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Category Archives: British

Calcot Manor: A weekend break with the kids

Since the first few weeks of Gastrobaby’s life, Gastrodad and I had been buoying ourselves with the thought of a night away sans child. A relaxed afternoon in a spa, dinner with no baby monitor to hand, lying in beyond 7am and a leisurely breakfast which doesn’t end with toast scattered across the floor. Gastrobaby however, had other plans and cunningly refused to ever accept a bottle, screaming should a teat so much as enter his line of vision, thereby ensuring that he need never leave mummy’s side for more a few hours. And thus we found ourselves searching for a baby friendly weekend break, rather than the oasis of tranquility we had envisaged all those months ago.

Calcot Manor in the Cotswolds came highly recommended by a friend, and so we booked the Sunday Spa break, which includes a £40 per person allowance for dinner, overnight accomodation in the best available room, breakfast, and £90 spa vouchers per room. The overall cost was £375 per room, and what really sold it to us was the Playzone, an Ofsted registered creche. For older children there is the Mez, ‘an Aladdin’s cave of entertainment, with PlayStations, Wii consoles, Xbox 360s, computers and even a 12-seater cinema’.

We arrived Sunday afternoon and were shown to a beautifully light and airy room with an adjoining children’s room. Fantastic, we wouldn’t have to shuffle around in the dark post-7pm for fear of waking our little companion.Each family room is equipped with steriliser, bottle warmer and changing mat, and a travel cot can be requested.

Determined to have some time off, we had prebooked spa treatments and time in the Playzone for Gastrobaby. The creche was clean, boasted an enviable toy collection, and there were sufficient staff to allow some one-on-one attention. The first afternoon past with no mishaps, and we collected a relatively chirpy baby after our treatments. Chancing it, we booked him in for the following morning, the outdoor hot spa pool beckoning. This was clearly one step too far though, as I looked up from my final lap of the indoor pool to see a member of staff approaching. After a very hasty shower, I retrieved a rather frantic little chap from the arms of a despairing carer, vainly attempting to calm him down with books and toys. Well, 20 minutes is better than nothing.

Returning to the previous evening, which saw us heading out to dinner having switched on the babylistening service in the room. We were free to choose between dinner in the more formal Conservatory restaurant or the Gumstool Inn. The Gumstool Inn was not quite the cosy country pub with a roaring log fire that we had hoped for and was in fact a little scruffy, so we opted for The Conservatory, a smart if not overly characterful restaurant. This was classic spa hotel decor, somewhat staid and soulless.

The wine list offered some good quality wines, though there wasn’t a wide range in the lower price bracket. A glance at the menu confirmed that the food would match the decor; there would be no surprises or ingenuity, just safe classics such as goats cheese tart, melon and san daniele ham, and other crowdpleasers.

A starter of beef shin with tagliatelle was meltingly tender, rich and tasty. The charcuterie plate offered a small selection of cold meats and failed to elicit great praise from Gastrodad, who thought it was ‘ok’.

The beef shin from my starter had a second outing in Gastrodad’s main of beef fillet and shin. The fillet arrived cooked as requested and accompanied by crunchy vegetables. My free range Madgetts duck glazed with honey and sesame was swimming in sauce which overpowered a nice piece of meat. The pumpkin puree with pumpkin seeds was tasty but also drowned in the sauce. I struggled to make my way through what was essentially duck in a lot of gravy.

For pudding we shared the plum and almond clafoutis which fell into the all to common trap of too much stodge and not enough fruit. Another dish which almost defeated us.

A spa break with kids is only ever going to be a compromise, and Calcot makes that compromise as painless as possible. Kids are well catered for and rooms and facilities are just luxurious enough to feel special, but not so special as to leave you mortified when your child regurgitates milk onto the spotless carpet. For the spa and kids facilities, Calcot is spot on, but if food is high up on your agenda, leave the children with the grandparents and find a restaurant in the surrounding area.

Details:

Calcot Manor, Near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8YJ

Food : 5/10

Spa and facilities: 9\10

Child friendly score: 9/10

Gastrodad score: 8/10

Many thanks to The Willow Foundation, who organised and payed for our stay at Calcot Manor. The Willow Foundation is a charity that provides emotional support for seriously ill 16-40 year olds through the provision of special days.

A Sunday Roast in Angel

Saturday night had been spent soothing a cross, tired baby who was fed up of being woken up as we moved him from buggy to aeroplane to baby carrier to car to cot. We finally arrived home from a week in Rome at 12pm and headed straight for bed, thinking that Gastrobaby would surely sleep in the next morning, given his late night. We were wrong. 5.30am and the day began. Lack of sleep and a post-holiday empty fridge made a home cooked Sunday roast unlikely, so whilst Gastrodad undertook emergency blackberry repairs, I mooched around Angel looking for somewhere to eat. While at The Regent (good pizza) for a friend’s birthday a few weeks before, I had spotted The Barnsbury a few doors down, so we thought we would try it out.

The atmosphere was laid back and kid friendly, with a couple of families with young children already there. We were handed the Sunday Roast menu, which listed six choices, all served with roast potatoes and vegetables. Gastrobaby had finally fallen asleep, so we ordered the roast rib of west country beef, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce (£15.50) and the roast free range chicken, chipolata and bacon (£12.50), and settled down with the Sunday paper.

A fairly long wait meant we had made fair headway through the papers before the food arrived. I glanced nervously at Gastrobaby, willing him not to wake up before we’d even had our first mouthful. When two heaped plates appeared, I looked straight to the roast beef and was delighted to see beautifully pink meat, oozing juice.

The chicken was tender and the vegetables were well cooked, the carrots were particularly sweet and crunchy. The Yorkshire pudding on the other hand was a disaster, a lump of stodge, and the roast potatoes were only average. Both these things are tricky, but not that tricky, nothing a quick Delia tutorial couldn’t correct. It was as Gastrodad and I shared our disappointment over the yorkshire pudding that a member of the waiting staff did some overly zealous furniture rearranging right behind the buggy…and the wails began, and grew louder, and louder. A sleep deprived eight month old, who has just exchanged the sunshine of Rome for the drizzle of London was not to be consoled by pieces of courgette or carrot, no matter how well cooked. And so we ended our meal taking it in turns to walk the buggy up and down the street in an effort to get him back to sleep. Of course a baby is the parent’s responsibility, but waiting staff, please please make some concessions for a sleeping baby, because the cry of interrupted sleep will ruin the parents’ lunch far more than a stodgy Yorkshire pudding every could.

There was no time for pudding, but we could have chosen from a broad selection of restaurant classics (pannacotta, chocolate fondant etc). The wine list was decent, ranging from £15 to £36 a bottle, with a good selection of wines by the glass.

So aside from Gastrobaby’s interrupted nap, which I don’t think I can really blame on the waiting staff, how does the Barnsbury rate? Competition to the Peasant or the Eagle it is not, but neither is it trying to be. If I had the Barnsbury as my local I’d be pleased. They serve good quality, hearty food at reasonable prices, and it’s a great option for a laid back Sunday lunch.

Details:

The Barnsbury, 209 Liverpool Road, London N1 1LX

Overall: 6/10

Mummy friendly score: 7/10 (I didn’t have time to check for a babychange though)

Gastrodad score: 6/10 (one mark lost for waking up a sleeping baby!)

Hungry in Hampstead

From time to time those of us living on the wrong side of the Finchley Road like to make the trip over the road and up the hill into Hampstead Village. And so it is that I have twice recently found myself in Hampstead at lunchtime. Both times we were looking for something light with room for coffee and cake afterwards. A sandwich lunch doesn’t quite merit having an entire post to itself, so here’s a 2 for 1, Ginger and White vs. Gail’s.

For it’s mismatching tables and chairs, focus on British food and Square Mile Coffee, Ginger and White is for me Hampstead’s #1 coffee stop. I’m hard to please when it comes to brownies, generally comparing them disfavourably to those heralding from my own kitchen. Theirs are exceptional and give a reviving sugar hit after a long walk up Arkwright Road with Gastrobaby dangling from his baby carrier (he sports an impressively chunky pair of thighs and is not light to carry!). So it was my first port of call when my sister and I decided to take a break from window shopping one day in August. We were pleased to get a table outside on Perrin’s Court and decided to share the goat’s cheese, mango chutney with baby spinach sandwich (£4.95) and the feta, beetroot and bulghur salad. The salad was frankly quite bland, with too much cos lettuce and not enough bulgur. The feta was good quality though, with a firm meaty texture. The sandwich was low on filling and too dry; the tasty chutney only partially redeeming something that could have been knocked up in any Hampstead yummy mummy’s kitchen. From Gastrobaby’s point of view, Ginger and White has a baby change facility though it’s short on space for buggies. He’s looking forward to sampling their kid friendly fish finger sandwich when he has a few more teeth.

With memories of this disappointing lunch still fresh in my mind, we walked past Ginger and Spice at lunchtime today and headed for Gail’s, part of the expanding bakery chain. As Gastrobaby slumbered in the buggy, we settled down at an outside table taking it in turns to head inside to study the extensive array of tarts, pastries, sandwiches and salads. The salads looked tempting but small, and we were hungry. Instead Gastrodad chose the chicken and roast fennel sandwich whilst I made the uninspired but safe choice of a ham and cheese sourdough sandwich. Both were toasted and came to £10.75. Unsurprisingly for an establishment priding itself on its breads, the sourdough was excellent. The filling was a bit mean though with no cheese at all in the first few mouthfuls. Gastrodad’s sole comment on his sandwich was ‘it’s good’, but the speed at which he gobbled it down suggested that he was pleased with his choice.

Chicken and Roast Fennel Sandwich

Ham and Cheese Sourdough Sandwich

As we finished our sandwiches, the beginnings of a cry came from the direction of the buggy, suggesting our down time was up! With no time for cake there and then, we pottered back to West Hampstead clutching a bag containing a raspberry bite (£1.20), a pistachio and chocolate bite (£1.20), and a pecan brownie (£3). The raspberry bite didn’t have enough raspberries in it but was moist. I enjoyed the chocolate and pistachio combination, but the brownie was too sticky for me.

So who wins? For superior coffee and cakes as well as a characterful interior, Ginger and White takes first place, but for a tasty sandwich at lunchtime, Gail’s will be my first port of call. Breakfast is still up for grabs, and judging from the enticing menus on offer at both, it looks like it could be a tough one.

Details:

Ginger and White, 4a-5a Perrins Court, London, NW3 1QS

Gail’s, 64 Hampstead High Street, London, NW3 1QH

The Walnut, West Hampstead

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While house hunting in West Hampstead last summer, we asked the estate agent for a restaurant recommendation, to which he replied, ‘you don’t come to West Hampstead for fine dining’. Assuming we would be able to find some hidden gems, we took the plunge anyway and moved into the area. West Hampstead has so much going for it, but unfortunately our estate agent was right, culinary genius is scarce. Where to go then, on a weeknight, when time would not allow us to venture too far? Having heard some good things about The Walnut, a sustainable restaurant with an emphasis on seasonal produce, we decided to give it a try.

We had a reservation for 7.20pm (our thrifty leanings made us determined to take advantage of the ‘order before 7.30pm and receive 20% off your bill’ offer), but a lengthy conversation with the T-Mobile support line meant we rushed in at 7.28pm. A smiley waitress kindly rushed through our order meaning we would still get the all important discount! We were then able to catch our breath and take in our surroundings. Side lighting lent a cosy, intimate atmosphere, and the kitchen was on a mezzanine above us, allowing diners a peak into the engine of the restaurant, a nice touch.

To start I ordered the scallops with a toasted hazelnut and coriander dressing (£7.85). The scallops were perfectly cooked but a little tepid, not helped by being served on a cold plate. Gastrodad’s Cornish crab cakes (£5.35) had been made with one dollop of mustard too many. Both dishes were unimaginatively presented, each having a rather large ‘garnish’ of salad leaves, which could have been straight out of a Florette Crispy Salad bag.


Next up was slow roasted pork belly, accompanied by more of the crispy salad! A rather incongruous side. I also ordered potatoes dauphinoise (£4.85). The pork belly was tender but wasn’t quite as ‘melt in the mouth’ as I would have liked. The dauphiniose was tasty but a little heavy and overly cheesy. Maybe this is what happens when a British restaurant makes a French classic. Gastrodad had the ribeye steak (£16.35), accompanied by chips and, you guessed it, more crispy salad! The steak was cooked as requested and aside from the salad, a well executed dish.

After all that salad we were too full for a pudding each, so shared the warm dark chocolate tart (£5.25). This had a lovely oozy centre which wasn’t too sweet. The pastry could have been crispier, but altogether this was probably the highlight of the meal. We also had a cafetiere of Tikki coffee, which was good coffee, but it’s a shame they haven’t invested in an espresso machine.

In an area barren of stand out restaurants, The Walnut is head and shoulders above most of its competitors, it just isn’t the oasis I had hoped for. The produce is local (as local as Kidderpore Avenue in Hampstead) and carefully selected. Service is eager to please, and the sustainable approach bound to win fans. However the dishes seem a little flung together and I’m not sure the kitchen has an eye on the finer details. Altogether the Walnut is a good neighbourhood restaurant, but not a great one.

Details:

The Walnut, 280 West End Lane, West Hampstead NW6 1LJ

Overall rating: 6/10

Mummy friendly score: babysitter required

Gastrodad score: 6/10