Neem Tree

Published in WH Times 25 April 2018

The chain restaurants in Welwyn Garden City do seem to have nabbed the prime locations on the garden streets, but it is worth exploring to find Neem Tree, a local independent gem just off Howardsgate.

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Winner of many local restaurant awards, I had wanted to try Neem Tree for a while; I love the look of the bright pink and green interior and the promise of “naturally Indian” food.

The long menu has many of the classics but I was more interested to see home-style, Southern Indian dishes such as lentil and lime soup, Goan fishcakes and lime and coconut rice. In the need for healthy food after Easter, I chose a vegetable curry with roban sauce, which for 5.25 was the most generous bowlful with crisp green beans, sugar snap peas, courgette, peas, tomato and chickpeas. With the lime and coconut rice, this was a perfect balanced meal – so often vegetarian options don’t contain enough protein, so I was delighted the curry included chickpeas. I had no real need to order the black lentil dahl but it was delicious and enough for a light lunch on it own, for another time.

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The Tawa Tak-a-Tak skillet-griddled foods are a Neem Tree speciality, and you can choose paneer, vegetables, chicken, lamb, venison, prawns and duck, each cooked with fresh herbs, spring onions and peppers. My partner chose the prawns and thought them excellent – not over-cooked and with the delicious chargrilled flavour you get from barbecuing. Our naan bread was fresh and griddled too, and I am sure home-made. There is quite a lot of fish on the menu too, including monkfish and seafood biryani.

I’m not sure Neem Tree need to offer such a long menu; I guess people expect to see Indian classics in every Indian restaurant and want to order favourites. I would love them to be able to focus on fewer dishes (does the menu need venison, goat, crab and squid for example?) and play up their vegetarian and vegan options or focus on just Keralan dishes – it would make a really nice change locally.

We loved the interior; the bright pink and lime green walls, furniture and fresh flowers was welcoming, and the contemporary Indian music perfect.

We were at Neem Tree early evening and service was very good; welcoming and efficient, if a little old-school. By the time we left downstairs was full and people were heading upstairs to extra tables so you do need to book, especially for weekends. They are also very popular for takeaways and deliveries – 01707 333253 to book and order.

It is easy to see why Neem Tree has won so many awards, including Best Restaurant in the 2017 WGC BID Awards and Bob FM Best Restaurant – the food is delicious and the restaurant is very appealing – we will definitely go back!

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The Potting Shed

Published in The Herts Advertiser 12 April 2018

Potting Shed sign

For such a small village, Sandridge does very well for places to buy good food, with proper pubs, butcher’s shop, Heartwood Tearoom and farm shops. Carpenters has long had a great reputation for their own-grown vegetables and plants, and the farm shop has transformed in the last two years. The latest development is the opening of The Potting Shed over the Easter weekend.

A regular customer at the farm shop, I knew work on the cafe had been going on so I popped in just before Easter for lunch for a sneak preview. I don’t want to give too much away as I want you to enjoy the surprise, but when we walked in we were amazed at what James and the team have achieved. It is the most stunning building with vaulted ceiling and light pouring in from the huge doors looking out to the fields beyond.

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I was expecting The Potting Shed to be a good garden centre cafe, somewhere to get a cup of tea and cake after shopping, but this a huge step up from neighbouring garden centres (as lovely as some of them are). Head chef Scott Whitehead has devised a very good menu, with breakfasts, lunches and teas, using produce from the farm when he can. The farm shop already sells many of our best local products and I am delighted that the cafe continues this. Bacon and sausages are from Priors Hall, Stickleback supply the fish, goats cheese is from Wobbly Bottom, and Farr Brewery supply the beer for the beer-battered plaice.

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It’s a great place for breakfast and brunch with a menu to rival the best in the city centre: Dizzy Bee granola, juices and smoothies, pancakes, eggs, smashed avo with chilli and mint salsa, toast and home-baked muffins and full veggie or meaty English cooked breakfasts too.

I had one of the best lunches I have ever eaten locally – I know, it surprised me too! We chose from a specials menu and I had celeriac and spelt risotto with hazelnuts and goats cheese for a first course and sole fillets with carrot and barley broth for a main course. The celeriac and carrots, among other ingredients, were from the fields just beyond the restaurant – a record for food miles locally surely?

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If you want just a sandwich, don’t worry, they are available too, with smoked salmon, honey roast ham and egg mayonnaise made with Clover Farm eggs that they also sell in the shop. You can choose small and large plates for lunch which include home-made pie and quiche, a Potting Shed burger and delicious vegan/veggie options such as pearl barley risotto with leeks and charred spring onions.

Puds and cakes are interesting too, with many baked onsite; my spiced carrot and orange cake was excellent. Afternoon tea is available at 14.95 for tea, finger sandwiches, two scones and cake – add a glass of fizz for 3.95. Yes, there is a bar too, with a local beers and wine (some supplied by Flagship Wine). You can just pop in for a coffee, which is supplied by Borough Market company The Gentlemen Barista’s Union, although it is busy so book for weekend brunch and breakfast. Prices are reasonable – most main courses, for example, are under 10 pounds.

The Potting Shed is already busy, and rightly so, so if you want to book call on 01727 856995 or book online. They will try to keep some walk-in tables, and as the weather lifts, there will be table space outside too. It will be open every day 9.30 until 5 except on Sundays when they close at 4.30 (order half an hour before closing). You go through the farm shop to find the cafe; remember to leave time to stock up on super-fresh veggies to take home.

I love The Potting Shed, and am so pleased the Carpenter family have created something really special here that goes beyond expectations. It would be a lovely place to go on a summer evening too, so let’s watch this space – they are probably busy enough at the moment!

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River Cottage Kitchen and Deli, Hatfield House

Published in WH Times 2018

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Hatfield House has just opened for the busy spring and summer season, and it was a busy winter in the cafe – it has been revamped as an outpost of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.

The famous food writer and campaigner is well-known for his ethical approach to food, with campaigns about sustainable fishing and using seasonal ingredients. The main River Cottage in Axminster is a destination for foodies, and spin-off River Cottage Kitchens have opened in Bristol, Glyndebourne, Winchester, and most recently at Whipsnade Zoo and Hatfield House.

I popped in for lunch last week: it is a beautiful space, with light flooding in even on one of our rainy days. Service was a bit muddled; we weren’t sure whether we had to order at the counter or at the table, and in the end it was a mix of the two – I think that will get smoother with time.

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The lunch menu has ‘main event’ and ‘lighter’ options, as well as a nice selection of drinks, including River Cottage IPA and elderflower cider. I chose roast cauliflower with spiced yellow split peas and charred broccoli, which was delicious and one of the nicest (and healthiest!) meals I’ve had locally in a long time. My friend chose butternut squash and walnut patties, with Moroccan-spiced blitzed carrot salad, which she loved too. It is good to see vegan/vegetarian dishes at the heart of a menu rather than as an after-thought, and is very in-keeping with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s interest in seasonal, plant-based cooking.

The meat dishes on the menu (pork burger, lamb meatballs and beef ragu) are all organic, yet are priced in line with local pub main courses, which is good to see. You can get a bowl of soup or a slice of spinach tart if you want a smaller meal, and I imagine that some visitors to the House won’t be expecting a full meal, so smaller plates are a good option. Hot food is available until 2.30 and after that the focus is on hot drinks, cakes and afternoon teas. We had pud, and the baking is good; my almond cake with poached rhubarb was lovely, although more rhubarb would have been welcome. The chocolate and beetroot brownie was excellent, with the beetroot adding a lighter texture.

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There is a small deli takeaway next to the main restaurant with a couple of benches; you can get soup, sandwiches, coffee and snacks in here to take outside. The baskets with packed lunches for children had rolls, fruit, biscuit and crisps for 5.00. I’m concerned that this takeaway will be crowded on the weekends, and most of the seating is weather dependent (maybe add a canopy?).

I can see why they have changed the restaurant; Hatfield House is the most beautiful location and the previous cafe felt a little old-fashioned, certainly compared to the cooking being offered for weddings and events. Let us know what you think.

The River Cottage Kitchen and Deli will be open Tuesday–Sunday 10am–5pm, and Bank Holiday Mondays throughout the summer.

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Bread making, picnic and pottering in the sunshine

Sometimes I wish I had a weekly column in The Herts Advertiser. Not in January when there is nothing to write about, but right now, this spring, there is a LOT going on to tell you about. I am so impressed by the events happening for Sustainable St Albans week that I am writing an extra column/blog post about some of the highlights for you, so you don’t miss them. Here goes!

1. There is a FREE bread-making course on this Saturday 11-2 at SS Alban and Stephen church. Waitrose and posh artisan bakeries will charge you 80 quid for a baking bread class and this one is free and provides all the ingredients!! And they give you tea and biscuits. Email grabecki@hotmail.com to see if any places are left.

2. The sun is out, so who fancies a picnic? Head to Highfield Park on Sunday (22nd) (12-2) near the sports centre bit. There will be games for the family, take the dog etc. The idea is go Plastic Free so wrap your sandwiches in newspaper, get your old tupperware out and don’t take endless pots of M&S mini pork pies, salads etc. Give it a go!

3. Asian Herb Garden sounds gorgeous on weds 25th (11-2) – this is at Habiba’s garden at the CDA Community Gardens, Hixberry Lane, St Albans AL4 0TZ – go and find out how to grow herbs for cooking and sipping, especially in Asian cooking. Again FREE!

4. On the theme of growing your own, you can go for a nose around the riverside allotments in Harpenden on saturday (2-5) – it’s near Coldharbour Lane and Station Road. If you live in St Albans go to the cottonmill allotments on Sunday 11-2.30 where they are giving you guided tours on the hour.

5. Are you a budding hipster and want to eat more vegan food this year? Head over to the Green Kitchen on sunday 4-6 for an introduction to vegan cooking. There will be a demo and TASTINGS of foods but you need to book so call 01727 753661. Cost is just 2 quid per person.

6. Have you been to the lovely Earthwork site yet, hidden away on Hixberry Lane near Highfield Park? It will be gorgeous at this time of year and they have an open evening and seed/seedling swap on weds 25th 5.30-8. There will also be music and refreshments.

7. Bored of the chain coffee shops? Why not try lovely Cafe on the Corner on Catherine St, St Albans – they are doing a special local menu all week. Always good cakes and art for sale too.

8. Tucked away near Fleetville school and near the mens clothes shop with the crest on it is the packed warehouse of the market stall Eat Wholefoods. Patrick says if you take in containers you can get refills of your groceries, washing liquids etc with a 10% discount – how cool is that if you are trying to reduce your plastic?

IMG-8321There is loads more going on too – I am going to the clothes swishing event and having a tour of the food recycling plant (yes I’m a geek), and I am very tempted by one of the bike rides. Look for one of the smart programs around the area or go online to sustainablestalbans.org for more info. The film at the Odyssey is good – A Plastic Ocean. I’ve seen it and it’s very watchable and not as naggy as you might think. They’ve mostly sold out downstairs but there are some bargain seats upstairs left.

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The Oval cafe

Published in The Herts Advertiser, 22 March 2018

ovalcafeHarpenden pals had been telling me about the Oval cafe for ages; it’s the sort of place you only really know about if you live round there, as it is not in the town centre, and is a little tricky to find.

Located near the Spire hospital, the Oval cafe is part of the Youth with a Mission campus. Set in beautiful grounds around an oval-shaped lawn with trees, woods and play areas also, it is not easy to spot at first which building houses the cafe. On a warm day there are picnic tables outside, so head for those, and the lovely cafe is found in two rooms on the ground floor of a large, detached house.

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With high ceilings, fireplace, wood floors and beautiful windows looking out over the green, it is a welcoming cafe. Order at the funky counter which is made with reclaimed planks; there was an appealing choice of cakes including courgette cake, red velvet cookies, lemon drizzle and scones; apparently the scones with fresh cream and jam are very good. We were there for lunch, so will have to try those another day.

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The cafe doesn’t have a large kitchen, so the lunch menu is a bit limited, but head to the fridge to choose paninis, salads, fruit pots and other snacks. Take your sandwich to the counter to be toasted; I chose the mozzarella and sun-dried panini, and shared it with my partner, along with a chickpea, tomato and pepper salad. It was a good value lunch, and very pleasant, but on a chilly day I would have loved a bowl of soup; it is a shame they don’t have capacity to offer that. They do a good range of coffees and teas, including tea pigs, and our flat whites were very good. You can get dairy-free milks.

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The second room is mostly used by families with young children and there is a small play area with books and toys to buy parents time for a coffee. There were plenty of snack and drink options for children too, with squeezy fruit and veg pouches, hummus pots and small biscuits, which was nice to see. I would have loved to have known about this place when mine were younger! For slightly older children there is a charming illustrated guide to the site to help you explore and find out more about its original history as a children’s home.

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I liked the window seating and tables with plug sockets, which is perfect for anyone working at YWAM and visitors who need to escape their home office for a while.

I read some of the signs on the walls to find out more about Youth with a Mission; it operates in over 1000 locations and 180 countries and the mission is to “understand and express the love of God to all people”. The baristas working in the cafe are also part of YWAM, and the buildings around the oval house various training projects. Anyone is welcome to visit the cafe, and it is very popular people from the hospital, ramblers, dog walkers and cyclists; the cafe had a basket of high-energy cycling snacks for sale, which I am sure is very welcome. As the weather improves, they put out more tables onto the lawn in front of the cafe, and it can get quite busy.

There is a little car parking around the side of the building, or jump on your bike and earn your cake. It is open 9-5 during the week, 10-4 Saturday and is closed on Sunday.

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Lemon Plaice

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I love fish and chips, especially when staying near the seaside or on a Friday night when too tired to cook. Although we are as far from the sea as possible, we do have some excellent fish and chip shops in Hertfordshire, including Godfrey’s in Harpenden and Lemon Plaice in Welwyn.

Just along Church Street, opposite the Rose and Crown pub, Lemon Plaice is a very pretty fish and chip shop and restaurant. Located in a white double-fronted old house right on the road, the counter for takeaway is on the right, and you go through the narrow doorway to the tiny restaurant on the left. There can be queues out of the door for the takeaway at the weekends and you have to book for the restaurant, but we were fine to get a table for lunch midweek.

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The restaurant is bright and welcoming, with pale blue wood-panelled walls, a fireplace and tables covered in seafood-themed cloths. I liked the modern prints of lemons, gherkins and piecrusts on the walls. It is table service, and we were given menus listing cod and haddock in various sizes as you’d expect, but also skate, plaice, scampi and squid rings. Prices are very good, with my small (although pretty large!) cod and chips 5.50, with mushy or garden peas an extra 90p. The cod was delicious, with a light, crispy batter, and the chips were nicely cooked, classic chip shop chips.

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You can choose pasties, pies and halloumi slices too, and my partner enjoyed the beef and vegetable pasty. A smart little blue pot of tea was just 1.20, and I was given tap water happily. To eat in costs just an extra 1.50 per person and you can bring your own alcohol in for no extra charge, which is a great deal, and very popular at the weekends.

I was pleased to see that the cod and haddock are from Marine Stewardship Council-certified sustainable sources and their plaice is from Icelandic Responsible Fisheries.

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Chatting to the co-owner Jenny, she explained that it does get busy but you can always call ahead to book a table, and if you prefer you can pop over to the pub until a table is free. I am not at all surprised that it is so busy; Lemon Plaice is everything you would want in a fish and chip shop.

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The Enchanted Tea Rooms

Published in The Herts Advertiser 15 March 2018

 

enchanted roomWe are in pretty Redbourn this week, at the newly opened The Enchanted Tea Rooms. Situated in a lovely old building right on the High Street, the cafe is full of character, with ceiling beams, paned windows and a narrow winding staircase.

Pale vintage-style furniture, green walls, tulip wallpaper and tables set with vintage crockery create a light, welcoming atmosphere. We sat in two high-backed armchairs which are exactly the same as those my 91-year old grandmother has in her sitting room, which surely can only be a good thing.

Sisters Alexandra and Andrea run the cafe, along with mum Elena, and the cafe has already been very busy with lots of locals going in to see the transformation.

Andrea, Alexandra, Elena

It is table service, so find a spot and read the surprisingly long menu – I was expecting tea and cakes of course, but they also do simple breakfasts and a lunch menu, including quiche, soup, jacket potatoes, sandwiches and salads. The superfood salad, for example, is made with spinach, beetroot, quinoa, sun-dried tomatoes, sweetcorn and peppers and is 5.00; add avocado for a little extra.

Cakes and bakes are made each day by the in-house patisserie chef and you choose from the small counter. When we went in there were brownies, banana bread, blueberry muffins and mini fresh cream buns; a freshly baked Bakewell tart was being cut up, so I waited for a slice of that. My partner chose a cream tea which came with two small, warm scones, clotted cream and either jam or lemon curd.

Pots of loose-leaf tea are a sensible price at 2.50 for one person, which gave us 2–3 cups each. There was a long tea menu, and I was surprised there was no decaffeinated black tea option, but there were alternatives including mint.

Full afternoon tea is the cafe speciality, with sandwiches, scones and cakes for 19.95. You can add Prosecco or Champagne, and gluten-free and vegan options are available with a little notice. I like that they do a smaller tea for under 12s, which include mini rainbow bagels and sparkly cakes; a lovely idea for a special birthday. Upstairs are two spacious rooms and I am sure you can book one for a special tea occasion; the room with the huge chandelier is very pretty, and they use them at weekends when busy too. Do have a peak upstairs; there is a beautiful mural in one room, painted by local artist Sarah Nicholson, which explains the ‘enchanted’ name.

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Alexandra explained to us that the bread comes from Yummies in Radlett, where she used to work, and they buy flour from nearby Redbournbury Mill for bakes that work well with their strong flour.

I was pleased to see a glass urn of tap water with proper glasses rather than disposable plastic, and if you want to get a takeaway coffee, their cups and lids are recyclable.

The front door to the tea rooms is kept closed, which is sensible for warmth and road noise, so do venture in; it is a deceptively large cafe. I like that there are high chairs, and sensible children’s options, which makes it a useful cafe option for the village. I did ask about dogs, and they are not allowed.

With The Hub down the road always busy, there is definitely need for a new cafe in Redbourn, and I think Alexandra and Andrea have made this a great local option, whether for an everyday cup of coffee or a special occasion. It is open seven days a week, 7–6.30 during the week, and 9–5 Sunday and 9–6 Saturday. 71 High Street, Redbourn.

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