Brunch in London town: Automat

Dare I confess that a weekday breakfast to me usually consists of some form of cereal bar, hurriedly consumed whilst sat at my desk. Although I must admit that this is due to my own sheer laziness to have that extra five minutes in bed of a morning. So, when the weekend arrives brunch seems so luxurious, the antithesis of my Monday to Friday fare. No need to race out of bed first thing and no need for any quick fix cereal solution, just pure indulgent, leisurely eating, my favourite kind.

Automat sells itself as the American diner experience, and was recently mentioned to me by a fellow foodie, so where better then to get my brunch fix when I was staying in central London for the weekend. It wasn’t quite as kitsch inside as i’d hoped but it did have the all important booth style seating which always gets me rather excited. It was certainly pretty popular and a great place for people-watching. Even the waiters themselves were rather interesting characters, the first looking like he’d had a bit too much of the old wacky baccy and the second having looked like he’d been let out for the day, harsh but true.

Although the menu was fairly lengthy, there wouldn’t normally be any contest for me in terms of what to order, the pancakes with berries and maple syrup would usually triumph every time. However, having woken up a little peckish and munched on an almond croissant, my sweet tooth had already been satisfied. Now this left me in somewhat of a quandary, to opt for more traditional brunch fare such as the classic eggs Benedict or to give something all American a whirl. As tasty as the thought of the mac ‘n’ cheese was I was sold on the idea of the soft shell crab ‘Po Boy’ sandwich with fries. Not something you’d find on your average brekkie menu. And when it arrived, two small whole crabs lightly battered, top marks to the man for having no shame in asking how we were meant to tackle eating said crustacean. And the answer was simple, the clue is in the name, the whole crab can be consumed. I was rather chuffed at this, no fiddling around trying to extract the crab meat and all the more food for greedy old me.

The man, meanwhile had his sights set firmly on the proper hearty breakfast option, the brunch burger, which consisted of, not merely a burger but also a sausage patty, bacon, fried egg, caramelized onions, cheese.. the list goes on. Oh, and not forgetting the healthy side of fried potatoes. This certainly isn’t an option for the faint-hearted or small of appetite, but it most definitely is a meal to set you up for the day. I think I can safely say that the man rather enjoyed it.

Overall, a fun brunch experience but I don’t think i’ll be in any rush to return as this is one pricey place, at over £50 for two meals, two coffees, two diet cokes and a bottle of water (inclusive of ‘discretionary’ 12.5% service charge).

http://www.automat-london.com/

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Abergavenny: The Walnut Tree

Now I realise I’ve not exhausted all the dining options in Bristol yet, let alone England but the offer of a visit to The Walnut Tree was too good to pass up when I was in Abergavenny for the weekend at the food festival. Shaun Hill, formerly of the highly esteemed Merchant House in Ludlow has been at the helm of The Walnut Tree for the last few years and has recently been awarded a Michelin star for his efforts. A short drive outside the town, the place is very unassuming upon arrival. This certainly isn’t your stereotypical Michelin-starred restaurant, you won’t find any starched white table cloths, austere waiters and people talking in hushed tones here, and it’s all the better for it in my opinion. Oh yes, and lest I forget, you have to go outside to find the privy, I kid you not.

Moving swiftly on to the food..

If the appetisers were anything to go by then we were in for a treat. Bite-sized fish arancini, which evoked memories of last years hols in Sicily and stilton and sesame topped biscuits which had the most wonderful crumbly texture, were simply delightful.

And when it came to choosing the courses I was spoilt for choice, I don’t think there was anything on the menu that didn’t tickle my tastebuds. On my mission to try new foods and enrich my palate, I went for the veal sweetbreads to start. Until fairly recently, like a lot of people, I was under the misapprehension that they were a part of the animal I most certainly never wish to dine on. After much reassurance that they were definitely the thymus gland I still wasn’t sure what to expect but I was very pleasantly surprised. They just melted in the mouth and were served with an interesting accompaniment of saukerkraut. So far, so tasty..

For main it had to be the wild duck with parmentier potatoes, celeriac puree and a morel sauce. The meat was very succulent and had a really intense flavour. And they didn’t stint on the portion either, serving the breast and two confit legs. Even I struggled to finish which is saying something. It was lucky for me then that there was a twenty minute wait on the dessert of choice, chocolate pithivier. It was a chocoholics fantasy pud; an island of the flakiest pastry, containing a rich chocolate fondant and surrounded by a pool of lusciously smooth milk chocolate sauce. In this instance, a moment on the lips was so worth a lifetime on the hips.

Now i’m no wine connoisseur but I must take a moment to sing the praises of the wine. We plumped for a Pinot Noir from Australian producer, Innocent Bystander which I would heartily recommend. And then, for dessert we spotted a pink moscato by the same producer which was equally quaffable.

It’s the little touches that can make the distinction between a good dining experience and a great one and this was certainly the latter – things such as warm bread rolls, softened butter and efficient but not officious service. I’d say that Michelin star was well deserved Mr Hill, this place is a Welsh wonder.

http://www.thewalnuttreeinn.com/

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The Lido, Bristol

The Lido is tucked away down a side street in Clifton but just a stone’s throw from where I live so I thought it’d be rude not to pay the restaurant a visit, particularly when Jay Rayner himself deemed it worthy of a review. It’s a lovely little place; I’d been there before and sat outside on the terrace in the sunshine, sipping an aperitif whilst pretending i’m in the med, but hadn’t yet paid the restaurant a visit.

The menu isn’t extensive, but being the world’s most indecisive person this definitely wasn’t a bad thing. Always intrigued by food i’ve never tried before, the fresh curd on sourdough with tomatoes had to be sampled. Our waitress kindly explained that the curd was akin to a mild goats cheese. I’d say that the consistency was somewhere between a cream cheese and a less lumpy cottage cheese, ok, so I realise i’m not really selling it here.. However, I can definitely vouch that the taste was far superior to either of the afore mentioned –  light, soft and creamy, that little miss muffett was on to something.

After being rather taken with the pigeon dish the week before I ordered a pigeon salad with black figs. The game was complemented by the sweetness of the fruit and it was finished off by a smattering of crispy fried chickpeas which balanced well with the softness of the other ingredients.

I was very pleased with my choice of main, a whole bream, which came with green beans, tomatoes and olives.  It was a beautiful specimen and tasted divine. A great example of letting the flavours of a quality product speak for themselves, without feeling the need to over complicate the dish. Wood-roasting is a feature of a number of the dishes so we thought it’d be rude not to try something off the menu that was cooked in this way. The man, being a man, wanted something meaty so chicken was the choice. It was an enjoyable dish, the meat was very moist, but I felt it lacked the real ‘wow’ factor of the fish.

Now, when it comes to dessert, if ice cream’s your bag then you’re in for a treat. They’ve an array of flavours to choose from, it ain’t just your plain old vanilla on offer here. My companion plumped for the hazelnut gelato, a good choice, it really was the true essence of hazelnut. I was torn between a posh version of the old rum and raisin, made with pedro ximinez, and the salted caramel. But that was before I spied a white peach and frangipane tart. I knew the baking at the Lido was top notch, having had a cream tea there some months earlier and eaten the best scone i’m sure i’ll ever have. This, coupled with having missed out on the frangipane last time at Three Coqs swung it for me and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was well made, really light and crisp and the flavours of the tart were delicate.

Overall, a very pleasant evening indeed. I’d definitely recommend seeking out the Lido, even when the sun’s not out to play.

http://www.lidobristol.com/

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Back to Brizzle: Three Coqs Brasserie

Next on the Bristol dining list:

Three Coqs Brasserie

Intrigued, simply by its rather tongue in cheek name, the brasserie is a collaboration between yep, you guessed it, three chefs, one of whom is Christopher Wicks. I’d eaten in Mr Wicks well-established restaurant, Bells Diner in Bristol a few years back and had a memorable dish of tea-smoked quail so I was eager to try his latest venture. The Three Coqs aims to be a much more relaxed affair; it’s located upstairs in Clifton Down shopping centre, where Budokan formerly resided. A word of warning though, don’t be put off by the entranceway which certainly couldn’t be described as enticing. Once inside the decor is simple but welcoming, I think the aim is for the food to be focus rather than any snazzy surroundings. My friend and I were shown to a window seat, which was certainly good for watching the world go by as I’m sure neither of us had any particular desire to stare longingly into each other’s eyes across the dining table. Anyway, I digress..

My love of sharing-style food, combined with my greed to try lots of dishes, resulted in us choosing a number of small plates between us. Service was a little slow to begin with; I think my stomach may have been emitting a few hungry grumbles, but once the food started to arrive I’d say it was worth the wait. First up was a baked duck egg with blue cheese and walnuts which was nice but I’d have liked a little more of the cheese (although that may be because I’m a total cheese fanatic). Then came a dish of rump of lamb with an accompaniment of a ratatouille of sorts. The lamb was thinly sliced and served perfectly pink, the only downside was that the meat was a little overpowered by the strong tomato flavour.

One of our top three dishes of the evening was slow-baked dauphinoise potatoes which I can never resist when they’re on the menu (it’s a toss up between the humble chip and a hearty helping of dauphinoise as my all-time favourite spud dish). My friends pick of the evening was grey mullet with green beans, in an anchovy and caper butter. The beans had the perfect bite to them, the pan fried fish was cooked well and the salty butter elevated the flavour to the next level. My personal favourite of the evening was a pigeon based dish, having never sampled pigeon before I was keen to try it and was glad I did. The meat was lovely and moist and came with a pearl barley risotto which was dotted with peanuts.

A first for Bristol on the wine front too – all the wines are biodynamic which basically boils down to well treated vineyards equals tastier wine and better for you. Well anything that makes you feel better about glugging it gets a thumbs up in my book. And having quaffed a few drinks before reaching the restaurant I was also pleased to see that they serve wine by the carafe.

What really impressed me about Three Coqs is that they clearly care about what their patrons think about their food, with our waitress enquiring what our favourite dishes had been and seeming genuinely interested in our comments about the meal.

After being spoilt by the food at Salt Yard the weekend before I can’t say that it quite matched the quality of the offering there, but nevertheless it certainly wasn’t a bad attempt. I’ve a good feeling that this place will go from strength to strength.

All in all, £58 for 6 small dishes, 2 desserts and a carafe of wine.

http://threecoqsbrasserie.com/

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London’s calling: Salt Yard review

The craze for tapas-style food isn’t letting up – hurrah I say, as this is probably my favourite type of eating. Salt Yard is located in central London, just a couple of minutes walk from Goodge Street tube station. My friend had visited with her fiancee a couple of months ago and had rated the place so I went along with high expectations. Upstairs is a charcuterie but we’d reserved a table in the downstairs restaurant. Informal, with a good buzzy vibe, it’s perhaps not the right venue if you want a quiet, romantic dinner a deux but it was just the place for catching up on the gossip with an old friend.

The menu has both Spanish and Italian influences; there’s the usual meat and cheese selections but also a lot more besides; every single dish on the menu looked tempting. And when it arrived the food didn’t disappoint visually either; delicately arranged, it was a feast for the eyes. The timings of the dishes arriving was also spot on, we ordered a few dishes which were brought out one at a time and then ordered a couple more later on, this was not a meal to be rushed.

One of the highlights of the meal was a dish of baby courgettes. Enclosed in the flower was a rich, smooth goats cheese, the best i’ve ever tasted. The courgettes were then coated in the lightest of batters and finished off with a liberal drizzling of honey which cut through the intensity of the cheese. It was a dish to really savour every mouthful. I thought I’d died and gone to food heaven. Another favourite of the evening was ravioli filled with ricotta, mint and peas. It was so fresh tasting, to me it summed up summer. Also worthy of note was a salad of baby squid, which encompassed the classic pairing of broad beans and bacon, an inspired combination of flavours.

Although rather full after trying five savoury dishes, my friend and I are both rather sweet-toothed so we decided to share a dessert. Everything on the menu tickled my tastebuds but after spying the offering on next doors table there was only one choice: mini doughnuts coated in lemon and cinnamon. I think we chose well; beautifully crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, who needs a Krispy Kreme? I could have happily wolfed them on their own but they were accompanied by cocoa nib ice cream, vanilla ice cream flecked with intense bits of cocoa bean – a rather ingenious idea and very tasty indeed.

Excellent value for money considering the high quality of the food; 6 dishes, 3 glasses of wine, and the obligatory 12.5% London service charge was £63. Even with the vast array of dining options in London I reckon this one’s worth checking out.

http://www.saltyard.co.uk

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A weekend of gluttony

Another visitor, yet another excuse for gorging myself silly. So, to start proceedings sis and I decided on a visit to Aqua in Clifton for a spot of luncheon. I always consider sitting down for a proper meal at lunch as rather decadent but they have an offer of two courses for £10 which wasn’t going to break the bank. I ordered the duo of bruschetta to begin, one piece was topped with the classic combination of tomato, garlic and basil and the second with a more unusual white bean concoction, very tasty indeed. And to follow, salmon fillet served with salsa verde and roasted tomatoes. A good sized piece of salmon, the skin was crisped perfectly, my only very slight niggle if i’m being fussy was that i’d have liked a little more of the salsa verde. Sis chose the vegetable soup to start which had a generous shaving of parmesan on the top and she thoroughly enjoyed it. This was followed by a pork chop with savoy cabbage, pancetta and cranberries. Again the size of the chop was generous, so much so that sis begrudgingly had to admit defeat with it. Overall, the food at Aqua is simple yet effective. And with a deal of 241 on bellinis we decided to indulge ourselves, opting for a version that had Chambord and raspberry puree; lovely to look at and even lovelier to sup! I reckon I could get used to the lifestyle of being a lady that lunches, especially at these prices.

http://aqua-restaurant.com/

And to continuing the Italian theme for the weekend…

Piccolino’s

Situated in Cabot Circus and being part of a chain, the snob in me must admit that I had some initial reservations. But having heard some good reports about the place since it opened, and after much careful perusing of the menu we thought we’d give it a whirl. Well, it certainly must be doing something right as the place was packed. My starter of chicken livers with marsala and pine nuts on bruschetta was a promising start to the meal and suitably wet my appetite for the main event. But alas, my happiness was shortlived. Having not been particularly in the mood for the standard fare of pizza, pasta or risotto I chose kebabs of salmon, scallop and king prawn with a chilli, lemon and herb marinade. The fish was overcooked; the prawn in particular was rather chewy and bland and I couldn’t taste any hint of heat in the seasoning. Very disappointing indeed, especially with its hefty £16.50 price tag (which didn’t include any side dishes). However I must add that sis had another fish dish and thoroughly enjoyed it; cod fillet with chorizo, a well cooked piece of fish that benefited from the paprika punch of the sausage.

Our waitress was just a little too attentive towards the end of the meal, asking us every thirty seconds if we’d decided on dessert. I’m not a huge fan of Italian desserts generally, especially tiramisu, which seems to be the staple on every Italian menu. But sis finally talked me into sharing some chocolate truffles filled with hazelnut liquer (ok, it didn’t take too much persuasion). The chocolate was nice and rich but I couldn’t detect any of the hazelnut flavour, which was a pity. Another slightly odd aspect of the evening was that they dimmed the lights, I guess to create the right atmosphere, but then abruptly turned them up before the end of our meal, which reminded me of chucking out time at a club. Having said all this, I do think Piccolino’s has its place in the Bristol dining scene and I think I would return, although next time i’ll be going for a safer bet of pizza or pasta.

The total damage for two courses, one side dish, truffles to share and a bottle of wine was £66.

http://www.piccolinorestaurants.co.uk/Bristol.html

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My first review: Flinty Red

Strangely enough I haven’t always loved food, as a little ‘un I refused to eat anything much for a good couple of years – meal times were fun in the Dobson household. But all I can say is that i’ve certainly more than made up for it in my later years.

I won’t lie, i’m no Nigella, more’s the pity. I haven’t got a natural flare in the kitchen; I can’t throw a few random store cupboard ingredients together and create a gastronomic masterpiece. But i’m just passionate about food! I love eating it, talking about it, reading about it and watching someone else cooking it.

I adore everything about the dining out experience – getting dressed up, the sociability of whiling away an evening over a decent bottle of vino, to me it can’t be bettered. And I’m always asking people for their recommendations; so with that in mind I decided perhaps it might be time to return the favour and tell the world about my foody experiences (okay, perhaps it is a just a tad self indulgent).

So enough of my ramblings, here goes – my first review:

Flinty Red

Flinty Red opened on Cotham Hill in late 2009. I walk past it every day on my way home from work and was intrigued by this charming looking little neighbourhood bistro. Suitably impressed by their compact menu (always a reassuring sign in my opinion) I thought it would do just the job when Mother came to visit.

The food is seasonal and the menu changes daily. As seems to be the latest trend in menu style, there are no formal starters and mains, just various small and large dishes so that you can share numerous dishes or opt for a more traditional approach.

Mother and I both opted for the confit duck with pickled vegetables to start. The soft, rich duck was off-set perfectly by the bite and tanginess of the vegetables, a fine example of how well contrasting tastes and textures can work.

For main course, after some serious deliberation I went for the ‘onglet’ of beef, a cut which I’ve never tried before. Served rare, it simply melted in the mouth. And the side of green beans and salty anchovy butter worked very well indeed.

Goldilocks herself would be pleased by the portion size at Flinty Red, leaving just the right amount of  room for the all important dessert. And boy, was it worth having – two exquisite fritters, filled with melted dark chocolate. These were gloriously accompanied by roasted cherries, which tasted all the better in the knowledge that they’d been hand-picked by one of the staff from their very own garden that day.

And not forgetting the wine, an important feature of the restaurant which is a collaboration between two chefs and the wine merchants at Corks of Cotham, a few doors down. There’s a very good selection of wines by both the bottle and the glass and the staff are extremely knowledgeable. Mother and I essentially had a wine flight each, but without the hefty price tag. My favourite tipple of the evening was a sparkling red wine, which went down a treat with dessert.

The atmosphere in Flinty Red is relaxed and friendly and the service was top notch – our waitress was very helpful, even after my twentieth question of the evening.

A lot of Bristol restaurants could learn a good few things from Flinty Red. In a time when it’s harder than ever for small independent businesses to survive, long may it prosper. And to steal a line from Arnie “I’ll be back”.

3 courses and 3 glasses of wine each was a total of £85 – money well spent.

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