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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Holiday Munchies, The Brasshouse, Birmingham

After spending all day cooped up at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena watching the Yonex All England Badminton Championships, my husband Dan and I were pretty cream crackered. I mean, watching all the athletes running around was more tiring than we expected, so rather than head back to the hotel to change and then find somewhere for dinner, we decided to frequent a classic gastro pub on the way back to our room instead, for an artery-clogging meal that would have us licking our lips and our tummies sighing with satisfaction.

With this in mind, Dan found The Brasshouse on Broad Street, near Brindleyplace and next to the canal. It struck the right balance between offering a veneer of red-brick sophistication and old-fashioned charm as well as providing a more casual atmosphere than a formal restaurant. We were also lucky that since it was still quite early in the evening, that it was relatively quiet too, so we could find a dining table with ease that was opposite the bar for speedy ordering purposes.

I actually really liked the interior of The Brasshouse. With smart tartan carpet, cream walls and deep duck egg blue wood panelling, and plenty of red brick for that rustic vibe, the pub had an aura of a manor house about it, which appeals to my whimsical nature. With an array of booths, dining tables and high stool tables, we picked a normal dining table for four and spread ourselves out. I admired the intricate wallpaper in this section of the pub too; it depicted white columned arches that stood out against deep grey alcoves, a selection of brass-coloured monkeys strutting, climbing and causing mischief at random, well-spaced intervals of the classic Roman building work. On top of this fascinating wallpaper were heavy, thick and densely patterned golden frames, which were either mirrors or showed black and white stills of streets, mounted on deep red apertures.

Once we had settled down, I viewed the drinks menu with growing interest. They had a vast gin selection and I was eager to try out a couple of different flavours. I started with Tanqueray No. 10, as I am a Tanqueray fan anyway, and I enjoyed the fresh, citrus tones of this gin. I also sampled Monkey 47, which had telling notes of cranberry. It was great to try some unique gins that you don’t always find on pub menus and I loved that the menu had tasting notes too, which helped me pick what ones I wanted to order. I had my gins with slimline tonic for a refreshing beverage to accompany my meal. Needless to say, I made my way through quite a few…

For starters, we decided to pick a few dishes from the tapas menu and share. Very sociable for date night indeed. My choice was the mozzarella and truffle bon bons, which sounded like they pretty much encompassed all of my favourite flavours in one decadently deep-fried bundle. Truffle-toned and breadcrumb-coated, these balls hid an oozing centre of soft, stringy and addictive melted mozzarella, which was such a texture contrast to the crispy fried breadcrumbs. Super soft yet with a golden exterior, these globules of goodness were served with a tomato salsa that added just the right amount of pick-me-up to avoid too much heaviness, the tomato quite juicy and zingy. Dan’s pick was the chicken wings, which were also fried to a golden perfection, the chicken meat itself slick and tender. Our mutual plate pick was the antipasti, as we do love an antipasti. This one featured a selection of Italian cured meats, mixed olives, slow roasted tomato, focaccio bread and Dolcelatte blue cheese. I loved the range of salamis, which covered different textures and tastes, and in particular I enjoyed wrapping bits of salami around the flavourful and rich tomatoes. In my opinion, tomatoes taste so much better when they are sundried, roasted or sunblushed so this left me happy. I chowed down on the salty olives too as a nice snack and I even tried the blue cheese, despite strongly disliking blue cheese. This one was creamy and soft, almost spreadable, so could be termed bearable, but it was still not a winner for either of us. All in all though, we loved our little pick and mix starter and it certainly set the ball rolling for a very enjoyable meal.

For my main course, I stuck to my cheese-laden guns and opted for the loaded mac and cheese. Naturally, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mac and cheese, but instead it featured slow cooked BBQ burnt beef ends, BBQ pulled pork and streaky bacon all sat atop my mound of cheesy pasta, with a slice of garlic focaccia on the side. The mac and cheese was served in a white baking dish rimmed with blue, and looked as if it had come straight from the oven, the top almost set and with a delightful collection of golden burst cheese bubbles brewing on top. Each of the featured meats sat on top in a neat pile, so it wasn’t really mixed in to the mac and cheese; it was probably the standard pre-prepared mac and cheese that just had meat whacked on top. However, this meat was really good. Each component was literally screaming with flavour and the BBQ tones really came through. The burnt beef ends had a satisfying crunch to them, while the pulled pork was shredded beautifully and gooey too. The bacon was a nice thickness with a salty undertone, and a few sprigs of greenery finished off the look. The mac and cheese itself was decadently cheesy and a wonderful yellow colour. It was wonderfully oozy, the small pasta pieces were well cooked and it felt like indulgent home cooking that we simply don’t usually have time for. A very yummy mac and cheese indeed that really hit my spot. I was disappointed with the garlic focaccia however. It was actually a small strip of what I would term ciabatta rather than focaccia with barely a garlic tinge in it. It was nice to have some bread to dunk in all that cheesy and saucy goodness, however a crisp plain ciabatta is very different from a soft, doughy, garlic flavoured focaccia. #justsaying. Dan went for his pub go-to; fish and chips served with mushy peas on brown paper. A sample bite told me the fish was delicious and well cooked so that it flaked apart nicely, and the batter was light and not oily. We were both happy with the main courses.

I decided to have a traditional dessert for my afters, so I ordered the apple crumble with lashings of bright yellow custard. The apple was soft and suprisingly full of flavour. It luckily also retained its chunkiness with regards to the fruit and it wasn’t just a colourless mush of stewed apple. However, for me, the star of the dish was actually the crumble topping, which not only was the right consistency of crumb to add bite and crunch yet avoid being dust, but it also had a great taste. It was flavoured with cinnamon, and I think had an oaty, caramel tone to it too. It was really lovely. I was also grateful for the generous custard pool. The colour suggested packet mix, yet it was nice so I don’t really mind. The apple crumble was a satisfying and hearty dessert.

Dan, on the other hand, went upmarket with mini churros served with a caramel dip. However, these were a bit odd to be honest. They were pretty hollow inside instead of having churros’ usual doughnut fluffiness and were filled with the same caramel sauce that was provided for dunking. This made the churros more like shells, which were a touch too crunchy and thin to be proper churros. Plus, Dan found them really difficult to eat as the sauce inside was absolutely piping hot and we both burnt our tongues trying to eat them. Breaking them open though just spilled the inner sauce and took away the fun of dunking in the dip, which as we all know is the main point of churros. A nice idea but we’re not sure this one really carried off that well. The flavours were nice though. 

All in all, we enjoyed our evening in The Brasshouse. It was all about the proper pub grub, although it certainly gave an upmarket makeover to certain aspects of its menu; namely the tapas starters and the luxury drinks menu. Clearly, artisan drinks menus are becoming the norm as more diners expect to adventure as far with their gin as they do with their dinner. Prices were pretty standard for pub food and I really liked the atmosphere and the decor. I’d definitely pop back in for either drink or food or both and there was enough choice on the menu for me to pick a different meal on another visit. Just don’t expect healthy eating!

 

Holiday Munchies: Cielo Italian, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

Birmingham may not be typically associated with romantic restaurants and date night hotspots, however when my husband Dan took me out for a meal on our recent visit up north (we are from Essex, most things are north to us), we found a restaurant that certainly ticks every box I have when it comes to a slap up meal out. Despite the whitewash of snow, we donned our glad rags and headed to Cielo, an Italain restaurant situated on the fabulously named Oozells Square, in sophisticated social scene Brindleyplace.

Large windows make up the majority of the restaurant’s two exterior facing walls, so its opulent interior provided a warm beacon of streamlined white and cream decor for us to aim for as we battled against snow and wind. We maneuvered around the exterior, encased seating area as despite heat lamps underneath umbrella-style awning, I doubt anyone would brave the weather to snuggle under the blankets of the sofa seats today. As we entered, I was struck by how busy the restaurant was. Granted it was a Saturday, however our table was booked for 8.45pm, so quite late really, however the restaurant was absolutely alive with rich and hearty Italian laughter, large groups of family and friends dolled up, numerous waiting staff buzzing about as if charged with electricity. I instantly loved the vibe of the atmosphere; it was as if Cielo was celebrating the weekend itself.

The decor was a little bit try-to-hard in terms of wanting to be classy and elegant, and although it was almost there, in my opinion it could have done with a splash of accent colour to break up the consistent cream of everything. Mirrors on the walls reflected the space from the opposite windows to increase the notion of space, however one thing I did like was the armchair style seating. Dan and I were led to a small table for two by the closed off waiting area and we each nestled into a plush cream leather armchair, getting nice and comfy. Cielo certainly felt as if it was well-loved by locals, in particular for special occasions, so I was getting very impatient to sample some of their food for myself.

We started off by choosing a bottle of white wine for us to share, opting for the Domaine La Prade sauvignon blanc, which boasted of green apple, pink grapefruit and elderflower flavours. It was actually refreshingly fruity, yet soft and light to drink so it was ideal to cut through the carbohydrate and protein-laden feast we were planning. For starters, I chose the spaghetti carbonara, made with smoked pancetta, egg yolks, white wine, cream and grated Grana Padano cheese. Of course, I had extra Parmesan grated on top as well. Firstly, I loved the pasta bowl it came in. Traditionally a deep bowl, it was shaped to have one side lower than the other so it looked as if it was sitting on a slant, and almost provided an easy access point for me to eat my spaghetti from! The pasta itself was well cooked, which is good as I don’t like al dente pasta, and I loved the creaminess of the sauce paired with the salty mini cubes of pancetta. It was carbonara, but a carbonara of kings. The hubby went for prawns, which were lightly battered and served with a fresh mango-based salad and a sweet chilli dip. Although initially dubious about the mango, he soon started raving about the magical combination of flavours.

For my main course, I think I consumed one of the best dishes I have ever eaten out. By the size of this blog alone, I think we can all gather what a compliment this is. I ordered the tournedo rossini, which was basically an incredibly hefty and large fillet steak, a wonderful chunk of meat that I asked cooked medium rare. This was sat on a neat cylinder of sauteed garlic spinach, while on top of the angus beef was enriched duck liver and thin wafers of black truffle. The whole dish sat in a swimming pool of rich and dark red wine jus. This dish was undoubtedly all about the wow factor and I simply cannot praise it highly enough. The beef itself was sheer quality, thickly cut and buttery soft. This was a match made in heaven when dipped in the gorgeously deep and rich sauce, which had a slight sweet and balsamic-like tone to it. I was expecting pate for the duck liver, however I had a poke in the dim, atmospheric lighting of the restaurant and deduced that I thought it actually was liver. I hadn’t tried liver before so it was a learning curve, yet luckily it was only a small portion and it was sat on a square of olive oil drenched bread. When all covered in the jus as well, it was hard not to like. It was certainly meaty and a different texture to most meats, being slightly spongy in comparison, however it did not take away from the dish at all. I loved finding the shards of black truffle as I adore truffle, and anything black truffle in particular sends me wistfully daydreaming about my time in Florence, were food is the altar at which Florence locals worship and truffle is a much more normal foodstuff. Truffle works well with meat so I enjoyed pairing it with both the steak and the liver. The spinach added a vibrancy of green to the plate and I really enjoyed the heavy garlic hit encompassed in the buttery cooked leaves. All in all, this dish was something very special, and I could think about it all day long.

Dan, on the other hand, ordered a pasta dish for his main course that was full of thick chunks of chorizo in a tomato based sauce that coated his penne. We also shared a bread board between us, which featured triangles and squares of different flavoured breads. One of the ones I sampled was studded with olives while the second had a tomato and Mediterranean vibe to the taste. After our main courses, we were so full. The portion sizes so far were more than generous, and where the food was just so delectable, I just couldn’t leave a drop. I ate slowly to try and fit more in! It was a squeeze but no steak was left behind and I polished off my plate, much to my stomach’s adoration and discomfort.

Dessert was always going to be a foregone conclusion. With our first two courses leaving us in raptures of Italian stupor, there was no way I was leaving without trying a portion of tiramisu. Boy it was lovely to look at and even greater to eat! Served in a neat circular stack, the dessert was wonderfully creamy with lashings of layered mascarpone and coffee-drenched sponge, the top dusted thoroughly with coco powder and the plate scattered with finely chopped nuts for added crunch. The tiramisu was silky, flavoursome and sweet; in other words utterly lovely. I even treated myself to a sneaky glass of dessert wine with it to help accentuate the sweetness further. Dan went all fresh and fruity with a brandsnap basket loaded with fresh fruit and served with sorbet.

We must have been good guests as we were given limoncello shots on the house once we had paid our bill. This really helped to round off what really was an incredibly special meal. The food was simply to die for, and although poor Dan paid through the nose for our meal, I can’t help but think that every penny was well worth it as the meal was amazing. The quality and standard of the dishes was unbelievably high and the portion sizes were really rather large too to leave us completely stuffed and waddling back to our hotel. The service was a little slow, but considering it was Saturday and we needed all the rest time we could muster in between courses, I wouldn’t say it was a problem in any way.

I really can’t convey what a magical evening we had at Cielo. It was romantic and the food was impeccable. Well worth a visit if you happen to be in Birmingham, although don’t expect to pay less than the quality deserves.

Eating Around: Maxims, Kensington, London

There’s something about west London that simply carries the air of luxury merely in the breeze; discreet wealth seems to exude from every store front and a highly polished veneer of sophistication drapes over every opulent building with that classic London panache. Therefore, when this east London lass won a recent Facebook competition for a three-course meal for two at high-class casino, hotel and restaurant Maxims, situated in Kensington, I literally couldn’t grab my husband fast enough as we hot-footed it there after work one Friday night for a date night like no other.

Upon arrival, my coat and spare bags were magicked away into a hidden cloakroom and I was gently ushered down a carpeted stairway into a glamorous bar area to await the other half. Large, bucket shaped armchairs in lush leather shades of cream and berry were artfully clustered around dark glass drinks tables, scatter cushions invitingly plumped and chandelier lighting atmospherically dimmed. The bar, tucked away in one corner, was like a golden beacon of alcohol, with multi-coloured bottles clustering together like a police line-up. A smartly dressed waiter presented me with a brown leather bound drinks menu, which showcased over 100 different types of whisky, stating that I could order whatever I wanted from the menu or even something not on the menu. I mentioned that I’d won the Facebook competition, and I was simply told “We know who you are”. Feeling rather like a fraudulent VIP, yet also absolutely loving the star treatment, I settled into an armchair and began grazing on the trio of nibbles that were brought over, including mixed olives, crunchy spiced corn balls and a mix of spices nuts. This, my friends, is the life.

When my husband arrived, he was presented with a matching menu and we both decided to order a cocktail, since we were going to have wine with dinner. I opted for a tequila-laced margarita while hubby chose a porn star martini. My drink arrived in its typically kitsch cocktail class, the rim smothered with salt, and a lime carefully spearheaded the left side of the glass. The pale green, cloudy cocktail was a refreshing and potent wake-up call that was just what the doctor ordered after a long week at work. While relaxing with our cocktails in the bar area, our friendly waiter gave us the main menus for us to peruse at our leisure. Flicking through the menu, I was really impressed by the fantastic array of cultures represented in just one menu. French and Italian European classics sat just a page away from Chinese and Indian delicacies, while turning another page led to a reel of Turkish and Moroccan specialties. There were both starters and main courses available in all these cuisines, and my stomach rumbled with the concentration of indecision.

In the end, I settled for a European pasta starter of aubergine and scamorza ravioli, dressed in a classic Italian Neapolitan sauce, while the other sauce hit the Chinese selection for some deep fried prawns. For main course, I skipped a few countries to select the lamb tagine, filled with fragrant dried prunes and apricots and served with cous cous. Husband chose the Turkish mixed grill on the other hand, a carnivore’s paradise laden with chicken, kofte and lamp chops galore. We ordered while still sat in the bar, the waiter dashing off to check our order was in stock before confirming with us; he also kindly recommended a side salad for the husband’s dinner too. A bottle of wine was included with our winning meal, and when I inquired, I was told it only applied to the house wines. Typically, this would be one white and one red however Maxims would not stoop to such poor choice. The waiter proceeded to reel off at least three different types of wines for each colour. I speedily chose the fruity sauvignon blanc. With our meals all ordered, the waiter then asked if we would like to be first into the dining room so we could pick our seats, adding that we had priority this evening. I gleefully hopped up, swiftly followed by the other half, polishing off the last of the nibbles as we sauntered into the dining room.

The dining room of Maxims is small but incredibly glamorous. Gorgeous horse-shoe shaped booths sat along one side of the restaurant while three roomy square tables were placed opposite, so there was only about five or six tables in total. This merely added to the incredibly air of luxury and seclusion. I spied a large booth at the back and made a beeline for it. It was far too big for two people, but very comfortable and I loved snuggling into the golden cushions lined up against the beige seating. The table presentation was also lovely, the plates adorned with lilac tones European building watercolour style paintings, numerous large cream cotton napkins waiting to clear any spillages and a small posy of fuchsia flowers adding a vibrancy to the otherwise neutral colour palate. Awash with gold and beige tones, scattered with pink floral decorations, the room felt peaceful, quiet, romantic and private. It felt like an actual escape from our hurried London lifestyles.

Instead of the typical bread basket that precedes a meal, Maxims pushed the boat out with a gloriously colourful and vibrant crudities dish. A deep, white, bucket-type china dish filled with ice acted as a planter for an array of raw vegetables, cut into neat spears for easy finger-food picking. Baby corn nestled against cucumber and lettuce, while whole baby carrots made a bed with asparagus, radishes and a variety of peppers. In the centre of this vegetable bouquet was a dip dish of thick and creamy blue cheese dip. I found this a fantastically different way to start the meal and I really loved the variety of vegetables. The bread basket was also brought round before our starters arrived, and I chose a multi-grain bread studded with raisins and nuts, which had a thick, chewy crust yet was wonderfully soft and flavoursome in the centre.

Starters arrived and our heavenly evening continued, our wine glasses never nearing empty and our utmost thoughts being attended to by the ever-present and attentive staff. My pasta was dreamy; I loved the filling of the aubergine with the cheese, it was creamy yet smoky and ideal to cut through the sweet tomato sauce that zinged across the palate with a rush of freshness. The pasta was smooth and soft and the portion size was also very decent for a starter. It was incredibly yummy and certainly set a high standard for the remainder of the food. My husband’s prawn dish arrived on an impressive platter, joined by two different dips for his deliberation too. We were both in food heaven.

Our main courses were also delectable. My tagine arrived in its traditional terracotta dish, the tender cubes of lamb absolutely bursting with flavour and infused with a fragrance and sweet spice that transported me across the globe. The squashy dried fruit added a richness and depth to the lamb which helped give the taste some punch and added to the succulent sweetness and permeated every mouthful. The lamb was served with a generous side dish of yellow cous cous, which was light and fluffy. The other half attacked his mixed grill with vigour, although I had to help out nearer the end. Served on a shiny silver platter, an array of chargrilled meats wafted their juicy scent across the table as the kebab-style meat lay next to spears of flatbread and peppers. The side salad featured crispy croutons made from this flatbread too, which I found very moreish and really unique too. A really delicious and decadent main meal, and I thought it was great that I could sample some different types of food that I wouldn’t ordinarily have. A decided treat for sure.

And it didn’t end there. Dessert started with a glass of dessert wine, honeysuckle sweet and the colour of syrup, my sweet tooth was sobbing in gratitude at its light drinkability yet smooth sweetness. I ordered the pistachio creme brulee as my afters, simply because I love green pistachios and I adore custard, so this dessert really was a lot of my favourite flavours combined. My creme brulee arrived on a blackboard plate, next to a neat pile of halved strawberries. Using my teaspoon to snap apart the crisp caramel top, this dessert was dreamy. The sharp shards of the topping were a complete contrast to the super silky green custard hidden beneath, the nuttiness really enhancing the flavour in a magical way to bring the whole dish to life. The strawberries added a nice accent as a compliment and the dessert wine’s honey tones tied it all together. The husband ordered ice cream as a nice palate cleanser.

Tea and coffee was also included in our win, and little did we know our hot beverages would also come with a fully-loaded plate of chocolates! I loved exploring the variety of truffles and treats hidden in the multi-toned metallic toned wrappers; I think we sampled every type of chocolate and combination under the sun. It was a fun guessing game to see what shape and size chocolate was what flavour. My cappuccino was also lovely, with a light-as-air frothy topping.

Despite our table being booked for 7pm, my husband and I stayed at Maxims until gone 11pm. We felt completely at ease, relaxed and away from everything. It felt like a calming slice of luxury, enveloping us in its opulence for one evening of extra-special attention. We felt like complete celebrities and cannot commend the Maxims team highly enough for the perfectionist waiting service and the high quality of the food, which was delectable. We had the most wonderful date night and it almost felt as if we had been spirited away from normality to a world we would never typically be able to afford. It was a slice of how the other half eat and we loved it. The variety of the menu alone is excellent and enables you to try a mix of different cuisines with ease as well as finding something suitable for everyone, so fussy eaters would have no problems here. Maxims, I salute you and thank you for the magical evening.

 

Eating Around: Brasserie Blanc, Tower Hill, London

A day out with my mum is always a treat, however it’s also a sure-fire way to get to enjoy some proper decent grub, as my mum is as much of a foodie as myself and has always been a complete whiz in the kitchen, much to our family and friend’s gratitude. Spoiling me to a day in my favourite capital back in September, she had even picked out a restaurant for our dinner venue, selecting somewhere glamorous yet cosy, famed yet comfortable and also a mere stone’s throw from the Tower of London, where we had spent the majority of our sun-filled day. Owned by renowned French chef Raymond Blanc, Mum had chosen the Tower Hill branch of Brasserie Blanc for our special evening meal, and I couldn’t wait to sample the menu.

Sleek and chic French styling was evident from the first, from the neat black awning and tidy white block writing decorating the exterior of the restaurant to the spacious and airy interior, painted a warming deep sage green, and the floor tiled with a dark green and white checkered pattern. Small ceiling spotlights threw plenty of light around the room, the majority of the space filled by dark wooden tables and chairs. Along the side of the restaurant that housed the windows overlooking the pavement and the Tower of London, there were horseshoe shaped booths, the woodland green leather upholstered seating arching around a similarly shaped black table. These booths had plenty of space and also held an air of intimacy and privacy that was ideal. The whole restaurant felt luxurious and very chic, yet it also felt accessible, and somewhere you could relax easily with friends as you attempted to mirror the stylishness of the decor. As we slid inelegantly into one of the booths, we were both pleased with our first impressions, now all the more looking forward to the meal ahead.

To drink, I ordered a wonderful glass of honey-coloured sauvingnon blanc with the most amazing fruity flavour; the passion fruit tones were fresh on my tongue, paired with the sauvingnon’s classically gooseberry palate. A beautiful wine in a French restaurant, surely I didn’t expect anything less?! Suitably watered with my lovely wine, we turned out attention to the a la carte menu in order to choose our starters. We decided to share the charcuterie for two; in some ways, there is nothing more satisfactory than a decent sharing platter. This one was loaded with salami slices, such as saucisson sec, as well as a selection of other cured meats, served in neat, wafer thin round slices. The platter also included chunkier slices of a meat that was a bit like haslet or stuffing, as well as a proscuitto style meat. Cut on the diagonal, two elongated slices of toasted baguette served as the basis for a blue cheese rarebit. I don’t typically eat or like blue cheese, however this melted and gooey option was actually delicious and I could eat it with ease. The blue cheese flavour as such was mild enough not to hinder my enjoyment of the rarebit, and I could get stuck into the oozy cheese with gusto.

On one side of the platter was a baby kilner jar, filled with picked vegetables, such as mini gherkins and pieces of cauliflower. The tartness of the vegetables was the perfect foil for the slimy salami, and I thought it was a great combo to wrap the individual vegetables in the various slices for a taste explosion. The the centre of the round grey plate was the obligatory pile of leaves. The platter was really delicious and had a decent amount of food for the two of us to share. I loved the pick and mix style of eating, just diving in with your fingers and pairing different salamis together with the other components on the board to create an array of different flavours and textures, although each item was also individually very yummy. This starter certainly whet the appetite for the meal ahead, and had us licking our lips for more.

Being in one of the homes of French cuisine, we simply had to try the Boeuf Bourguignon, which Mum reported had received rave reviews online. This rich beef stew was heartily filled with plenty of bacon lardons, full and rounded baby onions, mushrooms and a smooth red wine sauce. The beef was so tender than it simply fell apart at the merest prod from my fork, into a cascade of delicious pink morsels that soaked up the wine-fuelled sauce for an even deeper and more luxurious flavour than I thought possible. Chunks of carrot and celery bobbed in the pool of dark sauce on the  bottom of the large grey circular plate, and again I enjoyed pairing the different elements together for a variety of textures and flavours, all contained within the one dish. It was an excellent stew, hallmarking from rural France, and the beef was simply superb for a melt-in-the-mouth meat.

Instead of the creamy mash that was meant to accompany our matching stews, we decided to pick a few sides to share that were more up our street. For example, we opted for dauphinoise potatoes, which Mum loves, as well as a bubbling mac and cheese. We also ordered some roasted mixed vegetables, which contained vibrant chunky rounds of deep purple beetroot among more flavourful slices of white and orange from various root vegetables. The mac and cheese was a really generous portion for a side and was so silky and creamy to eat, also being very gently grilled on top for just the lightest hint of colour. Soft and full-on cheesy, this was decadent and rich in a very different way to the stew. The potatoes were simply lovely too, the super thin slices piled high in an individual white side dish, scattered with chopped chives on top. The potatoes were soft to eat with a slight skin on top, the milky sauce offering a vaguely creamy flavour that wasn’t too in your face but just enhanced the taste perfectly. The sides were really lovely and a great addition to the meal. 

Despite being so very full, I was not leaving without satisfying my sweet tooth, especially when I saw what was on offer on the dessert menu. My eye was instantly caught by the Pistachio Souffle, that would be served with a rich chocolate ice cream. Listing two of my favourite flavours in one, I had to have it, so I ordered it excitedly. And boy, it didn’t disappoint. When it arrived at the table, my jaw dropped in shock at how large it was; the souffle towered impressively from its ramekin into an enlarged muffin shape, with a lightly browned top. A single scoop of dark chocolate ice cream pooled meekly in a small white dish next to it. Eagerly diving into the souffle, I speared its wobbly top with my spoon, and was delighted to uncover an exuberantly soft green filling. The souffle was wonderfully light to eat, gorgeously fluffy and had a really natural and moreish pistachio flavour, as well as the nut’s memorable green colour. It really was one of the most lovely desserts I have ever eaten, and certainly a dish I had never tried before or seen since. It was really excellent. I even loved the light dusting of cocoa powder that had been put in the ramekin so that the souffle wouldn’t stick, as this simply added to the flavour. I would most definitely eat this again in a heartbeat. The chocolate ice cream was very rich since it used dark chocolate, and was the complete opposite to the airy and nutty souffle. A very special dessert in my book.

Mum and I had a wonderful evening at Brasserie Blanc. Not only was the restaurant stylishly casual yet elegant, but the service was good and prompt, and the food was dreamy. Staple French classics had been given the stardust of a Blanc makeover to transform them into magical dishes that we thoroughly enjoyed. I would definitely return and do it all again.

Eating Around: Red Dog Saloon, Soho, London

Once again into the realms of double dating, my sister’s boyfriend has long been advocating the burger-filled delicacies of Red Dog Saloon, an American chain restaurant with a penchant for blow-your-head-off chilli sauce, fiery chicken wings and The Devastator, a burger with a reputation just as sizable as its succulent beef patty. Since my husband is also a fan of American grub, we decided it was about time Sam showed us what Red Dog Saloon had to offer, so we headed to the Soho branch near my office for a double date where we left our table manners at the door and our appetites took control.

Red Dog Saloon is actually quite dark on the inside, maybe taking the notion of a scenic ambiance a touch too far in my opinion, however the dimly lit vibe also suited the casual and laid-back attitude of the restaurant, simple brick walls adorned with black framed photos, bright red napkins the only hallmark of colour among the wash of wooden tables and chairs. Simplistic in style, Red Dog Saloon feels like a hang out for friends that instantly puts you at ease. We were seated in a wooden booth at the back of the narrow restaurant, which gave us a prime viewing spot to admire all of the highly stacked plates coming out of the kitchen.

First things first, my sister and I ordered a bottle of red wine to share, while my husband Dan and my sister’s partner Sam ordered their preferred beverages. Looking at the menu, we decided to forgo starters in order to pile straight into the main course, which naturally consisted of four burgers. We also opted to order a range of side dishes too so we could all share and tuck in to whatever we fancied. Granted the menu on the whole is quite small when it comes to variety, however with Red Dog Saloon, you know what you are signing up for. You visit because you have heard the burgers and wings are epic, so to be honest, the menu doesn’t really need to be any more extensive. Red Dog Saloon simply does what it says on the tin, very, very well. It offers a range of wings, chicken, slow cooked meats and burgers, has starters and desserts for those who fancy it and plenty of drinks to wet the whistle of guests.

With Sam gamely ordering the 18oz Devastator burger, I decided to play my meal a little safer for my first attempt, so I chose what is satisfyingly called The Punisher. This 6oz chuck steak patty was paired with 16 hour smoked pork butt, applewood smoked bacon and American cheese. The burger arrived on its own wooden rectangular chopping board, sitting pretty in the centre, a wooden skewer through the middle holding the impressive stack together. The pork looked like pale, non-saucy pulled pork and was piled at least an inch high in a delicious meaty bundle on top of the thick slices of bacon. Wafer thin bacon is always so disappointing, so I pleased that the bacon in this meat-lover’s burger was thick, flavoursome and salty to boot. The smoked flavour was really mild and acted to merely accentuate the lovely natural flavour of the bacon without overpowering it at all. The slices of bacon was a great texture contrast to the dryer pork piled on top, which had a lovely soft and flaky texture and a full-on pork taste. The beef burger itself was served medium so it was pink in the middle, and I always enjoy my meat pink so that was perfectly fine with me. The beef was succulent and juicy, evidently good quality and again worked really harmoniously with the other flavours in the burger. I often find that burgers are all about flavour marriages, finding textures and tastes that really bring out the best in each other, and for me, The Punisher had that in spades. With gooey cheese and sauces thrown in for good measure to avoid the burger being too dry, it was absolutely delicious and a complete handful. I cut my burger in half and then tackled each half with my hands; you simply cannot eat a burger with a knife and fork and I will sadly shake my head at anyone who attempts to do so! Especially since the burger bun managed to stay intact throughout the entire eating; it didn’t fall apart at all, its shiny brioche top neatly encasing the layers below with no problems whatsoever.

Although the burger was undoubtedly the centre of attention here, providing bucket-loads of meat-centric flavours and textures for me to get my chops around, the sides were also very tasty. We shared a basket of skinny fries, which were standard really, and a basket of large, thin onion rings. The batter was thin and golden, fried to a neat crisp, the onion inside still slimy and slippery. This was served with a cheesy dip that was also great with the fries. We also got a round white bowl of chunky and creamy coleslaw, which went down a treat with bits of burger bun, and a matching dish of oozy mac and cheese. I adore mac and cheese but I don’t have it often since Dan has a dairy intolerance, so whenever I am out, nothing is more satisfying than to gorge on tiny pasta luxuriously coated in a thick and yellow cheesy sauce! The mac and cheese was incredibly gooey and a real indulgence.

I really enjoyed my burger and I thought the whole meal was delicious. Eyeing up this Devastator challenge, where you have a time limit to eat the famed burger plus numerous sides, I’m quietly confident that I could take this on with aplomb! When our mains were cleared away, we then turned our attention to dessert. The dessert menu was very small and full of pretty uninspiring American favourites to be honest. However, when one has a sweet tooth like I do, dessert is very often a necessity for satisfaction, so I ordered the ice cream sundae. Anything with brownie pieces is a surefire way to get my attention, and this sundae was full of them. It was also compiled with cherries, chocolate sprinkles and, naturally, lashings of whipped cream.

When the sundae arrived at the table, again it seemed to loom over the table with an impressive size, a whipped cream Afro hairdo sprouting from the top of a clear glass sundae dish, the squiggly cream layers studded with numerous brownie cubes. The sundae was a simple concoction of all things vanilla, creamy and chocolate sauce, with plenty of brownie cubes throughout. The brownie pieces were not overly squashy or gooey but more crumbly and cake-like, with dark chocolate tones.

As well as our meal, we also sampled a Red Dog Saloon special, just because Sam wanted the rest of us to experience it. The chilli sauce is hallmarked as fiercely hot, so Sam ordered us a small bit to try. The waitress even bought us an extra portion of chips to try with it, as she was so concerned about us sampling it solo. I am a bit of a dunker when it comes to chips, but even I went in with a restrained air. Despite only dabbing the smallest amount on the very end of my chip, the instant searing heat of the sauce made my eyes water, and I reached chokingly for my water. I believe there is a chicken wing challenge that involves this super spicy sauce, so anyone thinking of tackling that, beware!

Overall, we all enjoyed our meal very much and it certainly lived up to the tall tales Sam had been telling us in the months leading up to our double date.  As a specialist burger joint, Red Dog Saloon gets the double thumbs up from me, and I would definitely be very interested in taking on the Devastator next time I visit. The staff were friendly and polite, and although London prices were in full swing, we left with very full tummies, as the portion sizes were decent and the food was very filling. We loved our double date evening and I’m glad I’ve found another tasty location a stone’s throw from my office…although that’s probably quite dangerous for my waistline…