Saturday July 1st, 2017 – Nelson Street Restaurant, Buckingham
It’s always exciting when you find a new restaurant that looks like it might plug the almighty hole in the “fine-dining” category that is the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire area. For a patch of the country that contains a fair amount of disposable income it’s always seemed odd that there are so few establishments that push the boat in that direction. Anyway, to our great delight, it seems there is such a place in Buckingham itself.
We were over in the town for the Buckingham Literary Festival, and after being well entertained there we were in pursuit of dinner. The restaurant in question is on one of the older streets in the town, and from the outside presents a relatively discreet front to the world, with just a menu board and a very low-key window sign to suggest what you might find there. This then, is Nelson Street Restaurant, halfway down the eponymous street. Inside it’s all dark tones, modern-ish art on the walls and an eclectic selection of furniture including possibly the world’s longest sofa, which serves as one seat for each of four tables for two. Try to avoid sitting there unless you’re tall as the sofa is too low and at each end you’ll find you’re short on elbow room on one side.
Signs were promising and we got underway with a local fizz, from the Chafor vineyard over in Gawcott. It seemed a bit odd to serve it in the most old-fashioned type of Champagne class, but I do understand that there are now some experts who consider these a better option than the now more widely used flutes. And it wasn’t as if it would be hanging around long enough for the drinks to go flat!
After some thought (as in about two seconds) we decided we’d go for the tasting menu (or as the menu had it, the discovery menu) with matching wines.
What followed was a series on pretty much on-trend dishes, well executed and beautifully cooked and presented. There was just one dish that failed for us, but I’ll get to that. First up were the “Snacks” which turned out to be two tiny fishcakes, packed with fish flavour and obviously with the balance between potato and fish tilted properly towards the fish end of the spectrum, two tartlets with a truffled mushroom filling including a slice of fresh mushroom and a pickled mushroom, which lifted the taste into something very special, and two “Chinese takeaway” duck spring rolls, presented on a bed of lettuce in a plastic takeaway container. The people at @wewantplates would have had a fit, but actually we were amused.
The textures and flavours so far spoke of someone with a good palate in the kitchen, and who understands flavouring and seasoning. We were also given some home made sourdough bread, which was as it should be with a soft, tearable interior and a properly crunchy crust. It came with some freshly made butter too, along with a second glass of the Chafor Vintage Cuvee 2013.
From the snacks we moved on to the lovely heirloom tomatoes, some raw, some roasted, some dried, with some home made hay smoked ricotta, and a basil soup. This was a lovely hit of Summer in a dish, and the sweetness of the tomatoes worked so well with the honey dressing as well. I would have liked – though the dish did not require it – more of that cheese!
The next dish was one of the standout moments for me. Accompanied by a glass of 2015 Gruner Veltliner Zero-G from Austria (although the waiter pronounced in “vinaigrette” initially), we ate a spectactular crab dish of both white and brown crabmeat, served on top of lime pickled cabbage, and dotted with peanuts and nori. It was a lovely thing and I didn’t want it to end.
The kitchen had clearly hit its stride now, and we were becoming ever more impressed both by the ambition and the ability of the kitchen. These guys were clearly driven to do something special, and were achieving it. Next was potato salad, though it was so much more than that. A base of potato puree which they boast is 50% butter, 50% potato, and all the better for it, was surrounded by tiny little balls of crispy fried jersey royals, with a salad of tiny potatoes topped with a soft boiled quail’s egg. It was a glorious thing! It was accompanied by a very pleasant 2013 Chardonnay Katnook Estate from Australia. I didn’t take a second look at the wine list but they did seem to be aiming at the serious end of it rather than the “house wine” end.
The next dish was the last of the fish dishes, a piece of sea trout, the skin fried to an almost shatterable crispness, served with miso-glazed vegetables (and some dashi pear) and a spectacularly delicious bacon dashi. I’m almost drooling sitting here thinking about it now, and it’s 07:40 in the morning! Alongside it a glass of beautiful Provencal rose, so pale as to be almost “gris”. One mouthful of the 2015 Cotes de Provence, Chateau de Pampelonne and Bam! I was right back there despite the view from the windows being of a couple of utilitarian houses rather than the marina my brain was half-expecting.
Next came the palate cleanser, which involve a fair amount of messing around with a soda syphon, the performance adding some drama to the evening, and entertaining us immensely. I didn’t catch what the contents were but we ended up with a frothy drink in another Champagne bowl, which was tasty but I would have liked it much colder to serve its advertised purpose. It was rather more of a mid-dinner cocktail than a palate cleanser in the traditional sense.
And then came the misfire – so much of one that I actually wondered if person who conjured it up is a pescatarian. It was, to be fair, as advertised on the board, spring lamb (rump, cooked to perfection, with the fat rendered and browned all the way through, the meat still pink and tender), polenta (a triange fried to a lovely brown crispness), baby gem lettuce, which was basically doing what lettuce does and being inoffensive and just a little dull. And a gherkin. And here’s the bone of contention for me. The gherkin was very wet, and perhaps if they’d drained it well in advance and let it dry as much as any member of the cucumber family can be dried, then all would have been fine. It wasn’t fine. It had no business on the plate, and it left a puddle of vinegary pickling liquor on the bottom of the plate. When I mentioned it to our very sweet waiter, he said it made the jus. No. It didn’t. It made a watery puddle and it spoiled what would otherwise have been a beautiful dish. I know pickled this and that is all the rage – I have after all spent a great deal of the last few months in Copenhagen – but this needs a serious rethink. I understand the chef wants to be all cutting edge (or as cutting edge as he dares in Buckingham) but no. Just no!
The wines continued to fascinate though. The lamb was accompanied by a 2012 Cabernet Franc, Casa Valduga, that rarity in the UK, a Brazilian wine. Given the difficulties our friends who used to run Sabor do Brasil used to have securing a regular and reliable supply, we were impressed by its mere presence here. We were also impressed by its lovely full-bodied character.
A pre-dessert raspberry and mint sorbet was next, a nicely executed and fruity couple of cooking mouthfuls which had us almost forgiving the gherkin!
And then we hit dessert, a rose custard, baked with all sorts of wonderful accompaniments in the shape of raspberries both fresh and dried, nectarines, and shards of “caramac” which were far nicer than the old bars used to be! This was lovely indeed, the custard smooth and sweet and perfumed, rose petals strewn around on the top. I could happily eat that again too. And they served it with a 2012 Petit Manseng, Chateau Jolys, Jurançon Doux which made me love them all the more.
In essence then, an interesting dinner cooked by a kitchen where the ambition and skill is obvious. They’ve apparently been open around 6 months and they were certainly packed on Saturday night. We’ll be going back to roam the a la carte menu at some point for sure. Just lose the gherkins, lads!