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.

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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…

In pictures: Bateaux Lunch Cruise, London

Scenically chugging up and down London’s river Thames, an audio tour flooding through the boat-wide radio, windows framing each side of the indoor space to allow for an abundance of views; although you may think this sounds more like a tourist experience, it is in fact a classy three-course lunch courtesy of  river hospitality firm Bateaux London. My grandma bought me the meal ticket, as it were, as a Christmas present a little while ago, however we waited until the following spring before embarking from Embankment Pier, as we wanted sunshiney views rather than winter wet ones.

As well as panoramic views of London right from the centre of its famed river, we also enjoyed a luxurious set three-course meal, paired with a bottle of wine between us. Luckily, the house white option was a sauvignon blanc; our favourite. It definitely went down a treat with our meal, which included a classic chicken main course and a strawberry cheesecake type dessert.

Take a look to see the delights you could enjoy during your very own river tour lunch…

Homeward Bound: Villagio, Basildon, Essex

Despite being an Essex girl for my whole life, there are many patches of the county I have yet to explore when it comes to mu culinary adventures. One such patch is Basildon, an area I am certainly more interested in now the hubby and I have it in our sights as a potential destination for our next home. I will certainly require good quality eating hot spots nearby so a best friend’s hen do meal at local Italian restaurant Villagio, at the Festival Way recreation park, seemed like a good starting point.

Light, bright and airy, wall to wall mirrors helps to make the restaurant feel roomier than it is, although lashings of sunny yellow paint also create a spacious warmth. With mustard yellow tones, button studded upholstery and decorative chandeliers, Villagio felt comfortable, family-friendly and casual, although we also felt perfectly at home being dressed up to the nines for our Saturday meal out.

Sitting across from another of my best friends, and a fellow food-lover, we decided the best course of action would be to share a couple of starters, to enable us to tuck into and try more food at, let’s face it, a restaurant we probably wouldn’t be visiting again in the immediate near future. Therefore, we opted for the garlic pizza bread with mozzarella and caramalised onions and a portion of meatballs. The garlic bread was really delicious; it was the size of a small 10 inch round pizza I reckon, with gooey creamy coloured blobs of the melted mozzarella generous and thickly covering the majority of the pizza, the deep brown caramlised onions cutting through the dense cheese with a sharp sweetness that worked really nicely. We all know this is a dream team flavour combo but it’s great that the ratio of cheese to onion was spot on too. The garlic was very subtle, so I would define this as more of a cheese and onion bread rather than a garlic bread; personally I would have liked it to have more of a punchy garlic kick however my bestie preferred the lower garlic payoff. I also liked the fact that the crust of the garlic bread was doughy and was thicker than you would typically get. I don’t much like it when you get a garlic bread or pizza crust that simply snaps like a poppadom; this is just flavourless and pointless in my opinion. So thumbs up for an actual crust.

With our garlic bread, we also had a white bowl of five meatballs, drenched in a chunky tomato and garlic sauce, sprinkled with grated cheese and served with two narrow grilled strips of ciabatta. The meatballs were lovely; fairly small but nice and meaty. They would have been dry without the sauce, however there was more sauce hidden in the dish than I first suspected, so it was nice to continually dunk both the meatballs, small bits of ciabatta and our garlic bread crusts in the sauce. It was a standard tomato sauce, thick and chunky with simple garlic tones. All in all, a good and simple start to the meal.

For my main course, I decided to opt for the butternut squash risotto; two things I cannot convince the husband to consume so I saw this as a great opportunity to chow down on foods that I wouldn’t necessarily get at home. Served in a beige speckled pasta dish, the risotto rice was sticky, clumping together in true risotto fashion. Luckily, it was cooked more than the traditional al dente, which I prefer, although the parsley scattered on the top was overzealous for my taste buds. The butternut squash was cut into small cubes, and stirred through the risotto along with peas and cabbage, Parmesan cheese grated on top for that final flourish. It was cooked nicely, the flavours worked well together, and it was a great little dish. As I was being greedy, I also had a side dish, which is typically quite unlike me until I saw two words: truffle oil. We all know my partiality to anything truffle so when I saw that a version of the house fries featured my favourite truffle oil and Parmesan combo, I ignored all good sense telling me no and I just ordered them. I’m glad I did though as they were yummy. The truffle was subtle but still a noticeable flavour and the cheese was another fun accent. The chips themselves were spot on too; I’m usually a chunky chip girl but these were so moreish is munched my way easily through the whole dish. Soft and fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside and loaded with the extra flavours. A real win-win side dish.

Although I was pretty full by this point, dessert is always going to be a no-brainer. Hence, I decided to stick with something fun and Italian and have the banana and nutella calzone. Served as a folded over crepe, sausage type shape, this was a lot smaller than I was expecting and to be honest, the filling wasn’t exactly present and correct. The pizza dough was soft and the right thickness for the dish, but the banana chunks were cut up very small so that they got quite mashed up, and although the blobs of nutella were divine with the pizza dough of the calzone, I wouldn’t say there was enough filling in general and it also wasn’t combined very well so it was more like a bite of banana and then a bite of nutella. The calzone was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, nothing to write home about, and a weird drizzle of squeezy chocolate sauce outlining two sides of my square plate. It was a nice dessert and I did like it, but it was a bit of a lacklustre version. I feel Villagio could do more with it to make it more of a show-stopper dessert item.

Since I was driving, I stuck to Villagio’s still lemonade to drink, which was refreshing and had a satisfying lemon twang. The service was pretty standard, although I think there were some new waiting staff serving our table, so sometimes getting the food out and to the right person was time-consuming and I kept having to ask for cutlery. For my three courses and two soft drinks, I paid £33.20 which is ok price wise. I was expecting it to be cheaper considering I didn’t drink for once, but I must have blown the saving on having a side and an extra course! I did enjoy my meal on the whole and it was a friendly little spot to find.

Holiday Munchies, The Brasshouse, Birmingham

After spending all day cooped up at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena watching the Yonex All England Badminton Championships, my husband Dan and I were pretty cream crackered. I mean, watching all the athletes running around was more tiring than we expected, so rather than head back to the hotel to change and then find somewhere for dinner, we decided to frequent a classic gastro pub on the way back to our room instead, for an artery-clogging meal that would have us licking our lips and our tummies sighing with satisfaction.

With this in mind, Dan found The Brasshouse on Broad Street, near Brindleyplace and next to the canal. It struck the right balance between offering a veneer of red-brick sophistication and old-fashioned charm as well as providing a more casual atmosphere than a formal restaurant. We were also lucky that since it was still quite early in the evening, that it was relatively quiet too, so we could find a dining table with ease that was opposite the bar for speedy ordering purposes.

I actually really liked the interior of The Brasshouse. With smart tartan carpet, cream walls and deep duck egg blue wood panelling, and plenty of red brick for that rustic vibe, the pub had an aura of a manor house about it, which appeals to my whimsical nature. With an array of booths, dining tables and high stool tables, we picked a normal dining table for four and spread ourselves out. I admired the intricate wallpaper in this section of the pub too; it depicted white columned arches that stood out against deep grey alcoves, a selection of brass-coloured monkeys strutting, climbing and causing mischief at random, well-spaced intervals of the classic Roman building work. On top of this fascinating wallpaper were heavy, thick and densely patterned golden frames, which were either mirrors or showed black and white stills of streets, mounted on deep red apertures.

Once we had settled down, I viewed the drinks menu with growing interest. They had a vast gin selection and I was eager to try out a couple of different flavours. I started with Tanqueray No. 10, as I am a Tanqueray fan anyway, and I enjoyed the fresh, citrus tones of this gin. I also sampled Monkey 47, which had telling notes of cranberry. It was great to try some unique gins that you don’t always find on pub menus and I loved that the menu had tasting notes too, which helped me pick what ones I wanted to order. I had my gins with slimline tonic for a refreshing beverage to accompany my meal. Needless to say, I made my way through quite a few…

For starters, we decided to pick a few dishes from the tapas menu and share. Very sociable for date night indeed. My choice was the mozzarella and truffle bon bons, which sounded like they pretty much encompassed all of my favourite flavours in one decadently deep-fried bundle. Truffle-toned and breadcrumb-coated, these balls hid an oozing centre of soft, stringy and addictive melted mozzarella, which was such a texture contrast to the crispy fried breadcrumbs. Super soft yet with a golden exterior, these globules of goodness were served with a tomato salsa that added just the right amount of pick-me-up to avoid too much heaviness, the tomato quite juicy and zingy. Dan’s pick was the chicken wings, which were also fried to a golden perfection, the chicken meat itself slick and tender. Our mutual plate pick was the antipasti, as we do love an antipasti. This one featured a selection of Italian cured meats, mixed olives, slow roasted tomato, focaccio bread and Dolcelatte blue cheese. I loved the range of salamis, which covered different textures and tastes, and in particular I enjoyed wrapping bits of salami around the flavourful and rich tomatoes. In my opinion, tomatoes taste so much better when they are sundried, roasted or sunblushed so this left me happy. I chowed down on the salty olives too as a nice snack and I even tried the blue cheese, despite strongly disliking blue cheese. This one was creamy and soft, almost spreadable, so could be termed bearable, but it was still not a winner for either of us. All in all though, we loved our little pick and mix starter and it certainly set the ball rolling for a very enjoyable meal.

For my main course, I stuck to my cheese-laden guns and opted for the loaded mac and cheese. Naturally, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mac and cheese, but instead it featured slow cooked BBQ burnt beef ends, BBQ pulled pork and streaky bacon all sat atop my mound of cheesy pasta, with a slice of garlic focaccia on the side. The mac and cheese was served in a white baking dish rimmed with blue, and looked as if it had come straight from the oven, the top almost set and with a delightful collection of golden burst cheese bubbles brewing on top. Each of the featured meats sat on top in a neat pile, so it wasn’t really mixed in to the mac and cheese; it was probably the standard pre-prepared mac and cheese that just had meat whacked on top. However, this meat was really good. Each component was literally screaming with flavour and the BBQ tones really came through. The burnt beef ends had a satisfying crunch to them, while the pulled pork was shredded beautifully and gooey too. The bacon was a nice thickness with a salty undertone, and a few sprigs of greenery finished off the look. The mac and cheese itself was decadently cheesy and a wonderful yellow colour. It was wonderfully oozy, the small pasta pieces were well cooked and it felt like indulgent home cooking that we simply don’t usually have time for. A very yummy mac and cheese indeed that really hit my spot. I was disappointed with the garlic focaccia however. It was actually a small strip of what I would term ciabatta rather than focaccia with barely a garlic tinge in it. It was nice to have some bread to dunk in all that cheesy and saucy goodness, however a crisp plain ciabatta is very different from a soft, doughy, garlic flavoured focaccia. #justsaying. Dan went for his pub go-to; fish and chips served with mushy peas on brown paper. A sample bite told me the fish was delicious and well cooked so that it flaked apart nicely, and the batter was light and not oily. We were both happy with the main courses.

I decided to have a traditional dessert for my afters, so I ordered the apple crumble with lashings of bright yellow custard. The apple was soft and suprisingly full of flavour. It luckily also retained its chunkiness with regards to the fruit and it wasn’t just a colourless mush of stewed apple. However, for me, the star of the dish was actually the crumble topping, which not only was the right consistency of crumb to add bite and crunch yet avoid being dust, but it also had a great taste. It was flavoured with cinnamon, and I think had an oaty, caramel tone to it too. It was really lovely. I was also grateful for the generous custard pool. The colour suggested packet mix, yet it was nice so I don’t really mind. The apple crumble was a satisfying and hearty dessert.

Dan, on the other hand, went upmarket with mini churros served with a caramel dip. However, these were a bit odd to be honest. They were pretty hollow inside instead of having churros’ usual doughnut fluffiness and were filled with the same caramel sauce that was provided for dunking. This made the churros more like shells, which were a touch too crunchy and thin to be proper churros. Plus, Dan found them really difficult to eat as the sauce inside was absolutely piping hot and we both burnt our tongues trying to eat them. Breaking them open though just spilled the inner sauce and took away the fun of dunking in the dip, which as we all know is the main point of churros. A nice idea but we’re not sure this one really carried off that well. The flavours were nice though. 

All in all, we enjoyed our evening in The Brasshouse. It was all about the proper pub grub, although it certainly gave an upmarket makeover to certain aspects of its menu; namely the tapas starters and the luxury drinks menu. Clearly, artisan drinks menus are becoming the norm as more diners expect to adventure as far with their gin as they do with their dinner. Prices were pretty standard for pub food and I really liked the atmosphere and the decor. I’d definitely pop back in for either drink or food or both and there was enough choice on the menu for me to pick a different meal on another visit. Just don’t expect healthy eating!

 

Holiday Munchies: Cielo Italian, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

Birmingham may not be typically associated with romantic restaurants and date night hotspots, however when my husband Dan took me out for a meal on our recent visit up north (we are from Essex, most things are north to us), we found a restaurant that certainly ticks every box I have when it comes to a slap up meal out. Despite the whitewash of snow, we donned our glad rags and headed to Cielo, an Italain restaurant situated on the fabulously named Oozells Square, in sophisticated social scene Brindleyplace.

Large windows make up the majority of the restaurant’s two exterior facing walls, so its opulent interior provided a warm beacon of streamlined white and cream decor for us to aim for as we battled against snow and wind. We maneuvered around the exterior, encased seating area as despite heat lamps underneath umbrella-style awning, I doubt anyone would brave the weather to snuggle under the blankets of the sofa seats today. As we entered, I was struck by how busy the restaurant was. Granted it was a Saturday, however our table was booked for 8.45pm, so quite late really, however the restaurant was absolutely alive with rich and hearty Italian laughter, large groups of family and friends dolled up, numerous waiting staff buzzing about as if charged with electricity. I instantly loved the vibe of the atmosphere; it was as if Cielo was celebrating the weekend itself.

The decor was a little bit try-to-hard in terms of wanting to be classy and elegant, and although it was almost there, in my opinion it could have done with a splash of accent colour to break up the consistent cream of everything. Mirrors on the walls reflected the space from the opposite windows to increase the notion of space, however one thing I did like was the armchair style seating. Dan and I were led to a small table for two by the closed off waiting area and we each nestled into a plush cream leather armchair, getting nice and comfy. Cielo certainly felt as if it was well-loved by locals, in particular for special occasions, so I was getting very impatient to sample some of their food for myself.

We started off by choosing a bottle of white wine for us to share, opting for the Domaine La Prade sauvignon blanc, which boasted of green apple, pink grapefruit and elderflower flavours. It was actually refreshingly fruity, yet soft and light to drink so it was ideal to cut through the carbohydrate and protein-laden feast we were planning. For starters, I chose the spaghetti carbonara, made with smoked pancetta, egg yolks, white wine, cream and grated Grana Padano cheese. Of course, I had extra Parmesan grated on top as well. Firstly, I loved the pasta bowl it came in. Traditionally a deep bowl, it was shaped to have one side lower than the other so it looked as if it was sitting on a slant, and almost provided an easy access point for me to eat my spaghetti from! The pasta itself was well cooked, which is good as I don’t like al dente pasta, and I loved the creaminess of the sauce paired with the salty mini cubes of pancetta. It was carbonara, but a carbonara of kings. The hubby went for prawns, which were lightly battered and served with a fresh mango-based salad and a sweet chilli dip. Although initially dubious about the mango, he soon started raving about the magical combination of flavours.

For my main course, I think I consumed one of the best dishes I have ever eaten out. By the size of this blog alone, I think we can all gather what a compliment this is. I ordered the tournedo rossini, which was basically an incredibly hefty and large fillet steak, a wonderful chunk of meat that I asked cooked medium rare. This was sat on a neat cylinder of sauteed garlic spinach, while on top of the angus beef was enriched duck liver and thin wafers of black truffle. The whole dish sat in a swimming pool of rich and dark red wine jus. This dish was undoubtedly all about the wow factor and I simply cannot praise it highly enough. The beef itself was sheer quality, thickly cut and buttery soft. This was a match made in heaven when dipped in the gorgeously deep and rich sauce, which had a slight sweet and balsamic-like tone to it. I was expecting pate for the duck liver, however I had a poke in the dim, atmospheric lighting of the restaurant and deduced that I thought it actually was liver. I hadn’t tried liver before so it was a learning curve, yet luckily it was only a small portion and it was sat on a square of olive oil drenched bread. When all covered in the jus as well, it was hard not to like. It was certainly meaty and a different texture to most meats, being slightly spongy in comparison, however it did not take away from the dish at all. I loved finding the shards of black truffle as I adore truffle, and anything black truffle in particular sends me wistfully daydreaming about my time in Florence, were food is the altar at which Florence locals worship and truffle is a much more normal foodstuff. Truffle works well with meat so I enjoyed pairing it with both the steak and the liver. The spinach added a vibrancy of green to the plate and I really enjoyed the heavy garlic hit encompassed in the buttery cooked leaves. All in all, this dish was something very special, and I could think about it all day long.

Dan, on the other hand, ordered a pasta dish for his main course that was full of thick chunks of chorizo in a tomato based sauce that coated his penne. We also shared a bread board between us, which featured triangles and squares of different flavoured breads. One of the ones I sampled was studded with olives while the second had a tomato and Mediterranean vibe to the taste. After our main courses, we were so full. The portion sizes so far were more than generous, and where the food was just so delectable, I just couldn’t leave a drop. I ate slowly to try and fit more in! It was a squeeze but no steak was left behind and I polished off my plate, much to my stomach’s adoration and discomfort.

Dessert was always going to be a foregone conclusion. With our first two courses leaving us in raptures of Italian stupor, there was no way I was leaving without trying a portion of tiramisu. Boy it was lovely to look at and even greater to eat! Served in a neat circular stack, the dessert was wonderfully creamy with lashings of layered mascarpone and coffee-drenched sponge, the top dusted thoroughly with coco powder and the plate scattered with finely chopped nuts for added crunch. The tiramisu was silky, flavoursome and sweet; in other words utterly lovely. I even treated myself to a sneaky glass of dessert wine with it to help accentuate the sweetness further. Dan went all fresh and fruity with a brandsnap basket loaded with fresh fruit and served with sorbet.

We must have been good guests as we were given limoncello shots on the house once we had paid our bill. This really helped to round off what really was an incredibly special meal. The food was simply to die for, and although poor Dan paid through the nose for our meal, I can’t help but think that every penny was well worth it as the meal was amazing. The quality and standard of the dishes was unbelievably high and the portion sizes were really rather large too to leave us completely stuffed and waddling back to our hotel. The service was a little slow, but considering it was Saturday and we needed all the rest time we could muster in between courses, I wouldn’t say it was a problem in any way.

I really can’t convey what a magical evening we had at Cielo. It was romantic and the food was impeccable. Well worth a visit if you happen to be in Birmingham, although don’t expect to pay less than the quality deserves.