Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Bye Bye Blogspot

After much deliberation, I think it's time to officially call it a day on this blog. Let's face it, I've not written anything on here since April. I'd hardly noticed, and I'm sure you hadn't either.

What initially started out as a webpage to post pictures of my paintings post-uni, it somehow turned into this 'thing'. I wasn't sure what I was doing - I still don't - but it was a platform for me to share my love of food and drink and some of the places I like to go to. It was sincere, there were no expectations of me, I was doing it for myself and didn't care if anyone actually read it or not. Things have changed.

For the past year or two, the only posts I've done have been for meals comped by restaurants and PR companies in exchange for a review. That's not to say that I only ever go out on a freebie - there's a reason I'm always in my overdraft you know! It's clever marketing; the power of bloggers and influencers has boomed, and although I take part, it's just not how I started out.

I remember the first time I was invited to a restaurant in order to review it. I was naïve, spending far too much time trying to write the best thing I could in order to justify my free meal... Only to then realise that multiple other bloggers went to the same place that month, ate the same things that I did, basically having the exact same content. In essence, you end up getting the same blog post over and over again, each with a different person's "voice" on it.

Meat And One Veg Blog wrote about it recently in a post entitled 'Why I am not accepting any more free meals'. Fair play, that's a bold move, and there are quite a few things he says which strike true with me (and I'm sure many others too). "Looking back I can clearly see on a few occasions that I have been too generous with my opinion. Occasionally I have chosen to miss off dishes that may not have been very good; embellish others that were average." We're expected to write something good about a place because they've invited, fed, and sometimes even watered us for free.

Despite having that niggle that I may be selling my soul to the digital devil, I'm not about to rule these opportunities out completely. Bloggers can be a great tool for places to boost interest, and as Lewis Loves said in a post, "Sometimes these businesses are savvy enough to market their own brand and don’t need much help, although they are almost always glad of the continued support. However, for every King and Queen of the Retweets, there are many more small businesses who have something really special but can’t seem to get the message out there. We like to champion them to as many people as we can..."  

It's all about Social Media these days, and for me that no longer feels like my Blogspot page, Instagram has basically made it redundant. I don't have enough time or energy to write lengthy posts any more - other people seem to do it much better and more frequently than I ever could - so with the instant visual appeal of Instagram, it just makes sense to focus my efforts there. I'm sure half the people who clicked on my blogpost links only looked at the photos anyway.

It's not just the app to add a nice filter on your photos any more, it's a global guidebook with geotags and hashtags galore. It's 100% my go-to reference when looking to go out for dinner; photos with informative captions can tell you a lot more about a place than a TripAdvisor review from someone whose personal preference may well be Wetherspoons Curry Club on a Thursday.

That said, it's also full of clever promos, ads and sponsored posts, which give a false sense of reality and unhealthy ideals (the Scarlett London Listerine shebang going on right now for example). You'd be a mug to believe everything you see online. I might post every #WineWednesday, but 9 times out of 10 I'm not drinking that wine on that Wednesday.

But back to the point. Despite my decision to stop blogging and just use Instagram, I won't be changing anything that I'm currently doing. My feed is already mostly food and drink I've paid for at places I've chosen to go to, but if I do get comped a meal, I'll be transparent about that (as well as making sure I stick to my rule of tipping and buying beverages). Sure you can support local by promoting those local places, but you can also support them by spending your pennies there.

I'm not a business and I'm not a brand; I won't be asking you to double tap my posts if you like the look of something in order to gain likes and followers. I'm a person, and as my profile quite simply says: "Cheltenham dweller. Lover of all things food and drink."

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Ivy Montpellier Brasserie, Cheltenham

https://theivycheltenhambrasserie.com/ The Ivy Montpellier Brasserie certainly needs no introduction. It's the snazzy big name that arrived to town just in time for Christmas, the place that was fully booked before it had even opened its doors, and the place that dominated all the local social media channels... Admittedly, I joined the bandwagon too.

But whilst the hype of the new begins to fade, and booking a table becomes a lot easier, I thought I'd share my thoughts and experiences (especially after an article by Gloucestershire Live on their Trip Advisor reviews... Slow news day perhaps?).

The former Lloyds Bank building has had more than a little spruce up, and it now feels as though it has found its purpose. Of course they've gone down the Cheltenham horse racing route - some of it tasteful, some of it too much - but overall, they've spent enough on it to ensure it oozes elegance.

The dome and the central circular bar really is a thing of beauty. This is where you want to be seated, and I've felt a little disappointed on the times where I've been ushered elsewhere. Fine in the daytime, when you can look out during your leisurely lunch to people watch, but come the evening, you miss out on the theatre of the bar. And that's worth noting; The Ivy does all day dining. None of this kitchen closure at 3pm that catches me out every time everywhere else. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, and as far as I can see, there's no weakest link.

The menu is extensive, with a mix of classic dishes - fish and chips, steaks, burgers - alongside ones with more of an Eastern influence - spot ingredients like ponzu, miso, wasabi and yuzu. Enough choice for the fussiest eaters, and plenty for those who'd like something fancier. Grilled whole lobster?... The food won't blow you away, but that's not what you come here for. You go to Michelin Star places for that. Instead, it's familiar, well executed, and consistently good.

The a la carte has gone through a seasonal change in the past month; the Atlantic Sea Scallops (£11.95) no longer comes with truffle risoni, parmesan, black truffle and sweet potato crisps - shame, it was a winner - but now a lighter spring time combination of pea purée with broad beans, lemon zest, sea cress and crispy shallots. The Soft Goats Cheese Salad (£6.50) with shaved apple with golden raisins, hazelnuts, pickled walnuts and Belgian endive has replaced the festive Stilton and cranberry version. And asparagus now features in many dishes.

The Ivy has a lot of main-stayers though; the dishes that do so well that they'll never be taken off the menu. The Steak Sandwich "French Dip" (£13.50) packed full of rare roast beef, with a rich Burgundy sauce and thick cut chips is a great shout for lunch. The Steak Tartare (£9.25) is also excellent, seasoned with Tabasco dressing, cornichons, shallots, parsley, and topped off with an egg yolk. And although I feared that the thinly beaten rump steak as part of the Steak, Egg & Chips (£14.50) was going to be tough and over-cooked, it was full of flavour and just as juicy as any other steak. Significantly cheaper too.

The Crispy Duck Salad (£7.95) features on the original Ivy London menu; warm crispy duck with five spice dressing, toasted cashews, watermelon, beansprouts, coriander and ginger. A very delicious thing it is too. And The Ivy Shepherd's Pie (£13.75) is legendary across the board. Slow-braised lamb shoulder with beef and Wookey Hole Cheddar potato mash; rich and comforting.

Before I forget, don't ignore the snacks. The Truffle Arancini (£5.50) are just as addictive as they are piping hot when they come fresh from the kitchen. And the mountain of Zucchini Fritti - courgette fries with lemon, chilli and mint yoghurt - could feed an army; a steal for £5.75.

On my last visit, I tried their Smoked Salmon & Crab starter (£11.50). The most rectangular pieces of salmon known to man, with a small amount of crab and dill cream and rye soda bread. Predictably "nice" but probably a poor choice on my front... Though not as poor as tuna "special" I had when they first opened. Not special at all as it turned out. We'll pretend that never happened.

My main of Roast Half Chicken (£14.95) was more than redeeming. Off the bone and flattened, with the best kind of crispy, crackling skin. A smattering of gremolata - could have done with more - and a few watercress stems - again, more - were a pleasant touch, but it was the generous helping of rosemary jus that really made it. A side of Baked Sweet Potato (£3.75) with harissa yoghurt and mint and coriander dressing was lovely, though Olive Oil Mashed Potato (£3.50) or Truffle and Parmesan Chips (£4.50) would've probably been better suited, if only to help mop up all that gravy. 

The desserts have it all; creamy, fruity, chocolatey, and a couple of options for each. Frozen Berries (£6.95) with warm white chocolate sauce for the more health conscious, melting Chocolate Bombe (£8.50) for everyone else. Watch as the hot salted caramel sauce collapses the chocolate dome, revealing a vanilla ice cream and honeycomb centre; showy, but not as showy as the Apple Tart Fine (£7.95), which gets its own Calvados flambé (and is the best of the bunch in my eyes).

The Lemon Meringue Alaska (£7.25) is also delicious; baked meringue with a tart lemon ice cream, lemon curd sauce and baby basil. It's a decent size too, so could easily be shared if you can't fully commit to dessert. But if you truly are stuffed to the gills, yet still want something sweet, I'd suggest going with the Salted Caramel Espresso Martini (£8.00). If nothing else, it'll give you a caffeine kick to help get you up and out of the door. 

Cocktails are pretty nice at The Ivy. My go-to is the Angel’s Share (£9.50), a long Mojito style drink that combines kumquats and kaffir lime leaves with Havana rum. Super refreshing. The Royale (£10.25) - their take on a Kir Royale - is a fine pre-dinner drink too; Champagne with a slug of Sipsmith sloe gin, Briottet Rose liqueur and hibiscus. However, if you want drama - of course you do - the Cotswold Passion (£10.25) comes complete with half a flaming passion fruit.

The wine list is maybe not quite as exciting though. There's plenty to choose from - sure - but a lot of them have a big mark up and quite a hefty price tag. Not unusual to be fair. And that said, I think we almost drank them out of Mosel Riesling on one occasion, slipped down very easily at £37 a pop. The Sicilian Frappato is a tasty red for £31 too. I just wish they'd leave the wines on the table; I don't want my wine in an ice bucket on the other side of the room. It's faffy having someone come and top up your glass every few sips, and it makes it really difficult to know how much you've had or how much you have left.

Which brings me to service. That's what The Ivy prides itself on. Here, I've had service so charming that I've gladly paid the 12.5% charge they whack on. Though on the flipside, I've had service so awkward and clunky that I've asked for it to be taken off (I hate being that person). I guess no one can be on their A-Game every single day, and with a restaurant with well over 100 covers, it must be tricky to juggle.

There are mixed opinions, there always are, but I think people forget that it is a chain. It's not The Ivy West Street, the iconic 100 year old London restaurant. It is a chain. Yes there are similarities, both in appearances and dishes, but it's just one of a number of grills/brasseries/cafés that have opened up across the country under The Ivy Collection name. 

No matter what anyone says, the Montpellier Brasserie is always going to do well in Cheltenham, isn't it? It'll get (and probably already has got) regular customers that come back week in/week out, its glamour will instantly catch the attention of visitors to the town, it will thrive during race meets, and that bar will forever be Instagrammed.