Cheoff

A site about food, drink and other random stuff!

Café NG Kinský, Prague

Lunch for two: 8 March 2017

"The newly opened restaurant Café NG Kinský can be found in the historical center of Prague on the Old Town Square. It is located in the building of the National Gallery, in Kinsky Palace."

I might as well use that starter from their website to begin the review of this recently opened restaurant.

Mrs Cheoff and I had finished our morning tour of Prague's Jewish Quarter. We needed somewhere to put ourselves in the recovery position from the onslaught of the tribute in the Pinkas Synagogue, dedicated to the memory of 77,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish Holocaust victims.

A walk to the Old Town Square went some way to balancing out those horrors and slipping back into a very slightly more positive present. History is inescapable and insistent but, for now, let's focus on the lunch we enjoyed.

Both of us chose the Club Sandwich... with turkey breast, egg, bacon, mayonnaise, tomato, lettuce and French fries. No real expectations here but when these arrived we realised how, with a little love and understanding, the McChicken® Sandwich can be transformed from the very ordinary into a thing of relative beauty. Fries were a little thicker than Ronald's - and all the better for that.

That's just about it. Satisfaction from simple, well-treated, fresh ingredients is the least you can ask for. Kinsky delivered where so many fail. Nothing seems over-elaborated. The rest of the menu appears to reflect this but we were there in a quiet time at the end of lunch service and did not see any other dishes. I would still recommend the place for exploring decent food and the light, airy, contemporary surroundings. The space looks generous enough to offer the same repose even when the summer tourist buzz arrives.

Mrs. C. also insisted that the homemade lemonade was delicious but I was far too busy enjoying the first and only glass of Staropramen beer which passed my lips on this trip.

On the subject of drink, I had noticed an empty case from the Ornellaia winery being used as a container for menus. Our server, Michal Brichta, was quick to respond to my interest. He led me to the adjoining hall where there is extra seating. And a wall of wine storage. In temperature controlled cabinets, bottles of Ornellaia, along with Sassicaia, were pointed out. These do not appear on the wine list and Michal didn't make it clear how they might be offered. Italy is the regular alternative to local wines here and It would be interesting to know what plans this young, new restaurant has for including such quality wines.  Perhaps a good reason to return and check on developments after their promising start.

The Little Blue Duck, Prague

Dinner for two, Wednesday 8 March 2017

'U Modré kachničky' translates from the Czech as 'The Little Blue Duck (or Duckling)'. The restaurant where we dined, on the recommendation of good friends, was at Michalská 16, 110 00 Prague 1, Old Town. You will find a link on the website to the other, 'first', restaurant, also in Prague.

This was our last chance to sample food on offer in the city. We flew back home the morning after. It seemed right to celebrate our very enjoyable short dip into Prague's history, culture and people with a glass of fizz. Cuvée Quatre Michlovský did a fine job even though its 'extra dry' was a tad sweeter than our often preferred 'brut'.

The patron reminded us a few times that the food served was traditional Czech cuisine, game in all guises being a speciality. This was not by way of an apology; rather a point of pride. All recommendations were earnestly in favour of local and national recipes and wines... and none really disappointed.

Veal paté with brandy and green pepper wrapped in bacon with cranberry sauce

A generous portion of meat for Mrs. Cheoff. Very nearly off-putting generosity. Not so with the small accompanying toasts. But plentiful, fresh bread compensated. We really enjoyed the abundance of lovely sourdough and caraway infused loaves throughout our Prague trip. Oh, there are still unconfirmed reports that those 'cranberries' were actually red-currants.

Smoked venison leg with rowanberry sauce and pickled mushrooms

My starter was pretty fine, probably the success of the evening. I'm not sure how much was produced in-house but the whole thing worked very well. Tender, lightly smoked meat and a delightful return visit to rowan berries (I made jelly with them a couple of years back). They added a fruity but mildly bitter touch... think tangy Seville orange marmalade. My fear that the mushrooms would spoil the show were unfounded. They were delicately pickled and formed the third element of a lovely, balanced trio.

Grilled duck with pears, ginger and shallot mashed potatoes

Roasted duck with bacon Brussels sprouts and garlic potato pancakes

Both mains relied on the eponymous duck to lead the way. Grilled turned out more successful for succulence, since my roasted version was a little dry. You will struggle to find pink duck in the Czech Republic and most will resemble a confit. The skin on our birds was perfect and very tasty... crisp, well seasoned and with just a hint of fennel seed. Don't look for consistent finesse in finish or presentation. My sprouts were surprisingly firm. Enough to be difficult to cut and eat. On the other hand, potato pancakes were just right. 

Red wines are out of favour with Mrs. Cheoff at present so we decided to share our food with a Sauvignon 2014 Gala from Bavory in the Moravian region (why refuse the patron's recommendation?). Although it was 'Late Harvest' there was very little residual sugar and the alcohol content was not too high at 12 1/2 %.

Raspberries and Mascarpone with Blueberry Ice Cream

We had a sweet, romantic assignation involving one dessert and two spoons. Nothing to shout about here. But nothing to spoil the overall enjoyment of our meal.

Other entertainment is provided by a young pianist who plays familiar UK and US music and occasionally breaks into song in English. He alternates with the luxury of a second instrument upstairs so you won't escape him!

Two young female American diners were treated to giggle-inducing moments from one server*. Scarcely raising an eyebrow he asked if he had given satisfaction. The question was delivered with enough inflection, judgement and experience to cause amusement rather than offence. He used the same judgement and experience to leave Mrs. Cheoff alone at the mercy of my usual nonsense. 

The success of our evening at the Blue Duck hinged on the house confidence in the food and wines offered and the interest and atmosphere added by the staff and surroundings. Even if not all are of the finest, their combination was fine enough to provide a fitting end to our Prague experience. I can recommend you book there on at least one of your days in the city.

Taken from the restaurant website

More pictures are available to view at the restaurant's Facebook page.

* This server also provided my current favourite overheard conversation.
Asked by a group of businessmen what were the best Czech red wines he had no hesitation in telling them, "The ones from Italy".

Kavárna Obecní dům, Prague

Here is the rather clunky website for this place showing some of the very attractive surroundings in which you will find yourself. This is lighter and more airy than the downstairs restaurant, function room and cocktail bar. A 'French' restaurant on the other side of the entrance hall to the historic building offers more lavish food at higher prices.

Enjoy what the room has to show in architecture and decor but don't expect to be served anything approaching that quality if you order food. Mrs. Cheoff ploughed through a lamb stew whose meat was at least half fat and uncooked connective tissue. Her potato croquettes were the stuff readily available from supermarkets My 'well-cooked' beef was tender, at least, but had lost most of its flavour in cooking. Bread dumplings, like those croquettes, were very untraditional, 'made away from home' products. The final insults were a squirt of aerosol cream and a few cranberries with enough sugar to induce tooth decay at ten paces. 

We watched a heaving but tired cake and dessert trolley being wheeled around and made the sensible decision to discard any thought of further disappointment, pay the bill and leave.

Servers were reasonably attentive but more than one of them struggled to give any impression that they had confidence in the food they were being paid to present. 

The wisest 'customers' entered, produced a camera to record some artistic details and left without ordering. Their decision was perhaps more informed than ours. It was one of those 'Let's put this down to experience' episodes for us.

Café Jedna, Prague

Café Jedna

If you visit Prague and have taken the time and effort to cross north over the Vltava to view the modern art on show at the Trade Fair Palace you might consider staying for refreshment at this cafe in the same building. 

After almost three hours of delightful submersion in painting, sculpture and design from the nineteenth century to the present, we were grateful for the chance to rest awhile.  

We were in the company of young and old; students, workers and committed, tired tourists like us. The generous space of the building makes it possible to be close to people but never feel crowded by them. 

Soup of the Day was Spiced Chickpea. Lovely sourdough bread came from the counter... taken as you pleased from an enamel bin which, depending on our server, was either green or blue.

How wonderful to enjoy a simple, warming bowl of honestly prepared and truly tasty soup. With that one offering we had avoided the earnest but ubiquitous 'traditional' Czech menu of duck, beef, pork and potatoes and dumplings... and potatoes and dumplings in another form. Look at the rest of the menu here and you can see the escape route which is on offer. Vegetarians and the odd sausage lover are obviously welcome.

The discovery of a John Lemon drinks range was also pleasing. The peace-mongering Beatle has been honoured in ever-changing graffiti on a wall here since the 1980s

Service was keen, informative but relaxed. Our four day whistle-stop tour meant that we had no plans to return to this part of the city but I urge you to include the Jedna 'watering hole' in your itinerary, should you visit.

The cafe is behind those blue-barred windows on the ground floor. How glorious that a building from the 1920s, devastated by fire in 1976 was deemed worthy of reconstruction. It now houses a cafe which, in quality, variety and interest, matches up to the wonderful art on display.

Red Lion Inn - Babcary, Somerset

Visited for dinner 12 May 2016

We got within two minutes of the restaurant, only to be blocked from a direct route after a collision further up the road.

Telephone calls and GPS through intermittent network connection saw us safely arrived after a half hour delay. 

The Red Lion offers plenty of facilities in different rooms and areas and caters for events beyond the norm of a local village pub.

Beetroot & Goat’s Cheese, Apple, Horseradish

This was very nicely plated but only had a sure touch as far as presentation was concerned. Purple beetroot was almost washed out and lacked real earthy flavour while golden beetroot was heavily pickled and far too sharp. The goat’s cheese had lost any character. It was whipped up with a creamy base (cream?!) and missing all goaty, cheesy goodness.

Confit Pork Belly, Butter beans, Honey & Cider Jus, Crackling, Seasonal Veg

Crackling was one of those nods to a ‘Matchmaker’ chocolate stick (thankfully, without the chocolate). Long and thin pig skin. Crunchy, as it should be… but gone too soon.

The pork was pretty soft and forgiving but the whole dish was awash with aniseed sauce. Star anise used so carelessly that nothing else could compete. Honey and cider had given up and were nowhere to be seen or, more importantly, tasted.

Duck Breast, Potato & Pancetta Terrine, Heritage Carrot, Broccoli, Jus

The meat was definitely over-cooked but, strangely, the skin had not been treated to enough heat to render it anything other than inedible fat. The potato terrine sounds good on paper but sat there, watery, tasting of water and with no hint of pancetta. Vegetables were about right and the ‘jus’ was fruity but not too sweet.

Pink ‘Forced’ Rhubarb & Ginger Crumble, Vanilla Ice Cream

This had all the required elements but just cried out for more visual appeal. The unfortunate presentation in a ramekin on a plate with a dollop of ice cream went dangerously close to suggesting a Meals On Wheels delivery.

100% Cacao Chocolate Tart, Honeycomb, Salted Caramel Ice Cream.

Huzzah… I can finish on a high note. Not too sure that this was much more than 70% choccy but that’s usually adequate for a dessert as far as I’m concerned. Chef seemed to have a more assured, practised touch with this one. It looked good on the plate and ate well. The balance between sweet, salty, creamy and crunchy was nicely judged. Unannounced popping candy suddenly made its presence felt. There really was far too much of it but I didn't care at all as it also gave me far too much pleasure, sounding in my mouth and ears. A good end among an uneven set of dishes.

It is good to see a decent range of wines available by the glass.

Young staff at the bar and serving our table were assured and confident. The chef who appeared briefly was perhaps twice their age. I hope he maintains his confidence to explore and deliver a pleasingly varied menu but the quality of his cooking now needs the same assurance. The Red Lion offers better than average ‘pub grub’ and, overall, we did not regret our holiday visit.

Coffee Aroma - Lincoln

Sunday 29th May 2016.

Coffee Aroma

Our second visit. This time I chose a double espresso from a two bean blend and flavours came through well. The filter process I’d tried previously failed to convince me that it had done justice to the beans used.

The quality of beans is assured. I’ve also ordered mine from Has Bean for as long as Coffee Aroma has been established.

So, you are guaranteed an interesting variety of coffee and good advice is available about how it might be prepared.

Then it all falls apart.

Both times we have visited there has been awkwardness in the staff response to our questions and to our orders.

The staff, for the most part, display knowledge and a confidence that things are being done properly with the right equipment. Unfortunately, their way of showing this veers a little strongly towards intensity and dogmatism. I’m all for enthusiasm, but not so much for preaching, whether it’s to the converted or not.

It was unfortunate that, on our recent visit, the bakes we ordered were below par. My Red Velvet cake was essentially a hit of sickly sweetness with very little, if any, suggestion of chocolate or earthy beetroot. My wife’s blueberry muffin had a strange aftertaste which was repeating two hours later. Her hot chocolate was lukewarm and very weak in flavour.

The major disappointment was the lack of an even approach to all customers. A sign for ‘Breakfast Special: Coffee and a Muffin for £3.00’ was displayed on the counter. The customer in front took her order of two coffees and two muffins and was charged £6.00. It was half an hour past midday. Our order included a coffee and muffin but we were charged full price for those (£5.10). When I questioned the pricing, we were told that the breakfast deal finished at noon. I would have accepted that as reasonable. However, when I pointed out that the previous customer had been given preferential treatment there was no offer to explain or justify that decision. You might understand why we did not bother to communicate any of our further concerns about the quality of food and drink we had been served.

I don’t excuse such behaviour. I have no idea what generates it in a business.

If you visit, you will find good coffee, properly prepared. The spaces on the street and on different floor levels are quirky and interesting. I can only judge the food on two examples but they were both a let-down.

Go for coffee which is far superior to anywhere else I know in Lincoln. Prices here match those of much inferior chains so must be viewed as reasonable.

Try Coffee Aroma for yourself. Unfortunately this review marks the end of my association with the place.

Jamie’s Italian - North Terminal, Gatwick

7th March 2016: Morning, about 8 am

This was our last meal before a short jaunt to Barcelona.

Let’s start with the positives… because it’s all downhill from there on.

My ‘Full Monty’ breakfast had two perfectly cooked fried eggs. I did not have the foresight to inform our server of over-easy requirements or otherwise… but those Burford Browns with their runny yolks were very well suited to my taste. Sausages and smoked bacon also had great flavour but ‘crispy’ bacon had been ignored in the kitchen. Black pudding from Clonakilty was also bound to hit the flavour mark but, once again, the finish would have benefited from higher pan heat and faster cooking.

Here, as warned, commences the descent into breakfast hell.

Toast should have a strong suggestion that heat has licked its surface. Mine was closer to cold stale bread. My wife’s ‘Omelette Gordon Bennett’ was a sorry affair. Its texture was akin to a face flannel which is offered after a proper cut-throat shave by a barber. There it would have been welcome… here it was just offensive. To make matters worse, we had to question the ingredients on the menu. The strange chewy element turned out to be poached haddock. It might as well have stood in for the crispy bacon missing from my selection. There is so little to get right with this dish. Unfortunately, our chef got so much wrong.

It would take more than this to threaten the prospect of art, culture and local colour in another country. But what a shame we took off with the memory of a UK offering which could and should have been so much better.

Twenty-five pounds and we were done. Perhaps we had been done.

I’m sure it has been said before but let’s whirl it round again. Not so much Naked Chef… More like The Knackered Chef. Please get people who can do justice to essentially good ingredients.

Ah, Jamie, in case you were wondering, all was not lost… Barcelona was the dog’s donuts.

The Jews House, Lincoln

This, our first visit, was for dinner on the 25th February 2016. We were with two good friends who had already visited once and were keen to repeat and share their enjoyment with us.

The Jews House has limited space in a very old building. It is suited to fairly intimate dining. I'll put in the spoiler straight away and reveal that we had a terrific evening. Some might even have gone so far as to say it was 'pleasant' (private joke... sorry). The food was lovely and constantly distracted us from being in such very good company.  If you look away from the centred text below it will spare you being given the menu before your visit. 

We took the 'Surprise' Tasting Menu which comprised the following:

Butternut Squash Soup, Cheese soufflé

Citrus Cured Sea Trout, Salad of Crab, Avocado and Pink Grapefruit

Pork Belly Miso, Melon Sorbet, King Prawns

Wild Turbot, Jerusalem Artichokes Roasted in Beurre Noisette, Belper Knolle, Truffle and Madeira Sauce

Roast Lamb Rump, Provencale Shoulder Slow Cooked with Chorizo

Dark Chocolate Mousse, Caramelised White Chocolate Sorbet, Turron and Praline Biscuit

Passion Fruit Cream, Pineapple, Sweet Chilli and Coriander Salad, Coconut Sorbet

Front of House, Samantha Tomkins, made sure that there were no allergies or dislikes before we proceeded. The tasting menu was not truly a 'surprise'. Each course is available on the A la Carte menu. All the cooking could be achieved at home, with the important proviso that you would need a couple of week's planning and prep to achieve it!

Although chef, Gavin Aitkenhead, didn't stretch any boundaries he did just what he promises and concentrated on flavour. The combinations are mostly familiar but they are executed along with nice contrasts of texture and temperature and delivered with a sure hand by a confident kitchen. The small size of that kitchen might go some way to explain the limit on choice. Great variety is still provided within a single dish. 

Highlights for me included the concentrated flavours of fish and meat sauces. Sweet and sour aubergine and a rich tomato confit underpinning, and almost undermining, the lamb. A smoky artichoke purée was perfect with the turbot ('The Big Green Egg' had been on barbecue duty the night we visited). Oh, that melon sorbet was a winner with the pork. A fresh, tropical finish was the proper end to our meal. It was carefully placed after a rich chocolate dessert which would have otherwise swamped it. The richness was in all those endorphin-producing elements which we treasure through childhood and beyond. However, any excess here was perfectly understated and never became cloying. The salt-struck caramel confirmed chef's control.

There were a very few moments when flavours seemed too subtle. That could well be down to my struggling palate which had been challenged by so many other delights so that I'm observing rather than complaining... We had enjoyed a great meal with truly accomplished cooking.

I have still not managed to be so clever as to concentrate on the merits of both challenging food and demanding wines at the same time so it suited me that Samantha did not lead us on much of an adventure with her recommendations from the wine list. The selection there will change, so you might well be guided to enjoy new offerings. Here is what we agreed on:

2013 Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Elgin, South Africa

2012 Berry Bros. & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret

Ken Forrester T Noble Late Harvest 201?

All went down very well... especially with two men who had the terrible task of drinking the major part to compensate for the restraint of their lovely wives!

Samantha seems well-equipped to explain, suggest and recommend with knowledge and confidence. There is much on the wine list to explore. I try not to fret too much about restaurant wine pricing. We don't really go out quite often enough for it to be a threat to our finances. But bottle prices can certainly be a source of worry and dis-satisfaction, with potential for over-shadowing the enjoyment of eating out. If this article is anything to go by, it seems that 'The Jews House' are on track with a 'Good' mark-up of around 200%. 

Let me end by repeating the enjoyment that this visit gave to all of us. We were looked after by discreetly attentive servers and experienced food from a very assured chef and kitchen. The price we paid for our meal might just be beaten elsewhere but it was still excellent value. Lincoln has a modern-day success in a lovely historical setting. I know that we will return. Thank you to all involved.

Esporão Duas Castas Arinto-Gouveio, Alentejano 2014

Here I go - getting ideas above my station and submitting a wine review. I've mentioned wines before but I haven't actually gone all silly and committed anything developed to paper... have I?

Ah, that reminds me. I truly must get my head round implementing a calendar/index thingy for my blog. Then I'd bloomin' well know what my previous had been, wouldn't I!

This wine is from The (rather wonderful) Wine Society and was bought just before Christmas. I wanted a few bottles which looked to be slightly out of my comfort zone and could be tested with close friends. As it turned out, twelve days into January this one was still laying down waiting. A complete absence of friends so I decided to assess it on my own. 

It shouldn't affect the wine but my senses were pleased by the elegance of the bottle and the challenge of dealing with the Portuguese label text before resorting to the English translation.

Here is the website run-down of what goes into this vintage:

The duas castas (‘two varieties’) themselves vary according to the different strengths of each vintage in this part of Portugal. In 2014 the blend is 60% arinto (fresh lime, citrus and grass) and 40% gouveio (mineral and structured), each vinified separately without oak but with some lees ageing to add texture and body, to create a fresh and appetising dry white blend.

That tells a bit of the story but I discovered much more on drinking. The bouquet is fresh and gently insistent with a suggestion of breakfast juice. Now, I hadn't consciously remembered that Seville and blood oranges are very close on the marmalade making horizon but the flavours of this wine drew me straight towards the imminent tangy, bitter-sweet content of bubbling pans and cooling jars. The  immediate hit was from a sourness of grapefruit and lime. Plenty of attack from a small overload of pith. There is no candied sweet relief here as in a marmalade but this wine is not bitter. Instead, the depth and length of finish overtake any idea of astringency and restore a lovely balance. It is certainly a wine in which I recognised a very pleasant 'leafy' note right through proceedings.

This wine provided the mild challenges I was looking for. But the challenges were all overcome by the wine itself. Any suspicion that things were jangling around and wouldn't come together faded as all resolved into crisp, fresh, harmonious complexity. Just delightful drinking. 

Simple food with this one. I was eating up a roasted root vegetable and Brie pizza with oven wedges and cole slaw. The wine was even better when the food was gone and I could raise a glass to Herdade do Esporão’s vineyard and winemakers.

I'm not going to manage a completely dry January but, with nothing since this wine, I have very fond memories to sustain me a little longer in abstinence.

Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop Café

Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop Café

We visited on 10th December 2015, arriving for lunch and an afternoon visit to the house in its Christmas finery.

I had not expected an adventurous menu and was proved right. This mattered little as we simply needed something to fuel us for the crisp weather and walk to the house.

Chef’s burger of the day was beef, which my wife and I ordered. Our young-at-heart (and not so very much older than us) aunt wanted the toasted ciabatta filled with barbecued pulled pork.

I really don’t think that the pork was all that good but I was completely distracted by the terrible burger offerings. A soft, lifeless white bun with no hint of toasting cushioned a truly repugnant patty of meat. Steak, ground so fine that there was no discernible texture, had been given awful treatment. The burger had been left too long in a pan and reduced to a uniform mass of dry and chewy lifelessness. The pan had not even been hot enough to caramelise the surface.

My wife and I spent some time open-mouthed wondering why any self-respecting cook would allow such a thing out of a kitchen.

Around us, we saw confirmation that we were not alone in our plight. Grey, dry slabs of indeterminate meats and dull, anaemic vegetables were on show. Our aunt asked us to look over our shoulders. At first I thought the unfortunate lady behind was holding up a dishcloth between two forks. It was, in fact, a rough lacework of connective tissue from her roast beef. Completely inedible.

Our server’s assertion that she had not received any complaints must be taken at face value. There was, however, plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.

Sensibly, we were not asked to pay for the burger meals. I think we were sensible too in avoiding the dessert menu.

This does not purport to be high end dining but the kitchen should at least be able to deliver a decent, edible meal. Quality ingredients and any cooking ability are all totally lacking here.

Of course, this reflects very badly on the entire Chatsworth experience. A couple of years’ ago I was pleased to find damsons in the farm shop after a quick drop-in on our way home from holiday. This time I was keen to explore the rest of the ‘foodie’ elements on offer. Instead I paid a visit to the meat counter and confirmed that the utterly disappointing burgers were supplied by them. Looking at the rest of the meat products it was obvious that poor quality was the norm. If the sausages were hand-tied they were presented in a scarily regimented, almost robotic precision. More importantly, their barely pink whiteness attested to a high fat content. Yes, fat for flavour but this was taking things too far.

I had the over-riding impression that average quality was being presented at inflated prices. There are other producers who get a look in at the shop but they are somewhat unfairly tainted by association with the estate.

Oh dear, let me finish on a relative upbeat. The house and darkening gardens were full of much more honest effort and delighted us enough to talk about them more on our journey home than the lousy food and produce from earlier in the day.

Avoid the café... and be wary of the farm shop.

Damning evidence of our visit

The Godstone Hotel and Coach-House Restaurant

We visited on Thursday 14 January 2016. We will not be returning. The meal we had was not good enough in many respects.

There were hints from the start. We walked past the busy and vibrant eatery over the road and into the Coach-House with its one table of four diners. Asked about the menu, front of house had no idea how the Brie starter was cooked or served.

Never mind. We were here for dinner to celebrate an eighty-eighth anniversary and the birthday boy had picked our venue… best to hope for improvements after a shaky start.

The wait for food gave me time to inspect the surroundings and the cutlery. Both suffered from having been around far too long in their present state and gave out forlorn sighs of “Help, I'm jaded.” My knife and fork took me straight to a Seventies seaside Winter Garden with all its predictable tableware… the sort of trappings which are now found at car boot sales.

Starters were not a success. The Brie was in very firm slabs with little of the marinade flavour and uncooked. I do not understand this approach. It left out tastes and textures which were waiting to be revealed.

The fishcakes had a pleasant smoky something or other in them. The coating was crisp but they did not convince me as anything other than shop-bought. Soggy, over-dressed salad and a strange attempt at making a sauce from sun-dried tomatoes did little to relieve disappointment.

Main courses failed in like manner. All food was either under- or over-seasoned. The minty lamb and vegetable pie was really salty. Its puff pastry top was acceptable enough to be considered a comparative triumph.

Before arriving we had laid bets that the man of the moment would choose liver and bacon. He did and so did I. Gah! There was no finish to the meat and it had been left too long in the pan, reaching that state of unappetising graininess which should be avoided at all costs.

We were quietly unanimous in rejecting the idea that the kitchen might be able to produce a satisfactory dessert and asked for our bill.

If the food were better prices would not be unreasonable here. The wines have a pretty universal restaurant mark-up until you look at the top end which stretches the margins even higher.

The owner was on holiday. I can only hold a faint hope that he brings back something, anything, positive from Italy, home of one of the world's greatest cuisines.  Whether the usual chef or a substitute was cooking, he or she should be ashamed of allowing such poor efforts to be served.

Such a shame. There must be plenty of competition in this sector but, even if this particular corner of Surrey is saddled with mediocrity, it would surely be a matter of personal pride to try for excellence in some small way.

After the drive home, we enjoyed home-made marzipan fruits, coffee and Armagnac… and reflected that my step-father, now in his eighty-ninth year, can still cook liver perfectly - one of many things which the Coach-House, most disappointingly, cannot do.   

Mumbai Blues, Waltham… First visit

I went to 'Mumbai Blues' on Monday 14th December 2015 with my wife, Jan.

A day spent pulling all the Christmas decorations, table settings and specially painted glasses out from the loft. Most put into place for the ensuing festivities. Then a very strange breaking of habit with a snap decision to go out and eat at a previously untried restaurant.

Perhaps not so strange really. I’ve been aware of Mumbai Blues for a long time and my wife had already visited a few years back for a staff do.

A ‘safe’ start with the ‘Poppadom Box for Two’ - 2 Plain Poppadoms, 2 Garlic Poppadoms & 4 Naan Bread Twists”. We had these with all four items from the pickle tray. I make my own chutneys and had just finished and preserved a lime pickle at home. I could moan about the quality of restaurant offerings in general but let’s concentrate on those cleverly named naan bread ‘twists’. The dough was cooked but still fluffy inside and there was enough oil in the mix to ensure a light crispy surface outside. Simple but effective.

My choice for main was 'Cod Rogan Balti'. Described on the menu as, “Perfectly flakey Cod cooked in Balti spices, topped with Cherry Tomatoes & Rogan Josh sauce. Garnished with a crushed Onion Bhaji topping.” When I ordered I was told this was a good choice.

Of course, it’s great to design such a fine sounding dish but, let’s face it, everything falls flat if the kitchen can’t deliver. No such worries here… The fish was caressed by the gentle heat of Balti spicing. The Rogan Josh sauce added deep, complex warmth and the crunchy, crumbled bhaji gave delightful contrasting texture. The master-stroke was to present everything on a sticky sweet and sour slick of balsamic reduction. Pilau rice (good pilau rice) helped to soak up much of the sauce but I freely admit to running a finger all over my plate to savour every last bit of goodness.

I’d come out with no real expectations and here I was, two miles from home, having a mini triumph of a meal. Smashing.

My wife, Jan’s, main course was just as pleasing to her.

‘Modhu Murgi’ was her choice… “Honey roasted Chicken lightly spiced with Yoghurt, Ginger, Olive Oil and light Chilli served with a Courgette and mouth-watering Tomato Sauce.” This could have been a car crash of badly juggled sweetness, cream and heat but once again the balance of flavours was spot on.

That was enough for us. We were relaxed and already talking about coming back when we have mentally prepared our stomachs to try a more complex meal.

I'm so pleased we decided to give our kitchen a rest for at least one night. This is not high end dining but the quality of cooking and the clear suggestion that there is enjoyment waiting in all the rest of the menu means I can recommend Mumbai Blues with confidence. So four out of five stars from me... But, of course, you do know what a fussy devil I am! 

Jax Hussain, owner and all round good guy, must take credit for designing the menu, which he is perfectly well skilled to cook himself. I got to know him as he established his latest venture right on my doorstep in Scartho. ‘Lids Tapas & Cocktails’ is a hugely positive addition to our local community. It really is time I went in there for more than a coffee and had a decent sampling of the foods on offer. Watch this space… There will be a review of that here soon! 

Maison Ailleurs, Chartres

Maison Ailleurs

"Délicieuse"

Reviewed 3 July 2015

Chartres has been a destination five times in my life so far. Art historical days saw me there first as an awe-struck student . The next time was with my wife and two sons at the start of our first family holiday in France over twenty years ago. That visit also involved our first experience of 'McDo', partly as a concession to two young boys, partly for the air-conditioning. The offering of a proper plastic bowl of green salad very nearly made us feel that Ronald's French outlets might serve Happy and Healthy meals. A few years later and Mummy Cheoff had joined us for the summer break. Driving back to our Normandy holiday let after seeing Monet's garden at Giverny, I quietly indicated to Mrs. Cheoff that Chartres was a very small way off our route. After her nod of assent, I tried to hold it together while we drove the last fifteen kilometres westward with the cathedral crowning the horizon. My emotion, knowing that I would share such a special place with my mother, created just enough tear duct action to honour the occasion but not enough to stop me getting us all there safely. The last two visits were as a couple; one a pit-stop as we whizzed homeward through northern France. This year we used Chartres as the halfway house on the journey south to our first holiday property.

We did, of course, enjoy the cathedral again. It is undergoing much disturbance with restoration of the nave and windows but an unexpected delight was the sound of lovely singing from the chancel. What might have been a recording proved to be glorious voices of visiting male choristers, young and old from Chichester Cathedral. Pieces by Byrd, Tallis, Brahms and Stanford were very familiar to Mrs. Cheoff and we both delighted in the unexpected free treat which we had chanced upon.

A rotten dining experience mentioned elsewhere might have cast a little gloom over proceedings but we had already begun to enjoy the best commercial overnight accommodation we have experienced. A glorious breakfast was still ahead of us. We know now that there are two jewels almost side by side in Chartres. Both are ancient buildings which offer special treats in abundance. These are the words from my TripAdvisor review which I freely admit do small justice to Valérie's labour of love. 

Chartres is endowed with a magical, majestic cathedral. It has been a point to which I have returned regularly for many years. For an overnight accommodation to distract me from one of the most fabulous expressions of Gothic architecture would take a lot of doing. ‘Maison Ailleurs’ did so abundantly.

My title could refer to any one of several things; maybe the wonderful rooms or the exquisitely prepared and perfectly presented petit déjeuner, perhaps the steeped-in-history building itself. Any description of this glorious discovery of my wife’s internet searches should be wrapped in words of sumptuous praise. Every element is carefully and lovingly attended to.

I would normally give full detail of the delights which are on offer here but I feel rather inadequate to do so. I would love to submit some sort of eulogy in my stumbling French but luckily for you TripAdvisor will not allow dual language contributions.
Instead, I refer you to the swathe of accolades which are already here. All of them reveal the pleasure and privilege felt when staying in such a memorable house. All of them should be believed. This is a special place.

Of course, it is Valérie who constantly ensures that all her guests are so royally treated. If I’m perfectly honest, the title of my review refers, above all, to her.

Find some sort of excuse to stay here soon.

Room Tip: Just book into each room over the next few years... you won’t regret it.

I'll finish with something a bit high-flown which comes back to me as I write this. It should appeal to Valérie's husband, Sean, who is a fellow lover of the medieval period. The art historian, Émile Mâle, reacted to the intricate and sumptuous painted work of the Limbourg brothers in illuminated manuscripts with these words: 'Moment touchant que celui où l'homme trouve enfin le secret de fixer la beauté mobile du monde.'... That moving instance when someone at last finds the secret of capturing the transitory beauty of this world.

Today you can still enjoy the same lavish care and stunning attention to detail without seeking out and opening the pages of a precious old book. And your stay at 'Maison Ailleurs' will delight more than just your visual senses.

Le Bistrot de la Cathedrale, Chartres

Le Bistrot de la Cathedrale

“La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres… incomparable. Le Bistrot de la Cathedrale… oups.”

Reviewed 2 July 2015

It's not unusual to be served with lack-lustre food when we go out. It makes the places which have real talent and care even more enjoyable. What disappoints is when an establishment representing one of the world's major cuisines falls short of the mark in so many respects; even with the French classic, Poule Au Pot.

The Bream/Daurade/Dorade dish which I chose is shown on the restaurant's Facebook page here. Mine wasn't quite as well presented and gave nothing but a brief challenge to my taste buds.

Let's not detain you longer except to say that I don't recommend you go and try this place to check against my opinion. Please just take my word.

Smoked salmon gravlax with dill sauce: This was a strange interpretation with the fish swimming in nut oil. The dill sauce was nothing except a glass of milk which had been heated for creaminess and then allowed to cool. There was no discernible flavour of dill.
New season asparagus with a hen’s egg: The egg was a relative triumph compared with the rest of the plate. The yolk was runny and provided a good coating of sauce. The asparagus was young and tender but the spears and thin strips were crying out for a gentle but assured searing to add some class to the proceedings. Seasoning was lamentable. An overload of heavily dressed salad leaves was unnecessary.
Two false starts, I’m afraid.
Poule au pot: Surely this would be better. A simple classic. However, apart from a suggestion of flavour in the liquor the vegetables proved to be watery and the chicken unaccountably dry.
Bream with curried lemon: I couldn’t trust that the lemon had been prepared by the cook but it was interesting. The fish, while having a slightly satisfying crisp skin, was, alas, overcooked.
It is always frustrating when a menu appears attractive but the cook does not understand how to bring out the best from ingredients.
Throughout the meal we attempted to engage servers with a little conversation. This proved more or less impossible. They were unresponsive, almost surly.
A half bottle of Sancerre provided mild distraction from the fact that we had to eat poorly considered dishes which were prepared with little sensitivity.
We discarded the pain of choosing dessert, paid and left. The bill was paid in silence to the final, sullen member of staff.
Outside we reflected on a poor dining experience.
The cathedral towered before us and the memory of glorious voices from the visiting Chichester Cathedral Choir earlier in the evening reminded us that architects and choristers can do magnificent things even if a chef cannot.

At least we can all console ourselves and agree that La Cathédrale Notre-Dame remains fabulous. Here are some of the west front's 12th century sculptures to remind us of that fact: 

Leftfield: 'Leftism'

Here's a review I posted on TuneSocial when I joined Facebook a few years ago. This album is one of the finest creations in the world of debatable dance classics. (In my humble opinion!)

I fairly obviously do NOT write for a music magazine... Stuart Maconie can sleep soundly in his bed tonight and for the foreseeable future!

First things first; All due respect to my son, James, and his pals for thrusting this music into the shared home environment of low-key parties and soirées.
Second; I’ve avoided as much research as possible in order to retain the immediate but lasting responses which come from the music itself.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be doing this at all as it’s going to turn out far too personal for the likes of an objective review. Still, there are some things that demand to be shared – so here goes!
01. Release the Pressure
Let them in gently… First proposition - “Peace and Unity” – very nice. No pan pipes. Thank god, someone’s got hold of a blissed-out tin whistle player to add those plaintive notes. Follow up with a gentle nod to the beat which will accompany us on this journey and a burbling, bubbling collection of sounds more stylish and layered than a Nicky Clarke haircut. (This comes hard to a red-blooded male like me but, after a few listens, this familiar, intricate intro induces a dewy-eyed response in knowing appreciation of the delights which are only beginning.)
Quite a lot going on already but then (at 2 minutes 46 seconds for all our obsessive compulsive listeners) with a snappy double drop on a dustbin lid Leftfield nail their colours to the mast. We get the freely available, non-prescription bass and full-on beat which cures many ills. Conversation stops and the wiser among us will let the ears flap while the body responds with those semi-rehearsed yet involuntary movements in sympathetic syncopation.
Pressure release… DONE. (Thank you Gordon. Now fuck off out of my review!)
Best to stop at this one – can’t get much better… can it? READ ON!
02. Afro-Left
Ah! – so glad we persevered! This is world music with knobs on. Well, there’s a jingly-jangly string thing which Robert Plant could, no doubt, identify. (Where’s a rock deity when you need one? Strikes me Leftfield are rising to celestial spheres as we listen.) No frustration with the indecipherable African words. They just mix in with another welcome percussive element. (You will google lyrics in vain for most of this album but don’t fret – The beats the thing wherein you’ll catch the conscience of the King.) By the time this one’s over you realise that you’ve already been served up more varied electronic snaps, animal-skinned drum crackles and human hand pops than are heard from a Guinness World Record helping of Rice Krispies.
03. Melt
Bit like a Beethoven surprise movement, this one. More understated but just as compelling. I’m getting wide vistas laid down with broad brush-strokes but that’s just me mixing my musical and painting metaphors. Quick mug of Ovaltine recommended with this bit of comparative calm!
04. Song of Life
The previous melting moment isn’t immediately banished by this one. Maybe a juxtaposition of the placid and frenetic times in life. At any rate, after building nicely, Leftfield twiddle the knob of a shortwave radio and tune in to the equivalent of the Luton Girls’ Marching Band. They kick in with a beat so insistent that we witness the birth of a Formation Trance Team strutting on to the floor. Make an orderly queue for the ensuing placenta dinner!
05. Original
Young woman seeks life-reassurance from mum’s words. Somewhat dark and broody but where to find more vocal deliveries from this lady – Tasty!
Oh, well spotted – This did start with the sound-clip that Big Bro nicked for the first few series!
06. Black Flute
Short and sweet – (Shortest track and, hey, they’re all sweet!) If you’re listening to this while in charge of an internally combusted engine it might be best to give over control of the wheel to someone less susceptible to all-consuming spark-plugged beats.
07. Space Shanty
O.K., any risk assessment will by now have identified enough foreseeable hazards to make it imperative that you leave the vehicle and take all fellow passengers with you! Return to solid ground and conduct your jumping, twitching responses to this bounce-inducer where least harm will be done. For those sensible enough to be listening in the comfort of their own home, there are a sufficient number of percussive poundings to synchronise with the complaining banging from the unsympathetic occupants of the flat above!
08. Inspection (Check One)
On board with a fruity, cheery, cheeky chappie giving up a reticulated rasta/reggae/rap recipe. This is Shaggy with the addition of unassailable street-credentials. Bombastic!
09. Storm 3000

Just a tad more menacing than when the baroque barometer drops in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Drums thud out the thunder but just enjoy the soundscape as the meteorology metronome defines the mood.
10. Open Up
Next comes John Lydon’s fine (finest?) moment. Whose idea was this collaboration and have they received their knighthood yet? The intonation may not be faultless but that matters not a jot as Lydon whoops and hollers a punkture perfect damnation of all that is Rotten (sic!) with fame and celebrity. His utter delight to be involved is tangible as he joyfully consigns his fellow publicity seekers to the fires of Hell. Sizzling!
11. 21st Century Poem
The closer brings a take on “Blowin’ in the Wind”. It’s a sombre wake-up call but you’re left with the reassuring bass that has underpinned this whole work. It finally reasserts itself as the beating heart that we hear in the womb, subdued but ever-present and insistently life-confirming.
As a guide to my estimation of this album, I have played it almost as much as anything by Dylan, the Stones or the Beatles … and they are who I grew up with!
God knows what this whole creation sounds like blasting from a top-notch, bells and whistles club sound system. It demands a listen through the straining cones of your home equipment at the very least. If you’re not yet familiar with it, stump up the few requisite, worth-every-penny pounds and luxuriate in a sonic experience that will grab you and grind you into awed appreciation. (You will not be asking for a refund or an exchange!)”

 

 

 

The Waffle House, Norwich

The Waffle House

“Our eyes met across a reasonably uncrowded room...”

Reviewed 23 November 2014

Had to pass on by last November because this place was full to the gills with lunchtime eaters. A year after and we popped in for a late morning breakfast before ending our quick return to Norwich (where we met and fell in love forty years ago!)
The food is waffle based (Gasp... Shock, Horror!) and we enjoyed two expressions of latticed loveliness. Mrs. Cheffors went for the fruity, nutty, yoghurty variety while I went all smoky with salmon and bacon with non-smoked scrambled egg. Both plates were tasty and left a good impression. Pot of tea was fine... coffee was just darned awful (where does one get a decent cup of coffee these days!)

Being served by ‘Posh Alice’ was an additional delight.

All in all (apart from the coffee!) just what we wanted. Nothing truly special - but another Norwich venue which we wouldn’t mind revisiting.



Chilango, Islington

 

Chilango

“No fuss… It’s Mexican food in London. Just enjoy it!”

Reviewed 19 August 2014

My wife and I were taken to the Upper Street venue by our nephew for a late lunch. He is obviously a young chap of uncommonly good taste.

We had the chicken, pork and vegetable burritos. All were packed with filthy, dirty goodness and served by dirty, filthy staff (O K, I kinda put that in for effect - we were served by lovely people with friendly gusto!)

Essentially this is uncomplicated but tasty food. The cooking is formulaic and repetitive - but knowing just what you’re going to get proves reassuring sometimes.
I don’t know if burritos taste much different in Mexico. Ours were hearty, spicy, filling and satisfying.

Good for what it is… hell, two consenting adults could have a romantic assignation here if they had a mind to!

A no frills pit-stop of a place. I wouldn’t be afraid to return. Do remember to take one of their Mexican wrestlers as a side for every main course ordered! ;)

Ah, yes… our nephew took us, didn’t he? Of course, he knows what his auntie and uncle are for. We paid the sensibly priced bill with a smile. It seems he’s also a young chap of uncommonly good economic sense.


The Star Inn, Harome

The Star Inn

“Accomplished, honest cooking - smashing!”

Reviewed 19 August 2014

The Star Inn won back its Michelin star a month after we visited!

We live within a couple of hours’ travel from Harome. Having tried for a mid-day snack here years ago while we were passing and giving up because the place was so packed, we always intended returning.

We successfully booked for lunch on our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary only to find that we had been trumped completely by a couple a few tables away who had made their vows sixty years ago!

The flat cap bread basket became totally secondary once we had tasted its oven-baked goodness. The black pudding rolls were my particular favourite.

‘Cured Hartlepool Landed Octopus with ‘Mollet’ Norfolk Quail Eggs, Deep-fried Anchovies, Black Olive Sorbet, Marinated Vegetables’
This was just utterly lovely. Every ingredient was treated with perfection. The vegetables had such a light touch that they might have been the stars of the show. However, the black olive sorbet picked up on the sea-life elements and became a subtle, salty ‘rock-pool’ backdrop to their fishiness. Wonderful.

‘Homemade Village Shot Roe Deer ‘Sausage’ with Pickled Red Cabbage Purée, Pontefract Cake and Pommery Mustard Seeds’
My wife enjoyed this a great deal. Liquorice is often a dangerous plate-fellow but could have been even more insistent here before going into Bassetts AllSorts territory. Meat and one veg in harmony.

‘Cutlet of Ryedale Lamb with its own Faggot, Lowna Dairy Cheese, Smoked Ratatouille-style Vegetables, Oregano Confit Tomato’
Perfectly cooked lamb… that is always a good start. With the cheese ‘lurking’ in the faggot and all vegetables, rather like the chef, on top of their game, this was another delight for my wife.

‘Barbecued Venison, Slice of Giant Puffball with Cobnuts, Rainbow Chard, Elderberry Juices’
No letting up here. On a warm summer day this dish could have edged towards autumnal heartiness. However, it was given the sort of consideration that planted it firmly in the realm of a bright and light season - well before any need for the serious business of pickling or preserving. The meat had been rescued from the coals at the perfect moment and every one of its plate partners gave texture, flavour and colour in abundance. Elderberry was left as a suggestion of thin, fruity, blood-hued meat juices. This decision was just right. A thicker, more syrupy reduction would have carried everything towards a later season.

The vegetable selection was almost unnecessary but, again, the cooking made it irresistible.

‘Iced Garden Lemon Balm Parfait ‘Sandwich’ with our own ‘Alpine’ Strawberries, Homemade Lemonade’
This was my wife’s selection and provided an eye-catching and palate pleasing end to her meal; very clean and light. It also determined me to include ‘Melissa officinalis’ in our garden planting next year!

‘Caramelised Rice Pudding with Sugar’d Skin, Homegrown Blackcurrant ‘Jam’, Deep-fried Apple Pie Custard Doughnut’
This could be considered as an inevitable nod to the passage of time, acknowledging cooler months and demand for heavier puddings. There is a distinct possibility that I made the wrong choice here but it didn’t match the heights of the rest of our meal. The crystallised or candied mint leaves were certainly lack-lustre, having lost any vibrancy. It was still as good as many offerings elsewhere and there had been so much previous excellence that it really didn’t matter that much.

Since we were both on driving duty, we allowed ourselves one glass of wine each. The choice is terrific and we easily found a suitable white and red.

Prices for this quality of cooking are more than reasonable. Ours was a quiet mid-week booking. The old part of the restaurant is intimate and slightly quirky. There are higher ceilings and more modern livery is installed nearer the kitchen. Service was attentive, responsive and informative. After eating, we explored more of the venue’s potential for larger occasions with family or friends. The lovely garden revealed some of the ingredients for our meal.

Were we suitably distracted from the intoxicating love which has developed between us? Indeed we were. Did we identify a reason to return? No… we found countless excuses to visit again very soon!

Michelin be damned… the Star at Harome still shines!

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