“ 58 Watergate Street, Chester, CH1 2LA. Tel: 01244-313 721 „
Last year, just as the impact of the economic downturn was starting to kick in, I watched an episode of Gordon Ramsey's 'Kitchen Nightmares' in which he helped two UK restaurants to adapt to the changing times. I'm not a fan of the foul-mouthed aggressive Mr R but I was impressed by his approach to how to stay afloat when times get tough. He made it clear to both restaurateurs that when money gets tight, nothing matters more than getting bums on seats and key to that is getting your price point right and making your offer relevant to your clientele. Forget your focus on the finest of dining and the biggest of menus, he told them, trim your menu to a smaller number of cheap-to-make dishes and pull in the punters.
In the area where I live in the East Midlands, this message still seems to be getting largely ignored and good restaurants are so few and far between that the prices remain high. But in the area where I work, up in the North West, reality has bitten home and restaurants are doing everything they can to fill their tables. One excellent example of this is Aquavit in Chester which offers both a 3 course lunch deal at £8.95 per person and an after dinner menu at £9.95 on Monday to Friday from 6:00 pm to 10:30 pm.
~ The Occasion~
My colleague Angela is pregnant and fit to pop so on the evening before her last day at work before starting her maternity leave we all wanted to go out and celebrate, or perhaps to just take her mind off the horrors to come. With only one of the nine attendees actually having kids, we were able to avoid the worst of the "Ooh, you wouldn't believe how painful it is" comments and we put a strict embargo on anyone telling horror stories about their cousin's labour that lasted for 3 weeks or any discussion of tender parts getting torn and mangled.
With quite a mixed crowd to deal with, living in different directions and having different levels of disposable income, we needed to find somewhere that wouldn't break the bank for those feeling the pinch but would still give Angela the sense of something a bit more special than the local Indian restaurant (which would probably have just given her horrific heart burn). We narrowed down the choices to a couple of restaurants in Chester, one of which was a Brazilian. Despite my almost overwhelming desire to write a review entitled 'Going for a Brazilian', I knew that as a non meat-eater, I was unlikely to find much to tempt me in such a place. The decision was taken that we'd book into Aquavit - or sometimes Aquavitus, it's rather confusing - for an early dinner after work.
Aquavit as the classicists among us will recognise means 'the water of life' - or to those who've been to Scandinavia, a type of paint-stripping alcohol that could only really be so successful in countries that are very cold and where booze is stupidly expensive. The restaurant sign says Aquavit but the business cards and website say Aquavitus. I'm confused but frankly not too bothered. The name - whichever it is - was apparently chosen by the Swedish lady who owns and runs the place with her husband. That was a surprise to me because on my first visit I'd been pretty sure they place was run by Italians. You never can tell.
The restaurant is in the centre of Chester on Watergate St, not in the double decker sections of shops and restaurants for which the city is so famed, but very close to them. We tend to park in the multi-storey by the bus station and underneath the Crowne Plaza because it's the only car park most of us can find and it's free after 3 pm. It's also - once you work out the layout of the town - rather close to the restaurant.
From the outside you don't really get a sense of how big the restaurant is. It looks rather small but the building makes up with depth for what it lacks in terms of frontage. Head up the stairs to the main restaurant and you are confronted by a really nice looking place, filled with quirky decorations, odd nick-nacks and some rather strange photographs. The wooden beams are decorated with the names of famous wines, there are metal racks of bottles scattered around and I even noticed a bunch of those old fire companion sets shaped like knights of old - I expect everyone's grandma had one along with the clothes brush shaped like a duck. The room has wooden floors, tables of varying sizes and plenty of natural light from the lovely old sky-lights in the roof. It looks good and to be honest, it doesn't look cheap.
We first found Aquavit(us) when I had some Belgian and Dutch visitors and needed to feed them. We'd tried for a couple of other restaurants that couldn't fit us in, when my assistant suggested this place. She'd booked a table for her parents that weekend and I think she wanted to check it out before they arrived. I took 10 people that first time and they all seemed to love it and with the bill clocking up to about £150 including drinks, it had been great value too. I was looking forward to going back again.
~ Our Meal ~
We arrived early; really early. We had a booking for 6.15 pm which was a bit or a rush but worked for me because I had a 3 hour drive ahead of me once we'd finished. The restaurant had allocated us a large table, set for 10 people, about two thirds of the way into the room. Half the group were there when Angela and I rolled up and we joined them at the table. The first thing I noticed was the chairs were a bit too high for the table. I was glad I don't have fat thighs because the space between the chair and the table was pretty tight.
The waitress, whom I assume from the accent was the probably the Swedish lady who owns the place, brought us menus, jugs of water and lots of glasses and returned about 10 minutes later to take our orders. The menu isn't great if you don't eat meat but for those that do, there's plenty of choice. One of the starters included black pudding and I was amazed to find that half my colleagues had never had it. I reminisced about my sad childhood, sent to school with my mother's black pudding and beetroot sandwiches and nobody was surprised to hear that the other kids never wanted to swap with me. I chose the soup which was mushroom whilst the others split between the odd dish with the black pudding (from memory, I think it had a poached egg on top) and sliced pheasant breast.
Main courses included three options I could have chosen - two of them fish and one vegetarian. I opted for a salad with hot-smoked salmon but could have tried some kind of fried fish served with a leek puree and something odd done to a potato.
With the orders placed, the waitress returned for drink orders and politely managed to hide her disappointment at the number of diet cokes and fizzy waters caused by so many of us having to drive. Three of the ladies split a bottle of red wine but were a bit baffled when they were presented with a very white Pinot Grigio instead of the very red Pinotage they'd ordered. The waitress was a bit embarrassed but soon put things right. On both my visits to the restaurant, I've never felt under any pressure to buy expensive wines or to supplement the meal by getting lots of drinks or extras. On my first visit the waiter had actually recommended that the house wines were really good value but had done so in such a way as to not make me feel like we were all being cheapskates.
We all tucked into the bread basket and, since we work for a bakery company, a suitable amount of analysis went into trying to identify why it was so heavy and our consensus was that it was probably corn bread. When the starters arrived, I realised my soup was not a bad choice - certainly compared to the tiny size of the pheasant breasts, I thought I at least got something that would take more than a few mouthfuls to get through. The black pudding starter was probably the most generous of the options and resulted in a lot of "Ooh, I never thought it would taste like that" comments. The soup was smooth, suggesting they've got a really good blender, and slightly peppery. I was very pleased that it wasn't too creamy and that you really could taste the mushroom. All the dishes were beautifully presented though rather small.
Main courses were also well presented but some were a bit on the small side. We'd been encouraged to order a couple of bowls of mixed vegetables which probably was a good idea because some of the meals were looking a little 'lost' on their plates. My salad was fine with plenty of salmon and the salmon was of good quality. The salad had been dressed and I'm not a great fan of dressing but fortunately it hadn't been overdone and it didn't distract me from enjoying the dish. The person next to me was tucking into the hot fish dish, a fried hake if I remember correctly, and seemed to be prodding at it a little disdainfully.
By the time we'd finished the main courses, I think most people were still a little bit hungry but we'd all picked up that Angela wasn't having a good evening. Her cat Jasper had gone missing earlier in the day and she was clearly very upset. I knew what the problem was whilst most of the diners didn't but we could all sense that the meal was turning into a bit of an ordeal. By this point it was about 7.30 pm and we were torn between dragging things on when she was clearly unhappy or leaving so soon that the whole thing just looked a bit rushed. A couple of us ordered coffees but we all skipped desserts and by 8pm we'd finished up, paid the bill of approximately £12-17 per head depending on the drinks, and were ready to leave.
~ Summary ~
You definitely get a good deal at Aquavitus; real restaurant food, nice service, pleasant surroundings and no pressure to go a la carte. The staff treat everyone courteously whether they're buying the special deals or ordering the fanciest wines and dishes. There's equally no sense that they're in a hurry to rush you through and the place does make for a good sense of occasion. The food quality is excellent although the portions aren't overly generous and if you like desserts you probably don't need to worry about having to save space for one because you could still be a bit hungry after your first two courses. Despite this it is great value for money and I definitely recommend it especially for group meals. They had another party in on the evening we went, probably twice the size of ours, and despite there being relatively few visible staff, everything seemed to be running smoothly.