I first ate in Restaurant 23 nearly 10 years ago, when it first opened in Dormer Place. It was small but the food was good, which goes without saying really as its survived to celebrate its tenth birthday. Despite enjoying our meal, this was my first visit since then. I kept meaning to go back but didn’t manage it but I’ve watched from a distance as its grown. It moved to premises in Holly Walk a few years ago, the old Irish Club to be precise. Gone is the cramped little restaurant opposite the band stand now there are two private dining rooms, a terrace, an upstairs bar called Morgan’s and a beautifully appointed dining room. Everything oozes class without being aloof.
We’d been invited by Peter Knibb the Chef Owner to celebrate Restaurant 23’s 10th birthday, unfortunately Beverley couldn’t make it but our good friend Richard came along as my “date”. The evening started on the terrace with some prosecco, I missed the canapés as I got stuck on the motorway, hardly surprising on a Bank Holiday Friday, although being late did give me a chance to talk to Peter and his wife about the last 10 years as the rest of the guests were dispersing before we went back into the dining room, where we opted for the classic tasting menu with the wine pairing.
Now I’ve started to notice a distinct choice between restaurant’s, some freely serve bread and some charge. This bread was included, the olive and rosemary focaccia was good but the treacle one was gorgeous, I’d have happily paid for it. An amuse Bouche appeared, unfortunately we were to busy catching up on our sons being at University to pay any attention to what it was. I really must learn to make notes for this Blog otherwise it going to be a series of posts about food I enjoyed but can’t remember!! For the purposes of the blog I messaged Peter and he refreshed my memory, it was a Wild Garlic Panna Cotta, white asparagus, ham hock croquette with truffle emulsion.
The first real course of the Classic Tasting Menu was a Hay Smoked Quail with Truffled Goats Curd and Pickled Girolles paired with a Portugese Wine with two grape varieties I’d never heard of. Now Quail can easily be over cooked but this wasn’t, it was just right, lovely and moist.
Our second course was a Cornish Crab Salad with Curry Oil, Mango, Avocado and Brown Crab Croquettes paired with a Chablis. As our Sommelier presented and explained the Chablis that was paired with the dish I learned something new. Chablis is the northernmost region that the Chardonnay grape is grown which gives Chablis its distinctive flavor. That’s all well and good but I’d have preferred a Chablis with a bit more oomph and richness to compete against and cut through the curry oil. However, this was my favorite dish of the evening, fresh and full of flavor and the curry oil bought every thing together.
Third course was Blythburgh Pork, barley, globe artichoke and English asparagus. Again a perfectly executed plate of food, beautifully cooked and presented, with nothing that could be faulted other than I’d have liked more crackling.
Before our dessert, we had a pre dessert – a palate cleanser. For me until this point, all the flavours had been very subtle and delicate, suddenly it came through with an almighty punch. It was a goats curd mousse, poached rhubarb and ginger beer granita. The overwhelming flavour was ginger with more ginger, it completely overpowered the goats curd and the rhubarb but in a good way if that makes sense. It was like the other elements were just there as texture and the ginger was only there to wake up and cleanse your palate. Which it did.
The dessert that followed was a Brilliat Savarin cheesecake, macerated strawberries, strawberry sorbet and candied pistachios with an accompanying glass of Sauternes. Some petit fours and coffee followed to finish our meal.
As I sat and reflected with Richard on our evening out and subsequently talking to him again as I’ve been writing this post to try and give it some balance because I’m not a food critic, I go out to enjoy my meal not criticise it. Are there things Restaurant 23 could do to improve, possibly. The service all evening was faultless, the only thing I noticed – and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t seen the waiter at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud ironing the table cloth as he relaid a table recently – was a cross like crease from where the table cloth had been folded to store and then unfolded as it was laid. Yes, It’s a trivial detail but if a two star restaurant does it there must be a reason. All of the food was beautifully cooked and presented, but with a little more tweaking and refining to drag another ounce of flavour out of these good dishes, they would become very good dishes. I can’t comment on the Wine list as we opted for the wine pairing, which for me didn’t quite work. The sommelier talked with knowledge, passion and enthusiasm about each one but for me (apart from the Sauternes) they didn’t enhance the food. They were all perfectly drinkable but I didn’t get that feeling you get with a perfect pairing when the food improves the wine.
Am I comparing Restaurant 23 fairly as everything I’m comparing it to has a one or more Michelin stars, is that fair? Yes. Over the years I’ve ate in lots of Michelin starred restaurant and it’s obvious that this is what Peter is striving for and to be honest he must be close. A few little tweaks and I’m sure he will get it.