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A treat with meat but service needs stations

Review: Hops and Chops. 6 Kent Road, St Crispins, Northampton, NN5 4DR

There are two high landmarks that always make Penda glad to be home: Northampton’s Express Lift Tower and the clock-tower at the derelict St Crispin’s hospital site, perched on top of a hill and surrounded by a huge amount of new houses.

And it’s down a side street in this sprawling new estate that you’ll find Hops and Chops – the new sibling to the now established Smokepit (see NQ issue 5).

Our first visit to H&C was as a party of six on a Wednesday evening – booking is through an online app although you can just phone, and despite being midweek it was already pretty full.

It’s definitely a restaurant rather than bar, and tastefully decorated. We were quickly seated, walking past a glass display fridge hung with large joints of meat, similar to the big famous steakhouses in the USA (possibly not so palatable for any vegetarians.)

We waited far too long to order, despite trying to catch every server’s eye. More of this later.

The menu consists of, as you might expect, predominantly meat options. There was one veggie option on the mains – a lentil casserole with herb dumplings (£11.75) and a few more pasta choices ranging from 10 to 15 quid. As our party was wholly carnivorous we had more choice and asked our waitress for advice – ‘Well, I like steak’ was the less than informed response.

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We decided to get a couple of sharing starters (Rustic Bread Board for just shy of a tenner, with olives, almonds, goats cheese stuffed Peppers, balsamic and olive dip, and a Charcuterie Plate for £14.50, with wafer-thin slivers of ham, beef and pork loin, a triangle of (very lovely) Northamptonshire blue cheese, tiny figs and bread). We did ask if it was enough for six, and got a rather vague response from our server. To be fair, there was enough for all of us to have a small taste of each item and we weren’t over-full before our massive mains arrived, but the toasted bread was a touch burnt rather than charred.

The long wait for mains made us also notice the acoustics – it’s very easy to hear every word of tables quite a way away, making it oddly noisy (and nosy).

Mains were good – a smaller human on our table had standard chicken dippers and chips from a kids’ menu that includes a steak option. Penda’s friends had Honey Heat Tomapork, meltingly good bourbon-glazed belly pork with a second chop (£17.50); a 10oz maple glazed gammon ham with pineapple chutney and warm brie (£12.50); a dry-aged Hereford 10oz Sirloin (£20) and a Hops & Chops beef burger with smoked bacon, Monterey Cheddar and pickles with beef dip and tobacco onions (£13.75). Penda had the very good 10oz USDA Hanger steak which should be cooked rare (£20). All come with a choice of sides including standard spud or sweet potato fries, new potatoes, salad, coleslaw or greens.

The mains were very good. Large portions, well-cooked, and there was some mild envy when we saw the utterly delicious gammon, so all credit to the kitchen. Tobacco onions, by the way, are the deliciously crispy topper you see in the steak photo.

We really didn’t need desserts (at £7 each) but tried the apple and blueberry crumble, skillet-baked cookie with ice-cream and a white chocolate creme brulee with shortbread. The cookie was in a hot pan and very, very sweet (but fairly rapidly demolished) while strangely, the brulee was freezing cold, with no sign of the customary top-heat that usually makes the crispy sugar top before serving at room temperature.

All in all the food was very good – if a little expensive. Our total bill was £173 for six including a beer and a G&T in the obligatory goldfish bowl but with peppercorns and petals – pretty, but tricky to drink without inhaling the peppercorns.

The main issue that would possibly impede a speedy return to Hops and Chops was the service. They struggled to take orders or clear tables quickly enough, maybe because orders were taken on tablet devices of which there didn’t seem to be enough. There were plenty of staff but they didn’t appear to be assigned stations, (a collection of close-together tables). This allows staff to concentrate on a few tables at once, rather than wafting around the entire restaurant, which is what was happening. We felt ignored, especially after ordering a jug of water for the table rather than more drinks which seemed to be the main aim of any staff who did pass our way. Don’t get me wrong, the staff were chirpy and pleasant, they just didn’t seem very . . . managed.

There are paper drinks menus on the tables that are tatty and stained, they need replacing too. (Although the gin menu is impressive).

The Smokepit has found its niche, and has become a favourite of Penda’s for a special occasion. If Hops and Chops can find its way to better service, I hope it gets its own returners and regulars too.

NQ Penda

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