Just an hour from London Waterloo lies Winchester, a cute cobbled town in Hampshire. It’s actually a city, with its very own cathedral, but the sweet market-lined high street (singular) and proper country pubs tell a different story. One of those pubs is The Black Boy, and nearby, in Chesil Street, is The Black Rat, a pub that has been a pub for as long as anyone can remember and has now been turned into a restaurant. The building dates back to the 1700s, although in the cellars there’s evidence of 15th or 16th century stonework. There’s also a wine bar of sorts called The Black Bottle, filled with great big machines of wine and little dispensers for you to sample each one – don’t worry, it’s on the list! – and the just-opened B&B, The Black Hole Bed and Breakfast, which has 10 ‘cells’. All of the venues in the ‘Black’ collection are part of the same group, owned by David Nicholson, the champion of these kooky-cool, old-and-new, quirky-meets-quaint establishments.
A Michelin-star restaurant, which has only just started opening at the weekend (you’re not in London any more, Dorothy), The Black Rat’s menu is presided over by Head Chef, Ollie Moore. Enter through a (very) small door and you’ll be taken down a narrow carpeted hallway, not unlike your Gran’s, into a room with just a handful of tables and more than several handfuls of knickknacks and oddities in the corners and on the wall. We sat near a horn that they think came from an old merchant ship with a window blacked out by a big black sheet with bus stop names on it – presumably the bit that the driver would turn around to let people know which service he was running, whatever that’s called!? – protecting the 40-something-year-old bottles of port sat on its sill.
The staff are really friendly and really well-informed at The Black Rat, though they’ll decide on how well-informed you’ll find them depending on how squeamish you look. Our lovely waiter thought I might change my mind about my main when he delivered the news that it involved lamb’s testicles, but oh how wrong he was…
We started with drinks, beers for the boys and a G&T for me. The gin list was lengthy but I went for Hendricks all the same, ’cause I love it so. And of course, we ordered a bottle or two of red. La Playa is the kind of Cabernet Sauvignon that’s great straight away, no need to warm up to it or get your head in the game. Full and fruity and bold but not strong is my amateur assessment of said drop.
Once we’d ordered from the set lunch menu, which offered just three options for each course, we were presented with some bread to get things started. The Black Rat doesn’t do bread baskets by halves though. They don’t do bread baskets at all actually, for our squid ink parmesan rolls and just-bread slices were delivered on a slate with brown sugar butter as well as a more conventional butter-butter. The squid ink didn’t really change the flavour – the cheese really came through – but the texture was soft and elastic. And the sweet butter was incredible, like butterscotch with a slightly crumbly, paste-y spread.
With five diners we ticked off all of the starter options. I went for the meatiest of the bunch, the Guinea Fowl Terrine, Egg Yolk Puree, Fried Muffin, Baby Onion, Button Mushrooms. The others had either the Tea Cured Salmon, Raw and Cooked Peas, Burnt Onion Oil, Radish and Watercress, or the Salt and Pepper Squid, Courgette and Lemon Soup, Black Migas and Raw Courgette. As a fish-free friend, I can’t comment on the others but the oohs and ahhs suggested both sea-dwelling options were tasty. I can vouch for my terrine, which was chunky and sumptuous and so tasty. There were so many different slithers of cuts of meat and a beautiful, unctuous cement-like gel holding it all together. I haven’t eaten a terrine with a knife and fork like you would a piece of meat before, but when it’s so close to that in taste and texture, why wouldn’t you? There was absolutely no need for bread.
Again, we had one of everything from the main menu, which included the Lamb Loin, Bayildi, Fennel and Cardamon Puree, Wild Garlic, Potato and Lamb Balls (that’s the bit with the actual balls in!) and Black Olive. It was fab. The two lumps of lamb were beautifully pink and really succulent with a decent chew letting you sink your teeth into all that lovely juiciness. There were just the right amount of drizzles and scrapes on the plate and the lamb balls were great and a little like posh chicken nuggets or deep fried sweetbreads. The other meat option was Beef Cooked in Blue Cheese, Smoked Pommes Anna, Broccoli Puree, Relish and Raw Tops, which equated to a really rich piece of beef, which had been cooked in a bag with blue cheese in a water bath to give it an ‘aged and hung’ tang, accompanied by some tasty spud and veg. Lastly, the littlest member of our group and the biggest fin-fanatic chose the Pollock, Shellfish Nage, Mussels and Clams, Sea Lettuce and White Asparagus. She seemed pretty chuffed with it all.
The portion sizes are somewhere in the middle of arty and wholesome with generous lumps of the main attraction in each, which is great because you’re out of hangry town but there’s also no question about the answer to ‘room for dessert?’. Choosing between either the Tonka Bean Pannacotta, Torched Mandarin and Chocolate Sauce, the Bee Pollen Parfait, Lavender, Mixed Berries and Fresh Honeycomb Ice Cream and the cheese board wasn’t too hard for me; it was Tonka Bean all the way but the parfait was fab and the cheese selection with the quince paste almost had me asking for a fourth course.
With the wine gone the bartender came to see if we needed a little digestif, which we, to be polite, said yes to. Okay, we were the least polite table in the restaurant with our cackles and grazing sounds audible over, well, everything but we sure were enjoying ourselves (sorry and thank you Team Black Rat!). The boys went for Lagavulin and a Negroni, while I tried an Old Fashioned. I have had one before, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t taste like this one: sweet and smooth and silky with a hint of caramel. Delicious.
Who knows what we might have had next, had we not been made aware that we were the last table to leave (this happens to us a lot..) and that closing time was upon us . A walk back over the bridge and through the light hustle and bustle of Winchester city centre, via a quick peek in the Great Hall and the shops and then back to the train station and straight for the Big Smoke was a day well ended in my opinion. And I can’t recommend a trip to The Black Rat enough, should you find yourself that way.
Saturday set lunch at The Black Rat: 2 courses for £25.95, 3 courses for £28.95.
The Black Rat. 88 Chesil Street. Winchester. Hampshire. England. SO23 0HX
Reservations: 01962 844465