Once dismissed as God’s waiting room, Bournemouth has come a long way in recent years. Sitting on the Dorset coast with award-winning sandy beaches, and sandwiched between the dramatic Jurassic coast and the tranquility of the New Forest, it strikes a fine balance between town and country. But while Bournemouth seems like the perfect setting and has an affluent population, to say it has been lacking in restaurant options would be kind, you’d have to venture further out of town to find good food.
With the opening of the shiny new Hilton hotel though, the town is hoping that that’s set to change. Head up to the LEVEL8IGHT Sky Bar when you first arrive which has the look of a smart London hotel bar and a cocktail list to match. It was packed on a Saturday night, full of hot young things splashing the cash and looking to impress. Table service was swift and waitresses were on-hand to offer suggestions – try the samphire and sea lavender martini; slightly salty samphire-infused gin with sharp grapefruit and floral lavender made super silky with egg white.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite with an aperitif, head back downstairs to Schpoons & Forx (yes, I know, stay with me), where award-winning chef Matt Tebbutt is at the helm in the open-plan kitchen having closed his Abergavenny gastropub Foxhunter last year. It’s a big, light space with a modern mix of bare wood and black gloss table tops, cosy booths for larger groups, accent geometric tiling, and clever nods to the name (think cutlery bouquets). Order a selection of snacks while you peruse the menu, particularly the meltingly-soft Dorset charcuterie and grilled local oysters served with a rich garlic and herb butter and deeply savoury parmesan, playing off well against those saline morsels. There’s a succinct wine list that includes all the usual, crowd-pleasing suspects, but there are also more interesting bottles of riesling and valpolicella for those looking for something a bit more challenging.
To start, we went for tandoor-roasted mackerel which was skilfully cooked with crisp skin and served with a herby chermoula marinade. Slow-cooked pig’s cheek, our other starter, wasn’t at the same level – cheek should be so soft you can eat it with a spoon, but this was tough and served with disappointedly gloopy mash.
Mains are split into tandoori, clay oven and chargrill for one, which include steaks and whole roasted poussin, or sharing plates for two, from which we chose roasted Creedy Carver duck – beautifully pink and served with mildly bitter chicory, celeriac and tangy pickled walnut salad, which worked well to offset the rich meat. The portion is generous, even for two, so go easy on the sides which include sautéed spinach with just the rich amount of cream to make it luxurious but not sweet, and fluffy, creamy mash – go for this over the duck fat ‘scraps’ which we were expecting to be super-crisp but were chunky, Jenga-style blocks of potato, a little underdone in the centre.
There’s something to please everyone on the dessert menu, including classics like crème brûlée and chocolate tart. We couldn’t resist the retro appeal of the rum baba, a fluffy sponge swimming in a boozy rum sauce with raisins, and banana tart, caramel sauce and amaretto. Both had great flavours and the pastry base of the tart was wonderfully crisp and flaky, but both were very sweet and halfway through the huge portions, became too sickly to finish.
There are some teething problems here, and it was surprisingly quiet on a Saturday night, which affected the atmosphere of such a large room, but there are some good dishes on the menu that demonstrate great technique, and we’re sure that, given a bit more time to bed in, this will become a new staple of the Bournemouth dining scene.
Starters from £8, mains from £13.50. hilton.com/en
Written by Sarah Kingsbury, March 2016
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