My parents’ house is stranded in a restaurant desert. Our two village pubs are fine for a pint but less so if you’re feeling like something more substantial than a sandwich. And the pubs in our surrounding villages don’t have much more going for them either. So when we heard that the Bedford Arms in Oakley had gone all posh we wasted all of 35 minutes before heading out for a big family lunch.
It’s been decorated with far more extravagance than we had anticipated. If you have shares in Farrow and Ball I suspect you may be in for a bigger dividend than you had hoped for. Behind the bar sits an impressive range of booze including the rather incongruous sight of Crystal champagne tastefully dressed up in its Quality Street orange wrapper. And on the walls hang blackboards offering a jaw droppingly impressive array of fish including lobster which brought up a rather grating memory…
On a similar family outing 3 years ago, we drove off to Norfolk for a family day of East Anglian gardens, scenery and countryside. I was explicitly told that the pub we were going to for lunch specialized in lobster, so I spent the 3 hours of being thrown around the back of the car working myself up into a lather of shellfish induced fantasies. Anyone who has had the misfortune of traveling either left or right in Britain, rather than up or down, will know that for some reason it tends to induce immediate car sickness. So my ecstasy was even more remarkable.
When I found out that they hadn’t got any lobsters for lunch I felt cheated and vowed to never be lured into a long range wild goose chase ever again. The memory lingers and flashes back whenever we go for a family lunch.
Cut back to the Bedford Arms.
We all got very trigger happy and mowed down the waitress with our orders in a burst of hysterical hunger.
My mussels in garlic, white wine and cream sauce were as plump as American school children, but the wine hadn’t been cooked off quite long enough. Not to the extent that they tasted unpleasant, but not quite as awesome as they could have been. And I am never sure whether you really need to add cream either.
Cowie’s scallops were exceptionally good. The cooking was so precisely you’d be forgiven for thinking the chef must have been a Japanese plastic surgeon in a former life. The red topping added a sweet touch that made them taste even more of themselves.
Dad’s white pudding, Parma ham and mozzarella on a pancake had him purring away like a reconditioned Bentley. With his low carb diet it was as if they had designed it just for him.
My rich fish pie was almost perfect. It was depth charged with a couple of shoals of fish and was exactly what I wanted. The only improvement would have been a bolder golden top.
Cowie’s turbot with mussels and prawns with a creamy sauce was very decadent. Whilst it was delicious, it seemed a shame to hide such an amazing fish under so many other flavours.
Dad’s lobster salad was mainly lobster. Which is an excellent thing. Being the lobster purist that he is, he poo-pooed the salad and potatoes and just stuck with a wedge of lemon and a glass of white wine. It brought memories of driving around 90 degree bends in the middle of Nowhereshire churning back to me.
Mum’s garlic and chilli prawns looked every bit as opulent.
Sadly, the desserts were a disaster. As the chocolate mousse was placed in front of me the sight of a paper doily I grimaced with chintz fueled horror. As I shuddered the mousse stayed still as it was set solid. I won’t bore you with the taste, but it wasn’t good.
And a lemon cheesecake tasted about as real as Jodie Marsh and was every bit as unpalatable.
Overall, we loved our lunch despite the occasional slip up, but could have done without the brusque performance from the owner who acted very strangely as he walked off mid conversation with us about the desserts.
If you’re looking for something a bit more than you’re average lunch time pub baguette in the North Bedfordshire countryside and fancy some nice fish then the Bedford Arms is worth a go. Whilst it was very good for the area it makes you really appreciate places like The Hole in the Wall, The Gurnard's Head and The Horse Guards Inn even more. Just fill up on starters and main courses and avoid pudding. And watch your Ps and Qs with the boss!
The Bedford Arms
Friday, 23 April 2010
Monday, 19 April 2010
At 8am on Easter Saturday when most sane people are safely tucked up in bed dreaming of not doing very much and about to tuck into a leisurely breakfast, Cowie and I set off on a 50 mile bike ride in search of lunch. We left my parents’ house near Bedford and headed east to Cambridgeshire. I’d been convinced by Cowie that it was going to be far easier than our previous trips because everything is downhill to Cambridge.
We zoomed through Bedford and romped towards the A1 where we had a fairly hairy moment crossing the A1! So far so flat. Then as we left Sandy what appeared to be East Anglia’s tallest mountain loomed in front of us. Within moments I had dropped into my lowest gear and was panting like a shaggy dog in the sunshine. But when we got to the top of the green sands ridge the view was epic. The trees had changed from deciduous to coniferous and the air seemed clearer.
We were blessed with glorious weather that belied the predictions by the met office and arrived in a small village called Little Wilbraham spot on 1 o’clock. We felt very smug, exhausted and ravenous as we waited for the Brown-brigade to arrive.
The Hole in the Wall is featured in Diana Henry’s Gastro Pub Cookbook, that has become our bible. It has almost always been spot on with its recommendations and this time was no exception. It has also has recently been awarded a Michelin Bib. The pub is run by Jenny and Chris Leeton who pride themselves on the pub's friendly atmosphere, wooden beams, fabulous beer and proper pub food. Even though the menu was tragically truncated due to a serious traffic accident, we had a great meal. The short menu didn’t let us down.
After a restorative few pints of lime and soda water and a pint of local ale, we ordered pretty much everything on the menu!
The shrimps were served slightly warm and tasted every bit as good, if not better, than the ones I’ve previously had at The Anchor and Hope.
Those who had the soufflé groaned and only very reluctantly offered me a nibble. It was perfect balance of flavour and texture with a walnut sauce that added an extra dimension. And for my parents who are trying to avoid carbs at the moment, it was a great treat to find such a dish on a pub menu.
When my steak and kidney pie arrived I let out a little squeak of delight. After 50 miles of cycling it was just what I needed. The pastry flaked like an anorexic Hollywood star and yielded to reveal a scaldingly hot meaty goo. Tender beef and perfectly cooked kidney mingled with a thick beery liquor that kept me quiet for at least 10 minutes. I often find kidney a bit overpowering, but not this time. Having been away from the UK for three weeks this pie captured the spirit of the English food that I’ve been missing. The bacon and spinach on the side was terrific. As was the silky parsnip mash.
Dad’s sausages with onion gravy and broccoli tasted good, as did Cowie’s scrambled eggs with smoked salmon.
By this point I’d normally be feeling pretty full and very unlikely to order pudding. But with 4 hours of cycling in the bank I unshackled my greed and let it take over…
Sticky toffee bread and butter pudding with butterscrotch sauce is not going to win me any prizes from anyone in the medical world, although I might make me a contender for a Darwin Award. It was stodgy, sweet, gungy, and so naughty it should have been made to stand in the corner. What a pudding.
Cowie’s pavlova with passionfruit sorbet was delicious. Tart, sweet and light. Just like a wannabe pop star.
And Suz’s treacle tart with toffee ice cream was great too. It had been made with milled oats, which gave it a coarse but satisfying texture. Not that I could even manage any more than the smallest mouthful!
For many reasons that are far beyond the scope of this blog, this meal was incredibly heart warming. It’s a lunch that I won’t forget for a long time. As we drove back home I felt overcome with happiness. And it made me realise the importance of family, how much I enjoy our amazing cycle trips, the joy of the British countryside and just how good proper British pub food can be. It's definitely true, distance makes the heart grow fonder.
2 High Street, Little Wilbraham, Cambs CB21 5JY.
Tel 01223 812282
Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook on Amazon
Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook Another Helping on Amazon
The Hole in the Wall on Square Meal
More cycling adventures
Monday, 12 April 2010
Returning to London on a balmy April evening was very special, particularly as Cowie was able to join me for dinner at my hotel’s much hyped new restaurant, Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Many words have been written about Bruno Loubet’s return from gastronomic exile in Australia so I shan’t write about the subject. Especially as I am not geeky enough to have heard of him until very recently.
I hardly ever spend much time writing about the staff we encounter in restaurants apart from when we almost needed gas masks because of our waiter’s smelly pits in Belgos and the disastrous service at The Albany. But Bistrot Bruno Loubet deserves enormous amounts of praise for the front of house and for our waiter who was affectionately known as “The Chicken” by his colleagues. Between the two of them, they made us feel like the most important people in the room and took great pride in recommending their favourite dishes with the sort of enthusiasm that you know is genuinely because they love the food.
I also very rarely write about the design of restaurants, mainly because I am utterly unqualified to do so and partly because I normally get too excited about the food and blast on in. I really enjoyed the aesthetic experience of the restaurant. From the stylish royal blue and gold typography to the abundance of cool lamps, to the integration of the objets d’art into the menu, to the soft, textured leather wine list, the experience was thoughtfully composed. The only irritation was the way the lighting resulted in me eating in my own shadow. Maybe it’s just a quirk I’ve got, but it’s very offputting.
The menu here is the kind that makes you consider bulimia and wish you were wearing expandable trousers. Cowie and I negotiated for around quarter of an hour before deciding what to scoff.
Cowie’s skate terrine with Sauce gribiche was the sort of clean, bold and refreshing starter that such a fine evening warranted. It’s not a dish I’ve seen before but is one that’d I’d love to try again.
My snails with meatballs and mushroom mousse was as impressive as it sounds weird. The snails and meatballs made exceptionally good bedfellows. And the red wine sauce they were swimming in couldn’t have been any more French if it had cheated on its wife whilst surrendering to a baguette.
Cowie’s salmon confit was soft, slippery and quiveringly moreish. The juj of salad that came with it tasted not only of spring but also of Cowie’s platonic form of side dish.
My hare royale was like Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. It boomed with baroque flavour and rumbled with bass notes of rich meat. Lumps of foie gras studded the centre. Shards of pork belly jostled for position with the lumps of tough hare. And all was drenched under more heavy red wine sauce. Beneath lay some sweet pumpkin puree. And on top perched an undercooked ravioli containing an unknown filling. Whilst I’ve been critical about some of it’s technical flaws, it wasn’t half tasty. I'd just love to know what it’s like when it’s perfect.
By this point I felt like an inbox that’s reached it’s limit that keeps issuing quota warnings whenever you get a fresh email. So the only solution was to purge ourselves with a trio of ices. Raspberry sorbet was good, but was too deep, whilst rose water ice cream was perfect. But the passion fruit sorbet was far too sharp and needed an extra beehive of honey to counteract the acid. I wish I’d had space to try their Valrhona chocolate tart instead. Or some of their salted butter ice cream.
Whilst our meal wasn't utterly perfect, it was still very good and I’d love to return to test out more of the menu, especially some of the lighter dishes in the summer time, such as quail and pigeon. And also to indulge in their desserts. To appropriate the words of David Ogilvy, “advertising and PR can’t sell a bad product twice”, so it’s great that the hype around Bruno Loubet is well founded. It’s a great restaurant that fits the current trend towards nostalgia that we all need in a time of uncertainty and I look forward to dining here again.
P.S. When I checked in for breakfast I was told I had become the mayor of Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Foursqaure! Does that mean I get free champagne?
The Guardian didn't like the hare dish
Douglas was disappointed
Tom Eats Jen Cooks on Breakfast
Wednesday, 7 April 2010
Image by Jacob Karström courtesy of Kock & Vin
Given that the Fat Duck was the first restaurant Cowie and I went to as a couple, we couldn’t just celebrate our five year anniversary with a dodgy curry or forlorn meatball. Especially with us currently separated by the North Sea. Luckily Gothenburg is blessed with 5 Michelin starred restaurants and a host of others which might get dusted in the future. So we had five restaurants to choose from. But when one is called Kock & Vin the decision, becomes very easy.
Kock & Vin is the flagship in a mini flotilla of first class culinary enterprises run by Björn Persson. It’s ably supported by an informal (Michelin bibbed) restaurant called Familjen and by the brilliant Björn’s Bar which is tucked underneath Kock & Vin.
After a glass of champagne in Björn’s Bar we were spirited above deck to our table next to the galley where we were met with a bowl of Swedish bread that was so good it made almost every single floury, yeasty thing I’ve ever eaten seem like a floorboard. And the buttered rock was a charming clash of textures.
We opted for the middle of three tasting menus consisting of 6 courses which was rather pretentiously called Menu of the Senses as opposed to The Journey or Menu Kock & Vin. But this was the only thing that even approached being a criticism for the entire meal. Before we get into the fine details, can I just apologise for the photos which were evilly sabotaged by Earth Hour!
We began with salmon baked in apple juice, crème of roasted cauliflower and bleak roe from Lake Vänern. The tart softness of the apply salmon and sweet earthiness of the cauliflower was an imaginative combination that would have had Greg Wallace scoffing with disbelief and shaking his head like an accountant presented with a budget added up by a hot dog. It not only balanced sweet and sour, but also softness with some shards of crispy salmon skin and a few pops of roe. The acidity of the apple opened up our saliva glands and switched our appetites on.
Seared scallops from Fröya under a shell of horseradish, leek, spinach oil and baked roe was not only a charming spectacle, but also sensational to eat. The dish arrived with a white dome of horseradish ice cream covering the scallop. Our waitress then poured a sensual mussel broth over the dome and it emulsified before our eyes. Every single element was perfect. And if I am ever served a scallop dish as good as this I’ll do a little jig.
Seared pike-perch with celeriac, red wine, blue cheese from Kvibille and steamed lettuce was wizard like. The textures were blissful and Cowie couldn’t have been any happier. It was as if the chef had given her a brain scan on arrival and developed the perfect dish.
My salted pork belly baked for 12 hours with carrots and lingon-berries was excellent. Two mini puffs of crackling added a textbook crunch whilst the Andrex soft flesh teased apart with a gentle tang of lingon berry. It was at the other end of the spectrum to most pork belly dishes which normally leave you feeling like settling into a solid winter of hibernation.
Braised cheek of beef with steak tartar infused with oysters was served with salsify and a sauce made from oxtail. It was the dish that most intrigued me on the menu and didn’t disappoint when it confronted us. The cheek was like a big fat Italian tenor. It boomed with flavour and charmed with it’s graceful presentation. The steak tartar was fascinating. It’s a brave man who first tried to mix an oyster with a raw chopped steak. But it works. Brilliantly. The savoury salinity of the oyster adds interest to the tartar but more importantly gives the cheek an additional note to play with. The oxtail sauce and strands of salsify simply serve to complete a gobsmacking dish. This is the sort of creation that makes going to restaurants exciting.
Goats cheese from Lillängen was served with prunes infused in birch tree wine and a little duck sausage. The presentation was striking and in perfect sympathy with the idea unlike other restaurants which simply shove all their food onto wooden boards because it’s trendy. The sausage burst with flavour and created a little spurt of rustic Scandinavian flavour that ended our savoury journey.
Pear and parsley root with shavings of false truffle (dark chocolate) was served with the most incredible pear ice cream I’ve ever had. No. The best ice cream I’ve ever had. It was so peary it tasted more of pear than any of the pears I’ve gobbled in the past. It was so good we asked how they made it and were simply told that they use cream, sugar, egg yolks and winter pears. We followed this recipe over the weekend in the hope of recreating this wonder dish, but to no avail. It’s just going to have to be one of those memories that Cowie and I lock away and talk about when we get old!
We’ve had some incredible meals over the last five years. But few as fine as this. Cowie claims this is her favourite of all time. And I am finding it very hard to disagree. What an unforgettable experience.