Monday, 28 October 2013

Colonna and Small's, Bath

As anyone who dabbles in the world’s favourite drink will know that it’s impossible to have ‘just’ a cup of coffee any more. Of course, there are plenty of people who think that knowing the origin of the beans they are about to drink, or a board featuring tasting notes, is hipster geekery of the highest order, and would prefer to sup their mid-morning caffeine jolt without talk about extraction times or water quality. But for those who are happy to be enlightened a bit further about the cup o'Joe they knock back every day, and want to enjoy some top quality drinks made with plenty of TLC, then these are your guys.

Based on Chapel Street in Bath, the cafe itself is a lovely bright and welcoming space, with plenty of comfy seating, including a bench at the counter for those waiting for take out, and a patio garden area, whose red-tinged trees were perfectly glowing in the autumn sun on our visit.

So far so average; but, in a retail focused, money driven world where ‘the customer is always right’, C&S have made the refreshing decision to attempt to manage their customer expectations and serve coffee the way they believe it tastes best. But ,before you get the impression that this is all rather worthy and dull - and it is true that there is plenty of concentrated science-y stuff going on that might not be everyone’s cup of tea – there is a passion and buzz at Colonna and Small’s that goes beyond the caffeinated buzz from their drinks.

So, while you may not find any flavoured syrups, powdered chocolate, whipped cream, or, heaven forfend, a nice cup of tea, you can be sure of finding the six best varieties of coffee, three served as espresso or with milk in the form of a latte, flat white or cappuccino; and three filter coffees at the ‘brew bar’ which may be made with syphon, clever dripper, Aeropress, or plain old witchcraft, depending which method suits them best.

Of course they'll happily take your order and bring your drink to your table without indulging you in a demonstration, and even allow you at their hidden stash of sugar if you really want - signs suggesting sugar should not be added may appear as saccharine fascism to some, but Colonna and Small’s preferred roast tends towards the lighter side, meaning their coffee may actually appear more bitter when drunk with sugar, in contrast to many Continental blends which are roasted to be drunk with the sweet stuff.

Again, this ethos won't suit all, but as they point out on their blog, why freely offer people sugar for their coffee when, in all likelihood, it's addition is going to lead to an inferior product. 

We started with a couple of filters, one made with the syphon and one with the Aeropress. While the syphon method may be considered the apogee of silliness, resembling some sort of bad chemistry experiment you had to conduct in the fourth form, it is a superlative way of brewing coffee as it is not subject to the vagaries of the drip method - which manages to leave pockets of coffee both over and under extracted – meaning the quality of coffee on offer to the customer can remain consistent. It’s also great fun to watch.

As I have written before, often, for me, coffee promises a lot more than it delivers; the glorious smell and the exciting gadgets and rituals are eclipsed by the final product, but the filter coffee here may just be nigh on my idea of perfect. And while the average layman may struggle to distinguish notes of ‘cashew’ or ‘stone fruit’ in their cup, the helpful tasting boards give an idea about how your drink will taste, with real differences being apparent - in both flavour and colour - between our choices.

As well as being brewed at around 94 degrees - boiling water scorches the bean and causes bitterness - they are also recommended to drunk when they have had a chance to cool down a little further to allow their full flavours to develop, and the wait proved perfect time to sample some of the homemade cakes on the counter. Between us, the Ewing and I managed to try the pumpkin seed and cinnamon muffins; the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting; the Stilton and rosemary shortbread; and while the lavender biscuits that smelt, disconcertingly, a little like may Nan’s wardrobe, they tasted divine.

After all the clean, bright flavours of the filter we fancied a sort of coffee ‘ pudding’ to finish and  choose a flat white and cappuccino, each made with a double espresso. My flat white proved a delight; malty and milky with a little kick to counteract the soporific effect of the dairy.

In my working life - based primarily in front line customer service, in both retail and local government - there has been the ever-present pressure to adapt, find ways to stay relevant, maximise profit and footfall and provide customers with what they want (or certainly what they think they want). For this reason Colonna and Small’s ethos and ideas, written about in more depth their blog, makes a refreshing read, with musings on the idea of compromise, customer satisfaction, the attempt to provide the best product possible, and, possibly most importantly, the love, excitement and passion the humble bean can provoke. Oh, and did I mention the coffee’s rather good….

Colonna Small's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Ethicurean, Wrington, Somerset

For once I don’t think there are many overblown superlatives that could accurately describe the view of the orchards, flowerbeds and the Mendip Hills beyond, that greeted us on our arrival at the Barley Wood Walled Gardens. In fact, this was about the only sight I could imagine soothing us after a twenty minute journey spiralled into an hour and a half, as we got stuck in a diversion, followed by temporary traffic lights because of gas works, followed by being sent to the wrong Long Lane (yes, there are two, thanks again, Google maps).

Thankfully, we used the half a bar of reception on my mobile to call the restaurant and they kept our table in the conservatory reserved for us - a bright and simple room with stunning vistas and bottles of various herbal infusions lining the windowsills - although there are further tables at the front of the building, plus outdoor seating for both the full menu or a selection of tea and cakes.

Known for their innovative cocktail list it would have been rude not to sample at least one of their creations and the Ewing duly obliged by ordering a Summer Elder, a fun and frothy drink involving Chase gin, raspberry sorbet, Indonesian long pepper and elderflower cordial. I stuck with something a little more simple and sampled their house vermouth on the rocks, infused with botanicals from their own gardens, proving the perfect aperitif that balanced spice with appetite-whetting refreshment.

A huge plate of fresh bread and summer butter kept the wolves at bay while waiting for our mains, although I slightly rued my decision not to wear an elasticated waistband, to allow me to try a starter of radish with buttermilk 'snow', lovage salt and lactose fermented carrot juice.

As it was Sunday I felt obliged to try their spin on the classic ‘roast’; pork belly with chipotle crackling, confit potatoes, pickled apples and mushrooms. The plate – complete with rabbit and butterfly motif – was a cacophony of colours with the richness of the rolled belly cut through by the bite of the pickled fruit and the crunch of the spiced pig skin ‘dust’. Of course, the key to any good roast is the gravy, and this slick and shiny nectar passed with aplomb.

The Ewing was, if it were possible, even more enthused by her main, a roasted beef rib served with slaw, burnt aubergine and beer pickled shitake mushrooms, with only the stripped bare beef bone left as a lonely reminder on a slate that had been scraped scrupulously clean, again, the pickles cleverly working some astringent magic against the sticky shreds of meat. (Check the 'before and after' stomach in the background - TE).

After showing such parsimonious abstinence in skipping starters, puddings were a given and we didn’t hold back, choosing the two richest on the list that featured such rib-stickers as toffee apple cake and almond tart.

My milk stout and chocolate pudding - afloat on a moat of bitter, treacle-tinged sauce - was what post-prandial walks were created for. A steamed sponge of such dark and sultry depths that it welcomed the slick of yellow cream and sprinkling of flaked sea salt served alongside.

The Ewing’s slice of damp, dense chocolate brownie was no less glorious, lifted by the tart edge of jostaberries that decorated the plate. A serious chocolate pudding that almost defeated the most serious of chocoholics.

As well as serving as a restaurant and tea rooms, the Ethicurean also sells a select choice of local products, including their own cook book, English truffle oil and slices of cake. Most exciting for me was the range of local beers and ciders, including Wild Beer Company and Bristol Brewing Co. We picked up a range of bottles for takeaway, including the wax sealed Ninkasi, brewed with champagne yeast at a punchy 9%, and Southville Hop, a heavily hopped American style IPA with plenty of juicy, gum zapping, tropical fruit.

After being coerced to buy some handmade soap at one of the artists workshops on the site - the oatmeal is rather nice - we made our way through the walled vegetable garden, marvelling at the yellow raspberries, grape vines, pears and purple beans along the way, down into the apple orchards at the bottom of the site. 

Tim Hayward had visited for the FT just a few days earlier, to see how cider is made in their cider house; and while the press wasn't in action when we were there, the perfect weather meant it was the ideal time to take a walk through the trees, marvelling at the glorious sweet fruit that seem to stud every branch.

I could finish with yet more superlatives about the food and the views, but I rather think they speak for themselves. Instead I'll say just one thing; visit as soon as you can (and bring me back a slice of brownie and a bottle of Wild Beer Wildebeest stout).

The Ethicurean on Urbanspoon

Monday, 21 October 2013

Bell's Diner, Bristol

As has been well reported on this blog - despite stiff competition from Saturday lie in - my three favourite words remain long birthday lunch. This year, the birthday lunch had the added advantage of being proceeded by a Saturday lie in, making it, already, doubly good.

Our joy continued when – after walking though Bristol’s Bear Pit and up the colourful Stoke’s Croft Road to Bell’s Diner, location of said birthday lunch – our opening greeting of ‘how’s your day so far’ was delivered in a rich West Country burr so sweet and thick, like clotted cream topped with honey, that it took a minute or two for our urban ears to decipher.

But, Bell’s Diner is the sort of place that would, I imagine, make all but the steeliest heart, feel happy; and from that initial moment our visit was nothing but a delight. The interior is a comfy jumble of mismatched furniture; with great racks of wine lining one wall; the words from Jerusalem hanging - above a table laden with loaves of fresh bread - on another; and all topped off by a, working, record player in the corner, complete with a box of vinyl records for sale.

The lunchtime menu starts with little snacks of bread, olives and salami, followed small tapas-y types dishes – at priced at £4 each or £10 for three - and some larger tapas-y like things, which can also be pimped into ‘main’ dishes come the evening.

The drinks menu is worth a mention, too. With its carefully chosen selection of ales - from the Wild Brewing Co., Dawkins and the Camden Brewery amongst others – and wines, including the uber trendy 12 Volts, a red from Mallorca. It was a bottle of the latter - a birthday present from my father, so cheers, Dad – with which we chose to kick off the day’s drinking, and it proved a good choice with its sweet red fruit and leathery undertones.

The colourful homemade pickles were little piquant bursts of joy - particularly notable were the sweet shards of crisp globe artichoke - while the famed Abernethy butter, all the way from County Down, was quickly and thickly lavished on slices of warm bread.

The lamb Ste Menhold - slices of tender braised lamb’s breast, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, based on an Elizabeth David dish - came with a quite magnificent, dill-spiked tartare sauce that had us fighting over the third crispy slice to mop it up with. I won; well it was my birthday….

Surprise standout of the afternoon went to the slow cooked cauliflower with brown butter and pine nuts, a creamy, smoky, nutty dish that turned the bland brassica into a delight, while the cured herring with new potatoes crème fraiche and fish roe was a light and gentle plate with surprisingly clean and delicate flavours.

From the larger dishes on the menu we shared the girolles, ceps and cherry tomatoes on fried sourdough, draped with a blanket of lardo.  The tomatoes were a zingy delight, possibly to the detriment of the milder- mannered mushrooms, while the smoked pig fat bought nothing but an extra layer of piggy joy; the perfect brunch plate.

The chicken oyster pinchos combined the most fiercely fought over nuggets of meat on the bird, grilled on skewers and served with yoghurt and harissa. Smoky, crispy and sticky, the French got the joy of morsels quite right one right on naming them sot-l'y-laisse, or "the fool leaves it there’.

For desert I couldn't pass up the opportunity to taste the homemade ice cream, churned in an old fashioned machine. Sticking with the seasons, I chose apple and blackcurrant crumble, a fruit and berry flecked custard-based ice topped with a buttery rubble. It didn't disappoint. The far more indecisive Ewing went for a trio of tonka bean, rhubarb ripple and vanilla with plum sauce. All the ice cream was smooth beyond superlative and perfectly flavoured, with a special mention for the creamy vanilla doused with the puree of sharp orchard fruits.

To make amends for my restrained pudding choice, I also enjoyed a plate of gently oozing Wigmore – a ewe’s milk cheese made in the brie style in Berkshire - served with fresh honeycomb and oatcakes; the perfect combination to end a pretty perfect meal.

We finished things off with a perfectly made macchiato, made with Extract Coffee beans and another couple of tunes on the record player, before wandering outside to poke around the bric a brac stalls set up in the streets outside the restaurant.

While the rest of the afternoon/evening may have spiralled out of control, thanks to a few pints of cider on the Apple Barge and some further beverage sampling for Bristol Beer Week, nothing could spoil the simplicity of a fabulous meal in a fabulous city with fabulous company. If it wasn't for the getting older, I’d declare it my birthday every weekend.

Bell's Diner and Bar Rooms on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Old Spot, Wells

Our trip to the Old Spot started - as is customary on the first morning of each holiday the Ewing and I embark on - with our carefully made plans to ‘leave nice and early’ already in tatters and a mostly silent journey down the M4, punctuated by the odd burst of acrimonious finger pointing.

Just when it looked as if the day couldn’t get any darker, we pulled into Wells just at the moment the heavy, dark clouds above finally decided to burst and the satnav decided to throw a wobbly and send us in a loop around the city. To cap it all, the Ewing picked the one local waiting at the bus stop that wanted to regal us with the full story of his brother’s window cleaning business, rather than give us directions to the restaurant.

So, I was thankful, when we finally made it to our lunch reservation, that the interior of this charming restaurant - headed up by chef Ian Bates, who worked with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum in the early 1990s - was one of the most welcoming I have experienced for a while. The room was described accurately and succinctly by Jay Rayner as ‘handsome ‘in his Guardian review, and it’s a convivial and homely space, with just a touch of glitz from the mosaics studding the bar.  As a boon, the sun had started to emerge from behind the last remaining grey clouds that edged the sky, and we managed to bag a table on the mezzanine level, with glorious views across the green to Wells Cathedral.

Lunch is a pretty straight forward affair, consisting of a set menu with four choices per course; two courses for £15.50, three for £18.50. The style of cooking is described on the website as’ European’, and is driven by simplicity and the seasons. Most critically, for the terminally greedy such as myself, the menu is full of the sort of Hopkinson-esque food you actually want to eat.

We started with slices of good sourdough and butter and a bottle of cold Orchard Pig cider, a slightly sweet, oak-tinged sparkler carrying a stealthy punch at a, dangerously quaff-able, 6%.

My starter was a dish of late summer simplicity that may well be one of the best things I have eaten recently. Nuggets of punchy goat’s cheese and salty black olives nestled between peppery rocket and strips of roasted courgette - strewn with crisp chilli breadcrumb for crunch - while leaves of mint provided a zippy freshness.

The Ewing’s plate of ‘fish hor’s d’ouvres’ sounded like something from a retro 70s cocktail party, and turned out to be a charmingly pretty and perfectly formed little selection. A very good taramasalata was quickly scooped up with the homemade spiced wafer, the haddock fritter crisp and greaseless, while the pickled herring and crisp cucumber sang of the sea.

The roast chicken with mushrooms and tarragon was sadly finished, and so I turned to the crisp-skinned roast mackerel fillet, served with houmous, harissa, and sweet and sour aubergine. This was a lovely, meze inspired, plate of food, again with the flavours of a late, hot summer, which showed a good balance between the bold flavours. 

The perfectly wilted baby spinach particularly pleased, as it is something - like fluffy rice or crisp pastry - I have never been able to successfully recreate at home, usually ending up with little more than a teaspoon of gritty, slimy mush from my bag of fresh leaves.

The Ewing tucked into her ham hock hash, with its fried egg hat and moat of mustardy cream sauce, with aplomb. This is the sort of clever comfort food that cheers and heartens, even more so when someone else has made it for you and you can enjoy it knowing you're not going to be faced with the pile of washing up in the sink afterwards.

Puddings were a given and, despite the quality of cooking on show in the previous courses, trumped the lot. My rice pudding with poached quince was nigh on perfect; the nursery blandness of the creamy vanilla-speckled rice perfectly contrasting against the florescent glow of the sweet-sour fruit.

From the (very) small spoonful the Ewing was prepared to part with, plus the evidence of her keenly scraped glass, the peanut and chocolate parfait was another winner. A pudding whose glorious depths of crisp peanut brittle, light peanut mousse and dark chocolate sauce belied innocent outside appearances.

Service was friendly and slick and, despite our late appearance leaving us as the only ones left in the restaurant, there was no sense of  hurry to see us out the door. Not wanting to drag their afternoon service any longer ,we declined the offer of coffee and made up the back steps and towards the cathedral, by now bathed in the warm fuzzy glow of the afternoon sun. 

So again from the darkness came light; the famously temperamental British weather forming the perfect analogy for the start of our trip.

The Old Spot Restaurant on Urbanspoon