Holiday Munchies: The Distillery, Birmingham

The great thing about weekends away is undoubtedly getting to try new, independent restaurants, cafes and bars that you would not ordinarily come across, finding new favourites and flavours to reminisce about once you get back home. This is definitely how I feel after finding The Distillery in Birmingham after a recent weekend trip with my husband Dan.

From the outside, The Distillery may just look like your average red brick building, nothing special, but step inside and you are instantly hit by a very different vibe. When we visited on a Sunday evening, we were the only patrons; although this might have seemed eerie, it gave us a great chance to nose around. Spread over two floor, when you enter, you encounter the main bar area, with an imposingly large wooden spiral staircase in the centre leading down to more seating and a separate restaurant area.

The main attraction on this first floor, however, is the big, rounded copper still along the back wall, bathed gently in red neon light from a personalised sign directly above it, proudly announcing that this is the still for Round House gin, which is a small batch gin made at The Distillery, flavoured with pink grapefruit and peppercorns.

We headed down the staircase and to the back of the venue where the restaurant was; we were seated at a secluded table for two in the corner, plenty of space around it and a lovely view of the canal from the window directly next to the table. The restaurant area continued the exposed brickwork style décor, paired with darkly stained wooden floorboards and a muted grey-green tone on the remaining walls.

First things first, the gin menu here is to die for. An entire page of A4 entirely dedicated to one of the most varied gin menus I have ever seen, and you can even pick which tonic you want alongside it. Needless to say, I made a mission of trying quite a few different gins over the course of the evening, being quite the gin fan. My first option was Chase Elegant, which the menu described as tasting like elderflower, bramley apple and hops. With a slimline tonic, I thought this gin was subtly fruity and refreshingly sweet and light; very tasty! My second gin, however, was my favourite one of the evening and one I had never tried before, called Forest.  This was hailed as tasting like bilberries, moss and ferns. This had such a unique flavour; the moss and fern tones were quite strong but they blended with the gin beautifully and didn’t have that awful ‘green’ flavour that seems so common now. The bilberries were much more of an undertone and back note. I just found this gin very harmonious and different. My last gin of the evening was one I had tried before, Cotswold gin. I last had this when Dan and I went on our two year wedding anniversary road trip, so I always find it nostalgic.

As I was getting excited over the gin menu, we also looked at the food. We decided to share a few small plates as a starter and boy these were good! We ordered a scotch egg that came with HP sauce, which we cut in half and had a half each. Wonderfully homemade, the egg yolk was runny, thick and sticky, oozing over the carefully crafted meat mixture. The breadcrumbs formed a light, crunchy exterior, adding the ideal juxtaposition to the squishy centre. What a scotch egg! We also order garlic bread, which came on a classic thin Italian style pizza base, melty parsley butter and lots of gloriously cooked cheese covering every nook and granny. We haven’t had cheesy garlic bread in ages so this really hit our spot, especially as it was executed so well; the bread was nice and soft, the butter adding great flavour and the cheese melted to perfection. Our last starter plate was a little unusual. On the menu, it read chick’n bites, served with spring onions and a spicy mayo. When we ordered them however, the waiter advised us that these were in fact vegan and used jackfruit as a chicken substitute. We decided to stick with it and be adventurous! The portion included two, so one each, and they looked like fat croquettes, coated again in a light breadcrumb, although not as crunchy as the scotch egg. The flavour was nice and did remind me a bit of chicken, although the texture was like flaky, more like a soft white fish that had been mixed with mayo or something like that. The spicy mayo was delicious, however there was barely any of it to dunk the croquette in, so that was a bit of a bummer.

With the starters being so moreish, this certainly set the bar high for the main courses. I decided to order a pork and chorizo burger, served in a brioche bun alongside house fries and a red cabbage and fennel coleslaw. The burger was juicy and a medium thickness. I thought it actually tasted quite sweet, which I attribute to the pork, although it also had a warmth, which I put down to the chorizo. I think it could have had more chorizo, however it was a yummy chunk of meat! The sides all worked well to create a classic burger dish. My chips were piping hot and a nice straight chip; I don’t like skinny fries so much so I was glad that the chips had a decent bit of thickness to them! Overall, a good meal.

However, I did get severe food envy from Dan’s slow roasted lamb leg shawarma, which was basically pulled lamb leg meat, served with two flat breads so that you could create your own wraps. He was also given mixed salad, garlic yoghurt, sumac and a tomato and harissa sauce. Delivered on a big silver tray, I was positively green, but luckily Dan shared nicely with me! The flat breads were lovely and soft, the meat very nicely spiced to have an unusual, Persian vibe, which the sauces and yoghurt worked to accentuate and complement.

Although being rather full, there was no way I missing out on dessert, especially as I had my eye on the dark chocolate pot, served with crème fraiche and honeycomb. My god, this was dreamy! The chocolate was thick and unctuous, yet so silky smooth, it literally had me in raptures. The dark chocolate filling formed the main of the dessert, with a layer of milk chocolate gorgeousness on top and the decorated with large chunks of honeycomb and a blob of crème fraiche in case anyone had to the audacity to say it was too chocolatey; as if that’s a thing! I just loved the texture of this dessert, it felt so luxurious to eat and the chocolate flavour was spot on. A divine dessert for sure.

I also thought the service was brilliant. Dan and I were the only people there, clearly the residents of Birmingham were all preparing for a Monday at work rather than gallivanting around a long weekend like we were, and although the staff could have taken their foot off the gas, so to speak, they were perfectly attentive. They regularly popped their head around the wall to check on us, gave us the ideal amount of time between courses and checked on our drinks numerous times. The staff were polite and helpful too.

I really enjoyed our night at The Distillery. The menu is on the small side, so choice is limited to a few mains, pizzas or burgers, however the quality of the food is excellent and the attention to detail is evident. The menu is also rather creative, with some unique options, like the vegan starter, and some good combinations, like Dan’s main course.  I also loved the fact that it’s clearly a venue for the gin fanatic, and I really enjoyed exploring some new gins. Granted, some are pricier than others, but there are at least some affordable options if you have a budget to stick to. I think our meal came to around the £70 if I remember correctly, but luckily it was Dan’s treat. I’d love to go back to The Distillery when we next visit Birmingham and I think I even know what I’d order!


Holiday Munchies: Piccolino, Birmingham

Travelling to Birmingham for a long weekend with the other half presented the ideal opportunity to sample some of the local specialities in terms of restaurants and bars, shunning the typical chains that I may ordinarily come across when exploring my native Essex or London. I was really looking forward to planning a few date nights in the best eateries Birmingham has to offer; I started by reserving a table for two on Saturday night at a stylish Italian restaurant called Piccolino, based in Oozells Square, the best name for a road I think I have ever heard.

Despite driving for three hours away from London, Piccolino to me had a very similar vibe to some of the places you may come across in Shoreditch or Soho. The walls are painted a plain white to help increase the notion of space within this long restaurant; however, an undulating wave of deep red circular leather booths take centre stage in the middle of the dining area, framed by dark wooden square tables matched with dining chairs. Along the front wall of the restaurant were floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto an outdoor seating area, complete with squashy black sofa seating hidden under matching black awning. Looking at the windows, I imagine this entire wall opens up during the summer months.

A small bar area near the entrance had a sleek metal-finished top and a few small clusters of seats, including one sofa and a couple of bar stools. Arriving 10 minutes early for our 8pm table, we were instructed to grab a drink at the bar, which at that time was quite empty. I ordered a gin and tonic while the other half nabbed a cider and we sat on the only two seats remaining, the stools at the bar. At this point, the music was rather loud so conversation was at times difficult, and soon, large groups of regular diners began flooding in and swamping the small waiting area. We felt in the way and a bit drowned by the noise, which rather killed the romantic date night atmosphere I was attempting to create. I went to check to see if our table was ready at 8.20pm as no one had come to notify us; the front of house staff saw me coming and promptly arranged our table.

Luckily, we were seated at a table for four, so we had plenty of space to spread out. Perusing the menu, I ordered a large glass of chianti to drink, gloriously deep in colour and fruity in flavour. For starters, we decided to share a mixed bruschetta board; this featured three different toppings, balanced on two fingers of toasted ciabatta per flavour, so we could both try one of each. My favourite was undoubtedly the one smeared in soft and creamy ricotta cheese, with Parma ham embedded atop that and finished with walnuts and a drizzle of honey. This combo worked so well in my mind, and I really enjoyed the sweetness of the honey with the cheese and ham. The walnuts were a nice extra for crunch. The bruschetta with small cubes of tomato and a carefully placed basil leave is obviously the traditional staple. I’m not much of a tomato fan, but the fruit was zingy with a nice dressing and refreshing to eat. It didn’t really stay on the ciabatta so perhaps not one for the neat eaters among us! The final flavour was one more for Dan; king prawns, chilli and lemon. I don’t like prawns, but when I tried a piece, I didn’t think this was bad at all actually. The prawns were very fat and tender, so actually tasted rather meaty and chunky, the chilli and lemon oil giving a great accompanying flavour which soaked nicely into the absorbent ciabatta. This was a fun sharing starter that allowed us to explore lots of flavour combinations and try something a bit different; I really enjoyed it but at £16.50, it’s certainly not the cheapest start to the meal you could have.

For main course, I was in the mood for pasta. I was hoping for something like meatballs, however the only meat option of that vibe was Bolognese, and since I can do that easily at home, I wanted to have something different. Therefore, I chose the carbonara, but I asked for tagliatelle rather than spaghetti, as I prefer this flatter pasta shape; I find it holds sauces and flavours better and is generally just tastier. Served in a gently sloping pasta bowl, the carbonara was a really decent portion, which I was pleased about, with a gooey poached egg sat on top; this oozed gloriously golden yolk all over my pasta as soon as I popped it. The sauce itself was typically Italian, so not over creamy, however it coated my pasta really well and had a subtle, cheese hinting flavour that was soft and simple. As well as chunks of pancetta within the sauce itself, the dish also used great shards of super crispy bacon on top. This was fabulous; the problem I have with most carbonaras is the distinct lack of bacon pieces so the complete overload and generous scattering of pork here made me very happy and meant I could have some with most mouthfuls. As a dish I don’t treat myself to often, I really enjoyed it.

I ended up rushing looking at the dessert menu, as the waiter arrived rather imminently and Dan had already decided his order. I quickly selected the Catalan style crème brulee as I wasn’t in a chocolate mood. This was served in a wide, shallow ramekin, with a lightly caramelised topping that snapped satisfyingly under my spoon and was a bronzed gold in colour. The custard underneath was silky smooth and lovely to eat, with some sections more mousse-like than others, all of it a glossy yellow shade. It was sweet and delicious. I paired this with a Moscato passito dessert wine, which was a pale yellow in colour, fruity and not as sweet as other dessert wines. It was lovely though and a nice treat alongside dessert.

I had a lovely evening at Piccolino. Luckily, the music was a lot quieter once we reached our table, so Dan and I could have a friendly conversation without shouting across the table to be heard. The tables were nicely spaced apart too, and where we had a table for four, we had more space in general which is always appreciated. The restaurant was pretty busy, however once seated at the table, our waiter was attentive and helpful. I couldn’t say the same for the front of house staff, who I feel would have been content to leave Dan and I at the bar for the entirety of the evening. Price wise, it wasn’t too horrible, although Dan had already paid for our first round of drinks separately at the bar. Our meal plus my extra glass of wine came to just under £75 in total. On the whole though, I had a very enjoyable evening. I liked the classy and slightly upmarket tone of the restaurant, the fancy Italian fodder was a bit different to your usual pizza-pasta selection and reflected the elegant ethos Piccolino seeks to portray and once at the table, away from the hubbub and crowding by the door, it felt really intimate. Dan wasn’t too fussed by his starter or main meal, but was enthralled by his Aperol and blood orange sorbet dessert, so I’m going to say it was a thumbs up on the food front from him too. A great evening to kick-start our long weekend!

Homeward Bound: The Bull, Brentwood, Essex

An inclusive family gathering means finding a food venue that ticks the boxes for all tastebuds; not just in terms of menus, but also ambience, drinks and environment too. When I heard about gastro pub restaurant The Bull, based in Brentwood, Essex, I was keen to give it a try as all reports stated that it served great English grub but had a sophisticated vibe too, so it could work for both casual and smarter get togethers.

With this in mind, my family and I decided to check it out. My husband Dan and I arrived late for the table, so we skipped the bar section and instead headed straight for the restaurant. I was instantly struck by the balance between calming modern white and pastel duck egg blue juxtaposed with low painted beams and an impressive and imposing red brick fireplace, situated right next to our table. Our rectangular table has three dining chairs one side and a wooden bench the other, again all decked in the blue and white hues, scatter cushions creating comfort for the bench occupants. I slid round to the bench and found this comfortable, however my six foot, two inches tall husband was incredibly uncomfortable squashed into the end dining chair; his legs were a bit too long for the end seat and the table leg didn’t give him a lot of space to manoeuvre to get comfy. It also didn’t help that the tables were quite close to each other as well.

As we visited The Bull on a Saturday night, there was an expectant buzz in the air and an undying chatter of conversations and laughter became the background white noise for the entirety of the evening. While I didn’t mind this, it did at times get a little loud, so I did find myself raising my voice quite a bit to talk to the people sitting opposite me.
Dad ordered a bottle of pinot noir and I perused the menu, eagerly taking in the choices for starters – we all knew this was going to be a three-course fanfare affair. I opted for the maple glazed slow roasted pork belly bites, served with an apple coleslaw. Served on a white rectangular plate, a bed of pinky-purple coleslaw formed a bed-like base for four chunky cubes of pork belly, a maple-toned sauce drenching the entire plate. As a big fan of pork belly, I’m so glad that this was as excellent as it was! The pork was deliciously tender with a bit of bite around the roasted skin, the whole meat luxuriously sweet thanks to the generous dose of maple syrup, which permeated the entire dish. The sauce was a lovely consistency and ideal for dunking my pork bites in; I like a lot of sauce with my food so this was ideal for me and I was able to mop to my heart’s content. The coleslaw was lovely too; creamy, crunchy and flavourful all at the same time to add a great texture contrast to the juicy pork as well as slice of freshness against the sticky sweetness. I also thought the portion size was on the larger side for a starter, which always has me rubbing my hands together gleefully and happily – there is nothing more disappointing than teeny, tiny portions!

For main course, I continued in my carnivore ways and chose the roasted salt marsh lamb rump. This was meant to come with kale, a rosemary infused jus and pesto infused creamed mash, however I decided to swap out my mash for a helping of bubble and squeak instead. The surprising star of the show for me here was actually the dark jus; it was a gloriously silky sauce, decently thick to glossily coat anything I dunked in it without being claggy, and it had the most amazing depth of flavour. It was rich and punchy and was really perfectly with the beautiful soft and tender lamb, which was pink all the way through. Thickly cut rounds of the lamb sat atop the flat cylinder of bubble and squeak, with the kale layer snuggled between the two. The lamb was juicy and simply well-cooked meat. The kale added a welcome hit of greenery among the rich and dense flavours, while I really liked the bubble and squeak for its texture; part creamy mash, part chunky potato, although I didn’t really get much of the veg that you typically find inside a bubble and squeak. The portion size was good too; I polished my plate easily and enjoyed every mouthful.

At this point, I was pretty full, but there was no way I was skipping dessert – I just needed to find something light. I found my match made in heaven with a toffee sundae. Served in a tall kilner jar, luscious scoops of vanilla ice cream were stacked with chunky chocolate coated honeycomb pieces, the whole lot flooded with generous oozes of sticky toffee sauce. The sundae was topped with a decadent swirl of light cream, with yet more chocolate covered honeycomb pieces and a drizzle of sauce. Fairly basic, granted, but really lovely and just what I wanted. The ice cream was soft to eat and creamy, the chocolate coated honeycomb was ideal and added crunch to the ice cream, while the toffee sauce tied all of the flavour together and was the best finishing touch. Sometimes, simplicity is just what you fancy!

I thought the food at The Bull was delicious. It is classic, British pub grub at its finest, served in hearty portions that won’t leave you hungry yet has a menu that caters for all tastes and pares back to the basics of good meat cooked well. The ambience was also excellent, with a bit of buzz yet a cosy, intimate feel and the service was efficient and polite. Although I didn’t pay, the size of the tip left leaves me in no doubt of the expense so it does prove that pub food is increasingly becoming fine dining. A nice venue for family and friends get togethers; I’m looking forward to going again at some point.

Holiday Munchies: Suffolk Food Hall, Ipswich

Suffolk Food HallWith one of my besties being Suffolk-based, fun-filled weekends in her hometown of Ipswich are regularly on the cards. As a fellow food-loving fanatic, I always know that whatever cafes, restaurants or bars we frequent, the quality will generally be lovely and the food right up my street, as she shares with me Ipswich’s local food scene.

On my last visit, we went for a slap-up Sunday lunch at Suffolk Food Hall, a roomy, airy and spacious restaurant situated in a barn-style building above a treasure trove of a farm shop below. Once I had been physically dragged away from the rainbow array of salad dressings, gin-filled chocolates and fruit-busting jams, my pal Vick steered my nose instead to the classic British food scents wafting down to us from above.

The restaurant space is very open-plan and homespun, with large, light wooden and chunky benches, tables and chairs suggesting Suffolk Food Hall is the home to family gatherings and large groups rather than tete-a-tetes.  The plain wooden floorboards gave a stylish nod to the high quality vibe the food hall was trying to convey, while the plain white walls and ceiling, accented with muted shaded of duck egg blue and greys, gave the restaurant a modern feel and helped enhance the spacious dimensions. The tables were nicely separated, however one of the nicest features of the restaurant was the wall of wide windows facing the Orwell Bridge. Covering the length of the wall, us diners had an un-obscured view of the water, surrounding fields and greenery and the concrete bridge in all its glory. This further opened the room out and also made me feel as if we were in the middle of no-where.

But, the food. Suffolk Food Hall is very well-known in Ipswich, according to Vick, and is the place to go for high-quality British fodder. Before getting engrossed by the food menu, I chose a glass of sauvingnon blanc to have with my meal; named Frost Pocket and from New Zealand, it was light, fresh and filled with the gooseberry and tropical tones I so love in this type of wine.

For my main meal, I decided to go big and have the classic battered cod and chips. My fillet of fish crossed the length of my plate, always a good sign, and the batter was a pale gold colour and not too thickly coating the fish. It had a satisfying crunch when cut and was a great foil for the soft, flaky, white cod within. A really decent fish and chips is immensely gratifying, and I’m pleased to report this one hit the nail on the head, partly thanks to the chips. I’m rather fussy when it comes to chips; I avoid skinny fries as a rule, unless they are drenched in truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, instead preferring chunky chips. The chips at Suffolk Food Hall were straight, so a cross between the two, however they were fluffy and mash like on the inside yet had a slight crisp on the exterior. My meal also came with a homogeneous blob of mushy peas, which I don’t mind as mushy peas are sweeter than normal peas in my opinion, and some tartar sauce, adding a peppy dash of zing to whatever I dunked in it. The portion size was nice and I polished my plate.

In terms of dessert, I couldn’t resist ordering the bread and butter pudding; it’s one of my favourites. I was rubbing my hands together at the very generous portion size, served as a large block of pudding in a plain white bowl, dusted with icing sugar. The pudding itself was soft and moist with a lovely custardy undertone, the currents and sultanas within adding extra flavour and squidgy nuggets to find. As a custard-lover, I had asked whether it would be possible to have extra custard; I always find the original custard portions meagre. Therefore, when my dessert arrived, I actually had two portions of custard, served in silver jugs. This meant my dessert was happily swimming in custard, just how I like it.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the food at Suffolk Food Hall. As much as I enjoy trying new cuisines and flavours, sometimes you simply can’t beat some British classics done well. The restaurant itself was simplistically stylish and comfortable, with a casual vibe, and the food was tasty with good portions if you don’t want to leave hungry. Make sure you have a pit stop there if you happen to visit the shop downstairs.

Holiday Munchies: Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf and Spa, Luton, Bedfordshire

With our last bulk of annual leave back in May and Christmas still a good month or so away, my husband and I declared that we were sincerely overdue for some rest and relaxation this month; just an injection of peacefulness to tide us over until the jingling bells of Christmas commence. With this in mind, we decided to book in for a spa break for a one-night stay as a bit of a mini break, with my husband selecting the Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf and Spa as our final destination. With its choice of bars and restaurants, our weekend escape was shaping up to be as much about the food as it was the massages and jacuzzi time.

Arriving on Saturday afternoon and departing on Sunday afternoon, we consumed two lunches, a dinner and a breakfast during our brief time at Luton Hoo, and naturally many courses were involved; we are no amateurs when it comes to our spa getaways!

We arrived at Luton Hoo around 1pm on Saturday, and my grumbling stomach was sorely protesting. As our room wasn’t yet ready, we headed away from the main mansion house and instead over to country club, where the majority of the facilities are based. This includes the trendy 19th Bar. Set on staggered levels and with a minimalist white, dove grey and duck egg blue vibe, this bar hit the nail on the head for being trendy yet peaceful; suitable for country club members watching the sport and spa guests in their robes. Tucking ourselves into a corner booth, we eagerly scanned the lunch menu. We only wanted something light so as not to spoil our dinner reservation, so I opted to have a salad of spinach leaves, butternut squash, feta and pumpkin seeds, washed down with a very nice glass of warming, fruity merlot, while Dan chose the coronation chicken wrap, served with crisps and salad. He paired his lunch with a Magners cider.

I absolutely loved my salad; it featured a lot of components I enjoy but don’t often eat as my husband doesn’t like them – namely the butternut squash and the feta cheese. The feta was crumbled into satisfyingly large chunks for a delicious creaminess which added decadence to the leaves of the salad, while the roasted butternut squash provided an autumnal warmth and soft sweetness. This paired perfectly with the cheese. The pumpkin seeds added a good bite of crunch to the whole mixture. Due to the generous amount of cheese and squash, no dressing was needed at all and I have to say this is probably the nicest salad I have ever eaten. It was light enough for lunch but with really decent amounts of squash and feta which makes you feel you are getting value for money, and not just a pile of flavourless leaves.

Dan also enjoyed his wrap; the chunks of chicken were a generous size also and lightly spiced to suit all palates.
Included in our spa package was a three-course dinner at the country club’s main restaurant; Adam’s Brasserie. The barn-like space features high and airy pale wooden beams and black metalwork ceiling lights. The cream walls proudly showcase black and white movie stills, highlighting all of the films that have had scenes shot at Luton Hoo. Dan and I were ushered into a comfortable horseshoe-shaped booth for our meal; these has more than enough room for two and it was nice to not be squashed onto a tiny table for once just because there’s only two of us. I reclined against the high-backed mushroom coloured seat and it was great to take in the relaxed and happy vibe of the restaurant. Everyone seemed very chilled, unwinding and letting their hair down.

To drink, I chose a bottle of French sauvignon blanc, which Dan and I shared. It was deliciously fruity, sweet yet medium-bodied, and it really hit the nail on the head. While happily sipping my wine, I chose the confit rabbit croquettes, served with pickled red cabbage and kale, for my starter. I have to say, although this was tasty, it wasn’t as great as I was anticipating it to be. The whole dish was very dry, and I really needed some sort of sauce or dip to help tie the flavours together and bring the dish to life. The croquettes were cut into thick triangular wedges, with one edge exposed to show the flaky, pale pink rabbit mixture inside. The other sides were coated in a darkly cooked breadcrumb.

This had a lot of crunch, while the soft rabbit flakes inside offered some squish, however both components were still rather dry. The garnishes were also dry; the kale was crispy like the seaweed you would get from a Chinese takeaway, while the pickled cabbage was tart and cut through the other flavours nicely, yet still didn’t add the moisture the dish needed. A creative dish and a great idea, but definitely a type of sauce was needed. Not bad on flavour though, although I wouldn’t say it was hugely game-y. Dan, on the other hand, ordered the salt and pepper squid, which came with a curry-toned mayonnaise. His squid slices were big and lightly battered, as well as surprisingly tender. He did try and share his mayo with me, however he also didn’t have masses of dip for dunking.

For main course, I decided to have the braised venison shoulder, again a meat that I love but definitely don’t have very often. This venison was served like a stew; the small cylinder of venison sat in the middle of a shallow bowl in a pool of finely cubed autumnal vegetables and pearl barley. The venison was lovely. Although it didn’t look like much at all, and certainly wasn’t a natural shape, it was wonderfully tender and simply fell apart as soon as I poked it, shredding into lovely flakes of soft meat. It was flavoursome and juicy and lovely to tuck into because it was so soft and clearly cooked to perfection. The stew was also nice, although it was a little tricky to identify what I was eating. The cubes of vegetables were very small so the flavour from them wasn’t hugely impactful to be honest. I think it was carrot and parsnip if I am judging by colour, and while the flavour probably added to the stew juices and the meat, I wouldn’t say it was anything special if eaten by itself. The pearl barley really gave the dish that stew like feel, especially as it began to soak up the clear stock juices of the meat pooling at the bottom of the bowl. The pearl barley was all mixed with the veg, so this provided a nice, slightly bland base to enable the venison to be the gentle and unassuming star of the show. Eaten all together, it was a tasty dish and I enjoyed it very much. I ordered a side of buttered spinach to have with my meal and I’m glad I did. Although the portion sizes on the whole were very good, I wouldn’t say there was anything massively filling in my main course, so the beautiful and buttery spinach really enhanced my dinner.

Dan also went for a carnivore option, choosing the 10oz ribeye steak, served with a garlic and herb butter and chunky chips. I’m not going to lie, when it came out, I was a wee bit jealous as the meat looked great; a great hulk of a steak. Dan’s feedback however was that there wasn’t enough of the butter served with it; this is saying something as Dan doesn’t actually like a lot of sauces with his food.

After devouring our main courses, it was time to hit the sweet spot. This time, we both opted for the same thing – the milk chocolate mousse, served with salted caramel sauce, chunks of cinder toffee and a scoop of honeycomb and vanilla ice cream. This was pure indulgence on a plate. A cupcake sized thin, solid chocolate case held the milk chocolate mousse, offering a satisfying crunch alongside the silky yet bubbly mousse within. The mousse itself was the ideal milk chocolate flavour and was really light to eat. The cinder toffee on top was basically chunks of honeycomb, again offering a different texture as well as a complimenting flavour the main dessert. The salted caramel sauce was a thick, yet stingy, drizzle on the bottom of the plate. The honeycomb ice cream was more a scoop of vanilla ice cream that had honeycomb pieces threaded through it; it was a gorgeous ice cream and I’m sure I could easily eat an entire tub of the creamy goodness. It was a really lovely dessert; the only downside was the wait. We waited around half an hour for dessert to actually come out; apparently the kitchen had to wait for the mousses to thaw in the centre before they could be served and usually they weren’t as frozen as they happened to be when we ordered them. Granted, a good reason for a long wait, but they could have told us sooner. Wonderful mousse though, it’s nice to have the flavoured centred around milk chocolate for once rather than dark or white.

I also asked for a glass of dessert wine to have with my chocolate mousse. I was given a glass of deep brown coloured liquid, an American black muscat. Smooth, silky and forest fruity, it was really lovely and added a black forest gateaux feel to my afters.

As a heads up, drinks are expensive, albeit delicious. Although our food was all included in our package, our drinks weren’t and we were soon stacking up quite a bill…ok I was stacking up quite a bill. Our bottle of wine with dinner was £29 and the glass of muscat was just under £9. The Aperol spritzes I was happily downing in the fancy drawing room in the manor house post dinner were £15 a pop too. There aren’t many drinks menus lying around to be honest, so you just have to order and hope for the best. Everything is pretty excellent so you do expect it to cost a pretty penny too unfortunately.

I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner on the whole. The food was lovely, the selection on the menu was varied, the presentation was neat and thoughtful and it was all delicious. Yes, there were a few niggles, such as a too-dry starter, however collectively it was a wonderful meal and I left feeling very full and happy. My main complaint would be the service. The waiting staff were all very polite and accommodating, however the service on the whole was very slow and we waited for ages in between courses or for drinks. I appreciate it was a busy Saturday night, but I have no sympathy for venues that fail to plan ahead, especially as our reservation had been in the diary for at least a month, as well as all the other spa inclusive diners. Luckily, we had no reason to rush so we could take our leisurely time with no issue.

The next morning, after I had happily played with the Nespresso machine in our room, we headed down to the acclaimed Wernher restaurant for breakfast. Again, service was polite and functionary, yet snail-like in speed. We were shown to our table and then we sat twiddling our thumbs before anyone deigned to even give us a menu, let alone explain the breakfast set up. Our table was laid up with jams and sugar, ready for the off and once we had our menus, we both settled on the traditional full English breakfast. I decided to have my eggs poached and I swapped my mushroom for a chunky slice of black pudding.

I have to say, it was a decent breakfast flavour wise. The sausages and bacon can make or break a breakfast, but luckily here the sausages were fat and flavourful with a smattering of herbs inside, while the bacon was thick-cut and not too fatty on the edges. The poached eggs were like large, perfectly round pearls of egginess; when popped, they spewed yolk delightfully, which I mopped up with gusto. The beans were served in a side dish, which always annoys me to be honest, the hash brown was pretty much like the frozen ones you can buy and the tomato was standard. The single slice of black pudding was tasty and added a richness to the dish. One oddity was that the waitress dishes out the ketchup rather than giving you a bottle or a side plate. She stands over you, spooning the ketchup from a gravy boat on to your plate so you have no say on how much ketchup you want or where it goes on your plate. I found this very odd and rather disagreeable. All in all though, a lovely brekkie, served with a mix tray of toast. I tried both the granary and the brown bread, having two halves with my eggs and beans, the third with the raspberry jam loitering in the middle of the table. Perfectly toasted in my opinion with no burnt bits. I asked for coffee with my breakfast, which arrived in a large jug, ready to pour into my dainty matching cup and saucer. I didn’t realise items like cappuccinos or flat whites were available, otherwise I would have ordered one most likely, however it wasn’t the end of the world just having a typical filter coffee.

Definitely a lack of explanation on pretty much everything throughout our stay at Luton Hoo. If we didn’t ask the question or at least have a vague idea of what we were doing, we really wouldn’t have had a clue.

After my main breakfast, I needed something to hit my sweet spot, so I opted to check out the continental options. These were really disappointing and lacklustre actually for such a fancy restaurant; it all looked a bit sad shoved on the side. I had a portion of Greek yoghurt topped with granola, however the gleaming star of the continental selection was undoubtedly the amazing muffins. Tall and bursting from the wrappers, Dan and I shared two muffins; one was a banoffee flavour, with the sponge studded with banana chips and a toffee sauce hiding inside the centre of the muffin. The second was a blueberry cheesecake concoction, with a traditional blueberry muffin filled with a creamy filling. These were divine; the sponge was soft, the fillings were unexpected and well executed and they were generally really lovely muffins.

The other best bit of breakfast however was the room itself where we ate. It was sheer regality with crystal style chandeliers hanging elegantly from the ceiling, grey and white swirled marble surfaces edging the room and stunningly large and imposing tapestries filling all of the wall space. I felt like I stepped back in time to enter an Austen novel where I was visiting the very richest family. It was a gorgeous and opulent room that really makes you feel a hundred dollars just for sitting in it.

After a spot of spa-ing, we were ready for lunch. This time, a two-course option was included in our package. We had booked a table for 12.30pm as we had full-body massages due at 2pm. Originally, we had thought an hour and a half would be plenty for a two-course lunch, but our previous experiences were leaving us feeling very doubtful and clock-watching. We were right; the service continued to be slow and we had to chase for our food at least twice. We ended up leaving with five minutes to spare only because we physically left the table to get the bill and pay. This is certainly my main bug bear with Luton Hoo; slow service will put anyone and everyone in a bad mood, even if you aren’t in a rush.

Regardless, lunch was tasty. After spying the beefburgers wafting past me at dinner the night before, I was pleased to see them on the lunch menu. The menu described the 8oz burger as having glazed rarebit, onion rings, French fries and coleslaw. The list seemed to describe the sides here, so I asked to swap my French fries for chunky chips. Definitely the right choice as these fat and neat cuboids were clearly homemade, certainly nice and fat, and much more satisfying to eat and dunk in ketchup. They had a soft centre yet were also pretty soft on the outside too. The coleslaw came in a side dish, placed next to the open burger on a rectangular white plate. The onion rings were resting on the inside of the top of the burger bun, ready to be folded into the burger, which looked and smelt appetising. The burger itself, resting on the bottom of the bun, was smothered in a completely melted layer of cheese, I assume cheddar. It was bubbly and golden. Unfortunately, Dan cannot eat dairy, and we hadn’t made the connection that the glazed rarebit was fancy speak for melted cheese; we assumed cheese would be clearly labelled in today’s allergy-laden landscape! He ended up scraping all of the cheese off his burger and dumping it in mine. I spooned some ketchup over my double cheese layer, put my burger together and got stuck in.

It was a nice burger, but nothing to write home about. It was meaty, beefy and satisfying. The breaded onion rings worked well in there, although the flavour was hidden at times, and the brioche style bun held together well to keep the burger intact throughout. Again, it needed more sauce and was a smidge dry. Luckily, my double cheese layer helped to keep the burger moist and negate my wish for more ketchup, however when I tried some of Dan’s burger sans cheese, it actually tasted really rubbery – it appears the burger really needs the cheese to help enhance the flavour and the texture. Overall a nice meal, but certainly improvements to be made.

We also both chose to have dessert rather than a starter as our other course. We were pleased to spot the same options from the dinner menu the night previous, as Dan was dying to have another chocolate mousse and I was keen to try my second option of a warm data and banana sponge. Despite the descriptions being exactly the same as the dinner menu, even down to the sauces and sides, our desserts were nothing like we expected. Dan’s chocolate mousse for example, was now looking like a brownie cake bar in a cuboid shape, with thick cake layers and a very thick, dark and rich chocolate mousse. Very different indeed.

Part of the reason I chose the date and banana sponge was for the banoffee cream, however there was no cream for me. My pudding was served with a generous scattering of banana chips on top, sat on an equally generous pool of butterscotch sauce, but instead of the unique cream I wanted to try, I was presented with a scoop of boring vanilla ice cream. I know it’s a small thing, but we both felt a bit short-changed bearing in mind the descriptions are identical. My sponge was tasty though; it was like a sticky toffee pudding without any fruit pieces in it, so it was just sponge. The banana was barely a flavour at all, but just the merest waft of a tone in the aftertaste so it was a hint of banana really. So, lunch was nice, but also a bit disappointing.

The food at Luton Hoo is lovely and you can certainly have a decent meal there, as long as you aren’t in any rush and you’ve saved your pocket money. It wasn’t as dreamy as it could have been, although maybe this is just because we went in with high expectations because of the luxurious ambience and opulent manor house vibe (plus Dan spent a bomb, you therefore expect it to be good). I’d still go back and I reckon I’d still enjoy the food just as much, but I think I’d haul back my expectations and enjoy it for what it is; a delicious meal with my wonderful husband.

In Pictures: The Lakes Restaurant, Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Colchester, Essex

No spa break is complete without some level of gorging on incredibly fancy food; let’s face it, everything about a spa break is about indulgence and me-time, so it would sure be inadequate if you couldn’t get a decent meal thrown into the bargain. Luckily, for my husband and I staying at the Stoke By Nayland Hotel in Colchester, Essex, we were able to sample its well-known The Lakes Restaurant, complete with sleek suited and booted staff, black glitzy marble and a wall of floor to ceiling windows, typically offering a far-reaching view of the acres of manicured gardens and golf course, but at dinner time, instead providing an atmospheric inky blackness. Oddly, I found this effect exuded an extra air of intimacy and privacy, ideal for a date night dinner at a romantic spa weekend.

As for the food itself, I was soon licking my lips. Naturally, we went all out with the courses, however for me, dessert was by far the most memorable. It was so quirky, taking the classic and well-loved combo of bacon and maple syrup and combining it with the soft, squidgy and sugary sweetness of everyone’s favourite; the doughnut. Thinking back, this dessert still gets my taste buds watering and my palate craving. That’s not to say my other courses weren’t delicious though; the pork was still tender and juicy, and I also loved having quail to start as something unusual. It all went down very nicely with a glass of red. One word of advice though, this is definitely treat night fodder; my husband and I checked out the bar for a pre-dinner drink, and my gin and tonic ended up setting him back £14. While I expect these prices in central London bars that I frequent, I really don’t expect this high price point for Essex hotels, no matter how lovely they are.

We even had food included as a part of our spa day itself, as well as in the evening; so prior to dolling ourselves up to visit The Lakes Restaurant, we had already had a lovely lunch down in the spa cafe. I may have stolen one of Dan’s courses, so my lunch was three courses while his was only one, but that’s what husbands are for, right?! To let you try as much of the menu as possible? Either way, lunch was also yummy and a nice selection considering it was a spa menu. The antipasti was great mix and pick type food for mains and I found the pavlova dessert delectable.

Naturally, the breakfast buffet the following morning was all about the full English. We even managed to nab a fancy window table, so we had the gorgeous views with the sun rising which we had missed out on over dinner the night before. It certainly makes an early start worth it, especially when you can fill up in such style.

Take a look at what we had here…