It’s not often that you can say that onboard train dining is an enjoyable experience: with memories of cardboard sandwiches and scalding but flavourless hot drinks, it’s no wonder that I normally bring my own. However, First Great Western are shaking up the “train food” market with their revolutionary dining experiences, which make use of locally sourced ingredients and one of the South West’s best known chefs.
50 products on the First Great Western menus have been replaced with items that are produced within 15 miles of their railway lines, from smoked salmon and cheese to bread and pies. You can see the full, ever-growing list of producers here.
But that’s not all. Seahorse and RockFish owner Mitch Tonks has been working with First Great Western since January last year to create menus for the rail operator’s Pullman Dining Car – a silver service dining option for those travelling the long routes between London and Plymouth, and London and Penzance.
It was in January 2013 that Mitch Tonks’ Pullman dining menus were launched, with three different menus being rotated and running for two weeks at a time. It’s an interesting operation, with an incredibly small amount of kitchen space, as you’d expect, on each train: with one chef, one service manager and two serving staff all that can fit on each service, Tonks had the challenge of designing a menu that could be created in such a small space by so few staff, but still with a fine dining feel.
As part of Bristol Food Connections, Hart’s Bakery played host to a “Pullman Pop Up” event, designed to showcase the dishes that are served in the Pullman dining cars. On the day of our lunch, large scale photos of First Great Western destinations had been used to line the walls of the bakery, with the linens and table settings the exact same as are used for the Pullman service – the team just had the luxury of a little more space than normal!
We began our Pullman dining experience with a fantastic Prosecco from Italian wine maker Nino Franco: their Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. At 11% alcohol, it’s a beautiful, bright sparkler: lovely and crisp and with a lovely fruity flavour. Definitely one we’ll be looking out for again – and on the Pullman service, they serve it in half bottles.
The menu from which we chose was the menu currently running in the Pullman dining cars, with a choice of three starters and four mains. It was good to see that vegetarians are catered for with both courses, but if you don’t like seafood or mushrooms, you’re a little stuck on the starter front…
For my starter, I chose a portion of wild mushrooms (£9), served in a rich white wine sauce on top of a slice of sourdough toast. Full of flavour and beautifully presented, it’s a starter I’d happily order in a restaurant, let alone on a train…
For Chris, the River Exe Mussels (£10), large and plump and in a very different sauce to normal. Wine, bay and chilli aren’t a combination you’d normally see served with mussels, but it worked beautifully and he happily soaked up the remaining sauce with his bread roll.
I rarely eat steak (I have to be in the right mood!), but the Grilled Somerset Fillet Steak (£28) that I enjoyed for my main was one of the best I’ve had this year. Meltingly tender and topped with a herby and spicy Café de Paris butter, there’s no denying that I’d made a great choice. To accompany my steak, as per the standard Pullman service, I was also offered a choice of Tracklements mustards or horseradish, served in individual jars.
Chris’ fish (£24) was perfectly cooked, lovely and translucent and flaking well under the fork. Served with wonderfully sweet creamed leeks, we were both amazed at just how much can be achieved in such a small train carriage kitchen.
All of the mains were served with a selection of vegetables, including dauphinoise potatoes, citrusy carrots and cabbage, which were brought round in metal serving dishes by our serving staff – a little reminiscent of school dinners, but an understandable serving method given the circumstances in which these meals are normally enjoyed.
The menu also features a “savoury” course, between the main and dessert, of a Devon blue cheese and fig tart (£5) – a savoury course may be a strange idea when there is also cheese on offer, but this dish, we were told, had originally been created for the Pullman menu but was deemed unsuitable as a choice of starter. I for one am pretty glad that they made up a new course just for this dish: the pastry was thin, crumbly and perfect, the figs both sweet and peppery, and the egg-based blue cheese topping adding a lovely salty, savoury edge. Definitely one I’m going to need to try and replicate at home…
Onto the one dessert of the menu: an espresso pannacotta with a brandy syrup (£8). I loved the way in which this was served, in a Pullman-branded teacup with two differently sized saucers underneath. Now, I gave up caffeine a few years back, but still couldn’t resist having a taste…and while I loved it, it may not be for everyone. The intensity of the coffee and brandy flavours was amazing, incredibly strong, and while the pannacotta itself was tasty, it had more of a mousse-like consistency to it.
We finished our meal by sampling the artisan cheese selection (£9) – a slate for two with generous portions of a moist and crumbly Devon Blue, a perfectly ripe Cornish Camembert and a Keens Cheddar which tasted incredibly fresh and young. Served with Fudge’s biscuits, quince jelly and celery sticks, it was a generous and enjoyable portion.
We were amazed at the quality of food that can be produced in such small train kitchens, giving diners an alternative to sandwiches and other cold foods on long journeys between London and Devon or Cornwall. Harking back to the old days of train travel, Mitch Tonks has created an experience to delight diners on a journey which – let’s be honest – isn’t normally the most enjoyable.
For more details of the Pullman dining experience, including journey times and routes, and to book, visit the First Great Western website.
Please note: this meal was received free of charge, but in no way impacted on our opinion. We were not obliged to write a positive review, and the venue did not see this review before it was put up on the site.