Summer 2012 - working trips

I don't normally travel too much in the UK for my work but this summer I've clocked up a few interesting hotels in the pursuit of spreading the love (of cake).


No No Novotel

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by koshkha on September 13, 2012

Any review of a hotel will come with baggage – just like the occupants of the hotel’s rooms. I view the Novotel Birmingham airport through the rose tinted glasses of a gold membership of the Accor chain’s loyalty club – in other words I’m a loyal user of this chain and it’s not unusual some months for me to spend almost as many nights in their Amsterdam branch as I do in my own bed at home. On the other hand, I’m not a morning person and I was booking the hotel in order to take a 6 am flight from the airport. So my positive influence was that I like Novotels and my negative influence was that I didn’t REALLY want to be there at all because I hate getting up early.

I use Birmingham airport most weeks but this was the first time that I’d taken such a ridiculously early flight. Knowing that the Accor chain has pretty much got the monopoly in on-site airport hotels at Birmingham, I asked our travel agent to book the Novotel. I’m not a fan of Ibis and I’d never stay in an Etap. I was pretty shocked that the room would be £133 without breakfast (not that I’d have had time to eat a breakfast) and I’m pretty sure that I got ripped off by our lousy travel agency at work. I arrived at about 10 pm, parked up in the short stay car park number one which I always pre-book, and headed across the drop-off car park to the entrance to the hotel. NEVER leave your car outside this hotel or you’ll get charges so high you might be tempted to just abandon your car altogether. It’s best to use the long stay or short stay car parks and you can always save by pre-booking your stay.

The Novotel is the closest hotel to the airport. It stands on the edge of the drop off car park, looking like a big blue mirrored box. The entrance is up a ramp off the far end of the drop off car park and my first impressions on entering the lobby were quite good. It looks clean, modern and fresh with some funky furniture and a bustling restaurant off to the side. I went to the check in desk to get my room key and was asked if I’d like to pay straight away or when I checked out. Knowing that I’d be leaving at 5 am and that anything I can avoid having to do at that sort of hour would be a help, I said I’d pay straight away. The receptionist took my card, handed me the credit card receipt and told me I could get my invoice in the morning. I asked what on earth was the point of paying up front if I couldn’t have an invoice and why couldn’t she give me one. Apparently their ‘systems’ meant she couldn’t. I find that absolutely pathetic. I asked her "So why offer me the chance to pay now if you can’t give me the invoice?" Suddenly her English which had been very good up to that point seemed to escape her.

I harrumphed off to my room, muttering under my breath that they were totally pathetic and should know better. I headed for my room, knowing pretty much that it would be like every other Novotel room but I had a surprise – or rather a few surprises, some good, some bad.

The décor was no surprise – absolutely standard Novotel with lots of very neutral colours – beige walls, beige blackout curtains, brown and beige carpet. There’s lots of light wood in the bed surround, the storage furniture and the desk, lots of white bedding and a few bright red cushions. I have no problem with any of that – it’s entirely what I expect. What I didn’t expect was to find that the sofa bed had been set up. I booked a room for one person but they’d set my room up for a family of four. I found this really annoying because it meant I had to clamber over the bed to get to the curtains and I couldn’t really use the desk without squeezing into the space between it and the bottom of the sofa bed. The bed surround was slightly different from the one I’m used to but slightly worse since the bed side ‘shelves’ were so tiny I could barely fit my phone, my book, my tablets and a glass of water in the space. The Novotel desk is a swivel system where part of the desk can be rotated to find a suitable position for watching the TV or doing whatever else might require you to move the desk (such as……. I have no idea).

The television was wall mounted and the right size for watching from the bed – I’d guess it was around a 24-28 inch screen. Anything bigger or smaller and I find it hard to watch. Frustratingly I didn’t get free internet which would normally be included when I stay at other Novotels since I have a gold card for the Accor Club. I’m just not willing to pay hotel prices for Wi Fi so I used my dongle instead.

Other facilities included a wardrobe with an ironing board inside, a storage unit with various shelves, a laptop-sized room safe, a small minibar, and of course a kettle with tea and coffee. I didn’t need any of these things but it was good to know they were there.

The bathroom was a bit surprise. I don’t know if it was because the room was set up for a family or whether it’s standard at this hotel, but the toilet and shower were separate. The toilet was in a small room and didn’t have a hand basin. Maybe I’m just a bit picky but if you put the loo apart from the main bathroom – so presumably someone can have a shower whilst you have a pee – then there needs to be a basin to wash your hands or there’s no point in separating them. It’s just not hygienic. The shower room was light, bright and had an excellent rain-shower head. I prefer to have the choice of a shower or a bath but if I have to have only a shower, at least it’s good if it’s a nice one.

Unfortunately I had a nasty surprise in the sink. My first impression was that it was a newer, funkier sink design than normal but after I cleaned my teeth I was frustrated to not be able to drain the water from the sink. I wiggled the lever but nothing happened and the plug didn’t pop up. I resorted to tugging it out with my finger nails and was rapidly disgusted by a stinky rotten eggy miasma of nasty vapours. I can only assume that the sink had been blocked for a long time and things were getting rotten and stinky down in the pipes. It was really unpleasant. My other annoyance with the bathroom was the challenge of trying to find the light switch to turn the bathroom lights off. I eventually found it on the master switch but I feared I would have to sleep with the lights on.

As a result of not being able to reach the curtains to close them properly, I was left with a gap in the curtains and light streaming in all night long which interfered with my sleep. The bed was comfortable enough though obviously I’d have slept better if I didn’t need to get up at quarter to five in the morning. I got dressed, packed and headed down to reception to get my invoice and leave.

I complained to the guy that I thought it was silly to ask people to pay and not give them an invoice and he launched into a monologue about ‘overnight print runs’ or some such rubbish. I stopped him and told him that their service should revolve around what customers want and not how their computers work and if they can’t do invoices 24 hours a day at an airport where more people need that than in most ‘normal’ hotels, then they shouldn’t offer to let people pay up front. I think you could say we ‘agreed to differ’ on that point and I stomped off to get my plane.

I like Novotel and I normally get great service, friendly and professional staff but I was very disappointed by the Birmingham Airport branch. The nonsense with the payment put me into a paddy even before I got to the room. The sofa bed hogging half the room raised my ire and the stinky sink was the last straw. One bad Novotel won’t change my overall loyalty but I won’t return to this one in a hurry.
Novotel Birmingham Airport
Directly Opposite Terminal 1
West Midlands, Birmingham, B26 3QL
(+44)121/6199003

This Juror says 'Guilty' to Jury's Inn

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on August 2, 2012

I have very mixed feelings about the Jury's Inn chain of hotels. I've been in one which was dreadful in Birmingham and another that was rather nice in Newcastle. My expectation was that I was more likely to be disappointed than delighted. I didn't have much of a chance to work up any sense of concern since the colleague who was booking hotels for a meeting in Brighton didn't actually make the booking until about 12 hours before I arrived.

Finding the place was the first challenge since neither the street it stands on nor the post code existed in my Tom Tom. Thanks to getting myself accidentally into the taxi rank at the station and spotting a sign pointing to the hotel (though not followable since it was down an alleyway) I got a rough idea of where I needed to be and took a big detour to approach the station from the opposite side. Fortunately the hotel is big enough to spot from some distance.

When I found out where we were going to stay, I quickly went on line to check out whether it had a car park and found to my disappointment that there was only 'parking nearby'. On the plus side it's REALLY nearby since the hotel faces one of the railway station's car parks. There was plenty of space and I could park in a well-lit area close to the hotel. But on the down side paying for the parking was one of the most frustrating and annoying things I've had to do in a long time. If you arrive in the day time it's not too bad because there's a booth with a human being – a very pleasant and helpful one – who's clearly rather embarrassed by the crazy system and the shocking prices. But at 11 o'clock at night you have to buy by telephone or internet and you must pay within one hour of arriving.

Confused, I left the car park and headed into the hotel. First impressions were that it looked rather swanky and the lobby and bar area were rather stylish. But that wasn't to last very long. My colleague checked in for his room whilst I continued trying to work out how to pay for the car park on a phone system that could challenge BT's Indian call centres for lack of user friendliness. I cracked the Krypton Factor system at the 4th attempt, but not without muttering "I'm never ever ever coming back to this horrible town again" several times over. Parking the car from 11 pm to 8.30 am cost me about £14 which is utter robbery.

Car park finally dealt with (well at least for the first couple of hours – I'd have to go and pay the man in the booth for the rest of my stay) I was able to check in. Jury's Inn do that annoying thing of charging your card but not really charging it so that if you do a runner they can get their money back. I find it rude and unfriendly, especially when we've booked through the company travel agent and the rooms are guaranteed on a credit card already.

I headed up to my floor, stepped out of the lift into a corridor with a carpet of shocking ugliness and into my room. If I'd paid £40 to £50 for the room I probably would have judged it to be OK, but I hadn't. My room was costing £97.50 and looked to be very poor value.

The room was bland and disappointing. The walls were magnolia and the 'matchy matchy' carpet, curtains and bedspread were a bit too much for me. It was quite large, with room for both a bed and a sofa bed, but it looked oddly bleak and minimalist. Minimalism can be stylish when it doesn't just look like the room is short on furniture but that was exactly how this looked. The double bed had a wooden head board with 'wings' on either side to form small bedside shelves. Unfortunately these were so small that with a hotel phone on my side, there was barely room to perch a glass of water and my mobile. The bed itself was comfortable enough and I slept well enough. Jury's Inn like to offer different hardness pillows and the spares are on top of the hanging unit though I couldn't be bothered to change mine.

In addition to the bed and the sofa there was a coffee table placed about as far from the sofa as it could possibly be. A small desk was home to a flat screen television and had a couple of drawers below, one of which was home to a hair dryer. A strange wall mounted shelf held a kettle and coffee and tea supplies. There was a suitcase stand and a hanging area. I can't call it a wardrobe since it has no doors and if you like to travel with lots of clothes, then you might find 4 coat hangers to be a bit on the mean side.

The bathroom was a bit dated in style but had a shower with good water pressure but poor temperature control. The toiletries are provided in wall-mounted dispensers which will disappoint those who love to take the little bottles, though these dispensers are pretty typical these days.

Wi-fi was available but at a charge. I arrived so late that I was not willing to pay £10 for internet access and kicked myself that I'd left my Vodaphone widget at home and so couldn't use that instead.

A sign in the lift warns guests about the busy times for breakfast so I was expecting it to be busy. The sign even suggested that at certain times there might be a wait before we could be seated. I'm not a morning person so if that had happened I think I'd have told them where they could put their breakfast. Luckily there was no queue and it didn't take me long to track down a couple of my colleagues.

The tables are completely empty and you will have to find everything you need before you can eat. I find it intensely irritating to be expected to work out where everything – from napkins to cutlery to 'where the heck did they put the milk?' is just too much fuss. If you like black coffee, you're in luck. That's what comes out of the machine. If you want milk to add to the coffee, then good luck – it's probably over the other side of the room by the cereal. If you love a good fry up then Jury's Inn will be right up your street – if you want anything else, you'll have to go foraging like Bear Grylls in search of all the components. I didn't like the breakfast layout. How hard would it have been for them to set the tables with mugs, cutlery and the odd napkin?

My colleagues were staying another night, whilst I was there for just the one. I wasn't sad to be leaving. Check out was quick and straight forward but I didn't feel I'd want to rush back to Jury's Inn. The car park was my main gripe – SURELY they could have had an arrangement with the railway station car park that made it easier for guests to use it. Surely I could have paid the hotel and not had to spend half an hour messing about with my phone. What hope was there for any foreign guests to work out what on earth was going on in the car park?

If you want to be close to the station, this hotel will be a good choice, especially if you have no car. Don't expect luxury as you won't get it, but if you can get a cheap price, it's entirely acceptable, lacking in any filth and cockroaches but still, for me at least, it totally missed the spot. I didn't like it, didn't want to go back, and my Jury's Inn 'love-hate' balance is dipping more into the hate area after my stay.

Jurys Inn Brighton
101 Stroudley Road
Brighton, England, BN1 4DJ
877-662-6988

No Crabby Comments about the Crabtree

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on July 8, 2012

There are two things for which foreigners deride the UK – our weather and our food. Whilst the weather deserves the criticism – and never more so than this summer - the widely held belief that our food is awful is outdated and largely unjustified. Whilst this might have been true back in the post-war years when the only place to buy olive oil was a pharmacy and when there was a tradition of 'meat and two veg' and a reliance on cheap offal, it's no longer the case. In reality we're still going to struggle to hold our heads up with the French or the Italians but northern Europeans underestimate our restaurants at their peril.

Despite my hubristic comments about British cuisine, I was concerned about finding a restaurant in a town I didn't know in order to feed a group of 12, only two of whom were Brits. My colleagues are nice but prone to rather direct honesty. If the food was poor, I would undoubtedly be told in a polite but firm way. None of that British "Oh it was lovely but I ate too much bread" would greet me if the plates when back half full. I managed to track down a country 'gastropub' which was only a couple of miles from our hotel and after reading a bunch of reviews, I felt confident that it wouldn't let me down.

I rang The Crabtree in Lower Beeding, near Horsham in West Sussex to ask if they could handle a large group and spoke to a very nice guy called Hamish who offered me a 3 course deal for £25 a head which I thought sounded like great value. Not so cheap that my colleagues would be offended, not so steep that my boss would choke when the expenses bill went in. I then entered into an email correspondence over whether or not we had to place our order before we went.

On the day of our visit I had a couple more nice emails, telling me that they'd already laid out our table and the menu was ready. I didn't realise the significance of this until we arrived and found that Hamish and his team had given us a room all to ourselves, with a little hatch through which we could watch the chefs at work. Having what was effectively a 'private' dining room went down well with everyone – as someone pointed out, it wouldn't have been much fun for a romantic couple to have been stuck in with all of us.

The room had been set up with the table in an L-shape. The menus were already on the table waiting for us and everyone settled down to the difficult task of choosing their food. Since I'd done all the hotel and entertainment arrangements, I dumped the tricky job of choosing the wine on my mostly clueless co-host who picked a Chilean red and a French white – good choices since we had no French with us (and not surprisingly no Chileans either).

Our menu comprised four starters, five main courses and four puddings. I'd agreed to a restricted choice knowing that it was easier for the kitchen and would prevent a lot of "What's the translation of …...." which always follows with an international group and can make us poor natives look a bit thick. I don't know what a 'gremolata' is and my explanation that 'muscovado' is a breed of duck indicated I should have looked at the menu first and seen that it was on the pudding list and was actually referring to a type of brown sugar.

In true 'gastropub' style the descriptions were a bit 'wordy'. Asparagus with poached eggs just doesn't hack it when you can instead have 'West Sussex asparagus, poached Rottingdean hens eggs, roasted garlic mayonnaise, mustard dressing'. I think you get the point. 'Brookland White free range chicken rillettes, shallot, grape and lime chutney, toast', 'Cashel blue cheese baked fig, Monmouthshire air dried ham, port reduction, pine nut salad' and 'Dorset crab cocktail, Nutbourne tomato, gem lettuce, cucumber, Marie Rose sauce'.

At this stage, anyone thinking they'd get steak and kidney pie with chips was probably having to adjust their expectations. At risk or boring you rigid with the flowery descriptions, the mains were a pork cutlet, a ratatouille filo roll, cod, shoulder of lamb or a rib-eye steak.

The wine arrived shortly after the orders had been taken and we all agreed that despite being clueless, Phil had picked some good ones. All praise to restaurants who have a good list and prevent host embarrassment. A couple of my colleagues pointing out how great it was that the staff brought big carafes of water without anyone having to ask. With a large group you can easily run up a very significant bill for bottled water alone so that was a very nice touch.

Baskets of bread were brought to the table along with some butter. A small pre-starter was presented whilst we waited for the starters. These were tiny little cups of gazpacho. My Portuguese colleague Isabel told us she loves gazpacho "but only in summer and this just isn't summer". Fair comment.

The most popular starters were the asparagus and the crab cocktail which most of the people at my end of the table chose although I did spot the chicken starter heading to the other end of the room. I don't think anyone went for the fig and Cashel blue cheese which would have been my choice if it hadn't had the ham with it. My crab cocktail was beautifully presented with the crab perched on top of a small circular mound of lettuce. The tomatoes were absolutely exquisite and full to bursting point with flavour. The asparagus was hailed by those who chose it as cooked to perfection.

My main course choice was 'fillet of cod, olive oil mash, tomato fondue, gremolata and young watercress. As you can tell I kept a copy of the menu. I had to look up gremolata and I'm still not sure that's what I had as I assumed that the bright green herby 'stuff' was pesto – it certainly tasted like pesto which is fine, because I like pesto. The cod was served 'skin up' and was perched on the tomatoes and 'pesto which might not have been pesto'. I'm not a fan of mash and I found the dish to be a bit too 'beige' in both look and taste. The quality was undoubtedly top notch but I just wasn't all that excited by my meal and probably should have gone with the vegetarian alternative, although I'd been put off by the mention of 'polenta' as an accompaniment with the ratatouille filo dish. I was repeatedly told that the shoulder of lamb was 'out of this world' and it certainly looked a picture with weirdly coloured carrots and deep purple wine-cooked shallots.

Everyone started to claim they couldn't possibly manage a pudding – after all, they'd spent half the day eating cake at work. But then a strange thing happened and one by one they all gave in. The choices included an iced gooseberry and elderflower parfait, which I chose, a sticky toffee pudding, a brownie with berry compote and a selection of cheeses. Several people asked if they could just have some fruit salad instead and initially the waitresses said it wasn't possible but then they went to talk to the chefs and somehow they magicked up a beautiful selection of chopped fruit and offered sorbet to go with it. I went for the parfait which – as the name suggested – was pretty much perfect. Like all the previous dishes, each plate came to the table finely constructed. My two slices of parfait were separated by a pair of shortbread biscuits with a smear of gooseberry curd and patches of dainty pink but intensely flavoured pink gooseberry sauce. I couldn't eat it all but I certainly tried.

The bill for twelve of us came to the grand total of £408 including three bottles of wine and four diet cokes. The bill included a 10% tip which was perfect as our company rules say they won't reimburse more than 10% and I was very pleasantly surprised.

If I have any cause to be in the area again, I would definitely return to the Crabtree. The service was excellent, the menu was pretty spectacular and everything was beautifully presented. If you want fancy restaurant quality food at not much more than pub prices and you prefer a more casual surroundings, then The Crabtree is an excellent choice.
The Crabtree
Brighton Road, Lower Beeding
Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 6PT

Nice Hotel for Ducks

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on July 7, 2012

With the task of trying to find somewhere to accommodate 13 people for a visit to our factories in southern England, I did what anyone who doesn’t trust their company’s outsourced travel booking supplier would do. I got a map, narrowed down a rough location that was half way between the two factories (Horsham) and then headed off to one of the hotel booking sites to see what my options were. We’re in a recession and I didn’t want to pay too much but equally I didn’t want to subject my colleagues to an insect infested hovel. I came across what looked like a nice country hotel near Horsham called the Mannings Heath Hotel. It seemed rather too ‘chintzy’ for my personal liking but the price was good (£75 per night for the single occupancy rooms including breakfast) and I thought it would make a nice change from the soulless chain hotels. Foreigners always seem to quite like what they perceive as English ‘quaintness’ so I hoped I’d get away with it.

Three of us headed down a day before the rest of the group and arrived in the middle of a typically drizzly July afternoon. It’s in a tiny little out of the way place down narrow roads with not enough passing places. At times the route seemed more like a safari park as we spotted a fox, a deer and a few hoppy bunnies on the way to the hotel. We parked up in a gravel car park where we were the only two cars and dodged the raindrops to head towards reception where they seemed to be expecting us. My colleagues were sent back outside to an outside door that gave access to their room and I was led through the bar, out across the patio and towards what looked like a large garden shed. I asked the receptionist "Are you sticking me in the shed" and he laughed and said it was much nicer inside. I might take issue with the use of the word ‘much’.

The room was spacious, not so much because it was actually largebut because it had almost nothing in it. There was a double bed with two bedside tables, one with a clock radio and the other with a telephone. The bed had rather pretty embroidered pillow cases which wouldn’t have been out of place if you were visiting a favourite elderly aunt but seemed a bit incongruous in a hotel room. And there was a pink duvet cover – a very pink duvet cover. A small ledge in one corner played host to the ‘hospitality tray’ whilst a rather bleak pine door disguised a built in wardrobe. At the other end of the room, two similar doors opened onto a tiny bathroom with a rather cosy looking shower and an unobscured window designed to let the passing world view me sitting perched on the loo. Fortunately there was a small roller blind.

Back in the main room a tiny wall mounted old style TV and a wall mounted heater were the only other delights. The key thing missing (if you’re paying attention) was anything on which to sit or anywhere to put a computer. Considering that wifi kicked in without charge and without fuss, it was a shame that I could only use my computer by perching on the bed. Another thing I later realised was missing was any kind of toiletries in the bathroom. I’m not moaning about the lack of fancy shower gels and nice little lotions and potions in bottles but I really do expect soap, purely on the basis of basic hygiene. I rang reception to ask if this was a mistake since I learned never to take things for granted after staying in horrible French budget hotels where you get nothing more than a tiny bar of soap. When the phone was eventually answered (at the third time of calling) someone was dispatched to my room and turned up with shampoo, shower gel and soap bars, along with a pleasant apology. So I’m going to choose to assume they forgot rather than that this was standard behaviour since none of my colleagues had the same problem.

On a sunny day my view would probably have stopped me moaning about the room but it was raining solidly and the charm was somewhat compromised. I could look out across the neat patio with its sodden furniture, across the very tidy, soggy, sloping green lawns and down to the river which was looking rather muddy after so much rain. On the downside since I could have watched the diners or drinkers on the patio, they could also have watched me, which was a little disconcerting. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that it was raining.

On the first night I slept really well and woke to a morning chorus of the best possible kind – the quacking of ducks. I adore ducks and hearing them plodding about on the grass chatting to their friends raised my spirits for the day. It was still raining of course, but we do say that’s ‘nice weather for ducks’. On my second morning it was so wet that even the ducks had been washed away.

I headed over to breakfast which was a bit of an odd affair. Cereals in little boxes, a jug of orange juice and little sachets of jam and portions of butter were placed on a table at one side. There was a menu on the table and the ‘system’ seemed to be that most stuff would be brought to you. I ordered a coffee and poached eggs and mushrooms on toast which arrived within about 5 minutes of asking. Again on the second morning when our group was much bigger, the kitchen pulled out all the stops and rolled the food out nice and quickly. The problem was that it was a very ‘English’ breakfast and I had 10 foreigners with me who expected some really exciting and exotic breakfast components, rare things like bread and maybe a little bit of cheese.

Since there were only three rooms out in the shed-annexe, it might be unfair to judge the hotel by my unusual accommodation so I checked with my colleagues what they thought of their places. The couple I arrived with had hated their room and used the broken television as an excuse to demand a change of room. For my second night we rolled up with another nine people who were quickly processed, no credit cards were taken and the keys were handed out. I felt sure that someone would be sent out to keep me company in the shed, but it was not to be. Asking my colleagues at dinner that night, there was quite a mixed response to their rooms. One of my team had a massive suite with a four poster bed and wondered if she’d got the honeymoon suite. Another had a great room but was a bit concerned that it was directly above a grand piano – and sure enough, someone decided to play it somewhere round midnight. One girl said her room was so small she had to squeeze between the bed and the wall.

Most continental countries insist on having the company name and address on a hotel invoice. Thank goodness you don’t have to do that sort of thing to get your expenses approved in the UK. Realising that the hotel probably wouldn’t know about this, and that it would undoubtedly slow down our check out, the continental colleagues decided to try to check out in the evening before we were due to leave. As it turned out, the guy on reception was totally baffled by the requests but he took all the business cards to pass to his colleague and by the morning they’d redone all the invoices in the right way. The very nice lady on reception said she’d never known a morning like it but seemed to have quite enjoyed doing something a bit different.

Recommendation

I can understand why the hotel is attractive for weddings – the lawns and views are very pretty – but personally I’d never choose a place like this for such an event. As a general hotel for staying in, I think your experience will vary enormously depending on which room you get so I would suggest to ask for details and specify you want a really good room, even if you have to pay a little more. If you play golf, it’s worth knowing that the other side of the pond in the garden is a golf course and I think guests can play for free. The hotel is about 20 minutes from Gatwick (if you know where you’re going), is rather isolated and the roads are not for the faint hearted, but we had a good time and everyone appreciated getting a change from Novotels. All in all, I think the stay was quite a success.
The Mannings Heath Hotel
Winterpit Lane
West Sussex, England, 13 6

Spice is Nice

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on July 3, 2012

In the last week I’ve had a bit of a curry binge and eaten in four different restaurants. The first three were due to being on holiday but this evening’s was for work. Yes, strange as it sounds, I can eat curry and call it just doing my job. This meal took place on the evening before starting a tour of our factories and I wanted to introduce a new member of my team to someone he’ll need to work closely with. What could be better than a chat over chaat or a natter over a naan?

Three of us drove down to Horsham to stay in a local hotel and the person we went to meet picked us up and took us into the town. Despite never having been to Horsham and therefore never to this restaurant, I chose Darchini on the basis that it was the highest rated Indian restaurant in Horsham on the Tripadvisor website. I don’t always believe Tripadvisor ratings but this did seem to be a pretty special place. I checked the menu and found a more interesting list of dishes than normal. My colleague, Louise, rang and booked a table for 7.30pm.

Booking turned out to be a bit unnecessary since for the first half hour we were the only people in the restaurant. Mind you, I would guess they were probably pleased to know that SOMEONE was going to turn up that evening. I spotted only one other table being used plus someone turning up to collect a takeaway. I should add that it was a Monday and I was quite surprised the place was open at all but it did seem a great shame that they didn’t have more business.

We took a round table next to the beautiful old fireplace. If your idea of an Indian restaurant relies on poor lighting and lots of flock wallpaper, then you’ll be disappointed to hear that there’s none of either at Darchini. I’ve also recently been in a couple of Indian restaurants which were trying much too hard to be too modern and Darchini’s not like that either. What you’ll find instead is a place that’s much more like a Medieval chop house – all black beams and white walls, lots of exposed old wood and a semi-open mezzanine level. It’s Old England mixed with New Indian – a great combination.

The menus arrived and we could see it was going to take a while to choose especially as two of the group are not so familiar with Indian food. We ordered drinks and they brought poppadoms and chutneys – a fairly standard selection – whilst we continued deliberating over what to have. It took nearly 15 minutes to pick the main courses (ending in me saying "lets have the three fishy ones and share them") so it was a relief when my colleague spotted a mixed starter dish and suggested we go for that rather than spend another 10 minutes going through the starter list.

Our main waiter – we had several, well there was nobody else for them to serve – was a lovely man who I’d guess was probably Nepali in origin. He took our order for two of the mixed starters, three different seafood or fish curries, and a chicken dish for the fourth diner. I ordered three portions of rice and two garlic naans to go with them. The waiter nodded and smiled and muttered "Great choices, really good choices" before wandering off. Now that might sound a bit of a ‘suck up’ kind of comment to make but compared to a restaurant we were in last week where the waiter spent all his time trying to persuade one diner to have something completely different and another restaurant where the attempted ‘up selling’ went beyond a joke. A simple nod and the reassurance that the waiter doesn’t think you should change your mind and have something completely different made a nice change. It might of course be something to do with the fish dishes being some of the most expensive on the menu.

The starter mix was excellent. We were brought triangular plates with a salad garnish on each and then two hot plates of food arrived. I hate it when hot food gets garnished directly with rapidly wilting salad. Each portion was the perfect size for two with a sort of duck pancake (I didn’t try that obviously), some aloo chaat (spicy fried potato chunks), king prawn suka (a sort of grilled spiced prawn), paneer tikka (spicy cottage cheese cubes) and some kind of chicken dish which I also avoided. The paneer and prawns were particularly good and at £6.95 per platter, I thought the value was also very good. I wouldn’t normally order something like this if it were just me and my husband eating because I don’t eat meat, but I was glad we gave it a go.

After the plates had been cleared, one of the waiters came back a few minutes later to tell us that the main courses were ready and to ask if we’d like them straight away or if we wanted to wait. Again, I was impressed that they asked as so often the food does arrive in a bit of a rush. However, since we’d not overdone the starters we opted to go straight to the main courses.

Two metal hot plates were brought to the table, followed by scorching hot dinner plates. I do like a properly warmed plate and these had been thoroughly frazzled so there was no risk of the food going prematurely cool.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the chicken dish that my German colleague had ordered, but the other three of us shared a Goan fish curry, monkfish masala and a seafood mixed korai. Each was served differently. The Goan fish curry was described as monkfish cooked in rich coconut milk but was not as creamy as I’d expected (or feared). It was also darker in colour and stronger in flavour than I’d expected based on far too many supermarket interpretations of Goan fish curry. The monkfish masala was served in a lidded metal pan with a burner underneath to keep the food hot. The monkfish in both cases was more tender and less rubbery that I would have expected which again was a nice surprise. The masala sauce was a little one dimensional and very red in colour but tasted more subtle than the colour suggested. The only disappointment was the seafood korai which was served sizzling in a hot karahi dish. I found this one rather too reliant on the cheaper seafood elements – for example a lot of rubbery squid and quite a lot of mussels. The menu had described it as ‘An infusion of king scallops, squid, cuttle fish, tiger fish in a blend of herbs and spices’ but I didn’t spot any scallops and I’m pretty sure there were some little prawns in there too. The two fish curry portions were so big that not overdoing the seafood meant I still had plenty to eat. The rice was cooked to perfection and the naans were light, fluffy and slightly garlicky (though not so much as to interfere with the flavour of the food.

With the main courses cleared away, the nice waiter – well the particularly nice one, they were all lovely – brought the hot towels and opened the sachets for us. Then he did something remarkable that I’ve never seen before. He spotted my stunning talent for redecorating a table cloth like a Jackson Pollock paining and brought a napkin and neatly spread it over the fall out zone of curry splatters. He did this very quietly and discreetly and without a murmur – though of course we all sat and stared in astonishment at this lovely act.

We were so full that the ice-cream menu barely got a look – you know the one with the ‘Punky the penguin’ and the coconut shell filled with coconut ice-cream. Coffees were also turned down and I asked for the bill which came to just under £100. Drinks had been less than £20 and I thought that this was pretty good value for the quality and quantity we’d had. My local colleague said she’d definitely be back and took away the take-away menu after learning that they do home deliveries to her area. If I were in Horsham again, I’d certainly plan on going back.

Finally for those who – like me – always like to ask such questions, the name Darchini means ‘cinnamon’ in Hindi.
Darchini
24 London Road
Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 1AY
01403 256 767

http://www.igougo.com/journal-j76958-England-Summer_2012_-_working_trips.html

©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009