What: Mixed menu of classic grills, veggie and vegan options and all sorts with comically prison themed dish names.
Where: Behind and under Colchester Town Hall, entrance just off the High Street.
How Much: £30-£40 a head three courses and drinks
The Cells boasts to be the only venue in the country where you can eat your dinner in an underground cell. One assumes they mean in a voluntary fashion but it’s a new theme on me and a visit here has been struggling to get in the diary for a while now. The theme runs heavy throughout as you take your seat in one of several ‘cells’- from classic Medieval to Hammer Horror era lunatic asylum. Your service staff come presented in cheerful convict-orange jumpsuits or old school black n white Hamburglar-esque stripes. Sounds fun. Sounds silly. Sounds potentially damp, cold and draughty but we were pleased to take our seats in a robust historically themed cell, complete with shackles hanging from the wall and a nice high level high window! Yes, yes technically the cells are beneath street level but you aren’t descending into the pit for your dinner and there is some chance of natural light coming in. To be clear these were once upon a time in use for the Magistrates Court in the Town Hall above your dining room. So the decor is fun, the beaten metal or bench seating isn’t as uncomfortable as it looks and you can stand to take your coat off. Now, to eat!
The correctional institutional theme continues into the menu and seems to be the only one as the a range of dishes on offer is tied up only by humnourish titles such as ‘He Battered a’ Fish and Chips and ‘The Last Supper’ Steak. Points for effort there guys. Offerings range from deep fried sharing platters and dirty burgers to salads and vegan sausage and mash with a curry option in the middle somewhere. All the beers and wines you would expect in an eatery of this type are available alongside an impressive cocktail list which in itself makes it worth visiting their bar alone. I thoroughly recommend the botanical Gin creations. Unfortunately I can’t recall the title of my downfall that evening and the cocktail list isn’t on line for reference but it involved cucumber, pink peppercorns and rose petals and it was a perfect refresher alongside a very spicy starter.
I will take a moment now to suggest that The Cells abandon the frankly irritating 2-4-1 Thursday night cocktail offer which invites you to rush to the bar on hearing a siren to claim your BOGOF mojito or similar. So, I can get up from my dinner and go through with my purse to the bar to line up and buy my drinks? But I can’t have this offer if I stay at my table where the bulk of my money is being spent? Assuming I can even identify the right ‘siren’ through all the whines and alarms of your phone and kitchen calls? Just, no. Do a happy hour or something, this is is ill thought out and unnecessary when the drinks are as good as they are.
And on to the food. We Want Plates Twitter fans will note the tin trays and billie tins in lieu of plates and you will probably get your chips in a charming old school enameled mug. I was excited to try my first commercially available Holy Fuck sauce here in the home town, as served on their starter chicken wings. We went halvsies on one set of hot wings and one BBQ. The sauces were both exceptional- HF hot and full bodied as expected while the BBQ was sweet and well flavoured. It’s a shame the chicken beneath was probably within about ten seconds of being cooked. It wasn’t worrying enough to send back, so why mention it? Because I want to get my dinner and focus on my nice, piping hot and slightly crisp wings, I don’t want to be checking for pink bits in an unwelcome distraction from my hot sauce.
Mains also came meat heavy with a Green Mile Gammon for me and On The Inside for my hot lady date. Now that I’ve moaned about the chicken, I shall sing like a canary for the gammon. I’ve not eaten better in a restaurant- a well sized and well cooked gammon steak gloriously topped with a perfectly fried egg AND lovely charred pinapple AND a cheeky slice of black pudding, peas on the side. And a mug of chips. Take note millions of other pubby menus that offer your ham and chips with egg OR pineapple, you’re just mean. This plate was exceptional in that it was simple and flawlessly served. Bravo. ‘On The Inside’ was basically the cheese-BBQ-bacon-chicken combo often called Hunters or New York Chicken in other eateries. It was devoured without ceremony, along with another mug of chips, and lived up to the standards of the Hot Lady Date. That’s saying a lot- she is something of the cheese-BBQ-bacon-chicken combo aficionado. So mains, brilliant!
Ah, dessert. A technically competent brownie and a rock hard waffle. The ice cream was good. The desserts menu is plain without the puntastic dish titles, I felt that perhaps the effort ran out somewhere at the end of the entreé specials in the kitchen as well as on the menu. A shame.
On the whole, I recommend the cells and will certainly be going there again. Although our dining experience wasn’t as arresting (ahahahahahaha!) as it might have been it’s a fun, novel place for your dinner with a good varied menu. Like many newer ventures, it does feel like The Cells is still finding its feet though not in an incompetent way. The venue is a draw in itself and a mild stroke of genius use for the space; the service is friendly and prompt; the menu is enticing and spans enough to cater to most eaters without fuss or special requests. The ham egg and chips is bloody brilliant. Nothing here needs work, perhaps just a bit of a polish in a couple of spots.
We’ll be back.