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.

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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!

Homeward Bound: Lifehouse Hotel and Spa, Colchester, Essex

img_1388Being generally a very lucky bean, I was thrilled when my husband whisked me away for a luxury spa break as my Valentine’s present for this year. Hitting the A12, we powered on for just over an hour until we reached the zen-filled, adults only hotel and spa Lifehouse, for a weekend of doing nothing, where my biggest decision would be whether to go in the steam room or sauna.

As part of our stay, we were entitled to a three course dinner in the restaurant on the Saturday evening, and I must say, I was looking forward to getting stuck in. Ordering a large glass of Merlot, I settled down to study the menu, and I have to say I thought the array of choice available was great. Not only did the main course selection feature both a healthy list and a luxurious list, the starters included both nibble options and main starters, and you could also have any of the pasta dishes as a starter or main course. All these options of course made decisions a lot harder, but I got there in the end!

img_1389For starters, I went for mozzarella bites, sunblush tomatoes and olives, served with artisan flatbread. I have to confess, this didn’t come up exactly as I expected, although maybe my past dining experiences had tarred what I thought I would get. I fancied bread, yet the flatbread was more like brown, round, crisp crackers, like what you would have with cheese. Tasty, just not entirely what I fancied. The same with the mozzarella bites. I love mozzarella, and normally when you see mozzarella bites feature on a menu, they are bread-crumbed and cooked so they have an oozy middle, yet my starter included just the plain, naked, baby pearls of mozzarella. The rocket was fine and the olives were really nice actually; a combination of green and black and all of them pitted, which makes for a much classier date night rather than spitting out stones. Although not really what I expected or fancied, it was still a lovely starter and I enjoyed all of the components.

img_1391For main course, I went for something from the healthy menu, and then made it unhealthy by adding a side. I opted for the chargrilled duck breast served with roasted vegetables, and then I added a side of dauphinoise potatoes. When my main course arrived, I was very happy that I ordered a side, as the portion itself was a little on the small side, however the flavour on the other hand was certainly big enough. The chargrilled duck had a really delicate barbequed taste, that in no way overpowered the tender, juicy and soft pink meat of the duck. Served rather rare, it was a pleasure to eat and so succulent. The red wine vinaigrette that came with it only enhanced the flavour, and was light enough to just be a subtle touch. The roasted vegetables consisted of mainly root vegetables cut into neat and tidy cubes, so nothing rustic here. Their roasted flavour and texture worked really nicely with the chargrilled nature of the duck. I spotted carrots, parsnips and onions among the veg but it was tricky to work out what else was in there due to everything being cut up into cubes. My dauphinoise potatoes came in img_1393a separate shallow, square white dish, in a wonderfully neat little tower of thinly sliced potatoes; soft and creamy underneath a crispy golden hat on top. I simply popped this onto my plate with the rest of my meal and got stuck in. It was lovely.

Despite thoroughly enjoying my meal, I also suffered from severe food envy when I saw and sampled Dan’s truffle carbonara. One forkful of pasta and it was love and I seriously wished I had ordered this as a starter. Undoubtedly it was the truffle aspect that made this so special as it literally took over the dish with its luxurious and silky flavour, hugging the pasta endearingly and coating the bacon cubes protectively. Wowsers, what a pasta dish.

img_1390Dessert for me required Googling. The dessert menu was not as large as the starter and main selection, so I naturally ended up gravitating towards the main chocolate option, a chocolate pave with a chocolate orange crumb, raspberry coulee and Chantilly cream. I wasn’t sure what a pave was, however after a swift Google, I decided that this mousse come brownie option would suit me very nicely indeed and I ordered with enthusiasm. When it arrived, I was very pleased with my choice as it was excellent. The chocolate flavour was more milk chocolate, so not as dense and sometimes overwhelming as dark chocolate desserts or as sickly as white chocolate ones. It was firmer than a mousse yet not as unyielding as a brownie and the raspberry accents were magical paired with it. The crumb added a different texture to the plate which was unusual, while the cream added a lightness of flavour and helped combine all of the components. On the whole, it was a super dessert.

img_1387The restaurant at Lifehouse Hotel and Spa is certainly a very nice one to visit. It’s roomy, with one glass wall showing views of an enclosed and paved courtyard style garden. The décor of the restaurant utilises a lot of pale wood to make it appear larger, with a mixture of table sizes and arrangements featuring both sofa and dining chair seating. We had a table of two that was luckily a bit further away from other tables, so we had a bit more privacy. Although this didn’t always work in our favour, as I do feel we were a bit ignored by the waiting staff at times, which was rather annoying. We were offered a dessert menu, but weren’t given one. An age later, the same waiter came over to ask if we were ok, whereby we asked for the dessert menu…again. I understand the restaurant was busy, and he was getting frustrated with the touch-screen hand-held notebook replacement but this was our Valentine’s dinner, so I feel he should have been more on the ball.

Charging our drinks and my side to the room, I was very full when making my way back to our bedroom for the night. The food at Lifehouse is really delicious and there’s a great selection, so I would certainly recommend it.

Eating Around: Steak and Co, Haymarket, London

img_1319For one of my Christmas presents, my parents had bought me tickets to see my favourite musical, The Phantom of the Opera, with my Mum due to accompany me for a mother-daughter date one evening after work. For such an occasion as this, we needed a restaurant where the food suited our required taste standards as renowned foodies, but that also had good quality service so we wouldn’t be scrambling for the bill in a mad rush to the theatre once we had eaten. Mum suggested the Haymarket branch of Steak and Co, a stone’s throw from the theatre, and I happily agreed; as a lusty carnivore, what could go wrong with steak?

The décor at Steak and Co is both fantastically rustic yet strategically opulent, creating a juxtaposition between the simple pleasure of exquisite, quality meat and the world of London fine dining. Pale wooden slats covered the walls img_1320next to decadently studded red leather sofa style seating, dark chocolate coloured wooden tables contrasting to the modern blue-grey of exterior facing pillars and the domed, lower hanging lighting. It had a welcoming and inviting atmosphere, with a strange sense of home yet also luxury, so it felt like a treat, but not one that would make you uncomfortable due to unnecessary finery.

Our waitress was brilliant. Beating Mum there by a few minutes, she settled me on the table with the menus and throughout the course of the evening, proceeded to give us her advice and comments on particulars of certain dishes, passing on recommendations and her favourite combinations. It is so refreshing to be served by someone who has a clear passion for the food rather than someone there just because they have to, and I’d say she really helped enhance our whole Steak and Co experience.

img_1322As I ordered a large glass of Merlot, I began scanning the menu. For starters, I chose the baked camembert; a dish I absolutely adore but rarely treat myself too due to the mind-boggling number of calories I suspect it contains. But I digress. Firstly, I was impressed by the size. Usually baked camembert is presented as a sharing dish, however Steak and Co managed to find a camembert that was a perfect single portion that was neither disappointingly small or large enough for two. It was really spot on and I cut open the white skin of the cheese eagerly. Served with a sticky and sweet onion chutney, I slathered this on diagonally cut toasted seeded bread before dunking enthusiastically into the liquid vat of bright yellow melted cheese, encased with the wobbling white skin, the whole cheese still sat in its attractive wooden rounded box. I could have applauded as there was also plenty of bread for me to dip – this is another restaurant bugbear of mine as so many places never give you enough img_1324bread for dipping purposes, but this was excellent. Definitely one of the best starters I’ve had and although it is a simple and uncomplicated dish, it just proves that something as tiny as getting the portion size of each component right, can make such a difference to the dining experience.

Next on the agenda was main course. To be honest, Mum and I blotted out the entire menu and we focused in on the steak section. Last time Mum visited, she didn’t actually have steak, so we had to rectify this in a swift and efficient manner. For the steak dishes, you could choose what type of steak you wanted, and then you also got to pick a rub, a butter and a sauce to go with it. Informing me that we were having the fillet steak, Mum and I then just had to pick our extras. I decided to for the garlic butter, paired with the paprika salt rub and finished with the red wine sauce. We also picked some sides to share, opting for mac and cheese, dauphinoise potatoes and sweet potato fries.

img_1323The way Steak and Co do steak is so much fun. Your dish arrives on a large wooden chopping board, a rectangular white plate on the left hand side showcasing your impressive lump of steak, pre-cooked to rare. On the right had side of your board are three small glass bowls lined up at the front, containing your butter, salt and sauce. Behind these is a black hot dish. The idea is you place a blob of your butter on the hot dish so that it begins to melt; you then cut a slice off your chunk of steak and place it on top of the butter, personally cooking it to the ideal level for you. Here, you can also add your salt rub before flipping your cooking steak slice over to cook the other side, adding more butter or rub as required before spearing the slice with your fork and dunking generously in your sauce. It’s hands on but not messy; cooking your own meal but still classy fine dining; it’s wonderfully different and full-on flavours married together in completely individual combinations. I loved it! The img_1325steak was wonderful quality and literally melt-in-the-mouth beautiful, especially as I kept mine on the pinker side. My garlic butter was lovely with that warming tang of garlic really infusing into the steak slices as I cooked them in the butter, regularly patting the paprika salt on too which only added to the flavourful warmth without blowing my socks off with heat. The red wine sauce was also a delight, being the perfect consistency to coat the meat neatly and having a really rich and deep taste that I think marries so well beef.

Our sides were lovely too. The mac and cheese had a great crunch on top yet was a mass of squidgy small pasta pieces below, decadently covered in cheesy goodness. The sweet potato fries were thin, crispy and pretty standard, while the dauphinoise potatoes were very elegant and delicious. Our meal was certainly a feast and it was brilliant.

Despite being rather full at this point, I eagerly accepted the dessert menu and soon found my eyes drifting towards img_1321the malteaser cheesecake. Uniquely, the dessert menu really draws you in as it has a picture of every dessert available in there, probably designed to get you ignoring your full tummy and eating with your eyes instead so you order more. It worked on us and although I don’t usually have cheesecake, this one was a nice small size so I wouldn’t overdo it and it also featured one of my favourite chocolates. To be honest with you, it was a nice cheesecake but not anything super special. It was a simple vanilla flavour with a crumb base, topped with pearls of malteasers and drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces. It was very pretty and dainty and was a nice way to finish the bill.

Despite Mum’s credit card whimpering as it paid the bill, I can’t recommend the food I ate here enough. In particular, the main course and starter were both wonderful and although dessert wasn’t as good, it was still lovely; you’re just hard pushed to find something that could possibly compete with steak that succulent and tender. Washed down with a very drinkable Merlot, this meal was top notch and the service was faultless. I literally cannot wait to go back and do it all again.

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Homeward Bound: Grand Central, Basildon, Essex

img_0947All-American food and diner style restaurants will never lose their popularity, so restaurants are on to a winner if they can fine tune this niche successfully. One chain making the attempt is Grand Central, who have numerous chains across the UK. I visited their Basildon branch just before Christmas with a group of fellow foodie friends to see how good the fodder really was.

Grand Central Basildon has certainly attempting to bring a unique diner feel to the fore, focusing on chunky booth style seating with red covered cushions and black street sign labels indicating the booth numbers. The ceiling was also quite interesting, with each tile housing a personalised message from visitors and patrons, which I think is a great idea. It didn’t look tacky and I think it’s a great way to help build a community hub, forging a favoured family restaurant that is ideal for birthday celebrations. Other than img_0946these nods to the Americans, I thought the décor was rather bland and uninspiring, although festive fairy lights flashing primary-coloured hues and tinsel-strewn posts reminded me it was the run up to Christmas.

Looking at the drinks menu, my eye was instantly caught by the alcoholic milkshakes section. To me, is sounded like a punchy cocktail that was also a dessert style milkshake; a massive win-win for all those with a sweet tooth like myself. I decided to start with the Screaming Yankee, a creamy concoction blended with baileys, ameretto and kahula, with chocolate sauce drizzled on the inside of the hourglass shaped glass. So creamy and smooth with the alcohol really enhancing the flavour, this was a delectable cocktail that seemed so luxurious and thick with the milkshake element. I sipped happily on this whilst my pals chowed down on starters such as nachos and chicken wings.

For my main course, I opted to go all out American and pick a burger, not my usual port of call but I got the feeling img_0942that Grand Central specialised in its burgers, so I felt I had to try one. Therefore, I chose the smoky, a beef burger that was splashed with smoky BBQ sauce and layered with cheese, fried onions and sliced peppers. I also added a slice of bacon to really push the boat out. I have to say, I really wasn’t overly fussed about the burger. It just seemed pretty standard if you ask me. The bun was in the no-man’s land between a brioche and your standard bun, the bacon I added was so small I may well have not spent the extra quid on it as it added nothing, and the extra flavours I was expecting – the BBQ sauce hue – also failed to be present and correct. It was just a juicy beef burger. A nice burger, but nothing to write home about or order again.

Served on a white lunchtime canteen style tray, I had ordered sweet potato fries instead of the standard chips and these were thin, crisp and crunchy; just as they should be and lovely dunked in my lake of tomato ketchup. The paper cup of coleslaw was a nice addition to eat with my burger bun too; it was chunky and saucy which was good.

img_0944Despite eyeing up the four layer chocolate cake for dessert, I actually found myself too full. But never fear, I didn’t bypass dessert completely (who do you think I am?!?). I instead chose another alcohol laden milkshake to sip away the disappointment of my main bacon-less meal, this time opting for the Choco Orange County, a classic combination of chocolate and Cointreau. It looked very similar to my previous shake, just with a different flavour combination. I did really enjoy the alcoholic milkshakes and at £7 ish a pop, I didn’t think they were that badly priced either. For me, these were the best thing about Grand Central that I saw.

For me, the evening was tarnished by the absolutely appalling service that we received. Sure, staff were polite and img_0945chatty when they were at the table, but they were rarely at the table. We were a large group of 11 and a prime target for some good tips, however we were blatantly ignored by waiting staff. We had to wait around 45 minutes just to finish our drinks order, let alone when we would actually get stuck in to ordering main courses and eating! Nothing was delivered promptly, everything seemed like a mission and every request and order took ages. I swear I have never waited so long for food in my life. We pretty much all ordered burgers for main course so it’s not like it was extremely difficult or complex to cook. We even had to wait over half an hour for nachos. Nachos!!! It’s crisps with cheese!

In all honesty, I wouldn’t recommend Grand Central Basildon and I wouldn’t go back. The food is very standard fare and all stuff you could get elsewhere; I didn’t really see a standout speciality that would make me return, any burger joint would suffice. Even though the alcoholic milkshakes were my personal favourite of the evening, the service took so long that it did sour the meal, and it was very late before we began eating. This is a huge turn-off for me, so I’m afraid it’s a thumbs down here.

Eating Around: Mac and Wild, Fitzrovia, London

img_1251Continuing my Grandma’s culinary exploration, my sister and I decided that the perfect Christmas present would be to take her out for dinner, testing the waters of some new flavours in an atmospheric London hotspot. With this in mind, what could be better than visiting venison specialists Mac and Wild, a Scottish restaurant with an eye for the rustic and home grown, yet splashed with London cool in a casually natural way.

Pulling the unique rifle door handle, I almost walked clean past the restaurant with its black outer boarding and small shop front subtly disguising what is actually a popular London haunt. Inside, the restaurant is long, thin and narrow; there appears to be a bar near the back and a set of stairs on the right hand side which I assume leads to more seating. A pale brown leather sofa edges the left hand wall, with tables neatly placed in img_1250front and dining chairs the other side, completing the seating arrangements. Our table was right behind the door – not always ideal due to drafts when people come in and out, nearly knocking poor Grandma’s chair – but instead of the regular wooden square that made up the other tables, ours was a unique round cut from a tree trunk for a wonderful woodland feel. A large blue glass jar style jug was filled with water, a flickering candle bobbing in a clear oil lamp set up. The cutlery was all different yet simple, laid on plain white napkins. Coloured whiskey bottles lined the walls and pale bricks added a homely touch. It was almost like the trendy, upgraded version of a woodland cabin, the base of those about to go hunting.

img_1252It was a bit of a squeeze to get to my seat next to my sister on the sofa; the tables are very close together which isn’t ideal but I understand that they would naturally try and pack as many people as possible into the space. My sister expertly cast her eye over the wine menu, selecting a bottle of fresh sauvignon blanc for the three of us to share. We then got down to the important bit – picking our dinners!

As this was a Christmas present, we told Grandma to have exactly what she wanted, so we decided that a three course meal was par for the course. Looking at the menu, my eyes instantly zoned in on a box at the top of the page, informing diners where the meat this week had come from, detailing the farm and even who shot the animal. These small nuggets of information instantly scream ‘quality ingredients’ and my mouth watered at the thought of what was to come. The menu is very small with not a vast img_1254selection available, however there was still enough for a meat-lover like myself to choose from. I loved the Scottish style theme to the food too – there was lots of references to haggis, venison and whiskey, and I was looking forward to trying some new food stuffs.

For starters, I opted for the venison scotch egg. I love scotch eggs but I see them as a treat food when I have the fancies, so I was looking forward to indulging in one now, especially when it was made with an unusual meat. When it arrived on a rectangular chopping board, a lonely crispy looking globe next to a symmetrical puddle of fiery mustard, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. The outside was very, very crisp, even boarding on a burned texture, however once you broke the shell, the soft boiled yolk simply oozed out and soaked into the meat, the egg whites soft and jelly like. The crisp outside now became a great base for this soft centre, and the flavours and textures worked really well together. I would say the egg rather than the venison was the star img_1249of the show here, although the mustard dipping sauce nearly blew my head off it was so hot! I don’t usually eat mustard, instead normally popping a teaspoon here or there in sauces, so slathering some on my scotch egg, it was no surprise it brought tears to my eyes! Not too heavy for a starter and promising for the next round.

For my main course, I couldn’t order anything except the venison steak frites. Why would you? All venison is served medium rare, which is normally how I have my steak so I was fine with that. When it arrived at the table, it was actually more what I would call rare, so just a note for those who are wary of having their meat any shade of pink or tinged with blood. The steak itself cut like warm butter with a satisfying squidge, the meat impeccably tender and so flavoursome. It was also gloriously thick, so you had plenty to tuck into. Served as a naked slab of meat on your plate, img_1255it is quality ingredients that haven’t been messed about with, cooked simply and perfectly and plonked on your plate prettily. The venison was astoundingly lovely.

Served with my meat, I had a dressed side salad and skinny cut chips, both of which were pretty standard fare, undoubtedly letting the venison do all the talking. I also chose to add a sauce, picking the Red Jon, one I hadn’t had before. It turned out to feature more mustard, so again I had that fiery back heat hitting my throat, but the redcurrant jelly tones of the sauce helped to pare down the violence of the mustard. It was a punchy assistant to the venison without being overpowering. In addition, I also had to try the haggis mac and cheese, partly because I have never had haggis. If you only try one new thing this year, please let it be this haggis mac and cheese. Served in a very decently sized crock pot, the mac and cheese is bubbly and hot, the melting and oozing cheddar sauce completely enveloping the tiny pieces of pasta. Not img_1248only is this mac and cheese excellence, but there is a wonderful layer of haggis hiding near the bottom that really adds something special. I found the haggis to taste a bit like sausage meat stuffing, having quite a similar texture too. It was very tasty and I loved the combination of the haggis with the mac and cheese. It was sheer savoury indulgence and completely delicious.

Despite being fit to burst, no meal is complete without dessert, so I set about reading the dessert menu with concentration. I selected the sticky toffee pudding, served with a whiskey based sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream for luck. Clearly Mac and Wild understand your state of fullness by this point, as even though the pudding came up as a good sized portion, the sponge itself was much lighter than other sticky toffee puddings I had eaten. It was light and acted like a sponge to soak up the caramel whiskey img_1247sauce, which by the way most certainly had a firm handshake of whiskey laced throughout for depth of flavour. The ice cream was a soft addition, a counterbalance to the hot, sticky sweetness with a slab of cool vanilla.

All in all, it was a truly wonderful meal. Mac and Wild prove that you don’t have to have a massively extensive menu if you hit your theme bang on, source high quality ingredients, and let the cooking steal the show. The dishes were simple yet well executed, and the staff were all very polite and attentive. The only annoyance I had were with the table placement, as getting in and out of the seat without attacking the table next to me with my derriere was near impossible, and the draft from the front door was pesky. However, food wise, I highly recommend Mac and Wild for a slice of something rustic served with sheer class. The meal came to just under £140 for a three course meal for three people with a bottle of wine.

I could go on about Mac and Wild until the deer come home…

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