The restaurant industry looks something like this: Disaster for the first three months of the year, and we’ll continue to be locked down prior to the roll out of immunisations and while Covid continues to spread during the cooler months.
During spring, there should be a time for cautious optimism with the cavalry – in the form of the Oxford jab – on the horizon.
Restaurants who’ve managed to make it this far can finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, during the second half of the year, it’s boom time. Those who managed to survive can cash in as the economy kick starts into life, as immunisations have been rolled out and as people meet friends and loved ones in restaurants and bars.
The trick, therefore, is to make it through to spring.
Plenty of restaurants created their own heat-at-home box offerings during the latter part of 2020.
As our dining choices extended beyond our immediate surrounds – though more on local restaurants next week – we’ve been able to sample food from some of the UK’s best chefs, albeit with the caveat that we have to heat it ourselves.
Matt Gillan falls firmly into the category of ‘UK’s best’. The star of TV’s Great British Menu and a former Michelin star winner, he decided to go it alone and open a fine dining restaurant in the year before Covid. A delightful venue near Brighton, it had been making all of the right noises prior to lockdown.
That’s no surprise. Gillan had grown up around a mother who cooked everything and though he initially preferred to play football and spend time on games consoles, he eventually got a job as a kitchen porter in a local pub. He enjoyed the buzz of service and fell into cooking under his then-head chef Nick Wentworth.
It wasn’t long before he’d showed promise and he moved to Midsummer House, in Cambridge, under Daniel Clifford. Over the next three-and-a-half years, the restaurant stepped up and secured two Michelin stars as Gillan was promoted to junior sous chef.
Inspired by watching Gordon Ramsay’s television programme Boiling Point, he secured a commis position at his eponymous three-star restaurant.
Next came a stint as senior chef de partie at the two star restaurant, The Vineyard Hotel, in Berkshire, under John Campbell.
A spell travelling was followed by 10 years at South Lodge Hotel, in Sussex, where Gillan moved from the hotel’s Camelia restaurant into a purpose-built restaurant called The Pass, where he won a Michelin star for his tasting menus.
He left in April 2016 and after a number of projects, including the Pike & Pine restaurant in Brighton and his own Electro Pirate brand, he found an old pub not far from Horsham, The Chequers Inn. Raising £60,000 in just six days via Kickstarter, he opened a beautiful restaurant with rooms and was earning rave reviews prior to lockdown.
Heritage was the culmination of Matt’s many years of hard work and dedication towards perfecting his craft. Since March, however, he’s had to think outside the box – or, in the case of his at-home offering, inside the box.
Heritage isn’t the sort of experience that can be delivered in a home kitchen. Intricate and complex, it’s a high-end, sophisticated experience best left to the pros.
So Gillan created a new brand, Parlour, which delivers simpler food more suited to the home kitchen.
A party box, at just under £100, is intended to be a blow out. In fact, it sustained us for two days, making the price tag eminently reasonable and providing us with good value, high quality eating. With seven courses, including bread and butter, plus a dessert, we were able to mix and match to suit ourselves on any given day.
Parlour couldn’t have been easier to assemble. Well labelled and with all dishes simply requiring a heat in the oven at 180C, there was zero fuss and zero faff.
In no particular order, we ate pork belly bao buns. They were utterly delicious. Vibrant red buns were soft and yielding while a square of pre-cooked pork belly was re-heated then shredded, so that the fat melted away and left unctuous, delicious meat. A sticky cola glaze added plenty of sweet notes while pickled cabbage cut through the meat and crispy onions added texture. If there’s a better bao in Britain, I’ve yet to eat it.
Lobster macaroni cheese was a high-class spin on the nation’s favourite comfort food. Baked for 15 minutes until golden and bubbling, it was big on flavour as the strong cheese and sweet lobster made for a perfect pairing.
Crispy cauliflower exceeded expectation as small beignets were served with an intensely sweet and acidulated plum hoi sin sauce. The flavours were big and bold, like the star turns in a circus, equally matching one another and providing five minutes of flavourbombs.
Turkey skewers were the best way to eat the festive bird. Served with ponzu and cucumber, they were deliciously light and bursting with flavour. We served ours on a bed of shredded pak choi, which had been dressed in yuzu with sesame seeds added. With the citrussy yuzu working beautifully with the ponzo from the turkey, it made for a delicious, healthy bowl of food.
We finished with doughnuts and salted caramel and they were drop dead gorgeous. The buttery, sweet caramel was the perfect accompaniment to the light, two-bite doughnuts. A dazzlingly good way to end, the warm doughnuts were more-ish; we’d have happily eaten another bag.
The bread and butter, incidentally, was magnificent. High quality ingredients and high-quality baking provided a great addition.
There was also an electro pirate cocktail; a mango-infused rum, coconut rum with 5 spice and lime syrup, tiki bitters and fresh lime. It was zingy and delicious.
Gillan’s Parlour offering is one of the best in the UK. It’s fun, high quality – all killer and no filler – with each course offering fun, intrigue and delight. The flavours were bright and vibrant, mirroring the type of food Gillan offers at his much-loved restaurant.
With restrictions likely to be in place for some time, the exceptional work of some of the nation’s best chefs is providing the silver lining to the Covid clouds.