Monday, 8 April 2013

Where to Eat (and Drink) in Lincoln, UK

Last week was my birthday, so of course I had to celebrate by eating out (as though I ever need an excuse). I happened to be in Lincoln at the time, where I had joined Sasha at the 2013 Easter ASAB conference. On the day of my arrival, my taxi driver had helpfully suggested a couple of his favorite Italian restaurants (including Gino's and The Bronze Pig), but when I got online to look up contact details, I discovered another local Italian eatery that was ranked even higher on TripAdvisor: Tiamo Pizza.

Image from the Tiamo Pizza website
Tiamo is not actually in Lincoln proper, but is a short 3 miles away (from our hotel, at least) in the suburb of North Hykeham. The menu, which I was able to browse beforehand online, offered a good mixture of pasta, pizza, and calzones--the last of which I have a particular weakness for. I made us reservations, but it turns out these weren't necessary; there were never more than 4 tables occupied at any given time, though the restaurant was small and it was a Thursday night, and I imagine that the place gets more crowded during the weekends.

When we first pulled up in our taxi, I was a bit surprised to discover that Tiamo is located in a small strip mall--the kind of place you are more likely to find in the US than in the UK. We were greeted enthusiastically by our waiter, who single-handedly served everyone in the restaurant while simultaneously acting as the host. It was a pretty impressive performance, really, though my admiration was stifled slightly by the fact that he was a bit of an oddball--simultaneously spacey and a little menacing, making unusual jokes and audibly singing along with the music piped over the loudspeakers. But, he didn't drop any of our food en route to our table, and what more can you really ask for?

As per usual when eating in an Italian restaurant, I started with an insalata Caprese. Despite the season, Tiamo had managed to find a beautiful and surprisingly tasty tomato--arguably the lynchpin of the entire salad.

Sasha ordered his favorite Italian appetizer, the minestrone soup. When we told the waiter we'd like some Parmesan cheese, we were surprised when he brought over a jar of the pre-grated stuff. I'm quite happy using that in my own home, but I would expect any authentic Italian restaurant to grate it fresh at the table. Maybe I'm just being a food snob.

For my main course, I ordered a delicious calzone con verdura, and was permitted to swap the onions and peppers (yuck!) for extra olives and corn; also included were mushrooms, mozzarella, and a tomato sauce. I'm used to having calzones with red sauce on the side, but this one included the sauce as part of the stuffing. This actually worked very well, since it kept the entire thing soft and moist. I was also impressed by the dough, which was soft and chewy and everything you want in a homemade dough. Overall, it was tasty and satisfying and the only reason I didn't finish the whole thing was that I wanted to save room for dessert.

I felt a bit guilty about how Sasha's meal turned out--not because it was bad, but because he wasn't ultimately able to order either his first or second choices. Here I'd picked an Italian restaurant because Italian menus usually cater to Sasha's culinary preferences, and he was repeatedly stymied by the inclusion of odd/unexpected ingredients; particularly unfortunate was the fact that the seafood risotto included both squid and octopus. In the end, he settled on the penne alla arrabiata, which was good but did require him to extract several large chunks of peppers as he ate.

I'm not usually much of a dessert eater, but I figured I should indulge since it was my birthday--just as a matter of principle. I ordered the very tasty crumble di mele, the fruity portion of which involved both apple and blackberry, and which was topped with vanilla ice cream. It was dense and rich and indulgent, and I really enjoyed it. If I were to put my foodie hat on, I'd probably have to tell you that the crumble-to-fruit ratio was too high; however, since the crumble was well made, I don't really think it's worth complaining about.

Sasha ordered the last remaining piece of homemade cheesecake, which had a pretty dramatic presentation. The thing I found most notable about this dish was that the strawberries were sliced horizontally, rather than vertically; not only have I never seen this done before, but I've also never even thought of doing it myself. I guess I'm easily impressed, but thumbs up to Tiamo for showing me something I've never seen before.

Our overall experience at Tiamo Pizza was quite solid, and my calzone was pretty spectacular. That said, I'm still a little surprised, that Tiamo is ranked all the way up at #7 on TripAdvisor's list of best Lincoln restaurants; I would expect a bit more variety/finesse from a restaurant ranked so highly by visitors. However, our meal was by no means bad, and it's hard to draw many conclusions without trying the other restaurants on the list or returning to Tiamo to see how consistent they are in their service and food.


The following day, I had a very late lunch/tea break at Pimento, one of umpteen different cafes in Lincoln's historic district. Many UK cafes stop serving food around mid-afternoon, and one of the reasons I chose Pimento was that it did not appear to have any such restrictions.

It's an unusual place in that it is one of three disparate shops joined together under one roof; it sits both behind and above shoe and fashion boutiques through which you must walk in order to reach the dining area. Both shops have quite nice items, so this is by no means a chore.

The menu at Pimento was interesting for two reasons. First, it had an extensive selection of teas--some the usual varieties that you'd expect in any British tea room, and others more novel. All of the blends are sourced from Imperial Teas, a lovely shop just down the road. Second, in addition to having all the tea accompaniments and light lunch dishes that you can find in nearly all cafes around the UK, Pimento also offered several intriguing vegetarian options on its specials board. During my visit, for example, diners could order a vegetarian chili and a lentil soup, among other things.

Because I wasn't sure what we'd be doing for dinner, I decided to have something light but comforting--a good old jacket potato. In the US, baked potatoes are primarily thought of as a side dish accompanying a meat (usually steak); I love how easy it is to make an entire meal of one here in Britain.

Despite all the tea options on offer, I again chose the boring route and asked for a pot of plain old afternoon tea--but only because I knew that I was going to head down to Imperial Tea after lunch and purchase some more exciting flavors to take back home with me.

If Berkeley's Far Leaves Tea is the tea-drinking shop I wish was in my town, then Lincoln's Imperial Teas is the tea-supplies shop I wish I could routinely visit (and, thanks to the power of the Internet, I can--though doing it online is not the same as doing it in person!).

When you walk in, you are surrounded by row upon row of tea canisters, filled with one interesting and unusual blend after another--green teas, black teas, white teas, fruity teas, smoky teas, woody teas...anything the heart desires. The store also has an incredible selection of tea drinking materials, including tea candles, tea pots, tea cups, tea strainers, and so on. Obviously, I could spend a fortune in this place.

Luckily, I was able to constrain myself to purchasing only 2 bags of tea. Neither of these was the incredibly intriguing "world's rarest tea" (Jun Shan Golden Needles), which costs a whopping £30 per 100 g (for context, the Earl Grey blend I purchased was only £5.50 for the same weight). I think we all know that one day my curiosity is going to get the better of me and force me to shell out £30 just to see what's so special about the Golden Needles. Maybe for next year's birthday celebration.


After I left the tea shop, I strolled down Steep Hill (yes, that's actually what it's called) and into town, winding up in the midst of Friday afternoon shoppers frantically finishing their errands before the end of the business day. In my short walk, I passed dozens of pubs, cafes, restaurants, and carry-outs, highlighting just how many options are available to diners in Lincoln. During our brief stay in the city, Sasha and I barely even began to sample all that Lincoln has to offer; maybe we'll return one day to check a few more establishments off our list.