I’ve been fortunate enough to have eaten some pretty spectacular meals in the name of work. While it’s impossible to pick a favourite – I believe the success of any dish depends on the blend of flavours as well as the diner’s palate and mood – I’ve picked a selection of dishes from across the UK that stand out. This is what I'll be eating post-pandemic.
Cheese Brulee at The Eastbury
The Eastbury is a boutique Georgian-period listed townhouse in Sherborne, Dorset, that dates from 1740 and was acquired and updated by renowned hoteliers Peter and Lana de Savary. As well as being a lovely place to stay, the award-winning Conservatory Restaurant, Seasons, boasts two Rosettes for culinary excellence. A clear standout on the tasting menu was the intriguing Vale of Camelot cheese brûlée with pear, celeriac and walnuts. It’s an unusual and rather delightful composition, the sweet crust of the brûlée cracking under the weight of a fork to reveal a creamy cheese disc, paired with chicory-leaf cups packed with celeriac. Cheese aficionados, look no further.
Lamb Cutlets at Kahani
Kahani is the Urdu word for story and the flavours at this basement establishment in London are crafted as skillfully as a literary masterpiece. Every dish here is atypical, even those that make an appearance on the standard Indian takeaway menu: the Kahani butter chicken is rich, yet light, the tomato makhani all but oil-free, the earthy brown daal complements the sweeter yellow daal and the smaller dishes are simply sublime. My pick here is the Somerset lamb chops with Kashmiri chillies and Nagercoil clove. The bone-in chops are succulent, pink in the centre, but not disturbingly pink, and so tender they melt in the mouth with a burst of flavour that’s intense, but not overwhelming.
St Mungos Miracles at Bilson Eleven
Bilson Eleven in Glasgow is more than a restaurant: I’d call it a theatrical story – and a good story is remembered long after the telling. Take the tale of St Mungo, who is said to have conducted four miracles, which make their way into poetry: “Here is the bird that never flew, Here is the tree that never grew, Here is the bell that never rang, Here is the fish that never swam.” These are manifested on a plate at Bilson Eleven. The miracles take the form of chicken liver foie gras (the bird) and hazelnut brioche (the tree), with the foie gras shaped as a bell, next to a delicate scoop of herring roe (the non-swimming fish). Piled together in one bite, the salty tang of the roe cuts through the creamy foie gras, while the brioche gives way in a delightful crunch. I’d happily witness these miracles again.
Mushroom Stack at The Tapas Room
The Tapas Room, in Deptford in London’s south-east, is the sister business to the acclaimed Pop Brixton restaurant Donostia Social Club and the associated DSC Imports, which specialises in the exclusive distribution of Basque and Spanish wines and beers to the London bar and restaurant industry. Given this pedigree, the cave-like eatery with barrel tables outside has a lot to live up to. Which it does. Admirably. I’m a fairly devout carnivore, but the mushroom stack here could make me change my mind. A pile of truffled wild mushrooms is topped with a quail egg and PX sherry glaze. The rich, earthy flavours are delectable.
Short Rib at The Old Bell
The Old Bell in Malmesbury in Wiltshire is arguably England’s oldest hotel. It’s been around since 1220. Back in the day, Malmesbury Abbey was a significant centre of learning and scholars made pilgrimages to study the manuscripts kept at the abbey, staying in the Old Bell Hotel, which has welcomed guests continuously since then. I know I’ll be going back post-pandemic as the cosy restaurant serves up a mean hunk of short rib that is so good that I ate it two nights running. The Angus/Charolais Cross Breed bourbon and honey braised beef short rib is so tender it falls from the bone and it warms the palate ever so subtly with the addition of finely diced red chili.
Pork Belly Adobo at Romulo Café
Romulo Café is one of a small number of Filipino restaurants in London. Behind the recently renovated façade in a quiet part of Kensington, sits a delightfully unpretentious eatery. The menu features platitos – tasting plates – and platos – signature sharing plates and while there are numerous dishes that represent the diversity of Filipino cuisine, which borrows from Spanish, Chinese, Malay and American culinary traditions, the eponymous adobo is to die for. Adobo is the staple dish of the Philippines. Here, it receives a gastronomic upgrade. The Dingley Dell pork belly version is slow-cooked in soy, garlic and rice vinegar, and served with a trio of potato, including rather spectacular purple potatoes.
Halibut at Foxhills
Foxhills Club & Resort on the outskirts of Ottershaw in Surrey has been a top country club in this area for 40 years or so. The current Manor House at the heart of the club and resort was the project of architect Basevi, cousin to Disraeli, whose work included Ely Cathedral in Cambridge. The property turned into a golf club in 1975 and its now a family-friendly leisure destination within a 400-acre estate. Foxhills has learned a thing or two about food in this time, too. Dinner in the Manor Restaurant is an excuse to indulge. All of the dishes on the tasting menu are superb, but for spectacular presentation, the halibut is a winner. The delicately seared fillet sits on a bed of sea vegetables, the light tarragon sauce contained by a perfect orb of deep green puree, presented on a charcoal grey plate. It could be a painting.
Spiced duck leg at Tudor Farmhouse
As the name suggests, Tudor Farmhouse is a former working farm, converted into a stylish boutique hotel with 20 characterful rooms, cottages and suites. Set in 14 acres of ancient grassland in the Gloucestershire village of Clearwell in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley, Tudor Farmhouse is the definition of laidback luxury, with the sheep, ponies, chickens and runner ducks out in the fields throwing in a dash of personality for good measure. It’s not only the accommodation that punches above its weight, either. The spiced duck-leg ragu with cep veloute and crispy duck skin is lightened with shaved rhubarb, an unusual combination that works surprisingly well. Deep, dark game meat with tangy rhubarb is a winner in my books.
Pecan Pie with Honeycomb Ice Cream at Tolcarne Inn
The Tolcarne Inn is an historic maritime pub nestled next to the sea wall in Newlyn near Penzance in Cornwall. It’s one of those cosy taverns that feels like its changed little over the years, mainly because it hasn’t. A lintel above the pub’s door marks the date of construction: 1717. For more than 300 years, this building has welcomed miners, seafarers, artists and now, food lovers. Seafood is the specialty, listed on a chalkboard menu. That said, the pecan pie is irresistible – think caramelised pecans with a toffee-nut flavour, encased in a crumbly shortcrust pastry, topped with a single scoop of creamy honeycomb ice cream.
Sticky Mango at Sticky Mango
Tucked away a short walk from bustling South Bank and Waterloo Station, Sticky Mango is one of London’s best-kept secrets, dishing up modern interpretations of South East Asian cuisine. Spread over three floors of an historic building, the restaurants was awarded Best Fusion at the 2019 Golden Chopstick Awards, for very good reason. The signature dessert, names after the restaurant itself – Sticky Mango – looks like a fried egg, but in fact, it is a delicious combination of black sticky rice, mango sorbet, and coconut cream. I believe there may be a hint of whipped condensed milk in there too. There’s me salivating again.
Dark Chocolate Tart at Roseate Reading
The Evening Standard once described the Roseate Reading as the “UK’s Sexiest Townhouse Hotel”. The Roseate is a mere five-minute walk from Reading railway station in Berkshire, next to the impressive Baroque Revival-style crown court. Once the Shire Hall for the Berkshire County Council, the main Grade II-listed building dates back to 1911. Situated within The Roseate Reading hotel, The Reading Room Restaurant & Bar dishes up a sumptuous dessert that should be classified adults-only, It’s a dark chocolate and miso tart with banana, sesame and coriander that’s salty and sweet simultaneously and so very, very good.
Panna Cotta at Down Hall
Down Hall Hotel in Hatfield Heath, near Bishop’s Stortford on the Hertfordshire and Essex border, presents a beautiful facade. The exterior of the 1322 Italianate mansion is impressively ornate, a fitting introduction to the grand, yet homely, interior. The Grill Room restaurant serves modern English cuisine, incorporating fresh ingredients from the Down Hall vegetable garden. Every dish is delicious, but Down Hall’s panna cotta is without doubt, the best I’ve ever consumed. Ever. The toasted almond and buttermilk panna cotta, complemented by chunks of rhubarb from the garden, is the showstopper.