Homeward Bound: Villagio, Basildon, Essex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eating Around: TGI Fridays, Wembley, London

With a half day off work at our fingertips, my husband and I decided that before attending our evening comedy gig at Wembley Arena, we should certainly spend a decent chunk of our free afternoon indulging in a complete pig-out of a lunch-come-dinner. Although we don’t know Wembley well as an area, the nearby London Designer Outlet shopping haunt provided more than enough choice for our rumbling tummies, with my husband selecting popular American burger joint TGI Fridays as our chosen food refueling spot.

We had visited a TGI’s in the past, many moons ago when we were first dating, around our local Essex, in Lakeside. Since we hadn’t been in so long, we were intrigued to see what updates had been done and whether the menu lived up to our fond memories of meals gone by, of finger-licking meats and full-to-bursting plates. Upon entering, TGI’s certainly blasts you with cherry-picked and stereotypical aspects of American diner culture, its loud and brash style unapologetic and vibrant. Flashing neon light decor, shiny red leather booth seating, and cranked up music added to the black and red theme across the roomy and spacious restaurant. We were seated at a row of tables for two, Dan taking the lower red leather sofa style seat across the back of all the tables, while I sat opposite him on a dining chair.

Since TGI’s is renowned for its cocktails, I felt compelled to have a peruse. The options were certainly plentiful with an entire book full of the different available options, whether you wanted luscious dessert style options, large sharing goblets, or maybe something frozen. With such an abundance of options, I was stumped for a bit, but then I decided to try and be vaguely healthier by ordering a skinny margarita in the blackberry flavour. When it arrived at the table, it wasn’t really what I was expecting, as it was a blended frozen cocktail, served in a tall, thin glass with a blackberry perched on its icy top.  It was delicious, refreshing and I loved the blackberry tones, which also gave it a fabulous purple colour. However, when I ordered a repeat cocktail later on during the meal, it arrived in a martini glass, and was a thin, pale purple toned liquid rather than frozen. It is very apparent that I had had two very different blackberry cocktails, but since I didn’t know how the drink was meant to be presented in the first place, it’s difficult to know whether to question it or not. I have a feeling my second drink was actually the correct one, as I did not ask for a frozen cocktail, but either way, both drinks were tasty and refreshing even if one wasn’t one I ordered.

We decided that for starters, we would choose a couple of dishes and then share in a true romantic fashion. Scanning the menu, I was really intrigued by so many of the options; it appears to me that TGI has jazzed up its menu to deliver typical American grub but in creative and imaginative ways. For example, one of our starters was Chick Cones. This is basically miniature waffle cones, like you would have with ice cream scoops, however these ones were stuffed with Cajun chicken pieces, interlaced with a fresh tomato salsa type sauce and heaps of fresh and spicy guacamole. The three cones were wedged into a white triangular sundae dish, and I have to say it looked really appetising. I loved how different it was, as I haven’t seen anything like this before. The chicken was tender and lightly spiced, however the heat was in full force when it came to the guacamole and salsa! You almost needed the chicken and the plain cone to help tone down the fiery warmth! There were moreish and soon disappeared in a few bites each. Our other starter was some garlic ciabatta bread, which was cut into four windmill wing pieces. Crunchy and crispy on top, the ciabatta underneath was soft, the garlic butter permeating through each layer of the hole-ridden bread. We really enjoyed the starters, and we were certainly contemplating how we would make room for our main course.

When picking my main course, I did something I have never done before; I ordered a double stack burger. Yes folks, that’s two flame-grilled beef burgers. I clearly took the indulgent afternoon off meal to a whole new limit when I selected the Warrior burger. This bad boy not only contained two thick patties of beef, but also featured gooey breadcrumb coated mozzarella dippers, both Colby and American type cheeses that were oozing over my burger layers in a slick caress, bacon, caramalised onions and some of TGI’s mayo for good measure. Throw in a tomato and some onion and the burger was complete. It was a complete monster of a tower, and although my mouth was watering just looking at it, I was also intimidated! What I found hilarious though was the balance of the meal. Next to this colossal burger mountain was a single lettuce leaf, acting as a mini platter for a dessert spoon of apple coleslaw. The rest of the wooden, rectangular chopping board plate was full of crunchy, narrow skinny fries. I also had some of the cheese sauce served on the side in a small dip dish.

This burger was impressive. It even had three bread layers, so was fundamentally an entire burger and then a whole second burger, just without a top bun. Its size was undoubtedly its most eye-catching element, however it did actually taste as good as it looked, which is always such a bonus when it comes to burgers. The beef was moist, flavoursome and a decent chunky patty, which I love. The beef was also the perfect conduit for the cascades of cheese in my burger, but for me the mozzarella dippers were a really unique touch that set the burger apart. The breadcrumbs added just that bit of crunch but the stringy melted cheese within just accentuated what else was in the burger. The bacon gave a salty hit to slice through the opulent cheesiness, while you simply cannot go wrong when it comes to caramlised onions; they just enhance every dish they have the pleasure of gracing. This burger was epic, and I thoroughly enjoyed pigging out and indulging in being greedy for once.

The apple coleslaw was quite refreshing and added a vibrant and colourful crunch, which pepped up the presentation of the plate. I liked the addition of raisins for a fruity chew as well. The chips were pretty standard in my opinion, with a solid crunchy outside and soft potato on the inside. Dunking the fries luxuriously into my cheese dip was delish. I managed to make decent headway into my meal considering its size, and I only left a handful of chips, much to our waitress’s admiration. She commented that I’d cleared a lot more than other customers have done when tackling the Warrior. To be honest, I was unsure whether this was a compliment or a veiled insult!

Stuffed to the rafters, we couldn’t even contemplate dessert, so we quit while we were ahead (read: could still waddle), paid the bill and left. From my younger days, I remember TGI’s being a bit of a teenage hangout, but now my perception has changed. The menu is more extensive and certainly brings a more imaginative type of American cuisine to our British plates. I mean, the pulled pork sundae on the starter menu also sounded pretty immense to me. The menu is so big that there will be something for everyone, the portion sizes are full of American generosity and I would say the prices are standard for this type of grub too. The serving staff were polite, even though the cocktail confusion was a little bit of an oddity. We really enjoyed our lunch at TGI’s and I’m sure we would not be adverse to visiting again when we are next passing by.

Gourmet Pizza, Gabriel’s Wharf, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Gourmet Pizza, 56 Upper Ground, Unit 20, London SE1 9PP (nearest tube station is Waterloo or Southwark)
  • Date of Visit: Tuesday 17th October 2017
  • Time of Table: 6.15pm
  • Deal Bought From: Groupon
  • Deal Price: £24 for two people
  • Dinner Companion: Good friend Charlotte

Getting more for your money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Starter each from a selection
  • Main course each from a selection
  • Glass of house wine each

What I ate:

  • Starter: Garlic Bread
  • Main Course: Vegetarian Pizza

What I drank:

  • A glass of house white wine

What did we think?

Heading to the Southbank always feels trendy, but especially so when I was visiting Gourmet Pizza in October. I had never before stumbled across Gabriel’s Wharf, and I found it to be an intriguing cul-de-sac of random bars and quirky shops, the venues framing a roomy central space scattered with picnic-style benches. Certainly more of a hot-spot in the summer, I was here to meet my friend Charlotte for dinner at Gourmet Pizza, which scenically faced the river Thames. The restaurant looked like it would be more at home propped up over a pier, with its black wooden plank structure and tent-like extension, heated lamps keeping the clear plastic add-on section nice and toasty. Despite looking a bit out of place, the aromas wafting out of the restaurant were alluring to say the least, and since we both love pizza, when this voucher cropped up on Groupon, we thought it would make the ideal cheap friend date. The voucher was £24 for two people, which equated to £12 each. For this, we would get a two course meal and a glass of wine.

When I arrived, the restaurant was already packed, despite it still being early evening on a random Tuesday. Luckily I had pre-booked a table, so I was shown to a tiny table to two immediately, in the plastic tent extension section. Here, there wasn’t really any decoration to speak of, but the tables and hard dining chairs were all dark wood to match the black exterior. Charlotte joined me at the table when she arrived, and we eagerly awaited someone to give us the food and drink options that were applicable for our voucher.

When we bought the deal from Groupon, part of the online description listed the menu we would be able to choose from. It gave a selection of starters and main courses and also named a few desserts too, therefore both Charlotte and I already had inklings of what we wanted to pick for our meals. We also both wanted to do a main course and dessert rather than a main course and starter. However, we were thwarted before we had even begun, as when a waiter arrived to explain what we could choose from, he said that they had changed the available voucher options after we had purchased the deal, and we now had literally half the choice that we had previously. We had only three starters to pick from, pretty much a salad and a couple of pizzas for mains, and we were also told that the offer did not apply to desserts, but just for starters and main courses. As you can imagine, this left us feeling rather hard-done by as it wasn’t what we had signed up and paid for, and we would have preferred to have what was actually advertised. However we decided not to make a fuss and to try and enjoy our now limited meal as much as we could. We started by ordering our house wine options; I went for the white while Charlotte selected the red.

Since I didn’t fancy soup, I could either choose bruschetta like Charlotte or go for the garlic bread. I decided to pick the garlic bread, and to be fair, it was lovely. It came as an individual, thick oval of soft and doughy bread, a dent in the middle of the portion pooling the melted garlic butter. The top of the garlic bread had a lovely buttery golden sheen that added a bit of bite to the bread overall, although it was satisfyingly soft and also very tasty. Let’s face it though, it’s hard to go wrong with a decent garlic bread! A nice way to whet the appetite, it was a good size and a lovely bread.

For main course, I thought it was only natural to pick a pizza sent we were at a pizza restaurant, however we only had two pizza options to pick from. Charlotte went for the pepperoni pizza, however I decided to venture away from my usual meat-fest and instead pick a vegetarian option. My pizza therefore featured red and yellow peppers, olives, artichokes and spinach for a Mediterranean vibe. When the pizza arrived, it was pretty standard fare to be honest with you. The crust and base was nice and thin, it wasn’t burnt or too brown at all and the crust still had a doughy yield in the centre which I like. The tomato sauce base was very vibrant, hallmarking the use of fresh tomatoes, while both the cheese and toppings were generously scattered over the top. The cheese had melted gorgeously and was speckled with grilled brown flecks; the toppings were colourful and plentiful to cover the top of the pizza. It was a yummy pizza and a nice size for one person, filling me up but not leaving me uncomfortable. The veggies were all tasty too, with a lightly grilled tone.

The main issue however was the length of the service. It was absolutely appalling. We waited an age for whatever we ordered, whether it was our wine at the beginning or our pizzas for our main meal. Everything was coming out of the kitchen and bar with an absolute snail’s pace, which quite frankly is ridiculous considering that pizza is a typically fast food to cook and serve. We waited so long for absolutely everything that we didn’t even attempt to buy over and above our voucher by having dessert; we weren’t even offered the menu After our pizzas, we literally waited and waited, then decided to just stand up and leave since all we’d consumed so far was included as part of our voucher. If the service had been better, we most likely would have had dessert and another round of drinks, but the service was slow, generally poor and definitely not worth the wait since the food is just average anyway. The bad service certainly cast a negative shadow over the evening; we even saw other couples nearby receive pizzas that were burnt or stone cold. With raised eyebrows, we decided to quit while we were ahead and go and get a concluding drink elsewhere.

Although our meal at Gourmet Pizza was enjoyable, it wasn’t out of this world, and you could definitely go to other Italians venues for the same food but better service. It’s a shame really as such a prime river-side spot could be a real money-spinner, however I also was not impressed that they changed the voucher details halfway through its stint on Groupon. Surely you would wait until afterwards and maybe do it for the next time you run a deal rather than halfway through a current offer? We didn’t get what was advertised and the food did not make up for the bad service. The best bit of the evening was getting to catch up with my friend for a thankfully cheap price. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my meal and I delivered clean plates each time, but for waiting times are really not worth the hassle.

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!