Price: A meal for two with wine, about £130
The IndependentDining at Allium in Bath, John Walsh is impressed by head chef Chris Staines's liberality and boldness of ambition
The menu holds the attention from the start, with its eccentric line-up of co-star ingredients. Take the miso-cured Loch Duart salmon: the softest salmon that's ever touched your lips, it came with a hundreds-and-thousands shower of seasoning, plus a fried oyster fritter for spiky contrast. Also featured was pickled cucumber, grapefruit and a smear of wasabi dressing - a stunning mini-banquet of zingy flavours. Butternut squash soup with sage pesto tortellini and a wand of crispy prosciutto was accompanied by a millefeuille-sized Welsh rarebit. It was, said Marilyn, "velvety and piquant, very comforting". Quail glazed in chilli caramel was irresistible, but there was more to it than chilli and caramel - how about random additions of Chinese cabbage, roundels of palm hearts, lychee, peanuts and coriander? "I'm surprised by the peanuts," said James. "They're too assertive. But the quail's fine and the salad items cool down the chilli." I found the glaze on the quail too close to teriyaki sauce, but the spices left my tastebuds buzzing like hornets.
Score: Food 4/5; Ambience 2/5; Service 4/5
Price: Around £140 for two with wine
ObserverArtisan beer with salty snacks sounds like a good idea, but the short menu at the Longroom, London EC1, doesn't quite hit the spot, says Jay Rayner
The narrow food offering is in the service of that beer drinking, in that it's a bunch of big, male, fatty, salty things. There is, behind the bar, a jar of pork scratchings the size of grizzly bear claws. The rest of it comes down to salt beef, which they make on the premises, grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles. At the risk of coming over all Julie Andrews these really are a few of my favourite things. Someone has thought seriously about what food the beer needs. They've focussed on the essentials. The problem is that the salty things aren't quite fatty enough and the fatty things aren't quite salty enough. It's all very nearly, but not quite, and when the menu is so narrow that's a problem. You really do want to whack the menu on the side so it all comes into focus. For example, the recent surge in people making their own salt beef is a good thing. The problem is that too much, as here, isn't good enough.
Price: Meal for two, including wine and service: £40
Marina O'Loughlin says Marc Wilkinson, chef patron of Fraiche, Oxton, Wirral, is obsessive. But we are the beneficiaries of this obsession
Take a pre-starter of mussels, each one exactly the same size, each one the orangey hue of the tastier female. They're in a bisque that hints at the carcasses of many shellfish and on a dice of vegetables so minuscule, it's like wizardry. There are bursts of freshness from cubes of yuzu jelly, and it's all presented in a porcelain sea urchin: clever and beautiful. Every tiny garnish, every foetal leaf, is thought out to the last detail. The egg yolk at the bottom of a delicate beaker of the lightest cauliflower cream is, I'd guess, a 64-degree job, a piece of solid/liquid alchemy; the dish's soothingness jolted by glorious smoked eel and the crunch of toasted seeds. I like that Wilkinson shuns the clichéd klaxons of fayn daynin' (the foie and fillet and lobster); instead, he plays with the likes of quinoa, kohlrabi, lamb breast - on this visit, given a slow/fast pork belly treatment and served with Greek-accented accompaniments zhuzhed into poshness: caramelly aubergine, feta turned into a pannacotta-like jelly.
Score: Food 9/10; Atmosphere 3/10; Value for money 8/10
Price: Set menu only, £65 a head for six courses, plus drinks and service
Joe Warwick says Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at the Halkin hotel, London SW1, is too clever - and expensive - for its own good
It all starts to go wrong with the main courses. The surprise with what is called 'Unexpected Sole' turns out to be that the fish, hidden under a seaweed sheet that's dissolved with a pour of hot fish stock, is overcooked, the resulting sauce beyond challenging. Worse is a seriously tough loin of lamb, wrapped with another sheet made from coffee, the trick with the hot stock repeated. The effect, as my guest accurately notes, is like watching a really disappointing indoor firework. French toast with mango and coconut with a caramelised topping is perfectly pleasant but hardly groundbreaking and the 'charred sweets' part of an assembly with nutmeg ice cream seem to be pieces of crisp bread. Both are priced at £12.50. This is complicated cooking that needs careful explaining, something the front of house, despite their sweetness, fail to do clearly. Any cleverness is being lost in translation, the food left to fend for itself and, on this evidence, failing to live up to expectations or its hefty price tag.
Price: Dinner for two with wine, water and service, around £220
Soho House Group's Chicken Shop offers irresistible chicken for reasonable prices, says Matthew Norman - just be prepared to queue
Beyond declaring that it is about as good as it could conceivably be, there isn't too much to say about the food. Free-range birds from Norfolk are marinated overnight in a barbecue sauce, steamed, and crisped up on the rotisserie for that alluring, almost blackened finish. Two sauces sit on the table, one fairly hot, the other based on the overpowering Scotch bonnet chilli. I would replace the latter with an unthreatening barbecue sauce for wusses like the father of the family I was eating with, whose reflex on encountering any chilli is to summon the emergency services. But that, as far as criticism goes, is that. The chicken was lick-the-dribbling-juices-from-the-chin flavoursome, crinkle-cut chips were a crunchy nostalgic delight, an avocado and lettuce salad was well dressed, and the coleslaw was finely shredded and properly sharp.
Price: Two courses with wine or (excellent) microbrewery beer, about £25 per head
Joanna Blythman is disappointed with her return visit to Restaurant Mark Greenaway which has moved to new premises in Edinburgh
But on this occasion, with the exception of the desserts, dishes sounded better than they tasted. For instance, I was wooed by the idea of "confit duck pavé with hot orange jelly, crispy skin, walnut mayonnaise, micro basil", but let down by the reality. What tasted like leftover cooked duck, straight from the fridge, was wrapped in thin slices of barely seasoned cold beetroot and the jelly brought sweetness, but not much else. The other promised elements of the dish were present in such minute amounts that they barely registered with the taste buds. If a dish only uses tiny quantities, those elements must be full of personality to get noticed. Another starter, featuring citrus-cured bass in a sort of gravadlax treatment, fried squid and pickled langoustines, was effectively three disparate items. The bass tasted of little, perhaps because it too was extremely cold. We were glad of the hot squid, but these three fish ingredients would have been better served individually with accompaniments tailored to each one.
Its pleasant, grown-up service, impressive wine list, gorgeously comfortable fin de siècle ambience and good food make Windlestraw Lodge, Tweed Valley, Walkerburn, a place Richard Bath would go back to in a shot
My starter consisted of the other option - one of the simplest but least-used comfort foods, sautéed mushrooms, which were mixed with Tamworth bacon and served in a filo pastry basket under a topping of melted Isle of Mull cheddar cheese. Although this is a variation on one of my favourite home-alone dishes (try it slathered in a pepper sauce topping with a smoked cheese and toasted ciabatta base), I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find quite such an inexpensive and simple dish on a £46 set menu. Still, it started well, although as I progressed I found my large portion becoming harder and harder going. The Mull cheddar was as mature as it was rich, while the bacon was formidably salty and the mushrooms dauntingly meaty; so a dish that started with a big grin as I took the first mouthful ended with me flopping over the finishing line, my palate begging for time off for good behaviour. In truth, I'm still not quite sure what to make of this dish.
Price: Four-course set menu £46