Best Part: The Dripping!
Best Part: The Cheese!
Best Part: the Fresh Vibe!
Best Part: The wonderful enveloping and all-encompassing classiness
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best Part: Saying ‘Oh Beehive’ in the style of Austin Powers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best Part: The beer and pies!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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
Best Part: The Bread!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.