Boxing clever

UK restaurants have suffered almost a year of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns. For much of that time their doors have been closed and, sadly, some very good restaurants have already gone to the wall. For others, part of the survival strategy is to offer ‘at home’ versions of their restaurant dishes. I have enjoyed several meal boxes from a variety of restaurants, delivered for final assembly or cooking at home, including dinners from Michelin-starred kitchens. I thought a run-down of these might be of interest.

Some favourite restaurants which I would have loved to support do not deliver nationally. Places like the 1* Cail Bruich in Glasgow or the 3* Hélène Darroze in London are offering mouth-watering at home menus, but only for collection from the restaurant or very local delivery. So this small selection is based on those offering a national delivery service.

There are now hundreds of restaurants doing delivery boxes, from Thai, Indian or Middle Eastern cuisines, through to Italian, French and the best of British kitchens, so this is just a snapshot of what’s available. Generally speaking, everything you need will be in the box, right down to small packs of butter or seasoning. Many dishes require little more than assembly or reheating, while other elements do need to be cooked, but the prep will have been done, and detailed instructions with photographs or videos are provided.

Northcote

I had really enjoyed dinner at the 1* Northcote a few years ago so expectations were high. Lisa Allen has cracked the delivery of sophisticated food that not only tastes great but can be assembled into something approaching restaurant-like visual appeal at home. Word of warning though: get on the mailing list and be prepared to hammer the phone lines as soon as ordering opens as these are selling out super quickly. The gourmet box costs £105 plus delivery, and feeds two people. It also includes terrific cheese bread and butter as well as a small bag of exquisite chocolate truffles. A recent dinner started with a lovely, deeply-flavoured caramelised celeriac consomme with tiny ravioli, celeriac pearls and tarragon, then a small tranche of cod with a Middle-Eastern flavours of curry, pomegranate and almonds which ate beautifully. Onto a cracking main course of roast chicken breast with a leg bolognese and Lyonnaise potatoes. The huge portion of breast meat was stuffed with truffle and brioche and made two meals for two, the take on bolognese really quite nice, slow-cooked, rich and tender. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, apple mousse inside a white chocolate sphere made to look like an apple, survived in its box and was delicious with a gingery butterscotch sauce. One of the best boxed meals so far.

The Stafford

From the ‘Game Bird’ restaurant of The Stafford hotel, really excellent modern British cuisine, and another of the boxes I have enjoyed most. Their Classic Dining box includes a really fabulous, scone-like soda bread and creamery butter, and a selection of petit-fours. The meal kicked of with game sausage rolls, two or three bite-sized portions and deliciously gamy and rich as an amuse bouche. The first course proper was fabulous, little lobster vol au vents, piled high with meat and with a side-dish of pickled kohlrabi that added a fresh, zingy piquancy. The main course was, once again, so substantial that we saved half for lunch next day: a huge portion of maple-glazed duck breast with creamed spinach and, perhaps my favourite things of the whole meal, an exquisite braised duck leg, potato and onion pie and an apparently simple dish of garlic cauliflower which was was so flavourful. We had to leave dessert for next day too, but boy was it worth the wait: such a superior sticky toffee pudding, rich with dates, and served with salted caramel sauce and clotted cream. A great meal from The Stafford, but note that they do not deliver to the Scottish Highlands or islands.

Antona at Home

Chef Andreas Antona of the 1* Simpsons in Edgebaston was an early player in the home delivery boxes after lockdown and delivered a really top-notch meal. My one quibble was with the starter of a poached salmon terrine with a wasabi and buttermilk sauce, garnished with smoked almonds and cucumber. Each of those was delicious but I found the dish to be greatly over-salted, which detracted from the very good flavours. However the beef wellington was fabulous and heroically-proportioned. It fed us for two nights, the beef of just superb quality, wrapped in thin pancake and mushroom duxelle, and the pastry as buttery as it was delicious. A potato terrine was dense and added yet more butteriness, and also included were simply presented, but very high quality vegetables. A classic dark chocolate and cherry dessert was laced with booze (kirsch?) and was delicious, and again this meal came complete with very good artisan bread and butter at £110 for two, plus delivery.

Tommy Banks

I had a couple of meals from Tommy Banks, the eponymous one Michelin star chef who has really gone for this market on an industrial scale. His meals have gathered some criticism for inconsistency, and I’d have to agree on that point. His regular offer is the ‘Made in Oldstead’ box, with a choice of A, B, or C menus, the prices ascending slightly from around £55 to £70 for two including delivery, and going on sale at 9am each Wednesday for delivery on the Friday of the following week. There are more expensive, ‘special occasion’ offerings too. This is basically British comfort food, worthy of a good quality gastro-pub. Highlights across the two boxes I tried included a really nice, succulent butter-poached chicken, served with a confit of leg meat and a really good polenta, full-flavoured and the creamiest rendition of polenta I’ve come across: some might have thought the addition of the sweetcorn was one sweet step too far, but it worked for me. A frangipane tart was another favourite among some slightly underwhelming dishes on a ‘B’ menu: it was far removed from the typical supermarket version, with freshness and moistness to the cake, very crisp, short pastry and a lovely damson cream to accompany.

Haar

Another chef Banks, this one Dean Banks who runs an up-market restaurant in St Andrews, but supplies boxes UK-wide, most focussing on prime local Scottish produce. Though I see he has now gone big on Scottish wagyu beef burger kits too, I tried his ‘Best of Land and Sea’ box back in the first lockdown of 2020, centred around local crab, lobster and 32+ day aged, grass-fed rib-eye steak. The box for two provided plenty of food for sure, and though the steak needed cooking from scratch, the other elements needed little more than assembly and heating. The crab – all white meat – came dressed in the shell with a spicy mango slaw and  Asian-inspired dressing and was a wonderfully fresh, palate-preparing start to the meal. The lobster, landed locally, came with seaweed-cooked potatoes and a terrific Mirin butter sauce. Cook the beef as you prefer, and matched with it were two really successful components: a large portion of seared sprouting broccoli and a subtly smoked mayonnaise. This box costs £99.95 for two plus delivery, but a range of menus is available. Apologies for the use of a stock photo from Haar – this was our first lockdown box and I had no idea this would become such a big thing, so didn’t take photos.

WoodKraft

Woodkraft is the Cheltenham restaurant of Simon Wood, MasterChef champion in 2015. Again a selection of well-priced boxes is offered, but we went for his full weekend package advertised as ‘Brunch, Supper and Sunday Roast’, but in fact there was plenty here for two very substantial dinners and that brunch. This is a menu-style offering where you get to choose each course of each meal, for example, eight or nine brunch options include eggs benedict, pancakes, rarebit and a cooked breakfast. It’s a lot of food delivered as six parcels (for two people) and priced at £55 per person plus delivery, so great value really for what I would describe again as classic comfort food. Our first dinner was in some ways my favourite meal: it kicked off with duck croquettes, which came with a large pot of well-judged truffle mayo and a crunchy bitter leaf and raddish salad, followed by a big portion of succulent roast chicken, elevated to new heights of deliciousness by its accompanying gnocchi in a cheesy, wild mushroom sauce. This ‘supper’ ended with a fine, fruit-packed and crispy-topped bread and butter pudding served with the supplied fresh custard. Eggs Benedict for breakfast were excellent, with a whole box of eggs and two vac-packs of ham-hock meaning we had enough left over for a lunch too, and the classic Sunday roast (we chose beef) came with all the trimmings including Yorkshire puddings and gravy. Not haute-cuisine by any means, but marvellously tasty and well worth the money.

Nico at Home

Glaswegian chef Nico Simone was bidding to take over the world with the rapid expansion of his original Glaswegian restaurant into a chain with branches across the UK. Covid-19 may have put a temporary hold on that, but this ultra-ambitious businessman has leaped into the home delivery business with a vengeance, his ‘Home-X’ web site being a hub for several different brands and collaborations including ‘Home by Nico’ which I tried, a cheese club, wine club and various vegetarian and steak-focused offerings. The branding of what arrives is the slickest of all that I have tried, and expensive too, including custom-designed boxes and containers and a full-colour brochure explaining your meal.

Whilst most have stout, but basically plain carboard boxes filled with containers, Nico comes in a huge, flat, one-layer presentation case, with everything laid out. It looks fantastic, but one problem which I discovered and which others have reported, is that the box is so big and unweildly, that couriers clearly pack it on it side, and not ‘this way up’ as marked. The result is that the otherwise delicious ‘Tipsy Laird Trifle’, flavoured with stem ginger and sea buckthorn, should have looked like the top image from Nico’s web site, but in reality arrived as in the picture below. Maybe they willl learn from this. Apart from that fabulously sloppy trifle, I enjoyed the freshness of the starter of gin-cured salmon with a dill crème fraîche, though that was a neat, moussey quenelle in Nico’s photograph, but arrived as a liquid in my box, and the main of Stornoway black pudding and pork belly pressé was really tasty and satisfying, served with a scotch broth & white bean ragu and a couple of vegetable sides. The value here is asonishing really, because at £60 including delivery, the box for two also includes a sizebale chunk of superb Mull cheddar, relish and whole pack of biscuits, and a full bottle of decent wine to boot. I’m left thinking this was a bit of a disappointment in some respects, but then the concept and value is potentially fantastic, so a bit of a curate’s egg. But I’d try it again.