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The Rocking Horse, Aintree - review

Angie Sammons says don't venture out of Aintree's gates for food if Nationalling

Written by . Published on April 6th 2011.

The Rocking Horse, Aintree - review

IF Liverpool is a place you only visit once a year, it is a safe bet that you have come for one reason: to indulge in one of man's oldest vices. One in which you may get passionate for up to 20 minutes before walking away lighter in the wallet and, depending which side of the Irish Sea you are from, perhaps vaguely guilty too.

The broccoli, drained of all colour, looked like the battered remains of Becher's Brook after being assaulted, twice inside five minutes, by 40 horses at full gallop

The Grand National struts its stuff in broad daylight every April and, as top five UK sporting events go, they don't come much louder, more thunderous or more evocative.

Ladies Day: cue the snooty, jeering fashion columns by women called Tamara Fuckwit-Bleugh in the Daily Mail. The pap shots of Coleen and Curran and the vision of thousands of Liverpool lovelinesses who have spent thousands of Liverpool pounds on teetering heels and sleeveless outfits.

Like the volume control on the amp in Spinal Tap, these babes aren't dressed up to the nines, they've taken it all the way up to 11.

And then there is the business itself of racing gee-gees round one of the most treacherous courses in the world. In a bad year, the spectacle can be harder to stomach than watching the fashionable fillies of eight hours earlier spewing a gallon of pink fizz into their handbags at dusk.

Which brings us to the Rocking Horse.


The nearest rivals to The Grand National in the racing calendar are the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Royal Ascot (Tamara's already got the gastric band in for that one) and the Epsom Derby.

Look on the web for the nearest pubs to Ascot and names like The Fat Duck crop up. At Aintree, however, you don't need to consult google maps for the nearest place to trough at the world's biggest steeplechase. Although I must point out here that it is nothing to do with the racecourse itself, it is bang outside the main entrance, and it's a pub. In fact the advice is stay in and enjoy the course catering.

I first encountered The Rocking Horse a year ago. It has a “Fun House” attached and the youngest attended a party there. When I arrived to pick him up at the fun hour of eight o'clock, the young mother of the birthday boy was in floods of tears because the staff had only just managed to produce the jelly, ice cream and birthday cake in order for bewildered little Johnny to finally blow out his six candles.

When prompted, my boy told her in no uncertain terms that he was sorry, but he was afraid that all of his food had been “pretty terrible”, and actually she should ask for her money back. All of which was pouring hot chip oil on troubled waters.

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The Rocking Horse looks like every redbrick, newbuild pub in the land. Except with a new twist on the idea of a “family pub”, you may take your Bacardi Breezers into the Fun House to break the monotony while your offspring dangle from the ropes.

Back in the pub where they claim 'children welcome' - the under 18s are, in fact, segregated to one side only - which some of you may think is right. I have no opinion, other than to say you would never see the sign 'Dining area – adults only'.

But copious young kids - and tourettes-strength effing and blinding from their carers - was not our immediate concern. It was the lack of somewhere to park ourselves owing to a shortage of clean tables. Discarded meals had piled up on two or three, and the rest were generally grubby and in need of a wipe. Eventually the one we did choose was given the quickest of once-overs by a chap armed with nothing more than an already-well-used damp rag.

We examined the extensive, gravy-splattered menu with sections variously entitled 'Great Burgers', 'Classic Favourites', 'Curry Corner', and 'Our Finest Choice'; the latter promising 'that extra 'something', which, on closer inspection, proved to be rack of ribs and steak pudding.

Now look, I wouldn't have mentioned any of the following if they hadn't, but seeing as they choose to use a Red Tractor logo on certain dishes, I will.

According to the Assured Farm Standards Board, this logo guarantees 'safe food that can be traced from British farms and meets animal welfare standards'. That's as may be, but the reality is that it is a marketing tool and simply means that your bovine is not from Bolivia.

Anyone who thought it meant a nice life for farm animals would be very wrong: chickens whose bodies swell too large for their legs to support, and pigs whose tails are amputated without anaesthetic are par for the course. Want to keep up to 20 broilers in one square metre? Be their guest.

The jolly Red Tractor appears alongside two items on the menu: the steak and the Bramley apples for the pie. What that says for the provenance of the chicken, pork, lamb and fish served here is anyone's guess. As for any guarantee of quality and flavour, forget it. Like I say, they started it.

There was nothing healthy about the fried pitta bread, cut into 'chips', but, along with a chicken wing or four, they formed the only truly edible part of the surf and turf combo platter (£8.95). The breaded wholetail scampi sounded rather special but the reality was four thick, hard orbs, not unlike scotch eggs in appearance, which, when bitten into, revealed a mollusc suspended, foetal-like, in a watery sac which burst unpleasantly in the mouth. Onion rings oozed their matter when squeezed; the pork ribs were morbidly cold to the touch.

Off the child's menu, titled 'Fuzzy Ed's' (in homage, perhaps, to the state of mind of parents departing the play area following a few of those afternoon liveners) came cheesy garlic and herb bread (£1.60). This was no more than a couple of slices of baguette with cheese, stuck under the grill and melted, which was a dignity not afforded to the cheeseburger (£3.80).

The bun, which dwarfed the 'burger', was dry and rigid, revealing a scattering of grated cheese-food over a barm not much thicker than a pound coin and just as juicy and appetising. The older boy recoiled in surprise when his tooth hit something hard in it. Like a Christmas pudding reward, but for bad children.

Grill ordered something called Massaman red snapper, but what came, in error, was another dish: a salad of blackened red snapper with spring onion and a lime and coriander sour cream (£8.25).

The fish, a hefty, okayish lump, was topped with the black, a hot spice mix. It was dry and overcooked around the outside but got better further in, and perched on a salad which he described as the most unappealing he had ever been presented with. Tomatoes were devoid of any characteristic flavour and possessing “a strangely slimy texture. Utterly vile,” Grill concluded.

The leaves bore the texture of nothing that had ever sprouted roots, resembling artificial foliage, and went untouched. There appeared to be a complete absence of spring onion, and the lime and coriander sour cream comprised a tiny white squirt on the plate that looked about 10cc's worth.

Champagne chicken (£8.35) was described as a chicken breast topped with a champagne and mushroom sauce, broccoli and a creamy cheese potato gratin. The meat bore no resemblance to any breast you would recognise, unless you'd been cooped up with the 20 other fowl from earlier, with your pecker chopped off. For it was completely flattened and battened. An escalope really, which was coated in a dense white sauce with a curious flavour punctuated by mushroom silhouettes. There was no evidence of cheese in the gratin, just vast saltiness.

The broccoli, drained of all colour, looked like the battered remains of Becher's Brook after being assaulted, twice inside five minutes, by 40 horses at full gallop.

If Heston Blumenthal is still in the market for picking up Jamie Oliver's seconds - ie, changing the world of Little Chefs and hospital food - then cracking the whip at The Rocking Horse, even for one week a year, is surely worth a punt of our our tourism chiefs' money.

And what of the younger child? The one who had dissed the food a year ago? When told of our planned visit, he dug his heels in. Wild horses, it seemed, would nay drag him back to the restaurant at the gates of Aintree.

In the end he acquiesced. On one condition - “I take my own sandwiches". And so it was that while we ate off the menu, the youngest surreptitiously munched the contents of a carrier bag.

A first for our family and, if nothing else, it was one fewer plate of discarded food to clear away.

Breakdown:1/10 food
1/5 service
1/5 ambience
Address:The Rocking Horse
1 Ormskirk Rd
0151 524 2602

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect.

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

GordoApril 6th 2011.

Bloody hell, it makes me cry to think there are still shitholes like this about. If you are the manager, go and get yourself a job in a warehouse. If you're the chef, shoot yourself. Performing like this next to one of the finest racecourses in the country is a crime.

bigearsApril 6th 2011.

typical crap brand! Really dont know how these places survive with such vile food!

J E SibberingApril 6th 2011.

No way is there a chef at this place, as is the case in most chain pubs.

Perhaps it struggles for customers when the gee-gees aren't running, although that's no excuse for the pile of sh*te on those plates.

bigearsApril 6th 2011.

Best not be a chef serving that, disgraceful! Gordo - seen as your the man in the know, any news on Vertigo??

Eddy Should Have Gone To GreggsApril 6th 2011.

Did that stuff in the top picture really cost £8.35

GordoApril 7th 2011.

Big Ears, its re-opening around the 12th of this month. I have no idea about anything else, the guys there clearly aren't into marketing the product. lets hope its good.

andyApril 7th 2011.

spent six weeks as head chef in the bell house in didsbury aka hellhouse many years ago, 8 microwaves, 8 fyers, flatplates to cook steaks on, all traces of cooking food are removed from places like this, industry term is micro wave technician or microwave monkey etc etc. while certainly not justifying the person who cooked this they would have been operating to cooking times as per company spec. there is no joy in cooking at these places

WebyApril 8th 2011.

I've been to a couple of their other offerings (going by the Fuzzy Ed's bit), both in more rural locations and both doing 2-4-1 on mains. Whilst not ever going to win praise from the Michelin guide, they've offered palatable fayre at bargain prices - something that serves a purpose if you're on the way home from some family Sunday out and can't be arsed cooking when you get home, but don't want to spend substantially more than you already have that day. And pretty much every meal I've had there has been better than the last 'meal' I had at Podium. Saying that, I wouldn't really want to pay full (ie not 2-4-1) prices, like what seems to be the case in this particular place.

bigearsApril 8th 2011.

Gordo, found some info on Vertigo. Head Chef is Ian Armstrong, formerly of Alberts and Room plus he's got a really strong team - Sous and Pastry both from a 2 Rosette. Fingers crossed it does better than Ithaca (cant do any worse really!)

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