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.

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Holiday Munchies: The Pantry, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

Blitzing a cheeky weekend away with the other half, what could be better than breezing around a little seaside town? Clacton may be old-fashioned in terms of its rattling array of arcades and stripped back variety of amusements and rides along the pier; however it still has that classic British charm of longevity and persistence. Plus, nothing beats a hot sugary doughnut with your feet dangling off the side of the prom.

When my husband and I arrived in Clacton after driving for a few hours up the A12, we were decidedly hungry and decided to find a nice spot for lunch. We soon stumbled upon a café called The Pantry, situated in a convenient location between the seafront and the shops, as well as being a stone’s throw from our Premier Inn lodgings.

As we entered, I loved how kitsch it was. The plain white walls were bedecked with tokens of a bygone era, the centrepiece undoubtedly an old bicycle complete with wicker basket on the handlebars mounted on the wall and surrounded by mini chalkboards with friendly messages to the diners. The opposite wall was classic red brick with pale wood paneling on the bottom half. The tables were a shiny dark wood-effect plastic, paired with cream upholstered dining chairs. Although it may sound a hodgepodge of themes and colours, uniquely it worked in that very traditional family-run feel. The décor merely accentuated the fact that this was a small, local business that was most likely family owned and run, and despite not being the classiest joint, when in Clacton, it seems very fitting.

I ordered a cheese and ham ploughmans for my lunch, which I thought came under the baguette category, but turns out it was an entire meal just by itself! When it arrived at the table, I was blown away by how large it was, although my grumbling tummy certainly appreciated the grandeur! I’m afraid my picture doesn’t do the meal justice, as food was layered upon food and it was almost a plate of hidden British foodie treasures. The ham was gloriously thick cut and a really lovely lean cut with none of that annoying gristle or fat running through the middle. It had a great flavour too, and I loved ripping up bits to eat with bites of my pickled onions or rocket. I also received three large slices of the ham, so very generous portion size wise. The cheese was a wonderful brick of cheddar. It was almost the size of a lump you would put on a family cheeseboard, and I was delighted that it was all for me! Paired with the onion toned chutney that was served in a clear dip dish on my plate, it was really delicious, particularly when I then placed both in some of my baguette. The cheddar was nice and mature too so plenty of flavour there to respond to the ham.

Alongside the main elements of cheese and ham, I also had a whole baguette, and a side salad which included rocket, raw onion and tomatoes. I had a couple of quarters of apple, a few large silverskin picked onions for that poignant flavour hit, and as I mentioned earlier, the dish of chutney. Paired with a cuppa served in a typical silver café teapot for one, it was wonderfully British, good quality food, absolutely loading my plate in a mountain of deliciousness. It’s a hands on meal and the best bet is just to get stuck in and enjoy it, which I did. I polished off my plate to a high degree of cleanliness, earning a raised eyebrow from our waitress.

But I didn’t stop there. Using the excuse that I was running a half marathon the next morning, I created a double raised brow when I ordered a cream tea for my dessert. The homemade fruit scone was a lovely size again, and peppered with juicy dried sultanas and raisins; so much better than a plain scone if you ask me. I swiftly dismissed the portions of butter – who uses butter in a cream tea anyway?!? – and went straight in to slather both halves of my cut scone with the pre-packaged portion of strawberry jam I was given. Interestingly, instead of the traditional clotted cream, I was given a clear dip dish of squirty whipped cream instead, you know the stuff you fluff out from a tin. Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. I get that this is probably a cheaper option that has a longer shelf life than clotted cream, but to be honest with you, it does look cheap to serve a cream tea with this type of cream. I spread it over my jam regardless.

The scone itself was lovely. A touch warm still, beautiful buttery flavour and the right amount of fruit for my liking. It held together well yet had a nice level of crumble as you bit into each thick half. The jam was just standard pre-bought stuff you’ll see in any breakfast buffet so it was just doing the job of being the fruit layer. The whipped cream was actually ok. Being so much lighter than clotted cream, it wasn’t as heavy to eat as a whole which was actually a good thing after my ploughmans mountain. It added a whole lightness to the cream tea that was rather refreshing.

All in all, I enjoyed my foray into The Pantry for some classic café fodder. It was pay by cash only which is so old school, and you also had to pay at the counter at the back of café at the end of your meal, although a waitress came to take our order and brought our food out. Soon after we arrived, locals started flooding in for their weekend brunches, so it’s always great to stumble upon a favourite of the locals as then you know the food should be pretty pucker. It was a lovely, incredibly filling lunch, with a menu of café classics served large. A proper bit of British grub.

Homeward Bound: The White Napkin, The Kiln Hotel, Brentwood, Essex

The tradition of afternoon tea is steeped in history, and it has long stood the test of time to move from an aristocratic daily regime to a nicety treat for modern day folk. This is exactly what afternoon tea was for me when I attended The White Napkin, The Kiln Hotel’s restaurant, with my sister Jess as we took our grandma out for a lunchtime afternoon tea in our home county of Essex.

A simple 20 minute drive away from our homes in Gidea Park, The Kiln Hotel in Brentwood sits snuggled just off the A127, hidden behind an attractive cluster of trees. Once you turn into the small driveway, you can park in the small gravel-floored car park before heading into the red bricked townhouse and adjoining stable style building. We were shown into a casual bar area while we waited for our table to be ready, the waitress dashing off to pour us chilled fizzy glasses of Prosecco. The bar area had polished wooden floor and plain white walls, leather chairs and sofas in shades of bright green,  musky purple and muted browns for accents of colours. From this simple yet stylish room, we were shown into the main restaurant room for our tea, with the white theme continuing with plain whitewashed walls used to try and enhance the notion of space in the cosy room. Our square table was situated by the window, allowing lots of lovely springtime light to flood the white linen tablecloth, and reflect off the small white vase holding pretty pink flowers.

While enjoying our very refreshing Prosecco, we chose our tea, with Grandma and I both opting for traditional breakfast tea, while Jess went for a fruitier option. When the afternoon tea stand arrived at the table, we all oohed and ahhed appreciatively at the cake-laden three-tiered stand, the pretty white china plates piled with delicious foodie goodies.

The base layer was our sandwiches, with four different sandwich filling flavours. Cut neatly into crust-less finger shapes, we each had one narrow sandwich of each flavour. In white bread, we had egg mayonnaise, which was creamy with soft eggy chunks, and ham and tomato. In brown bread, we had cucumber and cream cheese, while the last filling was tuna. The bread was your typical sandwich loaf so nothing over fancy there, the fillings too just classic combinations that are generally liked by all in order to ensure mass appeal. The finger sandwiches were well filled which is always nice.

The middle layer was our scones, and I was already pleased by the generous portions here. Our jam was served separately to the main stand on a little silver holder that carried numerous miniature jars of Tiptree jam, both strawberry and raspberry flavours. This meant that there was plenty of jam to go around as I think we had about six mini jars between the three of us. On the main scone plate, we had individual clotted cream portions too, presented just in their plastic tubs. With a cream tub each, we were each able to really load our scones to the max and not have to worry about scrimping. With regards to the scones, we had one fruit and one plain scone each; it’s such a bonus to get more than one scone, and especially if one is a fruit scone. Oddly enough, fruit scones seem to be dwindling in afternoon teas which I view as a massive shame, since they are the best in my opinion.  The scones were a decent medium-ish size, rough and rustic around the edges, a golden shade in colour. The inside of the scones were a soft, pale buttery colour, the buttery-ness also translating into the flavour of the scones. The texture on the inside of the scones was crumbly yet firm. The scones topped with their jam and cream was really delicious, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

I was really impressed by the top cake layer, not just because of the variety of sweet treats available, but also because there was three of everything, which enabled us each to try everything. So many times you go out for afternoon tea and then only get one of each cake, which you then have to attempt to cut into stupid portions just so you can all try some. This was certainly not a problem at The White Napkin, which I was sincerely pleased about.

We had three generous chunks of tall Victoria sponge, which was really lovely. The sponge was sweet and sugary, super soft and moist yet crispier on top. The middle was generously smothered with both jam and cream for extra luxury. We had clear shot glasses too which were filled with a set custard like panna cotta, the white wobbly dessert topped with a decent layer of fruity berry compote. This tart fruit really infiltrated the creamy silkiness of the panna cotta which was a great contrast. In addition, we each had a tall dark chocolate cupcake, with a decorative swirl of chocolate buttercream mounted atop the squidgy sponge. Bakewell tarts had been cut in half to give us half a tart each, which was still a good portion. The shortcrust pastry base was crisp and provided a nice buttery firmness underneath a cherry jammy layer. Topped with traditional sweet marzipan and flaked almonds, the nuttiness was subtle and gentle and really complimented the jam flavours within. We also had a macaroon each; I nabbed the coffee flavoured one, Grandma couldn’t resist the brownie like chocolate macaroon, while Jess enjoyed the passion fruit option.

I have to say, this tea was certainly one of the nicest that I have had. Although the sandwiches were pretty basic and nothing to write home about, they were still nice to eat. However, it was the scones followed by the cake that was the main attraction of this tea. The scones were tasty and such a treat, while I was really impressed and pleased by the wide array of cakes; they literally had every sweet flavour checked off, as well as every texture. Plus, it was really great to have one of each cake too so that we could all have one each. The waiting staff were all friendly, and although they were rushing around due to a busy Saturday service, they did still top up our tea pot, although it did take a lot longer to get service due to the weekend rush. The afternoon tea was very reasonably priced too, I think it was around £15 per person so bargainous too. The food was very tasty, so I’m interested to see what their other menus are like.

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: Osteria Due Fratelli, Hornchurch, Essex

I’d been meaning to visit Osteria Due Fratelli for quite a while before I finally got around to booking a table. It always looked so welcoming, the family-run restaurant painted an alluringly inviting shade of post box red. As an independent Italian restaurant amidst the sea of nearby chain eateries such as Ask, Wildwood and Prezzo, I was also interested to see what Osteria Due Fratelli could possibly bring to the plate that could successfully hold up against these big, pizza-swinging rivals.

Inside, Osteria Due Fratelli continues the family-run vibe, with the décor reminding me of a country style kitchen. The bold splashes of iconic red were still present and correct, paired with a bright white, and finished with photographs in both black and white as well as colour, the frames eclectic and in different shapes and sizes.  The chairs had a worn and rustic look with a muted whitewash, paired against a hodgepodge of different sized tables in a variety of shapes and wood shades. My friends from my badminton club and I visited on a Saturday evening, so the atmosphere was bustling with the majority of the tables taken, however there wasn’t a rushed feel at all. It had the ambience of enjoyment, of friends relaxing together and revelling in each other’s company, of stretching a meal out because conversation is flowing.

We sat down at a rectangular table for four and ordered a bottle of house red to share. Despite just being the house beverage, it was a lovely red wine with a smooth consistency and a medium body that was fruity and not too heavy to drink. While we were musing the menu, a basket of rustic ciabatta style bread was brought to the table, the loaf cut into medium thick slices. With olive oil and balsamic vinegar already sitting on our table with the other condiments, I saw it as very necessary to pool first the oil and then the vinegar on top on my bread plate, before dunking my slice decadently in the slick on my side plate. This is one of my favourite things to do so having the bread brought to the table without prompting or asking was a nice added extra. The bread itself was very Italian, with a dark, chewy crust and a spongey, hole-filled centre – perfect for absorbing all the lovely oil.

Having loaded up on bread, I decided to skip starter, and focus my attention instead on main courses. Feeling in a pasta mood, I opted for the rigatoni amatriciana, which featured wide, cylindrical white pasta in a tomato, Napoli based sauce, finished off with pancetta, onions, red wine, basil, parmesan and pecorino cheeses.

Firstly I was pleased by the portion size; sometimes pasta plates come up minutely small for a main meal and it can be very frustrating to fish around for your pieces of pasta while your companions are spearing a gutsy steak. So tick there for portion size. Next up, I liked the fact that the pancetta was cut into chunky cube-like strips. Pancetta can be served in niggly little cubes that aren’t worth the chasing in pasta sauces, however the pancetta in this meal was really something you could get your teeth stuck in to and enjoy. It was also nice and lean with a real gammon flavour, so that’s a thumbs up for me. The tomato sauce was pretty standard to be honest with you, and I wouldn’t say it had anything majorly different to traditional tomato sauces from other Italian restaurants. Combined, it was a really lovely pasta dish and I it certainly hit my pasta craving nicely.

Dessert couldn’t be anything else other than tiramisu to be honest with you. As we ordered more red wine, I got stuck in to my large, rectangular portion. Tiramisu is one of those desserts that will be completely different in every, single restaurant that you eat it in, and Osteria Due Fratelli’s version was very cakey, with the creamy mascarpone being quite dense. Sprinkled with cocoa powder and drizzled with a sticky, dark chocolate sauce, this coffee dessert is always a nice conclusion to a meal, especially when you get a generous portion like this one.

Now, since I was out for a birthday meal with friends from my badminton club, we may have been a bit looser with the alcohol than normal. We completely indulged, ordering expresso martinis that arrived in unusually shaped cocktail glasses, the hard-hitting coffee flavoured cocktail delivering on expectations there. Furthermore, we also ordered liquor coffees, the rich black coffee underneath steeped in our alcohol of choice before being topped with a silky, flat layer of cold cream. I continued my coffee theme and opted for Tia Maria in mine. After another round of wine, the restaurant brought us over limoncello shots, this feisty, firepowered lemon flavoured liquor succeeding once more to blow my socks off!

As we continued the evening drinking in the restaurant rather than moving on to a bar, our bill was obviously more expensive as a result. We ended up paying around £45 per person, which I don’t think was too bad in the grand scheme of things bearing in mind how much we had to drink overall! The food itself was very reasonably priced; one member of our group had a ribeye steak main course which was £16. After arriving at 7pm, we were the last to leave the restaurant at nearly midnight, almost being kicked out by staff as they finished stacking seats and taking off aprons. For a relaxed and uncomplicated evening out, give Osteria Due Fratelli a go. The food wasn’t mind-blowing and the service was patchy due to the restaurant being busy, however the food was nice and the atmosphere is really relaxed.

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.