Whatley Manor is a restored Cotswold manor house on the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire border that now serves as a luxury hotel. The main restaurant at Whatley Manor, aptly named The Dining Room, achieved its second Michelin star in January 2009 and is the principal reason for our visit there.
Turn off the narrow country lane and journey down the impressive driveway that's flanked by fields on each side and you reach the manor's perimeter wall, your car facing down a sturdy wooden double door. You wait only a fraction of time though before the door, of its own volition, swings open a welcome giving you access to the central courtyard and staff that are already standing at the reception entrance to greet you, take your luggage and park your car. It's nicely done and warms you to the manor right from the beginning. The staff at reception were super nice and super friendly throughout our stay.
The manor itself is absolutely beautiful and boasts several drawing rooms each with wood panelling and log fires. The bar has a fair range of drinks at reasonable prices and for those who like something healthier than fermented grape juice, there's a full service spa. Step outside and 12 acres of gardens are beautifully landscaped for your enjoyment and we even spotted a peacock joining us in taking a stroll.
The venue itself then is the real deal though sadly, the grandeur of the manor was not always matched by the level of care the hotel aspires to provide its guests and they often seemed to struggle with service despite the low occupancy level in January. We're willing to consider that they're running a skinny staff roster because it's January and maybe their big hitters are on a vacation during the quiet period but at times, the failings in service was unacceptable not only at this price point but in a broader sense for any hotel.
During breakfast service for example, when the waiter approached our table after ten minutes of being seated, we sought to order a pot of tea and Eggs Benedict. We were then told that he couldn't take our order because there were tables in front of us yet to order. In context, there were six other tables of two in a restaurant that seats over 50. Whatley Manor has three AA Rosettes, can they really not handle 14 people at breakfast? 45 minutes after sitting down for breakfast, our Eggs Benedict finally arrived; we assume they were having an off day though at least we got ours in the end, one other table was delivered the wrong order (which they declined) and were still sitting empty as we got up to leave.
There were other things too, the night before, Mrs CC nearly ended up wearing her Martini following a fumble by the waiter while after dinner, on returning to the drawing room for whiskies, after 10-15 minutes had passed, we ended up having to try to find a member of staff to place a drinks order. On a different day and night, things I'm sure would normally be very different.
Pre dinner drinks are taken in the drawing room where canapes are also served. There's quail's egg and some foie gras which, in various forms would make several appearances over the course of the night. Together with the amuse bouche that was served at the table, it was okay but far from memorable.
The five course tasting menu we opted for presents several options over several courses and between us, we were able to access all the dishes with our choices. The two opening starters were i) textures of artichoke served with iced truffle and baby shoots, and ii) foie gras ballotine served with vanilla poached quince. Both dishes were disappointing. The artichoke offered a panna cotta, an artichoke and truffle ice cream and cooked artichoke together with greens without dressing. Overall, it lacked any oomph. Equally the ballotine of foie gras was simply that, nothing more, and there was a lot of it, two big slices, as if offering you a second slab of foie would be a compensation for the overall lack of adventure in the dish. This starter is not two star food and probably not even a one star, it's terribly disappointing.
textures of artichoke served with iced truffle and baby shoots
foie gras ballotine served with vanilla poached quince
The ubiquitous had dived scallop makes an appearance next, served here with a smoked glaze, almond puree and pickled clams. In our view, excessively sweet, though just the basic composition of the dish suggests that it would always struggle to be anything more than a well cooked scallop even at its best. It will be a theme of the meal as it is already: at the two star level we expect some kind of reinvention of classic dishes or ingredients, some new twist of surprise. At Hibiscus
, the scallop was served with pork pie sauce that was just genius while at Pied a Terre
, the scallop dish offered a riot of colour to dazzle the eye as well as tasting superb (click here to view
) but nothing here set it apart from scallops served at lesser restaurants that should be a league or more below a kitchen awarded the accolade of two stars.
Scallop with a smoked glaze, almond puree and pickled clams
The story is, sadly, little changed with the main courses. The venison is described as roasted, dressed with its own sausage, 100% grated bitter chocolate and reduced shiraz wine. They also (strangely?) put a piece of bacon on the plate as if, having dressed the plate, they recognised that it just lacked something and they felt obliged to fill a hole. Venison fillet with venison sausage: where's the magic? Looking at the picture below, we think that most decent chefs would feel that they could reasonably produce this dish or something close. So what should two stars mean? Surely the unobtainable for mortals? Compare the much bolder move at Le Champignon Sauvage
of venison served with pressed sweatbreads, tripe and tongue and the difference seems huge.
The alternative main was squab pigeon poached and roasted, served with coffee and sherry gel, roasted foie gras and young turnips. It is true of this dish as it is with the venison above that what's on the plate is technically well done but we would ask in both cases what brings the plate together to make it more than the sum of the parts? Why does it work as a plate rather than just well cooked ingredients? Did roasted foie gras really raise the calibre of the dish or was this merely another excuse to use a luxury ingredient? The roasted foie gras tasted excellent but, in tasting so good, it put the ballotine to shame while making the earlier course simultaneously redundant. We're left thinking that not only does the plate not come together in harmony but nor does the menu as a whole.
Venison, venison sausage, bitter chocolate and reduced shiraz wine
squab pigeon poached and roasted, served with coffee and sherry gel, roasted foie gras and young turnips
A selection of French and English cheese was next with a glass of port. To their credit, this is on the tasting menu with no additional supplement and our waiter was excellent in talking through the board and engaging us with the options. Nevertheless, with the savouries out they way and with little by way of highlights so far, our interest is beginning to wane.
Then to dessert, almond, chocolate and lemon souffle served with lemon grass ice cream and the alternative of apple and maple syrup cheese cake served with caramelised pecan nuts and poached apple. To be fair to The Dining Room, the desserts were probably the best of the day's courses with the cheesecake divine, so light without sacrificing flavour. But the desserts still suffered in our view from the same basic plating issues around combinations but overall, provided a small lift at least at the end of the meal.
Overall, sadly, we were disappointed with the time spent at Whatley Manor though maybe as stated, it's the January effect at work. At the hotel level, while the manor house itself is a great example of the kind, the offering, from the rooms to the service fell short. It's not quite at the price point of Le Manoir
but it's not far off, yet in terms of delivering a customer experience, Le Manoir is truly in a different league.
At the food level, there was, sadly, an even bigger gap. Having sampled not only Whatley Manor's offering but both Le Manoir's and Le Champignon Sauvage's also, all within the space of a few days, we were in no doubt about the pecking order. Not only that, but one Michelin star venues like Martin Wishart
offered us significantly more fantastic meals over the past 12 months. Clearly, Michelin see things differently and we know others who have been cheerleaders for the food at Whatley Manor but for us, on this particular night, it failed to excite. Return to home page
Related links: Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Related links: Le Champignon Sauvage
We don't believe in heaven but if we did, we think it might look a lot like Le Manoir. Indeed, if there is a forever after, the elegance, comfort and sheer pleasure of every minute at the Le Manoir makes it a contender for the role for what better ways are there than to spend a day, or an eternity, in the lap of Raymond Blanc’s flagship enterprise. It must be said however that this is not about the food, or rather, not just about the food, because it is not through the lens of food that Le Manoir should be considered, instead, this is the hotel that sets the highest standards across the board to deliver an exceptional customer experience with food being just a single facet.
Heading off the A40 from Oxford, Le Manoir is easy to find. And while the ever busy M40 express route to London gushes exhaust fumes only a mile or so down the road, Le Manoir itself basks in the best of Oxfordshire’s countryside with the noise outside the manor house predominantly blackbirds nesting in the treetops throughout the grounds of the estate. On entering the main car park entrance (there is another reception/valet parking entrance 20 yards further down the road), we were both struck by a more expansive Le Manoir than we had imagined ahead of arrival, and an equally expansive car park, pretty much full despite being the low season of a fading January.
Before you can even survey potential parking spaces however, Le Manoir staff are on hand to look after you, your parking needs and your bags marking the start of when it's time for you to let go and let Le Manoir take the strain. It's about 100 yards from the car park to the reception, your first taste of Le Manoir grounds and your first sighting of the grand old house, but by the time you open the front door to the manor, they're already expecting you and great you by name.
In fact, everybody seems to greet you by name, respectfully surname of course but it is a feature of the service that as you pass through Le Manoir, from reception to bar to restaurant, the staff are entirely aware of you, your name, your room and your preferences regardless of whether you've seen that particular staff member before or it is the first time. It's impressive, almost scary as some kind of collective hive intelligence instantly transmits the knowledge of one staff member to every other so that you feel the institution itself knows you, and is always looking for ways to help you. It is without doubt the most impressive level of service we've ever received in the UK hotel space and leaves you in awe on every level at how well considered, from the guests perspective, Le Manoir is run.
The accommodation meanwhile seeks to deliver on a par with the service and it does. We've opted for a suite that we learn is part of the old stables, separate to the main house: it’s beautiful, offering double height windows that afford an oh so relaxing view onto a majestic chestnut tree in the central courtyard outside. At one end of the room, a rustic wooden table for in room dining and at the other, a real fire place holds court, something we'll get full use of this time of year, a compensation for not seeing the magnificent gardens in full bloom. The room seems to have everything else too, from the old (wooden beams and exposed stonework) to the new (no less than three flat screen TVs including one at the end of the bath tub) to the pampering (four varieties of soap in the bathroom, a giant candle and matches by the bath and a sumptuous walk in wardrobe to name just a few). Meanwhile, on arrival, the room already offers a fruit platter, a bottle of Madeira and complimentary water.
Nothing seems too much trouble for the staff and when we’re delivered to our room, our guide impresses upon us that if there's anything that’s wrong or anything that we need we should let them know straight away for a complaint at check out time gives them no opportunity to put it right. And they mean it. Staff at Le Manoir look after you 110% but it feels sincere. In the direction that recent trends have started to move in the UK, staff at Le Manoir take pride in service and in their jobs and our sense was that staff here seek lifelong and rewarding careers in the service industry; it’s very refreshing. And as a small aside, it was also nice to see at Le Manoir that Brits too are now embracing the service community and doing a fine job, we encountered an unusually high number working there during our stay including an English sommelier during our dinner.
After walking the lovely grounds in the fading light of the day and enjoying down time in our room with champagne and a log fire, dinner approached. Before sitting down however, we were invited to tour the wine cellar and kitchens. If you love wine, the cellar was wonderful to see holding something like 900 labels though the real superstars of the wine list like a 1875 Mouton they reportedly have lives in safer places elsewhere. The kitchen meanwhile is vast with the prep area alone being the size of the kitchen at somewhere like The Ledbury. Even here in the kitchen ahead of dinner service, everyone bids you hello, everybody’s nice. We're also amazed at how calm the kitchen is, no shouting, swearing or running, rather, this kitchen exudes professionalism and discipline, it's hard not to be impressed.
After the kitchen tour, we're taken to the lounge for a glass of champagne and canapés and a chance to peruse the menu and pick one of the three options on offer: Decouverte (the tasting menu), Les Classiques (a five course menu of classic Manoir dishes), or a la Carte.
The dining room itself is larger than we'd expected, holding up to 100 covers at maximum capacity; tonight it is still impressively busy for a Monday in January but is still nevertheless cruising at a somewhat lower altitude. As an extension from the original manor house, the dining room is also more modern in its feel combing English, French and Asian influences. Service obeys all the formal norms but equally manages to be relaxed and friendly, a place where the focus is on the customer rather than the restaurant’s own solipsistic grandeur.
pre dinner canapes
We start with a salad of pot caught Cornish wild crab, mango and Oscietra caviar. As the start of a tasting menu it's a small portion but perfect in delivering beautiful fresh crab with an enriching mango that sets you up wonderfully for the rest of the meal. Confit of Landais duck liver with rhubarb compote and sour dough toast follows. It's hard to tell what the confit has added to the usual ballontine but it is nice, well seasoned and again in the right quantities.
salad of pot caught Cornish wild crab, mango and Oscietra caviar
Confit of Landais duck liver with rhubarb compote
It's the turn of mackerel next: wild, hand-line caught Cornish mackerel, glazed with honey and soy with pickled mouli and Braeburn apple. This is an outstanding piece of mackerel and just to look at it on the plate, it radiates freshness. Perhaps it's the glaze but there's a sheen to the skin that makes it look though it's minutes out the sea but it doesn't end there as it carries a taste to match, not suffering from an overly fishiness that mackerel can often be prone to. It’s the best dish so far and will remain one of the highlights of the meal.
wild, hand-line caught Cornish mackerel, glazed with honey and soy with pickled mouli and Braeburn apple
Slow cooked organic suckling pig belly, seared hand dived Scottish scallop and black pudding are next. This is probably the dish that worked least well for us. While this dish is we understand a Manoir classic (and we’d see the same combination later in the week at Adam Simmonds), here, the Black pudding, pork belly and scallop on the same plate didn’t come together for us. The flavours were there and bringing together everything on the fork was nice enough with crunch and fat from the belly and depth and warmth from the black pudding but it always struggled to be more than the sum of the parts.
Slow cooked organic suckling pig belly, seared hand dived Scottish scallop and black pudding
Returning to the sea for the next course, we were presented with pan fried wild Cornish line-caught sea bass fillet, seared with creel-caught Scottish langoustine, smoked mashed potatoes and star anis jus. Apparently the smoked mash was Wylie Dufresne's idea from a chef get together some years back and this dish has, in one form or another, featured in Le Manoir’s back catalogue for quite some time we're told. This was another excellent plate with the langoustine tale reminiscent of that served at Noma
, the best of ingredients treated with respect. The sea bass too was excellent, cooked of course to perfection. The star anis added an Asian inflection and the dish came together wonderfully.
pan fried wild sea bass fillet, seared with Scottish langoustine, smoked mashed potatoes and star anis jus
The final savoury was roasted loin of venison, aigre-doux sauce with bitter chocolate, braised chestnuts, celery heart and truffled chicory. Venison seems ubiquitous on top end menus currently and more often than not over the past year it has been mostly over cooked though Le Manoir would make no such error and it arrived at the table beautifully cooked and deeply flavoured. As such, it delivered a main course that was certainly good in its own right, better than that delivered by many lesser kitchens but on a par with, rather than surpassing, key rivals.
roasted loin of venison, aigre-doux sauce with bitter chocolate, braised chestnuts, celery heart and truffled chicory
Exotic fruit raviole with kaffir lime leaf and coconut jus has the job of clearing the palate and if perhaps somewhat sweet, it does offer nevertheless luscious refreshment before a serving of seasonal pear Almondine, caramel croustillant, ginger sauce and its own sorbet. A very well balanced dessert, light, with the pear and sorbet refreshing, but the pastry tasty and rich; excellent.
Exotic fruit raviole with kaffir lime leaf and coconut jus
seasonal pear Almondine, caramel croustillant, ginger sauce and its own sorbet
Finally, it was a Macae 62% chocolate marquise with Tonda hazelnut and lemon butterscotch sauce. This is a dessert for the wicked and I totally loved it. We have accused some desserts such as the famous Louis XV at Gauthier
as offering a great chocolate taste but one that is too repetitive with each spoon. Here, there are diverse tastes and textures (ranging from crunchy caramelised hazelnuts to super smooth ice cream) that allow for a more complex and satisfying dessert. Top marks here, loved it as I’m sure all chocophiles would.
Macae 62% chocolate marquise with Tonda hazelnut and lemon butterscotch sauce
As a meal, our dinner delivered at the level of our expectations, great food, superbly executed combined with first class service. But with foie gras, scallops, sea bass and venison on the menu, despite the inclusion of the odd twist, it was all on quite safe territory. Le Manoir though we’re sure has a strong sense of its customer base, their likes and preferences and the proposition therefore is most likely tailored towards consistent satisfaction, something that as noted was at the heart of our own expectations.
That night's dinner was not the only opportunity of course to sample Le Manoir’s cooking and we enjoyed both breakfast and dinner the following night in our room. The highlight of breakfast was smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, decadently topped with caviar. Both the quality of the salmon and superbly cooked eggs made this a breakfast treat and tasted pristine despite the journey time across the courtyard from the kitchen to our room. Similarly, an order of Beef Bourguignon delivered a slightly non tradition dish (no bacon, shallots, mushrooms, instead cauli, celery and broccoli) but it was absolutely superb with an amazing densely dark beef over which an equally dark sauce was poured which combined was probably the best of its kind we’ve tasted.
Before we departed, the hotel kindly let us view other available suites in case we’d like something different for a future visit. All suites at Le Manoir are themed and very different to each other including French, Italian and Oriental designs; all were lovely. Pictures are shown below.
It’s easy to go on about Le Manoir because there are so many things they do well, little things and big things alike. Every detail is important to them and the sum of those efforts is truly remarkable and becomes in its totality so much more than merely the sum of the parts, providing a unique experience to guests. However, had we visited Le Manoir only to eat in the restaurant, leaving when the meal was finished, we would be impressed with the food for sure but would depart believing that this was a restaurant that sits comfortably with its two star peers but not beyond them. Visit Le Manoir though for the total experience of staying at the hotel and enjoying the full depth of their offering and Le Manoir is in our experience without peers, it really is that good.
Many who go to Le Manoir will do so for a special occasion, dipping deep into savings to do so, for let’s be fair, it doesn’t come cheap. But making you feel special is very much what Le Manoir excels at and when the time came to check out and for us to say goodbyes, despite it being only a few days, it felt like we were leaving old friends. If you have a list of ‘things to do before you die’, the addition of staying at Le Manoir to the list is a must, for that way, you’re guaranteed to get a glimpse of heaven before you do. Return to homepage
Recently, while downing Colchester oysters in London, why not we thought visit Colchester itself and eat oysters at the source. A quick look on Google maps told us that while Colchester was not that far away from London, it was in fact quite far away from the sea which seemed a little strange. During our visit there we asked a local where the harbour was and we got a quizical look and were told they have a quay but no harbour. So much for Colchester's marine industry, but with a little more research in prep for our day out, a name came up again and again - The Company Shed in West Mersea. By all accounts, this was the real thing and so became our chosen lunch destination. As a final piece of prep, I checked the tides for it is well known that at high tide, the road connecting Mersea to the mainland becomes flooded and impassable so best to know when that might be.
With the road not due to be flooded till 3:30 we aimed to arrive at The Shed around 2pm thinking that the lunch time rush might be over by then and fortunately it was. It also helped that it was November and 7 degrees outside, well off peak season. That said, it was still quite busy and most surprising was a table of half a dozen young Japanese tourists; as Jay Rayner said in his 2007 review for The Guardian, this may be a gem but it's hardly hidden. But international stature? The answer it seems is yes. How's that for a restaurant worth a detour (Michelin take note).
Jay Rayner had to queue for 45 mins to get a seat (you put your name on the board and wait till it's called out apparently) while others have talked about a one and a half hour wait around midday. Fortunately, off lunch off peak means we can walk in and sit right down. Oh, and as other reviews suggest, this is indeed a shed like building so is aptly named - it's not irony.
Also, as well noted elsewhere, the inside is basic, though plastic tablecloths seem to be an upgrade from no tablecloths of a year or two ago but it's still a bring your own bottle affair (with zero corkage) if you fancy a drink. What they do provide are: knives, forks, crackers, plates, glasses, garlic mayo, tabasco, vinegar, a mignonette (on request), lemon wedges and paper towels. Water is available to buy by the bottle. And, our value add since we've read it nowhere else, they do have a WC, something which we were both pleased about after the drive. When a place is deservedly called the shed, you can't assume.
Cold sea food platter
The thing that everybody says you have to have here is the cold seafood platter that now costs a still very reasonable £10.50 and comes with smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, prawns (peeled and shell on), cockles, a green lip muscle, a crevette and a half crab. We order one of these but with two eaters, supplemented it with another whole crab, six langoustine and a hot dish of tiger prawns with a salt and herb crust. We also order of course a plate of oysters for Colchester has been famous since Roman times for this and it is one of the reasons we are here.The hot dish strangely arrives first and it is fabulous. The prawns, shell on, are visibly coated in salt and herbs (parsley, thyme, garlic and lemon we think) and have a huge depth of flavour, a salty rush, great texture and a lingering thyme finish. We would later order another two rounds of these as they are one of the stars of the show. They are also served piping hot.
The oysters are the other star of the show, as they should be given their fame and the fact that the oyster farm itself is literally 30 yards away so they're going to be as fresh as can be. It was I think the French poet Leon-Paul Fargue who said that eating an oyster was 'like kissing the sea on the lips' and so it was here. Briney juice to start and a sweet body follow through. Unsurprising then that the oysters were great but the expectation itself risks disappointment; fortunately there was none.
The crevette was fantastic, a firmly textured body but also so fresh and clean while the cockles had only the tiniest grit and were a delight with a splash of vinegar. The prawns likewise with a splash of lemon as the palate clears on the acidity before the essence of prawn hits. We found the smoked fish the 'odd fish out' on the plate as everything else here benefited from being so fresh but some of the real gain of eating quayside fish is surely lost in smoking which of course has its origins as a preservative.
A truly beautiful setting
We loved our meal at the Shed. The oysters were awesome as were many of the shelled items (though much of these are imported, the lobster for example is from Canada we understand). In the restaurant there are nevertheless wet trays at the back of the dining area where the crab and lobster reside so it is still very fresh indeed. The basic nature of the venue lends it a playful aspect and it feels right to get down and dirty with your fingers to tackle the food in a way that it might not if the table cloths were pristine linen and waiters were hovering by you. The kitchen roll on the table was used in abundance. We were grateful that we didn't have to queue though the setting is beautiful as the Shed resides on the waterfront so there's some solace to the soul in just looking out to sea if you do have an hour to kill. Our advice would still be though to get there early in peak season or to go off peak, then sit back, relax and enjoy some great seafood. Related links: Billingsgate fish marketReturn to homepage
Unexpected finds can often provide as much (or more) pleasure than life’s big set pieces. The discovery that Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest surviving grand Music Hall in the world is on our doorstep (and that it has a liquor licence) has today given us great joy.
This place is just amazing and steeped in history as you might expect. The music hall was built in the back yard of five terrace houses that date from 1720. A pub from 1828 (Prince of Denmark), The Music Hall itself dates from 1859 when top acts from Covent Garden would run across town to perform on John Wilton’s stage in a hall that would hold up to 1,500 people. It wasn’t a music hall for long and variously became a Mission, a safe house for East Enders protesting against Mosley and Fascism at the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and a shelter during World War II for those made homeless by the Blitz bombing. Saved from demolition in the 1960s by Sir John Betjemen, the hall once again sees live entertainment performed in a truly original setting.
The Music Hall itself feels alive with the history and totally original only missing perhaps the original ‘sun burner’ chandelier of 300 gas gets and 27,000 cut crystals that has now gone but which must have been a sight in its day. On stage meanwhile, George Leybourne
known as Champagne Charlie performed, dressed in top hat and tails, gloves, cane and scarf waving a bottle of vintage Moet & Chandon, swigging from the bottle as he sang. Here too it is reputed that the first ever can-can was performed in London.
Roll forward and Hollywood’s in town as the Music Hall plays host to Robert Downey Jr’s Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream.
Don’t expect though to find the place pristine – it reminded me of Cuba’s Havana: beautiful decay. Sadly this has been a much neglected building but in part, here lies the charm. The layers of history are seen in the peeling paint work and the original but historically neglected ornamentation. If most theatres invite you to ‘think when we talk of horses that you see them’, Wilton’s, through its being, turns this on its head and invites you to think of the performers and the crowds; here the story is the Hall, everything else is secondary.
The staff are friendly and the bar cosy. The cider was cloudy and cold (yum), they have a bottle of Macallan 10yr on the shelf and there are complimentary nibbles of ham and soft cheese spread on sliced baguette. There’s a jug of water and cups on the bar too which is an unusual and nice touch. Meanwhile, no two pieces of furniture in the bar match. These are some of the many reasons to love the place. On our first visit, we signed up to become ‘friends of Wilton’s’ for this is a beautiful place and should be enjoyed by not just us but generations to come.
While in 2007 the building was placed on the World Monuments Fund ‘100 most endangered sites’, things are improving and the Hall is slowly on the way to recovery as the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust move towards their fund raising target and the necessary repairs to restore this gem to a more enduring condition. Two things then that each of us needs to do: first, go there, it’s good for the soul and really has a wow factor for this is truly a hidden gem. Second, spend some money, have a drink and know that the ‘margin’ is keeping the place alive; perhaps even take in one of their shows, concerts or other events (they have live music in the bar every Monday).
In the world of the generic, this is truly a one off and a complete find. We’re delighted to call ourselves Wilton’s Music Hall’s newest friends. We hope to see you there.
The bar is open Mon-Fri, 5-11pm. A lunchtime service will also be available during August on Thurs/Fri, 12-3pm.
Find out more at www.wiltons.org.uk/
It’s Friday, it’s sunny and the critical couple are hungry and thirsty; what better way to spend an afternoon then than to walk over Tower Bridge, along the Thames and finish up in Borough Market. Lunch to be bought and consumed, dinner to be bought and bagged. This Friday though, it was not to be. We must point out that this is not (on this occasion) because we’re too lazy to get off the couch, abandon the home bar and make the walk, rather, we got distracted on the way; read on.Our first waypoint of note is St Katharine Docks nestling next to Tower Bridge which, each Friday, hosts a food market. A beautiful location, bathed in sunshine, the food of the world is on display. It’s a nice place to stroll around and a nice place to have such a market though like everywhere I guess, it played shamelessly on the all intrusive World Cup and the market boasts ‘a month of football foodie heaven’ with today’s theme being Portugal v Brazil reflecting the match of the day. To be honest though, the diversity of food on sale means that this is more marketing spin than substance and most international fixtures could be represented (except England vs Germany strangely). Most popular seemed to be the Italian BBQ and the Ribeye steak grill, both of which looked and smelled extremely good, but the long queues quelled our desire and so we headed on.
Just round the corner we were greeted by general pandemonium as we discovered that James Morrison was shortly to perform Man in the Mirror live as part of a US broadcast for CBS to mark the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. Before the performance, James was signing autographs and posing for photographs with fans and it was really nice to see a celebrity with a genuine smile on his face. James seemed to want that ‘no fan be left behind’ and did his best to accommodate each fan's request with real enthusiasm. A black cab driver the other day told us that he’d recently had Will Young in the back of his cab who was somewhat drunk and had a real potty mouth; it’s hard now to listen to ‘Leave Right Now’ without thinking that he’s not as sweet as he appears and in fact rather worse. James though, despite his lyrical angst in his recordings was, in real life, what we all hope a celebrity might be – a decent bloke who’s enjoying his talent and his moment. We’ve enjoyed James’ music for a few years now and further warmed to him today. James, if you or your agent are reading this, you’re welcome for dinner round ours anytime.
Crossing Tower Bridge we see the adjacent grass area of Potters Fields (where David Blaine sat in a perspex box for 44 days without food) fenced off and as we compete to strain our eyes to read what’s on the boarding, I suggest it says 'tapas'. This of course might well be my tummy rather than my mind making a Freudian slip via my eyes, but as we get nearer, it is indeed Tapas Fantasticas, which is billed as ‘A celebration of Rioja wine, Spanish food and lifestyle’. Okay, it’s hot and to be honest, we’ve not been out of bed that long so tucking into a meaty spicy Rioja is not yet top of our wishlist but we still have to look inside. Early on, we’re thinking that an ice cold Sangria would at least get the ball rolling though sadly it wasn’t to be found. Even so, a refreshing bottle of water and a walk around stalls plentiful in hams, chorizo and Rioja (red, white and rosé) start to get the juices flowing. A sampling wine glass (being tokens for 4 x25ml samplings of any wines exhibited for just £2) starts us off and we’re happy to try, and delightfully surprised by, the white Riojas available. Normally we’re white Burgundy types, so we were pleasantly surprised by the crisp fruit flavours the white Riojas offer and have to acknowledge the value they offer versus our normal early evening summer tipple (the one after the G&T but before the red).
Foodwise, we start off with Spanish meatballs (tasty) which in turn fortifies us to move on to the red Rioja (in this case the Faustino) for which we then seek out some Iberico ham nicely cut in front of us and Croquetas de Jamon which were moist and flavourful with a white creamy sauce supporting the ham in a crispy fried breadcrumb coating. To add to the atmosphere, live Spanish music is also on offer. Sitting on the grass in the shadow of Tower Bridge and under the looming London Council building, given how well supported the event is even at three in the afternoon, we wonder if anyone still works in London these days (apart from those serving food). Meanwhile, Olly Smith was making an appearance at the event and Mrs CC was inclined to give him a bit of her mind for the disappointment that is Iron Chef UK that exhibits ‘all of the cheese but none of the substance’ of its US and Japanese forerunners. Fortunately for all involved, he passed without incident.
The last of our tasting tokens goes on a premium CVNE (Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana) Imperial Gran Reserva 1998, for in an equal measure tasting, you might as well go for the good stuff. Thereafter, we decide to cool ourselves down with a Don Jacobo rosé which was refreshingly dry but fruity (we bought a bottle for home and a full glass rather than a mere tasting measure) and then finally tried the ‘Arroz Al Horno’ (baked rice, ribs, chorizo, meatballs and beans) which looked good but was sadly dry with little flavour. Worth trying at £3 but in the end, left behind with our empty wine glasses in the bins.
Our last stop was to be St Katharine Docks to stock up on goat curry and try the Italian BBQ, perhaps now at 3:45 there would be shorter queues than at the earlier lunchtime. L'horreur! everyone is packing up to go home despite the market being advertised as running till 4pm. Oh well, next time. Heading home, left-over Alaskan King Crab beckons followed by Miso Cod washed down with a Jean-Marc Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet 2004 followed by a customary bottle of Bordeaux for the night (tonight being a Lynch Bages 2000 as we feel like drinking something special to reward ourselves for surviving another week).
So, we never made Borough market but we did have a nice time trying; now, where’s that corkscrew...
The Eastern boundary of ‘The Square Mile’ of the City is generally considered to stop on Bishopsgate. City workers hoping to escape a lifetime of Pret a Manger lunchtimes will often venture a little further East to Spitalfields for the various eateries that are now contained therein (see earlier post on The Luxe) but head out even a little further East (but not all the way to Brick Lane just yet) and you hit a revelation of grass root inner city renewal that surprised even us despite being resident locals and City habitués. Here street food meets street art in the most unexpected of ways. It made our day to walk the area and showcases the idea that East London is way more than the cliché of Brick Lane curries and Commercial Road kebab houses.
For City workers, next time the boss is away, take a long lunch and explore!
From Spitalfields/Commercial Street, head into Hanbury Street; the second left turn then opens up into a carpark like area that shares the space between art and food in equal measure. We loved the idea of the Rootmaster
bus (a double decker bus converted into a takeaway and eat in restaurant) that sits on the Western edge and describes itself as: London's first vegan Bustaurant founded in 2006. Our aim at the Rootmaster Bustaurant is to promote healthy living and respect for the environment. We want to show our customers that it is possible to enjoy and have fun with food and wine while living in harmony with the planet
Maybe not our style of food (it doesn’t moo) but we still love the idea that people are doing this. To the right of the bus at skyline level is a car with what looks like a winged bomb crushing it – it’s hard to describe but check out the pictures below – it’s funky. The whole thing is different and interesting and should be welcomed to London’s diversity, especially on the edge of the City where old school still rules. The co-sharing of contrasts is after all what makes London a truly great City.
Opposite the Root-master are Middle Eastern and Asian food stands, and while situated against a looming industrial backdrop, it nevertheless enjoys equally looming wall size art that points to rebirth from dereliction. Following the lane down and round, we come across a cafe surrounded huge pots of grass: do we juice it or smoke it? I think the answer is just enjoy. The contrast of the heavily urban, almost factory environment, transformed by ‘urban grass’ makes us smile at the vibrant revitalisation of City living that could so easily have taken a more ruinous route – the whole area, hand in hand with the two dimensional art, retains the air of real life street theatre, the canvas of ordinary lives making the best of what's to hand, laced with hope and constantly reborn.
At the end of the walkway, you do eventually reach Brick Lane. To the South is indeed the curry houses we all know, but heading north toward Shoreditch is arguably the more interesting route. Looming above us in the short distance is the Truman chimney of the former Truman Brewery – clearly, our kind of place. With the ‘Brewhouse in Brick Lane’ dating back to 1666 and the eponymous Joseph Truman becoming manager in 1697, remarkably but now forgotten, employing over 1,000 people, this was London’s largest brewery and the second biggest in Britain. Taken over by Grand Metroplitan in 1971, it was eventually closed in 1988 and has since been redeveloped to what is now The Old Truman Brewery
. Backers describe the venue as ‘East London's revolutionary arts and media quarter, [a] home to a hive of creative businesses as well as exclusively independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants’. We approve; and of course like the idea of living in a brewery.
Continuing up Brick Lane we bought Rye Bread and a salt beef sandwich from the 24/7 Beigel Bake, and then, as if to make the final point that Brick Lane really isn’t about just curry, you arrive at Fika
, Swedish Bar & Grille. Here you can try for a starter Reindeer salami (at the very reasonable price of £4) as well as of course pickled herring. For the main, no self respecting Swedish restaurant would be without meatballs (Kö
ttbullar) or reindeer sausage. Why not wash it down with a Lapin Kulta beer?
A few more minutes and you reach Bethnall Green Road affording excellent views of the City towers including the new Heron Tower as it races skyward to challenge the Gherkin for skyline prominence. Better still, you’re close to Club Row where Les Trois Garcons
serves incredible French food amongst stuffed and tiarred bull terriers (it’s weird but it works). Sadly though, the associated Lounge Lover Bar, home to further camp glamour, is not open in the afternoon so in search of a thirst quencher, we almost double back on ourselves via Shoreditch High Street and head south to The Light Restaurant
and Bar, sitting outside with more crazy artwork and a moment of tranquility before the bar becomes sardine full as offices turn out at the end of the day. With such variety of shops, a remarkable density of art galleries, and food for every taste, it’s clear to us that to pigeon hole East London or more specifically, Brick Lane, is for those only who have not been there. While lunch at The Luxe was disappointing, a walk across the road and up Brick Lane has certainly removed my prejudice against the area and afforded a wonderful afternoon at no cost; what could be better?
This week Mr & Mrs CC got up at the crack of crack, donned our wellies, and went shopping at Billingsgate fishmarket for a weekend's worth of food. This is where the industry shops for fish and with trays of everything fresh off the boat, as the old expression goes, if it were any fresher you'd have to slap it. Most people know of Billingsgate but here's a quick and dirty recap for those who don't.
First, let's wind the clock back: market rights in the City of London were based on a charter granted by Edward III in 1327, with rival markets to those in London being prohibited from setting up within 6.6 miles of the City (the distance a person could be expected to walk to a market, sell his produce and return in a day). While the original Billingsgate market traded corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery and fish, sometime in the mid sixteenth century it became exclusively a fish market. The first purpose built market was constructed on Lower Thames Street where the building still stands (though is currently used for parties, conferences and the like) but in 1982, the market itself moved to Canary Wharf onto a dedicated 13 acre site. Pictures old and new are shown below (indeed, if you are on Lower Thames Street, look out for the fishy weathervanes on top of the building and other fish motifs that adorn the building).
With so much tradition, you'd expect Billingsgate to be a lively affair; it is. Peter Ackroyd in his brilliant book 'London: The Biography' described the market as having 'an atmosphere of reeking fish, with fish-scales underfoot and a shallow lake of mud all round'. Traditionally, the lifting work was undertaken by 'wives' of Billingsgate carrying baskets of fish on their head. According to Ackroyd these women, 'called 'fish fags' smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin, and were known for their colourful language. Thus became the phrase to shriek like a fishwife'. Indeed, an 18th century dictionary defined a Billingsgate as 'a scolding impudent slut'. The wives have been replaced by porters but the language remains colourful and there's a buzz at 5am in the morning that is out of sync with a City where alarm clocks have yet to sound, even for the City's financial traders.
On that note, some market stalls are packing up to leave by 7am (the market itself shuts at 8:30am) and the best of the fish clearly sell first so it's worth getting there early. Also, while the floors have built in drainage, it can be pretty ruinous for shoes or trousers that drag along the floor (unless you like the permanent smell of fish attached to your clothing) so appropriate footwear is advisable. Parking is free and plentiful and off you go. Oh, final tip, watch your back, there's loads of pallets and crates being constantly moved and not every porter is that concerned whether you're in the way or not (like London bus drivers really). Stay aware.
Just looking round the stalls is a real treat with most of our time spent by me asking Mrs CC 'what's that fish? what about that one? and what's that there?' The smooth hound fish seemed in plentiful supply (can you spot it in the picture above) and was a new one to both of us. It's a member of the shark family though smallish in size (at least the ones here were). According to sea-fishing.org
, it's delicious when cut into 3 inch chunks and oven baked for 30 mins. Today at least, we weren't to find out. Other spectacles include the eel shelves where live eels are scooped out on demand but the whole place has a wow factor to it as you look at the mountain trays of clams, lobster, crab and shrimp. Every type of fish too, ones you know, ones you don't. Salmon, turbot, halibut (pictured below right) whatever; if it lived in water and is edible, it's here waiting to go on your dinner plate.
The stalls are all competing with each other so it's worth checking the whole of the market for what you want and buying it where you find it most attractive either on price or quality. We picked up a fantastic 1.7kg wild sea bass (around £11 per kg) that was so fresh its eyes were shining. Four crabs (about £10 for the four) and a kilo of supersize Indian Ocean shrimp. You'll probably have to buy greater quantities than you'd normally buy because while they do sell to retail customers, it's a wholesale market more than shop but here the good news is that the price is sufficiently cheap (no middle man mark up) that buying more still costs you less.
As a market, the fish is sold 'as seen' and it's just come off the boat so they won't be scaling it for you and you'll have to gut it and prepare it yourself. The crabs and lobster too are of course still kicking (or rather pinching) so get the lobster pot ready. Let them fall asleep in the freezer first before dispatch (according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) but when you come to eat them, oh so fresh.
So it was up at 5:15, the market for 6. An hour there, after which a cat-nap followed. Just a few hours on, crab cakes and poached egg for lunch, wild sea bass on a bed of greens for dinner and later that weekend, with the sea bass bones and prawn heads having contributed to a fish stock, we had prawn and crab risotto with asparagus. All washed down with a nice white burgundy. No brainer that it beats going to Tesco, but it also beats your local fishmonger (who probably bought his fish there any way) or indeed Borough Market for fish though as noted, you wont get advice or help with prep at Billingsgate.
A cracking morning out though. Billingsgate is open Tuesday - Saturday, 5am to 8:30am.
Bath is a charming place to visit, even when it's raining somewhat. Despite being a destination for travellers/tourists for hundreds and indeed thousands of years, it has has in the face of such popularity achieved something both rare and special, it remains broadly unspoilt, indeed, much more so than so many towns with so much less to offer. The tourist is well catered for while Bath remains quintessentially Bath.
Accommodation for our stay was the Bath Priory
Hotel leading Mrs criticalcouple to remark that finally, she was taking the overwhelming advice of her friends and checking into the Priory. Fortunately the regime is somewhat less austere and the promise of the evening dinner in the restaurant under the direction of Executive Head Chef Michael Caine MBE promised for a suitably indulgent evening. The hotel is indeed nice and is in the Bath style. An early glass of champagne on the garden terrace with the last of the afternoon sun followed by a nice cup of tea in an old school sitting room took us nicely to our evening booking.
Settling down again in the sitting room to a pre-dinner drink (though Mrs criticalcouple's dirty martini wasn't infact dirty but we forgive that), the food order for mrs was the Scottish pan fried langoustine followed by beef fillet and for mr, pan fried foie gras followed by loin and shoulder of lamb with sweatbreads; sadly the best is now behind us as the evening goes down here from here. Called through into the restaurant, only a disappoining amuse bouche filled an interminable wait for our starters (despite the order having been taken back in the sitting room) leading us to nurse our starting wines which had warmed up a good ten degrees before we asked the waitress if our starters were indeed ever likely to come.
The staff bless them were friendly, perhaps too much so, where quiet efficiency would have been better suited for what they are trying to achieve, but the wines were duly replaced and the starter then followed. The langoustine, sadly, proved to be the precursor of much of the food that night, under seasoned and essentially tasteless. The real comedy though came after the first course was finished when the kitchen by way of apology for our wait sent two complimentary plates of foie gras to our table for us. While the gesture of course was appreciated, that no one on the service staff figured that I had already just eaten a plate of foie gras highlighted the absence of experienced or senior over-sight that night. The main courses were sadly bland leaving us feeling that Michael Caines needs to spend a lot more time ensuring that what goes out in his name is worthy of doing so.
The wine for note was a Comtesse de Lalande though it lacked the power of another great second wine, Clos du Marquis which was on the wine list at a similar price. An octet of Macallan 10 year old whisky provided at least a comfortable end to the evening and ensured a good night of sleep.
Bath itself the following day was nice, even from under an umbrella. The Roman Baths themselves were a touch pricey but a must (and I guess that warm comfortable glow that your entry fee is helping sustain a genuine world heritage site), but it was Bath's narrow streets, pubs and eateries that were so charming. With most town High Streets so widely dominated by generic chains, it was nice to find individual shops with character including a lovely cheese shop (where a purchased Brillat-Savarin and Highland Blue would that evening grace our supper table paired with a Penfold Bin 707, 2004). A few doors down was The Salamander
Bath ale house serving the local brew including the Barnstormer, Gem and Wild Hare, a must for ale fans.
The Streets were a delight and the people friendly. We look forward to returning to the city, leaving the car keys behind and getting to know the hospitality of Bath better.