Sunday, 28 February 2016

Restaurant Review - Pablo's Bistro, Bradford on Avon

By: Mr Robot

Pablo's Bistro, Bradford on Avon

Nestling in a valley a few miles southeast of Bath, Bradford on Avon is one of those picture-postcard chocolate-box cutesy places it's hard not to hate. The kind of place that, when presented with a valley, simply can't help but nestle in it; populated by the sort of people who read an article called "Why we should all move to Bradford on Avon" and act upon it.

However that does make it the kind of place that grows a decent food scene, of which Pablo's Bistro is a little Spanish highlight. BoA is also on one of the main train lines which is an excellent feature for the only driver in the house, who vigorously enjoys his wine.

We'd booked up for Mrs Robot's birthday and I'm pleased to report not a whiff of staff singing or surprise things with candles in - this is a grown-up place that treats its customers with respect.

It's also very very tiny. If it were one of the many boutique clothes shops displaying six frocks and a handbag you'd think, "gosh this is a bit cramped". As a restaurant seating around 25 it's, well, pretty cosy.

That said, if your idea of making friends is to gently brush someone's hair with your bottom as you head to the loo, this is definitely the place for you. The welcoming staff negotiate the space with the grace of ballerinas; we of a more heffalumpy nature must simply suck in the belly and smile apologetically.

Once we squeezed into our window seat, though, we were presented with menus as comprehensive as the place is small.

Salted Almonds, the perfect bar snack
This is proper tapas, done properly (ok, it's not free with booze, but you know what I mean) and in my pre-visit browsing I'd identified something like 17 dishes we'd desperately want to try. As it turned out we only managed 11 but by gumbo they were good.

The only disappointment came early on. We kicked off with some olives, a dish of salted almonds (an absolutely brilliant snack - I've no idea why it's not more common), Rebujitos and what they called Carne Espanol but the rest of us know as a Tabla Variada - a board of bread, meats and cheese, that's pretty much the compulsory start of a good evening.

The highlight of this should have been the Jamon, but I'm afraid that was a letdown. Soft, pale and bland, it had all the hallmarks of machine cut, plastic wrapped, supermarket stuff. This was a worry.

Excellent chorizo, membrillo with the cheese is a nice touch. Shame about the ham
Normally the Jamon is the pride of the establishment and the single biggest indicator of quality. Maybe they'd had a problem with the supplier, maybe they couldn't get the good stuff at a viable price. Whatever it was, this didn't bode well.

Chicharrones & Croquetas - both to die for
Exchanging worried glances, we returned to the menu. I went for Chicharrones, Mrs R for Croquetas de Jamon - not without trepidation since it relies on the ham and is her favourite thing in the world.

Well our fears were unfounded. and everything that followed was a delight.

The chicharrones were outstanding: succulent, crunchy and salty as could be, with the all-important squeeze of lemon. And the croquettes were perfect with tiny chunks of proper Jamon this time - golden, crisp and gooey. Just as they should be.

Mightily relieved, we went on to Tortilla (pretty much the closest we got to vegetables all evening), Pollo al Ajillo for madame and Gambas - prawns with jamon & chorizo - for me.

My prawns saw a return of the plastic ham but this time fried crisp, and it was fine alongside the chorizo, peppers and onion.

Mrs R's chicken in garlic was much more creamy that we've ever had in Spain but tasted wonderful - a luxurious pimping of the bar staple.

Left to right: Gambas, Pollo al Ajillo, Tortilla

We were starting to creak a bit by now but I had an agenda and would damn well see it through. I've lost count of the number of times recently I've opted against squid and regretted it, so I was determined to have the calamares. And it was a wise choice.

Hunny bunny
Then there was the rabbit in honey.

I've never seen this in Spain but it called to me immediately so there's no way I was leaving without it.

It was great - the flesh was perfectly tender with a sticky honey glaze, and a top layer of saltiness that rescued it from over-sweetness and made the whole thing profoundly satisfying.

Mrs R was under some duress by now, but I persuaded her to go for one more dish and she opted for Albondigas.

Meatballs (for it is they) was one of the first tapas we'd ever had and remains a favourite despite some variable experiences.

These looked homemade in the classic style, though made distinctive with big punches of garlic and smoked paprika. They were also pretty substantial (as they should be) and I won't pretend to be sorry she could only manage half of it.

I sincerely wish we'd had capacity for pudding - they have a "tapas selection of desserts" that looked particularly tempting - but by then could only have ended badly. A fine coffee and home was the sensible option.

It's a tremendous little place, Pablos, bringing authentic, classic dishes with a couple of twists of personality.

The price is pretty reasonable too - vegetable dishes around £3.50, and fish and meat coming in around £5-£6 per plate.

Our total cost was around £50 per head, including cocktails, a good bottle of red, and a last-minute bottle of Boqueron beer (excitingly, made with seawater!). Given the quantity, quality and variety of what we had, I consider that pretty good value.

Being slightly less extravagant, you could fill a very happy couple of hours for less than a night in the pub.

I can see this becoming a firm favourite - and once summer kicks in it'll be perfect for lazy afternoons of wine and eats and more wine and more eats, just as tapas should be.

All images (C) PP Gettins

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Laksa Mondays

By: Mr Robot

Back in the early years of this millennium, you could find me in Bath's Green Park Tavern pretty much any day of the week because it was
a) close to home,
b) even closer to the office, and
c) a proper pub complete with open fire and sticky-toffee carpet.

Sadly those days are long gone and the GPT has since been reinvented several times - most recently as a moderately swish (ie. clean) Smokehouse.

 It's a shameful admission that until recently I'd never actually had a Laksa. Not even made one of the sundry Nigel Slaters that are kicking around the house. But in menu or cookbook, whenever I think of it - and I do, often - there's always sometime a bit more exciting, so I do or have that instead.

Not least because I sort of thought I sort of knew that Laksa's a kind of coconutty, noodly soup, so what's there to get excited about? Which is monumentally stupid because Ohn No Khao Swe is also a coconutty noodly soup, and almost the best thing in the world. So I'm a buffoon.

Anyhoo, when word reached the Robot mailbox that Masterchef winner and pride of Bath, Ping Coombs ,was doing a Laksa pop-up at the GPT Smokehouse, we had to go.

Did I mention the lovely tables?
We spent a long time looking at them
The set-up was a good one, I think: fixed Laksa for the main course but with a few options around as starters/sides and puddings.

As already noted, Laksa in itself doesn't really make me gasp but I was interested to find out about the sides, (streetfoody stuff I hoped - win) and anyway if you're going to do the thing, this seemed like an excellent place to start.

How right I was.

It's not in my nature to be mean (honestly, no matter what you may hear) but I have to say the service was somewhat creaky. Talking to the staff afterwards, they freely admitted they'd been taken by surprise at the popularity of the event. Which is kind of daft on one level (Ping!), but also disarmingly sweet.

So seating was kind of chaotic ("just find a place - it'll be ok") but luckily we'd run into some of the nice people from the Pig Guide so we had strength in numbers.

I'm sure that, had it been just two Robots, there'd have been a lot of anxious whirring and some burnt diodes in the social-acceptibility networks. As it was, we were ok with chums.

The wait, it is true, was a tad lengthy, and some people got a bit grumpy. Personally I'm more forgiving of a pop-up; in this situation it's not the "professional" environment I'd expect from a regular night in a full-time establishment. In some ways it feels almost closer to a dinner party, even if I am paying to attend. Certainly I have a great deal more sympathy for (and identify with) the poor bugger in the kitchen. I don't know, maybe that's patronising, but I hope it's kind.

In any case, the ready supply of Exmoor ale and good company meant timing wasn't really an issue. Had it been just the two of us, there may well have been phone fiddling, thumb twiddling and eventually bickering and bitterness, but that's just us.

When the food showed up, it was a real joy.

Great sadness that the pork-scratchingy thing had sold out was balanced by the truly brilliant porky-rolly thing that was so intensely flavoured yet comfortingly tender it was little short of addictive.

Porky-Rolly Joy. As stolen by Evil Wife

I honestly can't convey how good this was. I know that's my failing and I should try harder, but it's late. When I make it myself, I'll wax more lyrical. Promise.

Mrs R had been hesitant about the prawn and chive fritters, until she tasted them. The texture was akin to onion bhaji (was it gram flour? I've no idea, but it was soft and nutty inside, which you can already imagine alongside sweetness of prawn lumps and oniony freshness so I need say no more).

Needless to say I had no such doubts, and hope to be rewarded for my faith in due course.

Oh ye of fritter faith...

The laksa itself as the main course really stood up, for me. Yes it was rich and fragrant, which I'd expected. I hadn't anticipated the strength of fish sauce*, or how well it would harmonise with everything else.

As we've recounted at length, fish sauce and all its ilk has been something of a learning curve. A couple of years ago, I'd have been actively put off by the very thing I'm praising now, because truly the fish sauciness made the dish for me.

That's the way (a-ha, a-ha) I laks....sorry

(*I can't say for sure it was actually fish sauce - it might have been mashed dried shrimps or something else I can't bear to think about. It was that surprisingly strong element, though, that both stood out in itself and enhanced everything else).

Delicious tender pork, prawny prawn, soft egg and softer noodles were all lovely, but oh that soupy sauce.

It's fair to say Mrs Robot wasn't quite as enchanted as I, but it's also fair to say she's both weird and wrong.

We didn't make it to pudding, which is a shame because there was some coconutty (possibly noodly) thing that really appealed to me.

But last orders was looming and by the time we noticed we were pretty much the last people standing - however unsteadily.

What was a real delight, though, was that Ping made the effort to come out and talk to every table, and gave everyone a good amount of time to boot.

We caught the end of that as we came in, when she was seeing to the earlier sitting whilst trying to set up for us lot.  At the end of the evening she was clearly knackered but still charming, and cheerfully willing to spend plenty of time with her punters.

There's an argument that, since she's trading on her TV success, we should expect nothing less - but I've seen enough great and not-so-great (frankly rubbish) behaviour to really appreciate the time and attention she gave us.

She even gave me the recipe for the amazing porky-rolly thing.

But I'm damned if I'm telling you.

All images (c) P P Gettins