Food review: The Chef Range from Eurospar
Eurospars in 15 locations
The solution to a problem which frequently arises in our house at feeding time has been found.
Too idle to cook yet can't be bothered getting in the car to go to a restaurant, too hungry to wait 90 minutes for the takeaway to arrive, our family regularly descends into a confused, frustrated stasis broken eventually by a lot of grumpy rummaging in the back kitchen for crisps. But guilt-free help is at hand from the most unlikely and unexpected quarter: Eurospar.
Oh, I know how sniffy you all are about Eurospar shops. My PR firm manages Eurospar's reputation and some of the ideas you have about the shops need rearranging.
The convenience store chain has recruited one of the north's best loved chefs, Carl Johannesson (formerly head chef in James Street South), and have gone all Avoca with a menu of heat-yourself, top quality, fresh, no additives, prepared meals. It may not be the first company to do so, but it is without parallel in terms of quality, flavours and textures across the five dishes I tried recently.
So confident are Chef Johannesson and Eurospar chiefs in their range of The Chef dishes, they launched it in Stock restaurant last week in a tasting menu format for an assembled group of food writers and me.
Kicking off with seafood chowder (as good as the one Johannesson used to make in the restaurant) a group of us rattled our way through a round-the-world trip, taking in roasted butternut squash with feta and honey, mango chicken Thai curry, smokey mixed bean chilli, beef lasagne and Irish beef stew.
All were familiar looking in that they appeared as appetising as the M&S versions. But once tasted, the experience was entirely upgraded. I like M&S prepared meals up to a point (their creamed spinach remains peerless) but quickly tire of the under-seasoned blandness of it all. The Avoca tubs of various stews, chillis and hotpots are delicious but you have to pay restaurant prices for the pleasure.
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Eurospar's alternative which beats both incumbents hands down, not because they are fancier (they're much simpler) but because they are unadulterated, wholesome and designed by a chef who has a young family and understands the high standards of restaurant food quality.
Which is why the chowder is rich, not bulked out with spuds but generous in the bits you want. The squash with feta and honey for vegetarians is as satisfying and bursting with fresh flavours and warm, soft textures. The Thai chicken is honestly as good as the best I've spent hours preparing at home, with very good quality chicken which Johannessen says he pre-cooks very carefully to protect the bite and firm texture. Smokey beans are another vegetarian success although the tomato and chilli sauce is a bit too acidic for me. The lasagne is a monument to Johannesson's skills: intense, dense, very meaty with a great balance of sauces and pasta and a proper crispy, toasted cheesy top.
The Irish stew made with beef reminds me of the best that ever came out of the Kitchen Bar in Pat Catney's day. He used to add a lot of salt to it because it encouraged diners to order more drink.
Unsurprisingly, all of these dishes are cooked in a conventional kitchen by Johannesson and a small team. No processing, no factory volumes, no cheating.
Some of the group found some of the dishes over-seasoned but frankly, I'd rather have that than the grey world of neutral flavours. You can always reach for the Chablis and Chianti if it makes you thirsty.
The use of local ingredients sets a new standard of smugness for those of us who would otherwise feel guilty about microwave and oven meals.
This approach removes any ideas of inadequacy because while I might be able to do a decent lasagne at home, I can't make one as good as this.
When you can get food this good at affordable prices you'd be crazy to continue living with the guilt.
Seafood chowder 620g pot: £5
Roast butternut squash 368g pot: £3.50
Thai green chicken curry 600g pot: £6
Beef lasagne 850g: £6
Irish stew 640g: £5.50