Friday, 31 August 2012

Brethren's Kitchen, Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

This is a perfect place for revelling in history. Properly, I mean. Not the kind of crowd-management-and-gift-shop style of tourism to which Warwickshire is prone; but where you can sit in the chapel, or the Guildhall and revel in the sheer oldness of the place. You can sit for ages and listen, to paraphrase the Welsh bloke, feeling that time passes.

Access is not too bad - mostly the usual problem with historical buildings of narrow doorways and tight corners. You can get in via the garden without visiting the Hospital but that entrance does involve steps. The cafe serves light lunches and teas, sandwiches and cakes. We had spiced ginger cake and lavender cake as we couldn't decide. The former was moist and tasty, dense and rich, not too strong an aftertaste with a gritty, sweet buttercream icing. The lavender cake was a slice of crumby cake, like a Victoria sponge, mottled with lavender seeds. Quite a subtle taste, more experienced in the aroma than in the tastebuds. Both served, noted an approving Drew, with proper cake forks. My latte was strong, not too foamy, piping hot, served in a glass mug on a saucer. Drew went for a black filter coffee which was accompanied by a generous jug of milk.

The tea rooms are not a polished-to-perfection cream tea establishment; but that doesn't matter. For a proper leaf tea and scones experience there are plenty of other places. What matters here is the location. Where else can you be in the same room where there is embroidery by Amy Robsart and the signature of the old rogue himself, Dudley? We sat outside by the colonnade overlooking the courtyard and leaned on a structure intact since the fifteenth-century with a view of the emblematic blue porcupine of Philip Sidney (steady, ladies).

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

Thursday, 30 August 2012

McDonalds, Shires Retail Park, Leamington Spa/Stratford-upon-Avon

This is the food equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey - pulpy, superficial yet unaccountably popular. Having vouchers and suffering from an attack of penury was what brought us here, but I don't avoid the place as a rule, although it certainly provokes strong feelings: Metonymic for insidious capitalism of globalization? Most ironic sponsor of sports events ever? Or the Great Leveller answering a perennial demand for cheap food?

Either way, I don't tend to go and not out of adherence to any particular ideology. It is just that the place is always too loud and too crowded; but access in both branches is fine. The thing that holds you up or makes it difficult to manoeuvre is not the seating arrangement but the number of people and the incessant meandering around looking for somewhere to sit. There is always at least one small child careering out of control and inevitably crashing into you and at least one grandad with an over-laden tray that can't properly see where he is going.

The decor in the Shires store is still bright white, while the Stratford one is greens and browns, presumably to invoke within you thoughts of earthy, organic, wholesome foodstuffs. Which it isn't. Of course it isn't. It never was and it never will be. You don't have to make a film about eating nothing but supersize portions to realize that this stuff will harm you in the long term. I had the cheeseburger, Drew had the Big Mac. The portion sizes are not large - the burger is about the size of the palm of your hand, as is the box containing six chicken McNuggets. The burger itself is served in a flat, doughy roll and the actual meat portion in both our meals was not substantial. The cheese had the consistency of melted plastic. The whole thing is drenched in tomato sauce with two gherkin slices that rendered the top bread portion rather soggy. On the second visit I went for the McNuggets, a portion of six with a nice crunchy coating. These were quite tasy, though titchy. The fries were crisp and super salty.

And I scoffed the lot. Did all the unpleasant terms associated with greed - gorged, rammed, bolted, gobbled, gorged. Partly, I suspect because there's nothing like being told something is unwholesome to make it irresistible. Partly because there is clearly some complicated biochemistry going on with whatever they do to the food that zings your taste receptors or serotonin levels. Yet it doesn't actually taste of anything. The best I can describe it is, it tastes of hungry.

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

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Blue Note Cafe, Glastonbury

Access might be problematic as the doorway is quite narrow with steps and the chairs and tables closely stacked. There isn't much room between tables so the wheelchair-tied should use the courtyard which is accessible via the entrance to the shops in the Glastonbury Experience on Market Place. On the other hand, this is Glastonbury. Good will and amiability pervade the place. You won't have to ask.

This is a vegetarian place with a decent menu of light snacky stuff to main meals - sandwiches, soups, lasagne. They also offer chips and wedges, as well as burgers with a meat substitute to appeal to a junk food clientele. I had the egg mayo sandwich at £4.25. Seriously impressive. Clearly made from scratch, thick doorstop-sliced bread, nice chunky, chopped egg in a thick glutonous mayo. I would more properly refer to it as 'chow'. Drew had optimistically provided me with a knife and fork, hinting at the more ladylike means to eat; but the portion is of such rough-cut quality the only appropriate mode is 'chomp'. The accompaniment was salad leaves with crisps that looked like Doritos. Drew opted for the jacket potato with beetroot (they had run out of coleslaw) which had the same chunky, coarse-chopped appearance. He was disappointed in one way - there were no adornments by way of stuff drizzled or glooped over the potato, no dressing on the salad and none offered. In all, the food was quite basic in the way it was served. The couple on the table next to us were feasting on a substantial repast of soup, lasagne and a beanburger; and they were quite contentedly trawling the tables for various condiments.

Since the walking would have been too much for me, Drew decide to go alone to pay his respects at the Chalice Well.

I, meanwhile, went on a pilgrimage of my own.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

St Edwards Cafe, Stow on the Wold

Oh dear. After only a short time in this establishment you won't really care that it is housed in a building from the 1700s. Time in this tea room clearly froze in the 1970s; and whereas that might sometimes give a place a charm, or unique ambience that is not the case here. In encapsulating the seventies it brings with it all the features you thought - or hoped - were long gone. Ask for a filter coffee and receive a rough-edged, cheap concotion, slightly stewed. Ask for a coke and for £2 you are given a can, and a glass. It has cost you two quid for something you could have picked up in the newsagents less that two minute's shuffle away. Still, Drew liked the coffee cake and my toasted teacake was covered in real butter.

Incidentally, he liked the place and has told me I am being unfair. For him this place is old-fashioned, rather than olde-worlde, an entirely suitable desination for an elderly relative not au fait with the world of the espresso con panna.

Access is impossible as there are steep steps up to the entrance. Not to worry.

Latte: ***** (that's 'zero')
Access: *****

Frankie and Benny's, Shires Retail Park, Leamington Spa

Although access is fine, the seating is set at right angles which makes for a rather small turning circle. Interesting that the seating consists of booths that are rather narrow. The Great Gutsby here could barely fit into the place we were offered; which is odd when you consider the menu - burgers, fries, steaks, pizza, cajun chicken.

We opted for the specials menu which is £10.95 for two courses. I had a latte which was passable, not particularly rich or strong and not very foamy; but thirst-quenching. We had garlic bread as a starter which was served as a round flatbread, sliced in triangles and consumed slice by slice, pizza-style. Certainly tasty. I had the southern-fried chicken breasts on a sesame seed bun with fries. The chicken was fine but not exceptional and the slice of tomato and lettuce was clearly only a token, which is fine. The chips were bog standard, fries-style and not particularly crispy.

The merit of this menu is the desserts. From the specials menu we had the pancakes in a toffee sauce. This consisted of a gut-busting two scoops of vanilla ice cream, two sweet pancakes, chocolate covered honeycomb, toffee crumbs and a sticky toffee fudge sauce. This is the reason why I don't get the narrow booths. It was all the major food groups - calories, sugar, and fat - and, as we all know, that's three of your five a day. This place is well worth a visit for the desserts alone. Even if you do leave with blood type A Rhesus Caramel and type 2 diabetes.

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

Snowshill Arms, Snowshill, Broadway

I thought at first that this place would be the Prancing Pony. I mean Snowshill itself is a ringer for the village of Bree in Lord of the Rings. I thought we might have happened upon a tourist haven with plush sofas and leather tub chairs. Not so. This place is a local. There are clearly concessions to visitors in the enormous sloping garden with outdoor picnic tables that teeter on the edge of the car park. Last refurbished sometime in the '80s, it has patterned carpets, bench and banquette seating with low tables. In addition, the toilets are outside. If the thought of all that down home rural ambience has caused your caramel macchiato to slip from your nerveless fingers then this place might not be for you. Not that you need worry as the food is up to scratch. Ask for a menu at the bar and you get a pad and pen to fill out your order. I had the sausage egg and chips and the portion size was certainly generous - so much so that I could not finish it. Lovely chips, crisp and golden, lightly fried egg; but the sausages. Thick, piping hot, slight crunch at the ends, real juicers. Best deserving of the name 'bangers'. Drew had the gammon with pineapple which he declared delicious. He has complained in the past that gammon can have a plastic texture but certainly not in this case. I had a latte which was perfectly acceptable, rich and foamy.

Access is not bad - there is a ramp; but the doors at the entrance are not the heavy, double swing doors you tend to get at pubs. Here they are more like conservatory doors, rather narrow and you might have a limited turning circle. But Snowshill itself is no terrain for the faint hearted. This is the countryside proper. Even the playground equipment at the bottom of the garden was robust climbing frames more suited to the hardy country physique; but with patience and effort, you can make it from the car park to the pub. Just mind the ramblers. And don't trip over a hobbit.

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

Stratford Kebab House, Stratford-upon-Avon

This does what you expect it to. Serves chips, kebabs, burgers, wedges all very cheap, served in polystyrene boxes, cash only, stays open til 3am at the weekend. It is principally green, formica, wipe clean surfaces with no seating except a park bench. Food is cooked on a griddle while you wait, staring at the display of pre-prepared stuff, half wishing that you had chosen something else.

My default meal is the cheeseburger with chips. White roll, decent-sized burger with a thin, near-transparent slice of processed cheese. Yes, it does cook to a texture like melted plastic but it does not taste that way. The chips are thin-cut, fries style, quite heavily salted, but golden and crispy. A recommended alternative are the wedges. Sizes can vary from quarters to halves of potatoes, soft and fluffy on the inside, coated crisp and crunchy on the outside. There are plenty of add-ons offered including a selection of salad items. When your other half remembers that you never have the salad, greatness is his. That's when you know you picked a good 'un.

This is all the stuff you are not supposed to eat, that causes outrage and sneering at fat people, in a culture where food is an easy scapegoat for moral decline. All the more reason to enjoy this food for the sinful, antisocial indulgence that it is. Don't be polite or modest. Order, then gorge unceasingly. Upset the food fascists - cram and wedge and stuff your face in an unrelenting orgy of gluttony. Do this in public whilst stone cold sober.

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