A hat-trick of reviews

(by peter)

As part of our grand plan to get to know Hampshire’s gastronomic scene inside out, Susie and I have ticked three more names off our list lately: Vatika, the Woolpack Inn and cosy Winchester eatery the Corner House.

First up: Vatika. This was our office Christmas party, with an annual guest list of two (not including photocopiers). Having kissed the baby and briefed the babysitter (at least, that’s the way round I remember it), we drove about 20 minutes south-east of Winchester in the bitter dark to find Wickham Vineyards, where the restaurant is based.

It’s a neat concept: up-and-coming UK winery joins forces with Michelin-starred TV chef Atul Kochhar in a gastronomic meeting of minds. It certainly made for an impressive setting: vivid stars twinkled over spot-lit rows of vines, all viewed through the restaurant’s front windows.

We were welcomed by Danny, the restaurant manager, into what had all the hallmarks of being a converted barn, and proceeded to enjoy a procession of dishes characterised by impeccable presentation, full flavours yet incredibly subtle spicing (a hallmark of Kochhar’s cooking) and general deliciousness.

We went for the five-course tasting menu, with wines (£70 with, £50 without). Some tasty samples of our menu include: roasted medallion of mackerel with Pinot Noir chutney and parsley pesto (Wild Earth Riesling 2007, Central Otago); quail kofta, moong lentil, chilli tomato jam (Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2007, Waipara); pan-fried sea bass, roasted onion sauce, onion rings (Gaia Agiorgitiko 2007); 24-hour-cooked lamb shoulder, spinach dumplings, chlorophyll oil (Craneford Merlot, Barossa); chocolate cube, banana nuggets, cardamom (Warre’s Otima 10-year-old).

The food, cooked under the watchful eye of head chef Jitin Joshi, was outstanding. And very decent value, considering. Our only criticisms were that the lighting could be a little softer of an evening and the wine helpings could be larger. But then ours probably was a particularly romantic and boozy office Christmas party.

As a postscript to this event, and partly as a result of this excellent meal, we’ve decided to hook up with Vatika to run a Gourmet Weekend. Click here for more details. This is just the kind of local venture we’re keen to support. As we’ll be doing on a very regular basis from now on.

Back in Winchester, and babysitter duly relieved, the Corner House provided entertainment of a different kind. It styles itself as a “Continental style café bar” but is located on the distinctly unglamorous speedway that is the Winchester one-way system. We’d walked past it a few times and it looked good. Some friends also recommended it. So we went along with a few friends for lunch to check it out.

The good thing about the Corner House is, once you’ve shoe-horned yourself through the narrow doors, you seem to be in a different world. People are friendly. Cakes sit devilishly on a table in the middle of the room. A bar boasts several good local ales. And then there are the tall banquettes – I love a good banquette in my continental style café bars.

Soup with doorstop sandwiches went down a treat on the chilliest of days. As did the cottage pies – no messing, just a decent sized pie, and not even the merest hint of a garnish, with the necessary nod to the five-a-day zealots incorporated seamlessly (crunchy peas). Perfect. All seamlessly brought together by a pint of Flower Pots. Service was brusque and rustic in feel – again, nothing to write home about, even quite endearing in a way. And all very good value.

All told, this is more of a pub-that’s-not-really-a-pub-just-a-bit-classier-and-also-good-for-tea kind of place, rather than a continental style café bar. That said, I think the latter strap-line is probably wisely chosen, in that it sounds altogether less stupid and entirely more likely to entice your average Winchester clientele. But it’s not the most accurate, in my opinion. Maybe we just need to come back in the summer for that elusive continental vibe…

The Woolpack Inn in Totford is decidedly not continental. It sounds, as a friend commented, like something out of Emmerdale. It’s beefily British down to the last timber strut and the sign declaring “Dogs are welcome but please keep your children on a leash”. When we rang to book a late Sunday lunch, we were told that their signature roasts may have run out by then so would we like to reserve a 42-day dry aged rib of beef or a whole roast partridge?

Some decisions are not meant to be taken in a split second with your wife hanging on the phone, the baby screaming and your Twitter account badly in need of attention. Least of all this one. It didn’t help that she simply scowled when I said “both”.

In the event, I went for the partridge and it was delightful. Could have had crisps, should have had bread sauce, shouldn’t have had Yorkshire pudding – but apart from these picky points it was succulent, pungent and in dire need of being grasped in both hands and gnawed. Susie had a smoked trout and bacon salad. Our undeserving daughter was treated to a serving of fish and chips that was apparently for kids but which Susie and I ended up fighting over – buttery minted peas to die for. And to finish, we couldn’t help having the treacle and toasted pecan tart with Stone’s green ginger wine and pistachio ice cream – not the best (I am notoriously choosy about my treacle and pecan tarts – this one was served too cold and I wasn’t convinced about the ginger) but still a thoroughly indulgent finale to a grand Sunday lunch.

Woolpack wines are supplied by Berry Bros & Rudd. We didn’t partake on this occasion, but the list was good enough to want to come back and get stuck in.

In short, three excellent additions to our local eating-out options.

Babysitters beware.