Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Hole in the Wall, Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire

Somewhere near the middle of nowhere, in a featureless, flat East Anglian landscape, this village pub and its kitchen is now in the hands of Alex Rushmer, who made the finals of, but didn't win the amateur version of Masterchef a year or two ago. He was in the kitchen during lunchtime service today. He did an oh-so-casual walkpast my table to pretend to look at something by the bar: no doubt the front of house manager had alerted him to unknown fat bloke, in a suit, dining alone, and he probably wanted to check I wasn't one of the known tyre-men.

Inside The Hole in the Wall, it's a small, traditional country pub, with lots of beams, exposed wood and open fires. A bit on the dark side, maybe, but I suppose that adds to the atmosphere. I understand they have a separate restaurant room, which may be different.

A carafe of good tapwater is automatically brought to the table: no upselling of bottled water here. I also had a nice pint of local IPA, which seemed well kept.

It's an interesting menu: nothing extraordinary, but all very appealing. As well as the à la carte, from which I chose, they had a 2-2-2 set lunch menu, from which they were doing a roaring trade in rather good looking chicken pot pies.

Good, home-made bread came first: a tomato foccaccia that was more like a flat bread, but still good, excellent treacle soda bread and a really good sourdough.

Bread - served on the end of a case of 1975 Brane Cantenac!

tempura gurnard fillet (pea soup)
I started with tempura gurnard with pea soup. Nice gurnard, crisp batter. Really good soup, even if it's not exactly British pea season. It seemed a bit of an odd combination initially, until fish, chips and mushy peas flashed into my mind. No chip element, but that would have probably been too much in a starter.

telmara farm duck breast (potato terrine, red cabbage, pickled cucumber and spiced tobacco caramel)
Main course was a bit less successful, but not to the point of needing to raise an issue. Duck breast with red cabbage, pickled cucumber, tobacco caramel (definitely more caramel than a gastrique) and potato terrine (i.e. slices of pommes Anna, roasted). Overall conception was great, the combination of red cabbage and pickled cucumber won me over, but the duck had an uncrisped, and therefore pretty inedible skin and, while it was nicely medium-rare, it felt like it had spent just a bit too long in the waterbath, with the slight tendency to pappiness that goes with that. I asked at the end of the meal how the duck was cooked and was assured that it was not done sous vide.  I'm not convinced: it had all the hallmarks. But overall a good dish.

Cambridge burnt cream with doughnuts and coffee sorbet
 The meal ended on a very high note with a faultless Cambridge burnt cream, with a nice thin brûlée crust, that would have been great on its own. But it was elevated by three really superlative, light, fluffy, just-warm doughnuts, and an excellent coffee sorbet. The sorbet was probably superfluous, but the joy of making your own custard doughnuts by dunking the doughnuts in the custard really put a smile on my face.

The first cup of espresso was bad. I asked the manager to taste it to see if that's how it should be as, after all, it could just have been a blend of beans I really disliked. After a few moments, he brought another, much better espresso, and knocked both off the bill, thanking me for drawing it to his attention, as he now knew the waitress needed more training.

With coffee, came a small antique tin of petits fours: an indifferent and over-cold white chocolate/coconut truffle, a superb pate de fruits and what looked like a caramel that I didn't get round to.

Service was a bit mixed. Senior staff were excellent; junior (eastern European?) seemed to find it hard to engage with customers

Hole in the Wall on Urbanspoon

Kayal Restaurant, Leicester: Keralan cuisine

I'm not a huge fan of the majority of Indian restaurants and takeaways in Britain: it always seems to be one base sauce for everything and pretty heavy food. So, when I saw on one of the Hairy Bikers programmes about an authentic Keralan restaurant in Leicester, my interest was piqued. Then, finding myself in Leicester overnight, Kayal was the obvious choice, and fortunately just down the road from my hotel, the excellent Mercure Grand Hotel.

This is a very different Indian restaurant, if indeed you can call it an Indian restaurant at all. It looks quite different: there are no flock wallpapers, and if anything it looks more like a vegetarian, wholefood restaurant like Cranks used to be, with lots of wood on the walls. Oh, and a Royal Enfield motorcycle propping up the bar.

The menu is quite different too: there was virtually nothing I recognised.  As expected, there was a lot more fish and seafood than usually found in British Indian restaurants, though I veered towards some of the more street food style dishes, as they seemed to me the most unusual, and broke away from the meat or fish with sauce norm.

It wasn't easy to choose just a few dishes: I had to forego battered potato, aubergine and banana dishes, for example, which made me wish I was here as part of a larger group that could order everything to share.
Uzhunnu Vada
My first dish were some Uzhunnu Vada: delicately spiced doughnuts, made with gram flour.  These were great: freshly fried, with a nice crunch on the outside and light and fluffy inside.  Light, delicate, fragrant spicy flavours in a doughnut: sounds a winner, and it won me over. Very light and the best way I can think of describing them is as a dahl favoured doughnut with a bit of the Russian roulette of padron peppers. The vada came with a lentil sambar and two coconut chutneys: one made with red chillis, the other with green chillies.  I thought the sambar was a little too close in flavour to the vada to thrill me much, but the two coconut chutneys were remarkably moreish.

Chicken puffs
An odd feature of the menu was that some dishes are called by their Keralan names, while others have English names.  This was described simply as Chicken Puffs. I wonder why there's this linguistic dichotomy? It can't be that this is their own Leicester invention, as the menu described it as "one of the most attracting [sic] snacks from the village bakeries."  They are small puff pastry rolls filled with chicken.  Unfortunately, in complete contrast to the vada, this was seriously let down by not being cooked to order: the pasty was soggy, which did absolutely nothing for it in my view. The chicken filling was good, again with beautiful, delicate spicing, but it was never going to overcome the soggy pastry.  This came with the same two coconut chutneys, and a small salad, based around red cabbage.

Masala Dosa
The Masala Dosa, a sort of paper-thin rice and lentil crepe, defeated my attempts to photograph it in its entirety - it was just too big! The dosa itself was very light, with a gentle crispness, but with enough texture that it didn't just shatter and dissolve.  The dosa was filled with crushed potato, onions and peas: once again, beautifully spiced.  The same sambar appeared on the side, as had previously appeared with the vada: it worked better this time.

The 1960s style glacé cherry on top of a scoop of unexceptional ice cream marks Unnakai out as a dessert. In fact they are small dumplings made from mashed plantain, coconut, raisins and cashew, and then deep fried. Did I detect a hint of cardamon? Maybe not the lightest of desserts, but very interesting and not too sweet, although the ice cream with its cherry seemed a bit out of place.

A word too for my drink: ganga jamuna, a blend of strawberry and lime juice, which was really rather nice, if an alarming pink colour, its childishness enhanced with a curly straw!

Service was very good, informative and helpful.

This really opened my eyes to Keralan cuisine. It was much more delicate, fragrant and fresh than the UK curry house norm, and - for me - all the better for it.

Kayal on Urbanspoon