Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Wild Garlic

Earlier this year, an IT engineer called Mat Follas won the UK television competition MasterChef. It is a gruelling contest in which amateur cooks battle it out in a long, drawn-out process overseen by presenters John Torode and Gregg Wallace.

Follas stood out because he was different. He liked robust flavours, foraged produce and unusual combinations. His food was original. It had style.

Mr Grigg is passionate about food and an avid MasterChef fan. Last week he would have done Mat Follas proud with a delicate starter of foraged puffball and local scallops with creme fraiche and fresh coriander. So he was hooked on the programme from the start. We both cook, having created dishes for paying members of the public for a short while. But I became more interested in the programme when I learned that Mat, a Kiwi, lived in the Dorset village where Mr Grigg and I had our first home. So in our house, we were willing him to win. And, after the final, when Terry Wogan described him the next day as Ming the Merciless, I turned off the radio outraged, feeling I had been personally slighted.

Since then, there have been 'will-he, won't-he' stories in the local press and nationals over Mat's ambitions to run his own restaurant. We were then reliably informed that yes indeed he was, and it was coming to a town near us. We saw The Wild Garlic taking shape every time we drove past.

'I hope he doesn't ponce the food up,' said one friend. 'Dorset people like big portions and hate paying extra for vegetables.'

When he opened the restaurant, other snippets filtered back to us.

'Well, you need to eat something before you go,' said someone we know.

'The female maitre de is shocking,' said another. 'I don't know who she thinks she is.'

A leading local restaurateur sniffed that the 'Hi guys' greeting he and three friends in their late 60s, two of whom were eminent academics, received was hardly appropriate.

So we had feelings of trepidation before we went. There is currently around a two-month waiting list for a table in the evening, although lunches are more easily booked. It is great for Mat and the area that The Wild Garlic is so busy. But it means there is a huge amount of expectation already on the tastebuds of the clientele before they even walk in through the front door. Seldom has any other amateur cook, who has never before run his own restaurant, been under so much pressure to perform. Mat Follas criticism is in danger of becoming a new blood sport in these parts.

We have now been twice - once for dinner and once for lunch. And did we like it? Well, yes thank you. Very much so. Some food combinations worked better than others, the ubiquitous goats' cheese starter wasn't very adventurous, the full length-mirror next to the lavatory in the ladies was a bit of a shock and I was a little taken aback by the welcome of the aforementioned maitre de.

But those were my only minus points. It was an experience we would not have missed.

The decor is rustic minimalist, with big chunky wooden tables and incongruous retro chairs. There is no salt and pepper on the table, which indicates a confident chef (and delighted me, because I just hate it when Mr Grigg automatically puts salt and pepper on his food before tasting it).

The menu is very short and changes according to the season and most of the produce is locally sourced. Starters cost around £7, mains about £12 to £19 (the water buffalo has just gone up by a pound) and puddings around the £5 mark. Two of my starters were sweet chilli squid, accompanied by the most wonderful salad leaves and edible flowers, and smoked venison with beetroot and berry sauce. My main courses were lamb loin with mange tout, salad, pea puree and salsa verde and a faggot tart with hedgehog mushroom sauce. The lamb, in particular, was really tasty and pink, just as I like it.

My two puddings were fresh berry mess and lavender mousse. Delicious.

Mat makes a point of coming out and chatting to the customers after he has finished cooking. This is a good habit for him to have already got into, and very much appreciated.

There is a great selection of wine, from about £15 a bottle, so we could afford to raise a glass and toast to the restaurant's continued success.

After each of my visits, I was full up. So too was Mr Grigg, whose stomach is considerably larger than mine.

So here's to another trip to The Wild Garlic - if we can book a table that is.


Pondside said...

Well, I'm keeping a file of places to visit when we ever get to the UK and I'll put this in the file. So far we'll mainly be visiting gardens and eating, if the file is any predictor of our itinerary!
I liked the way you wrote this review. It was matter-of-fact, but had that personal touch that I expect from you - and that makes me want to read further. Too many restaurant reviews are bare-bones factual(or a vehicle for airing the reviewers pet peeves) and in the end don't give one anything other than price and a menu on which to base the vist-or-not decision.
I'd be having the lamb too!

Quilting Cat said...

Oh why are all the best places to eat to the west of our beautiful county, around here we are bereft of decent grub. Hope it is a huge success and thanks for the review.

Buggles Balham High Road said...

I agree with you in saying how brave Mat is to open a restaurant with no previous commercial catering experience but he seems to be such a lovely man and an inspirational cook and I wish him every success.

I've been subject to local negativeness in the past when I've started a new business and I do wish more people would have the Can-Do attitude and encourage somebody rather than knock them back.

I've been following his Blog and he encourages comments and suggestions but when I see readers telling him to do Fat Chips and others telling him to do Skinny Chips and then another telling him they wouldn't visit Wild Garlic if he offered rabbit on the menu I did think he should stick to what he wants to cook rather than try to please everyone. That is impossible as you can end up pleasing no-one.

We tried to book an evening table for six two weeks in advance but they were fully booked. However, they put us on the list for a cancellation and on the morning of the date requested they phoned to say there was a table for six due to a cancellation, but we'd already made other arrangements. I was impressed that they'd followed this up.

I agree with Pondside as your review is very balanced. If this had been a review about my restaurant I would have been very happy with it.

Anonymous said...

This sounds wonderful, I have watched Master Chef and really enjoy it. You're lucky to have Mat and his expertise.

CJ xx

Mat Follas said...

Hi Maddie ... thanks for the review

I know we're not all there yet but I also know we are at the stage where I'd be happy to dine in the restaurant and that's pretty much what your review reflects too ... so thanks and come back when you can and let me know how we progress !

As for the 'knockers' I do find it incredibly difficult to take at times, I know we are leaps ahead of what our predecessors were doing in terms of cost and quality ... and holding our own against some long established competitors ... and yet we just cannot seem to please some ... and on that I know I need to have thicker skin and please those who want to be pleased !

The FOH has changed, my new FOH lead was 3 years head waiter at Le Manoir, the lady in question has relaxed a lot now that the changes have been made and someone has left.

Deliberately casual and child friendly, perhaps not to everyone's taste ... but as per others' comments ... not sure that's possible.

Venison and Veal coming in this week, should be at decent prices (iro £16-17), have reduced the lamb to £15 with some better sourcing and the Buffalo is at £18 for a 9-10oz Ribeye as the fillet wasn't best value for me or the customer at £19

Look forward to seeing you again ... and please introduce yourself next time !

Maddie Grigg said...

Well how about that, the man himself giving feedback. Thanks Mat, much appreciated. I had heard about the gentleman front of house departure, within minutes of it happening (it's a small place), so hope that has made things better for everyone. We were very impressed with Mark, your new FOH, who knows his stuff without being stand-offish.
Looking forward to your venison and other autumn stuff and all your inventive combinations.

Thanks too to Pondside, Buggles, Quilting Cat and CJ for your comments. I'll keep you posted.

Inthemud said...

Hi Maddie,
Thank you for visiting my blog.

I love your blog and what an honour that Mat himself commented!

My hubby has an obsession with cars, he has doen since he was a child, over years it has been business, now more hobby, but hobby has got out of hand. He can't help himself but to buy just another one........!

Fennie said...

Hallo Maddie! Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm sure that I should enjoy visiting Wild Garlic (the restaurant) for I adore that sort of food and indeed cooking it myself. I've sometimes thought about running a restaurant - but then I suspect I am building castles in the air. What I would enjoy is playing mine host - giving everyone a party. Cooking things specially for people who ask - have you by any chance got? But night after night? And for mingers and complainers? I think I'll stick to my own kitchen and leave the Wild Garlic in my garden.

Kavey said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on my recent interview post with Mat:

I'll soon be posting our review of the meal we enjoyed there with friends, which I hope you will also enjoy reading to see how it matches your experiences.

Again, thanks for your comment!

imbeingheldhostage said...

Wow, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed your review-- and the fact that Mat even came out to comment--how cool is that? I'm ready to get my name on the waiting list, just to say I went!

Naomi Devlin said...

Thanks for your comment Maddie - sounds like we might be neighbours, where are you? (you can tell me privately if you like, I'm sure you don't want groupies doorstepping you....) x x x