It’s all the fault of the Wykeham Arms. This pub, which has won countless awards and which sits snugly by the college, is well known for its high-class wines and beers, cosy décor which predominantly involves reclaimed school desks and, of course, excellent food. What it does not do is to admit children, and so, given our trip to Winchester was intended to be a family-friendly one, we had to alter our original plans of eating at the Wykeham thrice daily for a few days, and go out into the wider city and explore.
This very quickly proved a blessing. Winchester now essentially offers three kinds of restaurants; the high-end, whether individual or outposts of well-known restaurateurs, the quirky independent and those that can be found in any sizeable town or city. Eschewing the third category (although it should be noticed that even the unadventurous likes of Ask, Zizzi and, especially here, Pizza Express occupy far more beautiful and historic locations than their stablemates usually do), we decided to concentrate on a mixture of places that summed up Winchester dining in 2018. So, although we had to pass up the (beautiful, historic and non-child-friendly) Chesil Rectory and (beautiful…you get the picture) Black Rat, we dined exceptionally well.
Primus inter pares in this regard are two high-end newcomers, a very recent Ivy towards the top of the High Street and Rick Stein’s establishment further down the street. I’ve written elsewhere on The Arbuturian about why I think that the Ivy’s rapid expansion into southern England is a good thing – as long as the quality remains at this sort of level – but there’s no doubt that the Winchester branch is a particularly special one, thanks to the friendly service, brilliant food (I’m not going to forget the starter of wasabi prawns and salt and pepper squid in a hurry, or the on-the-bone rib-eye steak) and blend of comfort and style. It manages to feel exclusive, and yet accessible, which is the best combination of factors. Full marks, too, to how the staff managed to make a small child feel part of the lunch, rather than simply an appendage to her grown-ups. And the salted caramel espresso martini with which I ended the meal was divine.
The eponymous Stein’s, meanwhile, is a more unusual beast. Rick Stein hasn’t gone for as comprehensive an expansion as the Ivy, but the non-Cornwall places in which he has set up shop – the likes of Barnes, Marlborough and Sandbanks – are all well-heeled places with an appreciative clientele, and so it is in Winchester. We felt that the lighting was, perhaps, a touch on the bright side, which made the whole thing slightly less relaxing than it might have been otherwise, but the food – slightly simplified and less expensive versions of what might be had at Stein’s Padstow flagship – is properly excellent.
I loved the smoked salmon and horseradish cream and was blown away by the Indonesian seafood curry, which was spiced to perfection, just as my wife said that her sea bass was some of the best she’d ever tried. And the faintly unusual desserts, such as Mexican rice pudding with honeycomb and mango, work beautifully, making a visit here an absolute treat (if unavoidably not on the cheap side.)
And thence to a couple of top-notch independents, both of which establish themselves as amongst the very best in their respective cuisines anywhere in England. I’m not naturally an enormous aficionado of Japanese cuisine, and after a couple of hours spent trying (and failing) to wrangle my daughter to sleep, I turned up for dinner at the Kyoto Kitchen in the Parchment Street area of the city in a less relaxed mood than I would have been. Just as well, then, that the meal was sublime from start to finish.
On and on come the delights; plump chicken gyoza, perfectly crisp kara-age, sea bass tempura (or isobar-agè, to give it its accurate name) and one of the highlights I’ve eaten anywhere all year was the so-called ‘Winchester roll’, a sushi roll using fresh Hampshire-grown wasabi, a more delicate and satisfying concoction than the usual mustard-fierce green paste. Larger plates of miso lamb and chicken teriyaki did a fine job of satisfying appetites, as did a scrumptious bottle of Marlborough Pinot Gris from the short, well-put-together wine list; by the time that we ended with some perfect mochi ice cream, we were convinced that we’d found the best Japanese food outside Kyoto itself.
And then last, but not least, Pi pizza, situated a short walk away from the station, in the up and coming Fulflood district of the city. I’d heard excellent things about their 72-hour fermented dough and near-legendary 20-inch pizzas, which nod to what Homeslice has done in London but are very much their own entity.
The behemoth that we shared, a combination of three different toppings – aubergine with garlic and chilli, Serrano ham with tomatoes and truffle oil and salami with aubergine and feta – is the stuff of dreams, but all of the top-notch ingredients, including perfect burrata with caramelised figs for a small plates, are some of the very best that we’ve tried. Pi is, apparently all set to embark on a roll-out, having already opened a restaurant in Battersea and with more to come in the future. On this evidence, they can’t come quickly enough.
So, there we are; four fantastic restaurants, all of which will reward repeated visits. Lucky Winchester residents, and lucky us, too; proof, if it was needed, that there is more to this city than the Wykeham Arms.