When I first started going out in Bournemouth, more years ago than I care to remember (and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you how many!), pretty much everywhere had a strict door policy and stag and hen parties were forbidden from most of the venues in town. Slowly, over the years, this has changed, and Bournemouth now has a stag and hen ‘scene’ to rival the likes of Brighton. This is great if you happen to be a stag or a hen, but not so great if you fancy a more relaxed, or even refined, night out free from cowboy hats, L plates, fancy dress and inflatables. Fortunately, solace can be found in the bars in the Exeter Road area of town, which still operate a fairly strict door policy, with all of the above being definite no-nos. One of the most refined of these is 1812, part of the Royal Exeter Hotel, a sophisticated (by Bournemouth standards at least!) bar with one of the most extensive cocktail lists I have ever seen, and regular live music at the weekends.
1812 is well-known locally for its cocktails and more mature (some would also say pretentious!) clientele, but not so well known is the fact that nestled away at the back is a small restaurant which serves some of the most interesting food in town. It’s won numerous awards and should really be known as a dining venue in its own right, but for some reason, 1812 seems to remain synonymous with cocktails.
We’d booked a table there on Saturday night (through what seemed like an unnecessarily complicated telephone booking system which made it difficult to get through to the restaurant itself and necessitated redialling, leaving a message and eventually being called back by the hotel reception) and decided to start off with a couple of cocktails in the bar. Everyone I know who has ever tried one of 1812’s special Mojitos thinks they are up there with the best around, but on this occasion we decided to go for something different. Mr W obviously thought he was on a tropical holiday as he ordered a Pina Colada. I decided to try a Bazilia, one of the unusual herb-based drinks on the menu, which included strawberries, fresh basil, black pepper, vodka, Grand Marnier and Chambord. It should have been really delicious, and the fresh basil, which is my favourite herb, was a lovely twist, but it seemed to lack much pepperiness and didn’t have a strong strawberry taste either, but at least I tried!
The restaurant is fairly intimate, right at the back of the venue, past the bar, and next to the stage where live bands sometimes play. Unfortunately, therein lies what could be one of the restaurant’s biggest problems. Despite being closed off from the bar area, there is no escaping the noise of the live music and what is essentially one of Bournemouth’s liveliest bars, right outside where you’re eating, and it really could do with a bit more sound proofing. This, combined with the fact that you have to walk all the way through the bar to get to it, and all the way back to go to the toilets, could be a major turn off for a lot of diners who perhaps want something a bit more quiet and intimate. It would certainly be completely off-putting for anyone who is not a fan of busy bars and people on nights out who may be slightly worse for wear – I am thinking of people of my parents’ generation, who love good food and nice restaurants, but wouldn’t appreciate having toilet facilities shared with a busy bar, particularly later on in the evening. If, however, you’re making it part of your night out, perhaps with a larger group, it could be seen as a plus point, as it has a livelier vibe than many eateries in town of the same calibre.
Given the quality and intricate nature of the dishes on offer, the menu is surprisingly extensive, with probably 8 or 10 choices for each of the three courses, may of which feature local produce. Fortunately, to tide you over whilst choosing, you’re given complimentary bread and some of the tastiest marinated olives I’ve had – I always look forward to these when we visit as they have a delicious lemony flavour!
To start, I chose a ham hock and chorizo risotto with apple and thyme. Mr W had had this on a previous visit and I had sneaked far too may mouthfuls off his plate, so I decided this time I should have my own. The risotto was deliciously creamy with fine pieces of ham hock throughout and a definite chorizo flavour. The other flavours were much more subtle (read unidentifiable!) but it was so delicious anyway that you couldn’t complain. It was served simply with some wilted watercress and – my only slight complaint – a pancetta crisp that was far from crisp.
Mr W opted for a very unusual seafood risotto Scotch egg – mainly because it sounded so intriguing! It was a traditional-looking Scotch egg, but served with a runny yolk, and instead of sausage meat surrounding it, it was a layer of seafood risotto between the egg and the breadcrumbs. It was served with a creamy seafood sauce and some sort of shredded cucumber/courgette accompaniment. Although it sounded fun and quirky, unfortunately this was where the appeal ended. We both agreed that it didn’t really work as a whole, and the cold vegetable with the warm egg was bordering on unpleasant. This was disappointing.
Mr W took another risk with his main dish, going for pork fillet served with an apple tart tatin – which is, of course, normally a sweet dish. It could have been a disaster, but instead it was a triumph: beautifully lean fillet of pork with a peppery crust and juicy apples on a pastry base with just the right amount of sweetness and an accompanying jus. It was absolutely delicious and despite my main course also being lovely, I have to admit to dinner envy! It did come with a crunchy, oriental style salad of apple, carrot and a few other things with a citrusy dressing, but we both agreed that this was totally unnecessary and also completely at odds with the rest of the meal. Clearly the chef felt the dish needed some kind of vegetable accompaniment, but it really didn’t – or if it had, some simple braised cabbage (perhaps red cabbage to go with the apple) or leeks would have been sufficient.
I chose breast of duck, which was served with fondant potato and creamed mushrooms and cabbage, with a smoked chilli jus. There didn’t seem to be any noticeable sign of cream or creaming with the veg, but nevertheless it was very nice: crisp cabbage, tasty mushrooms and just the right amount of seasoning (I sound like John Torode!). The duck was absolutely excellent, slightly pink inside with a crispy skin, and the smoked chilli gave it a hint of a spicy kick which was not overpowering.
The meal was nicely set off with a wonderful bottle of Backsburg South African Merlot. With wine and an after dinner drink (but no desserts despite a tempting selection!) the bill came to around £80, which is not bargain basement, but given the quality of the food and wine is reasonable – despite the slightly disappointing starter in Mr W’s case. The excellent main courses and my lovely starter have persuaded me to still give four stars for the food, even though Mr W’s starter was probably only deserving of two or three. The service was friendly and efficient, but not overly engaging or memorable, and the ambience is hard to rate, as it will depend so much upon your perspective. As the precursor to going on for more drinks as part of a lively night out, it’s ideal, but as the main focus of your evening or for a quieter meal it certainly wouldn’t be the right venue on a Saturday night – and in our case on this occasion, even as part of a night out, the live music was just too loud and intrusive in the restaurant.
Recommended at a weekend if you like lively places or on a weekday if you just like good food!
Food: **** Service: *** Ambience: **
1812, The Royal Exeter Hotel, Exeter Road, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH2 5AG