Ayletts

Best Part: It made us feel so young! (comparatively)

IMG_1962Now, while St. Albans Midweek lunch has generally focused on city central dining opportunities, we decided to open things up a bit. Hopefully in going a little further out than the city station, we will discover a range of exciting new dining opportunities and tap into a wider reader base. We will of course still eat in St Albans and only during the week!

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This time, we decided to try a very popular luncheon avenue; the garden centre cafe. What? Yes, you heard correctly, we are going full on garden centre this week. My husband does not like garden centres and therefore I have generally only lunched in such establishments with my retired parents and my then pre-school children. It turns out that since those days, the client demographic has remained stable. To make a cursory observation, if the diners were not over 55 years of age they were generally under 2. Mr Midweek Lunch and I are pretty much the average of those two ages but most people had the good manners not to stare.

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Ayletts garden centre is conveniently situated off the North Orbital, only a short walk from a pet supermarket, a shed emporium, the fish place and more excitingly the new Loaf store (which we did not visit). As well as selling a range of garden goods and boasting a popular sinister moving Christmas display, it has a large cafe offering a range of hot and cold food. Keeping the horticultural theme this is named the Dahlia Coffee House, but I would be surprised if it has ever been referred to as anything but the Ayletts Café, other than by the most dedicated of garden centre marketeers. Although I would generally visit for afternoon tea I was pleased to see plenty of very reasonably priced lunch options on the menu.

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Mr Midweek Lunch had a Homemade Grannie’s Bake. Whether the Granny or the Bake was homemade was not clear from the menu, though thinking it through it does seem much more likely that it was the former (people having a much greater sense of propriety back in those days). Putting such matters to one side the dish was a sort of cross between a Moussaka and a Gratin (possibly the Granny in question hailing from Greek/French parentage, which does maybe undermine my previously reasoning on the location of her conception). It was gratifyingly cheesy, possibly gratin-ifying, but was rather let down by a limp side salad. A good stodgy choice when the weather gets brisk, anyway.

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I had a toasted goats cheese ciabatta slice with side salad which was pleasant but not exceptional. It needed a little piquancy to offset the cheese, perhaps a sweet chilli jam. However, while we may not have made the best choices on this occasion, I must point out that our lunch was extremely good value for money, the total bill coming in at around £16, and therefore I was well satisfied. Remember of course that Ayletts is not just a cafe. It provides a happy afternoon out for those who get their twisted thrills from browsing round plants, planters, garden structures and interesting gift ideas. It is a great place to take pre-schoolers who like to climb inside the larger planters while their poor parents have paused to consider the polyanthers. The Christmas display will also be a draw for those wishing to traumatise their children.

The Ayletts cafe is worth a lunch time visit if you have garden/leisure business to attend to. It won’t break the bank and you can be sure of a proper cup of tea served from a pot. This alone is a draw for me.

6.5/10

https://www.aylettnurseries.co.uk/the-dahlia-coffee-house/

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The Plough at Sleapshyde

Best Part: The Bonus Starter!
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The Plough is the new outpost of Dylan’s at the Kings Arms, located in a lovely country pub at the difficult to pronounce, spell and find location of Sleapshyde, just off the big fast road with the terrible staggered roundabout. It’s a nice place with beautiful views of the countryside, but I can’t imagine it picks up much passing trade. Having said that, whilst we were there a few people did just drop in, and apparently didn’t like what they found as they almost immediately left again. This seems odd because a) they’re not going to find anything else to eat other than roadkill nearer than Tyttenhanger and b) this place is dope.
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It doesn’t have a wide menu, and slightly confusingly my dining companion and me had slightly different menus (one was yesterday’s I think), but you don’t need a long menu just a good menu. My pescatarian companion was unsure about the main courses but luckily was very interested in the starters and so decided to double up. There was a long wait for the food, and we were just starting to wish that we had got some crisps to keep us going when they appeared. Unfortunately 50% of the starters arrived not as ordered. Instead of the gratin there were some roast potatoes. Both of these contain potatoes, admittedly, but the presence of beef fat crumb on the roasties meant that Mrs Midweek Lunch could not accept them as a substitute. They were very good about their mistake and were taking away the offending potatoes when I expressed regret as they looked so nice. Very gamely they let me keep them.
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And I’m very glad they did, as they were the highlight of the meal. The potatoes gave a good central seam of stodge, but covering them was a lovely buttery sauce, the aforementioned beefy crumbs and a couple of super salty anchovies. It was all rather Jansson’s Temptation-y, and all the better for it.
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The main course was nice, but not mind-blowing. According to the menu it was smoked pork loin, fried hen’s egg and triple cooked chips but according to the kitchen as I walked past it was ham, egg and chips. Either way, it was a fine example, with some very good homemade brown sauce dolloped on the side. At the end of the day, though, it was nothing more than a very good ham, egg and chips, whereas the starter was something transcendent.
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Mrs Midweek Lunch’s first starter was sublime in its flavour, texture and presentation; a creamy mackerel pate on a tasty homemade crumpet. She was reluctant to give me a taste and all too soon it was over. She was looking forward to balancing on the creaminess with the broccoli and celeriac gratin (accepting of course that cream might be involved again) but was disappointed. It was both over and undercooked. The top was too rosy but the celeriac too hard. There was no broccoli to be seen. The chef was obviously in a hurry to sort out the wrong order. Such a shame because the previous starter was truly amazing.
Other than the rather long wait for the food the service was friendly and attentive. They had a reasonable selection of ales, and it was only after I had ordered one that I noticed they also had a wall of taps, a la the mothership on George Street. My companion who was more observant than I went for an unfiltered lager. The place was a bit chilly, as they have not yet managed to get their wood-burner operational, but we huddled together for warmth. What they have got bang on is the feeling of a proper country pub, with beams, hops around the disfunctional fire-place and an old-fashioned sturdiness.
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Make the effort to walk here if you have the time and the energy, and you will be rewarded with a fine destination that potentially just has a few teething problems to get through.
7.1/10

Return of the Lunch

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Hello again! We had rather longer of a break than expected but never fear, we are back again to eat lunch and give scores. And we’re all out of scores.

Normal service will be resumed shortly, but in the meantime I just wanted to pay our respects to those eating establishments that are no longer with us, most of them occupying the same 3 locations. So let us take a moment to remember these late lamented friends, in order of lamentedness.

The Bakehouse
Panko
Number 23
Juice Pharm
Relish
Zaza
Chi
La Vista
Brasserie Blanc
BHS Café
Jamie’s Pizzeria

Of those past reviewees that are still with us, the following are our favourites. Will anything arise to challenge their pre-eminence?

The Fleetville Larder 9
Thompson 9
The Cock 8.9
Lake Restaurant 8.8
Dylans 8.6

Come back soon for more luncheon fun!

The Speckled Hen

Best Part: The Dripping!
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This is another expedition out of the centre of St Albans. The Speckled Hen is on the Hatfield Road, but quite a way past Morrisons which is generally accepted as the furthest limit of civilisation. It is ideally situated to pick up the passing trade from both Oaklands college and those involved in building houses on the playing fields of Beaumont School, and no one else. Despite this it was surprisingly busy on the Monday lunchtime that we visited on, by which I mean that there were people there other than us.
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The vibe is part country pub, part place where you can dine safely in the knowledge that you won’t be challenged by the menu either culturally or financially. It is generally clean looking and non-descript, with a smattering of Christmas decorations already up. There was enough choice on the menu that I could have happily ordered a few things, but mainly because they were all combinations of cheese, burnt ends and carbohydrates.
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The particular combination I went for was the Burnt Ends Burger and it was adequate. The meat element was not too dry and had a detectable element of flavour to it, and there was cheese in there somewhere, though not too aggressive in making it’s presence felt. I mean, it was nowhere near the similarly beef on beef experience I had at Craft & Cleaver, but that would be the definition of unrealistic expectations.

Something that I had not come across before, and which really made the meal for me, was the gravy boat of beef drippings that it came with. It was thick gloopy meat flavour with no messing around with extraneous details like solidity and salad, and I thoroughly enjoyed dipping my chips in it. I could have done with a few more chips, to be honest, the portion size for this particular element was pretty stingy, especially considering it is basically just potato. I blame Brexit.

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My vegetarian wife found the smell of my beloved beef dripping off putting. However she still found her falafel wrap with chips and drink for £6.99 quite passable. The falafel was a bit pasty but in places was crisp and yummy. It was certainly good value for money, was delivered in a timely fashion and filled her very hungry tummy well.

Special mention must also go to the condom machine in the toilets which offered alongside the usual prophelactics many other necessities for your pub-visiting man, including Tic-Tacs, Lynx and novels by Dostoyevsky. I’m not sure what they sold in the Ladies toilets, possibly shoes. Ladies like shoes.
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It’s certainly not worth a special journey to the Speckled Hen, especially as there are so many fine quality pubs in the centre of town. But if you find yourself in the vicinity, which you are very unlikely to, then why not pop along.  The food was good value and the service pretty good. If you live thereabouts you’ve probably worked out your own feelings on the place by now.

6.6/10

The Fleetville Larder

Best Part: The Cheese!
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The Fleetville Larder is in a slightly awkward location, a bit out of town along the Hatfield Road, but not quite as far as Morrisons, opposite the graveyard. You know, just past the Tesco Metro but before Papa John’s. Got it? Good!
Anyway, you should totally go there, even if it is a bit out of the way, because the Fleetville Larder is one of the greatest larders I have had the pleasure of visiting. They are effectively a classy deli that you can dine-in in. It reminded me a bit of Replete Café and Store in Taupo, New Zealand, if you’ve been there.

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Fleetville Larder’s special move is its cheese. It has a superb selection, which you can sample through their cheese boards, or even a cheese and meat board, our chosen option. For the large sharing platter we got 3 different cheeses, two different salamis, two types of cracker, two different types of chutney and a basket of nice fresh bread. Because we are important reviewing types, or more likely because the lady serving us was very nice, she gave us an extra bonus cheese, a creamy affair with a central vein of charcoal where the two halves of the cheese had been squashed together. It was exceptionally pleasant but it speaks to the high quality of cheesy offerings that this was probably my least favourite of the selection.

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The aforementioned very nice cheese lady took the time to talk to us and discover our cheesy preferences. We ended up with one of the best Stiltons I’ve ever had, a very mature and very powerful cheddar and our favourite, a super creamy sheep’s (or possibly goat’s) cheese with an orange rind that tasted like Zeus’s own Primula. In fact this cheese was so good that we had to buy some to take home. In fact, it’s so good that I need to go and eat some right now.
Update, my wife has obviously been feeling the same as the cheese levels have gone down considerably since I last checked.

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The chutneys were of a high quality two, a figgy concoction reminiscent of Turkey and a sticky caramelised Brandy affair. I don’t really dig chutney with my cheeses, feeling it detracts rather than compliments the main event, but they made a jolly little pudding once I was done. The salamis were equally excellent and went very well with the cheese, the salty fat of the meat offsetting well the salty fat of the cheese.
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The larder itself has a pleasing vibe, wood and condiments filling any space not taken up by cheese, and you might need to make friends with people on one of the long(ish) middle tables, but we were there early and got a window seat so luckily did not have to talk to strangers. There was also a good selection of boozy and sensible drinks, I had an artisanal cream soda that was enough to make me put aside my long held animosity to this most ice creamy of drinks.
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We are now pledged whole-heartedly to the defence and promotion of the Fleetville Larder. It is just our kind of place. There was clearly love for the whole endeavour from our cheesy lady, and this shines through at every level. We unfortunately had to miss their recent cheese and craft beer night but if they ever repeat it we will be first in the queue for tickets. And some more of that orange sheep’s cheese whilst we’re there.

9.0/10

Street Cafe

Best Part: the Fresh Vibe!
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It is currently a rare treat that Mr midweek lunch is able to join me in St Albans during the day. Over the last couple of months all sorts of exciting new eateries have been popping up or refurbishing themselves. We just didn’t know where to begin! We were great fans of Paprika on Catherine street. It was sad to see it depart. However after a bit of internal reconfiguration and an exciting new window “Street Café” has opened in its place.
As a brief aside we were slightly confused by the choice of name. Most cafes are situated on a street. Indeed on Catherine Street alone there are quite a few cafes so the choice of name seemed oven odder. Street food itself is defined by its being served outside in the street. So we wondered if we might expect a sort of takeaway is style food eaten by people standing up whilst looking out onto the street.
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The reality was in fact gorgeously refurbished and opened up space. It was peaceful and airy, Decorated in a light restful green. We love the small details such as the mirror disguised as an internal window. We were surprised by how much space there was, it seems to have doubled in size since the Paprika era. Maybe there was a secret back room before that we were never cool enough to be admitted to.
The menu was widely appealing full of good breakfast brunch and lunch options. They even had the kids section.
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Not feeling particularly hungry on this occasion I opted for a mixed leaf halloumi salad with croutons. It was beautifully presented. However Mr Midweek Lunch was not very happy watching me eat it as apparently I looked like a deranged guinea pig foraging through the many leaves for cheese and croutons. This is my fault for not liking salad that much I suppose.
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My husband lunch companion opted for a special jacket potato (you could tell it was special because it was on the specials board). It’s inherent specialness was apparent from the chili that covered it, and the rocket that then covered that like lunchtime sub-strata. It was a fine potato, crispy skin and fluffy innards. The chili was warming and tasty, just what was needed as the bitter winds begin to stalk the streets of St Albans.
But where, where was the dairy? My husband is not vegan and whilst he respects the rights of those that make that life choice he demands with his jacket potato at the very least butter,  and ideally cheese or joy of joy sour cream. These would have added a bit of decadent fattiness to the ensemble. The coleslaw, whilst very good as coleslaw goes was no adequate replacement.
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We were most happy with the service. The right balance of attentiveness and respectful distance. Although we perhaps didn’t choose the right meals for us on this occasion we will certainly be returning as there were so many other yummy looking options. It really is a super use of space and make an ideal venue for lunch with friends or children.
StreetCafé we are still confused by your name but you are most welcome in St Albans.
7.5/10

Lake Restaurant @ St Michael’s Manor

Best Part: The wonderful enveloping and all-encompassing classiness

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St Albans Midweek Lunch is heading off for a little summer hiatus so we thought we would blow out with a visit to potentially the classiest place in St Albans, St Michael’s Manor. This hotel is 4 stars but when on arrival I struggled to see what more they could have done to justify their extra star. Their service was impeccable. We were shown to our table with grace and precision. Admittedly on a Thursday lunchtime they weren’t overwhelmed, but for the whole meal we got just the right balance of people there when we needed them and not when we didn’t.

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Soon after sitting they bought the bread, two delightful little loaves of white and black so that even Michael Jackson could not complain. On the side was a butter better than any butter we have had since probably Paprika, almost foamy in it’s whipped lightness and encrusted with chunks of rock salt.

As we were processing this they bought the amuse bouche, a lovely light chicken foam wrapped in Parma ham. When my co-author’s vegetarianism was pointed out they uncomplainingly removed it and replaced it with a twisty ricotta and cucumber arrangement. It was both artistic and lightly appetising; everything an amuse Boucher should be.

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Still reeling from this unexpected one/two we were thrust straight into the world of the main. I went for the fishy option, an intriguing combination of John Dory, some olive toast and thinly diced and delightful vegetables. The menu mentioned chorizo, but it must have been very well hidden as I never uncovered it. To top it all (literally) was a deep fried pepper for some reason, in a batter that ran the butter close on fluffy lightness. In the battle of batter vs butter the butter was a bit better but the batter was not bitter. All of this was in the perfect starter sweet spot, flavours fully present but everything so light that whilst you definitely knew you had eaten you didn’t spend the afternoon in a sleepy food coma .

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My wife’s vegetarian option was Gnudi (ricotta based gnocchi) with garlic purée and Parmesan shavings. As you can see it was attractive but she reports that the taste was great too. The portion size was spot on so she didn’t feel over stuffed. Having said that, if you are going to get stuffed on food then something of this quality would make the experience the best it could be.

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For my dessert I had something I had never had before, a rarity for one with so well travelled a palate as I. Unfortunately, I have no recollection of what it was called but it was a banana and white chocolate splodge, covered in coconut and with a few flowers thrown in for good measure. It had the feel of a good crème brule (although without the brule) but with a tropical twist and I must now spend my days searching it out.

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Mrs Midweek Lunch opted for the cheese board which I assumed she would share with me. As I had my own dessert which was too nutty for her to share you might think this unreasonable. So did she. She could only spare the smallest morsels of her cheese selection and wouldn’t give me any of the quince jelly. Our favourite was the blue which was creamy and tangy.

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To top it all off, we got some nice petit fours, comprising of fudge and pineapple jelly squares, or a bed of coffee beans for some reason (were we supposed to eat the beans? Seems a bit weird). But it was super fudge, of the sort that your mother would have made if she was very good at making fudge. The pineapple things had nuts on so I got to eat them all, even though I was having trouble squeezing even these modest morsels in by this stage.

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Throughout all of this we had a lovely view of the lake and the antics of the peacocks. The restaurant is in a conservatory and on a lovely sunny day such as we had it all felt like a beautiful dream. Even better, for the fantastic level of service, amazing surroundings and superb food the price was surprisingly reasonable. Bread, amuse bouche, main course, dessert (or cheese), petit fours and coffee for £19, no one would balk at that. If you’ve ever felt that St Michaels Manor was not in your price range, or that they may look down on you as the uncultured buffoon you clearly are then worry not. You can easily afford it and they are way to classy to draw attention to your obvious deficiencies.

8.8/10

http://www.lakerestaurant.co.uk/