Five favourite restaurants of 2012

  Pick of restaurants for 2012

Pick of 2012, a set on Flickr.

It’s time for the obligatory end of year blog post, something that’s becoming as much a part of the seasonal festivities as crackers at Christmas.

Dining out has been curtailed a bit this year, and mainly indulged for special occasions, so this is a pick of places which were mostly researched beforehand or on recommendation. They didn’t disappoint.

Here’s five places I’d definitely eat again.

In the colds of February, we cheered things up with a visit to J Bakers in York. It was a birthday celebration and we pushed the boat out with their tasting menu – seven courses of intense taste and inventive combinations. I did write a fuller review at the time. Verdict: An intimate venue, attentive service and beautifully presented standout food.

The second birthday of our household took us to the north east coast in what was a sunny April. The Fox and Hounds at Goldsborough wasn’t the easiest place to find – yes it really is down that tiny lane which looks like a drive up to a farm. Inside the atmosphere can only be described as convivial and guests are treated to some exciting menu choices. The full review is here.
Verdict: Lovely surroundings, warm service and great fish.

The summer saw us sheltering from the lashing rain after a cloudy walk along the ridge above the Kilburn White Horse at the Michelin rated Black Swan at Oldstead . The food was as good as you’d expect from a place with such a pedigree and the service made for a relaxing evening. A standout dish from the meal was this desert with impossibly light elderflower froth like a fairy’s spit!
Quality experience and lovely rooms to stop over in the event of over indulgence.

A friend’s recommendation brought us closer to home to discover The Bridgewater Arms at Winston. This unassuming pub is housed inside a former school, menus on blackboards and a cosy bar to wait in or eat there. The selection of fish on offer looked interesting and I tried a seabass fillet with chili sweet and sour sauce. The sauce was as far away from that gloopy sickly sweet orange version as I could imagine – light and sophisticated, I was convinced and we’ve since revisited to explore some more the menu.
Verdict: Welcome change from the meat, two veg and a sea of gravy cooking too often served up in the pubs round and about. Well worth a drive out.

Finally a winter treat off the mainland – The Bull on Anglesey, North Wales. What looks like a pub from the outside is in fact a sophisticated restaurant. Guests are shown into the impressive lounge with its roaring inglenook fire place and comfy sofas before being invited up to the loft – an airy dining room in the eaves. The food is interesting take on local produce and there’s plenty of extras touches such as wonderful homemade breads and an amuse bouch course. The waiting staff display that increasingly rare mix of knowledge about the dishes and wine combined with easy friendliness.
Relaxing good food and remarkable value for money for the quality of food and cooking.

I shall be back in 2013 and hope to explore the eating possibilities in the north east a bit more, but for now, wishing the readers, commenters and contributors of this blog a very Happy New Year!

Royal Oak @ Kinnerton

THOSE brave (or perhaps foolhardy) enough to take the weekend challenge of the exodus down the A55 from Manchester to Wales will already know – there’s a serious lack of good foodie stop offs en route to some relaxation over the border.
It’s always struck me as something of a missed opportunity. With so much regular passing-trade to be counted on, surely some entrepreneurial spirit could bring some roadhouse style refreshment?
So deciding to get off the much trod path and see what’s on offer a little further afield, we picked out the Royal Oak at Kinnerton and it really is only a very little further afield. Right on the border between Cheshire and Wales this village is a five minute drive from the dual carriageway.
We’d been advised to book as the restaurant can get busy and were seated in the traditional bar under a ceiling completely covered with hanging kettles, jars and other china receptacles, feeling a little as if we were housed inside a giant’s kitchen cupboard.
Table service, for drinks and food, we ordered from the Sunday menu which offered a choice of traditional roasts as well as more unusual dishes such as salmon supreme or risotto.
The tea smoked mackerel arrived warm and was delicately flavoured, although matched with a red cabbage coleslaw which provided some texture to the dish.
My homemade vegetable soup was a robust and earthy blended hot pot.
The main courses proved to be plentiful, but be warned, if you’re not keen on gravy then ordering is the time to speak up. My roast leg of lamb came fairly swimming in the stuff. It wasn’t offered – it just arrived.
I found this traditional roast dinner quite disappointing. After wading through the sea of gravy, the meat was grisly in places but, most unforgivably, one of the two roast potatoes was burnt to an inedible state. While it’s perfectly understandable that things often get too hot to handle in any busy kitchen (and this place was truly busy) it’s fairly bewildering as to why anyone would take burnt offerings to a customer’s table.
Luckily he fared better with his steak and kidney pie. A crisp pastry lid revealed a generous portion of both meaty ingredients, succulent and with a robust gravy. The mash and red cabbage also proved to be the perfect accompaniment creamy on the one hand and crunchy on the other.
We rounded off the meal with a light and dark chocolate torte which was rich and mousse-like, well complimented by the raspberry sauce and fresh strawberry.
Being a road journey, we’d selected a glass of the house Merlot from the selection of wines by the glass but the pub also offers a good range of ales.
The outdoor seating area, with its hard landscaping looked like the perfect village setting for a sunny stop off later in the summer and, while aspects of the experience could be better, the Royal Oak certainly offers something more home-made and wholesome for families on the move than the burger chains and service stations along the rest of the route.
The Royal Oak is at Kinnerton Lane, Kinnerton on the Cheshire/Flintshire Border. nr Chester, CH4 9BE. 01244 660871.

Dinner @ Plas Bodegroes

I often draw a comparison between good art and fine food. Both rely on great raw materials but the artistry is in the bringing together of those individual components, not only into a coherent whole, but one that respects the integrity of the solo items.
This meal in north Wales’ only Michelin starred establishment ticked all the boxes on both art and dining fronts so, although it might be too much of a drive for a night out, it’s so good I wanted to share with you – why not make a weekend of it? After all, they do rooms.
Our summer evening started with drinks under the rose covered veranda looking across a charming courtyard with a water feature. Maybe there’s something about the building of anticipation in such a setting that adds to the sensual pleasures. The tiny cheese tartlet and herring and dill canape helped too.
The dining room revealed the artistic interests of the owners – paintings on almost every wall space from Kyffin Williams to a Blackadder (in a loo!). Yes this is a stripped wood education in art including a portrait of co-owner Gunna Chown.
After the unannounced appetiser of beef carpaccio we moved onto some serious starters – my Thai green curry was a truly remarkable soup like concoction of full-on green curry spices with tender chunks of meaty monkfish while his ballotine of guinea fowl was accompanied with a sweet tumeric pistachio and apricot piccalilli arrangement – the posh cousin of a cold cuts in a high tea style dish.
Remaining with a fishy theme, the crusted cod was a powerful main course. Maybe “powerful” isn’t a word used often to describe flakey, delicate cod but in this instance it fits due to the sun-dried and cumin inspired golden crust which just expanded on reaching the mouth.
Simple (if rather plentiful) accompaniment of chips with skin-on pots, samphire and broccoli provided he counter balance.
It was a similarly full-on experience with the seabass and a crab and ginger sauce. Himself still can’t make up his mind whether it was a ginger sauce with crab or a crab sauce with ginger so equally at the front of the experience these two flavours were – a bit like the grey rock against the Welsh landscape experienced in the wonderful Kyffin Williams paintings dotted around the place.
We both couldn’t resist the cheese board but, and here’s the one criticism, were a bit disappointed not to learn more about selection of local produce on offer. The waitress was able to reel off the names of each Welsh creation – but couldn’t offer us any more. I hope this won’t sound too pompous but when you’re eating in a place as good as this, you expect the service to add something to the experience – the wine waiter to be able to advise, the waiting staff to be knowledgeable – not to the point of boring the table silly, but just to add a little.
That small snipe aside, the undescribed cheese was good although the biscuits too domestic to be special which was a pity.
The magically memorable night ended in the drawing room with coffee, tea and petit fours while soaking up the art.
What a blissful end to a stressful week.
Appetiser and three courses is £42.50 per person.
Plas Bodegroes is at Pwllheli, Gwynedd. LL53 5TH
North Wales
t: 01758 612363
There’s more pictures at the Life through food Flickr group where you are invited to share your own foodie experiences too.

Steaming muffins!

I see that Little Chef hasn’t improved any. Finding the stop start traffic on the way to North Wales too much we pulled over on the A55 to see if anything has changed at the small cook’s house since I last blogged on the subject.
Well, there didn’t seem to be any smoking allowed – but you still had to queue to get seated in an almost empty establishment.
The new menu didn’t offer anything exciting although all the eggs are now free-range which is one good thing.
Tucking into a hunt-the-bluberry muffin and a cup of we-don’t-do-herbal tea, Himself suddenly stopped in his tracks.

“It’s frozen!”. A large, solid and icy part of the mufin was returned to the surly waiter and two minutes later a new and smokin muffin’ arrived. Too hot to handle it was positively steaming.

It will be many. many months before we try a Little Chef again but surely someone will make a difference some day. Here’s hoping and while we’re into the realms of fantasy why can’t someone open a decent stopping place on the A55? The weekly exodus from Manchester into North Wales of 4X4s and Mercedes would surely sustain a great roadside establishment.

Let’s have more table performance

Has the art of performing at the table died out? I’ll wager it’s a while since a chef has threatened his eyebrows with a fire throwing incident involving a pancake in your local restaurant. (If you have been singed recently do let me know).
I thought the nearest thing to dining theatre was the speedy but intricate way fish is filleted at the table in some of Chinatown’s better eatreies (The Red Chili’s sea bass particularly worthy of note).
But that was before a recent trip deep into the Welsh countryside.
At what must be North Wales’ best restaurant (definately the best I’ve found anyway), Maes-y-Neuadd , I came across this eccentric performance of bread carvery.
A huge trolley of artisan breads is taken to the table where diners are asked to select their loaves and then the knife wielding assistant does the honours. In a process taking about ten minutes for four people there’s no naked flames to worry about although those sharp knives are bound to come under the scrutiny of the health and safety killjoys at some point.
Unlikely that this little show made any difference to the taste of the bread but perhaps it could be the start of a whole new table performance genre.
Come on you restaurants, get adventurous with the whole idea, I mean how about milking the cow for the cheese board inside the dining room or melting the cholocate for the fondant by placing a small bowl over the candle centre pieces during dinner?

Is this the best bread ever?

I believe I’ve found the best bread in the world. Probably. This unassuming loaf from the Station Bakery in Criccieth is sold in corner shops around north Wales. There’s no special deli, its not expensive (70p) but it is the perfect bread for making toast.
Being very thin slices it toasts quickly. It ends up as a real crisp slice with a taste which is supportive to sweet or savoury toppings.
It’s not an overpowering or complicated taste, not doughy and not flashy in any respect. In fact the only fault I can find is that it’s not available to order online or, as far as I can discover, available in the north west.
I think the freezer will need a shelf clearing the next time I return from a trip to Snowdonia.

I couldn’t even find a website for this bakery but it can be found at High Street Criccieth, Gwynedd, LL52 0RN. 01766522118