Meal at Restaurant James Sommerin

Meal at Restaurant James Sommerin

at James Sommerin on 10 February 2017
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My second visit to James Sommerin and this time the restaurant was in posession of a shiny, new Michelin star as at the 2017 guide.  I honestly can’t say I’m completely surprised at that based on the first visit as it was a serious contender and the headline for this visit is that it was definitely a noticeable notch upwards from the first visit in terms of the food but I was also amazed at how the service seemed to be so stretched and how long it took for things to come together.  It was really good food but my advice is to not have any time constraints at all – during my meal I heard more than one table in my vicinity quietly commenting on how slowly things were progressing or not being informed enough which is genuinely the experience I had.  However, if you can survive the wait, there are quality moments here and I believe the best way would simply pay a little extra for for the chef’s table to guarantee more timely service as diners there seem to have no issues.

Regrettably, I have to report that from the outset of this meal it was obvious that the service was pushed to the limit.  I counted 5 staff on the floor to cover 38 people in a packed restaurant and might just be enough but didn’t seem to add up on this occasion.  A key, combat indicator was noting staff had that ‘hoping not to be asked anything’ air about them – rushed with an avoidance of eye contact.  After a 10 minute wait in the holding / bar area it was actually 36 mins until canapés arrived at the table and an hour after arrival that bread arrived.  My request for a food menu 20 minutes in at the table was answered with there was only enough copies to being used by other tables so something was obviously not quite right as that is a bit of a surprise for a restaurant to not have enough to go around or have to wait to share – a genuine first for me.

Regrettably, I have to report that from the outset of this meal it was obvious that the service was pushed to the limit.  I counted 5 staff on the floor to cover 38 people in a packed restaurant and might just be enough but didn’t seem to add up on this occasion.  A key, combat indicator was noting staff had that ‘hoping not to be asked anything’ air about them – rushed with an avoidance of eye contact.  After a 10 minute wait in the holding / bar area it was actually 36 mins until canapés arrived at the table and an hour after arrival that bread arrived.  My request for a food menu 20 minutes in at the table was answered with there was only enough copies to being used by other tables so something was obviously not quite right as that is a bit of a surprise for a restaurant to not have enough to go around or have to wait to share – a genuine first for me.

Anyhoo, now that that gripe is out of the way I can focus on the food and on this occasion I opted for the chef’s selection after looking at the menu as this was to be signature dishes of the week, selected by the chef. Kicking off with the canapés, I thought these were excellent.  The garlic espuma was outstandingly light and interesting with fennel seeds, the tapioca crisp texture was tougher / chewier than expecting but with strong flavour from the taramasalata and the cheese greyures were nice with truffle but I not in the same league as House of Tides or Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

20 minutes later after finishing these, they were cleared.  At 9pm the bread arrived (I arrived at 8pm for my 8pm table) and this came with salted seaweed and normal butter (both beautiful texture and fair in flavour).  The focaccia bread was fine and nicely warm and I had high hopes for the onion bread but it turned out to be drier and tougher than the norm – I wasn’t expecting The Ledbury standard for the onion bread (pretty to beat anywhere in the world), but this version could have been more impressive.

Next came liquid pea ravioli, sage, ham and Parmesan foam.  This was a lovely combination, done well and although first thought a little subtle, it was still darn nice.  The butter poached lobster was good with a light and well spiced bisque and hints of fennel with crunch of granola & seeds and broccoli was overall v pleasant.  Final fish of the evening was the brill with smoked potatoes and salsify which was a gorgeous dish – it was creamy, smokey, crispy and juicy.  All round this was brilliant.

The beef was done beautifully with a lovely jus.  The cheek was very nicely done (moist and seasoned well) and the parsnip purée and onion all made for a very good dish.  This was highly enjoyable.  And on to the sweets – the lemon curd, meringue, cherry and biscuit with lemon essence all over was a beautifully designed dish.  Dry ice for the sake of it is a bit dangerous as it spells style over substance but this really did gain the lemon fragrance wafting over the entire table and me which was great.  The Lemon tart sorbet itself was completely delightful.  Poached pear, caramelised toffee ice cream dessert was similarly pleasant with beautiful flakes of pastry and the petit fours were delicate and all really excellent.

So all in all, I thought the food on this visit was in a considerably strong league.  Apologies to have to keep going on about it but it really was marred by the unpolished service.  It was nice to see the head chef personally bring out some of the dishes to the tables but the pace that was needed for this and the fact that one table had desserts placed at a table with empty savoury dishes still to be collected, combined with the hour wait for bread (not a stand alone course) made this the more notable point of the visit.  A shame, as the food really was quite super and comfortably in the upper quadrant of 1 Michelin starred UK venues.  If more menus were available, more staff were at hand, more genuine proactive desire from those on the floor to give what diners needed with more attentive urgency, this would take the restaurant to a super level.

As it stands, I feel only going to the chef’s table would be the only choice for a more slick meal.  Total time for the meal was 3 hours, 45 mins by the time that the bill was paid which, for a 6 course menu is just too long. For 18 courses (which I have done in a similar timeframe) this is fine but not, I would suggest for 6.  Although I received a discount for being a Luxury Restaurant Guide member (annual fee to get discounts at various places at various times), the menu price represented very good value for money for what was produced – some excellent dishes.

As time was an issue we had to go for the 3 course set menu at lunch priced at £32 pp.  With canapés and an amuse bouche and the overall quality of the food, the first thing to say is that this was very good value.  Canapés of sweetcorn panna cotta with bacon and mouth-bite of truffle was warmly receieved although I felt the sweetcorn panna cotta would have been better with a touch more seasoning.  The amuse bouche of leek mousse and salmon was absolutely sumptuous – perfectly light and balanced with gently pickled beetroot and fried shoe-string potato for texture.  The white and brown breads arrived beautifully warmed and the unsalted and seaweed butters were both served at the perfect temperature.

The pork belly and mackerel were the chosen starters, both of which were frankly superb.  The creamed jus that accompanied the mackerel went perfectly and this was a lovely dish, as was the pork belly that was probably the best of the meal – powerful in flavour and carefully constructed.  These were followed by the mains of shin of beef and the vegetarian option.  As the menu does not give too much away, it was only apparent on serving that the vegetarian option was a lasagne with cream sauce and parmesan foam to accompany which was well done and left me wishing for more and the shin of beef with creamed mash I tried was also delightful.  All the desserts were ordered and again, it was only obvious on serving that the passion fruit was a soufflé – thankfully, these I love.  The soured dark cholocate was very much needed as the passion fruit soufflé was exceptionaly sweet.  It was gratifying to have, particularly on a set menu, however I did feel it was in danger of being a little too sweet and could have possibly benefitted from being set a fraction more.  This was not a show-stopper though and it was a very nice aspect to have at the end of the meal.  The cheeses showed the very good value of the options here.

All in all, the skill shown on this basic set menu for lunch was clearly evident; there was no question of being of a very high technical standard.  The service was very good throughout I felt that this meal demonstrated cooking that, in my opinion, was clearly operating within the 1 Michelin starred quadrant.  My only regret is that all diners were driving and had to leave relatively early, so we could not drink or stretch to the other menus, however, this will be done on the next visit which I look forward to doing and will do in the next few months to see the whole show.  A highly pleasing meal.

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8 / 10

Evening view from outside the restaurant

Opening snacks

Breads with butter and seaweed butter

Pea ravioli

Lobster

Brill

Beef

Beef closeup

Lemon surprise

Lemon tart sorbet close up

Toffee ice cream

Coffee and petit fours

The dinner bill for 1

Interior (1)

Interior (2)

Canapés

Set menu

Amuse bouche

Breads

Pork belly

Mackerel

Shin of beef

Mushroom lasagne

Cheeses

Date and fig

Passion fruit soufflé