Category Archives: Reviews

#coffeeshopculturewd3: a response

Rickmansworthweb.com has recently published a post about the many coffee shops in central Rickmansworth. Now, the purpose of this website is to encourage people to frequent the shops, bars and businesses of Ricky, which is an excellent idea. However, the author’s claim to provide a helpful resource to help coffee fans choose which coffee shop to go to isn’t entirely validated by what she’s written, as, understandably, she’s focussed on the positives at the expense of a balanced review of each cafe (and has entirely left out Brown Sugar, which is unpardonable, to my mind).

When we first moved to Rickmansworth in 2009, there were three central cafes to choose from: Brown Sugar, Caffe Nero and Cinnamon Square. Each of the three had (and has) its own distinct character.

Brown Sugar is both a deli and a cafe, serving a huge range of sandwiches (you can make up an almost infinite number of filling and bread combinations), salads, baked potatoes, smoothies and cakes as well as coffee. It’s the smallest of the cafes on offer, with five four-seater tables. It’s definitely possible to get a couple of buggies in there (I’ve done it), but would be a struggle at busy times (i.e. lunch time any day and particularly Saturday). The food is lovely and the cake (watch out for the blueberry muffin cake) on a yumminess par with Cinnamon Square’s less complicated offerings. The coffee, while nothing to write home about, is a perfectly decent accompaniment to a snack or a meal and has woken me up on many a Saturday morning. Service-wise, you order at the counter and then it’s delivered to your table. At quiet times, you may well be asked at your table if you’d like anything else.  If you can’t handle all the writing on the walls (and there is a LOT of it), grab a paper menu from the side of the counter and peruse at your table before ordering. Use the numbers on the menu unless you want to customise! Negatives? We’ve often had to walk past Brown Sugar, because it’s been full. It’s also closed on Sundays. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it’s not the cafe I go to if I want to hang out all afternoon drinking coffee and reading. The upright chairs and tables lend themselves more to lunch.

Caffe Nero was the first chain coffee shop to take up residence on Rickmansworth High Street. I used to go in every morning for coffee and was always impressed by how efficient the morning staff were. The service is a bit more variable these days  – as in most chain coffee shops, there’s a regular turnover of staff – but they get through a big queue pretty steadily. Nero’s is right in the middle of the High Street with space for a small amount of outdoor seating. It’s quite a big branch with the usual range of seating, although the large number of chairs, tables and sofas does make it feel quite crowded (it certainly doesn’t feel ‘spacious’). It’s difficult to get around freely, partly because of the stupidly-placed pillar right next to the counter. Of the range of high street coffee shops, Nero’s coffee is, in my opinion, the most… assertive. Their claim to be authentically Italian isn’t far off. I’m disappointed that they’ve discontinued their banana frappe, but the new praline muffin is quite nice. Nero’s offers a 10th-coffee-free loyalty card.

Cinnamon Square: Rickmansworth’s cakey-pastry landmark. When we first moved here, it was a tiny cafe with a small amount of seating upstairs. Since then, it’s expanded to more than twice the size and has converted to table service (you even wait to be seated these days!). There’s also a new little foodstuffs and gift-style shop opposite the counter as well as bread, cakes and sandwiches to take away. Cinnamon Square’s business has always focussed on cake-making and workshops for children and adults. We’ve listened to many a children’s baking party (in the ‘Makery’!) and they always sound great fun. If you go, you must have either an eponymous cinnamon square (you WILL need a fork) or the new Ricky sticky bun. On the savoury front, there’re a range of light lunch options. Food availability has improved since the kitchen opened for longer and the savoury options are sound. Breakfast is particularly good and they can be flexible if you want something that’s not quite on the menu. The coffee’s alright, but, again, nothing to write home about. Having said that, I’m told the mocha is the best in town, so you might want to try that! Service used to be pretty variable, to be honest. We’ve waited a few times for our food for a very long time. It’s a bit better now and more consistent, but don’t be afraid to remind them if you feel you’ve been waiting too long. It’s possible to go with buggies on the ground floor, but bear in mind that the main baby-changing facilities are up quite steep and narrow stairs.

A couple of years ago – I think it was autumn 2011 – Costa opened up. As Rickmansworthweb says, it’s a lot more open than Nero’s with a more sensible arrangement of furniture. The decor is lighter and more appealing as well. There’s a patio out the back with a dedicated smoking area, if you like that sort of thing. There’s a decent range of sandwiches and the cake display is always attractive. The coffee’s less aggressive than Nero’s, but definitely stronger than, say, Starbuck’s. The largest size is encouragingly ginormous – it comes in a bowl you could wash your feet in. As for ‘family friendly’, there are certainly always a lot of families in there. Best not turn up with seven friends who also have buggies, though. You get not exactly friendly looks from the staff. One other thing to bear in mind is that hot food is sometimes a little slow in being delivered they forget about it. There’s a loyalty card system with points for each purchase, rather than for specific items. I’m not convinced Costa’s any better for interesting conversations than any of the other cafes. We once encountered an elderly gentleman in Brown Sugar trying to persuade a lady of Indian origin and her son that India had never been better than when under the Raj (partially in Hindi).

That leaves the new kid on the block, Harris + Hoole. The coffee’s best here. Do bear in mind that they serve it warm, rather than hot (it’s deliberate). The sandwiches are also gorgeous (watch out for the halloumi flatbread). I’ve not yet been disappointed by the quality of food and drink, nor the level of service, which are all excellent. It helps that you can sit down at your table while you wait for things to be prepared and then go up when your buzzer starts flashing. H+H have made a concerted effort to engage with local people via their Twitter account and the standard local events blackboard that features in every branch. Of all the chains (and, yes, I know they’re partially backed by Tesco), H+H is most successful at immitating an independent. However, like Brown Sugar, they could do with more space. The old school-style chairs also aren’t the most comfortable (particularly after you’ve given birth). There’re a few different loyalty cards, but make sure you present yours before you pay.

So, that should be a bit more useful, although, unavoidably, subjective. I don’t really have a favourite as such – each cafe has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s nice to have such a range available.

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Two takes on a Ploughman’s lunch

Take a certain route on the back roads between Rickmansworth to the Chalfonts and you’ll pass a curious old pub called the Dumb Bell. We’ve spotted it a few times and have long intended to pop in to see what this somewhat remote hostelry has to offer.

At the weekend we finally did just that. Inclement weather drove us to escape the house but not venture too far, so recalling this pub we drove the three miles or so for Sunday Lunch. It’s a somewhat rambling establishment with a sizable beer garden and a front dining room capturing all the charm of an eccentric’s living room.

A particular attraction of the Dumb Bell was its Ploughman’s Lunch. Tara is already a fan of the Ploughman’s in the Old Orchard pub in Harefield, and we were keen to see how this alternative offering compared.

The Dumb Bell Special Ploughman’s Lunch: £6.95
Menu description: “A hearty platter of freshly prepared salad and coleslaw with mature cheddar cheese and honey glazed ham, spicy pickled onions and homemade chutney all served with the bread of the day”
Tara’s view: Plentiful portion, nice salad, tasty homemade bread

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The Old Orchard Ploughman’s: £8.95
Menu description: “Mrs Appleby’s White Cheshire and Colston Bassett stilton with bread, ham, pickled onion, apple, celery and chutney”
Tara’s view: Good cheese variety, nice thick ham

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So two rather different culinary interpretations of a classic, each with their strengths. Which would you prefer?

The Dumb Bell is also worth mentioning for its generous Sunday carvery. £7.95 for slices of as many as 4 meats, if you like, and all the trimmings. Great value.

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Celebrating the high street, loving the food

The humble high street has seen a resurgence of support and activity of late, spearheaded by the likes of Mary Portas on television and now in the form of a new Twitter campaign by businesses here in Rickmansworth. Called #ShopLocal, it encourages people to support their high street by buying an extra item there instead of the supermarket.

Coincidentally, we’ve been doing precisely this for the past few months, buying a good number of items from local businesses on the high street that we’d previously got as part of our weekly supermarket shop. So far, it’s proven a very positive experience.

This move began through the arrival of a new fishmongers in Rickmansworth, whose stall offers a fantastic array of fish and seafood three days a week. The level of service – personalised, offering cooking recommendations and preparing the food – suddenly revolutionised our relationship with food retailers. No longer did we struggle over what fish we should buy without knowing much about what to do with it. Now we’re given inspiration each week based on the seasonal catch, and it’s enlivened our fish and seafood dishes immensely.

This represented something of a ‘eureka’ moment for us. Perhaps the supermarkets weren’t the convenient be all and end all of food shopping. Perhaps the high street can offer us something more and something better than the dominant supermarkets. Continue reading

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A foodie tour of the South Lakes

South Lakeland was the destination for a few days away over Easter and we made the most of the opportunity to try some of the area’s delicious food and produce.

Our visit took in towns and villages in the south of the county of Cumbria, which is dominated by the Lake District and bordered by the Yorkshire to the east. It’s a largely rural area and famed for the quality of its livestock, the farming of which remains an essential element of the local economy, along with tourism.

Cartmel

The exploration began in Cartmel, a small village punching far above its weight owing to its racecourse, Michelin starred L’Enclume restaurant and some nationally renowned foods. There’s also the curious priory, where the tower sits at 45 degrees to the rest of the building in a piece of either architectural genius or madness.

We enjoyed perusing the village’s picturesque streets and attractive shops, universally built in the unmistakable Lakeland limestone. On a recommendation we began in Cartmel Cheeses, an emporium that would delight the most highbrow cheese aficionado. Rounds of cheese are piled high and following some tasting we emerged with some sheep cheese, creamy Lancashire, soft French cheese and Stinking Bishop. The car carried a certain aroma after that!

20120413-192316.jpg Continue reading

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Gastro pub discovery: the Jolly Cricketers

We’re fortunate to have some excellent gastro pubs in the area, and this week we discovered one of the best.

The Jolly Cricketers is located in the affluent village of Seer Green, near Beaconsfield and Chalfont St Giles.

It’s a good looking historic pub on the outside, but it’s on the inside that it reveals its secret – serving up some truly fabulous food, and recently voted the best gastro pub in the South East.

20110816-190702.jpg Continue reading

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Queen’s Birthday flypast at RAF Halton

WWII aircraft at RAF Halton's Charity Flying Weekend

The Queen’s official birthday is celebrated by trooping the colour and a flypast by the RAF in central London. If the idea of the tourists crowds don’t appeal, it’s happily possible to watch the flypast from the comfort and attractive surrounds of Buckinghamshire.

RAF Halton holds a Charity Flying Weekend each year to coincide with the trooping the colour flypast, and welcomes visitors to what is normally a military aerodrome.

The 2011 event was held in conjunction with the Chilterns MS Centre, who held their Summer Fete, and the Berkhamsted-based De Havilland Moth Club, who had arranged various flying displays.

We arrived shortly after midday, so in good time for the flypast at around 1pm. We were struck by just how popular it was, given that we’d only heard about it through having come across photos of the previous year’s events and looked up the 2011 dates. The parking area was filling up quickly with hundreds of cars, although still had room enough for us.

Spectactors at RAF Halton watch Battle of Britain Memorial Flight approach

We had no idea what to expect, however there was a good selection of stalls – many in military green tents that were rather in keeping with the event. Arts and crafts, traditional fete games (Tara won a coconut from the coconut shy), and the usual food and drink were all there, so everything you’d need. Many visitors had also come well prepared though with some impressive picnics, table and chairs in evidence. Well prepared to enjoy the day.

Turning towards the aircraft, the inter-war De Havilland Moths were much in evidence, with much to-ing and fro-ing. A nice selection of WWII aircraft were also on the ground. The main event was the flypast – which included most but not all of the formations seen flying down the Mall a few minutes earlier. While the Red Arrows went elsewhere, we saw the fast jets, transporters, hawker jets and the always superb Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which gave us three fabulous passes.

Continue reading

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The Artichoke revisited

We first visited the Artichoke restaurant in Amersham a year ago, when we were struck by the very high quality of the cuisine and service. On something of a whim, we decided this half-term that it was high time to try it out again. In particular, we had heard that the Artichoke had recently expanded its premises into the adjacent building, and we were keen to see how this had changed the restaurant.

The Artichoke’s website offers three dining areas within the newly expanded restaurant: The Kitchen Dining Room with views of the restaurant’s kitchen, the Garden Dining Room with a kitchen garden theme and a Wine Room, upstairs. Having recently been engaged by recent Masterchef and Great British Menu TV series, we were keen to see the chefs at work, and requested a table in the Kitchen Dining Room.

On entering the Artichoke, you’re immediately aware that you’re not in any old restaurant. The service is elegant while being extremely slick. To our delight we’d be given the table right in front of the kitchen area, so prime views of the chefs were on hand. Within moments the chef himself arrived and greeted us personally – a lovely additional touch.

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Easter trips: Food and Chiltern villages

A week’s holiday over Easter combined with some fabulous summer-like weather was all the encouragment we needed to go on some fine day trips into the Chilterns. We made some excellent discoveries along the way – here are a few highlights:

The Swan in Amersham

We’ve tried a few of the dining options in Old Amersham over the past year or two. We were bowled over by the standard of cuisine in the Artichoke restaurant and have some good experiences in some of the pubs and the deli. This was the turn of another pub, the Swan, located further away from most of the shops and eateries, down the western end of the high street. Continue reading

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Wallingford

The South Oxfordshire market town of Wallingford was the destination of one of our February half-term days trips. Visually appealing, set by the river Thames, the town oozes history, from iron age earthworks to castle ruins and the huge number of attractive historic buildings. The style of the town immediately reminded us of Thame, a larger Oxfordshire market town located 16 miles away, which we visited in 2010. Both feature a distinctive market place with a town hall at its centre, and flanked by the main shopping streets.

We arrived in Wallingford late in the day, too late to visit sights such as the castle gardens that close at 3pm, although we glimpsed some of the castle ruins from the Thames path. The riverside area is quiet and largely undeveloped, unlike in larger towns, and following the path takes you quickly into countryside. The Thames Path also offers fine views of the Wallingford’s bridge. A stroll over the bridge itself gives some idea of the size of the Thames at this point, which while much narrower than in London, remains impressive. Continue reading

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Recent culinary discoveries

The recent absence of blogposts might have been making you think that married life has put an end to our usual weekend trips out and pub exploration. Not so. In fact we’ve no less than three recent discoveries to bring you.

The Swan, Ley Hill, nr Chesham

This pub was recommended a few months ago. We decided to pop over there on the August Bank Holiday, not realising that it’s a time when many villages and towns hold special events. Ley Hill was no exception, with live music and stalls set out around the Swan as part of the Ley Hill Festival 2010. Fortunately we decided to call ahead, so did have a table secured, although were completely bemused by the level of activity greeting us on arrival! Despite being so busy there was good food and service to be had.

The Swan, Ley Hill

Continue reading

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