Monday, 13 June 2016

The Larder House and the Library - Southbourne, Dorset

As much as I'm always excited to try new independent restaurants and bars, I have eaten and drunk enough to understand the appeal of chains. In a world of uncertainty it's sometimes nice to know how many pieces of pepperoni are going to be on your pizza.

Mostly though, it's good to embrace a bit of spontaneity; at least when it comes to dinner. Yes, I have eaten some ill-advised flavour combinations and experienced some comical ineptitude while eating out (chains, of course, are not immune to this, just in a more predictable way), but the passion, humour and innovation when you find somewhere new far outweighs the chance of sampling a duff.

Which is why I was eagerly anticipating our visit to the Larder House, who describe themselves, rather grandly, on their website as being 'infused with traditions of bygone eras and through the continuous researching into the greatest foods from around Europe' despite it's prosaic setting of Southbourne High Street, wedged between the hairdressers and a bank.

As it was also the Ewing's birthday, we started with a few oysters - after seeing them sitting on ice in a wine bucket - as who doesn't love slurping on a fresh bivalve before dinner. Well, me actually, having never really enjoyed any sort of huitre, especially a raw one. These however, while not quite a briny revelation, were rather good. I didn't even need to employ the bijou jug of shallot and red wine vinegar.

One thing I do dig is cured pig and I found it impossible to resist the hand carved ham from Teruel, especially as I had to walk past the sweetly glistening leg in its wooden carving stand on the way to our table. Served with stone baked bread and olive oil, the sweet and nutty meat, edged with ribbons of buttery fat, was porcine perfection and served in a pleasingly generous portion.

The Ewing also had pork - this time gelatinous hunks of long braised pig's cheek served with a Japanese/Iberian fusion of panko-crusted morcilla croquettes and a token scattering of salad.

Behind Stornoway black pudding - my Mum's Scottish neighbour picks up a chub from Charles McLeod for us at Christmas - morcilla might be my favourite type, the iron-rich blood offset by the addition of raisins and rice. Here the sweetness cut through the heft of the pig making for a surprisingly light and springy dish.

A behemoth of a duck breast, from the daily specials board, was nicely judged - arriving the same blushing pink hue as my wife's nose after her afternoon spent  in the sun. Almost better was the pillowy peaks of creamy mash - reminding me of my Dad's, who's a supreme spud masher - and the shiny gravy studded with lardons of pancetta and fresh peas.

Also on as a special was the trio of fish (which no one can now recall, but may have included mackerel and hake) served with a middle eastern inspired melange of samphire, cous cous, harrissa and yoghurt. A fresh and summery combination that made another good looking plate, despite my picture trying its hardest to suggest the contrary. 

Some careful pre-visit menu studying - always a risky prospect - meant I was hotly anticipating the honey and malt cheesecake with caramelized clementine for pudding. Thankfully it took pride of place on the short list of sweets and, apart from the listless slice of citrus fruit that displayed none of the promised char, this was a creamy, crunchy, claggy, joy; my perfect kind of pudding.

The Ewing, in an uncharacteristic move that eschewed all chocolate-related options, went with the blood orange sorbet and berries. Not a dieter's choice - the homemade brandy basket resembled Walter Raleigh's ruff, and was just as big while the tuile wafer wouldn't have looked out of place on Jodrell Bank, but a sensible one to help with helping to cool down and replenish lost fluids (not sure all the g&ts with extra ice really count).

As an ex-librarian of a decade’s good standing after-dinner drinks at the Library, the Larderhouse’s secret speakeasy accessed through a unmarked side door, were a must. Upstairs, in contrast to the light and airy dining room, is styled like an eccentric gentleman’s club - minus the paunchy gents with piggy eyes and port-reddened noses - with d├ęcor featuring an array of creepy taxidermy and curios.  

Instead of books, the shelves hold an oeuvre of different spirits from around the world and the international theme continues with a drinks menu that is loosely based on a jaunt across the globe.  It's a concise list of short, punchy drinks that don’t hold back on the booze (or the price, with most ranging from £11-£13), and if nothing works up your thirst they will shake something up off piste, based on your usual drinking preferences - just don’t expect fishbowls or Jaeger bombs.

Cocktail-wise expect the usual kind of schtick, especially if you’ve drunk anywhere in East London in the last decade – drinks served with complimentary popcorn and a plastic statue of liberty, drinks served with lottery tickets (we were quids in - well, singular) and drinks served with dried mushrooms and a stuffed animal. 

The latter accompanied my, succinctly named, Cognac - foie gras washed brandy infused with mushrooms, pretty much just tasted of burning (no bad thing, in my book), although I ramped up the fungi flavour by nibbling on some of the said porcini garnish. The Savoy was very bitter, perfect for  those who like a negroni (unfortunately not all of out party, it seems), although I think my favourite was an off menu libation, based on a whisky sour, well, from what I can remember of it…

If you’ve got a sweet tooth then finish with the Venezuela which in contrast to most of the other drinks we tried, including the delicious, but very tart, non-alcoholic numbers for the baby-carrier – tasted like condensed milk and fruit juice over crushed ice. It’s also served in a very cute tiki-style glass with a lima (probably not really a lima) on the handle. It’s also the only bar I’ve been to where they serve dishes of chocolate raisins to nibble with your drinks, an idea I thoroughly applaud.

Words like quirky, hidden gem and one-off seem to be tacked on to pretty much anything than isn’t an homogeneous high street chain, but the Larder House and Library really do fit the spec. Even more impressive when they occupy the same sort of anonymous high street plot that chains now mostly fill. Add in cocktails, cigars, chocolate raisins and a birthday girl that couldn’t have been happier and it’s clear the Larder House is no weak link.

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