Marina O'Loughlin of The Sunday Times is left uninspired by the "pedestrian" menu at Olga and Alex Polizzi's Star in Alfriston, East Sussex
What to do when the restaurant you've travelled quite far to review probably shouldn't be open to paying guests yet? Welcome to the Star in Alfriston, the latest twinkler in the small constellation of glamorous boutique hotels owned by the doyenne of the genre, Olga Polizzi, this one with her daughter Alex, of TV fame. A joy in store, right?
Wrong. This 15th-century former coaching inn, with its impossibly picturesque setting – honestly, how many tearooms per capita can one village support? – sits amid the beautiful South Downs. And despite kicking off with a perfect retro cosmopolitan – cocktail of the summer, apparently – things went rapidly downhill.
I could, were I a different critic, go to town on the place. Our small rooms in the new wing overlooking the car park, John Lewis meets Travelodge, £270 a night. The choice at dinner: "I don't think I've ever read a less appealing menu."
Breakfasts were good, especially a rubbly Calcot Farm black pudding on caramelised onion hash with rich, liquid-yolked duck egg. And staff struggled manfully to paper over the many cracks. (That poor night porter went foraging for a corkscrew and came back proudly brandishing a bowl of mixed nuts too.) I was with a pal known to management and Olga Polizzi recounted how staffing, thanks to Brexit and the pandemic, was a real problem, how they were struggling to make it perfect in the face of impossible odds. At one point, returning to my room, I found Polizzi herself (aged 75) helping with turndown.
How do I review a restaurant where the menu inspired so little I resorted to steak and chips? Forty-two quid, and the chips were catering-pack frozen. Where four small, pedestrian ravioli cost £14. Where a pork chop with lentils (dull) cost £38. But in the knowledge that a deal of – I want to say tweaking but I'm guessing serious overhaul – was going on, a full savaging would be unfair. I cast about wildly for nearby plan Bs.
Price: £166.50 for a meal for two, including 12.5% service charge
The Observer's Jay Rayner is thrilled with a perfect hat-trick of courses at Sonny Stores in Bristol
During lockdown, chef Pegs Quinn and his wife Mary Glynn ran a sourdough pizza company from home. Last year they took over this corner site and turned it into an Italian deli with a few tables. Now it is solely a restaurant with a blackboard menu that changes throughout the week, space for 16 inside and a covered deck outside for a few more.
We start with a plate of silvery-backed and salted Calabrian anchovies, swimming in the best peppery olive oil, a little acidity and sprinkled with dried oregano. A bowl of crisp little gem leaves becomes so much more than just a side salad via the addition of oily and salty roasted marcona almonds, slivers of finely sliced Amalfi lemon and a blizzard of freshly grated Parmesan. This salad isn't just dressed, it is catwalk-styled and accessorised. It's a star turn for £9.
Clearly the kitchen isn't merely unafraid of big flavours. It's thrilled by them. A pearly piece of monkfish (£19), bronzed at its leading edges, comes with roasted fennel and the sweet explosions of datterini tomatoes, their skins blistered and blackened. Across the top is an anchovy pesto. When the plate is cleared, which it quickly is, there's a mess of juices crying out for the rest of the bread.
The kitchen's origins in pizza-making are still represented. The £15 price tag feels chunky for the bianco, made with béchamel and prosciutto and a fennel pesto, but then it arrives. It's a chunky bit of pizza. The sourdough crust is bubbled and blistered, and provides yet more bread options for sauces that may have been left behind, but which must not remain so.
Usually with menus this punchy, the ball is dropped somewhere. But no, here comes dessert, and the balls are all where they need to be. There's an immaculate Amalfi lemon tart with a crisp biscuity shell and the requisite zing. There is a smooth, soothing, pillow of tiramisu. Best of all, there's a crisp-chewy meringue with poached white peaches and dollops of crème fraîche. It is a dessert of pure sunlight.
Price: starters, £4-£9; mains, £13-£19; desserts, £6, wines from £18
Grace Dent of The Guardian shares that the Beaumont is a destination restaurant worth travelling to Hexham in Northumberland for
I'm very honest, not a single local will thank me for alerting you to this chic, recently renovated, 33-room, townhouse-style hotel with a bar... because, until now, the Beaumont has been largely Hexham's secret.
Starters included beetroot-cured salmon with sourdough and an apple and cucumber slaw, as well as a beef tartare with beef fat and an egg yolk. I ordered the mackerel with gooseberry and samphire – three of my favourite things on one plate. Never, in the roughly 347 times I've been served mackerel on MasterChef, has anyone done it so well: the skin was beautifully charred, the flesh moist and salty, all littered with tiny sweet halves of gooseberry and sat atop a generous mound of buttered samphire. A deceptively simple-sounding plate of chicken stuffed with artichoke came with yet more artichoke of the Jerusalem variety, a scattering of hazelnuts and nasturtium flowers, and some delightfully rich pommes purée.
For research purposes, I finished with a black sesame peach frangipane, which was more unusual and delicate than rib-stickingly moreish, but I've not seen its like anywhere before. And that is the point: there is a hotel dining room up in Hexham that's producing intriguing, well-judged, wholly devourable food for which I'd happily travel from London again.
Price: about £30 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service
The Independent's Molly Codyre finds "quirky creativity" at Flor in Borough Market in London
Flor is tucked underneath the railway at the mouth of the market. As the offshoot of lauded British restaurant Lyles, Flor had much to live up to. Instead of trying to replicate the first restaurant's overwhelming success, it feels instead like the rebellious little sister.
Take, for example, the cucumber. Lightly smacked and marinated in what I believe was an elderflower vinegar, it is served atop a crème fraîche that has been made in-house and infused with an elderflower kombucha – from which the aforementioned vinegar was made… it is the kind of dish that would only come from a highly creative brain.
Other highlights included the crisps, anchovies and nori, a deceptively simple teetering pile of featherlight potatoes, meaty fish and a sweet and spicy sauce packed with umami; the kind of plate you wish accompanied every after-work drink, yet takes the kind of quirky creativity of a place like Flor to adequately pull off.
[Despite] two years, one pandemic and one overwhelmingly successful pizza pivot, Flor has remained both reasonably priced and steadfastly sure in what it does. The dishes you get here emulate the inventiveness of those you might see on an overwrought tasting menu, yet with an almost unbelievably accessible price tag and an air of considered simplicity. You will struggle to find anywhere else in the city cooking food quite like this.
Jimi Famurewa of the London Evening Standard is pleasantly jolted out of a post-lockdown state at BAO Noodle Shop in Shoreditch, London
That the BAO team are even launching another outpost at all right now feels a little surprising. Having shut Chinatown's Xu and launched their most recent spin-off – King's Cross's fun, somewhat scattergun Cafe BAO – amid our interminable Covid winter, they would have been forgiven for consolidating. But no. They are back with another riff on some deep-cut, scrupulously moodboarded aspect of East Asian dining culture, in this case an ode to Taiwan's sainted, ever-mobbed beef noodle soup shops.
Eel and smacked cucumbers, musky, vivid and sopped in a hot-sweet crimson chilli oil, offered the first open-palmed slap to the senses. Cheese rolls (practically inhalable tubes of deep-fried dough, primed with a jalapeño-flecked payload of molten Ogleshield) kept up the pace along with prawn croquette bao slicked in a black garlic glaze.
But where I have struggled a little with the cohesiveness of BAO's more recent launches…here, the main event of noodle soup (not just two beef varieties but a kelp and aubergine vegan number) offers a distinct focus and clear trajectory.
Roiling vats of hot soup may seem an exceptionally weird choice in the midst of high summer. But all I will say is that the fun, physical act of putting away one of these triumphs… feels like a perfectly timed, messy distraction from a twitchy post-lockdown atmosphere.
Price: meal for two plus drinks, about £100
Mark Taylor of the Bristol Post thinks the Pizzarova x Grano Kitchen pop-up at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre has a promising future
When eating outside, diners have to use a QR code on their phones to buy the drinks and then staff take food orders on iPads. Upstairs is a more traditional affair, with waiting staff taking both drinks and food orders on old-school notepads. It's all a bit confusing.
Staff were clearly still learning the ropes when we visited. I'm not sure if one of our waitresses had ever worked in a restaurant before as she plonked the plate down and mumbled "here are some bits of food". There were also some lengthy delays between courses but I'm sure these early teething problems will soon be ironed out.
Main courses are £8-£12.50 and pizzas from £7.50-£11. The ravioli (£12.50) could have been hotter – it was only lukewarm – but the silky pasta parcels were plump and bursting with fresh crab meat. Even better was the gnocchi alla Norma (£8) – the soft, pillowy gnocchi smothered with a rich tomato sauce, slices of slow-cooked aubergine and salty ricotta salata.
A 10-inch sourdough pizza topped with anchovy, olive and caper (£10) was hard to fault, the leopard-spotted crust was crisp and puffy, the briny toppings working well with the bubbling mozzarella beneath.