Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.
Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.
So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.
“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.
I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.
They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.
A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.
The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.
Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.
The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.
My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.
Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”
Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.
I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.
Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.
Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!
It’s the little things that make life so great.
With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.
Dining Room: 4.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.
**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.
“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”
Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.
I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.
But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.
Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*
The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.
But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.
We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.
Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.
“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.
By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.
Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.
My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken. Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.
When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.
Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.
Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets
Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France
Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle
Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France
Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan
Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France
Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam
Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France
Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan
Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France
Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint
Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia 2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy
Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb
Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany
Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries
Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron
Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.
And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.
In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.
Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”
Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.
My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.
My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.
I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.
The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.
The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.
Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.
Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.
And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.
But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.
My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.
My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.
Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.
I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.
The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.
We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.
Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.
**Apologies for both the starter images – I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.
***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.
****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…
A couple of months after writing up the mixed experience I had at Sheffield’s The Wig and Pen in January, an email arrived in my inbox from the restaurant’s director, Marc Sheldon. He said he was very disappointed to read that the meal wasn’t up to their usual standards and he’d like to invite me (and my wife) back to try their new tasting menu, in the hope we’d have the experience that we should’ve had first time round.
It was a gracious email and we were happy to accept the offer, particularly as the restaurant had shown quite a bit of potential on our first visit.
While I’ll be my usual honest self in this review, it’s worth bearing in mind that obviously we were known to the house beforehand and the only thing we paid for was the tip.
It’s amazing what light can do for a dining room. On my first visit to The Wig and Pen I was reminded of a dodgy Scream bar I had the mispleasure of drinking in on a London theatre break about six years ago. It was corrosively dingy and the cheapest pint was that piss water they call Carling at £3.30 a pop. For a lad who’d lived in Salford his whole life and was at university in Newcastle, that price was a big kick in the balls in 2006.*
After drinking a couple of fart pints, it got even worse. My bank rang me up to say a cheque I’d written for my landlord had just bounced and I was liable for some sort of fine. You can imagine it wasn’t exactly an experience I wanted to be reminded of.
But The Wig and Pen didn’t remind me of it this time, with the early evening sun still pouring in through the windows and our table better lit. It was much smarter than I’d given it credit for and more comfortable too. Not a looker by any stretch, but it already had the meal off to a better start.
This continued into the bread and olives, a far more generous and accomplished platter, which featured decent stabs at white and granary bread. Both were perhaps a touch doughy but the taste was good, each with that indelible quality you get from fresh, home-made bread.
The meal started properly with a consommé of lobster, ginger and carrot, smartly presented with the liquid poured at the table. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants that have over-cooked lobster, so I was impressed by how sweet and tender this little morsel was. Unfortunately, the consommé was far too bitter for me (my wife didn’t mind it) and I felt it spoilt what would otherwise have been a very good dish.
Because of that issue, I was a little nervous about the next course, an extremely modern textures of carrot with coconut sorbet, which frankly sounded disgusting and way beyond the capabilities of the kitchen. As it turned out, it was easily the dish of the night and one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a long while.
It was just beautifully balanced; the different flavours and textures of pickled and pressed carrot deftly held together by the bizarre and inspired sorbet. It even worked with the puzzling La Carré Sud Merlot wine match, which I didn’t think stood a chance at first taste, but grew into a winning combination the more I ate and drank.
The ingredients weren’t up to the right standard, but there were definitely some Michelin qualities about this dish.
Next was the first hot course, mackerel with apple and bone marrow. The restaurant wasn’t aware of this, but my mother-in-law and her partner were also in the room that evening and were working their way through the tasting menu as well. They raved about this one, but while I enjoyed it, I just felt there was something missing. The skin wasn’t crispy enough and it needed a touch more salt.
An extra dish was thrown in at this stage: smoked duck egg with baby leaf spinach, black trompettes, chive yoghurt and almond. I loved the presentation, with the duck egg encased in a dome of smoke (didn’t get a pic of that – sorry!), and I thought the dish worked really well, helped along by the gorgeous trompette mushrooms and spinach. The only issue with this was the inconsistency between mine and my wife’s plates. Her bright orange yolk was more attractive than mine and runnier, and I felt a little jealous!
It was back to the usual tasting menu from there on in and for the main course we were treated to chicken served in a jasmine consommé with some small vegetables. It was a basic, pared-down roast dinner sort of a dish but it was a nice change of pace and I thought it was delicious.
I have nothing much to say about the rhubarb jelly and parfait that followed, a reasonably forgettable dish that cleansed the pallet and offered little more.** However, the final pudding, a white chocolate parfait with toasted pine nuts and lemon sauce, was excellent. Like the food critic in Ratatouille, on the first bite I was catapulted back to my childhood, reliving the joy I used to experience the times when I made and ate lemon crunch flan. The flavour combinations were exactly the same – perfect and timeless.
My wife seemed to like her dessert even more. A bread base with honey, pear and orange sorbet was a little bitter for me, but she thought it was absolutely brilliant. She told the waiter it’s one of the best puddings she’s ever had, and she wasn’t kidding.
Service was about as good as you could hope for and on the whole, it was a top meal, definitely at the high end of the spectrum for the £50 a head price point. Actually, I think that’s a bit of a bargain for a six-course taster with matching wines.
You can of course think “well, obviously you’re going to say that – you didn’t pay for it and you were given special treatment”, and that’s fair enough. All I can say is that my anonymous in-laws had a similar experience and they paid in full. Already they’re planning to go back to try the next taster menu when the seasons change.
I think there’s probably still an element of The Wig and Pen being overly ambitious with its food, and this was shown by the odd mistake and inconsistency during the meal. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the restaurant is finally finding its feet and starting to realise some of the promise I glimpsed a few months back.
Marc was anxious to get our feedback on the meal as you’d expect, but he – and all of the staff – seemed to be doing the same with the rest of the diners as well. I think it’s clear that the management here really care about the quality of their offering and are keen to listen to people’s opinions in an effort to be as good as they can be.
As long as they continue to respond to their customers in such a positive way and can build on what’s now looking like some fairly sturdy foundations, I believe The Wig and Pen could definitely be a restaurant to watch.
Dining Room: 2/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*How depressing is it when I spend £3.30 on a pint now, I barely bat an eyelid?
**My in-laws dismissed the rhubarb dish as “jelly and ice cream” and couldn’t understand the point of it on the menu.
I think it takes real balls to open up a serious restaurant on West Didsbury’s Burton Road. There are few, if any, places in Manchester that offer such fierce competition. Dozens of eateries lie in the vicinity, including several of the city’s most successful and revered.
Directly across the road from The Rose Garden sits Rhubarb, “the only restaurant in West Didsbury to be recommended in the Michelin guide”.* Around the corner is the granddaddy of the local dining scene, The Lime Tree, which has been picking up awards for decades.
But if such competition has had an adverse effect on The Rose Garden, you’d never be able to tell. With a menu and dining room that ooze confidence, it was completely full when we arrived for our 9pm booking on a Saturday night and it was still buzzing when we left almost two hours later.
A friendly waitress seated us at a small but serviceable table by the door. First impressions were far better than I expected them to be. Pictures of the restaurant online made it look like this bleak, dystopian nightmare of a place – snowblind-inducing white walls with cold splashes of modern art. But packed to the rafters with people it was warm and intimate; a lovely space to be.
There were a lot of good options on the menu, so it took us a while to make up our minds. My wife drank a gin and tonic whilst perusing while I got straight on with the wine, a perfectly acceptable Vina Cobos Malbec Felino 2010.
It took about 30 minutes for our starters to arrive but mine, I felt, was worth the wait. The well-cooked glazed pigeon breast was in perfect harmony with the crisp salad, sweet popcorn-esque toasted walnuts and tart orange vinaigrette served alongside it, and it all went down very nicely. It wasn’t the most exciting of dishes, but definitely a very pleasant way to start the meal.
(‘Pick the walnut shards out of the tooth cavity’ was a fun game for my tongue to play between courses.)
While I was eating that, my wife had a black pudding and venison scotch egg, which would’ve been great had it not been let down by a couple of things: a disappointingly overdone egg yolk and far too much black pepper. The combination of flavours was good, with the chutney particularly outstanding, but it wasn’t executed as well as it could’ve been.
For mains we both ordered two-way beef – a 4oz fillet with braised shin, fidget pie and roast tomatoes. This wasn’t as ugly as the below picture suggests and definitely didn’t merit my wife’s suggestion that someone had “shit on the plate”, but it wasn’t going to win any prizes for presentation. What could win prizes, however, was the absolutely incredible shin of beef, which brought up memories of all the best stews I’ve had in my life and showed them two fingers. The chef’s heavy-handedness with black pepper aside, this was about as good as warm, homely comfort food can get.
A little too good, if I’m honest, for the fillet steak. This wasn’t a bad chunk of meat by any means and it was well-cooked, but it was easily outshone by its rustic partner. The contrast was interesting for a bit, but I think I’d rather have done without it. The superb fidget pie and tomatoes were accompaniment enough.
Each of us had a different tart for pudding: an orange and pistachio tart with blackberry compote and clotted cream pour moi and a Bakewell tart for the missus. Both were pretty solid efforts and I don’t have much to say about either, other than I’d happily eat them again. Dessert wine options weren’t particularly strong, but there’s worse things that can happen.
Service was charming and efficient, and the whole evening was very satisfying; that I went home afterwards and cracked open the Hennessy XO says volumes about what a good time we had. My only real complaint about what was otherwise an excellent meal is that the prices (£7 starters, £20 mains, £6 desserts) seemed one or two pounds higher than they should’ve been. But given how packed the place was, the locals are clearly happy to pay this much.
And for a meal this good, so am I.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*I don’t rate Rhubarb at all, having had a very poor lunch there a couple of years back. But a lot of people do seem to like it.
Sheffield’s reputation as a culinary destination is a bit like Manchester’s: non-existent.
Barring the Michelin-starred Old Vicarage – far enough away from the city centre that my wife insists it’s not in Sheffield at all, and in need of a revisit from the Red Guide’s inspectors so they can demote it, according to my mother-in-law – there is little to put it on the gourmet map.
One place that looks to be trying to change that is The Wig and Pen on Copson Street, an offshoot of popular local The Milestone, which received a decent write-up from Jay Rayner in the Observer a couple of years back. Its menu and website are indicative of a restaurant with a lot of ambition and I’d been told plenty of positive things about going in. My expectations were high.
First impressions, however, weren’t exactly good. Cold and drab, our section of the dining room had all the charm of a student union bar post-freshers’ week; the view from the window, bare walls and dim-lighting making me feel as if we’d been seated in an unconverted loft.
£2.50 bought us three medium-sized slices of bread on a slate which we ate while perusing the menu. Bread is apparently made in-house but these slices were not particularly remarkable for being so, having the slightly chewy texture that crusty bread takes after being cut and left out for several hours. Only one of two promised butters arrived and it was fridge hard, making it impossible to spread without having to put a lot of effort into mashing it first.
Not a bad lot overall, but I’ve been to plenty of restaurants in the same price bracket which do much better bread for free.
For starters we both ordered sous vide quail breast, with boudin of leg and bacon popcorn. This was fine, but nothing special beyond the pretty plating. Flavours were a little one-note – or in the case of the popcorn, completely absent – and the breast and the boudin were both a bit dry. Given the food and the plate were both lukewarm, I’d imagine this was once a much better dish and someone simply allowed it to spoil by leaving it out on the side.
Alas, I could not come up with such an easy excuse for the wine, a Domaine de Gry-Sablon fleurie, which was the recommended accompaniment. A poor drink, perhaps a notch better than a Blossom Hill rosé, it matched the food about as well as it did my tastebuds.
The strongest part of the meal was undoubtedly the mains. There were a few issues with my beef rump, dauphinoise potato, wild mushroom tortellini, baby leeks and truffled jus – an overpowering amount of garlic, a knife ill-equipped to cut the meat, and pasta so thick it reminded me of a disastrous attempt to make Chinese pork dumplings at home – but it was decent enough on the whole. The beef itself had good flavour, as did the jus.
And the only problem with my wife’s loin of pork, confit belly, crispy squid and root vegetable stew dish was that I hadn’t ordered it myself. It was a wonderful dose of winter comforts, precisely cooked and perfectly balanced in both texture and flavour. I’d had some doubts about the squid, but its crispy batter made it a perfect foil for the moist pork. Michelin level it was not*; however, it was certainly a very accomplished dish – one I’d be happy to go back for.
Perhaps even better was the 2006 Izadi Reserva rioja we drank with the mains. It felt like great value at £12 for a half-bottle and was just a stonkingly good wine; complex, vibrant and bright.
Unfortunately, once the red was polished off, it went a bit downhill – at least for me. My dessert, a ‘celebration’ of apple that included a parfait, sorbet, jelly and a crisp, bordered on unpleasant. Not a single element managed to deliver the clean burst of apple flavour I was after. What I got instead was a watered-down, insipid mess, which had more in common from a taste perspective with Jolly Rancher sweets than the green fruit that was actually in it.
And I really wish I could remember the name of the recommended liqueur I drank, just so I can make sure I never have it again. When a drink makes you start thinking about Weil’s disease, you know it’s not good.
My wife fared better. There were no dairy-free options for her to have, so the waiter recommended she try the petits fours they offer for £2.50. I didn’t really taste these, but she described them as “nice”.
Our waiter was excellent and the bill of £90 did not seem unreasonable for what on balance was an OK meal, with a few highs and a few lows. My gut feeling is that there are far superior meals to be had at The Wig and Pen and perhaps we would’ve had a more consistently good experience had we not eaten at 5pm, when the kitchen was not yet in full-swing.
Nevertheless, I have to rate the place based on what they did rather than what they might have been able to do. And while I’m sure they can do better, I can’t say I’m too keen to go back and give them another shot.
Dining Room: 1.5/5
Overall score: 42/100 (OK)
Note: I returned to The Wig and Pen in April 2012 and had a much better experience. You can read that review here.
*A video on The Wig and Pen’s website suggests a Michelin star is one of their goals.
About six weeks ago, I wrote on this blog: “There are times when I like to tell myself that I could’ve been a chef.”
As I sit here writing this post, cowering from the apocalyptic wasteland that is my kitchen after I’ve spent a full day cooking in it, I feel the restaurant industry should be very glad I’ve never bothered to try.
But in my house, the bigger the mess, the better the food – and the carnage I’m trying so hard to avoid is merely proof that yesterday’s Christmas dinner was a huge success.
We were forced to make a few last-minute changes to the Christmas dinner plan, as originally outlined here. Tesco, which had no sage or duck fat and delivered us chipolatas on the 23rd that had just two and a half hours left on their used-by date, was responsible for several. I, who stupidly thought it’d be possible to buy samphire months and months out of season, am responsible for the rest.
The revised menu with pictures is below:
CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU
Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter
Warm Toasted Cold Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire White Cabbage a la Fergus Henderson*
Cold Canapé of Cep a Salpicon of Porcini Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika
Louis Chaurey Champagne
Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings
5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Goose Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, [Shop bought] Pigs in Blankets, [Shop bought] Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy
Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010
Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream
Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009
Blacksticks Blue, Cranberry and Stilton, Applewood Smoked Cheddar, Goat’s Cheese, Brie w/ Onion Chutney, Manchester Relish and Quince Jelly
Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994
I was really pleased with the meal from start to finish. All the canapés were good, the Copas turkey was beautiful and my wife’s Christmas pudding was a million miles better than any version I’d had before. Other highlights were the faultless roasties, the bread sauce, and the cranberry sauce, which was a real knockout.
I loved the cheeseboard my dad put together and along with a glass of port – which blew me away actually; I would never have expected such quality from a supermarket bottle – it provided a fitting end to the day.
The only things I’d like to have done differently are the wine and the stuffing. The wine was perfectly serviceable, but aside from the port, wasn’t in the same league as the food. And the stuffing was rubbish; Tesco’s finest my arse! If ever there was a ringing endorsement for making your own, this was it. Next year if I can’t get any sage, I’ll make sure I’ve got a back-up plan.
I hope you all had as enjoyable a Christmas dinner as I did and are looking forward to days of leftovers. I can’t wait to fry up that Christmas pudding in some goose fat!
I’ll leave you with some pictures of the foodie gifts my family gave me this year:
*Thanks to Xanthe Clay (@XantheClay) for suggesting this alternative to the samphire recipe which got me out of trouble at the eleventh hour.
The tree’s up, mince pies are in the oven, Nigella’s about to burn her roast potatoes in that Christmas special again, and a month since I started planning Christmas dinner, I’m more or less set.
The turkey’s been ordered, the wine’s been bought, the last minute Tesco shop is already booked in. And most importantly, I’ve finally decided on the menu (see below).
I’ve not pushed the boat out quite as much as I’d like this year. There’s going to be six of us, we’re on a budget and my refusal to scrimp on the turkey means making cutbacks elsewhere – mostly, with the wine.
So if you’re wondering why I’ve gone Tesco Finest trigger happy, it’s not because I’m too lazy or lack the knowledge to shop elsewhere, it’s because the Double Rewards scheme enabled me to pick up all the below, plus three other bottles, without having to spend a penny. Every little helps!
CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU
Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter
Warm Toasted Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire
Cold Canapé of Cep Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika
Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings
5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, Pigs in Blankets, Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy
Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010
Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream
Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009
Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994
I don’t tend to use recipes much on Christmas Day – it’s enough hassle as it is without overcomplicating things by doing stuff you don’t already know how to do. But in the run up I like to look at some for inspiration, and it’s always good to have a point of reference just in case something goes wrong.
These are my points of reference this year:
- All Recipes (cranberry sauce)
- Copas (roast turkey)
- Delia Smith (Christmas pudding)
- La Rousse Gastronomique (smoked salmon / cep mushroom canapés)
- Mrs Beeton (stuffing)
- Nigella Lawson (bread sauce)
- Xanthe Clay (brown shrimp canapé)
You can read the follow up post to this one below:
This year will be the fourth time that I’ve been responsible for cooking Christmas dinner.*
My first bash at it in 2007, when I made it for seven people at my parents’ house, was a reasonable success. The turkey, an organic bronze from the Marks & Spencer catalogue, turned out pretty well under the watchful eye of a Good Housekeeping recipe. The gravy my wife threw together using a Delia Smith-assisted stock of neckbone and giblets, remains the best I’ve ever had.
The only thing that didn’t quite hit the mark was the roast potatoes. My mum had peeled and cut them on Christmas Eve after seeing Brian Turner on TV saying that they’ll be fine as long you put them in air-tight bags. The mangy, greeny-black colour they had turned disappeared during the roasting process, but they didn’t taste quite right.
The following year, when it was just the two of us, we decided to kick things up a notch with better quality ingredients, expensive wine and a much more ambitious menu. Roast quail with a pork, truffle and cognac stuffing was brilliant** and a lot of fun to make – even if we did have to visit five different shops to get hold of pork mince on Christmas Eve. The £25 Chilean red, recommended by a nice bloke in Oddbins who I’d tasked with finding something to match such a rich dish, was incredible.
None of the veg hit the mark this time though. The greengrocers had prepared us a box and we foolishly didn’t inspect it until we got home. Everything was a long way past its best and by that stage it was too late to do anything about it.
After having 2009 off, it was back to me cooking again last year, this time for five and in my own kitchen. I’d bought what was meant to be the best turkey in the country, the Copas, which Rick Stein had raved about in one of his TV programmes. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the bird looked when I first opened its box. You could tell from its appearance that it had lived a very healthy life and that it was going to knock spots off anything you’d get in the supermarket. Interestingly, it cost about the same as the turkey my mum had ordered from M&S three years before.
I didn’t want to let such beautiful produce down, so I looked long and hard for a recipe equal to the task. I eventually settled on Matthew Fort’s method, which involved slow-cooking the turkey on a very low temperature for more than 10 hours.
Of course, I’d forgotten that my rubbish oven runs on a timer, and regretted every minute of it as I had to wake up at three-hour intervals throughout the night to turn it back on, rotate the turkey and stab it with a temperature probe.
The turkey was divine – better than I could ever imagine it being. Perfectly moist and packed full of flavour, I would’ve loved to have forced it down the throat of anybody who says they don’t like turkey or complains that it’s always too dry.
Unfortunately the rest of the meal was a disaster. Jamie Oliver’s gravy, which looked brilliant on TV, was crap. Thin and weak and not at all worth the hours of hard work that went into making it.***
And then the oven broke. After half a day maintaining 80 degrees C, it refused point blank to get hot again. We just about managed to roast the veg, but the spuds were far from crisp. I spent Christmas dinner wondering when the hell we were going to be able to get a repair man out to fix it. It was January before we got it sorted.
And now here we are in November 2011, and it’s time to start planning for Christmas dinner all over again. There’ll be six of us this year and I’m part way towards deciding what to eat.
Choosing the animal was quite tricky. I didn’t think I could top last year’s turkey without using the same cooking method and I’m not going to do that in case it kills my oven again.
We ummed and ahhed about rib of beef; capon was mooted. Partridge was considered before being dismissed for no particular reason. Goose was discussed and lusted after, before we decided that oven size might be an issue. I contemplated poulet de bresse and figured I probably wouldn’t want to share it.
Eventually, we arrived back at turkey and my thought was: “Why the hell not?”
I’m going to order the Copas this week from Evans of Didsbury. The recipe I’m not 100 per cent set on yet but I’m considering one from Gordon Ramsay that I saw him do on TV a few years back. The idea of removing the legs and stuffing them, and cooking them separately to the rest of the turkey to avoid them drying out, looked quite good.
Canapés will be a big decision and the one I’ll probably enjoy making the most. I find these to be much easier and interesting than starters, but I need to think long and hard about how I can top 2010′s batch. The mini-cheese and caramelised onion tarts, smoked salmon with chive and mustard butter on rye bread, and devils on horseback I made were all pretty awesome.
Christmas pudding is obviously already in the bag. But what should I drink with it? Sauternes as usual or something more interesting?
What about the wine to go with the roast? Pinot noir again or should I be adventurous? I saw a sparkling lambrusco recommended in the paper once; dare I try it? It’s pretty bizarre.
There’s the champagne to choose for Christmas breakfast. Then there’s the port to go with the cheese. Gravy will need some thought, none of which will involve Jamie Oliver.
The list is long, but I look forward to working my way through it.
What are you all doing for Christmas this year? Anybody have any good tips?
*Well, fifth Christmas dinner if you count the one I made during second year at university. Iceland’s cook-from-frozen turkey surprisingly wasn’t that bad.
**Excellent though it was, I couldn’t quite help but think the quail wasn’t as good as the much simpler duck breast with mustard crushed potatoes and red wine reduction I’d made the night before.
***I know other people who have made Jamie’s gravy too and said exactly the same thing.
You can read the follow up post to this one below:
I received an email through today from the fine people at hangingditch wine merchants, revealing that I, along with around 200 others, had done spectacularly badly in the blind taste test they were running at Manchester Food and Drink Festival’s Big Indie Wine Fest over the weekend.
My excuse for only getting two out of the six wines right and therefore not winning whatever the hell the prize was (was there one? Things got a little bit hazy around that point of the afternoon…) is that I’d probably consumed well over 50 wines in the preceding three hours of constant drinking and as such my tastebuds were well and truly buggered.
If my ability to discern flavours beyond alcohol is not a strong enough justification for my complete and utter failure, then prepare to be shocked when I reveal that I was also a little bit drunk.
You see, I firmly believe – and I hope you all agree with me here – that spittoons are for the weak.
Despite being a budding oenophile, I’ve never been to a wine tasting or any other wine-related event before. The Big Indie Wine Fest at the People’s History Museum was my first bash at it, and it was absolutely fantastic.
For £10 entry, my three companions and I were able to try dozens and dozens of wonderful and interesting wines and meet several wonderful and interesting vendors (plus the odd dickhead). While there were inevitably quite a few mediocre bottles knocking around, the standard was mostly very high and with plenty of the typically £10-£12 wines living up to or exceeding their price bracket, there’s no doubt that I got my money’s worth in booze.
We were given a tasting glass and a tasting guide as we walked into the hall where the wine festival was taking place. There were more than a dozen different stalls set up around the sides of the room, each with anything from two to 12 different wines to try. All of them had a spittoon next to them (for the WEAK! I said) and the good ones had water available as well.*
Anybody thinking they would never go to an event like this because they’d expect it to be intimidating, whether it’s a fear of not knowing enough about wine or some misplaced feeling of class inferiority, should think again. All four of us rocked up scruffy as you like and nobody batted an eyelid. The most knowledgeable member of our group (me) would fit quite firmly into the category of ‘wine novice’, while the least knowledgeable would come under ‘I don’t like wine, I think it’s rubbish’.
Yet, to a man, we had a brilliant time. Even the wine-hater found plenty to enjoy after I suggested red might be a little more to his tastes. Once we got over the initial few minutes of “I don’t have a clue what we’re meant to be doing”, it was pure gold.
Without a doubt, I’ll be going to more of these things in the future and I’ll be recommending this event in particular to anybody who’ll listen. Seriously, you should give it a try – I doubt I’ll spend many better tenners this year.
Three vendors stood out above all the rest, so I’ll give them a bit of attention here:
Origin Wines (Taste Buddies) – All the wines on this stall were from small producers based in Italy, France and Spain and you could taste the care that went into each and every one. Several were brilliant, those that weren’t were at least interesting, and along with every single one the charming scouse bloke behind the stall was able to give us stories and jokes that helped to bring them alive.** Particularly memorable was just about everything made by Luigi Giusti, or “my mate Giavanni”, who also did a wonderful extra virgin olive oil. I plan to buy a lot.
Pacta Connect – Regretfully we only came to this lot right at the end, but the lady behind the stand was fantastic and made sure we got to taste all the Croatian wine they were offering before we got kicked out. I’m sure I’ve never had Croatian wine before, but even to my then knackered tastebuds, there was something new, exciting and refreshingly different about the bottles on this stall. I’m eager to try more.
Porto Vino – Not everything on this stand worked – I summed one up as tasting like “wet dog” – but when the wines did it screamed value for money. I promised my wife I’d buy her a bottle of the magnificent Moscatel de Setubal Sivipa dessert wine and we’re seriously considering foregoing the usual bottle of Champagne on Christmas morning and quaffing a sparkling Quinta da Romeira instead. At £15, it was a third of the price of the cheapest Laurent Perrier being poured on the other side of the room and it wiped the floor with it.
*Water is a must for this type of event. The tasting glass will get pretty dirty once a few different wines have been poured into it and if you don’t want to spoil the drinks coming up with remnants of those already consumed, you’ll want to be able to wash it out regularly over a spittoon (for the SMART!).
**The Origin Wines man was doing a masterclass that evening, which you had to pay extra to get into. I’m pretty sure we got a good dose of it for free at the stand.