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Reviews: Jay Rayner finds generous servings at the Royal in St Leonards-on-Sea, while Tom Parker Bowles is thrilled by the suya at Tiwa 'N' Tiwa

01 September 2020

The Observer's Jay Rayner finds generous servings at the Royal in St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex

According to my companion, a Hastings and St Leonards lifer, the Royal was once one of the roughest pubs in town. Not any more. [James] Hickson and [Sam] Coxhead have stripped the space back to the very best of the wood and painted it in calming shades of pea green inside and what colour charts tell me is called "ocean blue" without. The walls are hung with vintage French aperitif adverts. They make a non-pub-goer like myself feel I'm in a safe space.

The menu is short and tightly written. There is a big scoop of soft, melting pork rillettes that could double as a face cream when the Olay has run out. Or you could just rub it straight on to your thighs to deal with the cellulite. It's going to end up there anyway.

The nearest thing to cooking among these starters is a buxom fillet of mackerel, which is what you'd hope to find down here on the coast. Its skin is bubbled and crisped. It perches atop fat, roasted plum tomatoes and a surging landslide of pesto. A rainbow of baby beets and leaves comes dressed with yogurt and the Middle Eastern burst of cumin, sesame seeds and za'atar.

There are a couple of non-meat dishes like this among the mains: a tortilla with peppers, tomatoes and olives, or new season coco beans with spinach and artichokes. Servings are generous. Many kitchens look at a duck breast and see two portions. Here, you get what looks like the whole thing, the fat rendered, the skin crisped, the meat blushing. It comes with green beans and an Iranian-influenced sweet-savoury walnut sauce.

You could probably guess the dessert list: something involving chocolate, a tart, meringues. This is not surprising, but no one comes here to be surprised. They come to be fed. That plum and almond tart is a deep-filled beauty, with a thin case, and a soft, light filling. Sour cream sends it on its way. The meringues are crisp shelled, but gooey within and come with strawberries and cream, because it is the law that they must.

Price: Starters, £5-£9, mains, £12-£17, desserts, £5

The Royal St Leonards on Sea.jpg
The Royal St Leonards on Sea.jpg

The Mail on Sunday's Tom Parker Bowles is thrilled by the suya at Tiwa 'N' Tiwa in London's Peckham and the red soup at AsoRock in Dalston

Nearly three decades spent in London, filling my face with all this fine city has to offer. And only a few days back did I first taste suya: grilled slices of meat, lavished with yaji, a vigorous mix of salt, spices and ground peanut crackers. This magnificent dish, native to Northern Nigeria but eaten everywhere, is quite simply one of the most thrilling things to pass my lips since, well, I'm not entirely sure…

This magnificent dish, native to Northern Nigeria but eaten everywhere, is quite simply one of the most thrilling things to pass my lips since, well, I'm not entirely sure

We cross the road to a small, clean, utilitarian room where and the air is thick with vigorous debate. "Sport and politics," Ade tells me. "Our two favourite subjects. That, and food." I take an iced Trophy beer from the bucket at the side, and we order. "Make his extra spicy."

The beef arrives quickly, charred, chewy, slightly fatty and speckled with spice. There's a bracing chilli blast, followed by whispers of ginger, cumin and garlic, and something else, something mysterious and intoxicating. The initial assault is replaced by a more languorous sort of heat, raw onion and tomato offering cool, crisp relief.

Ade prefers his suya drier, more frazzled. I just want more, but red soup is calling. So we drive north to AsoRock [in Dalston], where we eat chewy fried plantains. Red soup has rich depth and mild sweetness, and a subtle, fruity scotch bonnet tang. With amala on the side, made from cassava flour, grey, with the texture of putty. And a splodge of gloopy okra on top.

There's so much more to try. This is a country whose food rivals China, India and France for depth, range and technique. I know nothing, save that I am hungry for more.

Price: Tiwa 'N' Tiwa, about £10 a head. AsoRock, about £15 a head

Grace Dent of The Guardian says Smith's of Wapping in London is ‘slightly posh yet pleasing'

Smith's of Wapping, which opened in 2011, is similarly old-school yet pleasing. It's proper, slightly posh, but without even a scraping of Michelin-star mimicry such as butter on rocks or bread in hessian sacks. You can, however, have scampi in a china basket. It's served delicately, of course, and the basket is lined with a mocked-up sheet of newspaper, but still, no wag has attempted to call the scampi Dublin Bay prawns or arrange them into a fragile tower or dress them with a Jackson Pollock-inspired tartare sauce.

We ate yellow fin tuna sashimi with Loch Duart salmon, daikon, soy and wasabi, which was pleasant enough, though it all felt a bit as if the chefs' hearts weren't really in it. A main of nicely judged monkfish with langoustine in a subtle, katsu-style sauce with steamed rice was instantly forgettable, while the side of "seasonal vegetables" was diced in a manner that reminded me of the stuff they used to foist on us at school dinner.

We finished with a glazed Tiptree strawberry tart with clotted cream ice-cream, which was lovely if not exactly memorable. But the room was heaving with laughing, tipsy sixty-somethings having a nice time and enjoying their freedom. Smith's doesn't need to change a thing – it has found its winning formula.

Price: about £45 a head à la carte; weekday set lunch, £31.50, set dinner, £34.50; all plus drinks and service

Marina O'Loughlin of The Sunday Times enjoys lamb chops at Halal Restaurant in London's Aldgate

Service is charming, verging on the courtly; the food fabulously unreconstructed. Salads come with every dish: shredded lettuce, a single wedge of lemon and tomato garnishing shami kebabs, browned patties properly minced to oblivion; onion bhajis, freshly fried, crisp and lacy rather than stodgy. Only prawn puri is missing its lettuce, the better to roll into a dripping sausage of fried bread and squelch of tomato-sauced seafood.

The mixed tandoori grill features lamb chops, long-marinated in yogurt, lemon and spices until supremely tender, smoky from their blast of heat; the shish kebab humming with cumin and coriander; the chicken crusted from the oven but still miraculously luscious. Complete with oval stainless-steel dish, of course, of a moody brown slump of curried vegetables – the whole thing coming in at £8.50.

The restaurant may be a little scuffed around the edges. I might hanker for more of the original, the bentwood chairs, the subfusc decor. But update it, make it all sleek and contemporary, as other tweeters were demanding? No thanks.

The Halal Restaurant is an avatar for every curry house finding it difficult to get even regulars back through their doors. Man cannot live by takeaways alone. That this one has turned adversity around for now, having to beg people not to turn up without bookings in case they have no tables, is uplifting.

Price: £48.60 for two, without service

The hotel inspector of the Daily Mail found cosy rooms and dazzling views at Combe House hotel in Somerset

This family-run hotel is an old mill (the 26ft-diameter waterwheel is still in place) and sits in a valley at the bottom of a narrow lane outside the hamlet of Holford.

There are 17 rooms – simple, clean and with a touch of Laura Ashley circa 1985 about them. Mine is a single and I'm paying £89 in high season. What it lacks in swish style is made up for by warmth and comfort, especially at this price.

I was warned in advance that there's no mobile phone reception, but the person who took the booking explained that a brand new WiFi network has been installed and would I mind paying an extra £2.50 to use it.

Nicely put – although not many establishments charge for internet access.

There's a big emphasis on local produce at dinner in the modestly furnished dining room. It's a long time since I've seen ‘trio of seasonal melon' on a menu but here it is, along with classic British staples such as pork loin, venison – or an 8oz sirloin for £22.50.

But it's the feast of country views that's the main treat. I open the shutters in the morning and see a giant monkey puzzle tree, with the valley opposite swathed in purple heather.

We'll just have to get used to the idea of booking a specific time for breakfast. It's not ideal but is completely understandable – and any frustration is assuaged by the best bacon I've tasted in months.

Rating: 4/5

Combe House
Combe House

London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler finds a well-done Negroni with views of Tower Bridge at Tavolino

Tavolino, with its large terrace adjacent to playful fountains where on a sunny evening children splosh and splash, was previously a Strada.

The premises plus outside seating are huge, which seems to put a strain on the booking system.

At both visits no trace of the reservations can be found and my companions and I locate each other via texting. Some of the staff make up in enthusiasm what they seem to lack in experience… "There are some Italian words on the menu," said one. "Can I help?"

Provenance and integrity of ingredients is stressed – "We searched Italy and the UK for months…" says the menu and to put it to the test, we try that stalwart salad Caprese, based on DOP buffalo mozzarella and sliced finocchiona DOP Tuscan fennel salami.

The salad needs olive oil, seasoning and something more than a few basil leaves draped on peeled Datterini tomatoes.

Silk handkerchief pasta, aka fazzoletti, could be flimsier; bucatini with Sicilian red prawns less sinewy; but "orzotto" with sweetcorn and confit chicken wing I can recommend. Also the pizza margherita with its thin sourdough base.

Add on ice-creams or sorbets emerging from a notable pastry kitchen and just lose yourself in the historic sweeping view of Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, HMS Belfast and the skyscraper follies of the City. And have a Negroni. That is done well.

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