Holiday Munchies: The London Inn, St Neot, Cornwall

When visiting my mother-in-law’s tiny rural village in Cornwall, it’s interesting to draw comparisons with my London-based lifestyle. For example, the concept of ‘your local’ is different in the village of St Neot. Unlike my base in Essex, where an abundance of pubs are pound a penny along the majority of hustling streets, The London Inn is the one and only pub-come-restaurant-come-inn situated in the centre of the little community, making it a mini hub of activity in its location next the large church building next door.

On the last day of my husband and I’s last visit to countryside Cornwall, we visited The London Inn as a family for a friendly final meal before hitting the road the next day. It certainly looks the part of a rural pub, with its whitewashed exterior, swinging pub sign above the door, and umbrella shaded picnic benches propped outside next to a wall planted with blooming red flowers. Heading inside, the rural stereotype continues with wonderfully quaint charm; the white ceilings are not only low in true country cottage style, but they also come adorned with black painted wooden beams that also structure the walls too. A sage green colour on the walls lightens the room considerably, while an odd assortment of knick-knacks, such as white china figurines and colourful Chinese patterned tankards cluster across random surfaces for a kitsch and homely feel.

The tables and chairs are all dark and polished wood, reminding you of the universal furniture that all grandparents seemed to have at some point. The natural beams of the cottage seemed to form walls to segregate different sections of the inn, providing plenty of peaceful and not overlooked nooks and grannies where you could sit to eat. We chose a large round table near the main door, the centre of the table decorated with a simple glass jar filled with a pink rose and accompanying white floral as well as a small vegetable box style holder which contained cutlery and condiments. The menus, presented in old school leather bound holders, was a simple A4 printed Word document, with a limited selection of British grub to whet the appetite. Although it was traditional and homely, it was also oddly eclectic, and I rather liked this mish-mash of home comforts.

After ordering a glass of sauvignon blanc at the bar, one of the owners came to the table to take our food order. As I was pretty hungry and the choices were sparse, I opted for the traditional beef burger. I never used to really eat burgers out, but I’ve gotten quite into them of late, and where better to sample a British beefburger than at a classic country pub? When it arrived at the table, I was soon gawking with anticipation, as it looked absolutely epic. The beefburger itself was absolutely huge; you could tell it was a  lovingly prepared handmade job that was made with a great thickness and flavour in mind rather than any notion about fitting into a bun. Stacked on top of this colossal meat patty was grated cheddar and slices of bacon, as well as three squashed together onion rings. A soft white bun top balanced precariously on top, the skewer through the centre of the burger attempting to keep it together mirroring Pisa.

Also on my stylishly rectangular plate was a pile of skin-on fries, a simple salad of leaves, tomatoes and cucumber, as well as a splodge of creamy coleslaw. By this point, my mouth was absolutely watering, and I couldn’t wait to dive in to this vastly satisfying-looking dish. I have to say, it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. The burger itself was delicious and really let the beef sing. It was juicy, succulent and full of flavour; and I also loved the chunky thickness and meaty mouthfuls. Soft and tasty, it paired well with the salty bacon which livened up the beef flavour, as well as the mature cheese, which melted into the hot juices of the burger rather nicely. The onion rings were tasty too, being just the right amount of crispy to add a contrasting texture and crunch alongside the burger, but in no way overshadowing. Plus, onions and beef is probably one of the most well-loved flavour combos too, and it will always taste lovely together. The burger bun suited me too; the soft white roll held together better than I anticipated and was sturdy enough to act as a burger bun but not too crusty, which I liked.

The skin-on fries were very moreish, the salad pretty standard, and the coleslaw a nice creamy addition to provide some silky crunch. Dunking the chips in the coleslaw worked well in my book. All in all, the dish worked well altogether and was really well executed. The burger really was all-singing and all-dancing, proving that all those fancy burger chains in the city sometimes just can’t compete with something a little more rustic and substantial.

Dessert was also a very small choice, so I went for the chocolate fudge cake. It wasn’t the best in the world to be honest, and I imagine desserts are more shop-bought to compensate maybe for the extra TLC that clearly goes into the main courses. The cake itself was a little drier than I would have liked, although getting two scoops of vanilla ice cream instead of the usual one was a nice perk. The chocolate sauce was drizzled in layered circles around the edge of the plate, which looked very nice too. Dessert was just average really.

I enjoyed my evening in The London Inn, and the hospitality is what you would expect from the countryside too, with one of the owners soon divulging in conversation with us while taking our orders. Dogs were roaming in and out as well, which meant it would be a suitable location for any ramblers passing through, and we also had a child in our group, so it was certainly agreeable for a family with mixed age ranges. Although the choice is very limited compared to modern menus, it was a delicious meal and I still daydream about that burger. Although dessert was a little non-plussed, for me the burger can drown out any niggles I might have had by its sheer epic-ness. I also loved the quirky, home-grown décor. Certainly worth popping in if you are passing through.

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Holiday Munchies: Black Rock, Clacton-On-Sea, Essex

The evening before a half marathon is always slightly trickier when you are staying away from home, and therefore having to negotiate your carb loading with a menu that hasn’t been self-concocted in your kitchen to optimise your performance the following day. Knowing my body and my pre-event food preferences rather well by now, I figured that I would be fine visiting steak restaurant Black Rock the evening before I took on the Clacton Half Marathon. After all, protein is essential for us athletes.

Although Dan and I have been to Clacton before, we did not spot Black Rock, snuggled down a narrow stairwell between two large and imposing outdoor seating terraces of the restaurants either side of it. With an American style black sign signalling steak and an arrow down the stairs, this whet our curiosity to check out the menu, and then to make arrangements to come for dinner in a few hours’ time.

At the bottom of the stairs, Black Rock has a really cool vibe that is centred around home-grown friendship and community. The focal point is undoubtedly the very chunky and long wooden tables, that are set up to accommodate large groups with ease. With such lengthy tables aligned down the centre of the room, it almost gave the restaurant the feel of an old school banqueting hall, with dining chairs tucked neatly under the centrepiece tables. Despite this nod to the communal eating scene of days gone past, Black Rock is actually rather trendy. Mottled wooden flooring that matches the tables is juxtaposed against crisp white walls, small spotlights studding the ceiling to add to the decorative tools of the trade for creating space. The plain walls were the ideal backdrop for kitsch black and white prints of famed actors and actresses, such as Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn, which gave an almost hipster vibe to the modernly clean-cut space. The atmosphere was relaxed, and since we went early for food, it was still nice and quiet, although the frown when we said we hadn’t booked a table was a wee bit off-putting.

The main reason we wanted to come to Black Rock was to try their specialty steak dish, called ‘Steak on the Stone’. This is basically an impressively sized hunk of 10z of sirloin steak that is served pretty much raw on a sizzling rock plate. Following the trend for cooking at the table, us diners then finish cooking our steak by cutting slices off the main slab of meat and cooking it on the hot black rock embedded in a wooden chopping board style plate in front of us at the table. Having done this type of dish together at Steak and Co in London, and also wanting a lot of protein for my run the next day, this seemed to hit the nail on the head in more than one way.

I ordered a glass of refreshing sauvignon blanc with my meal, while I waited for the steak to arrive. When it came to the table, the edges of the meat had barely brushed the base of a frying pan, patchy very pale grey-brown streaks indicating that it had seen an attempt at searing, however the bulk of the cooking would be left to me at the table. The steak itself looked in good nick; it was very large, rather thick, and I couldn’t see too much fat or grizzle to put me off either. It really was a complete hunk of pure meat. Served alongside it on the rectangular chopping board was a portion of skinny fries on a white rectangular plate next to the hot stone, and then in three little indents at  the back of the chopping board were little white dip dishes, containing garlic oil, peppercorn sauce, and a mushroom sauce. A side salad also shared room with the chips.

I tailored my dish by swapping normal fries for sweet potato fries, however both Dan and I found that our chips were cold anyway, so it didn’t make much difference. Dan attempted to heat his up alongside his steak on the hot plate, but I’m not sure of his success rate there. The generously-sized steak was delicious; you really cannot go wrong when you have a slab of good-quality meat for a beef steak. I was cooking my steak slices to medium-rare pinkness, and I absolutely loved generously dunking my beef into the garlic oil. I am a big garlic fan at the best of times, and I loved how the oil absorbed into the meat to really enhance its succulent flavour with that beautiful garlic warmth and the smoothness of the oil coating the meat and adding to it, rather than drenching it like some thicker sauces. I’m not a mushroom fan, so I avoided that sauce dish, although I did dip in the peppercorn a couple of times too. It was pretty standard in that respect, with a few token peppercorns bobbing around in the coffee coloured, thin-ish sauce, there’s no hiding from the kick and back-of-the-mouth-burn a peppercorn sauce will always bring. The side salad was very simple, just a few dressed leaves and veg really.

With our steak, we ordered a side of onion rings, as Dan loves a decent onion ring. Unfortunately, these did not get the husband’s seal of approval, as they were also pretty cold. The rings were thin and the batter was light, however they came up slightly soggy, and with barely there onion inside and such a thin coating of batter on the outside, they really were pretty non-descript, which is a shame as a gourmet onion ring done well can be a massive win in encouraging return custom. Let’s face it, everyone loves an onion ring. They were served in a napkin laid basket for easy sharing, but flavour and texture wise, they were a let-down.

After polishing off our steaks, we thought we might share a dessert (read: I wanted dessert, we pretended to share). The dessert menu was rather small, so I soon zoned in on the chocolate fudge cake; a very traditional offering that can usually be found on any British menu worth its salt. Served with a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate sauce drizzled wafer, it came to the table quite quickly. There was plenty of dark chocolate sauce drizzled all over which I liked, and the cake slice itself was ok as well; small desserts are life’s biggest disappointments. The cake itself was very chocolately yet not overly heavy, although it did have a slight brownie-like tinge to it in my opinion, where it was very chocolately and a little dense around the ganache frosting sections, which was luxuriously thick and gooey. Certainly a decadent chocolate-overload, it was a simple dessert that ticked the box for something sweet and chocolate to finish the meal.

All in all, I liked Black Rock as a restaurant. The service was ok, if not full of dazzling personality, and I liked the décor and vibe of the place. It has been put together well and presents itself nicely. The steak is undoubtedly their big winner and where they put all their chips behind; it was certainly a lovely piece of meat and we enjoyed the drama of cooking it ourselves at the table. I guess it also saves effort for the chefs too. However, the sides massively let the dish down which is a bit disappointing really, as the potential for them to enhance the meal is huge. Considering the chefs don’t actually have to do anything with the meat – there was no marinades, rubs or salts at all, it was plain meat – you would have thought they could have put a bit more time and effort into delivering sides that are worthy of sitting alongside the steal showpiece. Price wise, it’s not shabby at all being in little old Clacton, and at the end of the day, it was a lovely place to unwind.

Eating Around, Dirty Bones, Carnaby Street, London

American burger joints are forever having a modern makeover in a bid to convince Londoners that it’s classy fodder really. Whether that’s by creating at atmospheric ambience or transforming burgers into unrecognisable relations, traditional burger restaurants can be a bit hit or miss. However, when my good friend Charlotte recommended that we check out casual American inspired restaurant Dirty Bones, I was definitely up for some investigating, especially since their Carnaby Street venue is mere minutes away from my central London office.

Although we visited on a weekday, the very small size of the restaurant meant that we had a 45-minute wait before we would be able to get a table. Eyeing up the food through the windows, we surmised that the wait would most likely be worth it, so we went on a hunt for some pit stop wine clutching our bleeper that would alert us when our table was ready. When we finally made it in to the restaurant, I wouldn’t say the décor was anything unusual or special; plenty of dark wood, clashing coloured ceiling lights casting glows of light into the dimly lit ambience, duck egg grey adorning the walls. We were shown to a row of tables for two, were Charlotte took the wooden bench seat, and I sat in the dining chair opposite, just enough space between us and the tables either side of us so that it didn’t feel invasive.

We decided to start as we meant to go on by ordering a cocktail, and since we are both coffee-lovers, we had to sample Dirty Bones’ spiked iced coffee, an intriguing mixture of Courvoisier VS cognac, Mozart dark chocolate liqueur, triple espresso and cream, served in a long glass and topped with chocolate shavings. The alcohol hit was quite subtle for me, but it was certainly enjoyable and far too easy to gulp down in happy slurps, the coffee  and chocolate combo a clear winner in my book.

While we enjoyed our first round of cocktails, we perused the food menu. We opted to share a starter of cheeseburger dumplings as they just sounded so different and fantastic. Traditional Chinese-style gyoza dumplings, that were soft and pliable as you picked them up but had a slight crisp on the outside, were stuffed with your typical burger mince and melted cheese for an American- oriental cuisine fusion. Presented with Dirty Bones’ signature burger relish as a dipping sauce, I loved the originality of this dish – I had not seen anything like it before and I haven’t since. The homemade dumplings were really tasty, and had obviously been fried a little on the outside to give them a slightly different texture to the occasionally soggy typical gyoza. The mince inside was a tasty little meaty morsel, the melted cheese helping to combine the filling. The burger relish dip gave that accent of slightly spiced tomato to the whole dish, which helped to pep up the dumpling shells. These were light to eat and a unique way to whet the appetite.

For my main course, I couldn’t resist diving in and ordering The Mac Daddy. It was certainly a case of go big or go home with this bad boy, as the brisket and dry-aged steak burger was piled with pulled beef short rib and lashings of luridly hued mac and cheese, BBQ sauce oozing around every edge and the sesame seed-adorned brioche bun top balancing very delicately atop the meat and cheese mountain. Served on a small, round grey plate, the burger looked delicious as the mac and cheese run gooeily down the sides of the meat. The mini pasta tubes were cooked perfectly – I don’t really do al dente – and the cheese sauce was strong and flavourful; I imagine typical American cheese was used to get the more vibrant orange-yellow hue. The cheese doused meat was also lovely and really thick and decadent. It was juicy, tender and made me feel like a complete carnivore.

The one thing that I feel is a bit of a con here, is that no sides are included with any of the main dishes. The main dishes are literally just the meat. So the plate with my burger, and just my burger, was the main meal. A burger main meal in the majority of other restaurants would include at least chips, and then perhaps you would order additional sides, for example some onion rings. However, Dirty Bones are cheeky here, slapping London’s premium prices on all of their side dishes, knowing you have to order one so that you can actually have a full meal. Despite my raised eyebrow at this rather underhand tactic, I order the cheesy truffle fries. These were basically French fries that were covered in a cheese sauce, which featured cheddar, aged parmesan and white truffle oil. Undoubtedly, the truffle was the star of the show here. I absolutely love truffle, and will pretty much order anything with truffle included. Luckily for me, truffle was the predominant flavour here, the cheeses merely acting as a gooey and creamy conduit and background flavour to the lovely, yummy truffle. I daydreamed about this truffle-centric sauce for days after my visit. No lie.

Since Charlotte was a smidge too full for a proper dessert course, we settled on another round of cocktails instead. This time I selected the grown-ups jaffa, which combined two of my favourite flavours of chocolate and orange and paired it with alcohol. #Winning! Featuring tequila, dark chocolate liqueur, orange syrup, chocolate bitters and a marmalade ice cube to top it off, this short drink was served in a tumbler, which to be honest, I always find a bit too small for cocktails. Nevertheless, I loved the flavours, which slowly got punchier the more I drank! Both the chocolate and orange flavours came through really nicely in the smooth liqueur style beverage, and I have to say the marmalade ice cube was a stroke of genius. It helped slowly add a sticky sweetness to the drink to counterbalance the chocolate and meant that drink constantly had an undulating flavour, which I quite liked. To be honest, I rather like jam in cocktails anyway as I find it really intensifies the flavour and adds a different tone.

I enjoyed my evening at Dirty Bones and would recommend it as a venue for the hard-core burger lovers among you. It wasn’t the most affordable of venues, although that might be down to the cocktails, however I thought the non-inclusion of sides with something as traditional as a burger meal was just a shade too underhand. The cocktail menu was very extensive and literally had something for everyone, with some very unique combinations. The atmosphere is perfect for hooking up with friends and having a natter, as it is very relaxed, comfortable and casual. The service was also good and the waiting staff were very friendly and chatty.

Eating Around: Duck and Waffle, Bishopsgate, London

Standing at the bottom of Bishopgate’s Heron Tower, staring awkwardly up at 42 floors of sheer, streamlined glass, it is easy to see why Duck and Waffle has been escalated up the ranks when it comes to fine dining and being a tourist must-see, yet all the while still nabbing an elusive spot in the heart of Londoners. Since its introduction to London’s elite restaurant roster, I have literally been gagging to eat at Duck and Waffle. Although its prices are as sky-high as the venue itself, my sister Jess and I had carefully squirreled away our birthday money, in order to award ourselves a proper foodie treat and finally quench our curiosity thirst regarding the imposingly awe-inspiring restaurant.

As soon as we arrived outside the Heron Tower, I could barely contain my excitement as we hot-footed it down a red-roped off queue, my heels tucking tidily into a pathway of red carpet. Once inside, we were immediately greeted with a foyer of lifts, all busily zooming hungry diners up and down to either Duck and Waffle on the 42nd floor, or to Japanese restaurant Sushi Samba, or its bar area, on floors 41 and 43. Entering the lift, the iconic Duck and Waffle emblem indicated the button for the 42nd floor, so we eagerly watched as the doorman pushed the button and sent us on our way. One side of the lift was completely clear, thick glass, affording the most magical views of London falling away at your feet as you rose higher and higher into the skyline of the capital. Tearing your view left and right, there was so much to see, especially as we visited in August, so the dusky summer evening light seemed to paint the city a rosy gold just for our special twin date.

Emerging on the 42nd floor, we were shown into the bar area to wait until our table was ready. All of the external walls were floor to ceiling and completely clear, enabling those stunning cityscape views to simply flood every nook and granny of the interior. The décor of the bar was so simplistic – very city chic – however it really didn’t need anything else. Even one hint of obtrusive decoration would have clashed with the sheer grandeur of having the sky of London at what feels like touching distance.  I loved the collection of empty jam jars hanging in a circular ornament from the ceiling, while the white and blue patterned floor reminded me of fancy china. Splashes of deep red paint added to the oriental vibe, while the completely open bar area, that saw waiters make and serve drinks from the outside of the stainless steel bar rather than behind it,  only added to the immense feelings of spaciousness.

The restaurant itself was again very simple, but with every wall a sheer showcase from which to view London, the décor had to be minimal. Mustard yellow waves covered the ceiling in a woven effect, while simple wooden tables and rustic painted wooden chairs helped to tone down the drama of the cityscape. Our table was incredible; we were pocketed in an alcove right in the corner of the room, so right next to the window-wall. We had vast views to my left, and behind me, I could even spot the spear of the BT tower piercing the clouds. It was simply sensational and very literally took my breath away. My eyes hungrily gnawed at every view and every angle I could consume, my fingers flicking rapidly to take photos. Everything was just so beautiful and just really slammed home to me why I love my capital as much as I do.

As if the stunning scenery wasn’t enough to compel a visit, we were then given the menu. We started by picking a wine, settling on a sweet and fruity Portuguese white wine. We chose this partly because it sounded lovely, and partly because it was the cheapest wine on the menu at £32 a bottle. At Duck and Waffle, service is everything, so we were greeted by our personal sommelier for the evening, who was in charge of ensuring our glasses stayed topped up at all times. He offered advice on what the Portuguese wine tasted like when we asked, and I think I accidentally gave the man a heart attack when I attempted to refill my wine glass myself later on in the evening. Rookie error on my part to be fair. The wine was slipping down very nicely, so we then turned out attention to the food.

We decided to order a few small plates to share as a starter. We kicked this off with a spicy ox cheek doughnut, which came to the table as a large circular doughnut that looked more like a scotch egg, sitting in a pool of pale brown sauce. Cutting it open however, revealed its true magic. The bulging centre of the doughnut was filled with masses of pulled ox cheek that had been cooked in a collection of Indian or Moroccan style spices to give it a wonderfully warming and rich flavour. The dark meat was delicious and enhanced by the addition of a lovely apricot jam that helped marry the spices together with a lovely sweetness. The dough of the doughnut, so to speak, was thick, soft and divine; it was even coated in a smoked paprika sugar for that traditional doughnut finish. The sauce mirrored the spices used with the ox cheek to produce something sweet and spicy. I loved dunking chunks of the bare edge of doughnut into the sauce, the sugar crunching and the doughnut absorbing the yummy sauce. A very decent size portion too.

The next starter to be ready and therefore presented to the table tapas-style, was yellowfin tuna. The small, raw pink cubes of fish were tossed together with picked watermelon, mustard, olive and basil for something incredibly light and zingy; a complete contrast to the depth of the doughnut before it. I’m not usually a fish fan, especially when it comes to raw fish, however this tuna was so smooth, so soft and so delicate, I couldn’t believe what I was eating. It felt and tasted like very tender cooked meat, but fresher. Surprisingly lovely this one for me.

For our third sharing plate, we chose the nduja and gruyere bread. Wowsers, this was impressive when it arrived at the table, sat atop a big wooden chopping board that was armed with a decent bread knife. The bread itself was a round cottage-style loaf; rustic and crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy whiteness on the inside. However, melted on top of the bread was a generous layer of diced spicy salami, with sheets of the gruyere cheese melted over the top to stick it to the bread. Jess cut the loaf into chunky quarters and we dove in. It was great that the salami flavour inundated the bread so much flavour wise, and the topping also added another texture to the bread to really give it punch. The nduja is notoriously spicy, so it was hot, but paired with the bread, it worked really well together. So soft and yummy.

Coming to Duck and Waffle, it was pretty much a given that our main course would be, yep you guessed it, the restaurant’s trademark duck and waffle dish. This included a gorgeously crispy-skinned confit duck leg, sat atop half of a round waffle. A fried duck egg sprinkled with rock salt perched on top of the duck meat, while a small jug next to the waffle held a mustard flavoured maple syrup. This dish is so elegant, yet homely and just was heaven to eat, it really was. The yolk of my egg burst merrily and continued to flood seductively across my plate, while I poured the syrup carefully over my waffle, its indents rapidly filling with the sweet yet fiery nectar. Every element of the dish was sheer perfection alone; combined it had my tastebuds celebrating with fireworks and shaking hands in congratulations. The duck was superb with tender, dark meat and a crunchy crisp skin, while the waffle was soft and sweet by comparison. The gooey egg was a great addition to help combine the flavours, and the syrup gave a nod to waffle’s sweeter, breakfast like past. What a dish. We also ordered a side of sweet potatoes, which were served with a crème fraiche sauce peppered with fermented black chilli, mint and capers. Yummy and something very different too.

Reclining in a very happy food coma state, we still had room to order dessert, and there was no way I was passing up the chance to chow down on the salted caramel choux bun, which featured a smoked hazelnut cream. The choux bun was stunning when it arrived at the table; a decadent dome covered in dark chocolate and topped with a luscious swirl of caramel cream that was studding with crispy caramel wafers. Served alongside a scoop of caramel ice cream, I dug in to the bun, and was delighted to find hiding inside the chocolate a delicious choux and a very luxurious and almost running salted caramel sauce along with the cream. It was traditional sweet flavours but they had been combined in a slightly differently way for an upmarket take on a classic dessert. I loved it and polished off my plate easily.

With some of our second bottle of wine left to drink, we were asked to leave our table for the next diners. The waiting staff informed us they had reserved us seats in the bar, so we headed back there. Turns out the seats that had been saved for us were bar stools perched next to a bar style ledge that was against one of the glass walls. As we sat down, we could see the Gherkin directly opposite us, and it was great seeing a slightly different view to the ones we had enjoyed over our dinner.

We decided that after our wine we should certainly sample a cocktail before we headed home, especially as Duck and Waffle has a very unique ‘origins’ cocktail menu, where each drink is focused around a predominant flavour. I decided to try the ‘lime’ cocktail; this was served long and included lime leaf Bombay Sapphire gin, discarded lime husk cordial, lime juice, egg white and lime ash. It was so lovely, the lime was fresh and tangy yet not really in your face or harsh in any way. It was an elegant celebration of the little green citrus fruit, the egg whites softening the edges of lime that could potentially have been too bitter. Very classy.

For me, Duck and Waffle is without a doubt my favourite restaurant that I have ever been to so far. Not only is its food creative yet simple, and executed perfectly to deliver the ultimate in flavour and taste, the whole experience of Duck and Waffle is just sensational. Its escapism yet reality; quality and luxury and opulence a stone’s throw from the commuter babble. It was prestigious, oozing that snazzy London class that encompasses elegance emulated but with a jaunty chip on its shoulder too. It was just a wonderful, wonderful evening that I will never forget.

A word to the wise though, I’m very glad I saved my birthday money for this super special outing. Splitting the bill, Jess and I paid £90 each for our treat, and although I would say it is worth every single penny, it’s certainly not something the majority of us can look to do regularly.

Holiday Munchies: The Stables, Cheltenham

A wedding anniversary road trip has numerous plus points, and undoubtedly, one of the most taste-tingling benefits is the opportunity to test out local food hot spots that are favoured by both locals and tourists alike. So, when my husband Dan and I found ourselves perusing the shopping haunts of Cheltenham, we thought it would be criminal if we didn’t also sample pizza and cider speciality restaurant The Stables, located in the heart of the city.

The Stables is everything a cool, hipster hangout should be. The general layout of the restaurant is across two levels, with typical dining chairs and tables thrown out in favour of long banquet style wooden benches and tables; subconsciously promoting the gathering of friends of family, the clustering of people for the traditional sharing of fodder. Pale clean lines of wood are accented with a palate of muted greys, the focus point of the room a long wooden bar where eager punters can order their food and beverages. White pillar candles and potted plants on the tables add an al-fresco dining vibe to the spacious restaurant; its informal casual attitude like a warm shrug of a greeting between old pals.

The reason we chose to have our dinner at The Stables was very simple really; it specialised in all of our favourite food and drinks. Italian style pizza is a tremendous fault line in my armour of will power, so seeing their pizza selection had me wetting my lips in anticipation. The Stables also specialise in a very decent line of pies, which certainly piques the interest. Dan on the other hand had zoned in completely on their specialist cider range, hungrily devouring the drinks menu and flavour notes with zeal. He decided to take this curiosity one step further by ordering the venue’s cider tasting platter. This consists of a wooden drinks holder showcasing five half pint glasses of different ciders, each one a completely different shade of amber, from dusky sunlight hues to melted honey darkness. Simply labelled one to five, the bar staff choose different ciders each week to feature in the platter, to cater for seasonal specialities or new treats that might have come in. The platter is accompanied by a tasting card, detailing the name and alcohol content of each cider you are sampling. Educational and fun methinks. While Dan starting sniffing and sipping ciders, I ordered myself a carafe of sauvignon blanc, instantly fawning over the vase-shaped carafe and wondering if I could possibly squeeze it into my clutch bag (answer: no).

Main course was an obvious choice for both of us as we ordered pizza. I opted for the Blazing Saddle, a pizza bejewelled with slow-roasted pulled beef, dry-cured bacon, caramelised onions, and roasted red peppers. I also chose to chuck in some extra chorizo too, as The Stables sources a unique local chorizo that I just had to try. Sour cream was then drizzled attractively across the top of the pizza. Served on a round pizza board and armed with a pizza cutter, it takes vast amounts of restraint to eat said pizza in a polite fashion. The base was typically Italian, so served thin with a puffed up narrow crust. There was enough dough to form a satisfying base yet not enough to venture into the land of soft American-style pizza. Dunking my crusts into the pools of sour cream on my pizza was a lovely bonus, although for me, the meat was the star attraction on my pizza. The pulled beef was rich and flavourful, while the spicy chorizo filled your mouth with full-bodied flavour. The bacon added an extra satisfying meatiness and a peppy saltiness, and since onions and peppers are two of my favourite vegetables, their addition to the pizza only made me happier. Pizza may be simple food, but it certainly allows the showcased ingredients to sing loud and proud.

Dan’s pizza was also devoured lustily; he had chosen the Longhorn Jim. This featured ground beef, the same famed chorizo that I added to my pizza, mushrooms, roasted red onion and smoked ham. One happy husband.

As if a pizza for main course wasn’t enough (is there really such a thing as too much pizza?!?) Dan and I unanimously also decided we had to sample the chocolate pizza for dessert; such a rare dessert menu item surely deserved to grace our table? Presented in the same way the main course pizzas were, the chocolate pizza base was a smidge thicker and a lot paler to ensure it was not as crispy, but instead retained an element of doughiness for squidge factor.  A chocolate and hazelnut spread was smeared unevenly across the pretty flat base, leaving plenty of space around the edges for that makeshift crust. Generous blobs of melted white chocolate were then haphazardly flung at random spots on the pizza before the whole thing was dusted with icing sugar. I really enjoyed this unique dessert and the flavour combinations were lovely – you simply cannot go wrong when it comes to chocolate and sweet dough. There wasn’t enough of the chocolate and hazelnut spread for my liking, as I prefer lashings of toppings on my meal, although I did spread my white chocolate blobs with my knife to compensate for any chocolate gaps I spotted. Very filling and something different.

Now I decided to continue the theme of chocolate even further by ordering myself a boozy chocolate orange hot chocolate featuring, you guessed it, Cointreau. Almost as decadent as a dessert itself, the hot chocolate was mounted with a swirl of soft squirty cream which was dusted with cocoa and adorned with big dark chocolate chips. A couple of decorative slices of orange completed the drink. Although the hot chocolate certainly looked the part, I can’t say I was overly blown away. The hot chocolate was rather thin which diminished the chocolate taste, and I didn’t really get too much of the Cointreau coming through. It was also lukewarm-ish by the time I got it, which also didn’t enhance the flavour.

All in all, I thought The Stables was really different as a venue. Ordering from the bar is quite unusual for restaurants that aren’t also pubs, but then again that could be a nod to its cider side. The bar staff were friendly and informative, even if they weren’t overly speedy, and our food was timely in coming to the table. The prices were also average so nothing too astronomical, although since Dan paid, he may wish to contradict me on that! For pizza, pie and ciders lovers, I would certainly recommend a visit for a laid-back evening with your mates.

Homeward Bound: Beefeater Liberty Bell, Romford, Essex

The Liberty Bell has always been a reliable source of British pub grub, a mere 15 minute walk from my flat, making it an ideal date night location where both my husband and I can enjoy a few drinks yet still get home with ease. Partnered with Romford’s Premier Inn, the gastro pub used to be part of the Table Table chain, yet a recent renovation has seen it transform into a Beefeater. Although I know the differences are probably quite subtle and more nuanced – after all, it still serves British pub fodder – I was still keen to see what they had done to the place.

As you walk in, the most striking difference is the new décor. Beefeater have really overhauled and updated the interior to give the restaurant a really open feel, featuring plenty of large rectangular and circular tables, large mustard or coffee coloured leather sofa style seating, and quirky red or brown upholstered dining chairs. Wood panelling provides a barn-like vibe. Fun cow-related sayings perch on the walls, as well as other themed art, such as a multi-coloured cow cut out labelling the relevant joints of meat. It’s a light, bright space, and it has a really fun and casual atmosphere; perfect for kicking back after a long week at work. The nooks and grannies that previously hid seating when Table Table was in management have all disappeared, and Beefeater has embraced a much more homely yet classy vibe.

My husband and I were sat on an end table by the wall, providing an element of privacy. I nabbed the dining chair as Dan slid onto the mustard sofa opposite me, behind our wooden, square table. As he ordered a berry flavoured cider, I checked out the wine menu. I decided to try something a little different – my usual favourites are also naturally the most expensive on most menus, so I was trying to be savvy too! One of the cheaper white wines, it was pale in colour and vaguely fruity. It didn’t pack the fruity punch I was expecting and while it was delicate and light, it wasn’t the best wine in the world. Kudos for trying something new though, right?

As Dan enjoys a starter, I was cohered into sharing some garlic flatbread strips. This came up a lot bigger than either of us expected, despite it being on the sharer menu. So many starters are designed to share yet they come up minuscule, so this was incredibly refreshing. The large flatbread was cut into three vertical strips and served with a little ramekin of melted garlic butter for us to dunk the bread in. It was an ideal thickness, with a soft and plump edge, yet a crisp and crunchy garlic infused centre with a thin base. We dove in with a rip and pull tactic to divide the bread as we chatted.

For my main course, I looked to the seasonal menu. I wanted to try the beef rib wellington, however this happened to be the one and only dish that the restaurant had run out of! Cursing my bad luck, I scanned the menu and ordered my second choice, also on the seasonal menu. I ordered the beef fillet stack, naturally medium rare. The 8oz steak would be topped with a slice of streaky bacon, a slice of Somerset brie and a slow roasted tomato. Sides wise, the dish came with creamed spinach and crispy potato slices. I love a good steak, and at a venue called Beefeater, you kind of expect the beef to be pretty top notch.

I wasn’t wrong. The steak was perfectly cooked, and although I have had more tender steaks in fancier restaurants, there was nothing wrong with this piece of meat. It was just the right level of pinkness and it cut very easily, with a great, slightly chargrilled flavour. Lovely and thick, it was a tasty chunk of meat. I also liked the fact that the toppings provided me with enough juicy options to eat with my steak, so Dan watched in horror as my tomato ketchup dish remained largely untouched. Granted, the brie came up as a rather shrivelled and small slice, although it was nicely melted over the meat. The bacon was the smallest and skinniest slice I have ever had the misfortune to glance upon, however as a component of the whole dish, it was still ok. The tomato was nice and big, the roasting process really drawing out the flavour and giving it a lovely soft texture too. Each element worked really nicely together. If the dish had had less components, then I would have been disappointed, however all together, it was very nice indeed. The crispy potato slices were thin and rather nice. The creamed spinach was more like a sauce than a vegetable in my opinion as it was so liquid. I’m not sure that is entirely a good thing, however it tasted nice and I was able to use it to dunk my potatoes in so it wasn’t too shabby. Although the dish wasn’t entirely perfect, or as I expected, weirdly, it still worked, and I still enjoyed it.

Dan ordered a mixed grill and then promptly got the meat sweats. Each piece of meat on his plate was very generously sized and of good quality, leading him to say it was one of the best mixed grills that he had ever had. He struggled to finish, yet he still delivered a clean plate to earn a thumbs up.

For dessert, I went back to the seasonal menu to order a gin and tonic lemon trifle. I love trifle and I love gin and tonic, so this was very much a must-try for me. Served in glass straight-sided dessert bowl, the base of the trifle was very much like a sponge pudding with the gin and tonic soaked sponge fingers at the bottom. The gin was a main flavour which was great, as so often the alcohol can get hidden among other ingredients. The lemon curd that was meant to top the sponge was rather non-existent, however there was more than enough of the light and silky whipped cream on top to compensate, so pairing this with the moreish sponge was really lovely. It was a nice sized dessert and not too heavy after my main meal, so I’m really glad I got to try this one.

I couldn’t leave without ordering a Bailey’s milkshake too. Served in a traditional tall glass and garnished with chocolate shavings, it was basically a vanilla based ice cream, blended with Bailey’s. As with the gin, the Bailey’s was certainly present and correct, although not dominant throughout the whole drink so I’m not sure what the balance of the blend was exactly. It was creamy, cool and very nice indeed. An extra treat!

The Beefeater menu has a great choice and range to pick from, and we both enjoyed our meal there. Oddly enough, although I had little niggles about a couple of the dishes, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the food, and I’m still pleased with the food choices I made. I’ve even picked out a few dishes I’d like to try from the seasonal menu for next time! The portion sizes are really good, which is definitely something I value, and the waiting staff were chatty and polite. We spent just over £60 on our meal which is pretty much par for the course, so I’m happy with the price range too. All in all, we had a lovely date night, and I’m looking forward to going to my new Beefeater again soon!