Some years ago I did some freelance work at a college in Birmingham. The money was rubbish, but I discovered the perk on the first day when the people I was working with ushered me down to the training canteen run by catering students.
Many college training restaurants are open to the public. Yes, you might have to be patient with befuddled new students at the start of term, and the menu is often fairly limited. But the food, in my experience, is worth taking a chance for.
Star Bistro, which is part of the National Star Centre at Ullenwood, near Cheltenham, is a definite gem. The college is for students with disabilities, and has produced some Paralympians. Based on today’s showing, it’ll be turning out some talented chefs as well.
The restaurant is light, airy and cheerful, with plenty of space between tables for wheelchairs to get through. And this also means you don’t feel your neighbours can reach over and snitch a chip. It’s an open kitchen at one end where staff from the Wiggly Worm, who run the bistro with the college, are supervising students.
The college aims to use local produce. And the chefs certainly know how to showcase the food, which has wonderful flavours and is immaculately presented. It’s good value, too – £14 for two courses and £20 for three (the latter includes coffee).
A basket of two home-baked breads arrived at the table very promptly, as did, unasked, a bottle of tap water, which won the place brownie points before we’d even started! The menu isn’t huge, particularly for vegetarians (and beware of the parmesan – I suspect those in the kitchen, like many restaurants, don’t realise it isn’t veggie).
The starter, pumpkin gnocchi, came with a sage butter, nutmeg creme fraiche, crisp sage leaves and parmesan shavings. The small brown ovals looked nothing like usual pale gnocchi. And the flavours were amazing. Also veggie (sans parmesan cream) was mushroom soup, which was garnished with tarragon and croutons. The only criticism of both from my stepmother (who had the soup) and me was that they could have been slightly hotter.
There was just one vegetarian main course, but it was fabulous – mini spinach and ricotta cakes with a dijon mustard and cream sauce, pea shoots and goats’ cheese mousse. I was glad I was warned by my stepmother, who’d been before, that it came as is – it definitely needed a bowl of buttery new potatoes to bulk it out. Again, the flavours were just beautiful.
Dessert was an autumn crumble, packed full of apple, plums and blackberries, with a sesame, pumpkin seed and almond crumble topping, served with a dinky pot of creme anglais. I narrowly resisted licking the plate.
Service was cheerful – there are cunning gadgets to help students with disabilities take orders and then deliver the food to the table. It turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant choice for my dad’s birthday meal and certainly one to try again.
According to the website, they will cater for special diets, so I assume vegans could phone in advance. Note, though, that the bistro is only open during the week (11am – 4pm). It also serves morning coffee and traditional teas.
National Star College
Tel: 01242 535984