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/

The Beehive

Best Part: Saying ‘Oh Beehive’ in the style of  Austin Powers

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When young, my sister and I had an idea of opening our own honey themed cocktail bar called the Hive. We never got round to it. Despite living in St. Albans for 10 years it has taken me this long to venture inside the Beehive. While there were no honey based cocktails or pictures of Winnie the Pooh, I was excited by the range of beer on offer and the nice smelling lunches.

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THE MENU
The menu was small but well balanced. Sadly Mr Midweek Lunch and I were not feeling particularly hungry so we were restricted by the lighter bites. I chose a stuffed mushroom dish while he went for Nachos. We washed it down with a half a pint of Adnam’s Ghost Ship which was not in its prime. As for the mushrooms, what arrived was very flavoursome but was not construed as per my expectation. It was more posh mushrooms and cheese on toast . Really tasty though. I was greedy to choose onion rings too. I didn’t need them but the batter was good and the overall experience good. Nor did we need the big pile of chips. I think it’s fair to say our quest to dine lightly that day was in vain.

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The nachos were fairly standard, of the type you would expect to find in a suburban Australian pub called something like the Crocodile Farm. Or in a suburban St Albans pub called something like the Beehive. To give two examples of the type of place you might find nachos like these nachos. The chips seemed Dorito-esque and the salsa was just a shade too sweet, whilst the scoop of soured cream plumped on top was crying out for a chocolate flake. But they were still nachos and so will end up in the plus column when the final judgement comes.

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DECOR
I liked the interior of the Beehive. It very definitely celebrates its status as pub. There were no allusions of grandeur yet it was decorated smartly with neutral greys. Not the in your face trendy grey variety either. It was perfect. Well done Beehive. Yellow and orange honeycomb probably would have been too gimmicky I suppose. You probably made the right choice not dressing your bar staff as giant bees. Probably.

THE SERVICE
No complaints at all. The food arrived a timely manner and was delivered by a friendly bar maid. We didn’t manage to finish everything and a polite enquiry as to the quality of the food was made. In this case it was our full tummies, not a bad lunch. The bill came to under £20 and the fact that I was able to pay it at the beginning meant there would be no frustrating waiting for the bill and being late for work issues later, we could simply relax.

I would return here for lunch or a drink. But not both.

6.6/10

http://www.thebeehivestalbans.co.uk/index

The Mermaid

Best Part: The beer and pies!

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CAMRA have rated the Mermaid, South Hertforshire’s best pub. Let’s see if it also gets a high rating from St Alban’s best food blog…

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Being a comfortable, traditional pub doesn’t mean you have to be set in your ways. The Mermaid has its tail pointing towards modern dining preferences and its scales nestling together in happy cosiness. By juxtaposing traditional pies with tapas in its small but perfectly balanced menu the Mermaid grabbed my attention. They are not quite modern enough to embrace paying by card but I was prepared with a purse full of cash. This was handy as Mr Midweek Lunch had two whole pints of beer. In the middle of the day – how reckless! Why should every pub have a card machine? It was actually rather nice to have this act of defiance.

Had I been a meat eater and not in the mood for pies, I would have been tempted with the ‘build your own ploughman’s’ idea. This being the option of having a pork pie and adding cheese and crackers. However the vegetarian Heidi pie proved to be a great choice. See the cross section photo for the beautiful colours and textures. It was creamy, crunchy and sweet. The home made (possibly) mushy peas were zesty and comforting.

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My husband ate a matador (in this context a type of pie). It was a delightfully Spanish affair, with chorizo, olives and sherry. He had some mashed potatoes instead of mushed peas and was happy with the option. There are a number of foods that work well with beer, because beer is super-awesome, but pies have to be way up there. There is stodge, pastry and big sweet chunks of meat. Also, unlike some charlatan ‘pies’ that you get in certain establishments the pastry went all the way around. Put a pastry hat on a bowl of stew if you want but don’t try and tell me this is a pie.

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And talking about beer, this is in the upper echelons of beer pubs in St Albans. They have a range of colours on offer, with a handy little pot in front of the pot so you know exactly what it will look like. There are some classic breweries represented, as well as some of the young upstarts. And best of all, being a pub, they don’t mind if you order crisps which some of the classier restaurants would possibly look down on you for.

 

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The service was great. There was a jolly bar man who seemed to know most of the punters and welcomed new faces. Our pies were brought within 20 minutes which showed they had been cooked properly but not sitting around for ages. Serving Pieminster pies seems sensible because it means the proprietor doesn’t have to overstretch his kitchen ambitions. It keeps things simple so that the focus can be on providing a good service with the focus on good beer, reliably good food and a relaxing environment.

 

Well done Mermaid. You are thoroughly deserving of your CAMRA award and we give you

8.5/10

https://www.facebook.com/mermaidstalbans/

Baked Nation

Best Part: The Bread!

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One needs their wits about them when they enter Baked Nation. Here you are not allowed to consider the various options of the menu, ruminating over the relative merits of a sausage roll versus jam on toast. Before we had even started to consider such weighty matters, before we had even closed the door, we were being subjected to an interrogation about out purpose and desires.

‘Coffee?’ they barked.

We certainly did not want coffee, but felt the need to quickly qualify what we did in fact desire.

‘Anything else?’ followed quickly. And so we quickly scanned the wall-mounted menu to determine our desires, acutely aware of the penetrating gaze of the baristas on us at all times. We felt a bit panicky and hot and dare I say it, not very welcome.

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To be fair to Baked Nation they get a lot of take-out business, and probably assumed we were there for that purpose, but it did lead to both of us slightly regretting our choices, which we might not have gone for otherwise. Anyway, at least it was all over with very quickly, and today’s rendezvous was by necessity a speedy one. In this respect Baked Nation were ideal as everything came to our table almost as soon as we had ordered it.

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With the pressure on I reverted to form and went for a bacon sandwich. It was simple, bread butter and bacon as you would expect, no hint of brie or cranberry jam thought they did provide me with a catering size bottle of ketchup. I enjoyed the big bottle of ketchup, it made me feel like a ketchup king. I also enjoyed the bacon sandwich. The bread was absolutely gorgeous on its own, and when covered in butter melted with bacon ooze and a big splodge of ketchup it was as fine as a car parked outside of a marked bay in the Westminster Lodge car park.

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Mrs Midweek Lunch ordered a goats cheese, eggplant and zucchini sandwich with caramelised onion. To English people, this was a grilled aubergine and courgette sandwich with red onion chutney. It was not the heavenly sweet caramelised slices of red onion she was expecting. However, she too had a superb experience with the sour dough bread and even ate the crusts which is unlike her.

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We had some tea/hot chocolate, and as the lunch was delivered and consumed so quickly we decided we had time for something from their cake selection for finishes. We were planning to share something, but wife wanted Eccles Cake and I wanted Bakewell Tart, and as she is allergic to nuts and I am intolerant of anything or anyone from Eccles we each settled on our respective Northern towns. My tart was moist enough, but jam levels were minimal (it took me half a slice to find any) and it really was lacking the flavour of a good Bakewell Tart.

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My wife had her Eccles cake at home later with three other people as it was extremely large. All four parties believed it to be a fine quality, in spite of it getting slightly squashed in her handbag. The pastry was gorgeously flaky and the middle sweet and tangy. All four parties wanted more of the Eccles cake but not four times as much. We conclude that the Eccles cakes are big enough to share and probably should be but if you are ever having a bad day and need a bun or something to cheer you up, pop into baked nation, have a giant Eccles cake and hang the consequences!

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After the initial intimidation the service was smiley and friendly. It was a bit chilly in there, especially right at the back by the fridge. Also the tables seem roughly hewn from tree trunks which gives the place a nice rustic feel but means they are not much use for balancing your plate on (see illustration).

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However there was a well-stocked book case and as you know books do furnish a room. Baked Nation certainly excel at baking, and I have been known to pop in on my way home for my Daily Bread. I would say, though, that like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks if you face Baked Nation with imperfect knowledge of their menu options it will utterly annihilate your soul.

6.3/10

The Juice Pharm

Best Part: The Righteousness

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So, if you have any knowledge of me or gender stereotypes in general you might be able to work out that it was my wife’s idea to come here. Not that I have anything against vegan juice bars, but I tend to favour those places that serve up big piles of fried meat, generally swathed in cheese of some description. But I am open-minded, and on this occasion slightly hungover, so I went for it.

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The place has a nice, laid-back sort of vibe to it. You could imagine yourself sitting there with a lap-top, working on your novel/screenplay/free-form beat poetry whilst making a single juice last far too long. Although if you were a struggling writer then you would have to eke it out as a second helping might be beyond you given that they come in at around £6 a pop. Given the price-point and the fact that they looked fairly substantial I decided to forego any solid food. The fact that there were very few options that didn’t involve avocado might have swayed the decision somewhat. At the end of the day, it was very close to Greggs in case my decision provided a rash one.

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The smoothie I went for, the Breakfast Club, featured several ingredients that I would not normally countenance, including almond milk and chia seeds, but the oats and honey made it sound substantial. When it came the presentation was reminiscent of the milkshakes you get in the classier burger joints, with a jam-jar-like glass and a large straw. It even tasted like a milkshake at first, but the aftertaste took you to very interesting places. It tasted cool, but in a way that went beyond mere temperature, but a deep refreshing coolness of the soul. Like diving into a glacial lake at sunrise. It was a lot more pleasant than I had been expecting, I polished it off very happily, and after a few bites of my partners lunch I did actually feel like this was a sufficient lunch. We did wonder as we drank when “Almond Milk” became a thing and why so named. Almonds do not have nipples after all, at least not that we have spotted.

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My vegetarian wife was more excited by the menu than I and yet being a nut allergist quite frustrated. That dratted almond milk kept popping up all over the place. Eventually she settled on a “Berry Me” with berries, coconut and Maca. However just to check she wasn’t going to consume anything weird first, went to ask the cool dude behind the counter what “Maca” actually was*. He smiled apologetically and said he would have to ask his manager. After a few minutes he returned to say “Well, it’s a sort of superfood” which didn’t really make matters clearer. My wife politely asked whether this meant it was a vegetable. He said he didn’t know what is was originally but now it was just a powder. Bravely my wife decided to go for it. She had been considering the cauliflower pizza until she saw it. Golly but it must be hard to be a Vegan – no cheese, just imagine! The Avacado and cream cheese bagel sounded much nicer. And indeed it proved to be very pleasant and along with the smoothie, very filling. This was just as well as I manipulated her into giving me a lot of it with my doleful eyes.

After my initial scepticism, at the concept and the price for a juice, I would actually recommend Juice Pharm. For those days when you want to feel lively and energised after lunch, rather than sluggish and bloated such as a visit to Wetherspoons would render you. The staff are friendly, it is light and airy and you can be pretty sure your inner harmony will be nudged in the right direction by a visit.

….I may have got a Gregg’s sausage role afterwards.

7.8/10

* it turns out that Maca is related to the turnip!

http://www.thejuicepharmacy.co.uk/

Ayos

Best Part: The flat bread!

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There are a number of restaurant premises in St. Albans that have a quick succession of identities. Ayos is one of these. Extremely well situated between the station and centre of town in a beautiful pointed glass fronted building it occupies the site formerly used by Asia and the Olive Tree. We didn’t make it to the Olive Tree, but we liked eclectic predecessor Asia and were pleased to visit newcomer Ayos in the familiar building. We had heard very positive mutterings amongst the foodie circles in which people like us move (which is to say the school gate).

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On the day of our visit, there were about four occupied tables and we got the feeling that dinner would be the ideal time to visit. That said, they had a small but enticing lunch menu at an extremely reasonable price (£9.90 for two courses) and no doubt when word gets around town further (at other school gates) it will be brimming with punters in the middle of the day too. And so it should be.

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Our waiter was polite and efficient, the food promptly delivered and the ambience welcoming. It really is a super space. Where it’s openness used to feel cold, now there is only warmth, decorated with terracotta tones and full of mid century wooden dining furniture. An unusual but successful combination. The staff were equally friendly to adults and the toddler dining in the corner with her parents. The toddler was not quite so friendly, refusing his high five. How awkward! Anyway, it makes Ayos good for the family diners as well as friends and lovers. Well toddlers live on hummus and pitta don’t they? So a Turkish eatery is a perfect place for them really!
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We decided to embrace our inner toddler and start with hummus. We were delighted. It was creamy and clearly made with high quality olive oil. The warm flat bread too, was out of this world.

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Our second shared started was Sigara Bogeri, which as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you are cigar shaped pastry filled with feta and spinach. These were superb, the pastry crisp and slightly oily and the feta salty and creamy in equal measures. There were only 3, sufficient (just) for a starter but I could happily have eaten these for starter, main and dessert. I would probably have needed about 40 though and I don’t think it would have been particularly good for my health, or the review, or society in general really.

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Unable to cook vegetarian moussaka at home anymore due to my children and husband’s strong negative sentiment towards aubergine, I leapt at the chance here. Wow, it looked and smelt amazing.

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Mr Midweek lunch had some lamb, following his general rule of thumb that if you’re in a Mediterranean restaurant then the lamb is probably worth ordering. And it was. The lamb was tender and doused in lemon once I had finished dousing it in lemon, great big chunks of flavour. It was on some more flatbread, but even flatter this time and so full of taste I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t cheese. Very thin cheese. It was more likely to be bread though. Once more he was pleasantly surprised by the salad.

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We will certainly be back to try out the evening menu. There is a rumour about being charged extra for apparently complimentary bread. However we did not experience this and can only conclude that our source had been sozzled by the time her bill came. I would recommend Ayos whole heartedly to those near and far. It is an alternative to Tabure or Nimats Bar Meze if you fancy a change.

Welcome newcomer! St Albans Midweek Lunch give you a high five, even if that toddler didn’t!

8/10

https://www.ayosrestaurant.com/

Chi

Best Part: The Spring Rolls

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TO BE A SIXTH FORMER…

Before I start our review, I need to get something off my chest. When I was a sixth former, allowed to leave the school premises at lunchtime this would be a once a week trip to Garston McDonalds for a milk shake or the newsagents in Abbots Langley for a bag of crisps. What I do not remember is hoards of us hitting the local restaurants for their lunchtime deals. We were not poor, if anything Parmiterians were on the affluent side but nothing it would seem compared to the clientele of the Abbey boys school who frequently lunch like kings! Whenever Mr Midweek lunch and I visit an eatery on the south side of the city centre, 1 o clock heralds the entry of many sixth formers. I simply don’t understand it and what’s more I disapprove. These teenagers seem to have more money than we do. Do their parents know what they’re up to? I’ll come clean, I’m jealous!

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THE VIBE

Being rather unobservant I have only recently noticed stalwart Chi on Holywell Hill. This coincided with the realisation that we hadn’t yet reviewed a Chinese lunch time meal deal so in we went. The front of Chi is very large and black, perhaps this combined with the shadow cast on Holywell hill at this time of day explains why it had faded into the background until now. The restaurateur initially seemed a bit grumpy when we entered but he got on with his job efficiently enough. We got the impression that Chi wasn’t best suited to lunch.

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The inside of the restaurant is quite dark yet tasteful. It reminded me of the PIER shop; full of tasteful ethnic dark wood furniture and blue and white crockery. It was cosy and pleasant. It was also very empty. We ate our starters in peace. Then we heard the clock tower strike 1 and in they started to come – those rich sixth form boys. They were obviously regular clients because they were so familiar with the menu they could order before seeing it.  Excitement – this time there was a table of girls too! They didn’t seem remotely interested in the boys and the vice versa. Let’s hope they were talking about their history coursework or something. I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention to them at all. I was talking to my husband about this review.

 

THE FOOD

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The spring rolls and accompanying chilli sauce were light, crisp and promptly delivered. Mr Midweek lunch’s soup was excellently gloopy, almost a soup/jelly hybrid. The chicken came in nice big chunks and the whole thing was delightfully warming on a chilly spring day.

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I was excited about getting Granny’s “Ma Po” Tofu because I no longer it at home due to it ending up wet and flabby. Unfortunately readers, it was wet and flabby here too. It was served in what I can only call gravy. The rice was quite nice though.

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My husband had the Char Siu Pork and was very impressed. It was salty and sticky, and served with great piles of very nice fried rice. The sauce was great too, and he felt down with the kids when he observed that most of the younger patrons had ordered the same dish. The beer was refreshing, and it’s always pleasurable to say ‘Tsing Tao’. It just rolls off the tongue somehow.

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TO CONCLUDE

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I think Chi would be a fun place to come for dinner when it no doubt it is lively and full of lovely smells and happy diners. I wasn’t very impressed with my main course but the service was prompt, I liked the decor, my husband’s company and observing the clientele. The set menu, at £7.95 for two pretty substantial courses plus prawn crackers, was quite the steal as well. Therefore can I report and overall positive dining experience. Even if I didn’t, I know they would be kept in business by local school children. (I wonder how much pocket money they get?)

7.2/10

http://chi-uk.com/