Friday, 29th June 2018 – Bar Encore, Olive Tree, Towcester
Friday night after a long day in a six-hour conference call and with the weather hot and dry as it has been for the last two weeks, I really didn’t fancy cooking dinner, so we headed out on foot to test run the new bar and restaurant in town, starting with Bar Encore, which opened officially the night before. It might have been a bit harsh of us to try and judge a place on its first “open to the public” night, but the owners have run quite a vigorous campaign on Facebook for the last six to eight months, so they had pretty much set themselves up for it. On arrival, the barmaid confessed it was her first night and she hadn’t been trained. This was pretty obvious given that on asking what there was to drink, she initially pointed me at the price list above the till, and then when I demurred produced the wine list. There had been much talk of cocktails in the run up, and really that was what we were after. She then said she had no idea what cocktails they had, and I would need to talk to her colleague. My suspicion is that no one wanted to train her up in advance, because they might have had to pay for her time. Either way, throwing a barmaid with no experience or training into the maelstrom that is Friday night seems unnecessarily cruel!
Eventually her colleague arrived, and showed us the cocktail list. I ordered two caipirinhas, and he said he would bring them to us at our table. We had hoped to sit in the garden but it was full of smokers, so we ended up indoors. It did give us a chance to have a good look at the renovation that has taken place. The Pickled Pig as it used to be, was in a very rundown state, and a lot of work has gone in to tidy it up and make it look cared for. It used to look like this, so it could only improve.
Now they just need to apply that same care to the staff and the set up. A drink purporting to be a caipirinha arrived in front of us. I don’t know what it really was, but we both quickly concluded it was not by any stretch of the imagination a caipirinha. It had four ice cubes in it, a couple of sad looking slices of lime, and no discernible sugar. Also no discernible cahaca. And it was brown… The barman came back just as we were reaching this conclusion, and we suggested that at least some lime was needed. He gave us a glass of lime juice but that didn’t really help much.
Shortly afterwards the cocktail barman arrived. He’d clearly been summoned early, and was very apologetic when he saw our drinks. He said he needed to go out to try and source some supplies, and set off to run to the local shops in the course to try and get what was needed. When he came back he brought us a fresh caipirinha to try, after we’d discussed whether he was going to add soda water to it (No!) or lemonade (really no!). The result was slightly better but there was still no taste of cahaca and very little crunch of sugar either. Further discussion revealed the “recipe” says 25cl of cahaca, 1 lime, 4 ice cubes and some syrup… Way to go to get run out of Brazil is all I can say! It’s my belief that you need 50cl of cahaca, half a lime cut into quarters, two to three heaped teaspoons of granulated sugar (and I prefer white to brown for this), plus crushed ice to top up the glass. Nothing else, no soda, no lemonade, just four ingredients.
Given the standard of the competition, a couple of doors up the road, there’s a need to improve and quickly if they want to survive, and I really would like them to. We’ll try again in a couple of weeks, to see if things have improved any, but otherwise we’ll be back to 185 Watling Street where they really do know how to make cocktails!
After that slightly disappointing experience we walked to the other end of the high street to try out the Olive Tree, which also replaces a former pub. This is an offshoot of a Turkish restaurant in Milton Keynes, and is all the more welcome given we are very short on anything particularly exotic in Towcester. Up until now we’ve had Chinese, Indian and a kebab van to choose from if we didn’t want the normal “pub” classics! I’d booked a table a couple of weeks back, but had cancelled it after getting an email confirmation back that said they’d want their table back in 90 minutes flat. As it turned out, this is simply not true.
Anyway, on arrival we were quickly seated (partly because they really don’t have anywhere else to put you than at your table) and after a quick look at the wine list, we ordered a bottle of Valdobianne, a more superior type of prosecco than the bog standard stuff.
Viktorija, the rather lovely Lithuanian waitress, asked us what we were celebrating and we fell back on the usual, which is that it was a day with a “y” in it.
That question fielded, we took a long hard look at the menu, while chomping steadily through the complimentary bread, olive and dips.
We figured we might be best starting with a mixed mezze selection from the cold mezze section and then seeing whether we were still hungry or not. This was a wise move because the “chef’s selection” turned out to be a generous serving of everything! So we set about working our way through some excellent hummus, really creamy and rich and without the nasty harsh edge some hummus has (presumably from inferior quality olive oil), a lovely lively kisir (bulghur wheat with red peppers, gherkins, spring onions, fresh parsley and a tremendous hit of coriander), cacik shot through with fresh mint, saksuka with a chilli blast, ezme relish with lots of garlic and pomegranate flavour, and a Russian salad which reminded us both of the vegetable salad that used to be common in our childhoods (but that was nowhere near as nice as this).
After that the idea of mains was a bit scary, especially as we’d seen the size of them. Instead we decided we’d got for the hot mezzes selection, again just one between us. This brought a delightfully cheesy trio of sigara borek, a couple of slices of sucuk (spicy Turkish sausages), two large but light falafels served on a bed of more of that fabulous hummus, and some halloumi, grilled to perfection. It wasn’t too big and was more than enough for the two of us, but that’s probably down to the fact that we are not actually greedy people (at least not for quantity), and we’re getting older which means a reduction in appetite. This was perfect.
We had hoped to drink a Turkish wine with it, but none of the four bottles on the list were actually available, which was slightly disappointing. However, the waitress recommended an alternative, and brought us a small taster to check if we liked it or not. And that’s why we ended up drinking an Australian Shiraz. It was very good, fruity, deep enough to cope with the spicy food, and I’d order it again in the absence of Turkish wines in future.
And apart from a trio of baklava between us that was more than enough dinner!
A slow walk home was all we could now manage, satisfied that we’d tested two newcomers and found at least one of them to be excellent. The jury is still out on Bar Encore.