Holiday Munchies: Cielo Italian, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holiday Munchies: The Old Bank Steak and Ribs, Brighton

Another weekend away, another half marathon and another hunt for the ideal dinner venue that would accommodate my husband’s rather particular tastes as well as my need to carb-load before running 13.1 miles along Brighton’s prom. Despite these exacting requirements, we actually came up trumps as after a bit of Googling, the other half found The Old Bank Steak and Ribs restaurant. Not only did it come with a meat-infested menu that suited both of us, but it was a mere seven minute walk from our apartment, making it simple to walk there and stagger back.

On arrival, I got the distinct impression that The Old Bank was not your typical tourist hotspot, but instead a haunt for locals coming for a slap-up meal with their families as a treat for the weekend. Its plain white walls were decorated with local artwork that was available to buy, touches of pale brickwork added a homely vibe, while mid-red coloured leather booths in sociable horse-shoe shapes accepted groups easily. My husband and I were ushered to a small table snuggled in the corner, laid for two with white painted dining chairs. It felt nicely private and tucked away, ideal for a romantic date night.

The menu was pretty basic, however it had some real gems of home-style cooking that us millennials sometimes don’t have the time to rustle up when dining a-deux. For example, I couldn’t resist picking the mac and cheese for my starter. Partly because cheese is a rarity in our house due to the hubby’s dairy intolerance, but also because I absolutely love this pasta-laden dish. Served in a quaint white ramekin, the tiny macaroni pasta tubes were cooked all the way through rather than al-dente, which I much prefer, and the cheese sauce was wonderfully yellow and unctuous as I glooped my fork through it. The top of the mac and cheese, which had been dusted with yet even more cheese, had also been grilled for extra crunch to add a slight difference in texture to the lovely soft, cheesy mass beneath. Some may call mac and cheese a bit plain Jane, however this was a lovely treat for my starter and I found it very tasty.

For main course, I was looking for something protein and carb heavy to help prep my muscles’ energy stores for my run the next day. With this in mind, I was all over the steak option, which came with wonderfully fat chips, a cluster of mushrooms, a segment of tomato, some greenery and I had also opted for garlic butter as my sauce option. Again, another basic menu option however it was still a delicious meal. I had my steak cooked medium-rare and this was delivered on, which is always good, and I found the meat nice and juicy too. It wasn’t the most tender steak I have ever eaten, however it still cut slickly. I smeared the dip dish of garlic butter all over my meat so that it melted in great pools of herby butter, and sunk into the succulent steak. I found it a good combo, however the butter could have been more garlicky in my opinion. The chips were nice also, although in my view, they reminded me a bit too much of the Homepride chunky oven chips I do at home. They were still tasty to eat and worked well with my steak, however there just wasn’t that restaurant gleam I was looking for. The mushrooms I palmed off on to the husband as I dislike the slimey little buggers, however the tomato was yummy when paired with the steak and the leaves acted as both garnish and something lighter to eat with the meat. On the whole, it was pretty standard fare but it hit the spot and was a decent meal.

We also ordered some onion rings to have as a shared side. These again were pretty standard; the batter was a little soggy and the onion a bit misplaced at times, but it was ok with the steak.

I couldn’t leave without giving my sweet tooth a seeing to. The dessert menu was very simplistic with not a great deal of choice; I found it comprised basically of different sundaes that was the same vanilla whipped ice cream matched with different sauces and toppings. Although simple, I am somewhat of a sundae fiend so I had no difficulty in opting for a banana split type dessert. Served in a glass, boat-shaped dish, my split banana housed tall whirls of vanilla whipped ice cream, hidden underneath which were melted chunks of Twix chocolate for a chocolate, biscuit and toffee crunch that is quite irresistible. Drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces too, I really did feel like the kid let loose in the candy store, although I was also polite and offered the other half one of my two chocolate wafers that speared victoriously from the peaks of my ice cream. A childish dessert it may be, but sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that.

To go with my food, I did order a glass of wine. Because I had ordered steak, I decided to go for red wine and I was instantly drawn to one which was described as tasting like raspberries and cream. Weirdly enough, it really did. The berry tones were smooth and well-rounded while the cream was a softer, sweeter texture that came as a backnote as the end of your sip. A very lovely wine; a shame that I was restricted to just the one glass due to my run!

On the whole, the service was prompt and polite so no complaints there. However, it was pricier than we imagined. Granted, we both chose expensive cuts of steak (what can I say, we like us a bit of quality meat), but for the overall quality of the food, it was probably a bit overpriced. Despite that, I felt the food was tasty and I certainly chowed down well and enjoyed my meal. It was simple, family food that gave mum the night off and appealed to everyone. I left feeling nice and full due to the portion sizes and I had a very lovely evening. A nice, quieter spot for a Saturday night in Brighton.

Holiday Munchies: Black Rock, Clacton-On-Sea, Essex

The evening before a half marathon is always slightly trickier when you are staying away from home, and therefore having to negotiate your carb loading with a menu that hasn’t been self-concocted in your kitchen to optimise your performance the following day. Knowing my body and my pre-event food preferences rather well by now, I figured that I would be fine visiting steak restaurant Black Rock the evening before I took on the Clacton Half Marathon. After all, protein is essential for us athletes.

Although Dan and I have been to Clacton before, we did not spot Black Rock, snuggled down a narrow stairwell between two large and imposing outdoor seating terraces of the restaurants either side of it. With an American style black sign signalling steak and an arrow down the stairs, this whet our curiosity to check out the menu, and then to make arrangements to come for dinner in a few hours’ time.

At the bottom of the stairs, Black Rock has a really cool vibe that is centred around home-grown friendship and community. The focal point is undoubtedly the very chunky and long wooden tables, that are set up to accommodate large groups with ease. With such lengthy tables aligned down the centre of the room, it almost gave the restaurant the feel of an old school banqueting hall, with dining chairs tucked neatly under the centrepiece tables. Despite this nod to the communal eating scene of days gone past, Black Rock is actually rather trendy. Mottled wooden flooring that matches the tables is juxtaposed against crisp white walls, small spotlights studding the ceiling to add to the decorative tools of the trade for creating space. The plain walls were the ideal backdrop for kitsch black and white prints of famed actors and actresses, such as Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn, which gave an almost hipster vibe to the modernly clean-cut space. The atmosphere was relaxed, and since we went early for food, it was still nice and quiet, although the frown when we said we hadn’t booked a table was a wee bit off-putting.

The main reason we wanted to come to Black Rock was to try their specialty steak dish, called ‘Steak on the Stone’. This is basically an impressively sized hunk of 10z of sirloin steak that is served pretty much raw on a sizzling rock plate. Following the trend for cooking at the table, us diners then finish cooking our steak by cutting slices off the main slab of meat and cooking it on the hot black rock embedded in a wooden chopping board style plate in front of us at the table. Having done this type of dish together at Steak and Co in London, and also wanting a lot of protein for my run the next day, this seemed to hit the nail on the head in more than one way.

I ordered a glass of refreshing sauvignon blanc with my meal, while I waited for the steak to arrive. When it came to the table, the edges of the meat had barely brushed the base of a frying pan, patchy very pale grey-brown streaks indicating that it had seen an attempt at searing, however the bulk of the cooking would be left to me at the table. The steak itself looked in good nick; it was very large, rather thick, and I couldn’t see too much fat or grizzle to put me off either. It really was a complete hunk of pure meat. Served alongside it on the rectangular chopping board was a portion of skinny fries on a white rectangular plate next to the hot stone, and then in three little indents at  the back of the chopping board were little white dip dishes, containing garlic oil, peppercorn sauce, and a mushroom sauce. A side salad also shared room with the chips.

I tailored my dish by swapping normal fries for sweet potato fries, however both Dan and I found that our chips were cold anyway, so it didn’t make much difference. Dan attempted to heat his up alongside his steak on the hot plate, but I’m not sure of his success rate there. The generously-sized steak was delicious; you really cannot go wrong when you have a slab of good-quality meat for a beef steak. I was cooking my steak slices to medium-rare pinkness, and I absolutely loved generously dunking my beef into the garlic oil. I am a big garlic fan at the best of times, and I loved how the oil absorbed into the meat to really enhance its succulent flavour with that beautiful garlic warmth and the smoothness of the oil coating the meat and adding to it, rather than drenching it like some thicker sauces. I’m not a mushroom fan, so I avoided that sauce dish, although I did dip in the peppercorn a couple of times too. It was pretty standard in that respect, with a few token peppercorns bobbing around in the coffee coloured, thin-ish sauce, there’s no hiding from the kick and back-of-the-mouth-burn a peppercorn sauce will always bring. The side salad was very simple, just a few dressed leaves and veg really.

With our steak, we ordered a side of onion rings, as Dan loves a decent onion ring. Unfortunately, these did not get the husband’s seal of approval, as they were also pretty cold. The rings were thin and the batter was light, however they came up slightly soggy, and with barely there onion inside and such a thin coating of batter on the outside, they really were pretty non-descript, which is a shame as a gourmet onion ring done well can be a massive win in encouraging return custom. Let’s face it, everyone loves an onion ring. They were served in a napkin laid basket for easy sharing, but flavour and texture wise, they were a let-down.

After polishing off our steaks, we thought we might share a dessert (read: I wanted dessert, we pretended to share). The dessert menu was rather small, so I soon zoned in on the chocolate fudge cake; a very traditional offering that can usually be found on any British menu worth its salt. Served with a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate sauce drizzled wafer, it came to the table quite quickly. There was plenty of dark chocolate sauce drizzled all over which I liked, and the cake slice itself was ok as well; small desserts are life’s biggest disappointments. The cake itself was very chocolately yet not overly heavy, although it did have a slight brownie-like tinge to it in my opinion, where it was very chocolately and a little dense around the ganache frosting sections, which was luxuriously thick and gooey. Certainly a decadent chocolate-overload, it was a simple dessert that ticked the box for something sweet and chocolate to finish the meal.

All in all, I liked Black Rock as a restaurant. The service was ok, if not full of dazzling personality, and I liked the décor and vibe of the place. It has been put together well and presents itself nicely. The steak is undoubtedly their big winner and where they put all their chips behind; it was certainly a lovely piece of meat and we enjoyed the drama of cooking it ourselves at the table. I guess it also saves effort for the chefs too. However, the sides massively let the dish down which is a bit disappointing really, as the potential for them to enhance the meal is huge. Considering the chefs don’t actually have to do anything with the meat – there was no marinades, rubs or salts at all, it was plain meat – you would have thought they could have put a bit more time and effort into delivering sides that are worthy of sitting alongside the steal showpiece. Price wise, it’s not shabby at all being in little old Clacton, and at the end of the day, it was a lovely place to unwind.

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!

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.

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.

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