Monday, 29 March 2010

A small taste of Essex

Living so close to and working in central London, there’s always a new restaurant opening, not to mention the hundreds of already established eateries around the capital - which leaves diners literally spoilt for choice on any given evening. With such an array to choose from, I find that I tend to neglect the local cuisine on offer here in Essex.

So my friend and I decided to book a table on a Saturday evening in March at The Manor, Rainham. The Manor is a hotel and restaurant located on the Berwick Pond site that reopened a few years ago after a complete refurbishment. It’s interior is very simple, yet elegant with classic neutral colours throughout which immediately impressed Jenni and I - the local competition is made up of 3 or four pubs, that have seen far better days!

Not wanting to fully sacrifice a night on the tiles, we requested an early 7 o’clock table, and so were surprised to find the place busy on arrival - and simply buzzing by the time we left. We found the staff incredibly attentive and professional - again a far cry from other local establishments.

The menu is not what you could describe as vast, by any means, however I found myself drawn to at least 3 or 4 dishes on both the starter and main course menu, as it all sounded sensational. After careful consideration I opted for a Chicken, Bacon and Potato Terrine with homemade chutney. I have to admit that a contributing factor of this decision was pure curiosity - I’ve wanted to try a terrine for a while. When it arrived, it was presented beautifully and I was not disappointed. The flavour and texture were like nothing else I’ve ever tasted - the salty bacon surrounded a mixture of herby chicken with thin layers of potato. The chutney, was more like diced beetroot, and the only minor complaint was that this could have done with a little more moisture, but that is if I’m being very picky.

Jen’s starter filled me with food envy immediately, I’d liked the sound of it on the menu, and after pinching the obligatory spoonful, I found myself fighting back an urge to cry out ‘I want that one’ in the restaurant - luckily a great deal of self-restraint prevented me. She had an Almond and Butternut Squash Risotto and it was cooked to absolute perfection. With just a smattering of parmesan, the almond flavour mixed with the squash made it perfect for someone with a sweet tooth, like myself.

For a main I chose Sea Bass with Vanilla Mash, Pancetta, Peas and Clams - one word - divine! Again with my sweet tooth, the vanilla mash was delicious, the fish was cooked beautifully to the point where it just melted in the mouth, and the salty pancetta and clams provided the perfect contrast to the sweet mashed potato. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish.

My friend also went for a fish dish; Cod with Butterbeans and a Pesto Ragout. This again, was scrumptious, cooked well and ticking all of the right boxes. A selection of vine, roasted tomatoes finished this dish off and helped make the presentation.

Being a greedy sort, I’m never one to turn down a dessert and despite being fairly full, I have to say in this instance - thank goodness! Jen and I finished our meal off with fresh fruity sorbets, Jen went for a mango number and found it full of flavour. I opted for a lime concoction and it was truly amazing. Sharp citrus shot through my mouth, instantly cleansing and refreshing my palette. The sorbet really packed a punch and the chunks of lime zest helped to make an interesting texture too. As sorbets are often sen as a healthy option, I’m so pleased to mention these were served with a still-warm brandy snap biscuit, which was buttery, crunchy and helped to up the calorific intake superbly.

Jen and I completely enjoyed our meal. We paid around £80 for both of us, including a couple of alcoholic drinks and enjoyed the lively atmosphere of the place and the friendly, efficient service. I love London and enjoy trying out all it has to offer, but after a fabulous evening at The Manor, it has persuaded me to try out a few more places closer to home in the future - so watch this space……..

To book a table or room at The Manor call 01708 55 55 86 or visit

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

An homage to National Pie Week - Pie, Mash & Liquor

For those of you who are unaware, we are currently slap, bang in the middle of National Pie Week. A week that aims to celebrate and unveil the best pies in all of the land.

The finalists for the coveted foodie award included Smoked Fish & Cider Pie, Venison & Stilton Pie, Fudgey Apple Pie and Blue Cow Pie (basically steak with Stilton), but the winner was a Wye Valley Pie which included chicken, asparagus, leeks, potatoes and Tintern Abbey cheese - all locally produced in its ingredients.

None of these creative and luxurious contenders, though they sound scrumptious in their own way, could in my opinion, ever compete with the humble pie found in the traditional Pie, Mash & Liquor Houses scattered around various parts of London.

Hailing from Victorian London, these old-fashioned food outlets have long been popular amongst the working class. With their plain tiled walls, bench-like seating and often non-matching crockery, Pie & Mash Shops are easily comparable to the style of a greasy spoon cafe.

The pies are filled with a minced beef in a rich gravy-like saucel some places do now offer variations on this, but being I traditionalist I would never deviate from the original. The iquor for those of you who have never had the pleasure, is a white-green parsley based sauce, normally made from the stock of the stewed eels, that are also a speciality in these shops. Liquor may vary from shop to shop in thickness and hue - I have experiened liquor in some very vivid green shades before!

Mostly prevalent in East, South and some parts of North London, and spilling out into areas of Essex, Pie & Mash Shops are still seeing a massive trade, not just with the older generations but with youngsters too. Shops such as Maureen's Pie Shop in Poplar, now offer frozen pies to their customers as well as catering functions such as weddings, and even funerals.

Growing up in Essex, in a family full of former and current East Enders, Pie & Mash was always a regular and welcome treat for me, synonymous with days out, visiting favourite aunties, grandparents and cousins.

To this day, walking into a Pie & Mash Shop makes me feel as though I am being wrapped in a very warm and comforting blanket - I suspect this stems so many happy childhood memories, of fun days spent with the family and being generally spoilt by a host of older relatives.

Aside from all the nostalgia, I happen to find the meal of Pie & Mash a very filling and delicious one. It isn't something I have on a regular basis, but I find that every couple of months I find myself craving what I think of as a plate of the East End's Finest.

As a little girl I proclaimed that when I grew up I wanted to be a 'Pie,Mash lady', a career ambition that although has passed me by, I now recognise this was my childish way of thinking that I could have an endless supply of my favourite food.

Although to those for whom Pie & Mash is alien, the dish may sound dull and boring, I predict that any person who enjoys food, especially food with a story to tell, will enjoy this simple, historical and hearty dish.

Bistro_Becs Top four tips for eating Pie & Mash

1. Always eat with a spoon and fork - never a knife

2. Always apply liberal amounts of vinegar - preferably chilli vinegar to compliment

3. As above but with black pepper

4. Always eat in the shop rather than taking away - it is always SO much better

Bistro_Becs Top four Pie & Mash Shops

1. The Eel & Pie Shop, High Road, Leytonstone

2. Maureens Pie Shop, Chrisp St Market, Poplar

3. M Manze's, Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey

4. G. Kelly's Pie Shop, Roman Road, Bow


M Manze on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Tinto Lounge - Gloucester Road, Bristol

Weekends spent out of London for me generally entail the following three factors as a matter of course; great restaurants, copious amounts of alcohol and exploring and shopping on a hangover of varying degrees of severity.
Spending the weekend in Bristol with my younger brother Daniel (a student) and our friend Stephanie (another student) proved to be no exception.
Fully armed with the knowledge that funds were at an all-time low for the other two, my culinary expectations for the weekend were not high.
On Friday night we enjoyed some drunken singing and dancing at Java, a Park Street nightclub and then spent Saturday afternoon in the city of Bath, taking in the Pump Rooms, some fabulous prints at The Victoria Art Gallery and of course, Bath Abbey. We then headed back to Bristol and took in a few late afternoon drinks in The White Lion Pub, overlooking the stunning views over Clifton Suspension Bridge.
On Daniel's suggestion we headed in the early evening to the Tinto Lounge - a fairly casual Spanish themed cafe bar on the busy Gloucester Road, for a hearty, yet very reasonably priced meal. The place was absolutely buzzing with atmosphere and the mixture of people included families, couples and groups of friends.
There are no menus, just two big boards on either sides of the restaurant, which offers the perfect opportunity to people watch occupiers of the other tables under the guise of perusing the menu.
A selection of three tapas dishes cost £7.50, including bread and oil, which I thought was incredibly good value as they were generous portions, enough to fill one student tummy adequately.
However we each went for a main meal, following some ciabatta bread with oils. I opted for pork chop on crushed potatoes in a chestnut mushroom sauce with seasonal green vegetables. The pork and the creamy sauce were fantastically cooked and very tasty. The potatoes were quite bland, lacking in any seasoning at all, which was a shame, but as I'd been unable to resist some potatas bravas to share, and in light of the fact the dish cost less than £10 I feel it would be in very poor taste to grumble.
Daniel and Stephanie both went for the same dish - apparently a favourite, and I soon tasted why. A chorizo, crayfish and chicken jambalaya which was simply bursting with flavour. A spicy heat enveloped the rice and fragrant flavours made the tongue tingle, whilst the chorizo element kept the Spanish theme running throughout.
There are jugs of water dotted about the intimate restaurant where you are able to fill up throughout your meal and diners are invited to order and pay for their meal at the bar prior to eating it, which although slightly alien in restaurants, means that once you have finished, there is no waiting around for the waiting staff. It is almost an upmarket fast food outlet.
Our meal for three cost under £40 including wine and we all left full and satisfied. This really is a great place to enjoy a meal with friends or family, especially if you are on a budget.
Some say you get what you pay for, but here the price was low, but the standard was higher in some respects that in much pricier restaurants. The presentation may not have been Michelin-starred, but what was lacking was more than made up for in its warm, friendly charm.
The place was running alive with people, laughter and the sound of glasses clinking, and as we vacated our table there was an eager gaggle of girls waiting to occupy it, so it is clearly a winning formula and a place I would fully recommend trying out for yourselves.
To find out more about the Tinto Lounge please call 0117 942 0526 or visit