I learnt a valuable lesson about being prepared on the way out for dinner, I had a major breakdown somewhere between relying on my own intelligence (always dangerous) and being over-reliant on Google maps leading to difficulty actually finding the restaurant for the first time in ages. I did the usual type the address in, get a rough idea of how far away we were and wander in the vague direction then went up and down the steep steps in the park trying to figure out whether it was along Royal Terrace at the top of the park or London Road along the bottom. In my defence, spending the day walking round one of the hilliest cities in the UK had scrambled by brain
After a quick stop and chat and a conversation along the lines of “What’s it called again?”, Gardeners cottage” ……… At which point I finally had my lightbulb moment of “Oh god, it’s the cottage that’s actually in the garden” and thus there it was. Cretin.
Gardeners Cottage then, a very literal name with the restaurant sat in the middle of a park and is surrounded by a garden space at the front and rear in which they’re growing fresh ingredients to use in the restaurant. Walking up past the hand written set menu and through beds marked with tags showing exactly what is growing (I did start to wonder how they fend off drunken revellers wandering in and soiling things after a night out but rapidly thrust that thought from my mind). Then being greeted by shelves lined with jars showcasing Kvass starter, beer vinegar and sauerkraut (which all went on to be ingredients in the actual meal this evening).
My heart melted when I noticed an actual REAL LIFE record player at one side of the dining room, spinning classic records that were being switched by the staff as they hit the end of each side. I won’t go full music nerd but that hiss in the background of the music throughout a candle lit dinner really did raise the atmosphere up a notch.
The food on the Sunday evening was a 7 course set menu based on the seasonal produce that they've purchased that day, accompanied by elements prepared from their own gardens. The only menu I saw was a hand-written chalk board placed in the door way of the restaurant, as someone that generally hates surprises it was quite an enjoyable one-off to have the courses arrive with a hint of surprise.
“Raw Mackeral, beer vinegar, sauerkraut”
The opening starter was a a slightly underwhelming start to proceedings. 5 matchsticks of fresh crisp apple with a teaspoons worth of raw mackerel, a sprinkling of sauerkraut and a couple of pieces of poached rhubarb. Overall the combination didn't work for me - the sauerkraut and the beer vinegar contrasted too harshly with the sweetness of the apple and the further mackerel flavour on top just made for a very odd mix.
“Cider braised leek, ricotta, celeriac, pork”
Several layers of perfectly tender leek, with the most gentle ricotta, all sprinkled with a handful of groats and topped with red veined sorrel. This time the textures really worked well, the leek and the fresh cool ricotta with the crispy groats made for a really satisfying mouthful of food.
We received a side of sourdough with potted pork at this point. I know that by it’s nature potted meat is often quite dry but when spread on the sourdough it managed to soak up any hint of moisture from the inside of my mouth, making it a bit of an effort to chew through it. Plenty of flavour, but it felt a bit like that challenge where you try and crunch down a handful of crackers but have to give up half way through.
“Halibut, lobster cream, potato salad”
As soon as this arrived I knew I was in for a treat. Wonderfully thick cream sauce, absolutely packed with lobster flavour (i'd pay big money for a bottle of this in the fridge to spray over every meal in sight). The halibut had a buttery charged outer but the fish itself was so light and delicate. The spoonful of potato salad when dipped into the lobster cream was verging on comfort food heaven.
“Roe deer, Barbecue purple sprouting broccoli, Jerusalem artichoke, cauliflower”
Two slices of roe deer shoulder, on a bed of cauliflower puree, artichoke puree, charred broccoli all on a bed of braised roe belly. The roe belly was certainly new to me and it was just so offally, I missed the description when the plate was presented and had to clarify with the kitchen as I would have sworn it was kidney or liver (can this be braised?), with that unmistakeably pissy waft. They did ask before dinner if there were any dietary requirements or things we wouldn’t eat but no specific warning about offal is an odd one not to have mentioned. Fortunately, I got to enjoy a double portion as a result of my partner not being into offal.
“Hazelnut biscuit, pear sorbet, apple crisp”
The ice cream here stole the show; it was thick with so much pear juice and pulp to pack it with the fruit flavour. The hazelnut biscuit and ice cream were both exceptionally sweet but mixed with the pear worked perfectly. A beautifully refreshing little dessert.
“Appleby’s Chesire, pear chutney, nettle and kamut crackers, beremeal crackers”
A slice of Appleby’s Cheshire cheese, served with pear chutney that was unhumanly tangy – I can’t think of anything I’ve tasted that quite had the same effect, it seemed to make my gums and the backs of my teeth tingle (in a really oddly enjoyable way). Served with kamut and beremeal crackers.
“Chocolate, caramel and rye slice, sherry ice cream”
Quick cover story for the state of the photo, I was a bit over-eager and did tuck in slightly before taking the photo so the dish was presented a lot more attractively than this initially. The main event here was the chocolate, caramel and rye slice, served up like a mini eclair made entirely of chocolate with dense sweet filling sandwiched between two fine layers of further chocolate. The biscuit slice and sherry ice cream were both very sweet but as a combination made for a very enjoyable (did I mention sweet) end to proceedings.
The set menu was £35 per person and they had a short drinks menu which was similarly imaginative as the food selection, including a selection of home-made fizzy fruit syrup / cordial that I stuck to and between the two of us the bill with tip came in under £100 which was genuinely excellent value.
Sure there were a couple of misses but undoubtedly every course offered something imaginative flavour wise and I can’t get enough of their whole ethos. One word of warning would be around the table lay-out, we were seated face to face at the end of a long table which would have comfortably sat 10 but which had 12 seats squeezed in meaning we were practically shoulder to shoulder with the couple next to us once they arrived.
Fortunately for 90% of the meal we had a spare seat next to us but the nearest couple to us were still noticeably close enough to listen to our chat throughout, sticking their noses into our meal without invitation (they were on the vegetarian option) and were just generally the type of people with no awareness of personal space. I’m sort of used to this after a few awkward meals in London (shout out to Pitt Cue and Franco Manca for making people share booths) but if you’re in the least bit shy or concerned about others overhearing your conversation this is absolutely not the place for you.