February 2017 marks the sixth anniversary of my eating adventures and, as ever, I'm excited about what the coming months will bring for us foodies! In case this is your first visit (if not, welcome back), I'm a 30-something female with a very healthy appetite!...I promise to share with you my experience of each restaurant, café or bar in which I set foot...so, let's go out!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Where to Buy a Better Mince Pie – a Guest Post by Miss Becki Rawle

With Christmas fast approaching, we thought that here in the office it would only be right for us to start the annual mince pie testing…all for the benefit of those reading this of course! And, with such a wide range of mince pies on offer, it is good to know which ones to buy and which ones to avoid, so selflessly we have worked our way through fourteen different boxes - trying each variety with our morning cups of tea (and with our afternoon tea as well if the mince pie was particularly nice!) – judging them in terms of the following criteria:

- Filling Taste     
- Filling amount      
- Pastry     
- Size
- Price      
- Overall rating out of 10

Not so extra special…..We kick started the testing with the Co-op’s regular mince pies along with their ‘Truly Irresistible’ range - both of these had a very average overall rating of 5/10 whereby the filling in the regular mince pies was actually preferred to the filling in the more expensive ones. That said, the pastry was slightly better when it came to the more expensive of the two. We concluded that the Co-op would have been better off combining the mince meat from the regular mince pies with the pastry from the ‘Truly Irresistible’ range and yet, felt that even then, they wouldn’t have achieved more than a 6/10. Sainsbury’s Deep-filled Mince Pies were another disappointment amongst us office folk; only attaining a collective 5/10 - the taste of the pastry and mince meat proving very bland, plus there was very little content. ASDA’s ‘Extra Special’ version wasn’t much of a hit either; especially compared to their ‘Chosen By You’ range and scored rather mediocre 5 or 6/10. Though the filling amount was good, the taste of the pastry and mince meat was just not up to scratch – a far cry from the ‘Chosen By You’ alternative which was rich-tasting and fruity, thus, given an impressive 8 or 9/10 all round. Naturally we had high expectations for the ‘Extra Special ‘mince pies after being so taken with ASDA’s ‘Chosen By You’ variety – though unfortunately they were not met.

One of the most disappointing mince pies that we sampled was Morrison's ‘Deep-Filled’ six-pack which were in fact, only two-thirds full with mince meat (if you were lucky!) Furthermore, the pastry was very bland; the sugar-crusted lid specifically, which encouraged an almost stale disposition rather than the soft, buttery taste that the pastry of a mince pie should possess. Tesco’s range was slightly above average; each pie suitably full to the brim with mince meat which was a big thumbs up within the group. On the other hand, the flavour of the mince meat wasn't that special and its viscosity was poor; resulting in a run-down-the-chin disaster.

To try something a little different we tested Marks and Spencer's puff pastry mince pies which were notably abysmal, especially given the usual standard on offer within the M&S food hall. Here, there was very little mince meat to speak of - probably about one tea spoons worth in each - so it was essentially like eating puff pastry on its own which wasn’t particularly appetising and definitely not worth the £4-for-two-packs price tag!
Sainsbury's 'Taste the Difference' Brandy Rich Mini Mince Pie
As a treat we tried Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ Brandy Rich mini mince pies as well as their ‘Mince Pie Tart Selection’ which were altogether well-received in the office. Though both were fairly expensive at £2 per box, the brandy rich mince pies were full of flavour and described as 'tasting like Christmas'. They also had just the right amount of brandy in the mince meat so not to overpower the other flavours in the mix. The tart selection was made up of; Ecclefechan & Mincemeat, Cranberry & Clementine and  Maple & Pecan Mincemeat; the latter proving a personal favourite and a good festive alternative to the traditional mince pie. Marks and Spencer also did a very tasty all-butter mini mince pie selection which really did have the authentic buttery-tasting pastry that we all love, although they were a little too mini and if I wasn't worried about maintaining a lady-like poise, they could have been quite easily consumed in one bite!

Maple and Pecan Mini Mincemeat Pie
Lidl Deep-Fill Mince Pies were very good value for money at £1.89 for a box of 12 but the only downfall was that they were slightly smaller than the average mince pie. ALDI definitely came out on top with both their ‘Regular Deep-Fill’ Mince Pies at 99p and their Luxury Mince Pies at £1.46. Both of these had high ratings for all of the aforementioned categories; though, the regular ones did have the edge and at only 99p you really can’t go wrong…

So to sum up the results of the office mince pie testing, the average ratings out of 10 are as follows, (starting with the most popular):
ALDI Deep-Fill Mince Pies - 9/10
ALDI Luxury Mince Pies - 8.5/10
Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Tart Selection - 8.5/10
ASDA Chosen By You - 8.5/10
Marks and Spencer All Butter Mini Mince Pies - 8/10
Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Brandy Rich Mini Mince Pies - 7.5/10
Lidl Deep-Fill Mince Pies - 7.5/10
Tesco Mince Pies - 7/10
ASDA Extra Special - 5.5/10
Sainsbury's Deep-Fill Mince Pies - 5/10
Co-op Truly Irresistible Mince Pies - 5/10
Co-op regular Mince Pies - 4.5/10
Morrison’s Deep-Fill Mince Pies - 4/10
Marks and Spencer Puff Pastry Mince Pies - 3/10

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Mini Cranberry and Clementine Mince Pie

*Follow Becki on Twitter: @b_k_i

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Bertinet Bakery, New Bond Street Place - Bath

For me, the joys of December cannot truly begin until my annual trip to Bath's popular Christmas Market* is under-way; a shoe-in to the festivities whereby over 140 traditional wooden chalets – selling the likes of locally-sourced edibles, decorations and gifts - adorn the cobbles near to the city's iconic Abbey. On this particular visit, the girls and I decided that to kick-start the proceedings, a spot of brunch was in order and fortuitously stumbling upon The Bertinet Bakery Shop and Café at the height of our hungriness, we ascended from the hustle and bustle (not to mention, the wonderful sights and smells) of the bakery to the intimately-arranged dining area on the first floor...

Date and Time: Sunday 2nd December 2012, 11:30
Name of Establishment: The Bertinet Bakery Shop and Café*
Location: 6 New Bond Street Place (on the corner of Upper Borough Walls), Bath
Reason for Visit: A little respite from the cold and preparatory replenishment for the afternoon ahead..

After the success of his cookery school, it's fair to say that the newest outlet for French chef and baker Richard Bertinet - the quaint-looking establishment on the corner of Bath's Upper Borough Walls - is an asset to the city's café culture; offering a thoughtful assortment of sweet treats and savouries which you can opt to eat-in or take-away. Overall, this is a calming yet quirky space; unmistakably underpinned with an air of 'Le Français' which is channelled through the likes of a crisp colour scheme and its minimalistic décor. That said, punctuating the sophisticated ambiance with distressed wooden furniture, cushions made from Hessian flour sacks and framed images from Richard's cookery-book; 'Pastry', just about managed to promote a homely feel which would have been otherwise lost to the winter whites and cool greys that for me, also seemed to reflect the service which was at best; a little stand-offish and at worst; really rather rude. In line with this, one of my dining companions reported that she had been unapologetically bumped by a member of staff whilst she stood in line to pay for her fare – an experience that unsurprisingly tarnished her opinion of the venue before she had even sampled its wares. Furthermore, there was a right old kerfuffle in regards to our order which had obviously been incorrectly noted given that even our drinks took an age to make an appearance and were not quite right when they did so...
Calming yet quirky

Though table service has been eschewed in favour of a pay-at-the-till arrangement, I rather liked the help-yourself ethos when it came to toasting the contents of the 'Bertinet Bread Bucket' (£3.25) and portioning jam into little ramekins for a spot of free-hand spreading. In fact, this is exactly what I finally decided upon and although I was disappointed by the sliced, white twosome that skulked between the crinkled sheets of parchment paper, the sour dough was fantastic; thickly cut, fresh-tasting and quite frankly, delicious. I think it would have been preferable to be offered a choice of breads - especially given the varieties in abundance downstairs and the fact that, on the large part, white bread is nutritionally useless, (plus for me personally, pretty hard-going). Friend 'H' ordered the Croque Monsieur (£5.25) which although looked the part, was ruined somewhat by the amount of vinaigrette that had been added to the side-salad; soaking the bottom-half of the sandwich which resulted in an unpleasant acidic sogginess. She suggested that the overall ensemble would have fared rather better had the salad-dressing been included in the self-serve remit as the ingredients were essentially of a good quality, generously portioned and attractively plated. In light of this, we harboured some pretty serious food envy having noticed the couple on the table next to ours tucking into a rather spectacular cheese board (£7.50), especially upon discovering that this featured a number of my favourite cheeses: namely, Trethowan's Gorwydd Caerphilly and Homewood's Old Demdike.
Croque Monsieur
Bucket of Bertinet Bread

When it came to the all-important matter of cake and confectionery however, it was quite a different story; the 'cloud meringue' (served with a choice of decadent toppings) or salted butter caramel tartine proving particularly appealing. Besides this, there is a tempting array of scones, croissants and pastries on offer which can also be purchased 'to-go'; something which only the strong-willed can resist upon exiting the shop!
To wash down our fare, we found ourselves split between tea-drinkers and coffee addicts...and, firmly within the latter camp, I sipped at my authentically continental 'Cappuccino' which had been well-executed and richly-roasted – just lovely! Tea was served in sizeable pots alongside dainty, floral tea-cups made of the finest bone china yet disappointingly brandished with the odd dirty mark which ruined the appeal somewhat. That said, we liked that milk had been provided in old-fashioned bottles and later discovered that kiddies (or the young at heart) can opt for flavoured milk (caramel, chocolate, raspberry, strawberry or vanilla) which comes complete with an old-fashioned paper straw. It was also lovely to find that the Bertinet Bakery Café offer a 'breakfast bowl'; a typically French concept that I happen to be rather partial to having been introduced to it in Toulouse as a teenager. Here, this basically constitutes a choice between coffee or hot chocolate which is served in...yep, you guessed it...a soup bowl which is destined for some serious dunkage – a croissant proving (for me at least) the perfect accompaniment to this novel way of enjoying what is commonly considered the most important meal of the day!
Time for Tea!
In conclusion, there was definitely a hit and miss feel to The Bertinet Bakery Café; although many aspects of the experience looked the part, when it came to the conflict between style and substance, the latter seemed to fall a little short. Collectively, we felt that although the attention to detail made for an aesthetically pleasing visit, a little care needed to be applied to the delivery of the fare and most importantly, the standard of the customer service which was arguably, the most prominently French aspect of the venue overall! Criticisms aside, it's fair to say that if you're after affordable edibles and/or something to satisfy your sweet tooth; this is, without doubt, the place for you – though at present the shop fares rather better than the café, with a few tweaks here and there, I'm sure it could improve considerably; you might say, allowing its clientèle to have their cake and eat it...!
And now for the second opinion...
Friend 'H' gave The Bertinet bakery Café a rating of 6/10 and chose, 'pretty questionable service' as her three-word summary!


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tails Cocktails – Bristol Launch Party at Byzantium

'Authentic cocktails, anytime, anywhere' – it sounds like something that dreams are made of! Yet, this is the tag-line underpinning Tails: a company which has tapped into the illustrious market of on-the-go refreshment; though with a decidedly sophisticated edge. Yes, rather like you might enjoy a flask of tea on a frosty fishing trip, Tails allows you to 'shake your own' cocktail wherever you are – each of the four available concoctions served from its own recyclable shaker, (because supermarket-ready G&Ts and canned cocktails seem soooo dated nowadays don't you think?) Subsequently, upon being invited to discover 'Tails' at its official Bristol launch party, I couldn't help but question what would set this particular product aside from its aforementioned counterparts and also, whether the cocktails themselves would live up to the appeal of their packaging.

Date and Time: Thursday 29th November 2012, 18:00-21:00
Name of Establishment: Byzantium
Location: 2 Portwall Lane, Bristol
Reason for Visit: An introduction to Tails Cocktails – Official Bristol Launch Party

Advertised as: Premium; whereby cocktails are pungently (at 14-16% by volume) blended from good quality spirits and liqueurs from around the globe, natural; given that each cocktail is free from artificial colours and flavours and bespoke; due to the innovative design of the packaging, Tails is a refreshing take on the culture of the take-away tipple – here, offering an assortment of classic cocktails that can be enjoyed 'on-the-go', within the comfort of one's home or out on the town; minus the typical queuing that seems to go hand-in-hand with hardcore cocktail creation! As the brainchild of father and son team Peter and Nick Wall, Tails has been launched in a number of top-end outlets including the likes of Selfridge’s, John Lewis and Harvey Nichols; the 500ml shaker priced from £12.50 and the 150ml 'mini' shaker at £4.50. For us Bristolians, it's also worth being aware that Tails will be stocked in a handful of the city's watering holes; namely Racks Bar and Kitchen, Luna, Byzantium and the Colston Hall.

Without further ado, let me tell you a little about Tails' range which, in true Sex and the City fashion, was sampled (rather shamelessly) in its entirety amongst our female foursome...for the sake of the review of course!

Elderflower Collins
They said: An invigorating cocktail of apple and lemon juice, made with elderflower liqueur and London Dry Gin
We thought..That this was a lovely addition to the line-up; channelling the essence of alfresco Summer-time drinking with its crisp, refreshing notes – the gin element adding the necessary punch and complementing the zing of the apple and the tart of lemon juice to perfection.
To sum up...EW gave the Elderflower Collins a rating of 8/10 and in three words described it as an, 'English Country Garden'.

Espresso Martini
They said: An indulgent cocktail of rich coffee, vanilla and chocolate, made with coffee liqueur and Premium French vodka
We thought...That this was a deliciously decadent concoction with bitter-sweet appeal and a rich, creamy finish; a suitable digestif or wicked pick-me-up given its unmistakable caffeine content - the latter evidenced with the positive correlation between the number of espresso martinis consumed and the extent of one's sleepless night! That said, this was a firm favourite and without doubt, my cocktail of choice from the collection overall.
To sum up...BR gave the Espresso Martini a rating of 9/10 and in three words commented that it had a 'smooth, balanced flavour'.

Mai Tai
They said: An exotic cocktail of pineapple, almond and lime made with a blend of light and dark Caribbean rums.
We thought...that this was lethally drinkable! A sweet yet fresh-tasting cocktail reminiscent of sunny days and holidays abroad! The ying-yang rum content was arguably somewhat undetectable but facilitated an enjoyable drinking experience nevertheless.
To sum up...LC gave the Mai Tai a rating of 7/10 and in three words described it as 'refreshing', 'zingy' but 'tame'.

They said: A sophisticated cocktail of citrus and berry fruits, made with Italian Triple Sec and premium French vodka
We thought...That this was an ample Cosmo and yet unanimously our least favourite given that it sported a decidedly weak disposition; proving somewhat pale in colour and lacking the kick that the other four concoctions had in abundance.
To sum up...SE gave the Cosmopolitan a rating of 6/10 and in three words described it as, 'a little disappointing'.
To note that each beverage was finished with an appropriate garnish which obviously, you'd have to provide yourself...
A 'Mock Tai' was also available (though I'm told that this is not on the market at present) which, made with passionfruit and a touch of sparkle, was really rather well-received; the designated driver of our party enjoying that the non-alcoholic option was served with as much gusto as its boozier equivalents.

As for the venue, Byzantuim never fails to deliver in terms of its intriguing ambiance, eye-catching Moroccan-themed décor and colourful yet comfortable seating – I should also mention the canapés (which did become rather essential given the number of cocktails consumed on a 'school night' and in rather quick succession! which were beautifully presented, tasty and varied – the shredded duck and horseradish tartlet proving particularly popular amongst our party.

In conclusion, there are a number of plus points to this progressive concept of 'shake and serve' – we considered it a welcome change to be promptly served at the bar rather than to wait it out whilst one's beverage is painstakingly concocted from scratch. However, you may well argue that the theatre of mixology will become redundant; falling behind in the ever-present tussle between art and convenience. On a similar front, there are a number of cocktails which simply could not be created in this way – the ever-popular Mojito for instance which, despite its undeniable 'best-seller' status, would lose its appeal if you were to take away the altogether essential effects of fresh lime and crushed mint. Nevertheless, there are many avenues which could be explored instead – perhaps deviating from the classics and exploring alternative themes and eras; reflecting perhaps the originality of the packaging with a contemporary content. Predominantly though, the brief has been met as Tails' cocktails have been well-executed, thoughtfully blended and really do fare rather well as *the* upmarket takeaway-tipple (plus, albeit more expensive, far classier than gin in a tin!) And so, suitable for quality quaffing on-the-go, as an after-dinner treat or as a quirky Christmas gift (well, 'tis the season after all), there really is no reason not to experience Tails for yourself!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Great UWE Canapé Crusade

If we were to examine the content beneath the 'Canapés, Cupcakes and Cocktails' umbrella, it seems as though one-third of this alliterate namesake has been grossly under-represented; I mean, I’ve trawled the streets of Bristol in search of the perfect cocktail (though all in the name of research I can assure you) and my sweet-tooth has been altogether well-documented; my affiliation with cake proving at best, well-known and at worst, notorious! Yet, it’s rare for me to find an opportunity to review a good round of canapés…until now that is You may be aware (as per ‘when the day job met the blog’) that I work in the Higher Education arena and more specifically, within the illustrious world of event management. Consequently and in light of the high-profile lecture series that had been tentatively placed within my remit, you could say that I've spent the last four-to-five months somewhat concentrated on canapés; striving to deliver the best possible culinary backdrop to the all-important networking session that follows each professorial or corporate address at the University of the West of England (UWE). 
FB1 Anyone...?!
OK, so I’m not a chef by any stretch of the imagination and my knowledge of the catering provision, both within the establishment in question and in general, is admittedly rather restricted. That said, something which every event coordinator that's worth their salt can guarantee, is that the single most important aspect of any function is the standard of its refreshments – why else do you think that such a huge emphasis is put on this particular aspect of one's wedding day and how would you otherwise explain the strong turn-out for the likes of library launches and 'cheese and wine' chess meets?! Digress though I might, with this in mind and the fact that my high-brow lecture series was going to be otherwise underpinned with what is commonly known as FB1 (or for those unfamiliar with UWE's relentless use of acronyms, finger buffet one) - which is essentially a buffet reminiscent of a five-year-old's tea party complete with crust-less triangular-shaped sandwiches and sausages on sticks - it meant taking matters into my own hands! As a result, I decided to say no to the UFOs (or, unidentifiable food objects) that have been suffered by many; mystery sandwich-fillings which never fail to bestir a grimace from even the politest of recipients. Instead, I set out to design five jam-packed menus comprising what I deemed suitable edibles for this particular calibre of event...Simple, I hear you say...anyone can create canapés with the wow-factor without breaking the bank, well not with the following elements working against one's efforts:
  • Attempting too much work with a limited work-force (yup, that old chestnut) – particularly in terms of what I know to be an incredibly hard-working Conference Office, Events Team (even if I do say so myself) and Catering Service – teams which face a diverse line-up of events - each with a unique assemblage of challenges and demands – on a day-to-day basis;
  • Changing the habits of a lifetime – yes, there are actually people out there who find comfort in the familiarity of prawn cocktail or (I kid you not) a cheese and pineapple hedgehog!
  • Corporate constraints – for instance, being unable to deviate from the UWE catering service in any sense; even, it seems, to draw inspiration from external parties;
  • Financial implications – which given the current climate is unsurprising really in that the average buffet 'reception' (for approximately one-hundred delegates) racks up a bill of over one-thousand big ones!
Fully acquainted with the gradient of my climb, step one meant ploughing through the existing menus that could be booked as standard and picking from them anything that came close to acceptable. So... greasy chicken 'wings of fire', scrupulous-looking mushroom vol-a-vents - no; bite-sized banoffee pies, mini filled spud-jackets - yes! Step two was sponsored by Google! Here I scoured the web, drooling over images of fancy finger foods; having to reign myself in on several occasions from the downright elaborate - shunning the likes of caviar and cake pops in favour of stylish simplicity and a focus on the best of the season. I studied the competition; making a note of the varying ranges and rates elsewhere; coming to the conclusion that, on the back of a can-do attitude and a little imagination, the sky was the limit!

Tapping the send button to whiz my findings to the head of catering, I sat quaking in my kitten heels; just how cheeky was it to boycott her work thus far? Challenging this pillar of the institution with what she could so easily cast aside as wishful thinking. Furthermore, as the weeks passed and the first lecture of the series became imminent, I began to think that my munchable mission lay dead in the water and, although I did eventually attain a response, it proved rather disheartening to say the least; both over-pricing what I had suggested and implying that the menus fared too seasonally specific. Though, after a little negotiation, a chance meeting with the director herself (ah yes, *I'm* the trouble-maker responsible for the recent onslaught of snapshots and recipes you've been experiencing) and a great deal of email correspondence, we had ourselves five tantalising yet reasonably-priced menus which we would rotate throughout the series. Therefore without further ado, here lies the fruits of our labour which I'm pleased to report have since warranted an overwhelmingly positive response; allowing for the Conference Office to better promote their services and most importantly; encouraging those attending each lecture to stay on for supper (and thus, that aforementioned networking hour) – perhaps in some cases even instigating a return visit or a recommendation of the series itself to one's peers... 

NB. All menus cost £12 a head
Menu 1
Mini Pitta Bread filled with Tomato, Feta and Pesto / Mini Pitta Bread with Hummus and tri-coloured Peppers
Stuffed Baby Potatoes with Bacon and Cheese (served warm)
Mini prawn spoons
Vegetable Crisps and Tyrell’s Crisps/Kettle Chips  
Mini Scones (jam/cream)
Mini chocolate tart
Yes, you can actually eat the spoons!

Menu 2
Cheese Platter
Local Wiltshire honey roast ham platter
Organic Bread
Chunky coleslaw
Pickles ,chutney and assorted olives
Fresh Strawberries and cream
Petit Fours (mini cakes)
Note the beautiful presentation...
Menu 3
Rye Crisp bread with low fat Cream Cheese garnished with Prawns and Dill
Rye crisp bread with wafer thin turkey and cranberry chutney
Nann bread fingers served with coronation dip (served warm)
Lime and Coriander Chicken Skewer
Apricot and Stilton Parcel (served warm)   
Petit Fours (mini cakes)
These were a touch soggy but tasty nevertheless!
Mini Vanilla Slices = Yum!

Menu 4
Parma ham wrapped asparagus spears (with lemon mayo dip)
Mini savoury scones with cream cheese and chutney (v)
Smoked salmon blinis
Chicken goujon with salsa dip
Home-made cheese straws (served warm)
Fresh fruit kebab
Colourful and nutritious!

A better Blini!

Menu 5
BBQ Pork rib meat on pork scratching (served warm)
Warm Mini Goats cheese tart with red onion (served warm)
Bloody Mary Cherry tomatoes in shot glass
Salmon goujons with citrus dip
Pork and leek sausage with apple chutney
Mini banoffi pie 

As a keen foodie, I can't help but harbour a great deal of excitement in regards to the future of UWE catering and I'm hoping that this brief canapé crusade has demonstrated the power behind a nicer nibble - bring on the Spring/Summer UWE Lecture Series and with it, the best that these glorious seasons have to offer; both in topical address and suitably spectacular cuisine!

Details of UWE Hospitality/Catering Services can be found here: http://www.uwe.ac.uk/hsv/hospitality/
Details of the UWE Conference Office can be found here: http://www.uwe.ac.uk/hsv/hospitality/conference/index.shtml
Details of the UWE Lecture Series can be found here: http://info.uwe.ac.uk/events/eventlisting.aspx?categoryID=78

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lily and Boo's Cupcakery, Cotham - Bristol

Whiteladies Road and its adjoining neighbourhoods seem to have finally picked up after what can be described as a rather grim period of inactivity – its new-found 'token' Wetherpoons gleaming amidst the sporadic sociability of this once-popular uptown 'strip' and the rumoured re-launch of Henry Africa's intending to increase the traffic towards the venue where Sasparilla once stood; reopening its predecessor somewhat unapologetically in its wake. However, the predominant pull-factor, for me at least, is Lily and Boo's; a cutesy 'cupcakery' at the foot of Cotham Hill; an establishment set to satisfy my sweet tooth and then some...

Date and Time: Wednesday 7th November 2012,14:30
Name of Establishment: Lily and Boo's Cupcakery*
Location: 2 Cotham Hill, Cotham, Bristol
Reason for visit: A celebratory sugar hit with the Best Foodie Friend (BFF) in light of discovering that I had been short-listed in the 'best blogger' category as part of the Food Magazine's Reader Awards.

Occupying the former stomping ground of Deli Delish - at the base of Cotham Hill and just a stones-throw away from Clifton Down's shopping centre - Lily and Boo's is a cosy and appealingly candy-coloured establishment in which pink décor is punctuated with larger-than-life gingerbread-men and the 'summer-house' style seating is plumply arranged with vintage-effect scatter cushions. Feel good tunes play-out idly overhead and the general ambiance is relaxed and warm. I was also lucky enough to meet both Lily and Boo upon my arrival; their collective friendliness really sealing the deal when it comes to welcoming visitors into their fold – you might say even creating a sense of popping to a mate's gaff for a cuppa’! The pride that they express in light of the sugary haven they've created is crystal, and rightly so; the attractive assortment of cupcakes - thoughtfully arranged upon silver stands beneath the glass of the counter – also seeming to hint at the level of care that has encompassed their design.

There is an ample range to choose from too; each novelly branded and served upon pretty pastel-coloured plates so to be visually enjoyed before the first mouthful is taken. I struggled to choose between The Velvet Elvis (due to my profound weakness for peanut butter) and The Rocky Road (which comprises a winning combination of marshmallow and candied popcorn); opting at last for the latter and, it has to be said, enjoying each and every mouthful! The daily specials are especially innovative; the BFF choosing the 'Harry Potter' inspired 'Butterbeer' cupcake which was fun and vibrant yet she mooted, an acquired taste! One might also suggest that the portion sizes are not to be sniffed at; the cake-to-topping ratio commendably well-executed. I noticed two chaps on the next table to us, gingerly cutting their cupcakes into manageable mouthfuls whereas the BFF and I ploughed through our indulgences in their entirety in the most unmannerly of fashions! Thus, although so often cupcakes look the part but fail to deliver in terms of both texture and taste, this is most certainly not the case at Lily and Boo's as a light and suitably aerated consistency has been deliciously achieved; the sponge harbouring a subtle sweetness so not to detract from the hit of the frosting whereby butter-cream equals melt-in-the-mouth delight!
The 'Butterbeer' Special
The Rocky Road

There are other edibles to choose from and yet, why someone would choose to venture into a cupcakery in search of a savoury muffin, I’ll never know?! Other confectioneries are a nice touch but, in my view, not particularly necessary. Though that said, I also just *had* to sample the macarons which, really rather pricey at £1.35 each (and for what decidedly constitutes just one mouthful), were disappointingly average – the texture overly crunchy, bordering on stale if truth be told. This was a shame as the flavours had been thoughtfully constructed; particularly in terms of the strawberry and vanilla macaron which captured the intended contrast between sweet and tart to perfection.

To wash down one's nibbles are all the usual suspects; hot drinks are blended with semi-skimmed milk as standard but soya is available upon request, (which is of significance if you're a fuss-pot like me when it comes to the white stuff!) The BFF reported that her latte had been well-made and yet, the mocha that I had ordered was pretty much chocca given that the coffee element had been somewhat lost in translation. Nevertheless, this was a satisfactory beverage which suitably warmed the cockles...Notable too is the tea-cup size (oo er) which amounts to what my mum would refer to as a 'swamper' – thus constituting great value for money as we're talking a mere £2.40 for a positively generous serving. Though with all that fluid comes a slight spanner in the (water) works as Lily and Boo's do not have any customer toilets...we later discovered that they share the facilities located within the pub across the road which isn't ideal but not particularly problematic either - especially once you know that they're there!

In conclusion, this is a great addition to the city's café culture and one with which I am hoping to become increasingly well accustomed (trust me, I've already bagged myself a loyalty card!) Incidentally, you may be interested to learn that Lily and Boo's will be officially launching on Friday 23rd November 2012 on which day, from 10:00 – 15:00, the public will be treated to samples of their wares – do go and see what you think...! I felt that although the cupcakes were unimpeachably of a very high standard, there are other aspects of the menu letting the side down – the stale macarons proving the main offender on my part! Arguably, this would be a first-rate establishment if the focus remained on their best-sellers and I would suggest that if Lily and Boo are to explore other avenues, that they do so with caution - so not to put their customers off the main event!
And now for the second opinion...
The BFF gave Lily and Boo's a rating of 8/10 and in three words, summed up her experience as 'sweet, sweet, sweet'.

*There is a fundamental lack of online presence in regards to this establishment – though watch this space as I will add any details should they become available.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Ben's Cookies - Union Passage, Bath

I actually can't believe that it has taken the best part of two years to review - albeit shamelessly plug - my favourite snack-stop in Bath and yet, no trip to my former student-based stomping ground is complete without dipping into Ben's Cookies for as many confections as one's financial situation/expandable waistline can accommodate...

Date and time: Sunday 21st October 2012, 11.30
Name of Establishment: Ben's Cookies*
Location: 21 Union Passage, Bath
Reason for Visit: Looky looky...a superior cookie!

Nestled amongst the various outlets that flank the criss-crossed corridors behind Bath's main shopping street, Ben's Cookies instantly appeals to the sweet-toothed passer-by with a vibrant red colour scheme and, upon closer inspection, its nostalgic branding courtesy of well-known illustrator, Quentin Blake. This is a quaint and cosy space - not particularly somewhere to stay awhile given that its interior will comfortably accommodate no more than one group of people opting to 'eat-in' - but it's friendly and inviting nevertheless. What's more, utilising what is essentially a rather modest external area - where it is commonplace to see a queue snaking beyond its neighbouring establishments - a sprinkling of seating has been provided beneath all-purpose parasols. That said, with ten outlets in the UK (though mostly in the big smoke) and curiously, a fair few overseas (with branches in Saudi Arabia, UAE and South Korea), the best way to get one’s fix is the mail order service - yes people, I'm referring to the stuff that dreams are made of...cookies delivered directly to one’s home/workplace/loved-one’s gaff...delete as applicable! Here, a tin of eight will set you back £12.50 (exclusive of P&P*), and boxes of fifteen or thirty; £15.95 and £30.00 respectively. These deals are also available in-store which incidentally, lessens the damage to one’s pocket in that buying ‘on mass’ avoids the pricey concept of purchasing cookies by weight; which admittedly makes this a rather expensive habit to become accustomed to.

Though once bitten twice hooked, this is a sugar hit that is most definitely worth the pennies. Made from what the website claims are the finest ingredients – namely the best quality plain, milk and white chocolate, unsalted butter, sugar, free-range eggs and wheat (all from local producers near to Ben’s kitchen in Oxfordshire; where the dough is prepared) cookies are baked throughout the day and sold fresh from the oven. Furthermore, shunning the biscuity-bore so often found elsewhere, Ben's cookies are almost cake-like in terms of their disposition; offering real sustenance with a subtle crispiness that encases the soft, chewy deliciousness within – all without being stodgy, over-sweet or greasy which is, quite frankly, a triumph!

And without further ado, my top picks are as follows, (though I'd hasten to add that I’d happily indulge in any of the fourteen available flavours): Peanut butter; complete with whole nuts and that distinctive earthy sweetness, oatmeal raisin; not too dissimilar to a rock cake with a gooey cinnamon-spiced centre and chocolate orange; which, flecked with zesty orange peel, contains sizeable chunks of real milk chocolate that just melt-in-the-mouth; especially when accentuated with that undeniable just-baked warmth. Incidentally, I usually buy ‘to-go’ which, despite initial rather virtuous intentions, usually last little under an hour after exiting the shop. That said, if you are all about the here and now (and able to bag one of the coveted cushioned cuboids), you can choose from a range of hot and cold drinks to wash down your edibles. Here, all the usual suspects alongside some pretty decadent sounding milkshakes and yet, if you have room for the latter, you're not, in my view, making the most of your cookie experience!

In conclusion, you'd be mad to omit Ben's Cookies from your visit to Bath – seriously, forget about Millie's Cookies, it's almost certainly about what Ben brings to the table!

And now for the second opinion…
Upon asking a born 'n bred Bathonian where best to take friends who had never visited the City, he put Ben’s Cookies at the top of his list – that says it all really, don’t you think?!
*Which, to be fair, is a whopping £8.50

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Square Kitchen Tasting Menu – Autumn/Winter 2012

The illustrious transition from the colourful hues of Fall to Winter's poignant chill is without doubt, my favourite time of the year. Thus, invited to indulge in the Square Kitchen's Taster Menu - which comprises seven seasonally inspired courses of Modern European fare - seemed the perfect prelude to the coming months and the abundance of warming flavours and comforting combinations that would be ultimately brought to the forefront to alleviate the impact of those dark nights and frosty mornings we are all increasingly accustomed to! Hence, stepping into the candlelit dining room; a space which had previously impressed me (as per my review of the cocktail bar on the 'lower-deck') with its decadent décor, funky exposed brickwork and 'careful minimalism', really set the scene for what would inevitably constitute an evening of attentive, informative service and truly exceptional cuisine...

Date and Time: Tuesday 2nd October 2012, 20:30
Name of Establishment: The Square Kitchen*
Location: 14-15 Berkeley Square, Bristol
Reason for Visit: An unmissable opportunity to sample the Square Kitchen's Autumn/Winter Tasting Menu 'on the house' - though you should know that this has not, in any way, affected the review that follows...

Course One – Canapés
Truffle and thyme popcorn / Pea and ham Soup / Mackerel tartare with horseradish and cucumber
Though perhaps better described as appetisers due to how generously they had been portioned, the trio of canapés were a fantastic introduction to the level of fine-dining that my companion and I were to be treated to throughout the course of the evening. Furthermore, the attention to detail more-than set the bar for the courses to come and the experimental undertones to the varying attributes of the dish hinted at the playful nature of the theme for the evening. Most importantly though, everything was delicious – winning beginnings indeed!
Course Two – Appetiser
Seared scallop, raisin, Granny Smith
It's not often that I'm speechless (those who know me well will vouch for this) but I can honestly say that this was the most perfectly-executed scallop that I've tasted to date whereby its tender yet juicy composition had been appropriately accented with the zing of ripened apple; and this, delicately slithered so not to overpower the dish. I'm not sure that I could detect the raisin content but this certainly didn't dampen what was otherwise a triumph which essentially left us wanting more!
Course Three - Start
Battenberg of foie gras, ham hock and confit duck with piccalilli, apricot and chopped hazelnut
This course demonstrated as much skill in its construction as it did knowledge of the varying tastes and textures that would suitably complement each other. The image below really doesn't do the dish any justice as the flavoursome 'bricks' of rich-tasting charcuterie altogether facilitated that distinctive checkered battenberg effect. That said, although the ham hock and confit duck were unanimously well-received, the rich, creamy fragrance of the foie gras was deemed a little overpowering and, in some cases, left untouched by the more ethical diners in our midst. 
Course Four – Fish
Cornish turbot, pommes mousseline, pork belly and sea garnish
Combining crispy pork belly with the delicate flakiness of fresh turbot was, in my view, a touch radical and yet, with the creamiest potato purée known to man tying both aspects together it most definitely worked – you could say a contemporary take on the concept of 'surf 'n turf'!
Course Five – Meat
Venison, salsify, soil, snails, herbs, flowers and nettles
I must admit that I was both daunted and intrigued by the premise of this particular ensemble; though, imaginatively assembled to replicate a wind-swept, fall-blooming garden, it proved as visually alluring as it was appetising...Now, I’ve never eaten snails without an ample dousing of garlic butter and so, left with their naturally occurring earthiness, I can safely say that I'm not a fan! That said, the venison coupled with the make-shift soil (which had been created from de-hydrated mushrooms we later discovered) was simply fantastic.
Course Six – Pre-Dessert
Pear and whiskey with home-made sherbert
The novelty-factor of adding sherbert to a bitter-sweet concoction of pear and whiskey comprised a subtly fizzy and suitably refreshing palate-cleanser...just lovely!
Course Seven – Dessert
Thai-curry flavours: Ginger cake / Lime leaf ice cream / Lemongrass custard / Coconut and coriander panna cotta
Controversially, though dessert is usually the highlight of any meal (well for me at least), this was in fact, my least favourite of the seven courses. I think that the dominant fragrances of coriander and lime-leaf are an acquired taste at the best of times and as part of a dessert, additionally so! I also thought that the spicy meringues were a touch too far....I mean, I'm all for creativity when it comes to coupling and contrasting savoury flavours but when it comes to pudding, I'm clearly a traditionalist at heart!

To note that the Tasting Menu will set you back £55 and an accompanying wine flight is available at £19 per person. On this occasion however, I opted for a large glass of the Bosari Inzolia (£5.50 for 250ml); selected with the helpful tasting notes that categorise the more-than ample line-up of vinos. The cocktail menu is also rather enticing with a varied spectrum of composites; ranging from the familiar modern classics to the venue's avant-garde creations.

In conclusion, it's fair to say that my dining companion and I were both suitably wowed by our experience of the Square Kitchen; enjoying the overall ambiance of the establishment and, of course, the fare – which we later learned is locally sourced (where possible); utilising free-range organic Devon Rose meat and Brixham fish. Furthermore, the intended aesthetics of the seasonally-driven theme were entirely achieved and although this was perhaps taken to the extreme in places, it unquestionably showcased the imagination and culinary skill of Head Chef Gavin Lewis and his team. It's ironic that to be considered 'a square' is to be regarded as dull and rigidly conventional as judging from the dishes experienced on the evening in question, courtesy of what is without question, an innovatively assembled Tasting Menu, it's established ethos is anything but...!
And now for the second opinion...
My dining companion gave the Square Kitchen a rating of 9/10 and in three words, described the fare as, 'imaginative and well-presented'.