I love going out to dinner, especially to places that have a unique character. Fortunately I live in Belgium, in the heart of Europe, famous for its Burgundian lifestyle and surrounded by interesting culinary neighbours, each with a distinct focus and flavour.
A few days ago, the top 50 of the world's best restaurants was revealed, and I was happy to see that 2 of the top 20 restaurants were places I consider 'local'. Hof van Cleve - #15 and Oud Sluis - #17 are both less than an hour's drive away from where I live.
If I would ever get tired of those, there are 5 more top 20 restaurants in Paris, which is less than 3 hours away, and of course there's The Fat Duck in Maidenhead, just past London, about 4 hours.
My novel is set in the Cotswolds, so I spend quite a bit of time in England. I'm lucky to have great friends in the area, who love good food (and wine) as much as I do.
A few years ago, one of those friends introduced me to 'The Horse & Groom', a restaurant in the Cotswold village of Upper Oddington, England, and it's become my favourite in that area.
I've posted this review on my side-project blog 'The Enchanted Traveller' before, but in honour of my 'Restaurant' topic, I thought to give it a place here as well.
Part of the bar and dining area. Nov 2010.
There are so many aspects to 'The Horse & Groom' I like, it's hard to say what I like most.
First of all: it is cosy, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Simon Jackson, the owner, welcomes his guests warmly and really goes out of his way to make you feel at home.
The inn itself is a 16th century building and its character has definitely been preserved, even though the interior has a more contemporary rustic touch now.
As soon as the weather gets damp or chilly, the fireplace is lit, which fills the space with a warm glow and a scent of burning wood that is just right for a perfect evening full of joy and good conversation.
Window seats near the fireplace. November 2010.
The seasonal menus offer a wide range of choices, without being so overloaded that it becomes difficult to choose.
Dinner menus contain about 6 to 7 starters, mains and desserts, and a few side orders. On top of these, there are daily specials on the board.
The vegetarian options are equally attractive, very well prepared and with the same amount of care put into flavours and textures as is the case with the other dishes.
The prices are fair, possibly at the higher end of what you'd expect in a village inn, but the quality of the food is so superb that what you pay is more than justified.
The chef, Jason Brewster, works with local produce as much as he can, and is committed to really cooking from fresh. As a result, everything you get on the table has been prepared in house and is just bursting with flavour. He and his kitchen team bake their own bread, make the stocks, sauces, chutneys, ice creams, puddings, even smoke the meats and fish.
Simon at work. November 2010.
This is all wonderful, but as far as I'm concerned, the characteristic that really sets the Horse & Groom apart is that Simon knows his wines. He knows them, and he loves them.
He will not push his knowledge on you or bore you with endless descriptions if you're not interested in wines, but when he spots that spark, and you get him talking, you immediately see that this is no marketing gimmick or put-on pretentiousness.
He genuinely cares, about the wines as well as the stories behind them: who has made them, what makes them special, and what you could drink them with to experience them in the best possible way.
The Horse & Groom offers over 25 wines by the glass, which gives you a lot of flexibility when you're dining with a smaller group - or if you just like variation.
To get an idea of the extensive selection, have a look at their wine list here.
(For completeness' sake: they seem equally passionate about their beers, but I'm more of a wine person so I can't speak from experience there.)
'Wine Staircase' in a cosy corner. Nov. 2010.
If you're in doubt which wine to choose, depending on what you like and/or what food you're having, you can always ask for advice. If someone else is taking care of your table, don't hesitate to ask if Simon would have a minute. He's definitely the man you'll want to talk to.
If you're getting a dessert, which I'd really recommend, you might want to consider one of the gorgeous 'sticky wines' to go with it. I think we've sampled the full range by now, and my absolute favourites are the Californian Quady 'Elysium' - Black Muscat, the Australian 'Cordon Cut' Clare Valley Riesling and the mouthwatering Pieropan 'Le Colombare'. These wines are truly liquid gold.
Before I get all lyrical, let me refer you to the Horse & Groom website for all the practical information you might need, and assure you that when you're in the Cotswolds, this restaurant is well worth a visit.
Even if you find you're not that close to Upper Oddington, you won't regret the detour. Do take someone who doesn't like wine, though. Chances are you'll need a designated driver!