Black Rat

88 Chesil Street, Winchester, England, SO23 0HX, United Kingdom

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The Black Rat has been open for over five years, in a building on the outskirts of Winchester. The head chef until April 2012 was Chris Bailey, who had worked previously at Browns and Chez Bruce. He then moved to Brighton, and the chef that took over was his previous sous chef Jamie Stapleton-Burns, who has cooked at The Ivy and Mossimans. The décor is rather unusual. Calling a restaurant after a rodent is a bold move; though it had a perfect five stars in the “scores on the doors” hygiene ratings at the time of writing this review. However the anatomical drawings of human body parts on the walls may not be to everyone’s taste, and the tables are remarkably crude; an estate agent would call them “rustic”, as were the chairs. There were no tablecloths, but white linen napkins were of good quality. Lighting was gloomy, hence the matching photos; fifty diners can be seated at any one time in the single upstairs and two ground floor dining rooms. The menu is fairly classical in style, with starters priced from £8.25 to £9.25, main courses £18.75 to £21.95, desserts £7.25 to £7.75 and coffee at £3.50 for a double espresso.

The wine list was quite short, with well under 100 bottles, ranging in price from £19.50 to £294, with a median mark-up level of 2.7 times retail price, which is fair by restaurant standards. Example wines include Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2011 at £32 for a wine that you can find in the high street for a tenner, Vosne Romanée ‘Vieilles Vignes’ Domaine Vincent Girardin 2009 at £115 for a wine that retails at £30, and Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Domaine Vincent Girardin 2006 at a much kinder £116 for a wine that will set you back £66 to buy. Mineral water was a chunky £4.50 a bottle.

There were no nibbles, but bread was made from scratch, a choice of either sourdough, which I found rather chewy, or good soda bread, though the best bread was potato and fennel focaccia, which had good texture (15/20 bread on average). Pear salad featured poached pears, watercress, Caerphilly cheese croquettes, a chestnut dressing, and frisee lettuce and rye croutons. The salad was nicely presented, the croquettes nicely balanced by the acidity of the pears, though the croutons were rather hard (14/20).

I enjoyed my quail with Scotch egg made with Middlewhite pork, served with a brassica salad; the quail was carefully cooked, the meat of good quality, and the salad leaves unusual but an effective foil for the richness of the meat (15/20). Mushroom risotto featured a mix of girolles and ceps, with balsamic jelly, garlic and butter and Parmesan crisps. The risotto was reasonable, though the stock that it was made from could have had greater intensity of flavour, and the Parmesan crisps were, er, not (14/20). I preferred Iberico pork, served with hazelnut polenta, cider-smoked kohlrabi and hay-smoked apple. It takes ability to make polenta edible, as it was here, and the smoking was not overdone; the pork was also of good quality (15/20). Panna cotta had reasonable texture but the dish suffered from tasteless plums, though a plum granita had good texture (14/20 if I am kind). Pressed apple terrine was served with blackberry jam, doughnuts and blackberry and Sambuca sorbet. The pressed apple was fine but the doughnuts were distinctly soggy in texture (13/20). Coffee was rather bitter.

The bill came to £97 a head with a pleasant bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir and a half bottle of de Bortoli Noble One between us. When reviewing I do not score the service, partly because service is to some extent a matter of personal taste, and also because it will vary from night to night and waiter to waiter more widely than the food will, or at least should. Hence I usually mention the service only fleetingly in restaurants that I review, but will make an exception in this case. The waitresses were friendly enough, but at every course (and at each table) there was a “who ordered what?” question when the food arrived, which I find inexcusable in anything classier than a fast food joint, let alone a restaurant holding a Michelin star. Worse, I had to ask three times for the bill, and the one minor substitution in one dish that we requested was ignored. At the end when the manager asked us how the evening was we suggested that remembering the order would be an improvement, at which point he became quite defensive and said that it was a “deliberately relaxed style” of service. I beg to differ; relaxed is fine, but ignoring customer requests is incompetent. The simple guesthouse in Winchester where we stayed that night successfully delivered our breakfast order to the correct diner, as can most basic high street restaurant chains. At this price point such sloppiness is unacceptable, and detracted from our enjoyment of the evening. This was a pity, as the kitchen team is clearly working hard and delivering generally very good food, but their customer’s overall experience here is being let down by the inept service.

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