If you’ve been postponing a trip to England because you still think that British cuisine is a cliché, dust off your passport and prepare to be wowed. No more “disgusting food and filthy ale” as one pub tongue-in-cheek described its offerings, Contemporary British chefs have transformed their culinary image just in time for your holidays.
Southern England is Gastronomic Capital
England’s southern cities are located in the southeastern quarter of the country, south of London, east to Canterbury and west to Salisbury. The wealthiest part of England since Tudor times, most have magnificent cathedrals. It is a curious connection that whenever there is a magnificent cathedral, there are generally superb places to eat. Clearly piety is a hungry business.
This is a region of cookie-box cottages alongside crystal clear trout streams as depicted so popularly by British artists. Therolling chalk hills are ideal for rambling. Here you can follow centuries old pilgrim paths, stopping at the old inns, the forerunner of stage coach inns, where the pious put up for the night.
In our wanderings through the southern cities, we have found a treasure trove of off-the-beaten track dining venues, frequently housed in fascinating architectural delights, often known only by to locals.
Guildford’s Thai Terrace: Worth the Treasure Hunt
We are standing on the top floor of the stairway in the parking lot in Guildford city centre, staring at diners on the open-air terrace of the aptly named Thai Terrace, as they sip exotic cocktailsmesmerized by a romantic view of the city skyline outlined in twinkling lights. Behind them we can see the wait staff dodging in and out of tables, carrying trays laden with food. We are in the classic position of a cartoon character poised outside a bakery, nose pressed against the glass, teased by the aromas of pastry he can see but not taste.
We try knocking on the glass wall of the terrace, but the diners are so much into their romance that they neither see nor hear us. Feeling like food voyeurs, we reach for our mobile and phone the restaurant for directions to the entrance.
Once we found the main entrance, the dining is worth the adventure. Picture an up-market San Francisco Dim Sum restaurant with acres of tables, a stunning expanse of menu choices, and you have the three-year old, 150 seats Thai Terrace, one of Guildford’s largest restaurants. Clearly well-known among the city’s international business community, Thai Terrace attracts a huge clientele of suits out to consummate a day of wheeling and dealing, as well as couples seduced by the authentic décor and contemporary Thai fusion cuisine and tempting prix-fixe dinner.
A mix of Malaysian, Japanese and Thai influences, the menu was created by a staff of 12 chefs, all from Thailand. This eatery is in such demand, thanks to word of mouth, that it neither has a website nor advertises. Booking for its two sittings – 6 and 9 p.m., especially on weekends, is a must. The menu is expansive with plenty of choice for both meat-eaters and vegetarians, and when the food arrives it is plentiful, beautifully presented and scrumptious. What’s surprising is that such a large and popular restaurant is such a well-kept advertising secret hidden in an off-the-beaten track car park in the city centre.
The downside of the restaurant is that it can be noisy because tables are close together. Best to dine al fresco on the terrace if you’re up for romance.
They Learn While They Serve
The neat thing about The Lakeside Restaurant is that you get food prepared by professional chefs who serve as tutors to students learning the trade in the University of Surrey’s School of Management. The menu and the food quality is excellent, and you’ll never get a surly server because students are graded on their hospitality skills. The prices are modest, the ambiance lovely and they serve wine. The downside is parking that can be a nightmare, but if you’re in the city, simply grab a bus out to the university; it’s worth the trip!
The restaurant is open weekdays for lunch from noon to 2pm, an closed Christmas, Easter and Bank Holidays. Booking recommended.
Salisbury – Amazing Food in the Shadow of Amazing Grace
It’s easy to cover Guildford and Salisbury on the same trip as they are just 71 miles apart. Both are cathedral cities and both have become a Mecca for foodies.
Gallery Cafe Fisherton Mill – A Feast for the Palette (www.fishertonmill.co.uk)
Fancy gourmet cuisine with a side of arts and crafts served in dishy architecture? Don’t miss lunch at the GalleryCafe at Fisherton Mill. The mill itself is somewhat off the beaten tourist path, as it was built originally in 1880 for W. Main & Sons Ltd. as a Victorian granary. Because the mill was located directly on the Market House railway siding running from the station to the Market House (now the City Library), its location was a commercial triumph. From there, it easily supplied its company shop in the market square (currently the Portman Building Society) with retail sizes of animal feed, seeds and fertilizers, transported by cart and horses stabled at the mill, now the home of the Gallery Cafe. Today, however, the mill is a short walk away from the city centre, but worth every step.
Like many historic buildings, the mill went through various transitions. Co-opted by the war department in WWI, during its history it served as a prop store for Salisbury Playhouse, later as a carpet warehouse, and finally as the setting for unofficial “raves.” By the early 1990s, however, it had suffered long periods uninhabited during which it became dilapidated and badly in need of restoration. In 1993, Michael and Leonard Main, the original founder’s grandsons, extensively restored the building.
Enter chef Michael Fox and wife Deborah, the gallery curator, who had the vision to use the main part of the mill as a setting for a unique gourmet café and art gallery. After more than a dozen years of renting the space, the two bought the mill and rented out some of the workshop space.
Thank goodness they did. The presentation of the space takes your breath away. Wherever you are seated, the view is a sensual knockout – art is hung at the rear of the café and the gallery dominates the left side. The view at the front is a deck festooned with flowers and plants.
Open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and 9:30 to 5:30 on Saturday, the intimate café seats 50. Lunch is served between 12:00 to 2:30 and includes sandwiches, salads, bruchettas as well as main dishes. Ingredients are locally sourced; soups are changed weekly, and the entire menu reborn every six weeks. Best described as “modern” British, Michael’s inspired cuisine reflects Mediterranean, Japanese, African and Moroccan influences. One day the restaurant might feature Thai fishcakes served with a sweet chilli sauce; aubergine pate´ & feta salad with roasted red onions and sun-dried tomatoes, or grilled marinated tuna with chilli, garlic & lime oriental noodle salad. For breakfast, there’s a selection of homemade cakes, scones, muffins and other sins. Prices are moderate.
Get on the café’s mailing list to book a place for its monthly Dining Club, a fixed-price three course menu with four choices of starters, mains and dessert.
Mystery, Mayhem. Marvelous Food – The Haunch of Venison (www.haunchofvension.uk.com)
Up a wickedly curving staircase in a 14th century timbered building, the Haunch of Venison is probably Salisbury’s oldest hostelry and restaurant. It was initially home to craftsmen constructing the city’s famous Cathedral in 1320, and later used as a brothel. In the 16th century, the owners annexed the Merchants house next door as the property’s first restaurant. Famously haunted by the Grey Lady, endlessly searching for her missing child, and the Demented Whist Player, agonizing over his severed hand, the price for cheating at cards, the Haunch of Venison covers several floors. On the upper ground floor in the House of Lords is the restaurant “One,” where a mummified hand (possibly belonging to the unfortunate card cheat) was displayed until March 2004, when it mysteriously disappeared. It resurfaced six weeks later.
Here the menu changes seasonally, and judging from our experience the food and its presentation are superb, a hit with both locals and tourists. The portions are sumptuous and certainly large enough for two to share. Krystyna Aldoys from Essex, who was dining next to us, proclaimed the restaurant “five stars for food and presentation.” Our swordfish and pave´ of beef were a knockout, as were our starters of stuffed Portobello mushrooms and tiger prawns with ginger, coriander rice and a light chilli coconut sauce. You can enjoy the appetizers as starters or as a main course.
Anokaa – Quintessential Romance (www.anokaa.com)
When Solman Farsi, co-proprietor looked at the Indian restaurant market in the UK, he realized that the curry houses were created for the Anglo palette, and that diners were missing out on traditional dining experience. His mission became “how to bring Indian cuisine into the wow factor.”
And by God, he’s done it! His fusion food is so popular that you literally can’t get a table without booking at least a couple of days in advance. The menu, which changes seasonally, represents the four different regions of India. Opened in May 2004, the 80-seat restaurant has been tipped for its excellent by several top British newspapers. The ambiance is quintessential romantic – the walls are hung with modern Indian paintings sand molded in vibrant colors; the lights are suitably dimmed, the soundproofing good enough to hear each other, rather than other diners. Open seven days a week, Anokaa offers two evening seatings – at 7 and 9 pm, plus a buffet lunch from noon to 2 pm. In the works is a second story mezzanine extension.
For an even more delectable experience, book a table on a Thursday night and experience an added ingredient – magic tableside!
If YOU GO
Guildford, Surrey GU1
(01483 503 350)
The Lakeside Restaurant
University of Surrey
(01483 683 987)
73 Farnham Road
Guildford, Surrey GU2 7PF
(01483 503 350)
This snazzy hotel offers lots of tempting deals and gets applause from its guests, especially since getting a good night’s sleep is practically guaranteed with the hotel’s pocket-sprung mattresses by Hypnos, fine Egyptian cotton bed linen and feather and down duvets. The breakfast features organic, fair trade food and the prices are a pleasant surprise for this 4-star property.
For more information about accommodations, attractions and dining, visit www.guildford.org.uk, (01483 444 333)
Gallery Café at Fisherton Mill
108 Fisherton Street
(01722 500 200)
The Haunch of Venison
1 Minster Street
(01722 411 313)
60 Fisherton Street
(01722 414 142)
Where to Stay
The Best Western Red Lion Hotel
Salisbury, SP2 8JQ
The historic Red Lion is perfectly situated in Salisbury’s citycentre. Rooms are exceedingly well-proportioned and decorated, staff extremely helpful.
For more information, contact the Salisbury District Council, www.visitsalisbury.com, (01722 434 521)
all photos are by Richard N. Every
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