If there’s one thing Stockbridge doesn’t lack, it’s cute places to have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. There are so many of them around here I haven’t even had a chance to try them all yet, and I’ve been here the better part of a year. So if you’re going to open up a new one, you’d better have something great to offer, and you’d better really know your audience.
Chris and Charlotte Thompson, the couple who opened The Pantry at the end of 2012, clearly did their research. This place is so well attuned to the neighbourhood it’s like they conducted a focus group prior to opening. This is the type of cozy local spot that supports local producers, embraces organic, is family friendly (every day from 3-4 is mums’ hour, during which coffees are a quid and there are games and things to entertain the wee ones. Very, very smart, as this area’s got a significant portion of young families), and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It caters to a clientele that is willing to splash out a bit of extra for spelt flour, knows good food, and likes to have a few surprises. That’s Stockbridge.
I’ve embraced The Pantry wholeheartedly: I’ve been there four times in the last month alone. And judging by the healthy crowds I always see there, I’m not alone.
First, the food. It’s great. I’ve been there for brunch, lunch (twice), and dinner, and it’s never let me down. The menus all feature dishes that are comfortingly familiar (kedgeree for brunch, a burger and sandwiches for lunch, etc), but they usually feature a twist. The kedgeree was served with tiny hard-boiled quails’ eggs, for instance, and a smoked salmon sandwich is served with a refreshing lemon creme fraiche (the sandwich in question is very good, but I couldn’t help but think it would be brilliant if served on rye bread instead of the slightly stodgy white it came on). If you get a sandwich there, order it with their house-made chips, which are thick, crispy, and delicious.
At night they turn the lights down and trot out a menu that changes constantly to reflect what’s best of the current season. Husby and I decided to go there for Burns Night a couple of weeks ago, knowing that we’d get more than the expected haggis and slab of shortbread. We were definitely right. While The Pantry focuses on filling comfort foods during the day, they really up their game at night, sending out absolutely exquisite and well-thought-out dishes the like of which I’m used to seeing in places that charge far more than £30 for a three-course dinner. Our meal started off with a cullen skink amuse bouche. Although it was rather big for an amuse, it was so incredibly delicious I didn’t care. I felt like I could have happily eaten a gallon of the stuff, which was thick, creamy, smoky–everything you’d want on a damp, chilly evening. This promising beginning was swiftly followed by salads: mine was cured salmon with beetroot and fennel scone pieces, and his was the same, but with anise pickled cucumber in place of the salmon. The plates were almost too pretty to touch, but touch them we did, and quickly devoured the contents. After (it must be said) a very long wait we received our main courses: roasted venison with haggis spring rolls, olive oil mash, and spinach. The meat was roasted to rare perfection, and the mash was smooth and delectable (and perfect for soaking up the rich sauces from the meat). I loved the spring rolls, and found them not only delicious but a rather playful way of working the traditional haggis into the dish.
Dessert is often where restaurants fall down, but that wasn’t the case here. Husby had the cheese plate, which is served with mini Peter’s Yard crispbreads and apples, while I opted for the ‘Confused Cranachan’, yet another fabulously presented plate of whisky-soaked sponge circles nestled between an airy mousse with such a pronounced honey flavour it was as if I was eating it straight from the hive. A beautiful bramble coulis helped cut the richness of both the mousse and the sponge.
If I had one issue with this place, it’s this: the service needs work. Don’t get me wrong, the servers are all very friendly and helpful, but there are definitely some issues there. The first time we went was during brunch on a Sunday, and it was busy. It was clear that the waitstaff was overwhelmed, even though there were plenty of them on the floor. The problem seemed to be lack of organisation: it appeared that they didn’t have specific tables assigned to each server, so everyone was just sort of picking up and dropping off wherever. That meant that nobody really seemed to know what any one table’s status was, so it took a very long time for anyone to get around to taking our order, and then an even longer time to get our bill. While we were waiting for it, someone else’s change was dropped off at our table, and when the bill came, it wasn’t ours. At dinner, the issues were less about disorganisation and more about a lack of finesse. Dishes were dropped off at the table with no explanation or introduction whatsoever. While that’s not really an issue with the salad or main course, it’s definitely a problem when you’re confronted with a cheese plate. We had no idea what we were eating. Same with the amuse bouche. I’d love to know what some of the little bits floating at the top were, but, alas, they shall remain a mystery. We had to wait at least 25 minutes after our salads were cleared for the mains to come out, which is a kitchen problem, not a service one, but nobody ever came over to tell us what was going on, or to apologise for the wait, and the person who did finally go to check on the food’s status wasn’t even our waitress.
Will the service issues keep me from going back there? No, certainly not. But I do long for these wrinkles to be ironed out, because if the service matched up with the food, than dining here would be more than just very good, it would be simply sublime.
1-2 North West Circus Place