Yesterday I succumbed to suggestion to eat at Little Chef. Normally, such an option wouldn’t be entertained and the occasion blogged but this was the Popham branch of Little Chef, which has received serious overhaul by the Big Chef Heston Blumenthal.
Before going into details, let me just say that the food was far better than average, I’d venture to say it was better than 80% of restaurants serving similar dishes anywhere, and definitely unique amongst the motorway services eateries. Alec, whose idea it was to stop there on the way to Southampton, has written about it on his blog.
The menu was a combination of old favourites with a few surprising dishes like spag bol, coq au vin or tikka masala. Most of the reviews of this Little Chef online mention braised ox cheeks as one of best and most interesting menu items. So we had to try it. At £9.97 the portion was on the small side. On the whole, I’d rather that smaller portions at smaller prices, so my quibble is not really with the size but the price – simply value for money. This is where the location/venue of the meal consumed is rather relevant. The same dish in a restaurant in, let’s say, Chelsea would be a bloody good deal, but a motorway services diner doesn’t have the same location, location, location advantage. As for the dish itself, the meat was tender and very well prepared. The red wine and mushroom sauce was on the heavy side, with rich ‘brown’ flavour and an earthy tang, most likely to shitake mushroom found within. A definite winter favourite, it seems out of place on a (bit boring) summer day.
I was tempted to have the burger – a good burger is a worthwhile meal – but my standards for burgers are rather high and didn’t want to be disappointed. Alec’s recollection of the burger didn’t inspire my confidence, he seemed more impressed with the bun in which the burger came than the burger itself, though he insists it was a decent one.
I love fish & chips but what with having fish three dinners in a row this week, in the end I chose the Hereford steak & ale pie with mushy peas gravy, baked in suet. It didn’t come with any side dish but things worked out – I appropriated Alec’s mashed potatoes that came with the ox cheeks, whilst he ordered extra chips.
We opted out for tea rather than cold drinks. It would have been fun to see decent milkshakes or smoothies on the menu as well as appropriate given the diner slant and good markup on such drinks. The tea was just ok – a smallish pot at £1.79 I’d expect something better. Not a big quibble though.
The steak & ale pie was delicious to a fault, big chunks of lovely meat, in very tasty sauce, which did not overwhelm the stuff inside the pie. A few chunks of carrots added sweetness. The suet was perfect, especially as I much prefer baked pies to steamed ones. The tastiest part of the dish was the mushy peas ‘gravy’, that came as a pool of (lovely) green underneath the pie. It was flavoursome and light, with a hint of mint, which added sophistication not usually found in pies. Alas, the gravy was definitely lukewarm, most likely having waited on a plate for the pie to cook too long. And though the pie was hot enough to eat without sending it back, it wasn’t piping hot. For what may have caused that, see below.
Now, the above might not give as good an impression as this Little Chef meal deserves. Because of Heston Blumenthal association, I find myself applying to this little motorway services diner standards I’d reserve for a restaurant in London. Not fair for sure, but even that is a mark of how far they have managed to come, making this experiment a success.
Last but not least was the service. I was very impressed by the ability of staff to handle a difficult customer, which was the mood I came in. The time it took for our food to arrive was definitely out of order but what with the unexpected surprise visit by the Big H with a film crew, I will let the chef off the hook on that one. I was also gratified by one of our waiters striking a conversation with us as we were leaving, asking us about our experience. He didn’t do this with a ‘customer feedback questionnaire’ in mind, it was his own initiative and desire to see happy customers. Very good indeed. We also learnt that Heston dropped in like this, unannouced to check the quality of ingredients being used and see if the Little Chef HQ have been cutting corners. His inspection was filmed so there will be a documentary in due course.
In short, it was a more than decent meal, at decent but not ‘fantastic deal’ prices. I’ll definitely go back and if Little Chef rolls out the new menu to the rest of their restaurants, stopping at motorway services for a meal could become an experience worth planning.