Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Heston Services

Heston B was named after the motorway services near Heathrow so perhaps he felt he owed it to service cafes in general to begin lifting them out of the mire of horror in which they has resided ever since their birth. I have heard there are good ones but then you hear all sorts of stuff and frankly, seeing is believing.

The telly is a powerful thing and when the Popham Little Chef reopened after HB waved his wand it was full from 7 in the morning till ten at night sometimes with a 2 hour wait. But of course the initial telly-generated interest  couldn’t last so time would tell if the experiment worked.

We were driving sort of that way on Sunday, towing a boat to Portsmouth, so we made the detour to see what was going on. I love Heston Blumenthal. He is the Willy Wonka of our age, constantly testing us and leaving us agog. I remember when he took over from Rowley Leigh at the Guardian on Saturday. His stuff was immediately jarringly different and the complaints came flooding in. “Who is this guy?” “How can he think we can do these things at home?” “Its impossible.” Blahblahblah. His response? A recipe for carrot chips that finished with the line “….and leave them in your oven at the lowest temperature for 2 days”. You gotta love him.

As you arrive at the Chef Petit it is immediately different. The sign says so and the fat little logo that we know and despise from childhood has had a designer unleashed upon it. As you enter the restaurant (and finally this word can be used in the same sentence as the Little Chef) you know something is up. It looks great. It  has bright red tables and loads of booth seating next to big windows. In the middle is a communal table . The walls are done with bevelled edged rectangular white tiles and grouted in red. You look up and the ceiling is a cheering yet slightly eerie photograph of a blue sky with birds flitting across it. The chefs and waiters are sprightly and interested and the whole thing makes you want to sit down and eat instead of emigrate instantly.

The menu is gastro pub fare – pork belly, lamb shank, steak, sticky toffee pudding, with some 70's throwback stuff like prawn cocktail and black forest gateau etc. We had the prawn cocktail to start that was straight out of my childhood and mussels that were straight out of a iron pot shaped a bit like a mussel and probably costing more that our meal would come to. Staub I believe the make was.  The finger bowl that came with dehydrated hand cloths was also by Staub. In a Little Chef!!!!!!! The mussels were little ones in a beautiful liquor but they definitely had that precooked almost crumbly texture. Shame.

On to the mains. Hake in beer batter that was a bit greasy. The big chips were so much better that the usual fat ones but not anywhere near as nice as the French fries served with the burger. The  burger itself  was good and I was happy to feed it to my son (usually I fear for his longevity if a low grade burger is demanded) but I found it a little on the small side. The bun it was served in was lovely coming dusted in semolina flour, a touch I adore. My other kid’s Tag Bol was very child friendly, to the point where I wondered if it hadn't had sugar added to it. Having said that, a star system on the menu actively encourages kids to order healthy stuff. Order three things with a star (Innocent smoothie carries one, Coke doesn’t, for example) and the child gets a badge.

Everything so far had been pretty good and way, way above the norm of Little Chef but my Braised Ox Cheeks in red wine blew me away. I didn’t really even feel like eating stew but could not pass up ordering beef cheeks in a Little Chef. You just gotta love that man. He is so naughty. 

I think it was amongst  the best beef stews I have ever had. The cheeks were melted away in the mouth without the vaguest hint of dryness or toughness and the sauce was sticky and rich. I have never hade stewed meat like it. The mash that came with it was dry but suited the dish perfectly and was all the better for it.

I asked one of the chefs (who I had spied from a photo at the opening) who made what and where it came from. He told me that they only really finished things off, the majority being produced off site. The menu has obvioulsy been designed that way - provide things that can be produced in large quantities off site yet still maintain a high quality when it reaches the table ie instead of mass producing crap, mass producing quality. Nice. The chefs were visibly happy to be part of it.

The thought  behind everything and desire to please and be different was noticeable throughout. The toilets were fascinating – the walls have food facts  all over the place and on the speaker system I heard the sound of veg chopping, chefs shouting, that ghastly gastronaut Roahl Dahl reading extracts of his his food obsessed books and weird bits of music. Uncanny canned music.

You gotta love him.