Thursday, 28 August 2014


The Spinner & Bergamot is the archetypal country pub. Nestled in the picturesque village of Comberbach, this curiously-titled hostelry is so named for two fillies, whose likenesses adorn the pub sign.

This place has a perennially festive feel to it; the trees crowding the entrance are swathed with lights that twinkle all year round. Interior-wise, it's a labyrinth of cosy corners; a tangle of snug hidey-holes that lead to a high-beamed, surprisingly huge, restaurant.

First off, the wine is expensive. And I mean expensive (for a pub, any road). You're looking at around £18 for house, with our bottle of Marlborough clocking in at around £21. The higher-end prices also translate to the menu (a sheaf whose content seldom changes). It's pub food at restaurant prices.


A starter of deep fried goat's cheese sounds oozy and decadent. It ought to be runny in the middle and implode as soon as cutlery contact is made. A goat's cheese is a thing of beauty; a fried goat's cheese a gift from heaven itself.


It arrived around two minutes after our order was taken (there's swift, and there's suspiciously swift) and, disappointingly, was absolutely rock hard in the middle, and stone cold to boot. The inferior wares were transported back to the kitchen; their replacements proving far more palatable (but not really that great). Unfortunately, this rather set the tone for the remainder of the evening; and it did kind of make me wonder how exactly the goat's cheese was prepared - freezer to microwave, possibly?
Largely undeterred, we pressed on. Now, the Spinner & Bergamot's main courses are notoriously colossal, so much so that they offer 'small' helpings of various dishes. I went for the small fish and chips (having been defeated by its standard-sized counterpart on a previous visit).

Size-wise, it was more than sufficient. The fish was a decent bit of cod, enrobed in a sunshine batter and flanked by the most superb home-made chips, not to mention several doorsteps of bread and butter.


I really like the fact that the S&B makes its own condiments. The homemade brown sauce is lovely - sweeter than you'd expect it to be, and not as tart as the HP variety. Likewise, the in-house produced tartare sauce gets a big thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, the adulation ended there. Mrs V's steak and ale pie was, again, cold in the middle. What was going on? Were they having a serious off-night here, or what? She didn't bother sending it back; keen to press on given that we'd already exchanged our starters hitherto.


All things considered, it was a rather disappointing affair. I've been to the S&B on numerous occasions and have never had a bad meal. I mean, it is a lovely pub whose atmosphere is par none within the locale.

But, during our visit, there was far too much in the way of inconsistency - you wondered, even, if the chef was having a night off - to warrant another visit in the near future - which is a shame, because I used to really like the place!

Food: ✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓
Phone: 01606891307
Tip: If booking, ask for a table in the back restaurant, otherwise they'll stick you around the bar area. 
Spinner & Bergamot on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Chang Noi was formerly situated on the outskirts of Chester, having relocated to the Birch & Bottle, outside Antrobus, some eighteen or so months ago. The pub is of the spit and sawdust variety – gaudy, loud carpets, chintzy decor - and hasn’t seen a great deal in the way of decoration for, I dare say, some while. 

It was moderately busy on our visit, and, having pre-booked, we were directed to a table near the bar - a table so sticky your shirt sleeves adhered to it as though it were fashioned from velcro. 


There is an extended dining area in the conservatory – which might well be more salubrious but, in light of the screams of a caterwauling child that emanated from it, I was thankful to be well out of the way.  


Chang Noi doesn’t just do Thai. They specialise in a kind of hotchpotch fusion of cuisines broadly falling under the umbrella term ‘Asian’. The menu sounded curious, and intensely tantalising. Shortly after the delivery of a tasty Sauvignon, a starter of Ramaquin Madras was received with aplomb. 


A house special, it comprised lamb and beef mince and peas bound in various spices. It was huge. In fact, it could barely be contained by the perimeter of prawn crackers fencing it in, in the manner of deep-fried riot police encircling a mincemeat mob. The bed of rice on which the dish was pivoted only added to the largesse. It was quite, spicy, too - so far, so good.


The main courses can roughly be divided into two camps: ‘Thai cuisine’ and ‘our own recipe’ (i.e. other). I tried the kamikaze curry from the latter section, intriguingly described as ‘our version of a Vindaloo but with a lot more taste.’ I expected something hot, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

However, the duck meat (available at a supplement of £1.50) was sub-par – stringy, chewy and, worse, elusive. It was a real shame. And, although the heat from the dish was phenomenal, the sauce itself was a watery soup in which could be found the odd piece of sinew or fatty duck skin. Moreover, the garlic naan I ordered on the side was straight from the shelves of Asda, via the microwave. Mrs V’s Thai red curry, meanwhile, hit the spot, but wasn’t really that spectacular.


I admire what Chang Noi is trying to do here – set up in a stalwart country pub, offering decent Asian cuisine at reasonable prices. But, on our visit, the fare was a bit hit-and-miss. Granted, they’re trying to be a bit different. Perhaps, if they concentrated solely on producing Thai cuisine of the finest quality - rather than making fusion-based deviations - they might find themselves onto a real winner. 


That said, I would return to Chang Noi on the strength of the starter alone, further ensuring that, on any repeat visit, I opted for something a bit more prosaically Thai. I do wonder how this venue will fare in light of the recent advent of Siam Village in Stockton Heath - only time will tell. 

Food: ✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓✓
Phone: 01925 730756
Tip: If ordering a kamikaze curry, be sure to put a toilet roll in the freezer before you retire for the evening.  
Chang Noi on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 14 August 2014

WARRINGTON, THE TUNNEL TOP - Light at the End of the Tunnel

Mercifully, the Tunnel Top has, of late, changed hands. I say mercifully due to the previous tenants seemingly having done their utmost to run the place into the ground – refusing to uplift the sad, dated decor, not to mention being awarded the monumental accolade of a hygiene rating of 0 out 5 from the Scores on the Doors food hygiene agency – the lowest in the entire area. 

Thankfully, the place has been given a complete overhaul by the incoming incumbents – the manky, rotting sign having been consigned to the bin, and the sticky carpet torn up and heaved into a skip. Now, it’s all about bare floors and the shabby chic. Internally, it looks great.


That said, the TT hasn't done itself many favours in terms of self-publicising – no up to date website, no online menu, an irregular Twitter feed; not even a menu board outside the pub. Get it sorted, please!


Our visit found the place dead, but that was hardly surprising given the A533 was closed that night. First things first, the prices - it's cheap. The TT has embraced its location. It isn't suffering an identity crisis. It doesn't think it's in Stockton Heath. It's fairly proximal to Runcorn, a geography it tacitly acknowledges. The most expensive main course would probably set you back around £14; far from excessive in this day and age.


My starter of pork belly with black pudding croquettes weighed in at £4.50. The pork was tender and plentiful, but I found the croquette a bit light on black pudding. I am partial to a bit of black pudding so was a bit crestfallen at its absence. Mrs V's chicken and chorizo dish was simple, but bountiful; uncomplicated, but with depth (though initially it proved difficult to behold due to the dense topiary of watercress surmounting it). The chicken was pleasingly moist and the cubes of chorizo generous.


The TT's eponymous burger proved quite colossal and, despite the patty being rather an odd shape, it was so large that the burger’s innards spilled out from the bun, as if disembowelled. Underpinned by a smoked rasher as thick as a shoe tongue, this was a burger of heft. (The bun, though, could’ve been fresher.) As interesting as ‘jenga chips’ sounded (comprising, I imagine, a stack in the shape of the titular board game), I went for the fries. 

Mrs V’s lamb tower wasn’t nearly as majestic as its lofty name suggests, but it was a damn tasty hunk of braised meat that lost all structural integrity when nudged with a fork - precisely as something braised ought to do.


Dessert of a sliver of lemon tart was pleasant, but the accompanying raspberry sorbet was so unbelievably rock hard it could have shattered teeth and, if launched as a projectile, taken some bugger's eye out.  House wine is around £12 for a pretty good Pinot Grigio.


All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, let down just a touch by the lack of atmosphere. Let’s hope the Tunnel Top learns to blow its own horn a bit more so that it might attract a clientele a bit broader in terms of demography. It would certainly be nice to see the pub thriving after years of shameful neglect.

Food: ✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓✓
Website: N/A
Phone: 01928 718181
Tip: Use your Tastecard on a Friday night

Tunnel Top on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

STOCKTON HEATH, INDISH - Indish of the Day

You just can’t beat a Ruby Murray – especially on a Friday night. It’s one of the vital necessities of life, along with dishwashers and silica gel-based cat litter. Stockton Heath deserved a pleasingly-priced curry house, if only as a counterpoint to rip-off venue the Cinnamon Lounge (roughly £13 for a bog-standard curry in there). Since opening its doors at the arse end of 2012, Indish has gradually garnered a following, and it was heartening to find the place chocker on one of the hottest nights of the year.


Now, I never usually bother with poppadoms. They fill me up. And, in truth, I’m a bit resentful about being rinsed for a couple of quid just to be able to bathe shards of the disc-shaped sundry in gloopy and off-coloured substances characterised as the ‘chutney tray’. But, when poppadoms are offered up gratis, you can be sure I’ll hoover every last crumb (in addition to any lime pickle that might have made its way to the table). And that is exactly what happens at Indish – a heap of complimentary poppadoms set down before all who arrive.


A mixed kebab starter almost uniformly hits the spot. At a bare minimum, it ought to consist of chicken tikka, lamb tikka and sheek kebab – the indispensable trinity. Though it would benefit from the addition of a tandoori lamb chop in its meaty line up, Indish’s mixed kebab starter proved a good example of the genre.


As is common practice these days, the starter arrived hissing and spitting on an oval griddle of sufficient hotness as could take the skin off your hand. I dislike this mode of presentation immensely. Unless you extricate your meaty delights quickly, they wind up chewy, overcooked and more or less adhered to the base of the dish. If you’re luck’s in, you might be offered a pair of tongs to expedite transferral. But, even with these in your armoury, you need to be quick off the blocks.

Main course-wise, I swerved the chef’s specials in favour of a staple of lamb tikka pathia. A pathia ought to be sour, a touch sweet and hot – not blow-your-head-off hot, but pleasantly warming (one notch down from a Madras on the spicy scale). Indish’s pathia met each of these criteria with aplomb. The lamb tikka was first rate – plentiful and tender. Attendant garlic naan was average, though I secretly hankered for its chilli counterpart.


I love a chilli naan. But chilli naans don’t love me, and Mrs V will seldom acquiesce to sharing such a delight. She doesn’t understand why anyone would want to consume something that possesses almost magical bowel-opening properties as to rouse the luckless diner from slumber at some ungodly hour the next morning. The garlic naan was a compromise. Her lamb saag, by the way, was exceptional – tons of meat woven in webs of rich spinach (a proportion of which had to be taken home in a foil container).  


What is it about curry house dessert menus? If not identical, they’re certainly variations on a theme. I delight in perusing their subtle differences. Will the rock-hard frozen lemon be on this menu? How about its orange compatriot? Might the ‘trufito’ be available (a cocoa-based structure that better resembles a held-open sphincter). But it’s really the kids’ desserts that offer the most entertainment – a parade of unlikely characters of a vaguely sinister demeanour.


Take Miss Daisy, an irate looking bovine, or Crazy Zoo, a creature of unknown genus which boasts a malign-sounding ‘nice surprise.’ Then there’s Punky, whose squat limbs are dwarfed by an oversized, Elephant Man head surmounted by a rigid Mohican. The elusive Barry Blue, inexplicably, is the least prevalent character by far. And yet there he was, looking up at me from Indish’s dessert menu with his irrepressible smile. I very nearly filled up. Now, I could never bring myself to actually order any of these items, but seeing them on the menu is its own satiation.   


To be a smidgen critical for a tick, there was a bit of an issue with service during our visit – too long a wait between starters and main course – but, in light of the free poppadoms and otherwise happy ambience, I really wasn’t that arsed about any delay. The bill amounted to roughly £45 and this included a higher-end bottle of New Zealand sauvignon, as weighed in at £18.

Food: ✓✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓
Phone number: 01925861919
Tip: Fill in the form that comes with the bill and they'll send you a Christmas card

Indish on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 31 July 2014


Rowing during an evening meal is just about one of the worst things you can do. That’s rowing in the sense of arguing, not the act undertaken in a small boat. Fomenting tension has a nifty ability to suddenly and unexpectedly surface (usually when drink is involved), giving rise to recriminations that are hissed between gritted teeth, so as not to attract the attention of staff or other diners (though you can be sure of achieving the opposite effect). In such a restrained environment, you can’t fully give yourself over to anger. Decorum has to be maintained, however tenuous or brittle

There’s also something elementally voyeuristic about watching people argue in such circumstances. You find yourself tuning in to the dialogue – the accusations, the lamentation - with mild titillation, followed, at length, by an in-depth dissection of what was overheard, with blame apportioned appropriately. 


And so it was recently; a mid-week chow with my old dear spontaneously subsiding into mutual bickering, hectoring and acrimony. Other people noticed. A man on the next table kept making eye contact with me, in a vaguely disapproving way. The proprietress – a lovely, vivacious lady called Debbie – almost certainly picked up on the frosty ambiance at our station. It was a real shame. We seldom row. And never over dinner. It had obviously just been building awhile. Things came to a head. It happens. 


I like Pacino’s. I always have done. It’s venerable, tucked away in the most appallingly incongruous place, amidst the Soviet tower blocks of Newtown – eye-watering monoliths that defile an otherwise blemish-free skyline. Even the recent licks of paint – from battleship grey to off-pink (a colour scheme that echoes the equally offensive Salmon Leap) – can’t abate the hideousness. You kind of feel you’re in a war zone, and it certainly isn’t somewhere you’d ever expect to find yourself of an evening. 


But Pacino’s stands as an oasis in the concrete desert. It’s a Chester institution, and you almost long for its continued success. That said, it’s survived several recessions and is still as popular as it’s ever been. If it ever threatened to close there’d be uproar. Hands would be wrung and tears shed. Even on a weekday evening it was busy. This is a place with a fiercely loyal, local following and, come the weekend, it’s reservations only.


Things kicked off – in every sense – with a goat’s cheese bruschetta. You’d think this might be perfectly unremarkable, but not so. The salty goat’s cheese was perfectly cooked, the bread crisp without being overly dry, and the beetroot relish pleasing. It was a fair size, too. 


Now, I always have fish at Pacino’s. It’s something they tend to do very well – monkfish, red snapper, halibut. The fish of the day was, on this occasion, filleted sea-bass. The word ‘filleted’ always fills me with relief, as I have very little clue as to how to negotiate a Piscean skellington without inadvertently regurgitating, hairball-like, a mouthful of jagged bones. 


The fillet was actually plural – it was colossal for a fish dish – and the roasted red pepper accompaniment leant it a slightly crunchy sweetness which complemented the meaty fish to a tee. Accompanying handmade chips were, as ever, exemplary. My old dear extolled her duck in cherry sauce, as comprised great hunks of meat cooked pleasingly rare. They’re never stingy with the portions at Pacino’s. You know what you’re getting, and you get a good feed. 


A dessert was foregone in light of the glacial atmosphere localised to our corner table, which culminated in a sudden and unexpected loss of appetite on my part. But several further glasses of wine were imbibed in the midst of the querulousness, and the bill, when it arrived, totalled a nice, round £50 for a starter, two main courses and several large vinos. Having made use of a 10% off voucher from Onionring (always worth looking out for), a fair few quid was shorn from the total. 


So, despite a proportion of the evening having been spent embroiled in anguish – tempers were frayed, arms were folded, sighs theatrically issued, bottom lips trembled, eyes drunkenly brimmed – we kissed and made up. Life is just too short - especially when you’re trying to shovel a decent bit of fish down your neck.

Food: ✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓✓
Phone number: 01244372252
Tip: Check Onionring before you go

Pacino's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


I’ve never really been one for tapas, having long since written it off as a miscellany of child-sized helpings foisted, en mass, on an invariably ill-sized table. It's not so much a meal as a collection of different things. It lacks order. It lacks cohesion. The very notion, in fact, fractures the linear narrative of starter-main-dessert (or, pour le glutton, starter-main-dessert-cheese-dessert wine-digestif-brew-petit fours &c). Any road, having heard relatively pleasant things about Pan Y Vino – and noted its heaving interior when ambling in the vicinity - I’d been meaning to give it a go. 


Now, it's probably fair to say that any rough old joint could likely make a mint just by landing in Stockton Heath. It’s that type of place – trendy, bustling, salubrious – a bit of a contrast to some of its quieter and, dare I say it, slightly less refined neighbours. 


First impressions of Pan Y Vino weren't exactly brilliant. Having booked for 8:15, we presented ourselves at the agreed time, more than ready to be spirited to a table. Rather, we were directed by a truculent waitress to a minuscule bar area (minus the chairs). ‘I’ll get someone to show you to your table’, she pledged, immediately prior to forgetting about us entirely. And so we waited, book-ended by other customers in the same predicament, and periodically jostled by flustered staff reaching across the bar to the till. It all felt rather disorganised. 

Granted, no-one else seemed particularly affronted at this abandonment; two perma-tanned ladies even crowed that ‘We don’t mind a bit of a wait, Fernando, love.’ Some of us, though – those who’d had barely a bite since lunchtime and who could, accordingly, have eaten a horse and chased the jockey – were starting to feel uneasy. One minute dissolved into twenty and, whilst in Fernando’s eye-line, I harrumphed loudly and made a big, theatrical gesture of glancing to my imaginary watch (peeling back a shirt sleeve and everything). A light came on in Fernando’s brain. This guy looks like a surly pain in the arse, he probably reasoned (correctly, at that). Best get him to his table. And so we were led upstairs without further delay. 


Following a grinding start, orders were taken with a surprising swiftness and the speedy arrival of a light-bodied Merlot served to quiet my torpor. Now, Pan Y Vino’s menu recommends ordering three tapas each if hungry, four if ravenous. Rather modestly, we opted for seven in total, in addition to bread and a ‘Mojo Rojo’ ‘fiery’ dip (which, contrary to its hyperbolic description, wasn’t particularly piquant). A platter of Serrano ham and Manchego cheese was the first to arrive. It was both generous and pleasing. But, having recently experienced the incomparable wonders of Dalmatian ham – in all its salty, jaw-achingly chewy glory – the Serrano couldn’t really hold a torch. The bread was, disappointingly, a bit ‘french sticky’; something you'd expect to have thrust upon you at Chez Jules (God help you). 


A few minutes prior to the advent of the remaining dishes, I was notified that the venison chorizo – something I’d never previously sampled and was anticipating with vigour – was available no longer. As such, I was obliged to select a lesser alternative, at speed, with the waiter hovering. The substituted item turned out to be a beef dish that rather resembled pastrami. Again, it was nice, but not earth-shattering. 


Of the remaining dishes, the highlight, by a country mile, was the rice-based black pudding with slivers of apple and a vivid, orange sauce. It was unutterably sublime. I could have had seven helpings of it and still have been as happy as a clam. It wasn't far off one of the finest black puddings of which I've partaken in recent times. Other dishes fared less well. A purported chicken croquette teemed with potato-like mush. Pan fried chorizo was good, but you can't really go wrong with that. A king prawn offering with chillies failed to leave much of an impression.  


In hindsight, seven dishes probably wasn't sufficient to satiate a raging appetite. Orders were placed for dessert and, somewhat inevitably, another hefty wait kicked in. Some twenty-five minutes later a slab of dark chocolate torte was set down before me. It was very good, flavoursome but not too rich (as confection wrought of plain chocolate is wont to be). It had finesse about it, and proved one of the evening's highlights. 


Before we were allowed to leave the premises, we were made to wait a further 25 minutes for the bill (two discrete requests having been issued for it some ten minutes apart). The tab, when it did arrive, amounted to £65 for the seven tapas, Merlot, bread and dip. In my hurry to flee, I inadvertently left a five pound tip. Not because I was impressed with the service - far from it, it was woeful - but I simply could not be arsed with another interminable wait for the change to be tendered. 


When we eventually emerged beneath a blackening sky it was knocking 11pm; a large proportion of the intervening hours having been spent waiting for one thing or another. On the whole, the food was pretty decent, a few niggles notwithstanding. Would it convert me to a tapas lover? Probably not. Would I go there again? Possibly. Having said that, the evening was indisputably marred by all the unnecessary bloody waiting and hanging about. 

The service at Pan Y Vino needs a severe boot up the backside. That said, the place possesses an army of loyal devotees in Stockton Heath that were flooding in throughout our meal. And that popularity alone gives it little reason to address what is, in all honesty, a serious shortcoming.

Food: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓
Phone number: 01925210121
Tip: Go when it's quiet

Pan Y Vino on Urbanspoon