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.

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Holiday Munchies: The Ebringham Arms, the Cotswolds

Luxury B&B’s are all the rage at the moment, providing quick getaway escapes for busy city types looking to swap a skyline of office buildings for a sunset of green fields. My husband Dan and I selected The Ebringham Arms in the Cotswolds for our bolthole of choice, as we were instantly drawn to the impressive accolades its restaurant had mounted up. It was almost compulsory that we check it out for ourselves when we were in the area for our two year wedding anniversary road trip.

I instantly fell in love with the décor the pub, with its rustic dark grey slated floor, wide bricked fireplaces and dark wooden furniture, accented with gold gilt mirrors, elegantly placed taper candles, and delicately hoarded bric-a-brac, which adorned every nook and granny of the pub lodgings with adorable countryside charm. Chunky wooden mantelpieces held stacks of colourful books, while black cast iron wood burners sat happily next to a pile of neatly felled logs. High backed bench seating was filled with checkered grey cushions to add comfort to the wood, while the bright sunshine poured in through small, low windows that matched the age of the beamed low ceilinged building. Wonderfully rural yet impeccably stylish, The Ebringham Arms oozes both countryside magic and effortless class.

Needless to say, I was excited to get stuck into our three course meal that came included with our room for the night. For starters, I went for fresh, green asparagus spears that lay heavily next to a pregnancy poached egg covered lightly in golden breadcrumbs. The egg nestled cosily against a thick blob of mayonnaise like sauce, to complete the array of textures. Spearing the yielding egg was immensely satisfying on every level, especially when the bright yellow yolk trickled and pooled across the plate in a river of meltiness. The al-dente asparagus provided the perfect dipping implement, with a stand-up flavour that shone through the sticky egg. The crunchy crumb was light enough not to bombard the delicate egg, but instead worked to jar against the softness for added bite. The sauce gave the dish a medium level texture, as well as a more citrus inundation. A simple starter no doubt, but well executed and certainly yummy.

My main course was epic. I can think of no better word to describe the pile of fish and chips I was presented with. The large fillet of battered cod was an absolute monster, stretching lazily from one end of the dinner plate to the other, its batter curling in crisp corkscrews at each end. The batter on the fish was the darkest I have ever seen, with chunky sea salt sprinkled over the top. The beer batter was thick all the way round the fish, providing an ample coating. It was crunchy, bubbly and the perfect armour for the soft, white flaky cod housed within. The batter was so crisp and crunchy that you couldn’t help but snap into it as you ate. The fish was also a delight, being so completely different from the batter. The fillet itself was a very generous size so it was nice and tall too. It really was completely spot on. The fish was served atop a mountain of skin-on fries, which were pretty standard fare, as was the lurid green splodge of mushy peas hiding in the corner of the plate. The fish was clearly the star of this dinner show and I would bow to its excellence time and time again. The huge portion really filled me up and I just loved how the battered fish was so flavourful in each component, as well as varied in its textures. A winning dish for sure.

Dessert consisted of a chocolate tart for me, and boy was this one special. Again, a very impressive portion size, and the large slice was accompanied by a passion fruit coulee blob, as well as a dome of light ice cream to contrast the tart. The tart itself was incredibly dense with a thick, unyielding texture that was heaven to bite into and fill your mouth with. Where it was so dense, it had a very robust dark chocolate flavour that was just dreamy. Despite being massively full from the fish and chips, I still savoured and enjoyed every spoonful of this luscious dessert.

The great thing about the room package that we had booked at The Ebringham Arms was that not only did it include this three course dinner, but we were also able to tuck into breakfast the next morning. Served in the back room near the flower-filled beer garden, the early morning sunshine flooded across the slated floor, the morning peace and quiet accompanied by the gentle chinking of cutlery and china wear, the hum of people happily munching food, and birds limbering up their tweeting from the safety of nearby trees.

I started my breakfast with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a smooth white coffee. I was then brought a gorgeous glass bowl filled with generous spoonfuls of thick and creamy Greek yoghurt, a juicy red berry compote mounted on top to flood deep ruby juice in rivulets down the pure white yoghurt. Licking the bowl and spoon clean, I set up my knife and fork ready for the main event.

A full English breakfast is surely a necessity when residing in the countryside, and I have to say, this was one of the very best, if not the very best, full English I have ever had the joyful pleasure to consume. Probably the only dish at The Ebringham Arms that we had eaten so far that was not a huge portion, each component of the breakfast screamed ‘quality’ and ‘fresh local sources’. The two sauces were thin and long with a vague spicy tone, while the bacon was tastily crisped and thick to boot. The tomatoes were standard fare really, as were the baked beans, which were presented in a large ceramic ramekin; ideal for dunking toast FYI. I promptly disposed of my mushroom on Dan’s plate – I just really dislike the slimy texture of mushrooms generally – and in return I stole his lump of black pudding. Now, I am a recent black pudding convert and I am only just finding my feet with this controversial breakfast ingredient; however the black pudding at The Ebringham Arms is unlike any I have eaten before. Presented in a circular tower, this black pudding tasted so incredibly flavoursome. It was pungent, it was so very meaty, it was crispy on the outside edges yet vaguely crumbly on the inside. This black pudding was delicious and I was more than happy to agree to the mushroom-black pudding trade-off for a second portion. Sat plumb in the middle of the plate was a self-satisfied fried egg that had managed to maintain a neat round shape. Its yolk wobbled appetisingly, plump and ready to piece. A very decent start to the day if you ask me.

We may have paid an arm and a leg for our package at The Ebringham Arms, however the food was absolutely wonderful. I can quite happily concur with its awards and accolades, as I polished off every plate I was presented with, admired every flavour combination and enjoyed every juxtaposition of texture. It is good, old-fashioned British food served at its prime in meals favoured by Brits everywhere. Classy and tasty, I only wish I could return sooner.

Homeward Bound: Beefeater Liberty Bell, Romford, Essex

The Liberty Bell has always been a reliable source of British pub grub, a mere 15 minute walk from my flat, making it an ideal date night location where both my husband and I can enjoy a few drinks yet still get home with ease. Partnered with Romford’s Premier Inn, the gastro pub used to be part of the Table Table chain, yet a recent renovation has seen it transform into a Beefeater. Although I know the differences are probably quite subtle and more nuanced – after all, it still serves British pub fodder – I was still keen to see what they had done to the place.

As you walk in, the most striking difference is the new décor. Beefeater have really overhauled and updated the interior to give the restaurant a really open feel, featuring plenty of large rectangular and circular tables, large mustard or coffee coloured leather sofa style seating, and quirky red or brown upholstered dining chairs. Wood panelling provides a barn-like vibe. Fun cow-related sayings perch on the walls, as well as other themed art, such as a multi-coloured cow cut out labelling the relevant joints of meat. It’s a light, bright space, and it has a really fun and casual atmosphere; perfect for kicking back after a long week at work. The nooks and grannies that previously hid seating when Table Table was in management have all disappeared, and Beefeater has embraced a much more homely yet classy vibe.

My husband and I were sat on an end table by the wall, providing an element of privacy. I nabbed the dining chair as Dan slid onto the mustard sofa opposite me, behind our wooden, square table. As he ordered a berry flavoured cider, I checked out the wine menu. I decided to try something a little different – my usual favourites are also naturally the most expensive on most menus, so I was trying to be savvy too! One of the cheaper white wines, it was pale in colour and vaguely fruity. It didn’t pack the fruity punch I was expecting and while it was delicate and light, it wasn’t the best wine in the world. Kudos for trying something new though, right?

As Dan enjoys a starter, I was cohered into sharing some garlic flatbread strips. This came up a lot bigger than either of us expected, despite it being on the sharer menu. So many starters are designed to share yet they come up minuscule, so this was incredibly refreshing. The large flatbread was cut into three vertical strips and served with a little ramekin of melted garlic butter for us to dunk the bread in. It was an ideal thickness, with a soft and plump edge, yet a crisp and crunchy garlic infused centre with a thin base. We dove in with a rip and pull tactic to divide the bread as we chatted.

For my main course, I looked to the seasonal menu. I wanted to try the beef rib wellington, however this happened to be the one and only dish that the restaurant had run out of! Cursing my bad luck, I scanned the menu and ordered my second choice, also on the seasonal menu. I ordered the beef fillet stack, naturally medium rare. The 8oz steak would be topped with a slice of streaky bacon, a slice of Somerset brie and a slow roasted tomato. Sides wise, the dish came with creamed spinach and crispy potato slices. I love a good steak, and at a venue called Beefeater, you kind of expect the beef to be pretty top notch.

I wasn’t wrong. The steak was perfectly cooked, and although I have had more tender steaks in fancier restaurants, there was nothing wrong with this piece of meat. It was just the right level of pinkness and it cut very easily, with a great, slightly chargrilled flavour. Lovely and thick, it was a tasty chunk of meat. I also liked the fact that the toppings provided me with enough juicy options to eat with my steak, so Dan watched in horror as my tomato ketchup dish remained largely untouched. Granted, the brie came up as a rather shrivelled and small slice, although it was nicely melted over the meat. The bacon was the smallest and skinniest slice I have ever had the misfortune to glance upon, however as a component of the whole dish, it was still ok. The tomato was nice and big, the roasting process really drawing out the flavour and giving it a lovely soft texture too. Each element worked really nicely together. If the dish had had less components, then I would have been disappointed, however all together, it was very nice indeed. The crispy potato slices were thin and rather nice. The creamed spinach was more like a sauce than a vegetable in my opinion as it was so liquid. I’m not sure that is entirely a good thing, however it tasted nice and I was able to use it to dunk my potatoes in so it wasn’t too shabby. Although the dish wasn’t entirely perfect, or as I expected, weirdly, it still worked, and I still enjoyed it.

Dan ordered a mixed grill and then promptly got the meat sweats. Each piece of meat on his plate was very generously sized and of good quality, leading him to say it was one of the best mixed grills that he had ever had. He struggled to finish, yet he still delivered a clean plate to earn a thumbs up.

For dessert, I went back to the seasonal menu to order a gin and tonic lemon trifle. I love trifle and I love gin and tonic, so this was very much a must-try for me. Served in glass straight-sided dessert bowl, the base of the trifle was very much like a sponge pudding with the gin and tonic soaked sponge fingers at the bottom. The gin was a main flavour which was great, as so often the alcohol can get hidden among other ingredients. The lemon curd that was meant to top the sponge was rather non-existent, however there was more than enough of the light and silky whipped cream on top to compensate, so pairing this with the moreish sponge was really lovely. It was a nice sized dessert and not too heavy after my main meal, so I’m really glad I got to try this one.

I couldn’t leave without ordering a Bailey’s milkshake too. Served in a traditional tall glass and garnished with chocolate shavings, it was basically a vanilla based ice cream, blended with Bailey’s. As with the gin, the Bailey’s was certainly present and correct, although not dominant throughout the whole drink so I’m not sure what the balance of the blend was exactly. It was creamy, cool and very nice indeed. An extra treat!

The Beefeater menu has a great choice and range to pick from, and we both enjoyed our meal there. Oddly enough, although I had little niggles about a couple of the dishes, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the food, and I’m still pleased with the food choices I made. I’ve even picked out a few dishes I’d like to try from the seasonal menu for next time! The portion sizes are really good, which is definitely something I value, and the waiting staff were chatty and polite. We spent just over £60 on our meal which is pretty much par for the course, so I’m happy with the price range too. All in all, we had a lovely date night, and I’m looking forward to going to my new Beefeater again soon!

Eating Around: The Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Southbank, London

I’ve visited Shakespeare’s famed Globe theatre more times than I can count over the past few years, enjoying a wide variety of performances both in the outdoor circular stage area as well as the indoor Sam Wanamaker theatre. One thing however that I have been dying to do for absolutely ages is have a meal in the accompanying Swan restaurant. Peeking through the windows of this opulent looking British eatery, there was nothing I wanted to do more than nab myself a table and check out the menu. Luckily for me, my sister Jess and I received some money from our grandma at Christmas, with strict instructions to book ourselves in to see a performance and treat ourselves to dinner beforehand. We excitedly booked to see The White Devil in the Sam Wanamaker, preceding our show with an early Sunday dinner.

No doubt about it, the Swan restaurant is gorgeous. It’s so visually stunning that you simply feel more elegant and regal just by sitting in there. In glorious rich hues of gold paired with a statement charcoal grey and an abundance of modern ball lights and chic cream ceramic animal heads, the Swan manages to capture both trendy yet traditional, stylish and chic yet comfortable. It is glamourous in a rustically English way that polishes up lovely. It felt wonderful to be there as we were shown to our table in the restaurant, which is situated above the bar.

Ordering a bottle of Chenin Blanc from our suited waiter, we then turned our attention to the important task at hand – dinner. We had been given the Sunday menu which included the deal of two courses for £24.50 or three courses for £29.50. We immediately opted for the three courses. As we were mulling over our options, a bread basket was brought over, alongside a flat dish housing a disc of creamy butter. The bread had the holey inner appearance of a ciabatta, however it was also flavoured with herbs – I think rosemary, with green flecks here and there in the bread. With a dark, chewy crust and cut into thick doorstops, we knew we had found a safe food haven if this is how they served bread.

Starters was a tough choice, however I decided to play it safe and have the ham and savoy cabbage terrine, served with Yorkshire rhubarb and sourdough toast. Presentation wise, it was very arty and colourful. The terrine was the traditional ham coloured pink, flecked with large chunks of orange carrot studded throughout as well as the layer of bright green cabbage running through the centre for an extra splash of colour. If this wasn’t lurid enough, the rhubarb actually came in the form of a vibrant and robust puree, served as a puddle next to my lightly toasted half slice of sourdough bread. The puree was potent and punchy in flavour, really enlivening the terrine. It was colourful and creative and I enjoyed tucking in to this playful plate.

As it was Sunday, I decided to remain stoically British and have a roast dinner, however I veered away from the classic cuts of meat and inside opted for the pork belly, something I don’t usually have at home. When my plate arrived, I couldn’t resist licking my lips at the satisfyingly large hunk of meat sat dead centre in my plate, an island topped with crackling that was surrounded by roast potatoes, a caramelised onion, boiled carrots and cabbage as well as a large and imposing Yorkshire pudding. A dish of apple sauce was placed on our table, and our waiter poured gravy over our meals from a silver gravy boat. Wowee what a roast. The pork belly was amazing. The underbelly meat was tender and flavourful, the fat absolutely bursting at the seams with rich yumminess, while the crackling adding a moreish juxtaposition in texture, despite being more chewy than crisp (maybe due to the gravy?). Regardless, the meat was splendid and proves just how decadent a simple dish can be when executed perfectly. The Yorkshire pudding didn’t have the soft and squishy centre that is usually my calling card, however it was yummy and crisp. The roast potatoes were spot on with that delightfully fluffy centre paired with a crisp outer shell, while the colourful veg added a nuance of colour and healthiness to the edge of the plate. The onion was an unusual but really lovely touch – I haven’t had caramelised onion served with a roast before, however I think this combo really worked. This was some impressive roast dinner.

Despite being full to the brim thanks to the more than generous helpings, we were not going to stumble at the last hurdle, no siree. Plus, I had already spied the vanilla rice pudding served with plum compote and I was not going anywhere until I had tried it. Oh it certainly lived up to my dreamy expectations. The rice pudding itself was wonderfully flavoured so as not to be overladen with vanilla, but rather just beautifully accented, with the texture at that fantastic middle ground between goo and set custard which basically equals rice pudding perfection. The plum compote was zingy, flavourful and a real taste injection which was magic with the rice. The whole dessert was sprinkled with flaked almonds too giving the dish extra crunch and a creamy, nutty element. It was a match made in heaven with these flavour combos so I adored every spoonful. I didn’t need room to breathe, I just needed more dessert!

The wine we had selected was also fabulous and a great choice from Jess. It was fruity and light, very drinkable and bursting with zingy, fresh flavours. Our waiter helpfully propped it up in an ice bucket next to our table, even refreshing it when the ice turned to water to ensure our wine remained at an icy chill. The waiting staff were incredibly professional, poised and polite, with a splash of charm thrown in.

Price wise, with the bottle of wine, our meal came to £91. Usually such a price tag would have me cringing – not that I’ve ever paid that much at a meal for two! – but luckily this was a Christmas present treat, so we could afford a bit of a blowout treat on something so special. And it was special. The food was magnificent and I can’t compliment it highly enough. It may be basic and simplistic British favourites but the food is also uniquely playful and exciting, in both colour, appearance and taste. I absolutely loved going to The Swan and I think I’ll definitely be putting this on my Christmas list again next year!

Eating Around: Santi, Stratford, London

Based in Stratford’s up and coming East Village, Santi officially opened its doors in July 2016, offering lucky nearby residents an array of traditional Italian fodder, including thin-based pizza, seafood-drenched pasta, and more mozzarella than you can shake a stick at. When looking for a convenient and cosy restaurant to base a birthday meal with friends, Santi quickly cropped up as the ideal choice; in part because it is round the corner from my sister’s flat, partly because it’s on my way home back to Romford, and thirdly, because the food is absolutely delicious.

Santi is decorated very simply, letting its flamboyant food do all the talking. Stark white and dark wood form the majority of the colour theme, with the occasional flash of red to correspond with the restaurants logo dotted here and there. We were sat on a medium sized round table, ideal for nattering as a group, the table dressed with wine glasses and white linen napkins.

We ordered a couple of bottles of white wine to get the evening started, with my sister Jess taking the lead on the choice there. Our waiter presented us with a standard main menu each as well as a spring special menu, which boasted of being a whole three courses for a mere £20. We took a pick and mix approach, with some people sticking solely to the special menu – which did have a very impressive array of options for that style of menu – and some of us having two courses from the special menu and then one of the other courses from the main menu. Either way, this led to the food being very affordable all round, while still providing a pretty much entire menu to pick from. Win win if you ask me.

As we were reading the menu, a bread basket arrived at the table, alongside a dish of green and black olives, speared with cocktail sticks. Always a nice extra treat when table snacks arrive before you’ve even ordered, and so I tucked into the soft, thickly sliced bread with gusto, playing catch with the salty and small olives too.

While sipping the fresh and fruity wine, I ordered the scamorza impanata from the main menu for my starter. It sounded ideal for me, with breadcrumbed smoked mozzarella served with sautéed aubergines. This was probably one of my favourite starters that I have ever eaten to be honest with you. The mozzarella was stringy and soft, oozy out of the golden breadcrumbs when I cut the large discs on my plate. The cheese had a lovely creamy flavour that was accentuated by its sheer meltiness, the softness of the cheese working wonderfully with the crunchy breadcrumbs. The aubergines were cooked in a tomato style sauce to add a bit more variety to the texture of the dish, the squishy, earthy veg adding a hint of depth to the lighter cheese. The main components of the dish were sat on top of some decoratively scattered rocket, the edge of the plate drizzled in a balsamic glaze that I would have licked clean off the plate if manners would have permitted me to. I really loved this dish; everything worked together so well and you simply cannot go wrong with some form of melting cheese. The portion size was also more than generous with three large circles of cheese. This certainly whet the appetite healthily for what was to come.

For main course, I couldn’t resist my usual temptation treat food of Italian pizza, which I chose from the spring special menu. I went for the vesuvio, an interesting combo of salami, mozzarella and a fried egg on top. The pizza was a standard size with a generous scattering of salami spread across the circumference. The cheese on top looked a little sparing; however the wobbling fried egg on top was a thing of beauty. When I popped it’s golden yolk centre, it melted deliciously across my pizza, giving me extra to dunk my crispy yet doughy, wide crusts in. You really can’t go wrong with an Italian pizza in my view and this one was bellissimo.

I chose my dessert from the spring menu as well, opting for the cannoli siciliana to be brave and try something new. I’ve never had cannoli before, but I’ve heard the term tossed around plenty, so I was intrigued as to what it actually was and what it tasted like. I have to confess I was severely disappointed here, spending the duration of dessert jealously eyeing up Jess’s tiramisu. My cannoli featured a rolled up, thin biscuit, which had a similar taste to a brandy snap, yet it’s texture was very crisp and crunchy with real bite. It was meant to be filled with ricotta cheese, sugar and chocolate flakes, yet to me it tasted like sugar-sweet, liquid white icing sugar had just been poured inside, adding nothing to the flavour. The chocolate flakes could not be tasted in any way, shape or form. Although another decent portion size, I was really gutted by how bland and uninviting this dessert was. Next time, I’ll definitely go with my trusted dessert option.

Value for money is very apparent at Santi. There were five of us all together; we shared a couple of bottles of wine, and four of us had three courses, one person had two. Bearing in mind all that, we paid a puny £27 each. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was, considering both my starter and my main course were so tasty that I devoured them at warp speed. Our waiter was lovely as well, very polite yet chatty, efficiently serving our meal. We went on a Wednesday, so the restaurant as a whole was a bit quieter than I’m sure it would be on a weekend, however it had a very relaxed atmosphere and the food was lovely. I’d recommend a visit if you are passing by and need to put your feet up after hitting Westfields. Aperol spritz anyone?

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.