There are some places that sort of become fixtures in your local town. They’ve been there for years, they’re still there, you don’t even really notice them anymore. They’re just, well, there. La Margherita is one of those. It was there when I first moved to Rugby about seven years ago, and it’s still there. Other places have popped up – independents like Ferguson’s and Delish arrived, as did chain names like Bacco Lounge and Prezzo. Other places have left, like Casa de Tapas, which I’ve just discovered has appeared to have closed. And La Margherita has been there the whole time.
I remember going with my mum not long after I’d moved, and then again a few years later with Mr M, but we hadn’t been back for a while. Until recently, when we’ve done two visits in a fairly short space of time. Why? Because it was a lovely experience. So for this blog, you get two meals in one – bonus!
From the outside, La Margherita looks quite attractive. It’s slightly careworn, like your favourite piece of furniture. Red signage with one of the ‘r’s in ‘Mediterranean’ missing, a scattering of menus in the window. When you walk in you’re greeted by a pretty cavernous interior that spreads far further than you’d imagine. It’s billed as a Mediterranean restaurant, though from the menu you’ll see there’s also a fairly strong French influence, with an eclectic mix of dishes that are distinctly different from anything else on offer in the town.
You’ll have heard me mention Maria from La Margherita in my previous post about Rugby Food and Drink Festival, and she plays a key part in making this restaurant a little bit special. Chatty, confident, and clearly 100% devoted to the restaurant, you can’t help but be swept up by her enthusiasm.
Both times we quickly identified a bottle of Argentinian Shiraz Malbec to begin proceedings, while devouring some of their bread and delicious olive oils. Definitely a taste of the Mediterranean. We were warned about one infused with chilli, giving it a definite smoky heat, but it turned out to be Mr M’s fave. So much so that I wondered at one point if he was going to try to smuggle the bottle out.
They also do little nibbles of things like anchovies and olives that it’s all too easy to get carried away with but, be warned, the portions here are definitely not mean, so remember that when you’re ordering everything you can see.
On the first trip it seems we were both on the lookout for substantial, warming food. We both ordered ravioli to start – me prawn from the specials board, and Jamie braised pork from the main menu. Neither were the most beautiful looking dishes I’ve ever seen, but certainly weren’t bereft when it came to flavour. Mine came with sweet, smooth cauliflower bisque and poached cauliflower, while Jamie’s was in a rich red wine sauce which went well with the pork.
On our second visit, we managed to resist anchovies and olives, sticking to the bread and a lovely cup of vegetable veloute with a drizzle of flavoured oil on top.
Without conferring, it seems we were both in search of something slightly lighter and more delicate than our previous visit. I went for sauteed lambs liver, with pickled red onion, carrot, beetroot and I think fennel. A real party of tastes, and it looked beautiful too. Jamie had pan-fried mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto with a balsamic reduction. Another really pretty plate of food, and tasty too.
For main course on our first visit, neither of us could resist beef (can we ever?), despite an array of other dishes – including plenty of vegetarian options that tempted even this meat-lover. I went for Daube of boeuf provencal with caramelised oranges, carrots, and shallots – a nod to the French techniques and influences that shine through at La Margherita. It was meant to come on a bed of garlic-tossed linguini but I fancied mash – a request that was easily accommodated. The beef was tender, clearly cooked for a nice long time, the sauce thick and unctuous, and the mash was smooth, creamy and helped along by a bit of olive oil.
On the second visit I decided to be a bit more adventurous and went for chicken ragout of preserved lemons – a sort of chicken casserole including ingredients that will make you raise your eyebrows, but in practice actually worked really well. The thick, slightly sweet sauce was flavoured with ras-el hanout, but also packed with garden peas.
It also included caramelised onions, so sticky and sweet they were like onion jam. Sounds a bit strange? I agree, but like I say, it tasted fab and looked good with its quirky rainbow of colours. I even sought a second opinion from Mr M, and he agreed it was a good dish. It came with a plain, but well-cooked side of rice.
On not one – but both – occasions, he found himself unable to resist the medallions of beef. No surprise there. A simple dish, but well executed. The beef was tender, cooked just right for him (rare of course), the sauce was rich and full of flavour. But for me it was the potatoes that won the day. Little cubes of starchy goodness, sauteed with plenty of herbs and oil to make them crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and fragrant and tasty. I’d already devoured a whole bowl of mash on the first visit, but managed to wolf half of these for Jamie too. The second time wasn’t much different.
While we’re on the side dishes, a word on the vegetables that came with Jamie’s dinner. A mixture of courgette, mange tout, and various other brightly-coloured veg, cooked to just the right texture and with a nice coating of butter on them. Again, we probably could have done without them but they were just so darn good that we couldn’t help but snaffle them.
Like I said earlier – the portions aren’t stingy here. And then a little blackboard appeared on our table. There were only a few desserts on it, yet all were appealing. The first time, we agreed to share the creme brulee. What can I say? The perfect crunchy top of caramelised sugar, smooth, sweet vanilla-laden custard, still chilled but slightly un-set from the heat of the blowtorch. Lip-smackingly good, people.
The second time, I wanted to try the chocolate tart instead, but Mr M wasn’t having any of it – he wanted that brulee again, no matter what. So there was only one thing for it – one each. He went for the brulee which was, again, perfect, while I went for the tart. Rich, slightly bitter dark chocolate, encased by some of the nicest pastry I’ve had in a long time. Buttery, crumbly, and no Paul Hollywood, not a hint of a soggy bottom. It was decorated with small pieces of apricot and came with a yumtastic creme anglaise. Wowsers!!!
Since it was Jamie’s birthday, these little pigs had a bonus treat of a chocolate cake complete with candle. ‘No more’, Jamie protested – for about two seconds until his spoon hit the cake. No ordinary chocolate cake, it was laced with dates, which gave it a great sticky consistency and a slightly out-of-the-ordinary taste. I was a big fan, but him not quite so much.
And so, as usual, we wobbled out of La Margherita on both occasions, feeling that strange mixed emotion of utter satisfaction and slightly horrible guilt. Okay, so the food isn’t haute cuisine and the restaurant certainly isn’t ‘trendy’. But neither is the price tag. Three courses and a bottle of wine cost us £65 on the second visit – and to me that’s pretty good value. The portions were generous, the food well presented and clearly homemade, the service incredibly good, and the whole experience thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable – exactly how eating out should be. I love that La Margherita is still in Rugby after 23 years (it opened in 1992). I love that it’s family-run. And I love that it seems to still be focused on the important stuff. I’m gonna keep on going there to make sure it’s still there in another 20 years.
We paid in full on both occasions that we dined at La Margherita.