All week I've been hankering for a good restaurant to review; somewhere I'd never been before, somewhere a little chic, and somewhere which does pretty excellent British food. Well, I couldn't exactly Google all that.
I'd already planned to take the lovely Mother to 78 Derngate right here in Northampton; the interiors of which were designed by her favourite, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Out of ease and sheer laziness we decided to try out lunch in the adjoining restaurant, The Dining Room.
Now I wasn't expecting to review The Dining Room; we were going to have a pedestrian sandwich or salad of some kind before sauntering off around a museum. I was planning to go there for convenience, not pleasure.
But it was an unexpected gem. And unwillingly was everything I'd been looking for.
The restaurant itself is adorably boutique (for boutique read 'small'); I think there was seating for just over 20 people who have no sense of personal space. The interior was simplistic with white walls and a few choice photographs of the museum next door, but at one end of the room were beautiful bay windows overlooking Becket's Park. And on a warm sunny day, as we had, it was light and airy, and didn't feel in the least bit crowded.
What made the space a little bit more special was the attention to detail. On every table were fresh (real) flowers, crisp linen napkins, and a menu bound in soft leather; it gave you an extra warm feeling of *Oooh*. You could tell that someone really cared about the space, and in turn this gave me a good feeling that they must also really care about the food.
It was undeniably busy; every single table was full (although admittedly not difficult for a room of this size). Booking in advance is my top tip; if we were 10 minutes later I doubt we would have got in. The restaurant is only open to the public for breakfast and lunch (private parties are catered for in the evenings), but those are the kind of limitations that go with being attached to a historic building.
The Dining Room is a two person affair; Rachel in front-of house, and Daniel in the kitchen. And that's it; just the two of them. Now this did slow down the service time, but knowing that it's just the two of them and it is so obviously their labour of love means that you find yourself not caring. The service made up for the delays by being extremely friendly and knowledgeable. Although at one point the front of house looked so frantic I was tempted to jump up and help her.
The menu had a fine selection of teas, coffees, and scrumptious soft drinks by Luscombe's (another top tip: try the Raspberry Lemonade, it was lipsmackingly refreshing). They serve a range of breakfasts up until 11.45am and then a few light bites, ciabatta sandwiches (all £5-£7.50), and a choice of 3 main courses for lunch (all around £8-£10). If you pre-booked you could also have an afternoon tea; all home-made, with one stand of savouries and one of sweets for £16.25 per person. The menu was pleasingly concise and simple, and the main courses were all seasonal and seemed to change regularly. I love a chef who goes with the produce, not against it. Now there was no allergen labelling on the menu, but the front of house knew everything I asked and I trusted her implicitly.
The food was the star of the show; exactly how it should be.
We shared main courses of roast chicken breast in a peppercorn sauce served with cubed potatoes and a mix of savoy cabbage and carrots, and a Mediterranean vegetable and sun-dried tomato frittata served with home-made coleslaw and a side salad. To a larger lady like myself the portion sizes were pleasingly generous; the side salad in particular contained half a cottage garden's worth of lettuce.
For a main course worth £9.95 the presentation was excellent; going with the theme of the entire restaurant there was a real attention to detail. The plates were unfussy but classy and tempting. For one man to do this on his own in a busy peak-time kitchen is really impressive; kudos.
The frittata had been cooked perfectly; the middle was moist and bouncy without the usual problem of dryness, and the crunchy coleslaw complimented it really well. The chicken was also moist and well-cooked on the whole (one end of the breast was a bit dry but it didn't dampen my enjoyment of it one bit), and the peppercorn sauce was so yummy I actually craved for a bit more of it on the side to mop up. The vegetables were cooked on the good side of al dente and the potatoes had delightful crispy edges. Basically I could have happily eaten both dishes every day.
For dessert we were salivating over specials of choux pastry filled with vanilla cream and caramel sauce, and a meringue roulade with fresh strawberries and coulis (both amazing value at £4.95). The front of house told us it could be done, but unfortunately with a delay because of the busy kitchen. It was admittedly disappointing, but not for long because then there was the alternative option of immediate cake...
Home-made lemon with lavender and raspberry and almond with white chocolate icing; and boy were they good. Again the portions were generous but there is no sight more exciting than a slab of cake set down in front of you. I obviously couldn't partake in the raspberry and almond because of my allergy but I was reliably informed that it was light, moist, and had the subtle taste of marzipan. I was really pleased that the lavender in the lemon cake was actually the flowers and not an extract; it made for little bursts of flavour rather than tasting like soap. My only (tiny) criticism was that there could have been more lemon icing on top.
Two courses of excellent quality food and soft drinks in an individual, chic restaurant; yours for the brilliant price of £29. It's not your every day lunch but it is worth every little penny.
And they do say the best things come in small packages.
The Dining Room at 82 Derngate, Northampton, NN1 1UH.
01604 230166 (Booking recommended)