Thursday, 31 May 2012

Box Brownie, Stratford-upon-Avon

This is at the top of Henley Street, next to the Magic Shop. Small, but indeed perfectly formed. My latte was a brand called Monmouth - fresh ground beans elegantly served in cup and saucer. Tastes like phone sex with Alan Rickman. Rich and dark with a caramel aftertaste.

The bacon roll was just right for this gluttonous gourmet. If I was writing for a tabloid newspaper I'd call it a 'thick rasher salty smasher'. Molten filling sizzling on my tongue, cool bread sticking to my lips. Love the illicit thrill of licking my crumby mouth and running my tongue along fat-gleaned teeth.

The open front of the shop makes access easy although the interior is claustrophobic. Sit outdoors if you possibly can. The layout and position of the furnishings make it one of the best people-watching spots in town. All the activity makes it a good spot for the writer in you. Especially if you're feeling - as I was at this point - slightly brooding and melancholy. I started drafting the first chapter of the Great British Novel; but somehow my pen dragged itself into an angsty meditation on lost love.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

One Elm, Stratford-upon-Avon

This has always been a very chi-chi destination and the current d├ęcor endorses this. Last time I went there were tub chairs and tall stools and the colour scheme was shades of brown. Now there is a vintage feel - Windsor chairs, artfully mismatched crockery, slightly scarred tables and peeling paint on the pillars. I was slightly puzzled by the framed front covers of Private Eye. I am assuming the intent is to appeal to the blue collar, Guardian-reading clientele. Makes a change from Shakespeare, I suppose.

Still, my latte was nice. Served in a tall glass with the sugar presented in an old Tate & Lyle tin, in my case the red treacle tin. There is also a small dish of about 10-15 Smarties to accompany. For me, preferable to nuts or olives and a pleasant change from the biscotti. Or the ubiquitous individually wrapped malted biscuit that is passed off as one. Drew liked the wine, fairly chilled. Bottled still water was great - teeth-tinglingly cold which, it has to be said, is not always the case.

This is another expensive place, though. Nearly a tenner for large wine and a latte. Go on the special offer nights if you are on a budget. The chips are lovely - thick cut and crispy, mahogany on the outside, fluffy and white on the inside. Cod has a rich, quite dark batter but a melt in the mouth quality. All served with a generous quantity of garden peas and tartar sauce.

Access was fine but the front door is rather heavy so you will need assistance. It could be troublesome when crowded so stick to the tables near the entrance. It is also very 'echoey' due to the plethora of wood so it can be a very loud place even if no one is really raising their voice. Ideal for: taking someone you want to impress, your boss or your colleagues. Judging by the clientele there tonight it is - and has always been - the destination of the high-end office worker.

Latte: *****
Access: *****
Chips: *****

Monday, 21 May 2012

Ikea, Coventry

I admit it. I could not resist reading stuff out in a cod-Swedish chef accent. Immature, I know. For the layout of this restaurant think city centre department stores circa 1986/7. Start at one end, collect tray, slowly shuffle past cakes, sandwiches and cold drinks, inching forward ever hungrier, waiting for someone in front of you to make a decision, bounce up and down on heels every time you come to a standstill, until you finally get to the hot food. Then, as in the good old days, the till is by the drinks so you end up having walked in a U-shape. This is the kind of establishment where you have to know how it all works and then you can navigate food lines, drinks queues and seating with ease, as did many of the younger kids. In fact, if you get a bit stuck, I would advise asking a nearby eight year old how you do something. There aren't really any staff about and from what I could see of the baffled number at the drinks machines it was the kids sorting out the adults.

Choice is limited and my usual lack of imagination meant that I had the fish and chips. Drew went native and had the meatballs, served with a slop of jam and gravy with a side of chips. My meal was nothing special, unspectacular fish and not very warm chips. The meatballs tasted exactly like a tin of Campbells meatballs - I kid you not. I had a strawberry tart which was perfectly edible although a little bit runny. We did not have coffee as I was slightly baffled by the system. It looks as though you pick the appropriate sized receptacle, pay at the till then shuffle forward to machines where you serve yourself.

This was a Saturday afternoon so it was about as crowded as it ever gets. Access is not too bad when getting the food, but the insistence on laying out tables and chairs in long refectory-style lines makes it difficult. People naturally gravitate toward the ends of these tables and if you are carrying oxygen - or in a wheelchair - you can't get to the middle section. Kudos though in that they supply a means of comfortably carrying more than one tray, a little trolley with wheels. Good for families, but also useful if you are a little unsteady on your feet.

Watch the pricing. Fish and chips is advertised at a reasonable £3.95 but on scrutinising the bill we had been charged £4.95. Drew opted for the large meatballs (insert own joke here) at £4.75 but was charged £5.75. Perhaps a charge is incurred when you say 'yes' to, say, gravy, jam, or tartare sauce.

I would say, only go here if you are intending to mooch around the store. It is not worth a special journey to have a meal. I should, however, point out that though the place was busy, chaotic and noisy most people seemed to be having a good time.

Access: *****
Chips: *****

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

White Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

This had been refurbished and rejuvenated from a tired olde worlde 80s decor to a rather chic and smart gastro bistro. New bar, new reception entrance and plenty of tables and chairs outside including lining the side passageway which was previously rather a redundant space. The tables and chairs overlooking Rother Street and Wood Street are a sun trap. Admittedly the view is of traffic and shops but it is an excellent spot for people watching. This is a great spot, surprisingly quiet and perfect for a hot day and there is always a slight breeze. Access is easier through the Reception area at the side; if you just want the bar go in through the Rother Street entrance as there is a step down from the bar itself to the seating area. Alternatively, do what I do and dispatch handsome young men to get your refreshments. Indoors there are some magnificent chairs, big, sturdy and throne-like (think RSC History Plays circa 1960s). Some of them are crying out for re-enactments of scenes at the Boar's Head. Bagsy the largest chair by the front window for my showstopping Hal.

The chips are amazing. Crisp to a satisfying crunch, golden and piping hot. Chips of this calibre deserve unrestrained blissful guzzling. The sandwiches were good, served on a wooden platter for a pleasingly artisan feel. Accompanying salad was just leaves but a reasonable side of crisps.  There was no problem when one of us wanted to add cheese to the gammon sandwich - no extra charge was added - and the tomatoes on the gammon were considered by one of us to be generous.  Similarly, when of our number wanted a toasted teacake and the waitress told us they had run out - apparently they have their busiest time between about 10am and 12 when they serve mainly coffees and teacakes - she then went out of her way to try to provide an alternative.

The coffee, it has to be said, is not good. I have been on several occasions to have just a coffee and the standard has been low every time. Served in a glass with a saucer, it is a thin, rather sorry brew. Sometimes overly strong with no foam, sometimes served as half-coffee, half-foam. Service style also varies. It sometimes comes on a tray with a bowl of chunky sugar lumps and milk, sometimes on a tray with just sugar, sometimes no tray, sometimes a biscuit, sometimes two, sometimes none.

Access: *****
Latte: *****

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Vigour Cafe [formerly McKechnie's], Stratford-upon-Avon

This is an independent coffee shop on Rother Street, one of the very few independent establishments in the town. Access is fine, especially in warmer weather where the front opens out, but you might need help when the doors are closed to keep out the cold.

We opted for the breakfast baps. I had sausage and egg, Drew went for sausage and bacon. This was certainly a good choice. This was a breakfast bap of magnificent proportions. A proper burger-sized roll with two sausages; the egg was fried in a ring so the texture of the white was dense and smooth, with a glossy just-about-runny-but-not-enough-to-make-a-puddle yolk. The sausages were compact, full of earthy rough-cut flavour. 

The meal comes accompanied with a salad - well, with three tiny rocket leaves which met with my approval. It shows a sense of humour; a witty riposte to the endless attempts by many places to serve breakfast rolls with a damp salad, in a vain attempt to make you think you are getting more for your money. Or to make you think that you have chosen a healthy option.

Coffee is not hot but I gather that is deliberate. Not a problem as it makes the coffee more sluggable, if you are after something to quench your thirst rather than savour. My latte was tasty and smooth, served in a mug and saucer. It's a brand called Formula 6, from the James' Gourmet Coffee Company, and has quite a dense texture and foam with a slightly nutty aftertaste. This makes it the perfect accompaniment for Drew's option, the seasonal pumpkin latte, adding a kind of nutmeggy aroma to the drink. This was a regular sized mug which was huge - would be designated a 'large' in a franchise establishment and priced accordingly.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Asda Living Cafe, Stratford-upon-Avon

The sort of place you would not be surprised to hear the staff routinely call all customers 'm'luv'. This is the destination for elderly women bent over jacket potatoes and harassed teen moms and their hyperactive offspring.  It is invariably busy, quite a lot of clattering, chinking noises counterpointed by a pinging microwave, shouting children and the creak of aging bones. Food choice is basic - sandwiches, jacket potatoes all having a cheese or tomato base. Good cake choices both the muffin variety and sponge-filled. Coffee is a bargain, a mere £1.60 for an good-sized small Americano.

I have been here several times as I cannot complete a round trip of the store without a break and it is perfect for just that. More comfy chairs and sofas than most places. A good vantage point for people watching is the window but the view over the store is just as good.

Access is excellent. There is a lift to the first floor and the staff are sensitive to mobility problems. Whether in wheelchair or struggling with sholley I have always been offered assistance virtually before I realized I might need it. And always been called 'm'luv'.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Old Thatch Tavern, Stratford-upon-Avon

The food is amazing. My haddock and chips was referred to as 'whale' and chips by the waiter and it is certainly a humungous whack of haddock. Crunchy, dark batter, chips were lovely but nothing special. Drew had the roast of the day and cleared his plate. Generous on the beef and the added novelty of gravy served in a separate boat. This is the first place I have been where staff know about the food they serve - Drew's roast of the day was deemed a 'good choice'; and I overheard staff recommending dishes to other customers which sounded like they had eaten the food themselves rather than simply offering a rote recitation of the 'specials'.

As the name suggests this is full on olde worlde, low-beams-and-real-ale decor with a small area for drinking and a separate space for 'diners only'. So, no access is not good. If you are in a wheelchair, forget it. I managed with the oxygen-tank-and-sholley combo but felt self-conscious and 'in the way' not by the the waiting staff I hasten to add; but if you are asked to move tables, as we were, it is a thorough bloody nuisance trying to manipulate the equipment in such a confined space.

This is not a summer place. Having been in autumn/winter it has a better ambience for the colder, darker months and is a fab stop off for the Mop. This is ideally where you bring guests on their first visit to Stratford to get a first hand Tudorish Elizabethany sort-of-Shakespearean ambience. Think Birthplace with wi-fi and chips.

Access: *****
Chips: *****