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

Sunday, 13 July 2014


I'm arrived back from a week in Split, a Dalmatian city on the Adriatic coast whose snaking, Venetian streets radiate from the palace of the third-century Roman emperor who retired there. Upon arrival, I did the usual holiday things - donned skimpy attire I'd not usually be seen dead in; applied the SPFs with such fervour as to smell like an abused coconut; and regarded the tidal wave of pan-European youth in town for the Ultra 2014 dance music festival, with something approaching peeved opprobrium (their spry appearance and demeanor contrasting wildly with my increasingly aged and curmudgeonly outlook). 


As is always the case with city-break style holidays, there was an untold plethora of places to eat. So many, in fact, that neither measure nor limit could be set upon them. That last statement may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. 


Comparing Split's panoply of restaurants to the dwindling numbers in my own, quasi-rural Cheshire back yard - well, that's like night and day. In most British towns, the advent of a new eatery - and a chain one at that - would probably cause little more than a ripple of interest. But in Runcorn, an outsized, Soviet-style overspill that could probably have been designed by Stalin himself, this is a big occasion. 


There is a dearth of dining in Runcorn. It is, by and large, gastronomically moribund (save for a decent Italian and a perfectly serviceable curry house). Into this starved hinterland marches the Beefeater. Located in Preston Brook - the village in which the canal meets the Guinness factory meets the motorway - the eponymous pub-diner is, in fact, bolted onto the Premier Inn (and supplants the previous incarnation: the second-rate Table Table).


We booked ahead prior to our introductory visit, and were glad to have done so. The place was chocker. The hoards had obviously heard about this new venture and were descending in vast numbers. The staff had to turn people away. Those of us with reservations, though, wafted through the melee and, oblivious to the apparent chaos about us, were seated and soon after sated by virtue of the arrival of a lustrous Pinot Grigio so dry it was near wizened.


Now, I really must stop ordering pate as a starter. It’s becoming a recurring theme on here, and one that’s liable to induce chicken liver-based deju vu (not to mention tedium) in any readership (if indeed there is one). That said - this incarnation was pretty decent. It had the usual blandishments – a small jar of chutney on the side, a clutch of perfectly-symmetrical sour dough toasts. That’s pretty much all I can say.  


The staff were flogging knock-down rib-eye steaks for £11.99 as a manager’s special and, though I longed for something a bit more adventurous, I couldn’t pass up on reduced rib-eye. To have done so would have been wrong on so many levels. I may have mentioned previously that I like my steaks still alive and mooing. And, given the inability of a lot of venues to correctly cook a steak to order, I always ask for mine rare. What I invariably receive is a slab that’s more medium than bloody – not unpleasant, you understand, just not what I wanted.


Well, this rib-eye was as rare as hen’s teeth. As I dissected it, a bloody ooze encircled, moat-like, my chips and salad – the tide fusing with my béarnaise sauce to form a kaleidoscope of bleeding beige. My appreciation of this feat was relayed to the kitchen, at which point our waitress advised that the Beefeater’s steak-hands had, prior to its opening, been forced to attend a two-week beef boot camp (as incredible as that sounds, and I’m still not convinced she wasn’t having us on) in which they learnt to master, Jedi-like, the rendering of the perfect steak. Whatever next, ay?


I was moved to ecstasy by all this, and saw fit, in my reverie, to order a dessert that I didn’t really want and couldn’t really manage (two of a possible four trouser buttons were already undone by the time I made my selection of Eton Mess). What arrived was adequate, but had a rather bought-in feel about it. I may be wrong on that score, but my senses were, by this stage, dulled by a vast intake of Pinot. 


The bill amounted to around £70, which wasn't bad considering two prime steaks were involved. By the time we left the throngs were still pouring in, crowding the exit in their eagerness to see what the fuss was about. The advent of a Beefeater is is a big deal for Runcorn. Long may it beef continued. 

Food: ✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓
Phone number: 01928 716829
Tip: Hi Life Diner's Card accepted Mon-Fri
The Preston Brook on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


Despite being located but a stone’s throw from my abode, I’d only ever been to the Chetwode Arms once. I found it to be expensive - astronomically so – and could still recollect with alarming clarity the palpitations, chest pains and shortness of breath that accompanied the arrival of the bill. On a positive note, Pete Waterman was there that evening. Apparently it’s his local, and he’s mighty attached to it. He would never, by all accounts, give it up, let it down, run around or desert it (to quote Waterman protégé Rick Astley, Newton-le-Willows’ most notorious musical exponent). 


This is as picturesque a country pub as you could ever hope to encounter. Located just off the A49 – a road so appealing to tractors that they feel the need to converge on it in vast numbers during rush hour – it sits roughly equidistant between Warrington and Northwich. The proprietors are South African and, whilst this influence doesn’t predominate in terms of the menu’s composition, it certainly informs it a smidgen. The specialty here is hot rocks – cook-it-yourself dinners comprising hunks of hissing meat on a molten slab. The pub’s interior is labyrinthine. It is riddled with nooks and crannies in which can be found hot rock-endowed diners browning meat with a captivated zeal. 


Upon being seated, we ordered a house white at £17.50 from the rather pricey wine list. It was decent, actually, and as dry as could be – ideal for quaffing in the not-unpleasantly smoky atmosphere. I went for the duck pate starter, which arrived in its own porcelain vessel, and was capped by offerings of fruit and chutney, alongside a heap of salad. I’ve never had blackberries dipped in pate before. It felt gluttonous. It felt wrong. But I couldn’t help shovelling them all down - whole, in the main. The pate itself was a touch on the runny side, but – thankfully – fiercely rich. Accompanying toasted brioche lent an almost sickly sweetness I hadn’t expected, contrasting nicely to the hearty pate. 


My hot rock main arrived a short time later. One can choose from a dizzying array of game meats which, by and large, once roamed the grasslands of Southern Africa – Wildebeest, Springbok, Eland, and Impala. Surely David Attenborough would approve. On this occasion they had a selection of ‘guest’ meats on special – Argentinian horse being one example (a ridiculously cute equine quadruped), Alpaca another. 


I’ve never been that mad on the prospect of tucking into members of the camel family. They just don’t look that appetising. You’d think they’d be all sinewy, what with all the roaming across endless expanses of emptiness and the like. The alpaca’s no real exception. Our Lass owns a teddy bear made from Alpaca fiber. It is a soft as you like, and exudes a distinct, if rather questionable aroma. It’s had a stint of rotten luck in the shape of a feline nemesis that's rather partial to throttling the thing whilst simultaneously applying rapid, disembowelling strokes to its lower quarters. 


On this occasion, I decided to stick to more familiar territory. It was going to be the so called ‘Forrest Gump’ for me i.e. wild boar and fillet steak. (How this relates to the eponymous book/film is unclear.) The boar was akin to pork but gamier and, as I determined in the early hours of the next morning when gripped with gut-wrenching cramp, could probably have used some more cooking than the thirty-seconds-on-each-side that I allowed it. Accompanying fillet steak was exemplary, as thick as your wrist and exquisitely tender. Needless to say, it was barely shown to the hot rock. Brown on the outside, cold in the middle – that is what it’s all about. I’d probably have eaten it raw, if truth be known. 


Various accouterments were served up with the meats: mushrooms, onions, some rather greasy home-fried chips, as well as the world’s most colossal onion ring, the latter surmounting the towering fillet that loomed from the hot rock as a monolith – as a trawler through fog, if we’re going to get all poetic about it. Our Lass went for a home-made pasta dish which she extolled as wondrous beyond belief. It featured in its midst several shell-on king prawns whose exoskeletons were swiftly and mercilessly pulverised by nimble, adroit digits. But, at £19, that dish was relatively steep. It might well be the most expensive pasta in living memory. 


Suffice to say, I was stuffed after putting all that away. I had, mid-course, deftly unfastened a trouser button so as to release the fleshy subsidence that near threatened to spill from my jeans. It was all getting too much. My eyelids started to grow heavy. I was feeling weary. It was time for a lie down, surely. And, as delicious as several of the desserts sounded, no way was I having one. 

Most pleasingly, I didn’t suffer the onset of a coronary embolism upon becoming acquainted with the tab. It stacked up to roughly £70 all in and, although some of the dishes were on the expensive side, the amount of scran that was forthcoming probably justified the brass I coughed up. Besides, if it’s good enough for Pete Waterman, who am I to argue? I’m sure some folk would consider themselves exceedingly lucky, lucky, lucky to find a quirky hostelry such as the Chetwode Arms on their doorsteps - in their imagination, there’d be no complication – they’d be chowing down there all the time.

Food: ✓✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓
Value: ✓✓
Phone number: 01925 730203
Tip: Hi Life Diner's Card accepted Mon-Thurs

Chetwode Arms on Urbanspoon Square Meal