Review: Balkerne Restaurant, Colchester

Student chefs working at the Colchester Institute's Balkerne Restaurant

Student chefs working at the Colchester Institute's Balkerne Restaurant - Credit: Archant

It is not often you get to go out for a great meal and do something useful at the same time – but with a trip to the Balkerne Restaurant you can achieve both of these things.

Chicken curry

Chicken curry - Credit: Archant

Situated on the main campus of the Colchester Institute, the restaurant is fully run by college students doing courses from cooking to hospitality.

Overseen by professional staff it gives the students that hands-on, haut cuisine experience which can be difficult to find simply from doing work placements.

The menu, while understandably a little more limited than some restaurants, still offered a tantalising range of dishes including vegetarian and gluten-free options.

In case we needed any more help to get our taste buds tingling in anticipation the bread roll offer was exceptional – I would not usually comment on the rolls, but when I was offered and tasted the carrot bread, it could not go unrecognised. It was delicious.

Peanut butter cheesecake

Peanut butter cheesecake - Credit: Archant

Any concerns my wife and I may have had before our visit about our food being cooked by novices was completely blown out of the water when we tasted our starters.

My chicken and chorizo sausage was deliciously soft, melting in my mouth, and went really well with the tomato broth it was served with, proving a great warming starter to kick off the evening with. The classic flavours of chicken and chorizo combined really well, neither besting the other to leave a dominant and poor secondary taste, and created a taste sensation.

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My wife went for the fish option of Thai-style fish cakes. They were perfectly cooked, soft without being mushy, and complemented by sweet chilli dip which walked the line brilliantly between sweet and spicy. long with a salad garnish.

Before tucking into our main courses we had an opportunity to take in our surroundings.

Balkerne Restaurant

Balkerne Restaurant - Credit: cont

Despite being located on the college campus, the Sheepen Road restaurant has great views towards Colchester town centre and is extremely far removed from any canteen feel.

Purpose-built it has a lounge area and fully-licensed bar while you are waiting to be seated along with a cloakroom, and array of tables catering to a number of group sizes.

They say to truly judge a restaurant you should look around its kitchen, and at the Balkerne you can. A large-screen TV in the restaurant shows you not the latest news or sport, but a live link behind the scenes so you can watch your food being prepared with the utmost care.

For the main course I enjoyed an chicken curry with braised rice pilaf. I really enjoyed this as it offered me everything I wanted from an Indian curry without being forced to go through the usual rigmarole of choosing which type of curry I want, when actually I just want a flavour of the sub-continent.

The spices were perfectly balanced, with heat and flavour weighing-in evenly, resulting in a fantastic curry.

Accompanied by rice cooked just right – neither starchy, hard or too mushy – I also had the evening’s vegetable side dish which included green beans, courgettes and baby carrots which were al dente just to my liking and a great counter-balance to the natural softness of the rest of my meal.

Continuing on her maritime theme my wife went for one of her favourites – the fish pie. She was not disappointed.

The salmon and cod within it were melt-in-the-mouth, difficult to achieve with fish, and the pie was also packed with giant prawns. Delicious mashed potato brought the whole dish together and it was no surprise my wife cleared her plate, as it would have been impossible not too.

When choosing our desserts our eyes were drawn not to the menu, but to another restaurant feature we thoroughly enjoyed.

Somewhat unique to the menu before us was the chance to watch the crepe suzettes being flambeed before our eyes.

However despite this tantalising offer neither my wife or I opted for the pancakes, instead choosing the peanut butter cheesecake and the Belgian chocolate torte respectively.

The torte was gooey, creamy, packed with flavour and quite simply delicious, while my wife’s cheesecake was in her words “delectable”, not too sweet and not too salty – a pleasure on the palate.

The service was possibly the best we had ever enjoyed at a restaurant. Our team of two servers were extremely attentive, informed, friendly and helpful.

From them we learned each student works on a job rotation scheme, spending some time in the kitchen at lunch times and some in the evening as well as hospitality work serving, to ensure everyone understood how the whole system came together and worked seamlessly.

By its nature the restaurant is not open for long each evening, and booking is highly recommended.

There is plenty of parking at the college, and it is only a short walk from Colchester North station or the town centre for those using public transport.

Ultimately not only did we leave with our stomachs very satisfied, but we also had a feeling we had done something to help up-and-coming chefs of the future work to get their foot on the ladder – to greatness if what we tasted is anything to go by.