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Restaurant Review: Northcote

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.***

Northcote’s gardens, as seen from the window of our room

“The really interesting one” – menu from Joël Robuchon’s legendary Jamin, May 1993

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.

Beetroot Amuse-Bouche

Melon Amuse-Bouche

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.

Bread

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel

Marrowbone Toast

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.

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

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.

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado

Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

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.

Loin of New Season’s Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

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.

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

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.

Thyme Meringue, Lemon Curd, Celery Sorbet, Celeriac

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.

Petits Fours

Petits Fours

The full menu along with wine pairing is below:

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GOURMET MENU

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

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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.

 
Northcote Manor on Urbanspoon

 

Food: 20/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8.5/10

Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)

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*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.

Best of 2011: Restaurant Dish of the Year

As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.

TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

  1. Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.

I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.

I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.

2.      Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]

3.      Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

4.      Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]

Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)

 5.      Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).

I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.

It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)

6.      Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]

7.      Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

8.      Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]

9.      Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

 10.      Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]

This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)

1.      Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]

2.      Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]

Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.

3.      Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]

When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.

Eccles cakes wedding cake, Slattery's

My Eccles cake wedding cake, or as Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier described it: "Brilliant croque en bouche a l'Anglaise."

4.      Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]

5.      Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]

A return to Northcote Manor (reprise – part 2)

The dining room at Northcote Manor

One of the coolest things about Northcote Manor is that its walls are covered with menus from other restaurants. You’ll find them in the lobby, in the lounge, in the corridors connecting the bedrooms – they’re everywhere.

Walking down the stairs from my room before a meal there last Sunday, I spent several minutes perched on a step ogling the dishes of the legendary Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent. As I moved on through the reception area, I was able to take a good look at the cover of a menu for the similarly mythical La Pyramide. In the lounge, while I waited for the champagne and canapés to turn up, I gawped at a tasting menu from Jamin, which was titled “A meal of a lifetime”.*

It’s a helluva way to get you in the mood for a great evening of food.

For the five of us, said evening kicked off with a third of a bottle of Laurent Perrier and a couple of canapés each. There was a very ordinary bite of cheese, which had been breaded and deep-fried, and a vastly superior nibble of treacle-smoked salmon. Neither was particularly memorable.**

Things improved significantly on the food front when we moved to the dining room*** and had an amuse-bouche of lettuce mousse with bacon****. It was a novel dish (to me anyway); stunningly presented and beautifully balanced with a light texture and clean flavours. It was as good an amuse-bouche as I’ve had.

Unfortunately for my allergic wife, it had cream in it so she ended up with a small pot of beetroot and onions instead. Yeah… that was about as good as it sounds.

After that, the meal (full menu detailed here) began properly.

I was extremely impressed by how consistent the first three courses (chicken liver, lobster, and tomato consommé) were in terms of quality. The liver was a little too rich for me and the lobster a touch chewy, but it was still all very high-end cooking with little to fault.

The pre-mains on my first visit consisted of a spectacular piece of seabass, but also a salmon starter and a consommé that didn’t seem to be of Michelin-star standard. There were no such qualms this time – all were easily good enough.

I was really looking forward to the main course as I’ve never had grouse before. The fillet of pink breast meat they placed before me looked like a giant’s uvula, but tasted bloody lovely. It went brilliantly with the little bread sauce balls that were served with it; perhaps not quite so well with the rest of the half-dozen or so accompaniments.

It thought this was a bit of a shame. With some paring down, it could’ve been the best course of the day, but there was too much going on for my liking.*****

The gold medal for best dish ended up going to the raspberry dessert, which was flawless; just the perfect way to end a meal. My wife’s alternative (below) was very nice as well, but I think I came out on top in the pudding stakes this time around.

(My exclamation of “ha – suck on that one!” wasn’t particularly well received…)

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Poached Garden Plums, Soup, Orange and Basil Sorbet, Nut Shard

Moscatel de Setúbal, Bacalhôa, Peninsula de Setúbal, Portugal, 2004

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I think this latest trip compared very favourably with the first; a worthy sequel to a classic. There were no mind-blowing dishes or standout wines, and the service didn’t wow me.****** But there were no real disappointments either. There was a consistency to the food and the wine-pairing that the first visit couldn’t match. It was just all really, really good.

Yet again, I’ll urge anybody living in Manchester or Lancashire to travel over to Langho and give this restaurant a spin. If you’ve never eaten at a Michelin-starred place before, it’s a perfect introduction and I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic experience.

I didn’t leave this meal as eager to go back as I did last time. There are hundreds of other great restaurants out there and I’d like to move on now and try something new.

That said, there aren’t many places of this quality so close to where I live. I don’t think I’d go on a gourmet break again, but if I’ve not been back to eat lunch off the a la carte within the next two years, I’ll be very surprised.

Northcote Manor on Urbanspoon

Food: 20/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8/10

Overall score: 74/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)

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*A few words on why these menus stood out above the rest:

La Tour d’Argent is another restaurant on my wishlist. It’s apparently an overpriced tourist trap and standards have dropped a lot in the last 20 years (it used to have 3 Michelin stars, it now has 1), but it still looks absolutely awesome. All the reasons I want to visit are outlined in these reviews here and here – well worth reading if you’ve got a couple of minutes.

La Pyramide was supposedly the best restaurant in the world in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. In Kitchen Confidential (which I’d recommend to anyone), Anthony Bourdain cited a trip there as a child as one of the biggest influences on his future love of food – his parents went in to eat while he was forced to stay outside in the car.

Jamin, by most accounts, was the best restaurant in the world during the late 1980s and early 90s. Chef Joël Robuchon was named Gault Millau’s ‘Chef of the Century’ just a few years before it closed. The menu at Northcote was from 1993. I wish my French was better so I could’ve understood everything on there.

**I’ve already forgotten the cheese and everything that went with the salmon. I want to say there was ginger, but I’m not 100% sure.

*** The most common criticism you used to see of Northcote was that its dining room was designed by someone who thought old people’s homes were chic. Seriously, you could almost smell the urine. Thankfully, this has been remedied and it’s now a very smart place in which to eat.

****There was other stuff in it too, but I can’t remember that either. Now I know why food critics take notes…

***** The version my wife had was much better. She couldn’t have the bread sauce or the game mousse that had been served on the side, so she got some perfectly cooked baby turnips and other veg instead. Much simpler and thus, much improved.

******I actually got the impression they’d made some cutbacks in this area. The staff-to-table ratio seemed to be lower and wine was served by a waiter holding a bottle rather than a sommelier wielding a carafe – a relatively small difference, but presumably one that saves money. It still worked very well for the most part, but it wasn’t error-free. Serving coffee with the cheese and forgetting the petits fours was pretty sloppy.

A return to Northcote Manor (reprise)

I was hoping to put a review of Northcote Manor up tonight, having had another excellent meal there on Sunday.

Unfortunately, the post I wrote sucked a big fat one, so I’ve scrapped it and I’m going to start again.

In the meantime, here’s a copy of the five-course menu we enjoyed and the view from my bedroom to whet the appetite:

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GOURMET MENU

Chicken Livers, Pickled Damsons, New Seasons Garlic & Cob Nut Salad, Toasted Brioche

Gewürztraminer, Rolly Gassmann, Alsace, France, 2002

Slow Cooked Native Lobster, Scorched Young Leeks, Warm Jelly, Chervil

Chardonnay, Neudorf Vineyards, Nelson, New Zealand 2008

Banks Tomato Consommé, Courgette Spaghetti, Lemon Caviar, Tomato Brushcetta

Abbeystead Grouse, Blackberries, Bread Bits, Roast Potatoes, Heather Jelly

Beaune, 1er Cru Les Gréves, Domaine des Clos, Burgundy, France, 1999

Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards

Moscato, Innocent Bystander, Victoria, Australia, 2005

Supplement:

A Selection of British Cheeses served with Northcote homemade Bread Wafers and Walnut and Fruit Loaf

Ramos Pinto 10 Year Old Tawny, Quinta Da Ervamoira

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The Northcote Manor gardens and Ribble Valley beyond. If you’re wondering why it’s lopsided, it’s because my wife hung herself out the window of our room to take it.

A return to Northcote Manor

Northcote Manor in Langho, Lancashire holds a very special place in my heart. Two and a half years ago I went there for my first ever Michelin-starred eating experience and had an incredible time. Not least because I proposed to my now wife and she said yes (well, obviously).

Everything about our stay there, as part of a one-night gourmet break package, was perfect. The food was excellent*, the wine impeccable**, the service faultless***, our room immaculate****. All our fears about it being an oppressive, stuffy joint, with staff straight out of the Ferris Bueller school of table-waiting (below) came to nothing. I’ve only ever felt more welcome at the homes of family and friends (and not even all of them, to be honest!)

Our big worry had been my wife’s dairy allergy. We’d eaten at some good restaurants before and all had made really half-arsed attempts to cater for it. They’d take items off her plate but provide no substitute. They’d forget and give her sauces that clearly contained cream. Desserts were always just a pitiful pile of fruit, with a bit of meringue if she was lucky.

Such a lack of effort can ruin a meal and it has ruined several. Even places like Michael Caines at Abode and The French Restaurant at the Midland Hotel – two of Manchester’s top restaurants – have done poor jobs of catering for her. You basically have to remind the staff before every course and you’re made to feel as though you’re being immensely difficult. You’re that pain in the arse customer they wish hadn’t walked in through the door.

But at Northcote, we needn’t have worried. In fact, they handled it better than I ever could’ve imagined.

I’d mentioned the allergy when I made the booking, a good five months or so before we went. Given that length of time and past experiences, I was fully prepared to have to bring it up again as soon as we sat down to eat. And I was fully prepared to spend pudding time feeling sorry for her as I tucked into something amazing and she got lumbered with yet another bowl of raspberries.

But the only time it came up was right at the very start, as we supped Champagne in the lounge before the meal. We were asked which of us had the food sensitivity and they then handed her a specially prepared menu. Here she wasn’t a problem customer – she was a VIP.

Our starters were exactly the same, but she had a completely different fish course that was (almost) as good as mine. The main required a small substitution, but little enough to make no difference.

And her dessert – rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb granite and apple foam – blew mine away.

I probably just imagined it, but it felt almost as if the pastry chef was so thrilled by the challenge of creating a dish without cream in it that he/she decided to do something spectacular. I was very jealous. It’s still the best pudding she’s ever had.

In retrospect, what was even more amazing was that they even came up with stuff just for her in the pre-meal nibbles. That didn’t happen at two-star Hibiscus when we were there the other week. At three-star Alain Ducasse they did it, but there were a good few minutes in between mine arriving and hers, during which time I wouldn’t be surprised if the words “shit, she can’t eat any of the normal stuff, sort something out ASAP” were uttered.

From a food perspective, I’ve had a few better meals since. But nothing has quite lived up to the overall experience of that first trip to Northcote – which is why I’m very much looking forward to going back next Sunday!

I’ve been pimping the restaurant out to anyone who’ll listen since we went there. “You have to go,” I’ll say. “It’s a dead easy train journey from Manchester and you’ll have a fabulous time.”

A friend of my mum’s took the advice and loved it. Several of my own friends have stuck it on their wishlists and plan to take the trip. And now it’s my parents turn to go and they’re taking us along for the ride!

I’m probably more excited for them and my brother than I am for myself. I really hope they love it as much as we did and have as good a time.

I’ll update on how we get on next week.

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*I’ve still got signed copies of the menus, which I intend to frame and put up on the wall at some point. I ate three things there that no doubt would’ve made The List had it been drawn up before we went:

 

1.       Duck ham – interesting, but not much more

2.       Flavoured foam – way better than I expected given how critics often slate it for being a pointless gimmick. It added a flavour and texture to the dish that I don’t think could’ve been achieved with a standard dollop of sauce.

3.       Roe deer – until a few weeks ago, the best thing I’d ever tasted

 

**We ordered matching wines. The quality of the pairings improved throughout the meal, starting off as merely good and rising to sublime. Better than the lot though was the £14 half bottle of Merlot we had in our room afterwards, which was recommended by the sommelier. Still the best wine I’ve had that didn’t run into three figures.

 ***I’ve had fantastic service in some three-star places, but Northcote that night was still a cut above anything else I’ve come across. What set it apart was that the staff weren’t just trying to do a good job, they really seemed to care about giving us a great evening. When we left with big smiles on our faces we got genuine smiles back, as if they took great pleasure in helping to make us so happy.

 ****As good as a five-star hotel, but with the added bonus of board games. The Dorchester is the best place I’ve ever stayed by a mile, but even they didn’t have Scrabble like Northcote.

 

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this post below:

#2 A return to Northcote Manor reprise

#3 A return to Northcote Manor (reprise – part 2)

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