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Tonicbarcuisine, Chester

FOOD fashions rather come and go. This week's trendy cafe bar does, sadly, tend to become next week's down-and-out greasy spoon.

Tonicbarcuisine taste test main

FOOD fashions rather come and go. This week's trendy cafe bar does, sadly, tend to become next week's down-and-out greasy spoon.

Chester, however, appears to be bucking the easy-come-easy-go trend, especially in the ever-so-slightly out of town end of Northgate Street. A number of interesting restaurants have joined the well-established handful which have served those in the know for many years.

Now there's another venue which deserves to succeed, not only because of the quality of its food and service, but because it is refreshingly different.

Tonicbarcuisine is situated in the tranquillity of Abbey Green, a small courtyard which includes Alexander's Jazz Theatre, a Mediterranean restaurant, a couple of tea shops, a sandwich bar, a delicatessen and a few trendy shops which attract browsers but never appear to sell their wares.

What is now Tonic has had something of a chequered past. Several restaurants have tried - and, it appears, failed - to make a go of it in this place. But Tonic might just have got it right.

We went on a Tuesday evening and it was pleasantly busy. It's a deceptive place, too. Anyone wandering past might think it was just another bar. It is, if that's what you want. It's open from mid-morning until late evening and there's a pleasing bar area with tables outside on the attractive patio.

The brown and white decor and angular fittings make it a definite blast from a suspect past. "I'm definitely getting 1970s here," declared Mark. And - joy - there's no pounding music. Expectation begins to rise very rapidly indeed.

Service is excellent. It's attentive without being fussy, fast but not rushed.

We chose to pass on the aperitifs - though the cocktail list looks tantalising. The old favourites are there - Singapore sling, Tom Collins, Mojito - but there are available, as they put it, "time honoured classics with a contemporary twist".

Watermelon or butterscotch Martini, perhaps. Or the rather dubiously named Goose Martini. Maybe a Bombay bramble or Old skool mule. At £4.50 a go, it's not a bad cocktail price.

We ordered a bottle of wine and were disappointed to find out that Simon Gilbert's Mudgee Shiraz - a particular favourite of ours - was sold out, the result of a busy weekend.

We were offered a Californian Zinfandel, said to be a similar wine. Again, staff were helpful, though we would rather have been asked to take another look at the wine list.

Mark tasted the 1999 Pepper Wood Grove wine then pronounced that "we'd expected something heavier" but, to everyone's relief - mine in particular - said it was acceptable.

But then he went off into his wine taster's mode. "Not the most flavoursome wine we've had. It's introverted, shy and certainly not overpowering. Typically American taste: doesn't want to offend anyone."

Water was supplied without having to ask for it, as well as a selection of olives on which to nibble while awaiting the main course. To be honest, I was already in seventh heaven with a glass of red wine and a plate of olives in front of me.

The menu is not huge but no one should feel short-changed when it comes to choice. Breakfasts are available - fresh fruit bowl for £3.50, full breakfast for around £7 - and there are salads, pastas and sandwiches for lunchtime.

Mark asked for mozzarella, black olive and sun-dried tomato ravioli with mixed salad and balsamic vinegar, only to be told it was off. So, as readers of this column might recognise, he chose salmon fishcakes with spicy chilli sauce - his sturdy standby.

"They now seem so fashionable on a menu they must be on the way out," he suggested, yet was pleased when they arrived.

"Inflated!" he said, commenting on their size. "Plenty of salmon, not over-fatty, the chilli making a not-overly-astringent addition to the fishcakes."

I asked for warm black pudding, wrapped in bacon and fried until golden with a mustard grain sauce. It was cleverly presented, the pudding in a bacon flower-pot, a real sculpture on a plate. The salad was plentiful and the whole dish was not over-filling.

I'd spotted the whole sea bream early on and was far from disappointed when my main course arrived.

A large, succulent, meaty fish on a skillet. The fat on the skillet was, perhaps, a little overpowering but the fish was delicately beautiful.

Mark chose the house grill, a hugely generous selection of rib eye steak, gammon, sausage, calves liver, black pudding and beef tomato. Again, each item was well prepared and presented.

In addition, we were able to select two side orders from the menu. That's each, which, in some ways, was a mistake as we and the table began to groan.

Some light, fluffy mashed potato with horseradish, a generous salad of rocket, spinach and cherry tomatoes with a light dressing as well as home-made chunky chips.

Chips? "We're not used to real chips," said Mark. "Forget pommes frites. We simply don't expect pan-fried, deep brown, non-greasy large pieces of potato. Excellent."

The dessert menu contains the usual offerings: bread and butter pudding, sorbets, ice creams. Mark chose pistachio and vanilla ice cream while I asked for the brandy snap bowl with fruit and ice cream.

Again, this was a work of culinary art. The brandy snap was sweet enough to complement the excellent main course, and the strawberries ideal to round off the meal.

Tonic is a real asset to the growing restaurant scene in Chester. It deserves to succeed.

Tonicbarcuisine, 2 Abbey Green, Chester, CH1 2JH.
Telephone: 01244-329932 Fax: 01244-341865
E-mail: Tonicbarcuisine@aol.com

Open: Monday-Saturday 10am-11pm. Sunday: 11am-10.30pm
Ambience: Refined, relaxed
Service: Excellent
Value for money: Good, for a place of this quality
Menu: Vegetarian options available and good choice
Parking: Usual problem of being in Chester city centre
Disabled access: Reasonable. One or two steps.

The bill:
Fishcakes: £4.25
Black pudding: £4.50
Sea bream: £12.50
House grill: £14.95
Ice cream: £3.25
Brandy snap: £4.95
Bottle wine: £14.00
Coffees: £3.00
TOTAL: £61.40


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