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Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Walmesley: The Future Is Bright and You Can Visit It Now

Words & Photography by Simeen Kadi

Name: The Walmesley

Where: AudleyRetirement Village, Templeton Road, Kintbury, RG17 9AA http://www.walmesleyrestaurant.co.uk/ / http://www.audleyretirement.co.uk/

Cost: Starters from £7 and mains from £15 from the a la carte menu, or go for the lavish tasting menu of 5 courses plus amuses bouches for £55.

About: It’s not every day that I get to say this, but the other day I had an excellent dinner at one of the country’s most luxurious retirement homes.

The Walmesley is the restaurant at one of the finest retirement homes I have visited – admittedly it is the only one I have ever visited, so I am no expert. But, when my time comes I totally want to be rocking up to this gaff every evening. As well as a spa, pool and even a very classy bar, it also boasts one of the best restaurants for miles.


Retirement homes are changing; and why not? In the same way we are no longer turning into frumps in our thirties and forties, why would we expect to be past our peak in our 70s and 80s?


So, why am I telling you all this? Because, we can all get into the pensioner vibe; The Walmesley is open to all, as is the members’ club. Surrounded by some gorgeous Berkshire countryside and a stone’s throw from Newbury, it is a good option for a relaxing, gastronomic country weekend.


What’s more, they have two beautifully appointed ensuite rooms which can be snapped up for as little as £50, including a sumptuous breakfast and use of the pool and spa.


What we ate: Heading up the kitchen at The Walmesley is chef Gert Pienaar who has worked in some illustrious kitchens including that of nearby Vineyard at Stockcross (see our review here). We were treated to a four-course tasting menu but there are also a la carte options as well as a more casual bistro.


We started off with a little appetite tickler (OK, amuse bouche) of trout rillettes drowned in a silky cauliflower velouté.


Next came a Jerusalem Artichoke velouté (you can never have too much velouté) with truffle ragout and new potatoes, which was a tower of potato with a mushroom duxelles atop. To accompany, we had the Bianco di Custoza Monte del Fra 2012 from the Veneto which stood up well to this rich dish.


The fish course featured a bright and fresh fillet of Brill perched on a fricassee of tiny brown shrimp and brussels sprout leaves with a deep and toasty cognac-laced bisque. A real delight with fresh clean flavours.


The crisp Picpoul that accompanied – Pinet Domaine Felines Jourdan 2012 – had a refreshing acidity and minerality.


Local Venison Loin came in generous slabs, cooked long and low and beautifully tender, accompanied by red chard and a juniper jus which was well judged and not overpowering, often a concern with juniper. The Elderton E Series Shiraz Cabernet 2010 from Mendoza was silky smooth and had sufficient weight to accompany the game.


The pudding of Coffee and Vanilla parfait came with flecks of chocolate brownie and some bitter cubes of coffee jelly to balance the sweetness. This was accompanied by a fine glass of 2010 Beaumes de Venise (Domaine de Durban).


Everyone around our table was at least a couple of decades from claiming their free bus pass. And so the conversation revolved around current perceptions of old age and whether The Walmesley should make a virtue of its pedigree as a pioneer in retirement living in the UK. Certainly, sitting in our gorgeous dining room, I felt like a privileged member of an exclusive country club. And this feeling continued as we wandered around the place from the very inviting pool to the spa.



The staff have all been hand-picked from top hotels and restaurants and were clearly passionate about their work.

Likes: A great dinner in a glamorous setting and a chance to spend the night in a fabulous room without breaking the bank.

Dislikes: Yes, it is quiet and probably not the place for a raucous evening. But perfect for a romantic weekend.

Verdict: The Walmesley is a restaurant with the wow factor and great food in the elegant surroundings of a stately home. And, I am going to let you into a little known secret. There are two beautifully appointed en-suite guestrooms available for hire for a song; and this means you can enjoy a night of fine dining and wake up the next morning for a dip in their very inviting looking pool. A country weekend in an old people’s home? Perish the thought.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Portuguese Fine-Dining at Portal Restaurant - Revisited



Where: 88 St John Street, London, EC1M 4EH, http://www.portalrestaurant.com

Cost: Starters range from £6 to £12, main courses from £14 to £24, and desserts from £6 to £14 for the cheese board. Special, traditionally Portuguese options such as a whole suckling pig are also available for £385 to share between 8-10 people, given 3 days' notice.

About: This is my second visit to Portal, you can see my first review here. I was keen to pay a return visit as Portal recently appointed a new head chef, Vitor Veloso replacing Jeronimo Abreu who was head chef on my last visit.

The restaurant has an elegantly timeless façade of jade-green tiles on a black background. On stepping through the front door, a spacious tapas bar area greets the eye - the perfect spot for a dry white port and a savoury platter or two.

The restaurant itself comes as a surprise, being invisible from the street. Set in a large conservatory made almost entirely of glass and steel, it is surprisingly warm and inviting, and the lush greenery surrounding makes for a beautiful setting. The staff are mainly Portuguese, and very knowledgeable about the food and wine.


The restaurant is situated in the creative heart of Clerkenwell, sandwiched between the City and Islington.

What We Ate: We kicked off with a starter of tender, meaty scallops with ‘Farinheira’ Crumble (pork sausage crumble), chicken broth and vegetables (£8.50) which was very beautifully presented.

Our second starter was an open pigeon tart with caramelised onion, dried figs and Port wine reduction (£12). This had probably the most delicious, ripe and fragrant fig I've eaten in years, and sweetly tender caramelised onion, but was let down by the pigeon which was somewhat tough and dry, as well as being served cold.

Being addicted to salt cod (bacalhau) since I was a child, the main course was an easy choice for me - I went for the roasted Bacalhau with broccoli purée, confit potato and garlic (£17). This was well presented and tender, but was to my palate rather lacking in flavour concentration and seasoning. It is a cliché in Portugal that Brazilians (with whom they share a passionate devotion to salt cod) like their fish over-salty, but to my palate this was nevertheless a little on the bland side.


Dr G opted for the slow cooked Bisaro (neck of pork) with mushroom purée, bok choy, apple and raspberries (£20). The pork had been cooked sous vide for 12 hours, at 68 degrees, while marinating in white port, orange juice, rosemary and garlic.


As an accompaniment, we had Batata a Murro (£3.50), a wholesome dish of new potatoes roughly crushed in butter and garlic.

For dessert, we ordered one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – the legendary Pasteis de Nata (the quintessential Portuguese snack of burn custard in a flaky pastry case) which were excellent, with cinnamon ice cream (£8).


We also had the Passion Fruit Parfait with coffee, poached pear and pistachio ice cream (£7), which was delectable and very refreshing.


What We Drank: The wine list is put together by Antonio Correia, an acclaimed expert on Portuguese wines in London. The restaurant is said to have the largest collection of Portuguese wine in the UK, many made from indigenous grapes found nowhere else in the world. It is a treasure-trove.


As we arrived, for a stunning aperitif, we opted not for our usual Manzanilla sherry, but rather for a glass of Quinta do Portal Extra Dry White Port (£6), which was perfect with a little dish of plain popcorn.

The wine list is very extensive, and almost exclusively Portuguese, including a huge range of aged and vintage ports, and Madeira wines. There are some very rare, fine wines, but also a good range of more affordable options including whites from £24, and reds from £22.

We were very impressed by the quality of the entry level house wines, and enjoyed with our starters a couple of glasses of white wine from the Duoro and Dao regions.  The Quinta do Portal, Frontaria Branco, Douro, 2011 was made from the Malvasia grape (£5 per glass), had crisp acidity, and went very nicely with the scallops.


With the pigeon tart, we had a glass of Quinta de Saes, from the Dao region just south of Porto. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Pinheira, Jaen and Alfrocheiro, this was a steal at just £5.50 per glass.

With our main courses, we had a glass of Condado das Vinhas 2012, from the Alentejo region (£5), which was straightforward but had a good concentration of red berry fruit.
 

With the cod, we had a glass of Quinta do Portal DOC 2010, from the Douro region (£4.50). I was surprised to be offered red wine with the cod, but it worked well, being delicate enough not to overpower the meaty fish.



Likes: There are few restaurants in London that offer serious Portuguese cuisine, and this place offers an extensive, authentic menu. The settings of the bar and restaurant are stylish without being flashy. The wine list is outstandingly good, lists some excellent regional Portuguese rarities, and starts at a very reasonable price. Service is discrete and expert.

Dislikes: At best, the cooking is excellent, but sadly it was not entirely consistent on this second visit.

Verdict:  Portal remains a well-established fine dining Portuguese restaurant in Clerkenwell.  The list of Portuguese wines, Ports and Madeiras is unrivalled, and the setting is stunning. Recommended.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Dieci Restaurant - Italian Fine-Dining in the Heart of Marylebone

Words & Photography by Florentyna Leow and Luiz Hara


Where: 10 Manchester Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 4DG. T: +44 (0) 207 3175 928 - http://www.diecilondon.com

Cost: £9 - £12 for starters; £7.50 - £26 for pastas; £15 - £28 for mains; £6 – 11 for desserts

About: Dieci is an Italian restaurant at No. Ten Manchester Street, a stylish boutique hotel on a quiet street in Marylebone, a stone’s throw from Baker Street or Marylebone stations. Headed by Executive Chef Cristian Gaimarri, Dieci serves up classic Italian dishes featuring seasonal local ingredients and meats and cheeses from small Italian producers.


The restaurant itself is an intimate affair: the dining area seats around 24, and the plush sofas and jazz make it a lovely place for a romantic night out. Yet this is also a popular spot for corporate meetings particularly at the cigar lounge, or more often in the cosy sampling room where you can linger over a cigar and whisky until 1 in the morning.

The Cigar Lounge
Dieci's humidor deserves a special mention – you'll be spoilt for choice with their range of fine, fragrant Havana cigars (from £14 per cigar) which even includes a few UK market exclusives. Their staff, who clearly know their stuff, will be happy to assist you in choosing a suitable cigar from the extensive cigar menu.

The impressive Cigar Humidor


What We Ate: I love it when restaurants pay attention to their bread baskets, and Dieci's surpassed my expectations. We had a decent selection of breads, including a shockingly tasty house-made foccacia with rosemary and crunchy sea salt, and slices of tomato bread which left a savoury, spicy burn at the back of the throat. We were particularly enamoured of the pane carasau, a crispy Sardinian flatbread sprinkled with rosemary and baked with olive oil. It was quite difficult to resist over-indulging with bread of this calibre.


For starters we had the Piemont fassone beef tartare served with mushroom sauté & Umbrian black truffle (£12.50) and Andrian burrata, smoked aubergine, and Bloody Mary salsa (£9.50). The beef tartare is one of their best-selling starters, and I wanted to love this but didn't quite. While the beef was well-seasoned, and showered with thick shavings of fresh and lovely Umbrian truffles, the hot sautéed mushrooms left the tartare on the warm side. I also felt that it could have been chopped less finely for improved texture, and a little more sharpness or acidity would have also helped.


The burrata, though, was divine – an unabashedly, gloriously creamy hunk of fresh cheese paired with an intensely smoky aubergine puree. You pour over a Bloody Mary salsa-sauce, which cuts through the creaminess of the burrata with a lovely hit of spiciness and acidity. A well-thought out and beautifully executed starter I'd happily eat again.


One cannot eat at an Italian restaurant and forego pasta, so we gamely ordered two – the Canadian lobster pasta (£26) and Tuscan Pici pasta with lamb ragout (£14.50). The lobster pasta was an impressive looking dish – with spaghetti drenched in a deep tomato and lobster sauce, lightly spiced with Calabrese chilli.


No matter how impressive that lobster was, it paled in comparison to the Pici pasta. The simplest dish of the night was also our unanimous favourite – a completely unassuming mound of pasta topped with a perfunctory sprig of rosemary. This was the ultimate in Italian home cooking. Each mouthful of soul-warming pasta was lightly bathed in a slow-cooked lamb ragout and Castelmagno cheese, and we were sorry when we'd finished scraping the plate clean.


Our second main courses, the oven-baked veal shank with parmigiana risotto (£30) and red-wine braised baby lamb shank (£25), were equally impressive - well-executed versions of the Italian classics, they are sure to please any red-blooded carnivore at the dinner table.


Noteworthy, however, was the meltingly rich bone marrow in the veal – so bad for your heart, but so good for your soul. Also particularly intriguing was the pasta accompanying the lamb shank.  Sardinian fregola – and not strawberries (fragole) as we originally thought – is a kind of hand-rolled pasta. In its uncooked form it looks similar to Israeli couscous, but cooks up into little sago-like cubes but much firmer and chewy in texture – very disconcerting if you're expecting a more traditional pasta, but we quickly grew to enjoy it as it soaked up the lamb shank sauce very nicely.


By this time we had room left for just one dessert, shared between us – the Sicilian Bronte pistachio semifreddo (£8.50). It was deliciously nutty and lighter than an ice cream, but a pool of melted dark chocolate gave it a dash of va-va-voom. A lovely end to what had been a rich and hearty meal.


What We Drank: Dieci sources many of their wines from small Italian producers, and we drank a superb Merlot recommended by restaurant manager Paola Gaimarri – the Just Me 2010 (£52/bottle) from di Lenardo Vineyards in the Friuli region of North Italy. It was luscious and velvety, juicy with lots of cherry notes and dangerously drinkable – possibly one of the best Italian wines we'd had in a long time.


With dessert we had the Glenmorangie Signet – a very fine whisky that went down a treat with the dark chocolate.

Likes: The restaurant’s attention to seasonal produce, which is reflected in the construction of the menu, the unusual and regional breads, pasta and cheeses, some of which were unknown to us was intriguing and educational. It was a rather cold night when we went, and comfort dishes like the Pici pasta and ossobuco were all we needed. Portions are also quite generous, and the bread basket was exceptional.

Dislikes: While the beef tartare tasted lovely we felt it a bit of a shame to have those beautiful truffles with a warm, raw beef which also lacked in texture. While the lobster was quite delicious, I found it a tad overcooked.

Verdict: Dieci is a fine addition to a group of excellent restaurants in the surrounding area (which include Pied Nus and the Royal China Club). A perfect meal here consists of burrata, the Pici pasta with lamb ragout and the pistachio semifreddo, all wash down with a bottle of "Just Me" Merlot. Highly recommended.

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