You pick a name like the Blue Strawberry to stand out from the crowd, to get noticed. Not a bad idea if your “bistrot” (not the commonplace spelling) is situated in Hatfield Peverel, a sleepy dormer village off the A12 not far from Chelmsford. Judging by the volume of business crowding into the tables of the narrow dining room on a Friday lunchtime, they have in 20 years built up an enthusiastic and loyal clientele.
The decor attracted some comments from my companion, who felt that the entrance (“The restaurant entrance opens into a grand Victorian style conservatory which houses the reception & bar with its leather sofa & chairs”) looked dated, notably the dried hops adorning its beams and 80s-style spider plant growing triffid-like above the doorway. In fairness, the bric-a-brac, including a vintage till, kept us amused, as did a fine prosecco spumante served by a jovial and enthusiastic barman.
Invited to our table we enjoyed the view of the inner sanctum (“Inside the restaurant itself the overwhelming impression is of stepping back in time, old etchings & prints on the walls, antique books & ornaments, beams, open fires & subdued lighting.”) In fact, the lighting was so subdued as to be non-existent – so the room appeared somewhat dingy, but we were placed in a a corner where we could admire the fireplace complete with a wood burner that must make winter evenings at the Blue Strawberry highly pleasurable.
My only real gripe about the layout of the BSB was that the tables were closely packed and the low-ceilinged acoustics poor. Granted my hearing is not great, but I did struggle to hear our conversation at a times, which might, under some circumstances, have led to a horrible social faux pas. Not sure there is much the restaurant can do to improve matters, but it detracted from the ambience. However, service was polite, efficient and discreet throughout – a good sign in my book. Knowledgeable, charming and charismatic waiters are always desirable, though like barbers and small children I would prefer they speak when spoken to – and here they managed that subtle art to perfection.
The lunch menu is fairly extensive, supplemented by specials. Broadly speaking it is good value bistro fare supplemented by touches from around Europe and even darting briefly over to Asia. It felt a bit like a sight-seeing tour taking in a fair amount of France and Italy en route, though not without a touch of British homeland in the form of “Mick’s steak and kidney pie with suet pastry lid” (sic – surely suet pastry would make it a steak and kidney pudding, or am I being picky?!)
We began with reasonable bread with good butter, and a generous bowl of olives topped with tasty sun blush tomatoes. Our starters – a home-made pork, chicken, red pepper & pistachio terrine served with the obligatory garnish and spicy fruit chutney (available in supermarkets and quite pleasant), and a wedge of hot smoked salmon, crab and watercress tart, both went down well. There was evidence of technique and flair in both dishes, though clearly sticking to what sells in Essex rather the cutting edge dishes employed at the Michelin end of the market. Probably a wise choice to make.
The main courses should have been an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to get the basics right. A rump steak with crispy onions and béarnaise sauce featured a good piece of meat (28 days hung, according to the menu), demonstrating tenderness and flavour – but was decidedly heading in the direction of medium rather than the rare ordered. My companion could have sent it back but chose, like the steak, not to be bloody minded. The béarnaise seemed not to be freshly made (pity), but the onions and veg were well presented and well cooked.
As those who know me well would tell I have a thing about veal, and can often be guaranteed to order it when seen on the menu. Here it came as “breaded escalope of British veal with tagliatelle, Neapolitan tomato sauce”, though that dish is better known as Veal Milanese in the Italian tradition. Trouble is, I can’t see a breaded veal escalope without thinking of the sublime Wiener Schnitzel I ate in a a top restaurant in Vienna – wide enough to overflow the plate, whisper thin, perfectly breadcrumbed and cooked to perfection. Simply divine!
The Blue Strawberry escalope was not quite world class, but then that was a very high standard for comparison. It came as two fillets, unquestionably assembled in the kitchens and cooked well without delivering full on flavour. It was served with a large pile of rocket, a nondescript pile of tagliatelle and a tomato sauce that lacked punch, in spite of the inclusion of more of the self same sun blush tomatoes. Not a bad dish but could have been better. The beefsteak tomato and red onion side salad ordered proved long on the onion and rocket but short on tomatoes – which were sliced far thinner than the veal escalope. In fact, the kitchen evidently over-ordered on the rocket this week.
Between us we managed one dessert, a creme brûlée in a dish so shallow that the custard layer was barely thicker than the crackable topping, but compensated by being very robust in texture. Coffees were suitably strong, and welcome given that I had a business meeting at the local university to attend shortly thereafter.
The Blue Strawberry needs no plaudits to keep up its roaring trade, and clearly possesses an assured touch behind the scenes capable of excellence. The lack of attention to detail in some dishes detracts and suggests the kitchen should aim for greater consistency, but I will give the BS another try. Watch out for an update to this review in due course! 🙂
PS. The bill came with service added rather than being left at the discretion of the diner. This riled my companion, who also pointed out that she would have left more money for service, had the restaurant not added it to the bill!! Service should be on merit, not presumed.