What strikes the eye as a standard locals pub tucked away in the old part of Poole town is actually a rather sophisticated purveyor of the finest French cuisine. Guildhall Tavern – the subject of our latest review.
Adding their own relevant opinions to the critique is my stunning guest cast: our favourite fitness fanatic and steak connoisseur Mr Joe Hector (who you may or may not remember from our lobster Surf & Turf trip to Bournemouth’s Reef & Beef last year), our resident Frenchwoman Miss Chloé Hunt and a face rather unfamiliar to our articles, Miss Laura Marriner, who serves as our Madame of Awkward Dietary Requirements (meant in as affectionate a way possible). It was she who suggested this place, as it caters very well for the most complicated of eating restrictions and intolerances – particularly in both gluten and dairy-free dishes.
We were brought to our table to a small selection of olives and baguette pieces – complimentary to the meal, as would be expected in any restaurant in France. The debate over starters ensued; the girls decided against them, but Joe and I could not resist. His choice was the Cinq Gambas Exotique (see pictured) – that is, Pan-fried Tiger Prawns sautéed in a Pineapple, Mango and Sweet Chilli sauce with Coriander. When the salad that comes on the side of a dish looks actually more substantial, my fears are already in motion.
Fortunately, I was presented with a half-decent portion with my choice of starter – something off the specials menu: Duck and Armagnac Terrine with Kumquat Chutney (see pictures). Like so many others before it, this restaurant just cannot get the proportion right. There needs to be a lot more bread for such a large slice of terrine, especially when they put a generous portion of chutney to accompany it. But the terrine itself was beautiful – soft yet meaty, and full of rich flavour. Of course most of the taste of the Armagnac is lost in the cooking, but I’m glad to say there were still hints of brandy in the average mouthful.
Now then, Kumquats – most of you might be wondering ‘What the Hell is a Kumquat? This critic is just showing off using fancy words.’ I’m afraid they are actually a thing. A Kumquat is a citrus fruit – it may resemble an orange, but it only comes to around the size of an olive. The flavour is very similar though, and so it was a perfect accompaniment to something such as a duck-based terrine.
Moving onto the main courses, of which all four of us partook, of course. Laura and Chloé had rare and medium rare versions of the same dish – the Filet de Chevreuil à la Framboise (see rare version pictured). In English, that translates basically to a Venison fillet with a raspberry-infused jus.
This is not the first French meat dish that I have come across involving raspberries. A couple of years ago when I visited the Latin Quarter of Paris, I sampled a dish entitled Magret de Canard aux Framboises (or “Duck Margaret”, as I called it) at a restaurant called Auberge le Pot de Terre. This Venison dish was essentially the same dish – cutlets of meat paired with a raspberry sauce. And the best news? The dish is both gluten and dairy free.
While Joe went down the beef fillet route – Pièce de Boeuf au Poivre, to be precise – I was determined to have a fish dish. Before seeing the specials menu, I had pre-selected the Aile de Raie à la Provençale – a skate wing served with capers, tomatoes and olive oil – but was faced with a much more attractive option elsewhere. Lobster Thermidor (see pictured), actually.
Having had the same dish in restaurants in places like Covent Garden before, I thought I had a fairly educated expectation on the amount of meat given in a half lobster – substantial enough, I would have thought. While everything that I was presented was very nice, I cannot deny my disappointment with how much of the shellfish was just shell and Thermidor sauce, the bulk of which ended up being a dipping sauce for the large bowl of French Fries we were given for the table, alongside roasted vegetables and other such sides.
We ended the meal on a good note however, with a wide selection of desserts. The only one that fit Laura’s dietary restrictions was the Lemon Sorbet Coupe Colonel (see pictured), in which vodka is a key ingredient – even coming with a shot of it on the side.
Joe shocked me in having a dessert at all, being usually dedicated to healthy eating. He went typically French and ordered a Crème Brûlée, flavoured with Dorset honey.
Chloé was torn between two desserts on the menu. Having had raspberries with her main course, she was reluctant to choose the Hazelnut Meringue, which comes filled with them as well as whipped cream. The other thing she wanted was a dish of Profiteroles (see pictured), which, unlike regular versions of the dish, came filled with vanilla ice cream rather than regular cream. We collectively persuaded her towards them in the end.
My choice was perhaps my favourite course of the three – Gateau aux Poires (see pictured) – described as a sponge cake with toffee and pears, but to me, it was more like the most moist and sweet Sticky Toffee Pudding I have ever had. Topped with what the menu calls Purbeck Posh Toffee Ice Cream, that just added more splendour to the overall sweetness to the flavour. The pears were caramelised, and they had the same effect. Even the garnishes were beautiful – it’s not every day you come across a restaurant that will use star fruits and kumquats just to decorate a plate! In fact the only thing wrong with this dish was that when I ordered it using its French name, the waitress did not understand me (just my luck that I should try speaking French to the only non-French-speaking member of staff!)
Given we were only given two hours before we vacated the table, the four of us thought we would have to rush through the meal, and I feared we would only have the time for two courses having seen how busy the restaurant was. We were served promptly, attentively; faultlessly would be the best word for it, actually. My main issue comes to the quality of value – particularly with the lobster and the lack thereof for the seemingly reasonable £22.50 it cost. That aside, I would recommend The Guildhall Tavern to anyone in need of a fancy meal out in a restaurant with a buzzing atmosphere. This one is a strong, if late, contender for the top end of the scoreboard this year.