Barry Freeman enjoys good food over ‘fine dining’ at the Vine Leaf
Why, it’s all a matter of course.
On a less – if possible – humorous note, however, the above question is one to which any number of eating establishments fail to find a satisfactory answer every day of the week.
All the more in so in times these harshly straitened (outside the M25 and a smattering of old-moneyed enclaves).
Carlton’s Restaurant – previous occupants of the Longton premises which are now home to The Vine Leaf – are among those who, ultimately, proved themselves stumped.
Most likely just their timing was out.
Could a ‘high quality fine dining’ restaurant with Michelin-star ambitions – as its stall was set out upon opening – have thrived in that location circa 1999-2006? Probably.
In the midst of what will likely one day be called the Second Great Depression? Not at last time of asking.
The Vine Leaf seems set on a different course, offering good food rather than ‘fine dining’, with all the welcome lack of palpitation upon requesting the bill this suggests. A downstairs eating area is compact but airy, an adjacent bar likewise, while upstairs a more cosy dining space is available, featuring open kitchen.
The ambience is relaxed; friendly and informal, the service chatty, amiable and helpful.
Menus match this mood, with a ‘market’ offer comprising a decent selection of fairly simple dishes, two courses for £10.95, and an a la carte bill of similarly straightforward cuisine with greater emphasis on variety and quality of ingredient.
Sampling each menu, our starters were chicken liver parfait with toast and red onion chutney from the market selection and seared scallops with minted pea puree and pancetta crisps off the a la carte. Having seen – and considered – a fried chicken liver starter on the costlier side the assumption was that the parfait would be an in-house preparation, and in this (without asking) I’d suggest we were correct.
No trace of that dense, cloying quality with which a poorly-executed pate can clag the tastebuds; a generous serving was light, savoury, and the ramekin was scraped clean.
The scallops matched this quality but exceeded in presentation.
Three fine fat specimens, cooked to tender, each resting on a bright pea puree cushion, crisp criss-crossed by ribbons of pancetta, above.
Looked appetising, proved delicious, would happily order again and again until my money ran out.
The a la carte main was also a good looking plate, a sprawling flat-topped pyramid of venison and shallot suet pudding, its soft herb crust steaming softly through a thick veil of rich red wine sauce.
A portion of chips – new potatoes being the alternative on its left flank diminished the view a little, and also, to lesser degree, consumption of same.
An extra potato option – a good colcannon or maybe a rosti would have set the pudding off better – might be considered.
No reflection on quality, though.
The chips were hand-cut and golden, the pudding itself, hearty not heavy, full of wintry flavour and yielding large chunks of soft lean deer.
Barring one small dense corner the suet crust – easy to botch, and leave leaden – was a thin, supple casing which, having bathed a while in that dark oasis, was as wonderfully unctuous as only good, gravy saturated suet crust can be.
Surprisingly, after all which had gone before, our market main – grilled salmon in a leek sauce – traded solely on its qualities in the eating and, by this measure, it easily passed muster.
The salmon was good quality, cooked with moisture retention to the forefront, and complemented well by its sauce. Seasonal buttered vegetables accompanied, and these were done much to our taste, seasoned subtly, blessed with just enough bite.
A shared creme brulee was fairly enjoyed and we asked for the bill.
Fifty pounds on the nose, with two drinks and thoroughly-merited tip, a figure which, on reflection, raises no eyebrows.
Will this answer the question with which this review began?
Only time, and footfall, will tell.