John Lennon was wrong. ‘Life’ isn’t what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Kids are. It was ok for him – Julian and Sean were 12 years apart. If they’d been five and three he’d never have got round to writing ‘Imagine,’ and if he had it would just have been a plea for silence.
I’m not asking for sympathy. My wife and are in the same boat as most parents of little ones, now looking with bemused awe at those who have decided to extend their brood from two to three because there’s no way we would. Indeed, to that end, I spent last Monday having a gentlemen rearrange my nether piping to prevent such an occurence in a manner which could best be described as impertinent, at worst as f**king agony.
All you can expect/fervently hope/pray for is the odd bout of respite. Of course they are the most wonderful things in our world, but as any parent will tell you, they’re also the most demanding, exasperating and exhausting. You dream of a break. And so we had planned one. A few weeks back, my brother and sister-in-law had agreed to come to the house for the weekend, while we had booked a couple of nights at a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, tickets to the RSC and a restaurant reservation.
Of course, on the Tuesday night, my daughter presented herself in our bedroom, told us she had ‘an itchy spot’ and sure enough, the hotel was unbooked, the restaurant cancelled and the tickets refunded. She was home from school with chicken pox for a week, before half term kicked in. Eventually they both went back to school. Then my son got it. If this was a text I would be putting a scream emoji right here.
Fast forward a month or two, the in-laws can spare us one night, as can the hotel, there’s no play at the theatre and any idea of a romantic getaway has been somewhat undermined by the fact a very bad man has cauterised both my testicles. That didn’t matter. We had to go.
Apart from the chance to spend a glorious seventeen hour break with my better half, the one real advantage of all this was that the restaurant I had originally failed to book for our aborted first trip was now available. And the lack of anything else to do in Stratford-upon-Avon that night meant we had time to do the tasting menu. Such stuff as dreams are made on.
The Woodsman is part of the Hotel Indigo in the middle of town, set inside one of those wooden-beamed Tudor buildings one feels almost certain you could sell to the right sort of American. All kinds of twisty boughs, open fires and a kind of olde-worlde real ale vibe that would be oppressive if it wasn’t so comforting. I even thought the stuffed deer in the dog basket by the fire was alive for goodness sake. But the restaurant itself was a genuinely handsome affair which felt both modern and in keeping with its surroundings. Not only was it pleasingly spacious, I think it may have won an award before we started for the comfiest restaurant chairs I have ever had the pleasure of sitting in.
The website describes it as a ‘truly British restaurant’ and what only a few short years ago might have been seen as the apotheosis of rudeness is in fact a ringing endorsement of a really lovely place to have dinner. My only criticism is not really a criticism – a tasting menu often feels more like a chance for a chef to show off, almost a ‘concept’ in itself. Here, it seemed more like a good way to try all the dishes on the menu we quite liked the look of.
Two really superb breads with a creamy saltless and nuttier caramelised butter got us off to a winning start, before an amuse bouche of chicken parfait in a small choux bun which, to be honest felt it was there more because there should be an amused bouche on a tasting menu than because it needed to be. It was fine. But what The Woodsman does really well are good flavours and top ingredients neatly presented with a simplicity that belies the skill on display.
Dishes came thick and fast, as you would hope – a nicely dressed and crunchy Jerusalem artichoke salad spiked with pickled mushroom, endive followed by a delightful little square of porkbelly punched up with crackling, apple celeriac and smoked eel.
I’d polished off my Cornish skate wing with roast cauliflower, romanescu and brown shrimp while my wife was still struggling with hers as it rather fell apart – possibly due to some mysterious mistake in the fish butchery – but both tasted marvellous. My highlight was the next dish – fallow deer with hazelnut, pear and roast parsnip with a bolognaise of its own neck and grated dark chocolate. Not only was this exactly the sort of venison dish that makes you want to head into the woods to grapple your own dinner to the ground, it also seemed designed to match the rather lovely Los Haroldas Malbec I’d just ordered.
A delightfully light white chocolate tartlette with blood orange granita and a little spike of tarragon was exactly the sort of palate cleanser the little choux bun probably didn’t get on with at school, and a perfect prelude to a superb disc of vanilla rice pudding with rhubarb and ginger beer – my wife’s favourite dish and a close second for me. I’d moved on to a glass of white Rioja by this point, which they didn’t charge me for as I’d asked for a small and they bought a large, which makes it pretty hard to think of a better way to describe just how much I liked the service. It’s worth giving a shout out here for how seamlessly they handled my wife’s request to avoid alcohol in her food. Some restaurants seem to view this as an imposition, here it was clearly just viewed as a preference.
All told, the bill came in just shy of £200 which is certainly not cheap, until you consider we hadn’t had to pay for babysitters, theatre tickets or one more night at the hotel. We toddled happily back to our hotel (OK, I limped,) for a filthy night of pure, unbridled sleep. I’m sure I could find some appropriate Shakespearean quote to sign off with, but as we didn’t get to the theatre that somehow feels inappropriate. Perhaps I should end where I began by misquoting another great English bard. I thought I might go with ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, but in the end, as we all know, happiness is a warm…meal.