenna of the Sunday Herald has a perfect meal at Inver restaurant in Strachur, Argyll

I’m having Gigha halibut, mussels and coastal greens. Yes, there’s some seaweed in there. Dulce: crisp, packed with that umami Heston Blumenthal is always banging on about. Samphire too. Crisp mussels. Purple and white sea campion flowers.

The fish skin is even rolled and fried to a puffed and savoury crisp. But the fish itself? Sitting in a salty, buttery frothy sauce? Crikey. Perfect, meaty white, light and incredibly fresh. The seasoning is flawless.

Recently I’ve eaten in a good few Michelin-starred restaurants and yet this dish is better than anything I had in any of them. By far. Of course in a meal with faultless seasoning guess where they go uncharacteristically, infuriatingly, mad with the salt cellar?

In the dessert, of course. Wild rye dumplings, black pepper ice cream and bone marrow caramel. First two perfectly fine. But the caramel sauce? Inedible. Otherwise though? A perfect meal.

Price: Smaller dishes around £8, mains around £21. Menu: 5/5; service: 5/5; atmosphere: 5/5; food: 9/10


HOTELS

old-quay-house

Ellie Ross of The Times says the Old Quay House hotel in Fowey, Cornwall, enjoys a stellar location and serves fabulous food

Among the Cornish galleries and gift shops, this converted Victorian seamen’s mission sits on the edge of the River Fowey, with great views from its sunny terrace. The hotel has undergone a redesign since it was taken over by Providence Hospitality in 2015. The feel is light and contemporary, with a nod to the nautical: Chesterfield armchairs in sea blues, barrel-shaped coffee tables, a driftwood-style bar and sand-coloured headboards.

Richard Massey, the head chef, sources ingredients locally. This is top-notch modern British fare, with spiced duck breast and pickled grapes, cod loin and confit fennel served in an elegant dining room with large folding doors facing the water. My starter of Cornish dressed crab was encased in wafer-thin slices of radish and my main of roast monkfish was perfectly cooked, served with broad beans and a pancetta gratin packed with flavour. The strawberries and basil cream were delicious. Three courses cost from £45 (two courses from £37.50).

B&B doubles from £135


abbots-court

Rachel Dixon of The Guardian is bowled over by the largely self-sufficient Abbots Court in Winterborne Kingston, Dorset

The Domesday Book records a farm on the site, while the current building is a grand Victorian farmhouse. It is not exactly a hotel – there is no reception or room service – but to call it a B&B would be to sell it short. It is one of those modish boutique retreats that aims for a “staying with friends in the country” vibe. It works; it feels luxurious but unstuffy.

The renovation was sponsored by Farrow and Ball and the whole place is a look-book of the latest paint and wallpaper trends – complete with discreet cards naming the shades and styles for guests to get the look at home. There is a lounge (shade: London Stone), a bar (Inchyra Blue) and a 14-seat restaurant (Eating Room Red) downstairs, with all the bedrooms upstairs. Rooms are named after rare-breed pigs. Tamworth (wallpaper: Feather Grass) was enormous, with dual-aspect windows giving far-reaching views over yellow fields of rapeseed. The bathroom (Down Pipe) didn’t have a bath but did have lovely British-made Bramley products.

Doubles from £90 B&B

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