I reckon somewhere there must be a 10 Commandments for restaurants. If there are, I imagine that list would probably include the instruction: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s main course”. Easier said than done though, isn’t it, when your neighbour has ordered the last portion of the special that you all had your eyes on!
That contravention of that imaginary restaurant commandment happened on a recent visit to The Almanack in Kenilworth. It’s one of the Peach Pubs collection of eateries, the same family as The Star & Garter in Leamington Spa and the Rose And Crown in Warwick, both of which we’ve enjoyed in the past. They offer decent food that mixes classic flavours and simple dishes with a bit of imagination, with no identikit decor – every venue stands on its own – yet consistently good service.
Ambience-wise, with its modern frontage and less traditional ‘pub’ appearance than our previous visits to neighbouring Leamington and Warwick, I walked away with it being my favourite. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them both, but there was something about the atmosphere that won me over.
Inside it’s low-lit and moody – less pub, more restaurant/bar – with a long bar area that you can imagine enjoying a few cocktails at, as well as a load of booths to either snuggle up to on a date or pack into with friends like we did.
The food I knew I’d like because I’d already studied the menu extensively, and there was plenty to keep me smiling, from rack of lamb to fish dishes like sea bass and pan-fried monkfish and scallops with bombay potatoes. I hadn’t, however, prepared myself for the cat amongst the pigeons that The Almanack threw at us in the shape of its specials board.
Not only was there a lovely-sounding platter of ‘market fish’ including seabass, salmon, scallops and mussels. It also turns out they make a habit of adding a ‘low and slow’ option and, like the Rose and Crown in Warwick, they’ve got their own smoker. On the night we went the offering was slow and low braised beef cheeks, served with creamy mash, kale, and bacon gravy. Tempted much?
So while we supped on cocktails and the boys hit the cider, we nibbled on another of the Peach regulars – warm mini loaves with roasted garlic butter – to try to pick from what was a pretty appealing collection of dishes. Minds made up, we proudly announced our choices to our incredibly helpful waiter and waited eagerly for our starters. Until disaster struck.
Yep, you guessed it. No beef cheeks left. Someone else had sold the last portion while we were ordering. Our suspicions were that the culprit was the man next to us. Whether he’d taken the last portion we still don’t know, but he definitely contributed to the deficit of beef cheeks as we jealously watched his portion arrive. Turns out you just can’t help but covet your neighbour’s meal when it’s a hefty portion of slow-cooked cow.
It’s good The Almanack had a fair few other tempting options for Mr M (he of the beef cheeks) to turn to, as the disappointment was quelled enough for us to get on with our starters. I opted for the Devon crab gratin with apple and crunchy vegetable salad. A crab gratin isn’t something I’ve seen on many menus, plus I love crab so I thought I’d give it a go.
It was pretty good – a creamy sauce packed with a far more generous helping of crab meat than I’d expected and, thankfully, not as hot as hades as I feared it might be. The apple and vegetable salad was sweet and refreshing which made for a good contrast, both in flavour and texture.
My pal went for the free-range duck and crunchy vegetable salad with toasted cashews and oriental dressing, something I probably would have chosen had she not gone for it. It reminded me a bit of that duck salad I tried at The Plough in Huddlesford and definitely won the prize of prettiest starter. I’m told the duck was tasty and tender and the veg was fresh and crispy, along with crunchy cashews and sesame seeds that added a hint of its Asian influences.
Our other friend opted for free range ham and cheddar croquettes with tomato relish. A simple but tried and tested combination. Apparently the tomato relish was particularly enjoyable with its sweet tanginess.
Mr M went for a choice from the specials board – goats cheese-stuffed garlic mushroom with spiced honey butter. I’d say on the ‘pretty’ scale, it was pretty much the opposite end from the duck salad but hey, we all know we need to be wary of style over substance. So when it comes to the substance he said it tasted good, especially with the sweetness of the honey coming through.
For main course I had gone for yet another slightly unusual choice for me. I’d been tempted by the sea bass, the market fish platter, and the monkfish. But with our break in Cornwall coming up with an undoubted abundance of fish, I threw caution – and calorie consumption – to the wind and went for the mustard-glazed pork belly chop with summer vegetable croquettes and slaw.
It was a big chunk of meat (and fat – the best bit), I’ve got to say, but was really rather well done. Crispy in the right places, melt in the mouth in the others, and with a good amount of meat on it. I love the fat on pork belly, but I don’t like it when that’s all there is, so this was a good balance.
The vegetable croquettes were crispy on the outside and full of cheesy veg. It had been suggested that I might want to add fries but I’m blimin glad I didn’t, given the size of my meal.
My friend Lucy, winner of the prettiest dishes of the night, had gone for pan-fried sea bass with sauteed tenderstem broccoli, samphire and salsa verde. It was a gorgeous, healthy-looking (unlike mine) stack of delicate fish and green vegetables from land and sea. As much as I enjoyed my pork, I’ve got to admit to this being another occasion where I found myself coveting someone else’s dinner.
Lucy’s husband stole Mr M’s place as steak eater of the night with the 28-day dry aged 8oz rump cap steak. He chose a cafe de Paris butter and also added a ‘grill garnish’ – another Peach Pubs regular of roasted field mushroom, garlic and thyme plum tomatoes and beer battered onion rings. Basically, everything you might dream of that you want with a steak.
He said his steak, which was sourced from local butcher’s and general meat heroes Aubrey Allen, was cooked just right and wonderfully tasty, and was simultaneously proud and terrified of his meal of many plates. I think we’d all have openly agreed that the grill garnish was probably a bit unnecessary, but hey, when in Rome and all that.
His regular steak-eating spot stolen, Mr M decided to try the Cornish rack of lamb. Individual cutlets on top of creamy mash, minted peas and beans, his was another spring-inspired dish with firm classic roots. The lamb was moist, tender and tasty, and we all know lamb and mint is a classic combo, so it went down well.
We were all more than happy with our meals. But it’s what happened next that was a key element in sealing the deal on The Almanack for me. As the main courses arrived, an extra bowl suddenly appeared and we found ourselves with a small portion of the aforementioned, much-hallowed braised beef cheeks – complete with mash, kale and bacon gravy.
Nobody knows where from or how this happened but you know what, we didn’t question it too much! What I do know is that our disappointment in not being able to try it had been clear and that someone, somewhere managed to make sure that actually, we could.
Maybe it was a portion set aside for a member of staff, maybe it was just what was left over that couldn’t quite make up a whole portion. Again, I don’t care. What I do care about is that the people serving us gave enough of a sh*t and had enough nous to do something to make us not just happy, but very happy. For me this is good service, and we all know from my rant about service the other week that this matters to me.
And no, this wasn’t the only bit of good service we encountered that night. It had been there from the start. From the knowledge of the menu, extensive advice I received on the one glass of wine I wanted to try with my meal (had a fabulous Riesling in case you’re interested) and the general attention we received. Yeah okay, maybe it was because I was doing a review but I’m not sure. I watched other tables get the same treatment.
Needless to say, the beef cheeks were fabulous. They tasted like they’d been cooked for hours and hours and hours. Falling apart, full of flavour, perched on buttery rich mash, and with everything covered in a silky unctuous gravy. Considering this bowl we had was apparently a quarter portion, I have no idea how anyone is capable of eating a whole one, though if I returned I’d be more than happy to give it a go.
Please don’t ask me whose idea it was to agree to order dessert, but at the time we all felt rather virtuous that we only ordered one of the chocolate and peanut butter brownie sundaes off the specials board and shared it. Needless to say, that even proved a hard task to get through, though we battled valiantly through scoops of ice-cream, chunks of brownie, and hidden seams of peanut butter on our journey towards gut-busting oblivion.
I guess you could say there’s not a great deal of skill or panache about chucking a load of brownie, peanut butter, ice-cream and other calorific goods in a glass. But there’s a reason these things are on menus – because everybody loves ’em. Including me.
Despite their declaration of defeat, the boys couldn’t help but try one of The Almanack’s ‘Grand gins’. You know, the big coupes of gin with different tonics and garnishes. Always a winner, and a bit of a trademark Peach Pubs thing, so if you’re a gin drinker, you know where to go for one now.
As you can imagine, the combination of gratin, belly pork, beef cheeks and dessert was probably one of the more mammoth meals I’ve consumed in a while, but it was incredibly enjoyable. Yeah, the food was good. It was well cooked, well presented, and there were dishes in there that were a good balance of tried and tested yet imaginative.
But as I’ve said so many times before, everything seems to taste that little bit better when the ambience and service is good. I really liked the restaurant feel of The Almanack and I found the service to be right on point. It’s somewhere I could go with Mr M for a quiet catch-up, take my mum, go in with friends like we did, or have a few cocktails with the girls. It’s a versatile place that seems to have struck the right note when it comes to being smart but not fussy.
And hey, when someone brings you that dish you thought you’d missed out on as an extra little treat, you can’t help but be impressed!
I was invited to review The Almanack for Eat with Ellen. Two of our meals were complimentary and we were given a few complimentary drinks but we paid for the rest.