[Disclosure: Our meal from Bramble Dining was complimentary as part of a piece I wrote on private chefs for the Telegraph here.]
I think we can all agree that we’ve missed eating out. We tried being the chefs ourselves for a bit, then we tried getting the pros to do the cooking and post it to us, leaving us to plate it up at home for the benefit of the ‘gram and to generally keep us occupied in the absence of much else to do.
We had meal boxes, takeaways, ready meals. We cooked, baked, and some nights just drank instead. But really what we wanted was to have a chef cook our dinner, plate it up for us, and for a helpful soul to deliver it to us as we sat and caught up with friends, quaffed wine and generally had a ball.
That luxury is back, and boy isn’t it great. But there are a whole load of reasons for why I may just have found you the perfect happy hybrid of eating out and eating in that will give you the great food and wonderful service that you’ve missed without you having to set foot outside your door.
Without wanting to sound like yet another jumped-up, entitled idiot that you find around every corner in this wonderful thing called the internet, I’m no stranger to a private chef. We tried Stuart Brown’s food courtesy of La Belle Assiette, then Jamie’s inter-lockdown birthday last year was celebrated with an epic meal from Coventry-based chef Sophie Hyam. Why? Because it works for us. No dog-sitter, no designated driver, no high heels and simultaneously no washing up, no scary wine list and accompanying prices and a generally relaxing evening.
In short, I’m already a convert. So when I heard that Warwickshire-based Bramble Dining don’t just send a chef when they come round but bring a waiter too, I decided it had to be done. My interest goes beyond my own belly in some ways – I was working on a piece about people enjoying restaurant food without going to a restaurant (which many people still want to for various reasons) and how pals might get together for as close to a restaurant experience they can get in this period between April 12th and May 17th, so we can call this blissful experience research. Okay, who am I kidding.
Leamington-based chef Richard Bramble had spent 18 years working in restaurant kitchens then decided to start his own business with wife Claudia so they could spend more time as a family. That was a few weeks before COVID so it hasn’t been the easiest year for the couple. Despite the challenges, they adapted like so many people to do meal boxes and collaborating with holiday accommodation businesses to offer private chef services to guests between lockdowns.
But as soon as they could, they returned to the private chef service in people’s homes that we enjoyed on a baltic April night with some friends on our patio. Other than the provision of many blankets and industrial sized heaters to ensure we didn’t freeze over our palate cleansers, organising the evening is simple.
You pick a menu with Richard, choose a time for him to arrive and set up, sort yourself some wine, then everything else is taken care of – including pouring said wine thanks to the presence of your own personal waiter who accompanies Richard. Is it ridiculously expensive? No. There’s a selection of menus ranging from £50 a head to £70 a head, and if you bear in mind you’re saving on taxis and your wine and drinks will be cheaper, it probably isn’t far off the cost of a restaurant meal would be.
I won’t harp on – you get the picture. It’s like a restaurant. Except at home. It isn’t insanely expensive compared to the food. And yes, there’s a waiter too.
And so to the food.
The first hint at Richard’s skill, care and experience came in the form of a chicory leaf appetiser filled with a delicate pile of caramelised beetroot, goat’s cheese, pine nuts and a delicate chive mayonnaise. A feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds, as all fine dining dishes often are.
The slight bitterness of the chicory balanced perfectly by the sweetness of the beetroot, and all smoothed around the edges courtesy of the cheese. Similar balance in textures, moving from crisp to crunch to soft to smooth. Light, fresh and anticipation-inspiring, as all the best opening scenes are.
The starter was when Richard pulled out the theatre. Hidden under a smoked-filled glass cloche, and revealed with all the drama you’d expect in a restaurant but often lack at home unless it’s in the form of Line of Duty or a horrible argument, lay thick slices of smoked duck breast.
In a continuation of the spring theme to the menu and Richard’s ongoing homage to seasonality and local produce, they were teamed with more beetroot, a slice of burnt orange and spheres of herb green mayonnaise. Refined, thought-through, well-executed and most importantly, tasty as hell.
If you’ve ever had a poor attempt at something like this, you’ll remember the acrid, overpowering smoke and not much else. This was not that. Delicately smoked, allowing the flavour of the meat to sing, with all the supporting cast members around it elevating it to the true star of the plate.
No posh dinner is complete without a palate cleanser, so a simple lemon sorbet it was, providing a welcome pause in the excitement while we gathered our thoughts. And in case you wondered, none of the crockery is mine (unfortunately) as Richard brings that all with him. All you need to provide is cutlery and glassware, and any extra lovely touches you might want for the table.
After a year dominated by beef wellingtons, burgers and slow-cooked dishes that lend themselves well to being reheated at home, a main course of wild seabass fillet was a delight. Stacked up on top of a fennel salad coated in a Warwick honey, tarragon, lemon and caraway seed dressing, with simple buttered new potatoes on the side, it was another triumph. Moist, fresh, light, with the lovely aniseedy bite of the fennel brought to life by the dressing, the perfect spring starter. And no, I haven’t quite forgiven the weather.
By dessert we may well have been slightly inebriated, as so many of us so often are when dining with friends – whether at home or at a restaurant – but it didn’t stop us pausing to appreciate the joy that was Richard’s dessert. While baked yoghurt might not instantly capture your heart when you read it on a menu, let me remind you not to judge a book by its cover.
If you weren’t already convinced by Richard’s skill, then I’d suggest you look at these pictures and marvel at how someone can make baked yoghurt not only taste good, but look this pretty too. Infused with vanilla then finished with passion fruit and confit orange, with a dollop of Chantilly cream and a generous scattering of pecans, it was a dessert I thought I might like but had no idea I would love. Again, a welcome break from the chocolate fondants we’ve dined on ad infinitum over the past 12 months (and which I completely understand are a go-to when it comes to meal boxes) and a stark reminder of just why at-home dining, or doing it yourself will never be quite as good as having a professional in the room.
As a closing act, it was the equivalent of that denoument that inspires a standing ovation. This glass sums up Richard’s cooking in the same way his simple appetiser did. Refined without being fussy, imaginative without being too challenges, and pretty much flawless in terms of execution. I’d eat this meal again at the drop of a hat and I’d do it in freezing temperatures again if that meant I could savour those mouthfuls one more time.
Add to that the joy of an experience that brings together all the best elements of restaurant dining and staying at home, and you’ve got the makings of a real winner of a night. I know many of you might look aghast at the prospect of staying home voluntarily after the year of enforced restaurant absence, but for a whole load of reasons this kind of experience might be the answer many people are looking for. And why not, when it’s this blimin good!
[Our meal from Bramble Dining was complimentary as part of the piece for the Telegraph.]