Either moving to Winchester from London has eroded my critical faculties – even though it has reduced my blood pressure from 200/100 to 134/84, you would have to be both brave and foolhardy to suggest that – or it seems that outside the benighted, squalid, expensive dump that is Town, chain restaurants are actually a lot better!
For example, every time we have been to a Zizzi’s in London, we have had awful food, awful service and usually been repeatedly elbowed in the face by the diners at the next table until we have had enough and left screaming. In Winchester, Zizzi’s occupy a lovely 18th century building on the High Street. The restaurant is nicely decorated. They even have one of those incredibly silly and incredibly expensive Philippe Starck plastic life-size horse lamps! The tables are spaced further apart than in some London starred restaurants I could mention. Their pizzas are excellent, and we have only eaten better in a handful of pizzerias in London and Italy. Unlike the London establishments, in Zizzi’s Winchester when we walked in for our third visit the waiting staff greeted us with, “Hello boys! Shall I get the usual for you?”. The squid in their calamari fritti starter is not tough. Now that is incredible!
A branch of the ‘French’ bistro chain Côte opened this week just down the road from The Editor and I on the Upper High Street, Winchester. We popped in to try their £9.95 lunch menu and we quite, no, I would go as far as rather[ref]Is not both the general lack of meaningful nuance in the English language simultaneously delightful and vastly infuriating?[/ref], enjoyed the experience. Not everything was perfect, but by my hairy bum it was incomparably more enjoyable than dining in any branch of Côte in the grotty, overcrowded cesspit that is London.
As soon as we entered a member of staff greeted us – no waiting around for one of the over-worked, diminutive number of employees to notice you. Our waitress was relaxed and friendly too! An hour by train from Waterloo is clearly a very long distance, psychologically as well as physically.
We were shown to a table in the upstairs dining room which was tastefully decorated (assuming Hessian wallpaper is back in) and with tables a comfortable distance apart. There was no danger that when I put my backpack on the floor, Toast the teddy bear (who was inside; for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-reasons, you understand) would get kicked or trampled on by the people sitting at the satisfyingly distant table next to us.
Côte Winchester had background music playing, something I loathe as I do not want to be drowned out when discussing matters philosophical. However, it seemed we suffered more than the other diners as the only speaker we could see in the whole dining room was directly above our heads. Conversely, the air conditioning/heating system, a vent of which we were also sat next to, was expensive enough to work with silence and precision and kept the room at a most agreeable temperature even as the dining room filled up during the course of our meal.
And the course of Côte Winchester’s meal is definitely worthy of praise. Staff took orders in good time, served and cleared empty plates with no huge London waits – because there were enough staff, people cannot afford to have enough staff in London establishments – drinks and secondary drinks orders were taken and served promptly. We were in and out of Côte Winchester, having had a two course meal of reasonable size in forty minutes! If I had a real job, rather than writing childish jokes at a computer three feet from my bed, that would be a godsend!
So, what about the meal? We chose Côte Winchester’s two course lunch menu for just under a tenner (+ a £2 surcharge for the steak frites we both wanted as a main course) – who would not want steak frites when first evaluating a bistro?
My Egg Florentine starter had a nicely flavoured, well-poached egg and a slathering of rather good homemade Hollandaise sauce, which would have been even better if there had been a few more slatherings of. These were well presented on a bed of cooked spinach and a toasted muffin. The muffin was rather good and even gave a bit of a carbohydrate buzz. Alas, there was far too much spinach which seemed to have been steamed for hours giving it a strong and not particularly pleasant taste. It let what was otherwise a pretty good starter down as far as the half of it that The Editor ate. Devilish cunning on my part manoeuvred the majority of the grim spinach over to his half so I suffered less from its unsavoury and carcinogenic nature (from its natural toxins, and nothing at all to do with Cote Winchester ).
The Editor’s starter was excellent: a nice thick slice of duck liver, chicken liver and pork terrine, with a couple of slices of chargrilled sourdough bread and a small salad. I shall get the truly shocking thing out the way first: Cote Winchester made a really good salad! Well dressed, unfridged, not wilted parsley with a spinkling of tiny white onion rings, capers and cornichons. Quite a surprise, I must say! The best salad we have had outside a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. The terrine was rather good, with enough chicken and duck liver flavours supported by fatty porkiness. I lapped up my allotted half in double quick time!
I worried about the steak frites, and had trouble sleeping the night before. Cote Winchester’s menu describes it as “chargrilled thinly beaten out minute steak (served pink)”. If anyone asked me to recommend what to do with minute steak, I would point towards the bin. I suppose, at a stretch I would use it for sandwiched or a stir-fry, but there would be a lot of whining, long faces and generally irked moods. Good god, Côte Winchester opened my eyes to what can be done with minute steak! It was quite large, about 6 to 7mm thick, obviously chargrilled on a petrifyingly hot grill pan for seconds per side, pink in the middle and quite, quite tasty! The meat was of high quality and skilfully cooked so there was absolutely no need for the token amount of garlic butter that was on it. The steak was so good that we did not feel at all affronted by such continental foppishness. After all, it is a ‘French’ bistro.
Sadly, the frites were pretty awful even by British standards, we felt no urge to eat many of them. They might have been slightly better had the kitchen not tried to fit about twice as many as could fit into the ludicrously undersized metal pot they were served. What a shame when the steak was rather good.
Do not read the wine list unless you love horror stories. There are a few properly drinkable Champagnes at vaguely reasonable prices, but everything else was effluent priced for the ignorant affluent. Mercifully they had some decent beers and even a good Breton cidre on offer. I had two Meteor beers for three coins each and felt well pleased.
All in all, even with the trauma of the frites and the (possibly) toxic spinach, we had a remarkably jolly time at Côte. The meal was good value, even with the ‘optional’ 12.5% service charge. Despite the restaurant getting quite busy the atmosphere remained pleasant and not at all noisy (the background music excepted, which on the few occasions I allowed it to penetrate my consciousness I must admit was not bad) and the staff were delightfully charming and efficient.
We got back home before the cat had even realised we had gone out. We will go back soon to try their breakfasts, which sound like they take some effort over. Dani has already obtained an exclusive breakfast club silver croissant key-ring, which entitles us to free hot drinks. Hopefully we will succeed at power ordering Steak Tartare, which has inexplicably been omitted from their breakfast menu.
I have no hesitation in suggesting you pop into Côte when you are next near Upper High Street in Winchester, whatever the time of day. I am sure they will provide you with an enjoyable meal and great service at a reasonable price.