You all know how much I love trying new places, and how my infatuation with London stems from all of the incredible independent cafes, restaurants and coffee shops around, but often finding exciting, independent places to eat just isn’t practical.
I imagine a lot of Londoners take all of the incredible restaurants on their doorstep for granted sometimes; just twenty minutes north of London in St Albans and it’s a completely different story.
Don’t get me wrong – for it’s size St Albans has an incredible number of great restaurants, and there are regularly farmers’ markets and food events, but it absolutely nothing compares to the variety and choice in London; I can count the number of decent brunch spots near us on one hand! Head further North to my hometown, Sheffield, and it’s only recently that indepdent places even started opening up at all! I remember going out for dinner even as a teenager when I was back from University in the holidays and it being a complete revelation if a new restaurant had opened up! Thankfully that’s changing now, but I still feel that for a lot of smaller towns and cities, chains dominate the city centres and probably will continue to do so for quite some time due to their immense spending power.
Luckily for us, right on the main High Street in St Albans is a quality chain – Bill’s. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even afternoon tea they’re definitely one of the top chains in my opinion when it comes to variety, quality of food and unique dishes. They even regularly revamp their menu to keep it new and interesting, and when I was asked to go down and try their new Spring menu I jumped at the chance! I arranged it for the May Bank Holiday Monday – Marcus had just got back (in the early hours of that morning), I knew he wouldn’t fancy a trip into London and I knew that having been away competing he’d want a good meal and that’s when I think chains can be great – they’re dependable in the best way; you know what you’re getting and there isn’t a risk (like at some independent places) that it can be terrible.. we’d tried two new independent places in St Albans just the week before he left and I was very, very disappointed with both.
Bill’s started as a small cafe and greengrocer back in 2000 in Lewes, Essex but has grown massively since then with chains all over the UK – they have a huge presence in London and the South but also have plenty of restaurants up North and even have one in Glasgow. I love that they’ve stayed true to their humble beginnings as a small shop – in each restaurant they sell a huge range of products including bottled drinks, jams, biscuits and the cutest little packs of chocolate chips! It makes it feel special; I’m a complete sucker for a cute deli selling homemade produce.
They serve a huge mix of food, ranging from British classics like Shepherd’s pie to curries, ribs and mezze boards. I absolutely love a good mezze board – I love breads with olive oil and balsamic, cheeses, meats, falafel, dips and at Bill’s they have it all! After much deliberation (both are equally amazing, and I wanted everything from both of the boards!) we went for the normal mezze. With extra sides of halloumi sticks (which I desperately wanted from the veggie mezze board!) and potato and rosemary bread. Because bread and carbs are life – am I right!?
It came piled high with spiced tortilla chips, chicken skewers, calamari, crab cakes, olives, salsa, avocado hummus and tartare sauce. It was a close call between that and the veggie mezze (spiced tortilla chips, grilled garlic mushrooms, crumbed halloumi sticks, chickpea and parsley falafels, olives, salsa, avocado hummus, tzatziki and smokey tomatoes). I’d have happily ordered one of each mezze board and had them as my main meal! The chicken skewers came served in a beautifully thick, sticky sauce and the meat was soft and tender. Apart from the bread the halloumi sticks were my favourite – I’m halloumi obsessed and possibly the only way to make it better is to deep fry it! All hail the halloumi fries. The avocado hummus was heavenly – I guess mixing two of my favourite dips was always going to be a winner but it was so good; creamy, savoury and just so tasty. The only part that I didn’t love was the crab cakes – I found them a little soggy and underwhelming.. but dipped in the delicious avocado hummus there certainly wasn’t going to be any waste!
The bread was absolutely divine! It came warm from the oven, soft and fluffy on the inside with a lovely texture and flavour. It was served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping too.. as soon as we tasted how amazing it was we immediately ordered another loaf to go with our main meal!
I decided to try something slightly different for my main meal. We almost never cook fish at home (and when we do it’s salmon) but I love sea bass so I decided to go for that. Marcus chose the ribs. Along with another loaf of potato and rosemary bread we got an extra portion of fries too.. and a side of tenderstem broccoli, because balance 😉
My sea bass was fried to perfection! The skin was crispy, the fish was juicy and flaky and it came served on the most beautiful potato rosti. It was absolutely packed full of flavour, fried until golden brown and crispy on the outside and filled with a soft mashed potato and leek mix. Even the broccoli was good.. even if just because it was drowned in salted butter and toasted seeds.
Admittedly I’m not a big fan of ribs so I’ve only ever tried bits of them when Marcus has ordered them so I wouldn’t trust my judgement on a good vs a bad plate but Marcus loved them.
By this point in the meal we’d already put away a serious amount of food and were both feeling very, very full. Never ones to turn down dessert though we obviously asked to see the dessert menu, and with options are good as these we were always going to fit them in no matter what! The melting chocolate bombe was a no brainer but I also wanted to try the warm cinnamon donuts – Marcus doesn’t like cinnamon so we couldn’t share but I’d seen another couple order them earlier in the meal and they looked amazing so I decided to order them anyway! Safe to say we were not disappointed, and despite telling each other how stuffed we were whilst waiting for the desserts to arrive, as soon as they were put on our table we absolutely demolished them!
The donuts were warm and soft and coated in cinnamon sugar, served with strawberries, hot chocolate and hot caramel sauces – the perfect dessert! I ended up pouring the whole lot onto a plate so I could mop up every last bit of sauce! The chocolate bombe was every bit as good as it sounds, even though the hot caramel sauce pour wasn’t quite as eventful as I was expecting! Once the chocolate dome melted away though it revealed a generous number of gooey brownie chunks, chocolate sauce, vanilla and chocolate ice cream and honeycomb – literally heaven in a bowl. It was layered up beautifully too, so just when I thought all of the brownies were gone there were more hiding at the bottom 😀 They also have sticky toffee pudding, chocolate fondant and a chocolate brownie sundae amongst other equally amazing-sounding desserts on their menu!
We both left absolutely stuffed and extremely satisfied. We agreed that of all the chains, Bill’s is certainly one of the best around and we’ll definitely be back!
Best of all I’m giving one of you the chance to win one hundred pounds to spend in any Bill’s restaurant! That’s more than enough for a three course meal plus drinks for you and a friend.. you could even take a third person if you’re less greedy than Marcus and I were, though trust me you’ll want to order the whole menu 😛
Head over to my Instagram (@nickichanlam) for full entry details!
Link to their website: https://bills-website.co.uk