To mark yet another centenary, we celebrate in style with a very special review venue. Can it live up to its reputation?
Saturday Kitchen’s Matt Tebbutt is the brains behind the self-admittedly weird-named restaurant Schpoons & Forx, which operates on the ground floor of Bournemouth’s Hilton Hotel. It seemed to me that such a venue would be a perfect place to review, given this marks our 400th issue. I was joined for the first time in nearly two years by my friends Kelly Kingham and Tom Herbert. Another recurring guest diner, Dan Gibson, was also invited with his girlfriend, but they were ultimately unable to attend due to ill health.
It may seem callous to lead on a negative, but the blunt truth of the matter is that our meal did not start well. In fact, it did not really start at all for the first 20-25 minutes or so, because we were seated at 9pm, and did not receive a menu or even so much as the offer of a jug of water until 9:25, before which a manager did have to be consulted. We were in full view of not only the other goings-on in the restaurant, but also the chefs hard at work in the open kitchen – a statement of confidence if ever there was one. Once the menus did arrive, on thick wooden clipboards (rather unusual for a place of its grandeur), the three of us could finally arrive at deciding what we wanted. With only a sample menu available on the website, I was not sure what to expect.
Quirky is spoken in volumes, not only in the décor, which inspires the question “How many different ways can you artistically decorate with assorted disused cutlery?” and provides a wealth of answers, but also in the selection available for starter and entrée. For example, scampi as a starter. Monkfish Scampi with Tartare Sauce and Lemon (see pictured) to be more specific. Of course, it was none of your deep-frozen breaded shellfish-style scampi that has been thawed at speed in a deep fat fryer – au contraire, chef dignified me with some freshly-battered goujons of beautifully flavoursome fish, laying very comfortably on a tangy bed of tartare sauce, which complemented it perfectly.
Where the service fell very flat at the start of the meal, it was astoundingly quick when delivering our dishes – so much so, we received our starters before the jug of water we ordered first! Kelly opted out of a starter lest she should not be able to finish her main, but Tom was in for the full three-course experience. His dish came in the form of a Beef Carpaccio with Salsa Verde and Parmesan (see pictured). In eating, we operated a sort of sharing conveyor belt, in that the three of us just helped ourselves to a mouthful of one another’s dishes. The meat of the Beef Carpaccio itself was not as flavourful as I was expecting, but then again may have simply been overpowered by the very balsamic Salsa Verde, which was teeming with olives, capers and, to my sheer delight, fresh anchovies – none of the jarred fillets here; I’m talking thin, silver slithers of salty sprat. Just delicious.
On the odd occasion when reviewing, I may have mentioned a disdain I have for mixing meat and fish in the same dish. It is just something in my experience that is not done. I nevertheless found myself completely entranced by a dish of Crispy Pork Belly with seared Scallops, Mash, and Apple & Balsamic Vinaigrette (see pictured), though ultimately this is the dish that Kelly settled on for her entrée. She was perhaps the most fortunate out of the three of us when it came to presentation – both her main and her dessert, which we will come to later, were the most attractive dishes on the table, which once again became a tasting conveyor belt. The scallops were so succulent they practically dissolved in the mouth – no chewing necessary – and the pork fell apart with the fork, brimming with the almost paradoxical saltiness one finds in such meat but also the juicy sweetness of the apple vinaigrette.
The fish-and-meat mixing was not too prevalent across the rest of the menu, I am quite glad to say, though it did crop up in Tom’s choice too. Namely, Beef Cheeks in Red Wine sauce, with Halibut and Salsa Verde (see pictured). Quite the contrast for something in the same dish. One would better expect them to be two separate courses under normal circumstances. Still, I could not pass up the opportunity to try it. The red wine sauce was so rich, it was the perfect accompaniment for the beef cheeks, which were cooked amazingly and, as with the ox cheeks I have had in the past, barely required cutlery at all, such was their tenderness. And strangely enough, the halibut did not seem out of place in there.
A dish of Pan-fried Stone Bass with a Potato Salad with Cockles, Beurre Blanc and Chives (see pictured) was that which diverted me from the crispy pork belly. The main reason being the cockles, which can be eaten both cooked or raw – a rather curious and risky thing for shellfish, it may seem. These were dotted around the potato salad that bedded my fish – our waitress had had to warn me the salad would only be lukewarm, and deliberately so, which was fine by me. It oddly enough formed a really good accompaniment to the stone bass; I would probably say it needed a little help with flavours as is common in most white fish – the tang of the Beurre Blanc helped all the more in that regard, as did the herbaceous undertones of chives and the odd note of coriander, which Tom likened to a screamer in a fireworks display – something that pops up every now and then as a distracting surprise.
Now that the service had redeemed itself somewhat in serving the first two courses so quickly, the three of us were ready for a sweeter note on which to end. Tom opted for the Cambridge Burnt Crème (see pictured). It is essentially a rather large Crème Brûlée, served with raspberries, pistachios and honeycomb. Or rather, the original Crème Brûlée. As per the late Clarissa Dickson Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame, it was a Scotsman who offered the recipe for a burnt cream dessert to the kitchens at Trinity College, Cambridge, who declined it. The Scotsman later returned as Master of Trinity and had the dish served at his inaugural banquet, though the French name is apparently for vanity’s sake. The richness of the cream, as well as the thick caramel crust and the raspberries, which were just the right level of acidity, was perfect – I must confess to being a little envious of Tom for his choice.
Not unlike that which Kelly had. As I mentioned earlier, she could pride herself on choosing the best-presented dishes on this particular meal, even if this one’s name left me scratching my head as to what it was actually supposed to be. On the menu, it is named Lemon Cream, Coconut Meringue and Rum Syrup (see pictured); if appearances are anything to go by, it struck me as a sort of Lemon Meringue Pie-Baked Alaska hybrid. Soft and creamy on the inside with a nice sharp bite of lemon flavour, while the outer texture struck me as akin to that of a shortcrust pastry. A plethora of berries adorned the plate to give extra attractiveness – a chance for the chef to show off with their food styling artistry; some of the strawberries had been carved into roses.
Finally, my pudding – an Apple Tart, laced with “Liberty Fields” Apple Apéritif and Salted Caramel Ice Cream (see pictured). Fair enough, it was a brown pudding and there was not much to say for presentation, but it is no secret that I love pastry. The size of it was enough to make me fall in love with it. It was so sweet in every mouthful, even with the Salted Caramel ice cream, which was by no means an unwelcome addition. It was made even better with the delectably alcoholic undertones brought by the apple liqueur mentioned in the menu.
Despite the very slow start that gave me cause to consider whether I had made a huge mistake bringing us to the Hilton in the first place, the three of us ultimately left the restaurant very satisfied (not to mention full). It is as pricey as an establishment of its calibre would merit, but at least there is no Nouvelle Cuisine tiny portion nonsense. They were full-sized dishes, innovative and artistic. But there is a fair bit to be desired on the service front — a communication issue that is so very often the root of many problems (as I once discussed in a column a few years ago). Perhaps we will visit again (in the same vein as our visits to the Grand Harbour in Southampton) and monitor their progress.
To kick off the next 100 issues, I welcome a double-bill from a brand new contributor. Watch this space.