Review - The Black Rat, Winchester
Reviewed on 25/6/22.
Nestled away on Chesil Street in Winchester, The Black Rat is an ex-Michelin starred restaurant, which has thrived off of its quirky, often offal-themed menu, since its opening in 2007. The restaurant describes itself as "modern British with influences from all over the culinary world". We visited on a Saturday lunchtime, and as such were treated to their lunch set menu, which I am assured by the waiting staff changes on a weekly basis.
Ambience and Service
The building was converted from a pub, and consists of two cosy dining rooms, a private dining room upstairs, a bar, two kitchens (one prep kitchen and one service kitchen) and bathrooms. Whilst I can't speak for the women's bathroom, the men's bathroom is literally that, complete with bathtub. A little strange, but part of the slightly twee charm. The dining room itself is adorned with portraits, wine bottles, tankards and, next to our table, an old-fashioned cartoon explaining the do's and don't's of golf. The furniture was wooden, sturdy and functional, in fitting with the 1700s house, complete with exposed beams and brick walls. The service was informal and friendly, with two very knowledgable waiters and a bartender able to answer any queries I had about the food. Our meal was accompanied by a semi-eclectic mix of music, with an array of soft-rock from various decades. Timings on the courses were generally well spaced, though the wait between the starters and mains was a bit excessive.
The charm of the restaurant is its cosiness, its old-y world-y feel and its no-frills approach to decor, which was personally something I really appreciated, though I know that this will not appeal to everyone. I would have liked a slightly comfier chair though.
The Black Rat has a considerable wine menu, just short of 100, and an extensive gin menu, with over 45 gins, including some more unique flavours. We had come in the pursuit of said gin menu, but for those visiting in search of other liquors, the selection was a little limited, and the restaurant does not serve cocktails. Additionally, their website claims "a range of different tonics" for the gins, though there were two to choose from. Not a problem for myself, but worth noting. I opted for a violet gin, which went down very well.
Treacle bread, squid ink bread, seaweed butter, salted butter
Shortly after ordering, we were presented with a slate, adorned with two thick slices of a golden treacle bread, two individual jet black squid ink buns and a plate with two discs of butter, one marbled with nori powder. The squid ink breads were deceptively fluffy, and paired gorgeously with the seaweed butter. The treacle bread, though slightly tougher than I personally prefer, was flavoured perfectly, the treacle flavour apparent without being uncomfortably sweet. This was complemented very nicely with the salted butter.
Braised venison gyoza, enoki mushroom, onion and mushroom dashi.
The venison gyoza were served in twos alongside enoki mushrooms on a dashi broth, garnished with microherbs. This was my least favourite of the courses. The dashi was very well made and nicely seasoned, and I must admit to drinking the last drop up with my spoon. The gyoza pastry was well made, light without breaking apart in the dashi. The filling, however, did not particularly inspire me, as I found the venison quite granular, which I would have expected to have been significantly more tender following braising. The venison also somehow lacked the gamey punch one associates with it, though maybe this was just due to portion size. The enoki mushrooms were one bunch on my plate, which was tricky to eat alongside the two gyoza.
Nutbourne heirloom tomato salad, sake infused tomato consomme, tosazu.
The tomato salad, in contrast, was my favourite course of the evening. An array of colours of peeled heirloom tomatoes sat in the consomme and tosazu (a vinegar-based dressing), adorned with nasturtiums. Perfect little mouthfuls, the tomatoes held their texture, while bursting with juice in the mouth, beautifully complemented by the slight acidity of the tosazu and the peppery flavour of the nasturtium. Truly a testament to letting good quality ingredients speak for themselves on the plate.
Additionally on the menu:
Sea bream sashimi, grapefruit, jalapeno, granny smith, green almond
Pork tenderloin and cheek, pierogi, apple and golden raisin chutney, caramelised shallot.
Medallions of pork tenderloin sat alongside the cheek, two perogis, chard, halves of caramelised shallots and small quenelles of chutney. The tenderloin was cooked rose, how I like it, and was seasoned with a very light hand. I would have preferred it slightly more seasoned, as the sweetness of the shallot and chutney were fairly prevalent. The shallots were cooked beautifully, lovely and soft, and the chutney was well made, though could have had a little more acidity. The mincemeat pierogi were crispy and well seasoned, and added an extra layer of texture, which was appreciated. The star of the plate for me was definitely the cheek, which was tender to the point of falling apart in the mouth. My only criticism there was that I would have liked more of it.
Additionally on the menu:
Cornish cod with vadouvan spice, roasted cauliflower, vitelotte potato, sea purslane, burnt lime
Lamb rump, braised neck, turnip, lamb bacon, carrot, hasselback potato.
Coconut tart, lime curd, wood ants, basil and lemon verbena sorbet.
The dessert was a meticulously piped slice of coconut and lime tart, topped with "crawling" wood ants, alongside a rocher of a deep green basil and lemon verbena sorbet. I was very impressed by this dessert, not too sweet, with a strong citrus flavour, though perhaps the coconut was a little overpowered by the lime. The wood ants did add to the dessert, with a sharp sour kick whenever bitten into, that played nicely against the milder acid of the lime. The basil and lemon verbena sorbet was very well made, perfectly smooth and with a bold, well balanced flavour, adding an almost savoury element to the dish.
Madeleines with miso butterscotch sauce.
The madeleines come with an addendum on the menu, signposting the 15 minute wait for them to reach your plate. This is, of course, due to them being baked to order, and is well worth the wait. They are buttery, crisp on the outside and luxuriously fluffy in the center. The portion size is generous; six madeleines alongside a small coffee mug filled with the butterscotch sauce. I could not claim that I could pinpoint the flavour as distinctively miso, but the butterscotch sauce had identifiably savoury notes and stopped the dessert being too sweet.
Additionally on the menu: Three cheeses, crackers, Hamburg grape chutney.
The Black Rat was a very pleasurable experience, and for a price tag of £37 each for three courses plus drinks, was not too excessive. Whilst the decor may not be for everyone, I found it to be a very comfortable experience, and the food was stimulating and different, whilst of a very high quality. I will be revisiting on a later date.