Tuesday 22 December 2009

The Wild Garlic is a restaurant worth cycling 56 miles (uphill) for

We’ve had mixed success so far with our cycling expeditions. Our inaugural, meandering trip to Lewes was rewarded with a memorable lunch at Bill’s. But our whizz across Richmond Park to The Albany was a disaster. So we decided our next trip on two wheels needed to be somewhere that could both guarantee us a good lunch and a cycle ride full of amazing views and fresh air. Our choice was Mat Folas’ restaurant in the idyllic village of Beaminster in Dorset, called The Wild Garlic.

So we loaded our bikes onto the back of Cowie’s ageing car and drove them down to Cowie’s parents’ house in Somerset. We spent the evening carbo loading on beef stroganoff and mapping our route. Cowie very cleverly used a road atlas rather than the OS map I was hankering after which I later discovered was because it didn’t show the heart stopping contour lines!

We woke bright and early to the sound of horses neighing and the sight of our breath steaming from our mouths. Opening the curtains revealed a scene from Narnia with a haw frost blistering every surface it could find. Including our bikes which we had forgotten to bring inside.

We wrapped up warm and brought our bikes inside to thaw next to the Aga, much to the dismay of Cowie’s two whippets who stared at the shivering bikes with horror. Three bowls of porridge bathed in honey and sprinkled with brown sugar woke me up sufficiently to embark on our journey.

After a false start where my chain fell off after two yards we were away. Despite the icy roads and endless hills we made good time. We started in freezing fog, but within 20 minutes it had made way and wintry sunshine took its place. The roads were quiet, except for the odd tractor and farm lorry which allowed us to enjoy the stunning views. It was like cycling through a Constable exhibition.

Bikes by sign post

The Fox Inn

We stopped off after 30 miles at Corscombe for a refreshing half pint of bitter for me and a cup of tea for Cowie in a pub recommended in the Gastro Pub Cookbook called the Fox Inn.

The landlord then broke some very bad news. The road to Beaminster was closed for repairs. We’d have to go on a “very long detour over the downs”. WHAT?! No. We were so close.

We set off again, feeling slightly despondent, but determined not to let a little detour get in the way of our lunch. The hill out of Corscombeis making me sick just writing about it. It’s so steep I’m surprised health and safety haven’t stepped in to force the parish council to install an escalator! We cycled straight up hill for about 2 miles before emerging on the top of downs. Our reward was a view that took our misty breath away and made all the hard slog worth it.


We ignored the “road closed” sign and ploughed on to Beaminster without any problem at all. It seems the roadworks were a fiction of the landlord’s imagination.

We changed quickly out of our hi-vis tops and tried to make ourselves look less sweaty and horrible before nonchalantly striding into The Wild Garlic for lunch, feeling about as smug as is humanly possible.

The Wild Garlic

The room is airy, light, friendly and well decorated with warm yellows and natural wood. It’s not big, but that helps to give it a homely feeling. A statuette of an “M” proudly sits behind the bar and the odd glowing review hangs in a frame in the Gents. Richard Bramble prints of mackerel and crab adorn the restaurant’s walls, firmly establishing this as a local enterprise.

We loved the heavy wooden tables, whose strudy tops are carved with the names of ingredients and culinary aphorisms. It’s a great touch. We just wished as much care had gone into the chairs which by comparison are quite flimsy. But these are things you probably only notice after cycling for 3 hours!

The lunch menu is brief. We almost fell out as Cowie suggested we skip starters and dive into main courses. Given our exertions there was no way I was going to miss out.


My sautéed sprats with aioli were superb. The pale yellow dip was everything that its equivalent at The Albany was not. Subtle. Smooth. Somehow light. The sprats were crispy and yet still moist. A simple starter. But a belter.

Pigeon salad

Cowie’s pigeon with a cranberry and beetroot relish was even better. The pigeon was almost dangerous pink and oozed flavour like ripe plum that refuses to be constrained by its skin. The festive coloured relish added texture, sweetness and a touch of sour. The only way it could have been better was with a heavier hand with the seasoning.

Both were served on wooden boards with a very attractive side salad, composed of purples, reds and greens. You’ll struggle to find a more attractive sprinkling of leaves. Alas, the pretty little undressed salads have no flavour. No peppery rocket nor irony watercress. No bitter chicory nor powerful borage bud. No dressing. I hate to be picky. But, given that these salads accompany most dishes, it’s a shame they are being used as a garnish rather than as an extra flavour dimension. I was expecting a lot more, given the photos of tantalising salads on the website.

My liver with onion gravy and mash was perfectly cooked, with a rosy centre and gently charred edges. But it was the mash that turned out to be the star of the dish and possibly the entire meal. It was infused with a subtle, smoky flavour that is a house speciality. We asked our waitress for more details but were told it was a secret of the house. (But it may well be done a little bit like this). Even with the spectacular smoked mash, we couldn’t help but think mash with liver and onion gravy was missing something…

Scotch eggs and liver

Cowie’s venison scotch egg with chips was not good. We had ordered it on the grounds that it was making its debut on the menu. If it was a football match, the manager would have spared its blushes and substituted it at half time. The egg was cold and hard boiled. The venison sausage meat was barely warm. And the cost was £12. For £9.50 less than that at the Harwood Arms in Fulham you’ll get a runny middle, crispy crumb, hot sausage and a smile on your face. And it’s a starter. I’d be very surprised if this remains on the menu in its current form for very long.

Even though we knew we were already running late for our train home we couldn’t resist a cardamom pot with pomegranate seeds infused with rose water. When you see how attractive they are, it’s hard to resist.

Cardamon Pot

The idea is great. The presentation is stunning. But the cardamom flavoured yoghurt, whilst delicious in terms of flavour, was gritty. We couldn’t work out whether this was accidental or deliberate at the time. But with a spot of research it seems that graininess is a common problem with home made yoghurt stemming from either uneven temperature control during incubation or an issue with the modified starch stabilizer. It doesn’t really matter what caused it. It’s just a shame it’s not quite right.

We loved our lunch, even though we’re not won over by a few dishes which had basic technical flaws that show that this is a work in progress rather than the finished article. It’s a restaurant that’s brimming with ideas and delicious food. We are looking forward to taking Cowie’s grandmother who used to live around the corner from Beaminster to try out their more extensive dinner menu.

Our cycle home was less fun. The hills seemed steeper, the air was colder and the roads became busy. And it was dark. But we got home in one piece having cycled 56 miles and in need of another meal!

For more cycling escapades have a look here.


TC said...

The Wild Garlic is definitely on our list for 2010, as our resolution is to eat out of London more.

I'm impressed with your cycling exploits too, but I think I'll stick to running!

Hollow Legs said...

Its a shame the dessert and scotch egg weren't up to scratch. It really nails the point home of just how good (value) the Harwood Arms egg is.

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Unknown said...

Sounds like a brilliant day - very impressed with your big cycle to get there. Even though a few of your dishes were not so good I am still keen to try the Wild Garlic as it sounds like your experience was on the whole good. What is it with places and presenting things on boards - they are obsessed!

Graphic Foodie said...

Wow - you two are so hardcore, you definitely earn your dinners! Glad you liked Bills in Lewes, the Brighton branch (in a disused bus depot) is brilliant too.

Food on wooden boards is up there with irritating foam sauces for me. And they must be a pig to wash up plus I think plates may be a tad more hygenic too. Even worse are slate tiles - makes me think of tiling my bathroom floor.

Browners said...

@TC - You should definitely pay The Wild Garlic a visit. And glad you are impressed by our cycling. I look back on our trips and wonder how we managed them!

@Lizzie - You're right. The Harwood Arms deserves some sort of enormous medal. And they should be forced to teach every restaurant and pub in the country how they make them.

@Gourmet Chick - You'll have a great time. You might find that dinner is a better option than lunch. The board presentation trend is at its height in Dorset.

@Graphic Foodie - I am convinced the cycle makes the food taste better. I've got to admit, the wooden boards is overkill. And I've talked to a few people who question their hygiene credentials. I'm all for some fun with presenting food, but everything being served on a floorboard is a bit dull.

Dan said...

Browners - tres impressed with your cycling and eating jaunts. Shame that not everything was upto scratch in the restaurant - but as you say it's certainly full of ideas (liking the look and sound of the yoghurt, despite the grittyness)- one to keep an eye on for sure.

Browners said...

@Essex Eating - Merci Bien Monsieur. Twas a lovely trip. They are almost there. Almost. But not quite. Looking forward to going back for dinner at some point.

Helen said...

Yeah it seemed like everyone was getting rather sick of hearing about The Harwood Arms' scotch egg for a while there and maybe we are but then if other places can't get it right. It's one of those things that seem simple but in reality...

I still want to visit The Wild Garlic though, I love his approach to food and I think he deserves his success as he's clearly a great cook. Well done on the marathon cycle - AGAIN!

Browners said...

@Helen - I know what you mean. Scotch eggs with gourmet meat and a runny filling are one of the best things on earth. Dry ones less so. Kudos yet again to the Harwood Arms and the Hinds Head. And thanks for the virtual pat on the back for the cycling... it was great fun.

You'll love The Wild Garlic - I think what Mat Folas has done is tremendously inspiring. And I'm sure the little mistakes will get ironed out.

Caitlin said...

"Cycling through a Constable exhibition". I love that!


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