St Helen’s Restaurant has closed and is now reopened as Dan’s Kitchen. The reviews and comments below refer to the previous owners. M&C will be reviewing the new venue in due course!
St Helen’s Restaurant was first visited by Matt and Cat in 2006, shortly before it was awarded an impressive two AA rosettes. In 2009 it changed hands, and of course as with every restaurant the rosettes are no longer in place, until the new chef earns them. The original 2006 review is at the bottom of the page. Read on to see how the restaurant fared in 2010.
It’s a tough act to take a on a big job immediately after a well-known character has stepped down. Gordon Brown knows all about that – and look how far that got him. So St Helens’ head chef Jason West is a bold man to accept the challenge of measuring up to popular restaurateur Mark Young; who made quite a name for the little place.
As the sun was sinking over the downs, Matt and Cat wandered over the green and ambled into the restaurant soon after it opened for that evening. The venue looked quite the inviting bijou niche eaterie; its clean interior was unchanged with its bright paint and arty seaside prints by local artists. M & C were welcomed and shown to a window table, where they took a look at the menu, which had a short range of simply described but enticing dishes.
Complimentary warmed rolls were offered and eagerly accepted. Matt also had a starter; before long he was eating chicken liver parfait with mango chutney and toasted brioche. He was a little taken aback by the stark presentation of this juxtaposition of ingredients. Neatly arranged, but devoid of any garnish or treatment, this promising-sounding starter turned out to taste as unremarkable as it looked. Matt also noticed with a moue of disapproval that after it was cleared away, the wineglasses were still on the table, although the diners were drinking water, and even the used sideplates for the bread remained in situ. Details, details. But at these prices, details count.
On to the main courses, and Cat’s choice was oven-roasted fillet of beef with rosti potato, roasted shallots, carrots, and jus. Jus, in this case, turned out to be a flavourless but attractive-looking brown gravy, on which an impressively large steak sat atop a rosti. Cat eyed her steak with suspicion, before cutting it open. Although the meat was described as oven roasted, it looked more like grilled or maybe pan-fried. Also, she’d asked for it to be medium, but a brief investigation with her tongue proved the interior of the meaty and still-bloody slab to be cool. This was a blue-rare steak; not at all an unusual way to enjoy a tender fillet, but definitely not the way of the Cat.
The waiter noticed this unusual activity and courteously came over to see if all was well, and Cat asked for a bit more heat to be applied to the steak. The St Helen’s dealt well with Cat’s request, and within a few moments M&C heard a loud sizzling in the kitchen. Soon the steak was whisked back to Cat, piping hot and just as she had requested. It was an excellent piece of meat, perfectly tender and encircled by tiny carrots. The tangy shallot was particularly tasty in comparison with the understated flavour of the rest. However, like a 1970s BBC TV production, the dish was all just a bit too brown.
Matt, in a echo of his choice at his 2006 visit, chose slow-cooked belly of pork with grain mustard mash, cabbage, crackling and black pudding. A neatly-piled stack of food arrived, anointed with that same brown gravy. Matt disassembled it and dug in. The mash was a creamy, tasty treat, full of mustard and a real complement to the meat. Sadly, this proved to be the only element of the dish which managed to rise above blandness. Even the crackling, whilst pleasingly crunchy, seemed somehow to have been created without the use of salt. Healthier, maybe, but this is crackling we are talking about here: it’s a polite version of porky scratchings. The pork itself and even the black pudding just seemed somehow flavourless. The mustard mash just wasn’t enough. Pork is a tricky meat – it always demands a powerful seasoning to go alongside it: something acidic, such as fruit, to cut through its fatty texture; or maybe something sweet, such as honey, to complement the flavour. St Helen’s offered neither of these – and they probably should have.
Chicken liver parfait £5.00
Belly pork £12.00
Fillet of beef: £19.95
Dessert time, and Cat was taken with the sound of griotte cherry cheesecake with kirsch and crushed ginger biscuits. This came in a big glass, with the fluffy mixture underneath a layer of gingery crumbs. It looked very impressive, and little hints of fruit could be seen lurking within. Could the puddings redeem this insipid meal? Sadly not. Like the previous courses, this well-presented item simply did not measure up when tasted. The ginger biscuit was mild; the cheesecake mix was creamy and light, but tasted of nothing in particular – certainly no kirsch could be discerned. And the cherry fragments were tiny and added nothing. Cat, unusually, simply gave up half-way through her dessert, remarking that she had ‘got bored’ of it and dismissing it as empty calories. Certainly there was nothing wrong with it – as Matt proved by finishing it off – it was just dull. Matt’s own pudding was rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream. He was going to describe it, but just bringing it to mind induced such torpor in him that he dropped off to sleep at the keyboard. You’ll have to imagine it yourself.
There was nothing particularly wrong with it with Matt and Cat’s dinner, but equally there was nothing to make it notable. So, to rescue this meal from mediocrity what St Helens Restaurant really needed was something sensational, some memorable coup to make it really stand out in your reviewers’ minds. And, right at the last moment, it managed to do so, with the production of the bill. Yes, that was memorable alright. For two people, with no wine, nearly fifty pounds was a bit steep. This might have been worth the money had the two AA rosettes still adorned the door: but they didn’t, and it wasn’t.
Brown is the new black, gardening is the new sex, and gastro eating is the new nouvelle cuisine; welcome to the noughties. St Helens Restaurant, in the pretty village of (yup, you guessed) St Helens, has embraced this new metro-styling to create a fashionable and very popular venue.
Appearance is nearly everything, and St Helens Restaurant comes up trumps with its cool interior; pale wood flooring and white walls offering a pleasingly neutral backdrop to the splashes of colour provided by the locally painted seascapes on the walls.
Matt and Cat were lucky to get a table at short notice due to a last-minute cancellation but, dear readers, be advised that booking at this small and well-patronised restaurant is essential at all times.
Once seated, Matt and Cat’s party was given menus and had the specials explained, which was a nice touch. There were some mouth-watering dishes to choose from and, impressively, local provenance ingredients were identified. Matt and Cat were pleased to see meat from local farms and locally caught fish on the bill of fare. The good value too, caught the eye – mainland style, perhaps, but not mainland prices.
There was a good selection of starters; Matt chose slow-cooked belly of pork with apple and ginger sauce. Cat decided to save herself for the main course and declined a starter, but did not go hungry as a complementary platter of Italian bread with a dish of olive oil and vinegar was produced, to be grazed during the short wait.
Matt’s pork was beautifully tender, the sauce was subtly spicy and the dish was accompanied by a small serving of rocket leaves drizzled with balsamic vinegar. A delicious combination of interesting flavours. There was even enough for Cat to have a little taster; she declared the pork ‘lovely’.
Although tempted by the Dover sole, pigeon and pheasant dishes, Cat selected Brownrigg chicken with leek and steamed French beans. As anticipated, the chicken, with its creamy sauce, melted in the mouth. The al dente French beans added colour. The meat was daintily served on a patty of leek and potato.
Matt had a Godshill Park Farm Aberdeen Angus Sirloin steak served with tangy peppered mushroom, grilled tomato, a small salad and, as the menu proclaimed, ‘proper’ chips. Were they, perhaps, an alternative to improper ones? The generous slice of steak had a great flavour and good texture without any stringiness: reminding Matt that it’s worth paying the premium for quality meat.
Very pleased with their food thus far, Matt and Cat’s eyes were drawn by the waiter to the dessert menu. Again, a tempting range was on offer including chocolate torte with almond and pistachio ice cream, and plum frangipane with brown sugar ice cream. Cat dithered over the selection and eventually opted for plum and apple crumble with vanilla ice cream. Matt had no such difficulty as, having a glass of delightful Concha y Toro Chilean Merlot to finish, he chose to accompany it with a selection of English cheeses.
The crumble was piping hot, having obviously just come out of the oven. The topping was lovely and crunchy and the fruit very tasty. Matt’s small but carefully served cheese selection included Stilton and smoked cheddar, with a rich chutney, freshly cut apple and celery alongside a warm sliced walnut loaf – this sounds odd but really was an interesting and enjoyable accompaniment to cheese.
For the entire time that Matt and Cat were in the restaurant it was busy with lively Christmas parties. Some of the other patrons were clearly regulars and were greeted by the chef, no less. The atmosphere was loud, cheerful and very enjoyable – although perhaps this might not always be the place for an intimate conversation.
St Helens Restaurant has a well-deserved good reputation. The food is outstanding, and the restaurant achieves a commendable emphasis on local produce whilst still presenting an interesting and varied menu at sensible prices. Matt and Cat are very happy to endorse it.
St Helens Restaurant