Best Part: The Dripping!
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: The Spring Rolls
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?)
Best Part: The Walls containing the Restaurant
So….. it wasn’t long ago (here in fact) that I was talking about our natural prejudice towards dining establishments that take over from previous dining establishments that we liked which notwithstanding we are able to overcome as we are big-hearted and like to give plucky up-and-comers a chance. I expressed concern about whoever was going to take over Panko‘s lease as we really dug Panko and were pretty bummed out when it closed. Well, here we are at Hatch, and it’s pretty much like a less Japanese, more Waffley version of Panko. The décor is the same, the waiting staff look very familiar, I’m pretty sure they’re owned by the same people. So well done, Hatch. You dodged a bullet there.
Hatch, as I’m sure you’re aware, is another branch of Hatch, the popular hatch that gives you toasted sandwiches and stuff. They tried something like this before with Canteen, which was more sandwichey and then became non-Hatch affiliated. This time they’ve gone down a different path, one clearly stated on their window. Waffles! Burgers! Brunch! All fine and solid foodstuff, and no Japanese breadcrumbs in sight.
There are still sandwiches, and mighty enticing ones. Between them and the burgers I had a hard time choosing so instead I went for bacon and waffles. It was the only savoury option on the waffle menu, although it did come with maple syrup. Is bacon inherently savoury? It is quite salty, but then so is salted caramel. Maybe bacon is able to adapt to it’s surroundings like a chameleon. Imagine if they made chameleon bacon. I wonder what that would taste like? Probably chicken bacon. Anyway, It was a beaut of a waffle, the bacon had that very thick almost solid crispiness that just drunk up the maple syrup. The waffle was probably better than a Birds Eye potato waffle, in fact definitely better. But the bacon was the star.
As I was basically ordering a pudding for lunch, I got some chips to go with it. Funny story, my wife’s meal came with chips as well, but then it didn’t actually, but they realised their mistake and didn’t charge us for them, and the large bowl of chips was enough for both of us and otherwise we would have had too many chips. Not that they were bad chips. On the contrary, they were super excellent chips and I’ve eaten many chips in my time. In summary, great bacon and great chips, fairly awesome waffle.
But that’s not all. My wife also ate food in addition to sharing my chips that were actually her chips. She ordered the vegan burger with a side of halloumi, but when the waiter deduced from her cheese order that Mrs Midweek lunch was far from being Vegan, she was offered a brioche bun to jazz up her burger. Now the filling was super – a well structured combination of vegetables rather than a soya splat. The halloumi made it even better. However, the playful brioche bun was not up to the job of holding it all together. In fact it fell apart and was all a bit messy. Still she was very happy overall.
It would an excellent alternative brunch venue to Bills. My wife noted a board saying that you can book a party for 6+ people and benefit from a special menu. It is unclear whether there is a separate room for this but in any case she and her lady friends plan to try it out if only to investigate this secret menu.
I really like Hatch, it’s a bit more laid back than most places in town, somewhere you can drop in and not have to spend too much and get some quality food quickly and not have to walk all the way across the park to get waffles. So whilst I do miss Panko I am very pleased with Hatch and will definitely be visiting again to try their Dirty Reuben, assuming it hasn’t changed into something else by then.
Best Part: The Omelette!
First of all, an apology. When we reviewed the Bakehouse I made a big song and dance about how they had managed to overcome the curse that had previously blighted that spot. Well, with the benefit of hindsight and a greater appreciation of the universal concept of entropy it appears that for the Bakehouse the inevitable destiny was just slightly longer in arriving. But still, that is all in the past, now we have La Vista who will be here for ever probably.
So the décor is pretty much the same, which is fine because it was nice before so therefore it’s still nice. There’s even the old Bakehouse sign, only now it doesn’t have the letters saying ‘Bakehouse’ which were fairly integral to the sign but whatever. The menu is new, anyway, and pretty extensive. If I had to categorise it I’d say it’s like a café menu. There are sandwiches, jacket potatoes, even burgers if you can believe it. I was made to photograph it, so impressed was my companion.
However, it was so large that when the waiter came to take our order my co-author was still undecided and so requested a little more time. This was a mistake, because it was the last we saw of him for a goof long while. When he did return I went for a panini, filled with meat in the shape of balls and also cheese. Then there was another very long gap before the food actually arrived. I was beginning to feel somewhat perturbed, but luckily the food when it arrived was spot on.
The chips I will single out for special attention, they were all chips should be. Crisp on the outside, and greasy on the interior. They interacted superbly with the mayonnaise, it may have been artisanal hand mixed or it may have been Hellmans, my mayonnaise palatte is not so developed, anyway the end result was awesome food interaction. The panini was pretty good also, maybe it could have done with more interesting tomato sauce and more cheese, but it was good.
But, most importantly, the omelette. Light and fluffy like a good fish batter and yet also creamy. Mrs Midweek Lunch was so thrilled with it that she declared it the best omelette she had ever had. Bless her though, she had forgotten what flavour it was supposed to be and was surprised at the lack of spinach. The correctly roasted vegetables were very nicely done.
So there are some teething problems to resolve (when I paid by card we had to conduct the transaction halfway up the stairs as the only place with reception), but overall this is a good effort, well suited for a lunch-time excursion. No need to rush to experience it, though, you have all the time in the world! Bwah Ha Ha to fade.
Best Part: The Lunch Deal!
Now, we’ve been down this route before, complaining about a place because it has stepped into the shoes of a beloved but now departed restaurant. In this case Per Tutti is occupying the space that in our hearts is forever Singhli, the Indian Street Food restaurant. That we never proclaimed our love for Singhli in these dispatches is due to the fact that they were not open at lunch-time (possibly why they are no longer here?), but it was ace, and it has taken us a long time to work up to visiting it’s replacement. Heaven help whoever moves into the late lamented Panko’s pitch.
Still, I’m glad we put all that behind us, as Per Tutti is a pleasant addition to Holywell Hill. Now, St Albans needs another Italian restaurant as much as it needs a new Thai place, but Per Tutti claims to have ‘The Best Lunch Deal in Town’, so we would be remiss in out duties if we didn’t check this out. This is quite a claim when you realise it is up against L’Italiana, La Cosa Nostra, Zaza and (shudder) Jamie’s Pizzeria, just considering other pizza-based lunch deals. You could theoretically have pasta as well, but for us they remained a theory.
None of the starters particularly appealed to us, but we did bump up the deal with a shared bread basket. This was properly lovely, but hot chunks of bread seemingly fresh from the oven and perfect for a chilly winter’s day. What is more, they trusted us enough to leave us with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles, meaning we were spared that annoying moment when you are jousting with your companion’s bread to sup up the precious last few drops of oil.
For my main I went for a Diavola pizza, the toppings including chicken, pepperoni and chillies. I do think that you can tell at first glance of a pizza whether you are going to enjoy getting to know it or not, and when I saw my intended I knew I was on for a treat. The cheese was an inviting molten yellow, collating into occasional glistening pools around the chunks of chicken or pepperoni slices. The base was doughy and crispy without tasting burnt. The tomato sauce maybe let down proceedings somewhat, being a trifle bland and lacking in bite, but overall I would rate this as the best pizza within a meal deal (without necessarily being the best meal deal).
Mrs Midweek lunch was delighted with her Fiorentina pizza which she chose without the egg. She felt it lacked something, probably the egg in fact. Overall she had a slight preference for the Cosa Nostra pizza but still rated it one of the best in town, certainly streets ahead of Jamie’s pizza, even though Per Tutti is physically lower down the street.
The look of the place was fairly standard referencing to Italian landmarks with a few nice touches, we especially enjoyed the lampshade made of corrugated cardboard, and being early we were able to nab the prize seat by the window. My wife admired the black and white toilet decorations but would have preferred there to be more than one. For most of our meal it was just us and the waiting staff, which can be awkward but they handled it well. Then, of a sudden, it seemed like the entire population of the nearby school came in together. This was slightly unnerving, I don’t think school children belong in any dining establishment that expects the diners to sit down, but they all seemed well behaved if a trifle loud. I would recommend visiting this place early in the lunch hour, but I would certainly recommend visiting. I for one would be very happy to return, hopefully for their intriguing looking steak night.
And one final thought. If anyone wants to open a new restaurant in St Albans could you consider not making it an Italian or Thai restaurant. We are pretty set for those. How about considering the cuisine of the Americas? A nice Cuban joint could do very nicely, or some Creole or even Alaskan. Just a little bit different. Might be nice. Anyway…
Best Part: It just fills a niche really nicely!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.