Report: The Chef’s Dozen, Alcester, Warwickshire

Where’s the last place you’d expect to find a great restaurant? Obviously anywhere with a spectacular vantage point – almost always a sign that the restaurant will be relying on you being distracted by the view out of the window to notice that you’ve paid £20 for a plate of soggy pasta. And obviously don’t go looking for great eats in a municipal shopping centre (or leisure centre), or a Travelodge, or at motorway services (with the honorable exception of Tebay on J38 of the M6).

Until today I’d also have said don’t try and eat at one of those weird little converted barn shopping villages. These strange little places usually house a selection of unrelated and mainly unneeded shops – bridal ware, a pet clothes shop, a children’s photographer, maybe a weird little arts and crafts shop specialising in art deco ceramic sun-dials. These are not natural bed-fellows for haute cuisine.

So how did we find ourselves at Longbarn Village, near the pretty historic town of Alcester to eat lunch at The Chefs’ Dozen today, despite the threat of 10cm of snow this afternoon? Well, as with most tips these days, I heard about this place from Twitter. Richard, the chef-owner’s Twitter profile describes himself as ‘chef and general food geek’, a promising biog. The menu on their website read very nicely. Chef has an interesting pedigree, most recently working at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, one of the 50 restaurants in that rather silly but nevertheless prestigious San Pellegrino list. He’d also spent a bit of time at the Kingham Plough, the local gastro-boozer for “massive food knob-end” Alex James (quote courtesy me) featuring ex-Fat Duck chef Emily Watkins (although not everyone who works at the Fat Duck necessarily does much cooking, I refer you to the brilliant Down and Out in London and Padstow).

The Chef’s dozen refers to the menu – 12 dishes of roughly similar sizes and not explicitly designated as a main, starter or dessert. During the week you can order as few as two courses for £15, at weekends it’s either four (£28) or six (£40). So in theory you could order a starter and three puddings (good idea!).

It’s a curious concept and I suspect most people will naturally break it down into a traditional four-course meal format, but I like the flexibility although I bet it confuses the hell out of those coming to buy a sun-dial, a dog jumper and a wedding dress and who have popped in for a spot of lunch. These aren’t sharing plates though, or tasting plates – they are still pretty substantial. As there were three of us, we decided to make life easy and order one of everything on the menu. And I’m glad we did, because we weren’t served a single duff morsel. An amuse of silky smooth chicken liver with damson (particularly appreciated by my pregnant partner who hasn’t been allowed liver for 8 months) and crushed ginger biscuits preceded the appearance of very good bread, which came with a little pot of whipped pork dripping mixed with something green, as well as butter. Pork dripping!!

Then came the starters which aren’t starters, if you see what I mean. I got given the beetroot dish – golden beetroot with a goat’s cheese beignet and goat’s curd and Solanche (co-owner) must have seen my micro-expression because she asked if I wanted to swap my plate for a rather meatier looking one that had been given to Sarah. Actually perhaps it wasn’t a micro-expression because she said it looked like I was going to cry. Plates swapped and I was most relieved to get the lion’s share of the brawn dish – a very fine (in both senses of the word) terrine, which worked perfectly with a prettily pale yellow piccalilli mousse, subtle and refined. There was also a small mackerel fillet which was superfluous but not unwelcome.

The next wave of dishes brought me an ox heart tartare with a smoked egg yolk, not unlike the dish at Roganic served with salt beef. There was a little bit of bone marrow tucked in there too. A proper man’s dish. Butternut squash came with a cute and very delicious little cheese souffle.

The mains were stand-out – the Cotswold pheasant breast was wonderful and soft, but even better was a little cottage pie of pheasant leg confit, topped with soft mash served in an attractive Mr Whippee-like formation. Sarah loved the combination of a nicely flaking and chunky cod fillet with a lick of lemon curd, which worked much better than the description suggests.

My dessert (could be starter remember!) of warm pear with Oxford blue cheese was wonderfully creamy, salty and melty. The chocolate dish – a melting centred choc sponge sitting on a peanut swoosh, a cube of rich dense chocolate accompanied by a banana mousse of heavenly texture – was excellent as was the super smooth egg-custard tart, which was the highlight of a plate described as rhubarb and custard.

Even the petit fours were imaginative and fresh – a departure from the usual blobs of over-rich sweetness – pineapple cubes served as dumplings (think miniature pineapple fritters), acetone rich and juicy, quince jellies, light-as-clouds peach marshmallow and tiny chocolate brownie cubes.

A lovely, leisurely lunch served by people obviously passionate about what they are doing and who love cooking and eating food – and incredible value.

What a find. We will return ASAP.

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