Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Laura Rowe and olive reader Sue Stevenson compare notes on Salt, Stratford-upon-Avon
It was a crowd-funding campaign, set up last year, that enabled chef Paul Foster to open his debut restaurant, Salt, on Stratford-upon-Avon’s Church Street. He’s worked at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and as head chef at Mallory Court in Warwickshire over the course of a career that began in his teens. Paul describes his style of cooking as modern British with an emphasis on wild, seasonal ingredients and purity of flavour.
Salt is more relaxed than your average fine-dining restaurant, with a lively back room that offers views of the kitchen. Both the seven-course tasting menu and à la carte prioritise meat and fish. Vegetables do sing here (charred Hispi cabbage served with cod and a jerusalem artichoke purée with pork cheek are highlights), but as accompaniments rather than dishes in their own right. For dessert, expect innovations such as goat’s milk ice with lime zest, and milk chocolate aero with banana toffee and brown butter ice cream.
Our pro says…
With a £57 tasting menu, and £37 for the three-course à la carte, the prices at Salt might make Stratford locals wince. There are no starched white tablecloths or crystal chandeliers, after all: but this is what chef patron Paul Foster calls modern, relaxed fine dining. *I might have been recognised.
The dining room’s divided into two – a wooden-clad, cold and slightly soulless front, and an intimate, lively back room which feels like a big chef’s table thanks to the peep-through kitchen pass. There are cute details, such as recycled wine bottles for light fittings, but you might expect such after the whopping £100k-plus crowdfunding chef raised via Kickstarter to open.
Dinner starts with crackled little buns, as bouncy as the enthusiastic young staff that buzz round us, pats of cultured Jersey milk butter made in nearby Oxford and, of course, huge flakes of salt. We’re told that the bread is made with yeast that chef’s been nurturing for four-and-half years: it’s incredibly light and full of flavour.
Crispy pork belly is a vision in beige – a porky slab of caramelized meat is joined by jerusalem artichoke purée and delicate slices of pickled mushrooms – earthy, seasonal and balanced.
A main of lamb is excellent. Rump, flushing pink, and bordered by crisp, golden fat is joined by shoulder glazed in miso, showing the variety of textures and flavours this kitchen can muster from one animal; while a barley risotto with a umami cloud of finely grated, locally made Berkswell (a ewe’s milk cheese, fittingly) gave it a sense of place, as well as a delicious nuttiness.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the Hispi cabbage, joined by roasted cod, tiny beech mushrooms and a brown butter sauce that was the star of the night. Tender, buttery, “meaty!” even, said my sidekick. Chocolate tart with goat’s milk ‘ice’ and lime zest was faultless, too – crisp, chocolaty pastry, smooth and glossy ganache. Top marks, chef.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Stratford-upon-Avon should be rejoicing that Paul Foster has decided to stick around his home county for his debut restaurant. It’s everything a great, modern British restaurant should be – of its surrounds, of the seasons, and surprising. Just expect to pay for all of that.
Total for two, excluding service:: £113
Our punter says…
We received a warm welcome and were seated at the front of the restaurant (Salt is split into two seating areas). Our waitress didn’t hesitate when it came to either food or wine recommendations. She assured us that the meat was local and sourced by butchers Aubrey Allen and she even mentioned the crockery (supplied by a local potter).
The menu wasn’t overcrowded. Little pots of bread were enthusiastically introduced – apparently chef took six years to perfect the recipe. Slow-cooked salmon, mussel sauce and shaved fennel was fresh in taste and crisp in texture, but the salmon was raw. Although the description was a little misleading in this regard, it nevertheless tasted delicious. A bite-sized taste of the BBQ brisket was succulent and flavoursome with a note of smokiness.
Lamb rump, miso-glazed shoulder, seed and grain risotto and Berkswell cheese was delicately pink, tender and left me wanting more. The risotto itself was firm and creamy – all the flavours were identifiable, complementary and interesting to the palate.
Roast cod, Hispi cabbage, seaweed and brown butter sauce was sublime – it was impossible to decide which was better, the fish or the cabbage. An ode to vegetables, but if you don’t eat meat or fish you would find little to enjoy on this menu.
Desserts were limited. Either rhubarb, which lacked flavour and didn’t live up to its appearance, or chocolate textures. The chocolate was waxy and vied for flavour with the coldness of the ice cream. For me, chocolate is best when it’s beginning to melt. Scanty slices of three lovely British cheeses were served with some slices of lavoche (crispbread) – its texture was a little unforgiving and it dwarfed the cheese on the plate but went well with a pleasant but not overly sweet dessert wine.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Delicious main courses and professional staff made eating at Salt a pleasant experience. But the seating arrangement (we felt detached from the main restaurant in the back room) was unfortunate and the background music irritating. The food, though, was very good.