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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Eating Around: Steakout Meat House, Stratford, London

When one is double dating for the evening, it is essential to find a location that hits the spot for us foodie-focused and cocktail-loving females as well as gets the thumbs up from our carnivore menfolk. When I heard about halal steak restaurant Steakout, I thought I could be on to a winner; especially if the sizzling plates displayed on their Facebook account were anything to go by. With three out of four of us diners passing through Stratford on our commutes home from work in central London, Steakout’s east London venue seemed like the ideal spot to sample. I promptly booked a table and managed to wangle a 10% discount over Facebook, as we were visiting the day after a social media campaign 15% discount code expired. A 10% discount was a great compromise here so customer service was already looking good.

Steakout certainly looks the part of a steak restaurant, with its sleek and manly black boarding and minimalist red and white neon sign neatly printing its name above the glass door. I got the impression that the look the restaurant was going for city-slicked ranch; this certainly continued inside with plenty of rustic red brickwork, neat wooden flooring and accents of its trademark deep red featuring on the booth side seating cushions and in trendy glow-style lighting that backlit behind the seating booths. With two floors, it has plenty of seating, which is evidently needed as quite a lot of large groups arrived at a similar time to us. We were shown downstairs to a cosy booth for four, with plump red cushions, and steak knives sharply glistening next to matching red napkins.

Drinks were interesting. I’m just going to lay this out there; I am very much a social drinker. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol overall and I don’t really drink alcohol when I’m at home. For me, I enjoy sipping on fine wines or slurping a G&T when I’m surrounded by my family and friends, and especially if I’m out for a meal. It’s all part of the treat for me. However, since Steakout is a halal restaurant, I can only assume that that then includes a no alcohol provision clause, as no alcoholic beverages featured on the menu at all. Of course, this could be to tailor to the majority Muslim population in that part of East London, which is why I also assume the fact that it provides halal dishes has made it such a local hotspot and ensured it has a good crowd in on most evenings. I don’t have a problem with any of this, but it sure makes it hard to pick a drink when your normal soft drink of choice is tap water. That certainly doesn’t make for an exciting night out. Luckily for me, Steakout has an extensive mocktail menu, so I kicked things off with a pina colada. This coconut and pineapple concoction came in a tall, thin glass, and although the drink itself was nice, it was so packed full of ice that it felt like I was being conned slightly as it was more ice than mocktail. Considering the mocktails were similar to what I would pay for a cheap cocktail, I was a bit disappointed with this.

We decided to begin our meal with a couple of sharing starters, so we chose the spicy lamb chops and the nachos with spinach cheese dip. Firstly, the lamb chops. They were presented on a long oval black sizzling dish, with four succulent grilled chops that had been marinated in Steakout’s special spice mix sat atop a little bed of fried up onions. Each chop was a nice size, and since there were four of us, we had one each.  They were very tender and juicy, so you could tell the quality of the meat was good. The spice mix added a gentle warmth to enhance the meat flavour and accent its lovely texture, but it certainly didn’t overpower. Matched with the onions, this really whet the appetite for steak later on. The nachos were pretty standard, with the crisps served in a basket next to a square black skillet dish, containing the creamy cheese spinach dip. It was basically a thick and gooey cheese sauce that was threaded with green spinach leaves, with extra cheese melted on top for good measure. It was very moreish with a strong cheddar flavour that flooded the crunchy nacho chips. It was interesting having the spinach laced through the sauce. I don’t think it added to the flavour or texture as cheese was undoubtedly the main event here, however it was a stroke of colour here and there, and when you got a bit on your nacho, it was still tasty.

For main course, we had to opt for the steak. Who would come to a steak restaurant and not have steak?!? I chose to have the 340g philly cheese steak, which was basically a sirloin steak served with caramelised onions and melted cheese all on top. Yum! There was a smaller 200g steak on offer for this dish, but for me, it was go big or go home! As well as choosing what type of steak you wanted, you could also choose what style; for example do you want your steak done in traditional Steakout fashion with its secret spicy braai rub served in a sizzling platter with the onions, or do you want to keep things simple with a more western dish, opting for a thicker cut with light seasoning? Since we were there for the Steakout experience, we all chose to have our steak cooked in the Steakout method. We then got to pick an accompanying sauce, so I went for a creamy garlic dip, and also sides. I decided to go for rice to mix it up, although with others in the group ordering fries, I knew I would be stealing some!

The steak was certainly an impressive size, filling a sizzling platter with gusto, squashing the wriggling soft onions underneath. What looked like three cheese slices had been melted on top of the steak, just to the point of stringy goo so it was soft and pliable to smear on the meat, but not bubbled with golden crispy bits. The steak was delicious, and a really lovely cut. It was juicy, a decent thickness and was just great to get my chops around. It was a hearty, meaty dish and to honest, you simply can’t go wrong with a good steak. Granted, I wouldn’t say the steak was in the echelons of Steak and Co, but it was a great piece of meat, cooked to how I liked it. There was a tiny bit of grizzle and fat, but not enough that it would come anywhere near to disturbing my enjoyment of the meal. The onions were a great addition for that classic steak and onion marriage, and the cheese helped tie all of this fantastic, full bodied flavours together under a blanket of creaminess. My garlic dip was a refreshing little accent served in a little black dip pot. I rather liked mixing it with my yellow toned rice, which was fluffy and yummy. The rice was pretty bog standard really, it just unassumingly sat on the side in a separate side bowl and let the steak be centre stage.

After this meat meltdown, it was round two of mocktails and this time I chose a strawberry daiquiri, which was a much better choice. Since the ice was blended as part of the drink, I found I had a lot more of it and the strawberry flavour was really fresh and evident. A much better mocktail all round in my opinion.

For dessert, Steakout have a typical dessert-shop style menu that’s all sundaes, waffles and stuff piled up as high as possible in a sweet mountain of high blood sugar. Divine. I tried requesting dessert, however they didn’t have my first choice because they’d run out of a certain ice cream flavour. This led to the dessert guy coming to our table to take a custom order. Sharing with my sister but with me in the driver’s seat, I went for a waffle topped with bananas and mini marshmallows and drizzled with ten ton of Nutella sauce. I then chose a Ferreo Rocher ice cream scoop while Jess went pistachio. When it arrived at the table, the waffle was generously portioned to enable Jess and I to share easily, with each scoop of ice cream in a separate bowl so we could sample our respective flavours easily. The waffle was light, fluffy and just pure yum and I absolutely adored the lashings of Nutella drenching the top of the waffle. This dessert is just a simple compile stuff together job, but when it combines all flavours and things that you love, what’s not to like?

We had a few problems with the bill at the end; the waiting staff had not amended our dessert choices, so we had to get that fixed. The good news is though that they ended up applying a 15% discount instead of a 10% and they were fine for us to have that extra off, which was nice. The service was very friendly and chatty, however no amount of banter can make up for when your food takes ages and when you can’t get anyone’s attention. Weirdly, if you go to this branch and sit on the downstairs level, a portion of the ceiling is see-through; clearly some kind of fancy clear plastic meant to create the look of space. However, we soon realised that this clear strip of floor led directly to the ladies toilets; and my sister and I were both wearing dresses with tables sat underneath the clear ceiling we were walking over. Whoever designed that was seriously in error there!

All in all though, I had a great evening and really loved every course that I ate. The meat is brilliant here, and the casual vibe is great for a weekday get together that’s uncomplicated and fun. I enjoyed the food and I most likely would go back if I happened to be nearby and had the fancies for steak.

Eating Around, Dirty Bones, Carnaby Street, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating Around: Duck and Waffle, Bishopsgate, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Munchies: The Hayloft, Liskeard, Cornwall

A bank holiday weekend in Cornwall wouldn’t be complete without a slap up family meal, and on this occasion, my mother-in-law sourced nearby restaurant The Hayloft for us to try, situated a 20 minute drive away from her village in the neighbouring town of Liskeard.

First appearances had all the hallmarks of quintessential rural charm; the cottage style building was adorned with a grey slate tile roof, and painted a gently cheering shade of pale yellow. Decorated with topiary potted plants, neatly trimmed rounded bushes, and hanging floral baskets attached to stonework outer walls, The Hayloft was wonderfully picturesque and inviting, yet also had an overbearing elegance due to its tidy maintenance and thoughtful presentation.

The interior was just as quaint however it also felt polished and well put together. The typical ceiling beams had been painted a pale grey to help add height and space to the quirkily shaped rooms, while the whitewashed walls, window paned alcoves and beam-draped fairy lights all combined to further enhance the notion of space. We were seated at a corner table upstairs, with a rectangular table and wooden dining chairs pushed against a decorative high backed wooden bench.

To kick things off, I ordered a large glass of red wine, a French Grenache-pinot noir to be exact. Labelled as soft and jammy, it sounded right up my street and I additionally liked the sound of the red fruit flavours. The wine itself turned out to be very easy drinking; it was smooth and silky with an intense fruity flavour that the ‘jam’ notation had implied. I don’t typically have red wine when I’m out, but this was a very good shout on my part.

For starters, we all shared a very simple bread board, which was served on a rustic wooden chopping board. It featured a few slices of soft baguette style bread as well as several chunks of holey ciabatta. However, for me, it was the dips that took this bread board to the next level. In one white ramekin was a garlic oil for that splash of the Italian, but our favoured topping was the house butter. Flavoured with spices such as turmeric and cumin, the butter was warming and gently spicy, meaning that it carried a slightly sweet curry flavour. It was so unique and we all loved it, lashing it generously on our respective bread slices with gusto. The concept of a house butter is unusual, and one with these flavourings even more so, however it really worked and gained a huge thumbs up from everyone at the table.

I decided to go for pork for my main dish, however this wasn’t just any old pork, but a trio of pork. My main meal featured Cornish pork belly, pulled pork, and pork loin, all served on a bed of buttery fried leeks. A cube of dauphinoise potatoes sat neatly at one end of my plate, while a neatly curled blob of burnt apple puree decorated the opposite end of my plate. At first glance, the portion looked rather small, and I was initially worried about how full I would be by the end of the meal. However, all thoughts of portion size diminished as soon as I started eating the food, as the flavours were just sensational. The pulled pork was sticky thick strands, coated in a typical BBQ toned sauce, the meat soft and tender. The chunk of pork loin was tougher to cut, but the meat was well flavoured and I could detect hints of lemon and various herbs peeking through the meaty taste. The loin was also nice and thick which is a win in my book. The pork belly was presented more like a steak shape with the fat trimming along one side, however both the fat and meat had a full-bodied flavour with crispy, crunchy outer edges, yet a juicily moist and soft centre that yielding satisfying under my knife. Each pork component was really delightful, so to have them all on one plate was a tasting sensation, and great for indecisive diners like myself.

The burnt apple puree was a deep purple, almost black in colour. I didn’t really get apple as the predominant flavour though, to me it tasted more like plums. Despite that, the texture was just the right consistency to spread generously over the meat without it being stodgy or sliding everywhere, and its peppy sweetness cut through the pork deliciously. The diamond cut leeks were really lovely too, I reckon they were pan fried in some butter to help them gain a lovely softness with a slight caramelised edge. The dauphinoise potatoes were soft and creamy, the knife easily sliding through the thin-cut slices. The top was a golden brown yet not too crunchy, which suits me.

Now dessert, I was really looking forward to. I ordered a chocolate and peanut bread and butter pudding, which would be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I adore bread and butter but I don’t have it often, so I was thrilled to see an option that included not only one of my favoured desserts but that had the added bonuses of chocolate and peanut thrown in too. Presented on a rectangular wooden chopping board, the pudding itself was served in a beehive shaped brown ceramic bowl, which was a lot deeper than you would get at a lot of other restaurants. Next to it sat the scoop of ice cream, sitting pretty in neat circle of crushed biscuits for added crunch. The pudding used chocolate chips rather than raisins for the chocolate twist, which was really lovely as the chocolate melted around the edges to sink into the different layers of the pudding. The peanut element was peanut butter used to coat the bread slices, so it was a subtle, background note that gently inundated and permeated your mouthfuls in a very satisfying and non-invasive fashion. Chocolate and peanut is a classic combo for a reason, so this obviously worked well together. The bread and butter pudding was soft and squidgy; a true hallmark to good old fashioned cooking. The hottest bottom part of the pudding was also basically custard and a lot more liquid, which I actually rather liked as a hidden treasure to scoop up. Sweet and decadent, this generously portioned dessert soon filled me up to the rafters and boy did I enjoy it. The ice cream and biscuit dusting was a nice accompaniment too however I did spend more time worshiping the very lovely pud.

As a treat, I ordered a glass of dessert wine to have with my afters and I’m so glad that I did. I am still very much dabbling into the world of dessert wines, exploring what flavours and concoctions I like. I decided to choose a wine that I hadn’t heard of or tried before; I can’t remember the exact name but it began with Pedro. It was intensely dark in colour, by far the darkest dessert wine I’ve ever seen, almost like burnt honey or dark caramel from the top of a crème brulee. It tasted intensely like raisins and an abundance of dried fruit, giving it both a rich yet sweet taste. It was wonderfully sweet with a honey nectar feel, but I really loved how much it tasted like raisins. If I can hunt down what this was, I’ll certainly be looking in my local supermarket for it!

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at The Hayloft. The menu was simple yet perfectly executed and the quality of the ingredients was evident with every mouthful. Different flavour combinations exploded across our plates and had us licking our lips with every course. Even though the main course portions were rather small, the tastes and textures were huge. Plus, my pudding was generous and filling, so I certainly didn’t leave hungry in the slightest. A two course meal with a sharing starter and drinks for five people came to £144 so the menu is also reasonably priced which is a plus point. Since this is their summer menu, I also suspect that this is a seasonal menu, so I can only rub my hands together for my next visit to see what autumn will bring to The Hayloft.

Holiday Munchies: Castello Restaurant, Frome

No matter where I am in the country, Italian food seems to call to me; a siren signal that magnetically pulls me towards the nearest cheese-topped pizza, meatball-adorned pasta, or cocoa-covered tiramisu. Even when on a road trip recently for my two year wedding anniversary, I still managed to smuggle in a meal at an Italian restaurant; Castello. Clearly popular with the locals in Frome, my husband Dan and I visited on a busy Saturday evening to explore why nearby residents came in their droves.

Castello quite a modern appearance, taking style tips from the big chains such as Ask and Wildwood to feature condiment-covered shelves filled with containers of dried pasta and jars of oil, while the wine-filled bar across the left hand side of the restaurant backed on to a pale grey brickwork wall. The restaurant felt spacious with roomy high ceilings and an open second floor with additional seating. As tourists to Frome, I felt we were treated more brusquely than the regular crowd, who greeted waiting staff with handshakes, air kisses and manly claps on the back. We were clearly the interlopers here, and our tiny table of two situation right in front of the drafty main doors and a bit away from the other tables only served to emphasise this separation.

I ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc and decided to go totally Italian with my starter, selecting the tricolore. This was basically a very simplistic salad featuring squidgy round slices of white buffalo mozzarella sandwiched next to slices of tomato and avocado, the strip of slices drizzled with olive oil for that Mediterranean zing. Decorated with an over-bearing basil leaf, this starter looked so simple and easy. I love buffalo mozzarella but rarely have it, which is the sole reason that I occasionally choose this staid and boring starter. However, I did like the addition of the avocado to Castello’s version, and I found the creaminess of this health fat laden veg provided a great accent to the similar creamy tones in the cheese. The tomato added a juicy wetness and the olive oil didn’t add much at all in all honesty.

I was feeling in a pasta mood, so I decided to pick the strozzpreti pugliese for my main course, making sure that I also got the trademark dusting of parmesan cheese on top from the passing waiter. This pasta dish, which was on the small side in my opinion, used hand twisted pasta shapes which I thought were great fun. It also included spicy and flavourful balls of luganica sausage, salty pieces of pancetta, wilted spinach leaves, red chilli butter and white wine, finished with a garlic oil. I really enjoyed the subtle heat and robust combinations used in this pasta dish. The sausage was the most dominant component in my opinion, and you could distinctly taste herb flavours coming through the sizzled meat. The oils added a real warmth to the overall dish which I liked, and although I didn’t find too many spinach leaves, I enjoyed them nonetheless as I don’t eat them much at home due to my husband not being a huge spinach fan. On the whole, again it was a simple meal but I liked the flavours and ingredients. Even though the portion was small, it still felt hearty because of the flavours. I knew I would still need dessert however.

For dessert, I actually steered clear of my usual tiramisu and opted for one of my favourite English desserts, but with a specific Italian twist; limoncello trifle. This featured Madeira sponge that was soaked in Italy’s pungent lemon liqueur, before being topped with lemon curd, amaretto biscuits, blueberries and whipped cream. Served in a glass desert dish, the blueberries were more on top of the dessert than in it, sitting like little eyes on top of the cream to stare me out. There was certainly lashings of the whipped cream – I’d say the majority of the dessert was cream – while the base of the dish was filled with the soaked sponge. The limoncello was potent and the violent zing of harsh lemon that excludes from the liqueur was certainly in effect for the trifle sponge, which was lovely and soggy. I denoted an absence of any lemon curd, which I suspect would have added a creamy and soft antidote to the limoncello’s vibrancy of flavour. It was a nice dessert and something different to try, especially as trifle is one of my favourites. I just wish the lemon curd could have made an appearance for an even better flavour.

The cocktail menu was sitting plaintively on our table, its pages ajar in invitation. Of course I had a glance and then felt compelled to try the cappuccino cocktail for the very reasonable price of £6.50. Served in a rounded martini style glass, the creamy concoction sounded right up my street, with amaretto, Tia Maria, fresh milk and coffee liqueur all shaken together before being poured out and topped with a dusting of cocoa. I adore creamy chocolate and coffee cocktails, so I was keen to sample this one. I found it distinctly average. It was thinner in texture than I was expecting, and the flavour was nice, but I think it could have done with a heftier kick of alcohol to really ramp up the flavour. It seemed to be a milder, dialled down version of what it should be.

Overall, I did enjoy my meal at Castello, although I think I would say a few tweaks would go a long way into raising both the food and drink to the next level. The menu covers all bases with a good selection of food and the prices were all very reasonable, which is a nice plus point. The service was ok, but I did think we were made to feel like outsiders, which contrasted so starkly to the warm welcome issued to Frome regulars. Tasty, but I’m not quite convinced I can see what all the fuss is about from the local folk.