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.


Eating Around: The Mug House, London Bridge, London

Quintessentially British, The Mug House is a pub restaurant within the popular Davy’s chain that smacks of good old fashioned Englishness from centuries ago whilst also being bang up to date with a gourmet menu of classic dishes. Hidden in the domed alcoves of London Bridge, opposite the tourist-trap of the London Dungeons, this hideaway is a real treasure trove.

Bursting at the seams with character, I adored the atmosphere as soon as I stepped foot in the place. I felt as if I had gone back in time thanks to the classically whitewashed walls, multitude of dark wooden beams clustering the ceiling, and large polished beer barrels acting as quirky drinks tables by the entryway bar area.

Already impressed by The Mug House’s traditional yet polished take on a London ale house, my family and I walked around to the restaurant part of the pub, where we would be enjoying our dinner. Luxury labelled wine bottles sat proudly on each table, white taper candles speared into the makeshift holders and wax decadently dribbling down the side of the bottles. The blush red toned walls were in keeping with the abundance of wooden furniture, while more wine bottles lined shelves along the walls. Due to its location, natural sunlight is a no go; however the candlelight and numerous wall fixture lights maintained a lovely ambience under the rounded ceilings, creating an intimate and cosy vibe. Blackboards listed specials for both food and drink options, adding to the traditional feel of the place. Having a soft spot for this style of décor that has a nod to times gone by meant that my first impressions were gleeful to say the least. Now all that was left was to see whether the food and drink matched the opening standards set by this impressively presented pub.

We ordered the house red to share with our meal and very nice it was too. A deep blood red in colour, it was surprisingly fruity and medium weighted, making it very easy to drink throughout our meal. To start, my husband Dan and I shared, opting for the lemon and herb flavoured hummus, which was served with sliced up and grilled flatbreads. As hummus fans in general, it was great to get such a citrus and fresh twist on a classic, with the lemon adding a vibrant zing to the luxuriously thick and smooth dipping sauce. The flatbread was soft to bite yet held its shape when dunking and catching the hummus, which as we all know, is of vital importance. It was easily enough for one person, but the portion size was still generous enough to accommodate two so that we could have a graze before our main meal to whet the appetite.

For my main course, I decided to have a ploughman’s. I thoroughly enjoy a good British ploughman’s; however they very rarely feature on restaurant menus, despite being a pub classic in my mind. The Mug House’s version however had certainly been given the gastro pub makeover as it was a classy and sophisticated offering, presented on a round wooden cheeseboard. The slices of ham were cut generously thick, the meat both lean and light. Two long triangles of yellow cheddar came up next, balanced on top of each other, while a small pile of salad leaves acted as a bed for a black pudding scotch egg. A recent convert to black pudding, this scotch egg was dreamy. The egg was soft boiled so had that wonderfully opulent gooey and oozy centre that pools everywhere with each bite. The crust of the egg was perfectly cooked for crunch factor, while the black pudding element really enhanced the flavoursome meat within to give a richer and deeper taste. Armed with four decent sized triangles of chargrilled white bread, I tucked in with gusto, making sure to sample the caramelised onion chutney and sunset orange relish that sat in small white ramekins next to my little butter dish. Every component was simple, yet simply delicious, and I could tell the ingredients were of a high quality. Pairing the separate elements together is part of the fun of a ploughman’s, so I wrapped salad in my ham before dunking it in relish, piled the bread with cheese and chutney. Fun food at its finest.

Dessert also left me a happy bunny as I chose the traditional sticky toffee pudding for my afters. Served with a large jug of wonderful custard, there was even enough for me to drench my pudding just how I like it. The sauce had a fiery whiskey kick that was great soaked up into the caramel toned cake, with the dessert being moist, soft and full of flavour all round.

All in all, I was very impressed with The Mug House. Granted we went at a quiet time for our family meal; 5.30pm on a Saturday, so it was a lot quieter and more peaceful than I imagine it would be later on in the evening. I really loved both the décor and the atmosphere, and it presented the perfect environment for us to have a tasty family catch up. Due to its location, it is going to be more costly all round, however the quality of our meals is testament that it was worth every penny, and I would certainly eat there again.

Holiday Munchies: Café Rouge, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

Café Rouge is one of those popular chain restaurants that I’ve seen everywhere; at my local shopping centre, at pretty much every airport, and snuggled on many a high street corner. Despite the attractive red exteriors and wafting scents of French food, I had yet to sample what Café Rouge had to offer, and I was getting increasingly frustrated that our paths had yet to cross. When my husband whisked me away recently for a birthday weekend in Birmingham, it seemed an ideal opportunity to finally try out the oddly elusive yet everywhere Café Rouge. We booked a table for the Sunday evening of our trip.

Both Dan and I loved the atmosphere at Café Rouge; Parisian chic meets the comfort of a rural kitchen, with red leather booths and mirrored walls juxtaposed with overloaded cake stands and tea tables, pale wooden tables and a gentle hum of music filling the air. The spacious restaurant instantly felt relaxing and comfortable, with a kicked back vibe that was also inherently stylish – so far, so French.

As we were settled on a square table for two, with matching high backed dining chairs, next to the window, I ordered a large glass of Merlot and opened the brand new spring menu. After one glance I knew exactly what I wanted; the tarte flambee. With a flatbread base, this tart was topped with a generous layer of cream cheese, studded with sliced onion and cuboids of bacon. When it arrived, I tucked in heartily and certainly was not disappointed, as it was lovely. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of my favourite starters I have had out. I just really liked the pizza-style base paired with the light and creamy soft cheese topping. The cream cheese was also the perfect accompaniment to really let the match-made-in-heaven flavours of the pungent onion and the crispy, salty bacon sing. It was just really lovely and I polished it off very promptly while Dan tucked in to some prawns.

For main course, I opted to go classic French and choose the beef bourguignon. What could be more traditional than this slow-cooked beef stew steeped in a rich, thick red wine sauce? Among the tender chunks of falling-apart meat were button mushrooms, roasted carrots and juicy onions. A satisfying dome of herby, creamy, smooth mash peeked out from the lake of stew, with a wonderful coating of crispy, curly onions adding a final, crunchy flourish. A very well put together dish and totally tasty. The crispy onions was a really great addition and provided a great contrast in texture to the silky mash and hearty stew. The mash didn’t really taste herby, but that suited me as I’m not a huge herb fan so that was fine. At the end of the day, it’s a classic combination for a reason and that’s because these rural, home-grown flavours taste superb together, and done well, it’s a really satisfying and filling dish.

Because I’m greedy, we decided to order some extra sides too just so we could try more of the food. The spinach came in a lovely white boat-shaped dish, dressed very simply with some melted butter. It was really lovely. We also sampled some dauphinoise potatoes, another French classic with a soft underbelly of thinly sliced and sauce-covered white potatoes, topped with that lovely crispy shell that forms during baking. Always such a decadent side as it’s something we never have at home but truly tasty.

Despite being stuffed, I could hear the dessert menu calling me in a gentle undercurrent, whispering. I gave in quickly and ordered the Eton mess. What caught my eye with this dessert is that despite being a rather standard dessert item, Café Rouge had tarted it up a bit so to speak, by tossing in a few indulgent extras, such as vanilla ice cream and strawberry sorbet. It also featured the more traditional fresh raspberries and strawberries, as well as crushed meringue pieces and strawberry coulis.  When it arrived, I must confess I was very surprised at how small it was; it looked more like a kids portion to me, presented in a dinky fluted glass, a mint leaf balanced on top. It was more combined than an Eton mess usually is, with more of a smoothie feel and a creamier texture, the finely cut fruit and small pieces of meringue a bit more of a mission to find. Despite not being 100% as expected, it was refreshing and relatively light to eat so it earned points there, however it didn’t really tick my boxes in terms of what I look for in an Eton mess, so although nice, it wasn’t 100%.

To remedy this, I decided to treat myself to a final cocktail before closing in for the night. I decided to try the Le Bon Rouge, a retro little gin number that was served in a jam jar with a sliver of lemon and two raspberries bobbing on top. Containing gin, Chambord, raspberry jam and cranberry juice, I really loved this cocktail! It was full on fruity with the jam and liquor giving the drink an unusual depth of flavour for a cocktail, whilst it’s fruitiness still made it refreshing to drink, the darker berry fruits working well together.

I think we spent about £70 in all, for two starters, two mains, two sides, one dessert, one cocktail, a glass of wine and a soft drink, so price wise it is very reasonable, which is as you would expect from most chains nowadays. The service, although patchy at times, was on the whole good and the waiting staff were very pleasant and friendly. We both really enjoyed our meal here and Café Rouge is now a firm destination for future meals out.

Homeward Bound: Lifehouse Hotel and Spa, Colchester, Essex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating Around: Steak and Co, Haymarket, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Homeward Bound: The Pipe of Port, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Bread, Olives and Oil

Bread, Olives and Oil

With a decidedly wintery chill in the air, and a husky breeze blowing across the seafront, my family and I watched the annual Southend firework display ripping the blotted night sky with streaks of vividly flashing colour and glitz, an appreciative awe descending on the collected masses clustered on the prom. After ten minutes and with growingly numb fingers, the eruption of dazzling and booming brilliance finished, so we headed back towards the high street in search of some warming grub. My Southend native sister had booked us a table at the nearby The Pipe of Port; a Dickens’ style wine bar and dining room that she had had her eye on for a while. Serving homemade classic British food with a nod to the occasional contemporary twist, we knew the food would suit my classic diner dad, whilst also hitting the creative taste buds of my foodie mum.

Upon entering, we went down some stairs that seemed to lead us into a basement, where the restaurant was situated. The very first thing that struck me was the absolutely mouth-watering scents that seemed to lace the air; the smells of richly roasting garlic, seared and plump meat as well as the undercurrent of beautifully freshly baked bread all seemed to combine and sit laden in the air, waiting to be consumed by my eager sniffs. Instantly impressed by the wonderful aromas, I couldn’t wait to get seated, as we were shown to a quirky alcove table.

Six Fingers of Toast Starter

Six Fingers of Toast Starter

With an old world feel and a nod to a bygone era, The Pipe of Port is extremely well decorated – thoughtful but not try too hard. Decked out in floor to ceiling wood panelling, the mahogany tables are neatly dressed with fine dining tips, such as small white side plates, housing a paper napkin and cutlery for each plate setting. A wide based green champagne bottle innovatively acted as a taper candle holder, the white wax racing diligently down the side of the empty bottle creating a gorgeous dripping lace effect, reminiscent of old Italian eateries. The slate flooring is generously scattered with lashings of sawdust, shelves holding row upon row of wine bottles, faded paper luggage tags offering insights into the names and flavours contained within. Blackboards adorned almost every wall, reeling off an abundance of information. The one nearest our table usefully informed us of Paul’s favourite wine, which intriguingly had chocolate as well as blue and black berry notes. I must say, the board did its job as I was getting increasingly curious about what the wine would taste like, as I imagine a chocolate and fruity red would be right up my street.



Coat rails hung cosily from the walls for us to drape our winter wrappings on as we headed for our alcove, the large table having a wooden two seater high backed bench tucked round the back, with low slung wooden dining seats dotted around the other sides of the table. Slipping round to hog the fancy bench seat with my sister, our parents sat opposite, while Jess’s other half took the head of the table. Nice and snug in our corner, we were tucked rather out of the way, but this worked well for us being a bit of a larger group than the other guests. It also gave us more privacy and we didn’t feel overlooked at all. The atmosphere was quite a mixed bag – in parts it felt sophisticated and grown up, whilst there was also a talkative buzz and chatter, a delicious hint of fun, laughter and having a good time. It felt like a mature gastro-pub; it was time to grow up from the alco-pops and get serious about our wine and food.



It was completely evident from the outset that this is a serious wine venue, not only by their ‘Merchant’s Corner’ where they display an eclectic selection of wines for you to sample and drink in house or even buy to take home, but every single dish on their food menu comes with a personalised wine recommendation. Taking the tome of a wine list, you can tell how much thought has gone into it, as it is divided up into flavours and colours, so even a novice wine drinker could navigate their way to a beverage they would enjoy. I instantly looked under the ‘Aromatic, Light and Fruity’ white wine section, as I knew this was my type. I skipped the ‘Crisp and Refreshing’ options as I dislike those, although I was intrigued by the ‘Light and Elegant’ red choices, although my dad seized upon a Rioja under the ‘Intense and Spicy’ red category. Wine wise and liking it sweet, I settled on a Riesling, which turned out to be full-bodied and a deep yellow shade, with tangy citrus notes and a husky punch for the aftertaste, although no bitter dryness which was good.

Duck in Red Wine and Gooseberry Sauce

Duck in Red Wine and Gooseberry Sauce

Starters wise, I decided to keep it light, as I am much more of a dessert girl, so I wanted to save myself. I went for the typical ‘for the table’ option of bread and olives with balsamic vinegar and oil. When it arrived at the table, I must say, it looked so good. Served on a long and thin rectangular white divided plate, the right hand section housed a neat pool of Italian olive oil, a tidy square of black balsamic sunk to the bottom. Next, overflowing from a small dip dish were a selection of green and purple olives; wonderfully juicy and lip-smackingly salty, they were really moreish and not overpowered by any additional flavourings. I think one of the olive types was Kalamata, but I can’t be sure on the others.

Outside The Pipe of Port

Outside The Pipe of Port

The bread was clearly homemade and truly divine. Large, rustic quarters had obviously been sawn from a fresh loaf, one chunk a traditional white, the other a mildly grainy whole wheat. The crusts were pliable yet that wonderful challenge where you have to get your teeth stuck in and tear sideways to rip your mouthful off. The bread itself was so soft and fluffy it was like eating lovely carby air – so delicious. Covered in a thin layer of marg and dunked in my oily dip it was really tasty yet not too filling, so this really hit the nail on the head for me. Jess, my mum and Andrew all went for the mussels, artily scooping the fishy morsels from their shiny shells, whilst my dad went for the odd option of fingers of toast topped with stilton cheese and anchovies. Served on a square of black slate, it definitely looked the part of posh gastro pub.

Table Setting

Table Setting

As soon as I saw duck hiding under the meat category on the main course menu, I knew it was a done deal. Served pink with a  gooseberry and red wine sauce, it sounded ideal and was definitely something that I wouldn’t prepare at home, giving me all the more reason to pick it. It came on a bed of curly kale, which tasted like spinach really but with an interesting crunch and a more substantive texture, which I actually really enjoyed mixed with my sauce. Although the dish came with mash, I opted to swap this for the more elegant dauphinoise potatoes, as again this is something I wouldn’t have as often at home. This arrived at the table in a separate side dish, a delicate stack of single slices of potato, the creamy, milky sauce collecting between the layers and dripping tantalisingly down the sides. With a nice crisp layer on the top, I slid the potato pile onto my main plate, again so I could smother it in the sauce. The potatoes were cooker perfectly and tasted so buttery, so that was lovely, especially with the rich sauce.

Inside The Pipe of Port

Inside The Pipe of Port

The star of the show though was naturally the beautiful duck and that unique sauce. The duck portion was much larger than you would receive in other establishments, with four lovely large slices that were thick and topped with bubbling skin. The meat was moist, soft and squidgy, served pink and incredibly tender. My knife sliced through it simply and it literally melted in the mouth. The red wine and gooseberry sauce had that punch of fresh fruit that always works so well with duck, the green gooseberries rolling around in the sauce adding a more pungent punch of flavour when squashed onto the duck with my fork. The red wine reduction was light and rather thin, yet still flavoursome and rich, the depth of the wine working wonders with the game meat. The gooseberries were peppy and a vibrant splash compared to the rich meat and sauce, so the combination together was just lovely, especially when matched up with the crunchy kale and the buttery potatoes too. Every component was perfect just as it was, so when they were all put together, it was a harmonious plateful that I thoroughly enjoyed getting stuck in to. Needless to say I polished this off nicely, leaving a very clean plate.

Chocolate Truffle Torte

Chocolate Truffle Torte

The great thing about the meal so far was that the portion sizes were spot on. They were decent enough to fill you up and give you enough of a plateful to work through, yet they didn’t overfill you. This meant I still had plenty of space for dessert, so I happily ordered the chocolate truffle torte, deciding to have it with vanilla ice cream instead of cream. When it arrived at the table, I was pleased to see that it was a much bigger slice than I was anticipating, served with a swish of cherry compote and a single scoop of the slowly melting ice cream in a little clear dish. Taller than the average cheesecake, the torte had a thick, ganache style topping that was basically a soft layer of scrumptious chocolate. The torte filling itself underneath was soft and like a mousse, but with an intensely rich chocolate flavour, which was amazing considering how light and fluffy the mousse was. Thick, a bit sludgy in texture but oh so perfect to eat, I literally sighed happily with every mouthful of this deliciously decadent dessert – it felt so opulent but really was the ideal mix of textures, delivering a powerful and potent chocolate flavour but with a mix of consistencies that was a real pleasure to eat. Really yummy.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Lemon Meringue Pie

Undoubtedly the food was top notch, in terms of the creative and thoughtful menu, the quality ingredients and the careful and considerate execution. This was reflected in the prices however, with my main course costing £15 and my dessert hitting £6.30. My starter was £2.90 and I’m not sure how much the wine was, but since the restaurant is famed for its wine, I don’t think this is an area they would scrimp on. As a table, we shelled out just under £200 for five people so fabulous for a treat night or a special occasion, but I’m not sure how suitable it would be for a regular date night at these kinds of prices. The service was good as well, with the waiting staff being very diligent. We had a problem at one point when all our main courses had been brought out save my sisters, so since hers came out late, she was given a drink on the house for which she chose a gin and tonic. Her meal came out probably when we were all halfway through ours, but since she is a quick eater it luckily didn’t make too much difference to the atmosphere or pace of our meal, which is a relief.

Apple and Nutty Crumble

Apple and Nutty Crumble

On the whole, I would say The Pipe of Port is a fantastic venue, very original with gorgeous décor that makes you feel comfortable yet feels swanky and like a trip back in time. The owners clearly know their stuff with regards not only to local produce and quality ingredients, but with that fabulous array of wine – I don’t think I have ever seen a wine list so detailed or categorised that way before, and I actually really liked this. It made choosing a wine easy since you could search based on what flavours or types of wine you liked, and it made the whole notion of the ‘wine list’ approachable, so you didn’t have to know every style of wine available to pick something you would enjoy. Well worth a visit if you happen to be visiting the seafront for a festive day out day, although this is definitely one for the grown-ups so leave little family members at home!

Blackboard Recommendations

Blackboard Recommendations