Although I do love Bournemouth (I’ve split my time between here and London for the past three years, while studying), the one thing it’s always lacked (in my opinion) was somewhere classy and elegant to go for dinner and drinks. There used to be a gorgeous restaurant called The Print Rooms on Richmond Hill, but unfortunately it closed down a year ago – and ever since, there’s been a gap in the market for somewhere snazzy to go on a Friday night.
If you’re a student, you’re spoiled for choice with regards to cheaper bars, chain restaurants and fast food joints, but the luxury market was somewhat untouched – which surprised me in such a lovely location (and so close to Sandbanks too). Aruba (review here) of course is a great choice if you’re entertaining visitors, as it overlooks the beach and offers probably the largest selection of cocktails in the city, however the food isn’t anything to write home about and there is never enough seating. Plus it’s always full of stag and hen parties on the weekend.
So, when news hit that the Hilton would be opening a five star in Bournemouth (the first the area has had in 15 years), the city waited in anticipation for the restaurant and bar that would follow. And I’m pleased to say that they didn’t disappoint. A Level 8 Sky Bar was opened at the very top of the hotel while a fine dining opening – Schpoons and Forx, was to be launched on the ground floor. Menus in both venues were to be overseen by TV Chef Matt Tebbutt.
I was intrigued to see how both would fit into the city’s landscape (with a new luxury offering) and so when the invitation popped into my inbox, for a bloggers and press evening last week – my immediate response was a big yes please! Danielle, Katie and I got dressed up and headed to the hotel to see what all the fuss was about.
Staying true to the name, the Sky Bar is 145 feet above ground level – offering views all over Bournemouth. I was a bit disappointed that the views weren’t over the sea (you can’t see it at all) but instead over the rooftops of the town centre, however at night – with everything illuminated, it does still look pretty spectacular. There’s a mix of intimate booths, group booths, high backed chairs and bar stools for guests – so you can take your pick upon arrival, but the overall feel is very exclusive and relaxed. Rather extravagantly, huge golden pineapple lamps light up the bar area, which at first might seem a bit of a strange addition to a place which oozes elegance – but everything really works well together to create somewhere you can immediately feel at home in (and let your hair down a little) and at the same time, providing a luxurious setting.
In the time I’ve been living in Bournemouth, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful bloggers in the area. I remember truly feeling ‘at home’ during my first year at University after attending a Christmas bloggers meet-up with some of the other girls – and ever since, I’ve tried to catch up with all of them as often as I can. This time wasn’t any different – as I was delighted to see Brogan (and her friend Megan), Emma, Rosie and Rhiannon. It made for a really lovely intimate evening, as there wasn’t a large group (where you only talk to everyone very briefly).
We spent the first hour sampling some of the many cocktail concoctions offerings, including the Bournemouth Pier – complete with custard candy floss and the Bournemouth Sour (the most expensive at £14.95 a glass), a mix of chilled red wine, egg whites and bitters. Although they were both exceptionally photogenic, they were a little too alcoholic for my tastebuds and so Megan and I went ‘off-menu’ for a berry daiquiri.
The host of the evening Matt, arrived at 9pm and we followed him down to his restaurant on the ground-floor. Cleverly (but simply) named ‘Schpoons & Forx’ (it took Danielle and I a good half an hour to work out this was actually a play on spoons and forks – wow), the ceilings are lined with wooden spoons and forks – which creates a very quirky but cosy feel. An open kitchen gives the restaurant a certain buzz that you don’t get in many places in the area. It has an exciting, fast paced energy – almost a little like London, but friendlier.
Once seated, the wine started flowing – as did the food. We all had expected a couple of canapés or tasters of the amazing (but unusual) menu, featuring dishes such as duck fat scraps (basically huge triple cooked chips), fish risotto and seaweed buttered halibut. So we weren’t prepared for the feast that awaited. And when I say feast, I mean feast.
First up were several platters of cockles, with freshly squeezed lemon drizzled over the top. I’m not a huge fan of cockles but the girls said they were lovely – and couldn’t resist a few handfuls of these each…
Then came an amazingly doughy masterpiece – a truffle oil, rosemary and cheese flatbread. I couldn’t try this myself as I’m dairy-free, but it looked incredible and smelt out of this world.
A rather unusual dipping platter arrived next, which Matt (who took us through each of the dishes and their inspirations) explained was a traditional Italian Bagna Cauda – essentially garlic and ground anchovies with raw vegetables. It was rather fishy, but definitely worth a try if you like anchovies.
Mackerel with cumin and coriander followed, which had the most incredible flavour. Usually I’m not a huge fan of fish dishes (unless it’s salmon or sea bass) as they can be quite bland but this was amazing (so much so, I had three helpings). It had been wood-fired so that the skin was crispy and oozing flavour from the marinade. My favourite main by far.
Scallops with ham hock and salsa verde arrived next. With a melt in the mouth texture and bursting with flavour, we could have eaten a whole portion of these each.
From that point on, I almost lost track of the amazing dishes that were being placed in front of our noses. Luckily, they were all caught on camera. Including these courgette fritters.
And medium steak with duck fat scraps (amazingly crisp roast potato chips essentially).
Mussels, clams and red mullet cooked in vermouth.
Lamb with flatbread and tzatziki.
A whole halibut with seaweed butter…
And smoked haddock and mascarpone risotto.
By this point, we were all so full that we were having to resist taking more mouthfuls of our favourite dishes. We had a short break, before moving swiftly onto the dessert offerings. Unfortunately only one was dairy-free (I do wish more places would cater for us lactose intolerants – and experiment with flavour to create something more exciting than just sorbet – as I truly don’t think you need dairy to make something delicious) but excited to see the creations that followed, I made do by snapping all that appeared on the table. And if we thought the above was a feast, little did we know what was coming up…
Vanilla panacotta with 30-year-old port graced the table first.
Then it was banana tart with caramel and amaretto.
Followed by an incredible looking Creme Brûlée.
Chocolate tart and clotted cream.
Wafer thin pineapple and passion fruit with soft meringue (this was eaten before we could capture it).
And red wine and mint sorbet shots.
Oh, and the most almighty Rum Baba.
When the feast had finished, we all sang Matt’s praises and thanked him for an amazing evening – filled with great food and equally as wonderful company. It was such a lovely touch to have the chef personally explain each dish (and let me know the ingredients, so I knew whether it was suitable or not) – and before you suggest that it was just for the sake of the ‘press’ evening, we actually noted that he did this with a lot of the tables. Despite the fine dining feel to many of the dishes, the atmosphere was so friendly and welcoming that Matt actually sat and spoke with many of the evening’s guests.
We left with very full stomachs (we each unbuttoned our jeans once in the taxi home) and promises to go for cocktails again soon. Well whenever we do, I think we know where we will be booking – and it comes with a rather amazing view…