Four courses – then time for a fifth!

Four courses – then time for a fifth!

(July 2018)

HAVING been named England’s Leading Resort at The World Travel Awards for three consecutive years, The Belfry Hotel in Sutton Coldfield has developed a name for excellence in the hospitality industry.

Its name and reputation are renowned in golfing circles – and indeed the headquarters of The Professional Golfers’ Association are located there. The Belfry has hosted the Ryder Cup on four occasions as well as numerous European Tour events and it is easy to see why the resort has maintained its position amongst Europe’s elite.

But if you’re not a golfer, don’t rule it out as a destination experience. This four-star hotel exudes quality and sophistication from the moment you arrive.

Alas however, I shall have to report back on the accommodation and facilities some other time. Our recent visit was more one of a culinary nature. So it was with wide eyes and high expectations that we ventured to our table in the hotel’s aptly named Ryder Grill, which boasts two AA Rosettes.

Sunday lunch was on the menu – and we immediately knew we were in for a treat if the all you can eat food selection tasted as delicious as it looked laid out there on the serving bar.

Before hitting the carvery though we were invited to help ourselves from a wide selection of hot and cold starters, ranging from soup of the day to charcuterie, salad and pasta.

The challenge here was resisting the temptation to pile up our plates, remembering the sneak peek we’d caught of the tasty delights still to come.

There were three meats to choose from on the day – turkey, beef and what I can only describe as the most mouthwatering mustard-infused and sweet tasting gammon joint that had ever passed my lips.

We then selected from the wide selection of accompaniments, including roast and boiled potatoes, carrots, broccoli, peas and cauliflower cheese. And not forgetting crispy Yorkshire puddings almost the size of hats!

Again, the trick was to rein ourselves in because we had also caught glimpse of the tempting desserts table just a few strides away from us.

Cheesecakes, brownies, Eton Mess, apple crumble cake and fresh fruit were just some of the options.

But, for the younger diners, there was also a welcome selection of ice creams – plus a help yourself table of chocolate buttons and cookies – also nice as accompaniments to an end of meal hot drink.

For me The Ryder Grill has certainly succeeded in striking the right balance when it comes to offering a service that’s both sophisticated and family friendly. The desirable décor and ambience, coupled with a popular vibe, make this restaurant a winner in our books. And we will definitely be returning.

It is worth noting The Ryder Grill restaurant has also launched a new Tasting Menu Series running until December.

Recently appointed Head Chef, Ryan Swift is bringing fresh culinary flair with a selection of sumptuous six-course menus, all packed with the finest seasonal produce.

But you need to be on the ball to catch one of these events as they’re only held once every three months. To investigate the October event visit: https://www.thebelfry.co.uk/restaurants-bars/ryder-grill

Surrounded by over 550 acres of countryside, The Belfry is synonymous with golfing excellence.

Now it was time for our fifth ‘course’ of the day . . so it was on to the Ryder Legends Mini Golf Course!

Modelled on famous Ryder Cup moments over the years, The Belfry has a special place in the competition’s history, with some unforgettable moments – from Sam Torrance’s winning putt on the 18th green in 1985 that won the cup for Europe for the first time in 28 years, to Paul McGinley’s 10 foot winning putt in 2002.

Here you can experience 12 holes of competitive fun through a miniature version of some of these most iconic holes.

It was just the tonic to help walk off our dinner, on a hot day, but certainly more challenging than most miniature golf courses I’ve traversed (and I’ve traversed a few!) Great fun though and now we can proudly boast of our Ryder Cup golfing prowess alongside the very best. . . well, sort of!

Our fleeting visit to The Belfry was thoroughly enjoyable and left us wondering why this was only our first.

It certainly won’t be our last.

An exercise in good taste

An exercise in good taste

Following a substantial and imaginative £1.9m restoration project this summer, The Four Alls in Welford-on-Avon recently re-opened for business.

These alterations, we’ve been told, will result in a completely new kind of pub – ‘rural, peaceful and long-established, yet irrevocably linked to the modern, serving delicious food inspired by the Mediterranean, and all set in picturesque surroundings.’

And it’s all headed up by new General Manager, Claudia Reiter, who previously worked with Raymond Blanc for over 16 years.

After being invited along to see the transformation for myself, I’m delighted to report that the new-look Four Alls – and indeed its new menu – delivers everything it says on the tin. It is truly stunning.

Set on the banks of the river in the picturesque little village, the building has been very sympathetically renovated with the addition of an inglenook fireplace to recreate the cosy feel of a traditional pub. Or, in the summer months, you can take advantage of the very inviting newly paved terrace area, the perfect riverside spot for enjoying a drink or meal.

This project is a triumph fusion of traditional and contemporary in its clever re-imagined design and use of space.

But what of the food? Does the menu live up to the initial wow factor of the setting?

Food service opens for breakfast right through until 10pm daily but it’s cleverly created as an ‘all-day menu’ which is designed to flex through the whole day with a range of imaginative dishes.

Oakman Inns’ Chef Director, Ross Pike, (formerly British Larder in Suffolk) collaborates with his Head Chefs across the 22-strong group to develop their seasonal Mediterranean-inspired menus.

The Spring/Summer menu features ‘Build Your Own’ Pizza or Salad, unusual vegan dishes as well as some new gluten-free and vegetarian dishes. You’ll also find ‘Gary’ the dairy-free vegan cheese alternative featuring in some of the dishes.

Topically too, all the ingredients are responsibly and sustainably sourced and each dish is freshly cooked to order in their open theatre-style kitchen where you can watch the chefs doing their stuff – always a reassuring sign that there is a genuine confidence and pride in their creations.

The Saltimobocca Scotch Egg

I opted for the Saltimobocca Scotch Egg, left, (soft-boiled free-range egg, sage, prosciutto, sausagemeat and hollandaise) for starter which was delicious but perhaps a tad on the ample side. After all, I was keen on sampling something from all three courses on this mouthwatering menu and I suspected this was already going to become a challenge.

But on to main course and it was the Twelve Hour Roasted Pork Belly, below, that quickly caught my eye. Slowly roasted in cider and served with mashed potato, apple puree, tenderstem broccoli and crackling, this was one of the tastiest pork dishes I had ever had the pleasure of devouring.

And it’s family friendly too. For the younger members of the party the sight of a dedicated pizza menu – including a Build Your Own option – proved a big hit – as did the pizzas themselves.

Whether it’s fish, pasta, salads or grill you’re after, there is a vast selection to choose from.

Not forgetting desserts – and who would forget desserts! – there is, again, something for all palates, from the perennial favourites of chocolate brownie and sticky toffee pudding, left, through to Banoffee Sundae (chocolate brownie pieces, Madagascan Bourbon vanilla ice cream, crushed biscuit, baked banana, caramel sauce and mascarpone ice cream) and a Summer pudding (sliced brioche, Madagascan Bourbon vanilla ice cream and summer berry compote). The Passionfruit and Lemon Curd Meringue Mess (with Sicilian lemon sorbet) also sounded appealing.

They have very well stocked bar serving all kinds of spirits, cocktails, wines and beers plus Fair Trade coffee and tea.

So, if you’re looking for a change a scene, but get nervous about trying new places, you’re on safe ground with The Four Alls. This is a beautiful pub in a picturesque setting and with a fantastic menu to match. What’s not to love.

The stuff dreams are made on

The stuff dreams are made on

(May 2018)

IN early 2016 top class chef Paul Foster launched a crowd-funding campaign to fund his dream of opening a fine dining restaurant that reflected his own particular brand of culinary imagination. His backers clearly knew something we didn’t because an incredible £102,000 was quickly raised and, in March the following year, Salt was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Unassumingly nestled in a small Tudor building in Church Street, the restaurant’s reputation for excellence quickly put Salt on the regional foodies’ map. And today it boasts awards as well as pride of place in the Good Food Guide.

Paul has worked at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and as head chef at Mallory Court in Warwickshire over the course of a career that began in his teens. He describes his style of cooking as modern British with an emphasis on wild, seasonal ingredients and purity of flavour.

To qualify as a ‘fine dining’ experience it is, of course, all about the food. But first impressions ­are also important and these I have to say, were good.

Not a fan of stuffy service or overblown gestures, the understated simplicity of whitewashed walls, flagstone floors and minimalistic elegance, coupled with the effortless conviviality of the staff, left me feeling instantly relaxed in unpretentious surroundings.

And then there’s the tiny half-open kitchen at the back which is also a reassuring sign of culinary confidence.

It’s immediately obvious this Salt experience has Paul’s personal touch on everything – both in the kitchen and out – from the bespoke plates themselves (apparently specially sourced and designed) to the masterpieces on them.

And so to the food. . .

My husband and I were invited to sample the seven-course taster menu.

A glazed choux pastry bun filled with cream sweetened by a syrup flavoured with Douglas fir pine.

While we pondered the many delights to come, we were treated to some smoked almonds and olives followed by, what I can only describe as the most mouth-watering warm malted bread rolls, with malt-glazed crust. If this was just to get us warmed up, I couldn’t dare to imagine the wow factor which awaited.

Making the most of the all-too-brief asparagus season, Salt’s dish of English asparagus, soured cream, pea salad and lovage proved the perfect introduction to whet our appetites. Deliciously crisp and fresh, it left us craving more. But, with six more courses to follow, taster size portions were the order of the day. I’m a big convert to this little and often approach ­- a wonderful way to sample as many excellent dishes as possible in one sitting!

Then came the first of two fish courses in the form of John Dory, dill emulsion, oyster and cucumber. Stunning flavour and texture combinations that really made the most of the finest ingredients.

This was followed by what proved to be one of my favourite forays of the night ­– Cooked carrot in chicken fat, crispy chicken skin and pickled carrot. The description doesn’t come close to doing this dish justice. Carrot in chicken fat. Who’d have thought it. Trust me on this one! Divine.

The single best thing about tasting menus? You’re putting yourselves entirely in the hands of the experts. I was led into trying new recipes I would never have chosen from an a la carte menu ­– many of which I would now happily make a beeline for in the future. I had been enlightened in my culinary education and even relished the fish dishes. (I’m not really a big fish eater.)

One ingredient I would definitely not have chosen is Quail. But the BBQ Norfolk Quail, shallot, green olive and pistachio was a delight, as was the second fish dish which was to follow, Roast Cornish cod, seaweed, wild garlic and hen of the wood. (Or you can opt at this juncture instead for Otterburn mangalitza beef with Jersey royals cooked in smoked bone marrow.

British cheeses served with apple chutney and lavoche bread is an optional extra which, for a supplement of between £8 and £12 you may decide is a rather pricey addition. A delicious palette cleanser though nonetheless before the menu turns to sweeter incentives.

Baked yoghurt, mint oil, buttermilk and shortbread.

Here again is where blind faith in the chef pays huge dividends in the guise of two of the most exciting ­­- and creative ­- desserts I have tasted in a long time ­– Baked yoghurt with mint oil, buttermilk and shortbread and, then, Valrhona chocolate cream with sea buckthorn and pumpkin seeds.

Helping to wash down these delicacies are a flight of fine wines selected from the restaurant’s extensive rack to complement each dish. The origin and flavours of each label were described upon serving. It was my only regret that I had to exercise a degree of restraint as it was a ‘school night.’ But for the connoisseur, this wine pairing menu option is worth the extra £42 on top of the fixed £65 tasting menu price.

And when we’d washed down our coffees and were just coming to terms with the realisation of approaching taxi time, a final treat arrives at our table – a glazed choux pastry bun filled with cream sweetened by a syrup flavoured with Douglas fir pine. Another new terrific taste experience.

Sorry, but you can keep your petit fours! What a high to end on.

There is also an a la carte menu (three courses for £45 and two courses for £37) within which some of the above feature, but check the website at salt-restaurant.co.uk for seasonal menu variations.

All in all, in a town almost overcrowded by restaurants, this little gem manages to shine among the brightest of them all.

Stripped back sophistication at its most honest – and a credit to the chef who made his dream a triumphant reality. A visit here genuinely is. . . Such stuff as dreams are made on.

Since this was published, Salt has gone on to be awarded a Michelin star.

Winning formula for Silverstone success

Winning formula for Silverstone success

WHITTLEBURY Hall Hotel and Spa in Northamptonshire has long been a popular retreat for those in search of rest and recuperation.

It is also the perfect base from which to enjoy the British Grand Prix at neighbouring Silverstone race track.

And it’s this iconic link to F1 racing commentator Murray Walker that gives Murrays – Whittlebury’s fine dining restaurant – its name.

The two AA Rosette restaurant offers an intimate and relaxing atmosphere, the perfect setting in which to appreciate this modern British menu.

It is the creation of award-winning chef Harvey Lockwood who has returned to Whittlebury Hall, serving both an a la carte and six-course tasting menu designed to showcase the finest local and British ingredients.

The imaginative dishes that Harvey presents have classical and international influences and the Murrays menu changes regularly, providing guests with the opportunity to taste the latest blends of flavours and ingredients to make your visit truly memorable.

Opting for the a la carte options, we were first treated to a tasty amuse bouche to whet the appetite for what’s to come.

And what’s to come certainly did not disappoint.

It was a difficult decision. But Ham, Egg and Chip (smoked ham hock, duck egg and golden raisin) sounded deliciously intriguing. A cordon bleu version of ham, egg and chips, this dish arrived at our table looking too good to eat – and yet too irresistible not to! One of my highlights and a great way to get the culinary experience properly under way.

My husband’s Wood Pigeon with baby artichoke, shallot and watercress was also devoured and enjoyed.

Main courses include Line Caught Wild Sea Trout (with violet potato, purple sprouting, calms and beurre noisette) and Black Faced Thame Spring Lamb (with jersey royal potato, garlic, asparagus and sweetbread), pictured left. Our choices of British Reared Duck (with parsley, baby leek, fre de brick and orange) and Bedfordshire Beef Fillet (with horseradish, young carrots, oxtail and pier blue) were both cooked to perfection and mouthwatering.

My dessert, Carrot Cake, is not done full justice by its name. Served with Canadian maple and cream cheese, this was like no other carrot cake I have ever tasted before. Absolutely divine.

Other tempting options include Cappuccino Soufflé and Chocolate and Orange. But my husband was too enticed by the British Cheese Board – one of the most ample I’ve ever encountered.

These courses were then followed by some unusual, but tasty, petit fours, to accompany our coffee. (Additional charge)

Average price for starters is £10, mains £25 and desserts £10, an acceptable price point for this quality of food.

There is also a six-course taster menu option available for £65 per person (including coffee and petit fours.)

What a lovely welcome!

And the setting and service are exemplary. If you have a special celebration coming up or just want to be treated like VIPs, this is the place to come. Where else would you find a personalised name plate welcoming you?

My only gripe is that we were asked to pre-order all our courses from the menu before even being seated. This is highly unusual at a

restaurant of this calibre in my experience. How do we know what will suit our palate for dessert before we’ve even had our starter?

All in all though, thoroughly recommended.

Park life for happy fun-seekers

Park life for happy fun-seekers

(April 2018)

AS well as chocolate, for families the Easter holidays also heralded a new season of fun, signalling the reopening of theme parks across the country.

Drayton Manor Park, in Staffordshire is where we were headed for my son’s 13th birthday, to join in with the Eggs-ellent Easter celebrations being promised.

But, post Easter, there’s still no shortage of fun to be had – from the theme park rides themselves (including Thomas Land) to the brand new 4D cinema, currently screening Ice Age: No Time For Nuts and the not immodest-sized 15-acre zoo!

Let’s start with the rides. Unlike some of the Merlin big-hitters (the likes of Thorpe Park, Alton Towers and Chessington World of Adventures), this has more to appeal to the younger visitor. Thrill-seeking comes at a variety of levels, and while there’s no shortage of white-knuckle experiences, it’s also about traditional fun such as dodgems, carousels and waltzers.

My son’s only gripe on the day of our visit was the unexpected closure of a handful of the rides. I think the problem is there are not enough rides (unlike the aforementioned) to disguise the closures which are acutely felt – and did unfortunately lead to some disappointment.

However, we appreciate that this is often par for the course with theme parks and it’s always wise to check their website first if your itinerary is flexible.

And that’s not to say there wasn’t enough to do. He and his friends were easily kept entertained for nigh on six hours before it was time to head home for birthday cake.

Most of the adults’ time was spent very enjoyably in the zoo which is home to many species of animals from around the world. My particular highlight, however, was the red panda. With two teenage boys I’ve certainly chalked up my fair share of zoo visits – but the panda was a very enjoyable first.

The reptile house was also a favourite with us (and not just as a shelter from the rain!)

Another first – for the park at least – is the new 4D movie experience, Ice Age: No Time For Nuts. Moving seats combine with lighting and physical effects to create an immersive movie experience like no other. (But proceed with caution if you have back problems, in which case it would not be the most comfortable of rides.) Thoroughly entertaining though for all ages.

Drayton Manor Park also marks the tenth anniversary of Europe’s only Thomas Land, a firm family favourite of this attraction.

Thomas Land is a big draw for the younger crowd

The Island of Sodor, based on the much-loved children’s television series, is wonderfully recreated and the themed rides are among the most popular there, including Thomas himself, Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy, Harold’s Helicopter Tours, Troublesome Trucks Runaway Coaster, Terence’s Driving School and the newly refurbished Emily’s Play Adventure.

But where it scores most highly, I believe, is its offering for the younger children. And let’s be honest. . . every parent enjoying the atmosphere of Thomas Land is secretly delighted they have a great excuse to go – a child in tow!

All in all a fun-packed day out that’s a bit gentler on the pocket than most (if not all) of its counterparts ­­- and with the added bonus of a brilliant zoo.

Their excellent value Easter ticket offer of four tickets for £80 has been extended and keep an eye on their website too for offers on their hotel and admission packages.

You can find out more about Drayton Manor at: www.draytonmanor.co.uk