There are a lot of restaurants out there promising a great deal. “Fine dining”, “exquisite food”, “impeccable service”. Websites packed with superlatives, and experiences so often sprinkled with disappointment.
It makes me wary. The more you promise, the higher the bar, and the bigger the crash when it doesn’t quite work out how you say it will. And so, I walked into Restaurant 23 in Leamington Spa with bated breath, hoping it would be everything I was assured it would be but prepared for the fact it may not have been.
Restaurant 23 is no newcomer to Leamington. Its gorgeous regency building, complete with terrace, has occupied a prime spot just off the bottom of the Parade for some time. In fact, I remember going a few years ago with my mum for dinner but not being hugely blown away.
However, it’s recently gone through what I was told was a “brand re-establishment journey”, with a new team taking over the 10-year-old restaurant and Executive Chef Curtis Stewart. So I headed back with Mr M and some pals for a special evening checking out whether it would live up to what I was told would be a meal to remember.
It’s a lovely setting for dinner, I’ve got to say. Through the townhouse’s front door, you sweep past two private dining rooms and upstairs to Morgan’s Bar, a kind of separate entity within the same building where you can enjoy a pre-dinner drink or just a night of cocktails. It was packed on the Friday night we went, and I can see why, with a cocktail list to die for and plenty of quiet corners to tuck yourself into for a tipple.
Downstairs at our table we were faced with the tough choice of going a la carte or taking a gamble on a ‘blind tasting menu’. As you know, Mr M and I are fans of a tasting menu – the chance to try ingredients, dishes and combinations you wouldn’t normally choose. We did it at Driftwood, Salt in Stratford-upon-Avon, Tivoli in Cortina d’Ampezzo and I tried one at Purnell’s in Birmingham.
However, what we’ve never tried is a ‘blind’ tasting menu, with no idea of what you’re going to get. A leap of faith, but potentially a rather spectacular experience. And so, our confidence won by the slick staff at Restaurant 23, we took the plunge and put our evening firmly in their hands. In every way possible, in fact, after we opted for the paired wine flight too.
I could go into chapter and verse (don’t I always) but instead of writing War and Peace on every single one of the, quite frankly, amazing courses we had, I’ll do what I’ve done previously and show you the pretty pictures with a brief summary of each one and their highlights.
Now this may look like a couple of innocuous butter pats, but don’t be fooled. One is salted butter but the other, the darker one, is marmite butter and – if you like marmite of course – something a bit akin to manna from heaven. Seriously good stuff, peeps, take my word for it.
Our amuse bouche was chicken liver parfait with orange candy and walnut crumb, but those words alone don’t do it justice. Take a look at this badboy. Presented a bit like one of the imaginative themed courses from Great British Menu, the parfait was intricately nestled inside an egg shell, which in turn sat on a bed of straw inside a wooden box, with the clue: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
The stuff of imagination, creativity and fabulous execution, the parfait was smooth and rich, with the orange adding a tried and tested flavour addition and the walnut crumb the right amount of contrasting texture. We seemed to be off to a good start.
The next course, simply named ‘Tuna’, was in fact far more complicated. Ponzu marinated sashimi tuna with fermented kohlrabi, passion fruit, miso and bonito jelly. After the amuse bouche that had just awoken our tastebuds, it was no surprise that it was impeccably presented.
Like its appearance, it was a delicate dish, with melt in the mouth yellowfin tuna emphasised by the slightly spicy kohlrabi and sweet fruit. Light and refreshing and leaving us hankering for more.
Don’t let the name put you off. It’s not just a vat of pigs’ blood. Well, not quite. What appeared before us was one of the more intriguing dishes I’ve seen. A brick-shaped croquette topped with what at first glance could be mistaken for nuts and sweets. No plate, as we were informed they should be eaten ‘canape style’.
What these funny little chunks of loveliness turned out to be were gorgeously rich, soft, croquettes of black pudding in a crunchy coating, topped with burnt apple. puffed pork skin and ‘burnt’ onion. It’s one of those occasions where I a) wish I could find better words to tell you about something and b) get slightly concerned that a poor old non-carnivorous vegetarian may have stumbled onto this blog and now be heaving into their cuppa.
But those worries aside, this was flipping great. Soft, slightly irony tasting but deliciously rich and meaty, with the onion adding sweetness and the apple a slight tartness to cut through the heady richness of the croquettes. Perhaps being a vampire wouldn’t be all that bad, if dishes like this were part of the deal.
Next up was another simplistic title. Hinckley Asparagus, Peas, Truffle and Pickled Eggs. A rainbow on a plate, to use a phrase I know I use too much but does really sum it up. Another light one after the Pigs Blood, with the tried and tested flavours doing exactly what you might expect and knitting together to form the perfect spring dish.
The next course was the true moment that Restaurant 23 blew me away. I love beef at the best of times but this course was a true taste sensation, and I don’t use those words lightly. It was that good it’s a bit of a blur and once I’d had the first taste any note-taking went out of the window.
In summary: excellent quality beef, perfectly cooked, slightly charred broccoli, and possibly the best jus I’ve ever had with a depth of flavour to rival an Olympic diving pool.
And it didn’t stop there. A sneaky little side plate was the stage for an epic addition to the course. Bone marrow with veal and tongue all piled high into hollowed out bones to form a gloriously rich, meaty accessory to an already winning dish. I have dreamed about that beef dish since that night and imagine I will continue to until I return.
After that climax (only in food terms, calm yourselves please) I was fairly sure dessert would prove to be that tapering away moment of the meal, failing to live up to its preceding courses. Our pre-dessert of a mini lemon meringue pie was a little playful tease of a dish. Small but perfectly formed, it was more than a gentle hint that more greatness could indeed come out of the kitchen at Restaurant 23.
From there we moved on to ‘Chocolate’, a dish far more complex and glorious than its name would ever reveal. Chocolate and olive oil delice with liquid salted caramel, cashew nut and yoghurt sorbet. The sheen on the delice can pretty much tell you everything about how great this was – a tooth-coating, sugar-fest of a dessert as rich and satisfying as it was picturesque.
If you’re someone who shies away from so-called ‘fine dining’ amid fears it’s going to be fussy, unfriendly and somewhere you can’t relax, I’ve put this picture in for you. You see, while the food and service were utterly ‘on point’ throughout the whole evening, Restaurant 23 seems to have done what any restaurant misses at its peril – to make people feel comfortable and special in equal measure.
When you eat somewhere like this, you expect it to be far more than your average local restaurant where you’d go for a casual bite to eat. You want to ‘special’ side of things, the pomp and circumstance and the little touches that make it a cut above the rest. But at the same time, you want to relax, to enjoy yourself, and to take in the experience with friends, family or loved ones without being concerned that you’re having a Pretty Woman moment and somewhere you don’t feel you belong.
The key to that is an understanding by the venue that this is what makes eating out so great – the opportunity to do something special but to share it without worry or self-consciousness. A little touch like noticing someone’s birthday and bringing them a little something is just one of the ways a restaurant can show that understanding. There are many more and Restaurant 23 had most of them.
Couple that kind of understanding of what makes a great dining experience with a kitchen oozing creativity and confidence and producing top-notch food, fabulous wines and a lovely setting and you really do have the kind of place that inspires superlatives.
I suppose I should add, Restaurant 23 isn’t cheap. Having said that, I don’t think it’s over and above other restaurants serving up similarly great food. The tasting menu will set you back £70 a head, with £45 for the wine flight (and trust me, there’s plenty of wine in that!). But if it’s the budget you’re worried about, check out their social media as I’ve spotted they often have some good deals on. Either way, I didn’t leave feeling like anything was over-priced and not well worth the money for the quality of food and service we received.
I was invited to check out Restaurant 23 after its recent rebranding. Two of our meals were complimentary but we paid for the other two.
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