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.

Il Castelletto, Holborn, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Il Castelletto, 17 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JB (nearest tube station is Holborn)
  • Date of Visit: Thursday 23rd February 2017
  • Time of Table:30pm
  • Deal Bought From: Living Social
  • Deal Price: £19 for Two
  • Dinner Companion: Twin sister, Jess

Getting More for your Money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Two Starters
  • Two Main Courses
  • Two Desserts
  • For Two People

What we ate…

Katie:

  • Starter: Insalata Caprese
  • Main: Risotto Vegetariano
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

Jess:

  • Starter: Minestrone Soup
  • Main: Tagliatelle Mare E Monti
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

What we drank…

  • Bottle of Costal upo Illuminati (not included)

What did we think?

With a love of all things Italian, when I spied this fantastic Living Social deal, just a mere 10 minute walk from the front door of my office, I couldn’t resist snapping it up and inviting my fellow foodie and twin sister to share the experience with me. Located down a peaceful side street off the main concourse of Tottenham Court Road, Il Castelletto has a real ‘hidden gem’ style vibe. Its exterior was all prim and neatness with a lick of deep forest green paint and tidy awning ballooning over the front door. Traditional checkered tablecloths adorned outdoor tables; however it was the inviting, large arch style windows showcasing a beckoning interior that had us licking our lips in anticipation.

Upon entering, you are enveloped by a sense of warmth, family and comfort, the atmosphere a pure invitation to simply unwind after a hard day, glass of wine in hand. With flickering candlelight gently illuminating the very small, yet strangely not poky, restaurant, we were placed at an intimate table for two. As I sat down, I admired the yellow brick decorated walls, checking out the impressively golden gilded mirror opposite my seat. Spinning around in the wooden dining chair, I cast my eye over the traditional and well-stocked bar opposite the main entrance. Above the bar, neatly decorated blackboards detailed the wine list, while further blackboards on the walls explained the daily specials, including some very well priced lunch deals. To me, Il Castelletto felt as if you were visiting an old friend that you hadn’t seen in a while, merely slotting in where you left off and instantly relaxing into something comfortable and well-loved.

Our deal was a complete bargain at £19 for two people, so I was expecting a set menu. The restrictiveness of the menu however took me aback briefly, with many of the items being incredibly similar, so although the menu looked extensive from afar, the choice itself was much more limited. Getting over my initial disappointment, I began to look at what I was actually going to order. With a love of mozzarella, the insalata caprese seemed like a good start, due to doorstep slices of the pale, creamy white cheese, colourfully layered against equally thick rounds of bright red tomato. Further decorated with little piles of rocket, for me it was the balsamic dressing that really made the dish. I love balsamic at the best of times, but it works exceptionally well with the soft mozzarella, the zing of the vinegar a pure juxtaposition to the dense creaminess of the cheese. Nice and light, this simple yet winning starter whet the appetite very nicely.

I did struggle to pick a main course, as nothing immediately grabbed my fancy. I decided to have risotto, as it’s something I don’t usually have at home because my husband isn’t a huge fan of this gooey rice-based dish. If I’m going to have a risotto, it may as well be done by the experts. I chose the vegetarian one, and boy was this good. Firstly, the portion size was lovely. I am normally fearful of selecting a risotto when at chain Italian restaurants, as often two tablespoons later you’ve finished your dinner before everyone else; however this was not the case at Il Castelletto, and I was able to enjoy a really brilliant and full bowl. My risotto featured a great mix of vegetables, such as peppers, broccoli, mushrooms and carrots, all steeped in a fantastic tomato sauce that inundated both the vegetables and rice. The sauce had a real garlic heat to it, which massively enhanced the flavour. The rice was perfectly cooked and soft, the vegetables also cooked to tender and therefore to my liking; I’m not really an al dente kinda girl. Ensuring to get lashings of grated Parmesan on top, I really enjoyed this risotto, even if it wasn’t something I would ordinarily pick. Stealing a bite of my sister’s pasta however has me gagging to return just to order a pasta dish, as her tagliatelle was melt in the mouth in true Italian fashion.

For dessert, when in an Italian restaurant, there is simply only one option – the famed coffee-soaked and cream laden speciality tiramisu. Now I have eaten a lot of tiramisu in my time (please don’t judge), and no two restaurants ever serve it the same; it’s one of those things! To me, that makes the dessert even more special and unexpected. Il Castelletto’s version of this dessert was much more cake like, served in a rectangular slab, again with a generous portion. The mascarpone was thick set and unctuous, the chocolate drizzle sauce a nice added touch, and the coffee flavour spot on. All in all, a lovely take on tiramisu.

To accompany our meal, we went for a mid-price bottle of white wine. Usefully, the wine menu features flavour descriptions, so we were able to better select something that we would like. The wine was light, fruity and very drinkable. At under £20 for the bottle, it was also very affordable.

Although our food came quickly, I wouldn’t say the service was spot on. Some of the other tables seemed to be having difficulty in getting their food. The servers tended to clear your plates and give you the next course at the same time, which is unusual, but it didn’t really matter as we were still getting our food. Our meal was delivered pretty promptly so I have no complaints there. Staff were polite but not over warm or chatty.

I have to confess, I fell in love with Il Castelletto. I adored its relaxed atmosphere, the really delicious food, and the whole package really. Copping a glance at the full price menu, it still seems like a very affordable venue, although on this occasion we just paid a tenner each to cover the wine, as our £19 vouchers covered the price for our three course meal each. I can’t wait to go back and try a few more menu items…any volunteers?

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.