St Villa

Best Part: It just fills a niche really nicely!

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Newcomer St. Villa occupies the building formerly used by Kamilo’s restaurant. To go back decades it was once a public toilet but those days really are far behind us . There now stands a beautifully refurbished modern European restaurant. We have a lot of reasonable Italian restaurants with £5.95 lunch deals, this was something a little classier. I was excited before I even saw the  menu and how beautiful this building now looks.

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DECOR

The inside was classy, white and bright with split level dining. There was a polite nod to the en trend grey with the use of certain accessories but St Villa shows the self confidence to do something different with the palette and go paler. I love open airy dining establishments and wondered how different it would feel in the evening. I expect it will somehow manage to be cosy as well.

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THE BEER

It is very unusual for a restaurant (aside from gastro pubs) to offer such a range of guest beers on tap. We were delighted by this, often finding wine too heavy for the  middle of the day. In fact I usually find beer makes me sleepy at this time too but as I was half asleep anyway it didn’t really matter on this occasion. I had a Honker ale which has not only a good name but a refreshing yet round bodied flavour. My husband had some beer as well, though it must have been good as he can’t remember what it was.

THE MENU

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We only looked at the set lunch menu this time which was fairly priced at £12.99 for two courses with an option to pay £1.99 for desert. Mr Midweek lunch felt the menu which featured four choices for each course was very well balanced. As a pescatarian I had a vegetarian and fish option to chose from which both looked lovely. I chose the cod with sautéed potatoes and green beans in a herby dressing.

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For my starter I was unable to resist halloumi with roasted vegetables. This was superb and I particularly enjoyed the unusual pureed roast carrot or squash. My main was certainly good but not so very different from something I would cook at home. I fear I peaked with the starter on this occasion. Having said this the accompanying roasted vine tomatoes were expertly cooked – there is a tendency to overdo or char small tomatoes but these retained their sweetness and juiciness without all the carbon bitterness.

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Mr Midweek lunch started his eating adventure with a mackerel pate, delightful in it’s creamy horshradishiness. But his favourite part, or so he says, was the sourdough toast. It had that inherent magical warmth that only top quality home made bread has. There was also a bit of green stuff on top, but it seemed half-hearted.

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For his main he went burger. You may be feeling a bit disappointed in him, as it seems like every other week he is either ordering a pizza or a burger, not very imaginative really especially as he has already claimed that the menu had a good range. However, he would respond to you thusly (and you will have to take my word for this as he is not in the room at the moment). Parmesan Fries. Parmesan Fries, what is more, that are St Villa’s signature. And they were good, my yes, as only deep fried potato covered in cheese can be good. The burger was competently done, better than Relish, but it did fail to match the flair seen in some of the other dishes and you wonder if their heart was really in it.

THE SERVICE

The service was absolutely perfect. We were treated with the correct balance of friendliness and respect from knowledgeable waiting staff. We didn’t have to wait too long for food or the bill in spite of the restaurant being busy with a large Christmas party and other ordinary diners such as ourselves.

While it is true that St. Albans has many restaurants we feel that there aren’t many in this mid range group – that being a really good smart place to go for fine food without a really high price tag. This is not Thomson’s level (yet) but it is a fair competitor for Lussman’s and St. Michael’s. It is the perfect place for a date, a ladies/gentlemen’s luncheon or a celebratory meal with friends and family…just about everything really!

Well done St. Villa. You are a very welcome newcomer and we look forward to our next visit.

8.3/10

http://stvilla.co.uk/

Jamie’s Pizzeria

Best Part: The Other Pizza

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Another week, another pizza restaurant with another lunchtime deal. This one is dearer than L’Italiana, though, with pizza and a salad coming in at £9.95. If I’m brutally honest I could have done without the salad, but as it effectively cost negative £1 I went for it. Another key point of difference to L’Italiana was that whilst they were fit to bursting with diners Jamie seemed to be unable to convince many people to take a chance on his pizzas. The emptiness was aggravated by the great distance between tables and the high, echoing ceilings, so it felt somewhat like dining in a Victorian station in the early hours of the morning.
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We have reviewed this space and this gurning mockney before when it was Jamie’s Deli, and the emptiness and the epic trek to the toilets remain the same, even if the menu is slightly less interesting in a town already fairly well serviced for pizza. The options were limited but not in a way that made you struggle to find something you wanted, more that it spared you the agonies of indecision that can strike in some venues. I ordered a meatball pizza, as it contained both meatballs and pizza and thus should be a slam dunk.
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When it arrived (and it took longer than you would expect from a restaurant with no competing patrons and a limited menu) I very quickly noticed that something was missing. A pizza at its most basic comprises a base, tomato sauce and cheese. There was no doubting the first two but I really had to squint to make out the cheese. I should not complain as the menu does specify that it featured parmesan, and there were a few flecks here and there, but to my mind mozzarella is such an integral part of a pizza that it should be assumed. If a pizza menu failed to mention a base I would still feel entirely justified at not being best pleased if I was presented with a squidgy mess of tomato and cheese only. After the initial disappointment the pizza was fairly disappointing, with a burnt base and sporadic toppings. When the waiter asked us how our meal was it was all I could do to make a vaguely positive grunting noise. Mrs Midweek lunch however was very happy with her Mushroom pizza. The base was perfectly thin and crispy and the topping was a really imaginative slant on a pizza standard. As well as ordinary mushrooms it was drizzled with a sort of creamy truffle tasting sauce. I thought it was revolting but I’m glad she was happy.
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The financially beneficial salad was also a bit of a let-down. I ordered rocket and parmesan, a dish that usually delivers great flavour hits despite being largely greenery. When it is done well, peppery fresh leaves and great shaves of parmesan with a slight tangy balsamic undertone, it can be almost as good as a dish featuring meat. In this case, though, rocket was in the minority in a collection of leaves reminiscent of a supermarket bag that had been left open for too long. Once again the cheese was present as the faintest of accent flavours, far less noticeable than the strange grittiness. We were left wondering whether Old Mother Hubbard was in the kitchen realising that the cupboard was bare of parmesan save for a tiny crust. In a panic all they could do was make the  most of it and give each diner 2g each. Here’s another idea – they could have been honest and asked us to make another choice.
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The waiter was as absent as the other clientele when it came to bill-paying time, which meant I had to dash back to work and leave my wife to cover it. On the plus side the range of beers was OK, though mine tasted slightly stale on arrival. Finally, I spilt tomato sauce down my shirt and was roundly mocked on my return to work, though I can’t really blame Jamie for that one.
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I really cannot think why you would want to visit Jamie’s pizzeria, unless you had been turned away from L’Italiana, Cosa Nostra was too much of a walk and you had an aversion to restaurants that begin with the letter ‘Z‘. In that situation I would almost recommend going to Pizza Go-Go. At least you would get some cheese there.
On the whole this has been the worst dining experience of our entire blogging career.
4.4/10

L’Italiana

Best Part: The Smug Superiority

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We have referenced this before but one rather expects, in our sleepy little city, that you can wander in to any place that takes your fancy on a Thursday lunchtime and have your pick of tables. If you expect this from L’Italiana, as many of our fellow townsfolk did, you will be sadly disappointed. Luckily we arrived early on in the lunch-hour and were able to pick up the last table for two, so were able to enjoy the frustrated faces of would-be diners looking longingly at pizzas that would never be theirs.

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You can kind of understand the imbalance of tables to patrons, as L’Italiana do have an exceptionally good lunch deal. £5.95 will buy you a pizza or a pasta, with fancy pizzas costing a little extra. Being a fancy man I went for the premium pizza, in this case an Ela which featured gorgonzola, parma ham and rocket. There was a generous pile of rocket on a nicely crisp base, but I will confess to not being blown away by it. I think when one orders a pizza with gorgonzola you would really expect to taste it, but in this case it was more of a pleasant after-thought. The basics were all in place but there was no pizazz to take it to the next level.

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My wife was happy to have 5 vegetarian pizzas to chose from. She decided on the Delizia which featured Sun Dried Tomatoes and like me, gorgonzola. On the whole she was happy with her choice,  being a great fan of both toppings. However she felt that there was a slight imbalance, with the sun dried tomatoes dominating the gorgonzola. This lead us to wonder whether perhaps there had been a cheese delivery cock up that day!

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We have had about 10 superb meals at L’Italiana over the years and while things were a little off par on this occasion this would in no way prevent us from returning or recommending it. Service is good, it is comfortable and by jove their Calzone are huge! It is also pitched in a lovely little spot, on French Row in a delightful old building with plenty of opportunities for watching the toing and froing of those town folks going about their non-pizza business. The tables are small and closely packed, but it feels nicely intimate rather than cramped. . There is a certain shadow joy from watching people trying and failing to get to the dining opportunities you are enjoying. But you do want to take them to one side and inform them that they could almost certainly get a table at La Cosa Nostra, where they would find arguably better pizzas at an even better deal.

6.6/10

http://www.litaliana.co.uk/

Gail’s Bakery

Best Part: The Baking!

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Today we tried for the second time to visit St. Alban’s newest eatery. Last week we had to abandon the idea as Gail’s was heaving with visitors. Today it was pleasantly full – enough to know you had chosen a good café but with a couple of free tables allowing you to breathe. I like breathing, although when I enjoy eating food as much as I did at Gail’s it can be hard to prevent hyperventilating.

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The site, formerly owned by a Pawnbrokers is next to the Boot pub and overlooks the Clock Tower. It is in short a brilliant central location. It is invitingly presented with personalised floor tiles on the threshold and an array of baked breads in the window. You don’t have to eat there, if you just wanted to pop in for a loaf you would be very welcome. However I challenge any sane person to do so because everything looks so yummy you. I was sad to hear that the Bakehouse was closing but Gail’s (part of a small London chain) is a very good substitute. They have a similar menu of mouth wateringly golden pastry coloured goods – quiches, scones and cakes with imaginative sandwiches on artisan breads. They also serve a varied breakfast menu until 3pm! The staff were enthusiastic and friendly.

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Now Mr Midweek Lunch and I were overwhelmed and excited by the counter full of baked goods. Unable to choose between everything we took a tapas option and ordered four different things to share. The tables in Gail’s are small and tightly packed (my only quibble) so we had trouble fitting it all on but it was so tasty that two plate loads were emptied quickly.

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A cheese straw was a must. Now, Mr Midweek Lunch and I have tasted many of these in our time and considered this one of the finest, only rivalled by my cousin’s. However Bethany lives in Essex thus her cheese straws are not often available to us. Gail’s giant offering although rosier than a traditional straw, was so soft on the inside that my own insides jumped for joy.  Whoop!

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I thought it couldn’t get much better until I tried the parmesan and sage scone. Oh my! My natural curiosity lead me to dip it into the lemon and olive oil salad dressing that came with the mushroom and caramelised onion quiche. Oh my word, it was an amazingly creamy and tangy combination. Suggestion to Gail’s – serve the scone with a small pot of lemon butter. Our waitress told us that the quiche was her favourite and we could see why. The onions were sweet, the mushrooms surprisingly meaty and the crust was packed full of buttery niceness.

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Now whilst a normal bakery of your Greggs or Cheryl might be happy just to go with a sausage roll Gail’s look beyond the obvious and all the way to the Mediterranean with a Lamb and Pine Nut Roll that was worthy of some kind of Greek God of baking, Pastrisia or something. There was a slight quibble that I won’t go into but they dealt with it impeccably, resolving it promptly and giving us vouchers for a couple of free coffees or loaves of bread.

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We took the bread option, as coffee is for people who are have been drained of their natural energy by the multiple disappointments of life and so need to prop themselves up with artificial stimuli. Looking at the range of flour types, coatings, flavourings and styles I felt frustrated by my unimaginative children. I had to buy a standard white loaf but it looked pretty good to me. I also had some great tea.

The decor was fresh and white with nothing too gimmicky. The main decorative feature was the counter of food which is exactly as it should be. The food was of a very high standard. It is of a certain type so if you don’t like baked goods or sandwiches this might not be the right place. However for most people it would be a great lunch or afternoon tea stop.

Gail’s, you are a welcome newcomer.

8.1/10

http://gailsbread.co.uk/bakeries/st-albans/

Buongiorno Italia

AKA Tony’s

Best Part: Their forgiveness of shoplifting!

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I first came to know Tony’s Deli about 9 years ago when my toddler, Master Midweek Lunch, accidently stole a bag of pasta. When we returned it Tony was so nice about it, quoting an Italian proverb about honesty that I vowed to always give him business if I could. This has not proved to be a chore. Tony’s fresh produce is second to none and it is great to have such a choice of real Italian bottled and tinned ingredients. The deli is great place to get Christmas hamper contents for those hard to please foodie relatives. Tony always seems to keep frozen homemade pizza dough in his back room which is helpful to have in a busy household. The food and his smiley disposition are a wining combination.

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On this occasion we just wanted a smile and a quick authentic Italian sandwich. We got both. My vegetable filled focaccia bread was very flavoursome. The rich vegetables were generously marinated in olive oil and there was just the right balance of cheese. Mr Midweek lunch went for an awesome ciabatta filled with a delectable selection of meats and cheeses (the exact composition remains elusive) and a beautiful fried rice ball containing a Kinder Surprise centre of bolognaise sauce (which wasn’t actually a total surprise as they refer to it in the item description). He thought these were pretty awesome, maybe could be a bit spicier but fun and tasty like a hot dog that you could take for walks like an actual dog. I thought he had chosen too much food. I think we were both right.

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We sat on bar stools overlooking the bustling road. I find it hard to relax on high up stools because I am clumsy but it was an appropriate way to eat our lovely but quick lunch. We were both preoccupied  that lunchtime so the distraction of the food and the passers-by was a good thing.

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I know that space is an issue at Tony’s, readers of the local paper will understand why. If it wasn’t I would like to have more relaxing seating to really relax and enjoy the fantastic food more. However, I feel this isn’t really the vibe they are going for. If you are over the other side of town on Cell Barnes Lane, you will get the seating at the Smokehouse Deli where Tony’ s brother and sister in law have a similar establishment. The finest Italian hospitality clearly runs in the family.

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Tony’s is a local treasure and the next time you consider going to a boring chain like Greggs or Subway, I would urge you to walk for an extra three minutes to Tony’s to get a sandwich made by a craftsman from really fine ingredients instead of mass produced plastic stuff.

Thanks Tony’s Deli. Keep up the good work!

7.8/10

http://www.buongiornoitalia.co.uk/

St Albans Christmas Market

Best Part: Christmas!

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Christmas time is here, come and celebrate. Come and celebrate at a succession of Swiss-style chalets filled with expensive arts and crafts projects. It seems that we cannot be satisfied with the large number of traditions already associated with the festive period and so need to keep on loading more and more on like some sort of Holiday Tradition Buckeroo (Sandwiches! Jumpers! Far too many Christmas movies on Channel 5!). One of the latest, in this country at least, is the Christmas Market. Long established on the continent these have now started springing up all over the country, with varying degrees of success. I am not an expert on the subject so cannot proclaim where St Albans sits in the league table (although that sounds like a great idea for a blog!), but based on it’s own merits I would say it is…. alright, I suppose.

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There is a limit to what you can actually stick in a stall at a Christmas Market, certainly if you are going to include enough of a mark-up to make it worth your while, so it tends to be booze, cheese, olive oil and wooden things. It’s quite charming but I don’t recall ever having bought anything that wasn’t for immediate consumption. One new addition this year is a nice central hub where artists can play whilst children indulge in various activities. It gives the place a nice focal point and they pipe the music around the place. It is a very scenic location, just under the Abbey, and walking around at night with the lights twinkling can give you a nice hit of Christmassyness. During the day when it’s largely empty… less so.

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The main dining options are centred around a separate ‘food court’ annex. The options are Hog Roast, Wurst, Crepes, Toasties and Chips. There was also a Mulled Wine cart, but he was not mulling on our visit. There are a few benches and tables to sit at, though you have to get a bit friendly with your fellow shoppers if you want to sit down. Which I suppose is in the spirit of the season. Between us we managed to visit most of the stalls, though we only got water from the ‘Toast Office’.

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Owing to me having consumed no less than 5 different pork products for my dinner on the previous evening I decided not to go for my usual standard of a big German sausage. Instead I got a Pulled Pork Bap. Yes, I know. Anyway, the pork itself was pretty good, though there wasn’t much of it, and it worked surprisingly well with the stuffing. I would advise against the onion though. There were large chunks and close to raw so they overpowered the combo.

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The brie and chutney crepe seemed to be very difficult to consume by my ham-fisted wife. She gets overwhelmed with street food (see our review of the St. Albans food festival 2015). It is very tricky for her to take the food handed over by the vendor, pay with the other, get a drink with a third hand, gesture to her husband with the fourth, take napkins with two spare fingers and then drop her bag, ukulele and temper at the table. Yes, she prefers table service. However the crepe was well made and filled with contrasting creamy and piquant flavours. If you enjoy watching huge crepes being made with finesse it would be worth hanging around and watching the masters at work. All in all a good choice.

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We got a large portion of chips to share, so large in fact that they drew gasps of admiration from our tablemates which is always gratifying. There was a mix of curly and sweet potato with a couple of toppings. As their consignment of American cheese had disappeared somewhere in the mid-Atlantic we went for cheddar and onion rings. I’m not a huge sweet potato guy so planned to leave them to my companion but they seemed to have absorbed the lions share of the cheese. Overall they were filling, and not offensive.

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But you don’t go to a Christmas Market for amazing food. Well, not this one at least. There is a reasonable range of choices and they will give you the energy to trudge round the vintry gardens once more if that’s what you desire. Manage your expectations and the Season’s Greetings to you all!

5.4/10

http://enjoystalbans.com/whats-on/ChristmasMarket/index.html

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

Best Part: Being in a pub on a Monday

So first of all, to clear up a misapprehension, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is actually pronounced Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, rather than Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Hopefully this will avoid you looking foolish when discussing it with your learned friends.

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We visited the Cocks on my birthday, following a lovely if slightly drizzly walk to Gorehambury. As such, we had worked up quite an appetite by the time we arrived, and were eagerly waiting for the doors to open and let us in. On the other hand I was aware that I needed to leave a level of room for my birthday dinner treat that evening (KFC).

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So we were after something that was both light but filling, and surprisingly were both able to get something that fulfilled these paradoxical demands. I went for the hot buffalo chicken wings. In deference to my later chicken plans I only had 6, but actually that was more than enough. Clearly the chickens had been working out as they were hefty wings. The saucy crispiness contrasted well with the cooling blue cheese dip, and I was happy to really go for it despite the saucy face and fingers I ended up with.

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My birthday companion had a warming slightly spicy pumpkin soup. She was very excited by the croutons which seemed to be more like cheese on toast. Wow. That’s basically two lunches in one go. Naturally she didn’t end up keeping that cheese on toast to herself because  I felt I needed some too.

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We shared a very generous and crispy bowl of chips, and this together with a starter of a bag of crisps (we were very hungry when we arrived) was more than enough. This meant that the bill was more than reasonable despite me indulging in two pints of their lovely house ale (a dark affair that made the afternoon shopping for trousers maybe a little trying). Mrs Midweek Lunch doesn’t like drinking in the middle of the day because too many people rely on her organisational skills so she went for the “Nanny state” low alcohol beer by Brew Dog. This was brilliant because it actually tasted like real beer. We have tried to buy some since but it doesn’t seem easy to find, she will just have to get drunk at lunch time after all!

Despite it being a Monday (which is a slight stretch on the concept of midweek I confess) the Fighting Cocks was buzzing through a combination of graduates celebrating and a well to do wedding party. This gave us much amusement from determining the poshest shade of trouser, but even without this the pub has character and atmosphere to spare. Long may this St Albans landmark maintain it’s mastery on the banks of the stinky lake.

And it is definitely the oldest pub in England.

8.4/10

http://www.yeoldefightingcocks.co.uk/