Thursday, 26 July 2007

Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot

I came to Pennyhill Park with a little group of people from my office to celebrate the early retirement of my friend Lynne with a posh afternoon tea. Scones and clotted cream on expenses – nice! I have had a few afternoon teas in my time in several of the big London hotels but this one was just a little disappointing by comparison. It’s not something I could put my finger on really, and there was certainly nothing wrong, but our 'afternoon tea experience' was just not quite perfect enough.

There were seven of us in our group. Four of us were seated on little armchairs and the remaining three squashed themselves together on a settee. We ordered our tea and there we sat. And sat. And sat some more. Whilst it was nice chatting to everyone, I was beginning to get quite fidgety by the time the waitress appeared – how long does it take to make a pot of tea?! And, once the tea had been poured, we were then obliged to sit for another while, waiting for the cakes. I’m just not good at waiting for food! I don’t mind if a whole meal is being cooked from scratch, that is appropriate – however, when pretty much all you have to do is boil a kettle and throw a few cakes on a plate, it shouldn’t take 45 minutes. I was grumpy!

Anyway, I managed to survive until the food arrived. We had sandwiches, scones and little cakes all arranged prettily on several tall, four-tiered cake plates. The caker tiers was a lovely idea, however, this created a solid wall of cake plates that was so high it obliterated our view of the people on the opposite side of the table – it wasn’t exactly conducive to conversation! It would have been better I think to have brought each course separately – first the sandwiches, then the scones, then the cakes. As it was I spent the entire meal cocking my ear to try and work out whose voice I could hear on the other side of the cakes, occasionally standing up to pop my head over the top and throw a few words at Lynne.

I was also disappointed at how few sandwiches we were given. They only filled the small top tier of each cake plate. There were seven of us in our party and my feeling is that there should therefore have been seven of each type of sandwich, but there were probably only three or four of each. I missed out totally on the cream cheese sandwiches (which, as the only vegetarian at the table, was a big deal to me) and all I managed to grab sandwich-wise were two fingers of egg mayonnaise and the last smoked salmon one, whipping it out from under someone else’s fingers by just a whisker. I don't think we should have been reduced to scrabbling with each other for certain fillings, it's not ladylike!

For my own personal taste the scones were a bit small. I felt rather greedy helping myself to three of them in as many seconds, but in reality that was just three good sized mouthfuls. However, one of our group thought the scones were dainty and seemed pleased with their wee-ness, so this is obviously just a matter of preference. They were yummy though, and were lovely and warm. And jam and cream, mmm!

Now to the cakes. I am an expert at cakes, I get lots of practise eating them!! The cakes filled the two biggest tiers of the cake plates and looked wonderful. They were teeny-tiny, and very pretty, and there were about a million of them - mini lemon mousse cakes, mini chocolate domes, shiny with a dark chocolate sauce, mini fruit tartlets... I couldn’t wait to get stuck in! However, whilst they looked really tempting, we all found that they were really over-rich, and it wasn’t possible to eat more than three without feeling quite sick. In fact, one thing that seemed to be missing from our tea were proper slices of plain cake, like a sponge or a madeira cake.

If I were writing a report card for this afternoon tea, I would say, ‘Good, but could do better.’

Pennyhill Park Hotel, London Road, Bagshot, Surrey GU19 5EU
Tel. 01276 471774

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Casalinga Disperata

We discovered this restaurant a few weeks ago and have since eaten here four or five times – it is fast becoming our favourite place to eat. Casalinga Disperata is an Italian trattoria on a boat moored down by Richmond Bridge. If you are familiar with Richmond you may now be thinking of totally the wrong boat, as there has been a boat restaurant there for at least a couple of years… so now mentally walk yourself to the other side of the bridge (the Richmond Hill/Richmond Park side) and look for a much smaller boat.

There is seating downstairs and some high stools with a long stretch of window table upstairs. But however cold or windy it is (lovely Summer we’re having!) we always sit at one of the little outside tables. It’s just such a nice place to sit and eat – views of the bridge and the river, ducks and geese swimming past, and the cheep cheep cheep of the little baby coot that has his nest next to the boat!

Casalinga Disperata is definitely part of the slow food movement. I so approve! Everything here is cooked properly, and from scratch, and mmm you can really taste the difference! To give you an idea of the nice extra touches they do, Charles ordered a small bottle of water which came with a chilled glass containing a lemon slice and a sprig of mint. Additionally, the waiter is so smiley and nice, and says, “You’re welcome” every time he brings you something. Makes a change from the grumpy indifference we often seem to get with waiting staff!

Today we had garlic bread which was like no other garlic bread ever – slices of bread with rosemary, whole cloves of garlic, chunks of ground black pepper, basil leaves and olive oil. I love garlic and this was heaven.

We followed that with a crepe for me and sea bass for Charles. Every time I have been here I have had to have Crepe Verona. On greedy days I will have something else with it, otherwise I will just have the crepe which is fairly filling by itself. It is very simple – just a crepe with melted cheese and ground black pepper, and decorated with basil – but tastes lovely. And I have to say, this is the only place outside France where I have had crepes as good as the ones I have eaten there.

I tasted Charles’ sea bass (which was perfectly cooked and juicy) and the sauce on top of it was just divine – it was yellow and kind of buttery but with something else to it that made you want to order a big soup-bowl-ful just of the sauce and slurp it all up. I coveted Charles’ dinner heartily! Then – o how my wishes were answered! – I asked the waiter what was in the sauce, and he said it was made with the Italian liqueur Limoncello. Charles won’t touch alcohol so that meant I had his full permission to stuff my face with his entire fish! (Poor Charles though – he had a really busy day today, without time for breakfast or lunch – and then I go and eat half his dinner!)

On past occasions we have had a gorgeous, creamy tiramisu, but this time we didn’t order a dessert - and so were very happily surprised to be given some strawberries and almond biscuits with two glasses of chilled Limoncello, on the house! So – two glasses of Limoncello for me then! How nice that was!

I love this restaurant. I think Casalinga Disperata is a total dining experience. You have to come and eat here and experience it for yourself!

Casalinga Disperata, Richmond Riverside TW10 6UJ
Tel. 020 8940 7500

Saturday, 24 March 2007

The Kensington Crêperie

The Kensington Crêperie has a noisy café atmosphere with small tables crammed up against each other… and an amazingly large choice of crêpes on the menu. Savoury crepes, sweet crêpes, lots and lots of each type to choose from. The crêpes are freshly made in the kitchen area, which is positioned at the front of the café so that from the street outside you can press your nose to the window and droolingly watch them being made.

I settled on a Crêpe Suzette as I fancied the nice, warming, orangey flavour of the Grand Marnier, and I had it with a cup of hot chocolate. I was pleased with my hot chocolate because it was made with heated milk, it wasn’t the boiled water with a spoon of chocolate powder mixed in that I had been half-expecting. And there was also some effort to present our sweet crêpes nicely too, with a sprinkling of icing sugar and a slice of lemon or orange. I have to say, my crêpe did taste really rather good!

The only problem, for me, with recipes like Crêpe Suzette, are that whoever invented the recipe designated that a little Grand Marnier be slopped onto the crêpe. Sounds fab until you actually go to eat it. In reality it means that you get one or two glorious, Grand Marnier soaked mouthfuls that slide down your throat, warming all your inner cockles, and then several dry and boring mouthfuls that aren’t really worth the bother of chewing them. Personally I’d quite like my crêpe to be dropped into a trough of Grand Marnier so that when it was pulled out every mouthful would taste like Crêpe Suzette and not Crêpe…Errr.

Charles decided to have the chocolate and hazelnut crêpe and I was drooling in anticipation of trying this one. Then at the last minute, damn him, he changed his mind and ordered lemon! How boring! I couldn’t be bothered to taste that as there’s nothing about a squeeze of lemon that excites me, so lucky Charlie-boy had his whole meal to himself for once. (Hmm, I wonder if that’s why he chose lemon??!) The little girl at the table next to us had the chocolate and hazelnut crêpe, as evidenced by the chocolate smeared all up her face, from chin to eyebrows, and she was silently ecstasizing over every mouthful. I was jealous!

The Kensington Crêperie Ltd, 2 Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2HF

Monday, 19 March 2007

Shillingford Bridge Hotel

This one isn't exactly a London restaurant but, hey, this is my blog so I can write about what I like! :-)

This weekend my whole extended family - four generations of us! - went to the Shillingford Bridge Hotel in the depths of the Oxfordshire countryside for my Grandfather's 95th birthday.

For starters my grandfather and I both ordered the prawn, crab and crayfish salad... and were both surprised at what turned up! We were expecting a salad with lovely big crayfish wandering all over it, a pile of crab to one side perhaps, a few prawns dotted about for good measure... but what we actually got was a small pile of small shellfish all mushed up together. It wasn't really possible to distinguish crab from prawn from crayfish. It tasted nice enough but was a little disappointing given what we had expected, and a bit small, barely worth the size of plate it was on (that said, my dear mother told me off for being the last to finish my starter, because "everyone is waiting for you so we can move onto the next course!"). Also, the bread, whilst not quite Mothers Pride, was definitely of the bland, supermarket-type variety. I suppose I have been spoiled for bread by eating at Le Pain Quotidien, but still you would expect something of just a little higher quality from a hotel restaurant.

My main course was salmon fillet on a bed of risotto. The salmon was perfectly edible although slightly on the dry side, the risotto a little tastless. Again nice enough but nothing special. The rather weird thing about the main courses, though, was that everybody received the same set of vegetables on the side. So the people eating roast beef had roast potatoes; I had roast potatoes with my risotto; my sister-in-law had roast potatoes with her pasta! Very strange! Much though I love roast potatoes I can't say they really went very well with sticky rice and no gravy! We all would have appreciated some effort to match vegetables to main dish. Reports from other people's dinners: the beef was tasty but the Yorkshire puddings were too hard to be edible, and my Grandfather's chicken with mozarella cheese in the middle was also tasty.

Now to the most important part - pudding! The hotel rescued itself here, this was the only part of the meal which we all felt was something worth having. My chocolate brownie was large and warm and sticky, and came with both ice cream and cream, and just the right amount of chocolate sauce. Yum! My grandfather's tiramisu was the size of a small apartment block and very artistic to look at too. He didn't manage to finish it and I am kind of wishing I had helped him out there! The scoops of ice cream that I could see down the way also looked a bit different, not your ordinary Walls vanilla tub - unusual colours and piled several scoops high. One bit of confusion when we ordered our puddings - my brother asked what the milk tart was and received this highly informative answer from the waiter - "It's a tart that's got, um, milk tart!" Erm - OK!

The staff weren't amazingly attentive, and seemed a little rushed, but I would have to give them some leeway here as they were delivering our food/removing our plates from a separate annexe behind the hotel. A few smiles and a bit of eye contact wouldn't have hurt mind you! Actually, thinking about it now, apart from one friendly man with huge sideburns who said hello to my little nephew, every single person who worked in this hotel looked miserable and uninterested our whole stay through!

Breakfast next morning was very nice. It was a help-yourself buffet with plenty of food, including Frosties and Coco Pops for the children and the daddies, lots of hot cooked food and three kinds of fruit juice (not freshly squeezed though). I liked the fact that I could help myself to (three!) perfectly cooked poached eggs instead of being limited to fried. No croissants though, and I do like croissants in a hotel breakfast! There was some muddle as to where we should sit. Being a large group, a long table in the middle of the room had been set for us. However there were a few strange people at one end and it turned out there were two birthday groups at the hotel and everyone was confused as to who was supposed to sit where. In the end the latecomers in our group sat on another table, and the even-later-latecomers sat on another table still. The waitresses also seemed very confused as to who had ordered tea and coffee and kept delivering pots to the wrong people. So, nice enough food, but it was a little bit of a muddle logistically.

Note for anyone who is still a child at heart: all the bathrooms have plastic ducks in them, so if you spend a night in this hotel you get to play with ducks in your bath!

Shillingford Bridge Hotel, Shillingford Hill, near Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8LZ

Saturday, 10 March 2007

The Green Café (now Austins)

Our eating places today were both characterised by really good food and unfortunately surly waitresses!

For lunch we went to The Green Café in Richmond. This is, as you might guess, situated on The Green – although there is a bit of a play on words there as it is a health food café, with freshly made smoothies and healthy, vegetarian foods, so a ‘Green’ café in that sense too. It is a small café with not many places to sit, however it does have a couple of outdoor tables (something we prize in restaurants and cafes!) and we eagerly grabbed one as soon as it was vacated. The view from this café is out across Richmond Green which makes the outdoor tables here even more worth having than in many other cafés.

To drink I had a fabulous melon, banana and mango smoothie. It was too filling for me to finish and Charles obligingly helped me out there, but ooh it tasted good! Just the right combination of fruits for perfect sweetness and perfect taste. I shall definitely have that one again! To eat I had a roti wrap and I was pleasantly surprised by this. It contained falafel (which were honestly the nicest falafel I have ever had), with a little yoghurt and lots of freshly chopped salad. The part that pleasantly surprised me was the salad combination – this was no pre-prepared soggy lettuce leaf and slice of watery tomato, my roti was stuffed with chopped red pepper, bunches of fresh coriander, fresh chilli… whooo the chilli nearly blew my ears off! Such a tasty wrap, and nice to find genuinely healthy food rather than food that merely makes a pretence at being healthy in order to be trendy.

Charles had a mozarella, tomato and basil panini with salad. At least, he asked for salad, but the panini turned up without any. Not a problem we thought, we just called the waitress over and pointed out that we had asked for salad with the panini. But, ooh dear, you’d think we had accused her of personally picking the Pope’s pockets or something! Instead of just taking away the plate to add salad, as we had expected, we got a grilling about how salad costs extra, how paninis don’t usually come with salad, how the girl inside was eating a panini with salad but that’s because she worked there… blimey! Charles gave in to the verbal beating-up and agreed not to have salad then!

Dear Waitress on the Green,
Please try to be just a little bit friendly to your customers – we really don’t go there to be told off for our food choices!

The Green Cafe, 29 The Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1LX

Le Pain Quotidien

In the evening we went to Le Pain Quotidien. Mmm, I was salivating in anticipation as we approached the door!

I had to have the cheeseboard of course, I couldn’t not have that with its gorgeously tasty breads and perfectly melting cheese. The hazelnut and raisin flute that came with the cheeseboard was particularly nutty today, it really was tasty.

Charles tried the cod this time. That was exceptionally good. The cod itself was crispy on the outside and juicily tasty on the inside, and it came with potatoes that had been very thinly sliced and crisscrossed on top of each other with just a hint of cheese. I think there was some vegetable thing on his plate too, but the cod and the potatoes were so mouthwateringly tasty that I was beyond noticing anything else! Next time I’m having more than just a taste, I’m ordering that for myself! He also ordered a tofu salad. The tofu itself was tasteless in the way that only tofu can be(!) but it was so beautifully presented, with brightly coloured sauces running along each slice of tofu, and the salad itself was full of taste.

Charles’ friend Ben had an organic soup which I am now wishing I had tried too, as everything I have ever eaten in this restaurant, bar one rather strange salad a few weeks back, has been exceptionally (and I do mean exceptionally) good. (Although I shouldn’t assume that I can just help myself to people’s dinners… perhaps Ben wouldn’t have appreciated me dunking my spoon into his food!)

We had been looking forward to the blackberry and apple crumble on the specials board since we first sat down. However, when the waitress cleared our main course plates away she just disappeared and didn’t come back. After a few minutes, very impatient for my pudding, I got up and asked her to come across so that we could order dessert. She rather grumpily threw dessert menus onto the table in front of us and then went to disappear again, but we quickly called out to her retreating back that we would like the blackberry and apple crumbles please… at which she told us we couldn’t have any hot food because the kitchen had closed at 10.30. Huh? When we had first sat down Charles had specifically asked what time the restaurant closed and had been told 11.00pm. It was now only 10.40pm and nobody had at any time come over to tell us that the kitchen was about to close and would we like to order anything else. I was really disappointed. I had only had a cheeseboard instead of a main meal specifically so that I would be able to fit the crumble into my belly. It spoiled an otherwise lovely meal. I gently pointed out to the waitress that it would have been nice if we had been told about the kitchen closing in time to order our desserts, at which she threw a definitely unmeant “Sorry” in my direction and stropped off!

What is it with grumpy waitresses?! I know people get bad days, and I know waitressing can be hard and tiring work – however it’s one of those jobs where, like it or not, part of the actual job description is to be eternally polite and helpful no matter how crap a day you are having. If you can’t do that then you need to find a different kind of job! (I think both our waitresses today would make good traffic wardens!!)

Previous blog post for this restaurant:

Le Pain Quotidien, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 8XX

Saturday, 24 February 2007

The Natural Café

Smoothies good; food not so good.

The Natural Café, as an idea, is something which I find really appealing - freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, healthy foods and salads, cosy seating and relaxing music. However the execution of that idea could be better.

We had Immune Builder and Detox smoothies, both of which felt like good, nutritious drinks - you could just feel the fibre going down and sorting out your intestines as you swallowed! - and Charles' berry-filled Immune Builder smoothie was particularly nice, I'm definitely having that one next time! The salad bowl I had, however, was really tasteless; there was a mix of chickpeas and lentils which I would have expected to be spicy but which had no taste whatsoever, and ditto with the cous cous. They weren't even bland, they were beyond bland, completely devoid of flavour. And the olives were those pitted, brined, tinned things which bear no resemblance at all to a real olive. The only bit they got right was the chopped yellow pepper... and it's a bit hard to go wrong with chopping up a raw vegetable! I also had a slice of banana cake which tasted fine, if rather sugary, but not of banana - it was more like a cinnamon cake. In fact later in the evening I had a slice of banana loaf which I bought at the farmers' market this afternoon and which was moist and banana-ish and verrry yummy, and this loaf was far superior to the Natural Café's banana cake. In addition the dishes here were dirty; only the fourth bowl I was given for my salad didn't have a patch of dried-on dirt as decoration, and Charles had to change his fork because of the layer of dried scum that was all over it.

That said, we sat down in some cushiony armchairs for a cosy hour's newspaper reading, and it was pretty relaxing sitting there with people quietly chatting around us and salsa music in the background. We sat upstairs on top of a patch of glass flooring, looking down into the cafe below, which was quite cool (I had to remember to keep my knees closed though, so as to avoid flashing anyone below!). Oh, and when I went to the loo there was a mirror in the door so I could watch myself pee - classy!

One thing I do like is that both the Natural Café in Chiswick and this one have children's play areas with crayons and things to colour in and floor cushions and toys. It keeps the children quietly occupied so that they can have a nice afternoon while their parents chat and drink coffee. Fab idea!

The Natural Café, George Street, Richmond, Surrey