Category Archives: Restaurant Views
As one of the best restaurants in the north-west for the past two decades, Northcote’s inevitably achieved some great things over the years. Yet head and shoulders above all its accolades, its 3 AA rosettes, the Michelin star it’s held since 1996, the brace of Great British Menu victories, was one day in February 2009, when the restaurant tenderly took my Michelin virginity and a certain special someone took leave of her senses and agreed to my proposal of marriage.
Now, one of these events is obviously not as important as the other but nevertheless it was the reason why we were paying our third visit to the Ribble Valley’s finest – what better way to celebrate a first wedding anniversary than a return to the place of our engagement?*
We went on our one-night gourmet break at the end of July, now dab hands at getting the most out of the experience after the two previous stays. We got a deluxe room with a view of the garden so we could see the chefs picking the produce we’d be eating that night. We made time to admire the great menus that bedeck the walls of the corridors and lounge, and I remembered to take a picture of the really interesting one.** We relaxed in the bar and enjoyed free botanical drinks in our room and made damn sure we didn’t go for lunch at the curryhouse down the road again.***
By the time we went down to the lounge for pre-meal champagne and canapés, we were well set for a wonderful evening. As ever, Northcote didn’t disappoint.
The canapés were two: a rich tartare of dexter beef and an exquisite florette of cauliflower, perfectly tempura’d. I’d always thought cauliflower an insipid vegetable – this buttery little morsel sort of blew my mind.
We finished the Louis Roederer Brut Premier and made our way to the dining room, so much lighter and smarter and comfier than on our first visit 42 months before. An amuse-bouche of beetroot and goat’s cheese was a casual delight; ice cream in a sea of foam, fresh and clean. My wife’s amuse was a similar palate cleanser, a play on the theme of melon: sorbet floating on soup.
Bread arrived and I feasted. Butter was a fine companion but the olive oil with black treacle was special. A wicked Lancashire cheese roll awakened feelings previously reserved for The Ledbury’s bacon and onion brioche and Northcote’s own roast onion bread was almost as good. More came with the starter, an accompaniment to hand cut raw dexter, white radish, garden sorel and a quail’s egg yolk. I got marrowbone toast with caper butter, a delicious, crispy soldier of salt that married well with the beautiful plate of food. My wife got toast topped with cured scallops, which was infinitely, infinitely better.
Tail and claw of west coast lobster followed, carefully cooked and served in winning tandem with scorched leeks. Caviar, real and fake, added a classical sparkle to the dish though I was less convinced by the potato gel, which had a slightly bitter, chemical taste.
Chilled tomato soup with slow-cooked watermelon, sheep’s curd, avocado and peppers took us on a surprise – and in my case, unwelcome – trip to Mexico; a journey through flavours I don’t particularly like. Yet bizarrely this was perhaps the most impressive part of the meal, each element dazzling in its purity. So sweet was the tomato, so fresh was the melon, you’d think you were sat in the Med.
A side of stone-baked garlic flatbread helped to link it with the main course, lamb loin and breast with elephant garlic, pressed potatoes and marjoram. This was one stunning piece of meat away from being a lovely dish though the new season Yorkshire lamb didn’t quite deliver, the loin lacking succulence, the flavours somewhat overpowered by the herbs.
My meal ended with what appeared to be a basic construction of malt wafers and stout ice cream but which broke open to unleash the most incredible, velvety blackcurrant coulis. A small swipe of liquorice added subtle depth but really this was all about the home-grown blackcurrants, the quality of which made the dessert into an utter joy.
I was enjoying my pudding too much to try my wife’s but she loved hers as well: thyme meringue with lemon curd, celery sorbet and celeriac. It was probably her favourite course of the day, tomato soup aside.
We returned to the lounge to finish up, tea with petits fours. I had the house’s take on a Crunchie, a chocolate truffle and an excellent mini Eccles cake. My wife had her own honeycomb and a jelly made from champagne. A fine brandy capped it all off.
The full menu along with wine pairing is below:
Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel, Marrowbone Toast
Clos Mireille, Domaines Ott, Côtes de Provence, France, 2010
West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar
Chardonnay, Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand, 2010
Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado, Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread
Loin of New Seasons Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram
Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta, Spain, 1998
Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream
Elysium, Black Musat, Andrew Quady, California, USA, 2010
This was another excellent meal at Northcote, probably the best we’ve had there. Service was as good as ever and the breakfasts seem to keep getting better too.
Following my second visit I suggested I probably wouldn’t return for an overnight stay again as I’m keen to explore other places. Having broken that vow once and had such a fantastic time, I think I’m going to have to keep breaking it, at least every few years or so.
Northcote’s a special place, special to me personally and just special full stop. I look forward to going back.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)
*Erm, that’s “not as important” from the perspective of a food blog… yes, that’s definitely what I mean…
We were actually boring a member of staff with the story as he took us up to our room and he said that only a few weeks earlier they’d had a proposal and the woman spent the rest of her meal on the phone breaking the news to friends and family. I had the good sense to propose beforehand – wouldn’t want any distractions from the food now, would I?
**I’m not a big fan of my first proper write-up of Northcote but I do go into some detail about the menus so it’s worth checking out if that’s your thing.
***If you’re feeling a bit peckish and think you’ll just walk into Langho for a bite to eat, don’t. You’ll end up at this Indian restaurant and you’ll hate yourself for it. Stay in your room, bite the bullet and fork out for room service instead. It will be worth it.
If top meat and a badass grill are all you need for a decent steakhouse, then Hawksmoor Seven Dials is absolutely superb.
Their Longhorn beef, supplied by The Ginger Pig and dry-aged for a minimum of 35 days, holds the sort of flavour that makes you lose control of bodily functions. Your eyes close, your face contorts to a gurn, and you moan and slobber like a zombie in sight of an attractive blonde named Barbara.
After the first bite, if you’re married, your spouse may ask the question “is that really necessary?” and you know without opening your eyes they’ll be looking at you with a mixture of amusement, embarrassment and scorn. Yet you can’t apologise because to do so would be to tell a lie. This beef is as good as beef gets; a producer of such juicy, voluptuous, carnivorous joy as cannot be described.
If your natural reaction to it is that of a stroke victim having his prostate examined, it’s something you can live with.
Of course the grill has a lot to do with provoking this response as well. I’m used to (and generally prefer) my steak being cooked on a Josper these days, its hellfire heat turning the meat’s exterior into glorious, crispy carbon.
But Hawksmoor’s charcoal-driven beast is just as effective despite its gentler persuasion. Where it can’t match the Josper for texture or retention of juices, it tops it through the flavour it imparts, the woody smoke of the char elevating the beef to even higher heights.
It’s just a pity really that I want my steakhouses to offer a bit more than that.
I’m not quite sure what it was that spoiled my meal at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. I left the restaurant feeling I’d had a fairly enjoyable experience but the more I think about it the more negative my feelings become. Yes, the 900g porterhouse my wife and I shared was awesome, and the bone marrow – wow! What a stunning example it was.* But almost everything else rankled.
First there was our waiter, presumably moonlighting from a job as a payment protection insurance salesman, who was so relentless in his efforts to sell us a starter you’d have thought his children’s lives depended on it.
Then there was the potted beef starter we eventually ordered to get him to go away and its Yorkshire puddings that had something of the Aunt Bessie about them. £8 for a jar of offcut meat, some onions and two circles of poorly risen batter – the beef was excellent but I didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth.
With the mains we had mushrooms: flaccid rounds of soot black which’d had all the life sweated out of them. They tasted of nothing at all. We had triple-cooked chips too – not the beef dripping chips we’d actually ordered – and they were so dry and saturated with fat they could’ve been used for kindling.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these had been cooked from frozen,” I said, after trying a couple. They really were poor.
Even the steak couldn’t escape criticism, my wife declaring it to be too salty. I have a high tolerance for salt and thought the seasoning, while high, was just about acceptable. But she felt it really spoilt it.**
It was a while before we were able to attract a waiter’s attention, get them to clear the table and present us with the bill. The cost of brilliant steak and bone marrow, a decent bottle of wine and a fair dollop of disappointment was around £180, which didn’t feel the best value. Our outstanding a la carte lunch at The Ledbury the following day was only about £40 more expensive, to put it in context.
I think on the whole I actually prefer my local Gaucho to Hawksmoor Seven Dials. And that’s certainly not something I was expecting to say going in. While Gaucho’s steaks don’t bear comparison with Hawksmoor’s, they offer a far more complete experience than we got on this London visit. Through half a dozen meals I’ve never had a complaint about any of their side dishes.
Afterwards I took to Twitter to say the beef had been great but Hawksmoor is Championship standard versus the Premier League of Goodman. On reflection, given that Goodman Mayfair gave us a faultless steakhouse experience when we visited last year, I’d suggest the gulf is far bigger than that.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*Thanks to fellow blogger Mrs Petticoat (@MrsPetticoat) for the bone marrow recommendation.
**There were other irritations too, although once I hit my stride I think I just started being picky. As such, I’ll just mention them here in the footnotes:
The dining room reminded of the hall where I used to sit my music theory exams albeit with much poorer lighting conditions. Tables were heavily regimented and if the room hadn’t been packed I think it would’ve felt very cold. It was certainly buzzing and I reckon a lot of people probably like the stripped back, casual look they’ve gone for, but it wasn’t a room I personally felt comfortable in.
I also felt the steak knife looked cheap and rubbish. I know it’s only a small thing, but when I went to Goodman and saw the knives they have I thought “this is a place that means business”. At Hawksmoor Seven Dials the cutlery reminded me of a Beefeater, in that I immediately thought “even Beefeaters have better knives than this”. It didn’t make quite the same first impression.
“It’s only a noodle bar,” the bemused builder shouted from down the street. “Who the hell queues to get in a noodle bar anyway?”
As I stood outside Koya, hoping the line of people wasn’t so long that it’d fill the tiny dining room completely before I managed to get a seat, I wondered the same thing. Everyone appeared sober and the place didn’t seem to sell kebabs. It was 5.28pm on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening and my Salfordian brain couldn’t fathom what was going on. Does nobody watch Neighbours in Soho?
We got seats but only just. The two foreign language students who sat next to us were the last customers through the door before people started getting turned away. It was now 5.31pm and the restaurant had been open for exactly one minute.
“It must be good if it’s this popular,” my wife whispered across the table. “I hope so,” was my reply.
Things got off to a strong start with some tempura – two large prawns with an array of vegetables, including courgette and sweet potato. Some of the veg was underdone and I would’ve liked more flavour from the prawns, but tempura lives and dies by the quality of its batter and this most definitely lived. It was the sort of batter you always hope for but so rarely get; ultra crisp yet exceptionally light. I was picking at the scraps long after the prawns and veg had been consumed.
My wife enjoyed her opener too: a special of duck, poached and served sliced in a cold broth. In most noodle bars this was would be a disgusting dish – low-quality meat in a cloying, pond water sauce. But at Koya it was serene and refreshing; a nice bit of duck, carefully cooked, submerged in a delicate stock. I was very impressed.
Unfortunately, the meal was about to take a bit of a downward turn, and it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Carried away with the starters, I’d forgotten that I had absolutely no idea how to eat noodles with chopsticks. No idea, even, where to begin. My buta miso hiya-atsu arrived, I looked down at the two pieces of wood and the little spoon that had come with it, and thought to myself: “How the hell am I meant to get this food out of the bowl and into my mouth?”
Regrettably, my ignorant brain went into solution mode:
Right… I need an expert to show me what to do, fast… someone Japanese, I don’t trust these gajin… OK, there’s one in the corner – just watch… fuck me, look how high up she’s holding the chopsticks… mad skills… she’ll do… right, what precisely is she doing… looks like she finds the end of the noodle first, then she lifts it completely out of the broth… seems easy enough, I can do that – what next… OK, so she drops the noodle down gently on the spoon and then circles it round into a neat little pile… that looks pretty easy too – not much to this so far… now for the eating pa… eww, I did not see that coming… I would’ve thought that was bad manners… did she really slurp it…. yes, she really slurped it… she’s still supporting it with the chopsticks but she’s definitely just sucking it into her mouth… well, I guess I best follow suit… when in Ro…
“How the hell are you meant to eat these?” my wife hissed across the table.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” I said confidently. “I’ve been watching that woman over there. She seems to know what she’s doing. Think I’ve got the technique down, so just follow my lead…”
OK, my turn… the wife’s looking to you for guidance on this, so don’t mess it up… first things first – find the end of a noodle… hmmm… no, that’s not one… that’s not one either… where do the ends of noodles live… I can’t find one anywhere, this is trickier than I thought… I wonder if the noodles in my bowl even have ends, they just seem to be made entirely of mi… aha! …got one… we’re cooking on gas now… easy street… right, time for stage two of the operation – this’ll be a cinch… lift the noodle from the bowl… OK, no need to panic, I’m just still lifting it from the bowl… and STILL lifting from the bowl… are my noodles longer than hers, I think they’re longer than hers… still lifting… I’m going to run out of arm in a minute, bloody hell… OK, no worries, here we go… nearly there… get the spoon ready…
…what the fuck was that, where’s my noodle gone… it was there one minute and now it’s… oh my god, I think it broke under its own weight and went back in the bowl… what a splash that was… must’ve fallen about a foot… am I wet… no, I’m not wet… oh shit, are the customers sat next to me wet… no, thank god – they don’t seem to have noticed… has anyone noticed… oh great, the wife has… she’s pissing herself laughing…
There were three more unsuccessful attempts to copy the Japanese lady before I gave up and developed my own highly inefficient technique. The illusion that nobody had noticed the splashing was shattered when the customers next to us asked if they could move to a different table, shooting me a disgusted look as they got up to go. I don’t think they wanted to be my friend.
The udon noodles – when I finally got them into my mouth – were excellent and I loved the broth they came in. I couldn’t quite get over the pork and miso paste looking like the poo of an ill dog and I felt it spoiled the flavour of the stock the more it filtered in. But by this stage of the meal I’d more or less forgotten about the food and was thinking more about what a tit I’d made of myself. Oh well.
I arrived at Koya looking for a top cheap eat in the West End and I think I found one. It reminded me a little bit of Yuzu in Manchester, an oriental hidden gem doing food far better than a lot of restaurants twice the price. Of course with its Michelin Bib Gourmand and Observer Food Monthly awards Koya’s already well-discovered, but the feeling of a small kitchen punching above its weight is the same.
I would love to go back and try the tempura again. I may give the noodles a miss!
(Thanks to Hungry Hoss for the recommendation.)
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 45/100 (Good)
Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.
Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.
So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.
“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.
I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.
They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.
A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.
The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.
Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.
The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.
My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.
Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”
Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.
I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.
Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.
Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!
It’s the little things that make life so great.
With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.
Dining Room: 4.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.
**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.
If there’s one thing I’d like to echo from Giles Coren’s mixed-to-positive review of Aumbry in the Times the other week – and believe me, there are few things of his I would ever want to echo – it’s that their treacle tart is awesome.
On my first visit in February I was relatively underwhelmed by the puddings and wondered whether the kitchen lacked passion for the sweeter parts of the menu. But second time round I ate this mini-masterpiece: a skilfully-made pie with tart lemon jelly and a deep frothy warming cup of Earl Grey cream tea on the side. It more than proved me wrong.
It was the balance that was so exceptional. I’ve had better desserts this year* but I can’t think of any that was so well-conceived. The marriage of flavours was wonderful and all my dining companions agreed. My dad claimed it was the best sweet he’s ever had.
The other big highlight from the six-course tasting menu was the potato and wild garlic soup, which swung bag after bag of flavour at my grateful tastebuds. When you get soup of this quality, it makes you want to question why higher-end restaurants don’t do it more often. Done right it can be such a beautiful thing; here, with a glass of chardonnay on the side, it was.
Head chef Mary-Ellen wasn’t in the kitchen this evening but there appeared to be no adverse effect on the food being produced – certainly there were none of the technical errors Coren wrote about. I wanted more from the slow-cooked wood pigeon dish, which seemed to lack the usual Aumbry wit and needed another element to lift it, but the cooking was faultless. I was particularly impressed by the accompanying chicory, a bitter leaf which has murdered many a game bird in its time but was held firmly in check through careful braising.
Here’s the menu with pictures. My dad and I also shared a cheeseboard at the end.
TASTING MENU ǀ SIX COURSES
Home Smoked Mackerel
Poached rhubarb & mustard cream
Potato & Wild Garlic Soup
English truffle oil
Cumbrian Wood Pigeon
Braised chicory, grilled grelot & lemon balm
Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet
Lemon jelly & Earl Grey cream
After February’s meal I declared Aumbry to be the best restaurant in the county. Eating there four months on with my family in toe, there was nothing to make me want to rescind that statement.
Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as thrilled by the experience this time round. Greater familiarity with the menu (I’d hoped for more change between the two visits), staff who kept dropping things (spilling a glass of wine all over our table was probably the worst of the half dozen or so slip ups) and a random diner who kept looking at me like she wanted to stab me in the face all helped to dampen the magic.
*These superior desserts would be the ones I had at The Square and The Ledbury, so it’s not really a fair fight. If there’s a pudding better than Aumbry’s treacle tart in Greater Manchester right now, I’d love to know about it.
“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”
Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.
I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.
But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.
Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*
The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.
But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.
We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.
Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.
“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.
By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.
Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.
My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken. Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.
When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.
Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.
Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets
Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France
Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle
Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France
Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan
Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France
Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam
Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France
Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan
Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France
Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint
Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia 2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy
Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb
Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany
Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries
Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron
Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.
And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.
In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.
I never intended to write a review of Paul Rankin’s Cayenne.* In fact, I never intended to visit in the first place.
It was a spur of the moment thing, born out of my wife thinking my idea of roaming around the streets of Belfast until we found a chippy wasn’t the most sensible way to ensure we had some tea on the first night of our visit.**
I expected very little from the place. Actually, that’s not true, I expected to be annoyed by it: underwhelmed by the lifeless fusion cooking of a celebrity chef trading solely on his name; pissed off that the myriad of mediocrity would cost me substantially more than takeaway haddock and chips.
Neither the menu nor the look of the restaurant really appealed to me. I booked us in simply because it was an easy walk from our hotel*** and I’d heard of it. The decision of where to go was being made late the night before we flew – I wasn’t much in the mood for shopping around.
Looking back more than two weeks on, I’m pretty glad that I didn’t.
We arrived at 6.30pm and the dining room was already buzzing; the majority of the tables filled up and everyone exuding Friday Feeling. The lighting and decor were a little garish where we were sat (see above) but this suited the atmosphere, which was much more night-out-on-the-town than relaxed or romantic evening.
Getting into the spirit, and already feeling rather better about the choice of restaurant, my wife ordered a gin and tonic and I a beer while we weighed up our food options. I’ve never been one for set menus, usually being attracted to the far more interesting-sounding dishes on the a la carte instead, but Cayenne’s seemed too good value for money to overlook. £60 would get us 3 courses each, plus a fair bottle of wine, and half the dishes sounded more appealing than those on the main menu. It was music to my wallet’s ears.
Both of us had spiced soft-shell crab to start and it became immediately clear that all my preconceptions of what Cayenne’s food would be like were wrong. Paul Rankin is a TV chef who really gives a shit.
Where I expected flaccid textures and muted flavours, I found crispy freshness and careful spicing. Where I dreaded boring combinations and stingy portions, I got refreshingly different tastes and a hearty plate. It was a dish created by someone who knew what they were doing, cooked by someone who’d been drilled to do it properly.
All the pains of the day, the two-hour delay at the airport, the trauma of leaving Britain for the first time in 8 years, the annoying wrestling fans queued up at our hotel looking to get WWE autographs, were washed away with that dish. There was nothing fancy about it; nothing that would blow anybody away. It was just simple, delicious comfort food, perfect for a man who had done nothing but moan for the last 9 hours of his life.
I’d kill for a place in Manchester that sold that crab dish, and did so by the bucket.
My main course, sesame-crusted hake with lentils and Asian greens, was very much in the same vein: simple enough to remind you of the pleasures of really good home cooking; precise enough in the combination of traditional British and Asian flavours that you know if you tried it yourself, you’d cock it right up. The plate was of the piping hot temperature I dream about when going to restaurants but so rarely ever get. All I could think about was how satisfying it all was; how for a restaurant of this style and at this price point, it really was ticking all the boxes.
Unsurprisingly, the chips I ordered as an extra also hit the spot.
The only misfire of the meal for me was the cheese I ordered for dessert – a fairly bland board, with little in the way of good biscuits or condiments to help it out. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have me wishing I’d ordered something else. Far better was my wife’s rhubarb and raspberry crumble – a flawless rendition of the classic pudding which drew a little moan of pleasure from me when I tried it. Your grandma wishes she could cook it this well.
Service was excellent throughout: efficient and friendly despite the busyness of the restaurant. It was interesting to compare this with the relative chaos we experienced at the more upmarket Deanes the following night. Guess which one of the two didn’t tack a discretionary service charge on to the bill?
We left the restaurant with big smiles on our faces, thinking we must recommend it to our friends. This need to share how good the experience was and encourage others to go is the reason why I decided to write this review.
While I’m sure my low expectations probably helped, I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant that was so firmly on the money. If Cayenne was anywhere near where I lived, I’m sure I would’ve already been back.
If you’re in Belfast city centre and you want a nice meal without too much expense or fuss, you definitely need to check it out.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*Because I wasn’t expecting to write a review, I didn’t bother taking any pictures.
**I hear there are some fine chippies in Northern Ireland. Annoyingly I didn’t get to try any.
***I say easy walk, but after taking a wrong turn and ending up miles away in a decidedly rough-looking part of the city, we ended up getting a taxi to Cayenne anyway.
Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”
Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.
My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.
My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.
I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.
The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.
The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.
Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.
Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.
And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.
But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.
My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.
My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.
Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.
I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.
The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.
We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.
Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.
**Apologies for both the starter images – I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.
***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.
****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…
A couple of months after writing up the mixed experience I had at Sheffield’s The Wig and Pen in January, an email arrived in my inbox from the restaurant’s director, Marc Sheldon. He said he was very disappointed to read that the meal wasn’t up to their usual standards and he’d like to invite me (and my wife) back to try their new tasting menu, in the hope we’d have the experience that we should’ve had first time round.
It was a gracious email and we were happy to accept the offer, particularly as the restaurant had shown quite a bit of potential on our first visit.
While I’ll be my usual honest self in this review, it’s worth bearing in mind that obviously we were known to the house beforehand and the only thing we paid for was the tip.
It’s amazing what light can do for a dining room. On my first visit to The Wig and Pen I was reminded of a dodgy Scream bar I had the mispleasure of drinking in on a London theatre break about six years ago. It was corrosively dingy and the cheapest pint was that piss water they call Carling at £3.30 a pop. For a lad who’d lived in Salford his whole life and was at university in Newcastle, that price was a big kick in the balls in 2006.*
After drinking a couple of fart pints, it got even worse. My bank rang me up to say a cheque I’d written for my landlord had just bounced and I was liable for some sort of fine. You can imagine it wasn’t exactly an experience I wanted to be reminded of.
But The Wig and Pen didn’t remind me of it this time, with the early evening sun still pouring in through the windows and our table better lit. It was much smarter than I’d given it credit for and more comfortable too. Not a looker by any stretch, but it already had the meal off to a better start.
This continued into the bread and olives, a far more generous and accomplished platter, which featured decent stabs at white and granary bread. Both were perhaps a touch doughy but the taste was good, each with that indelible quality you get from fresh, home-made bread.
The meal started properly with a consommé of lobster, ginger and carrot, smartly presented with the liquid poured at the table. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants that have over-cooked lobster, so I was impressed by how sweet and tender this little morsel was. Unfortunately, the consommé was far too bitter for me (my wife didn’t mind it) and I felt it spoilt what would otherwise have been a very good dish.
Because of that issue, I was a little nervous about the next course, an extremely modern textures of carrot with coconut sorbet, which frankly sounded disgusting and way beyond the capabilities of the kitchen. As it turned out, it was easily the dish of the night and one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a long while.
It was just beautifully balanced; the different flavours and textures of pickled and pressed carrot deftly held together by the bizarre and inspired sorbet. It even worked with the puzzling La Carré Sud Merlot wine match, which I didn’t think stood a chance at first taste, but grew into a winning combination the more I ate and drank.
The ingredients weren’t up to the right standard, but there were definitely some Michelin qualities about this dish.
Next was the first hot course, mackerel with apple and bone marrow. The restaurant wasn’t aware of this, but my mother-in-law and her partner were also in the room that evening and were working their way through the tasting menu as well. They raved about this one, but while I enjoyed it, I just felt there was something missing. The skin wasn’t crispy enough and it needed a touch more salt.
An extra dish was thrown in at this stage: smoked duck egg with baby leaf spinach, black trompettes, chive yoghurt and almond. I loved the presentation, with the duck egg encased in a dome of smoke (didn’t get a pic of that – sorry!), and I thought the dish worked really well, helped along by the gorgeous trompette mushrooms and spinach. The only issue with this was the inconsistency between mine and my wife’s plates. Her bright orange yolk was more attractive than mine and runnier, and I felt a little jealous!
It was back to the usual tasting menu from there on in and for the main course we were treated to chicken served in a jasmine consommé with some small vegetables. It was a basic, pared-down roast dinner sort of a dish but it was a nice change of pace and I thought it was delicious.
I have nothing much to say about the rhubarb jelly and parfait that followed, a reasonably forgettable dish that cleansed the pallet and offered little more.** However, the final pudding, a white chocolate parfait with toasted pine nuts and lemon sauce, was excellent. Like the food critic in Ratatouille, on the first bite I was catapulted back to my childhood, reliving the joy I used to experience the times when I made and ate lemon crunch flan. The flavour combinations were exactly the same – perfect and timeless.
My wife seemed to like her dessert even more. A bread base with honey, pear and orange sorbet was a little bitter for me, but she thought it was absolutely brilliant. She told the waiter it’s one of the best puddings she’s ever had, and she wasn’t kidding.
Service was about as good as you could hope for and on the whole, it was a top meal, definitely at the high end of the spectrum for the £50 a head price point. Actually, I think that’s a bit of a bargain for a six-course taster with matching wines.
You can of course think “well, obviously you’re going to say that – you didn’t pay for it and you were given special treatment”, and that’s fair enough. All I can say is that my anonymous in-laws had a similar experience and they paid in full. Already they’re planning to go back to try the next taster menu when the seasons change.
I think there’s probably still an element of The Wig and Pen being overly ambitious with its food, and this was shown by the odd mistake and inconsistency during the meal. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the restaurant is finally finding its feet and starting to realise some of the promise I glimpsed a few months back.
Marc was anxious to get our feedback on the meal as you’d expect, but he – and all of the staff – seemed to be doing the same with the rest of the diners as well. I think it’s clear that the management here really care about the quality of their offering and are keen to listen to people’s opinions in an effort to be as good as they can be.
As long as they continue to respond to their customers in such a positive way and can build on what’s now looking like some fairly sturdy foundations, I believe The Wig and Pen could definitely be a restaurant to watch.
Dining Room: 2/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*How depressing is it when I spend £3.30 on a pint now, I barely bat an eyelid?
**My in-laws dismissed the rhubarb dish as “jelly and ice cream” and couldn’t understand the point of it on the menu.
The other week I was reading an interview with Nobu Matsuhisa, the multi-Michelin-starred chef behind the famous Nobu chain of Japanese restaurants. I got two questions in before deciding I wasn’t really interested in anything he had to say.
The reason I took the snap decision to just skim the rest of the article instead of reading it properly was down to Nobu – and I know this will sound strange – making it very clear how much he loves rice. You see, I just don’t get rice. I don’t understand how it’s something people can enjoy; how it’s anything more than just dull filler to bulk out a dish.
So, in light of not having much time for reading at that particular moment, I decided if Nobu wasn’t going to talk about a food I find appealing, I didn’t care to hear any more.
The first thing I did when I got back from my meal at Yuzu on Thursday night was dig the interview up and read it from start to finish.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Yuzu, a fairly recent Japanese addition to Manchester’s Chinatown, before my visit. Most of the praise was for the freshness of the ingredients and the supremely polite staff, with the odd mention of ‘fantastic value for money’ thrown in. Not much was made of the rice*, but that wasn’t particularly surprising. Why would anyone waste sentences talking about confetti substitute? The best you can hope for is that the bland grains don’t distract from the food you actually want to eat.
But, inconveniently, the rice at Yuzu was a distraction – a massive one. That’s why I’ve been banging on about it for the last 300 words! I’ve been able to think of little else since.
It was sort of – a little bit – bloody brilliant.
I’m not entirely sure what it was that made it so delicious, or at least, I don’t think I’m capable of putting it into words. It certainly wasn’t that different to every other bowl of rice I’ve had before. It just seemed to be perfect in three (presumably) very important areas: texture, temperature and salt.
I definitely won’t be so dismissive of it again.
The rice was part of our final dish of prawn, salmon and tuna sashimi**, all of which was wonderfully fresh and sweet. Kyotoya in Withington offers a cheaper and more generous sashimi platter, but this was of vastly superior quality, with the tuna particularly good. A small dollop of past-its-best, flavourless salmon roe felt a little out of place, but I could forgive it.
Prior to the sashimi, the food had ranged from solid to very good. Pork yaki udon was cleanly cooked with decent noodles, though the pork was slightly dry and bland and there was nothing special about the pitiful amount of vegetables it came with (I think Kyotoya might have spoilt me in that area).
Chicken katsu, with an excellent golden bread crumb coating but slightly dry meat, was enjoyable as far as chicken nuggets go; the yakitori with sauce, a char-grilled kebab of chicken thighs and spring onions, was of a level you’d find at a merely decent takeaway.
Gyoza was the best of the small plates by far, the prawn dumplings absolutely beautiful, although it probably deserved a better sauce than the meek combination of soy and chilli oil that was served alongside.
The bill for the five courses – easily enough to stuff the two of us – plus four bottles of beer came to a little over £40. For the quality of the food on offer, I think it’d be fairly difficult to do better than that in Manchester city centre.
The staff were indeed supremely polite and the authentic-feeling dining space was very pleasant. As we got up to pay the bill and leave, my wife spotted a specials board with deep-fried whole sea bream listed on it.
“Now there’s a good excuse to go back,” I said.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 46/100 (Good)
Note: I’ve returned to Yuzu several times since this first visit and each time has been better than the last. I’ve revised the score up on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly.
*Andrew Stevenson’s review is an exception. You can read it here.
**The sashimi was meant to include scallops but they didn’t have any in.