Review: Fraiche, Birkenhead



Interesting. Sometimes, as a sort of car-crash voyeurism, I like to check out the bad TripAdvisor reviews of restaurants. Not because I’d ever trust them, but because some people’s semi-literate views are hilarious. And for Fraiche I fully expected the same kind of comments I saw for Casamia; “I was so hungry afterwards I had to go and have a kebab” or “I went straight home and had beans on toast”. Because the portions at Fraiche are small. Perfect for me, not for everyone.

Instead the negative reviews (there are few!) gripe about a “lack of atmosphere”. Well, Fraiche is a small dining room; chef Mark only caters for 12 covers, that’s it. It’s a very modern and fun space, with video projectors and some nice lighting. And frankly, I think you bring your own atmosphere. We chatted with the waiters all evening – really great pair of guys, very enthusiastic and informed. When we ate at 5 North Street we had the place entirely to ourselves. Loved it. If you need to be surrounded by a bunch of other sussurating, masticating diners to feel like a place has “atmosphere” then what you’re really after is a Pizza Express. Hey, just my opinion!

Carrot everywhichway

Carrot everywhichway

My opinion of Fraiche is that this chef can cook his socks off. We started with a shot of rhubarb bitters, a magic balance of sweet/sour/bitter and the proper defintion of “amuse bouche”. My mouth was amused and ready for the feast. The “summer tree” was a playful tree prop bedecked with foraged stuff and a lovely piece of air-dried ham. There was a beautiful bright pea and goat curd dish afterwards that I could have eaten all night, followed by a truly knock-out little tartare of scallop with grapefruit and avocado.

Carrot textures next, with crispy chicken skin providing the umami, along with a good sprinkling of summer truffle. Pureed, sorbet, pickled, roasted, tiny sprouts, there was pretty much everything you could do with a carrot on here. The final starter was a really funky pressed block of watermelon contrasted with a crispy salt/fish piece of tuna skin. What I was really loving about the menu at Fraiche was how bright and punchy everything tasted.

Full-on fish flavours

Full-on fish flavours

The sea trout was another great example, a gloriously glistening piece of melt-in-the-mouth fish with a really vivid seaweed butter and plenty of bright orange salty eggs, with herbal notes from aniseedy sprouts and sumac. The main course was lamb (again! It feels like from May to Sept you can’t move for lamb mains on tasting menus!) and it was an outstanding specimen, both of lamb and of finding flavours to make a dish stand out – in this case a beautiful block of pressed aubergine that formed the sweet/savoury backbone of this plate.

The main dessert, following three spiffy palate-cleansers, was a plate of raspberry textures including some lovely jellies and a honey crisp. The magic touch here were the blobs of smoked goat milk yoghurt, a really powerful train-yard flavour that sat perfectly with the rich fruit and lingered on the palate while I waited for a very good selection of well-kept cheeses. Even their cheese board is inventive, each cheese paired with an unusual condiment – pistachio powder was particularly wow.

Aubergine with lamb, lovely

Aubergine with lamb, lovely

So, a cracking tasting menu at Fraiche, and my favourite meal in a long while. It basically stands up in the same league with L’Enclume, Noma, Casamia and co. We took a wine pairing, and they certainly didn’t shy from some whacky options – like the funky Jura vin jaune with our first course. For those of you who like a good nosebag, I must add that this was the first time I’ve ever had a full tasting menu, ordered an additional cheese course, and still left the restaurant feeling comfortably full rather than properly stuffed. Perfect for me, maybe not enough for some. Anyway I loved Fraiche and can’t recommend it enough.

Review: Pollen Street Social, London

I’ve said this before: I don’t like waiters who treat you like some kind of simple-minded rustic come down out of the hills. I fed back to the maitre d’ at Pollen Street Social that our desserts had come too fast, one on top of the other. Oh no sir, that’s how it is meant sir, the first two are small pre-desserts, we time it carefully, blah, blah, blah. Cock. When they put the petit fours on your table while you’re still eating your main dessert, they want the table back.

Pollen Street Social

Pollen Street Social

Now I’ve got that off my chest, how about our eight course tasting menu at Pollen Street Social? Jason Atherton’s flagship restaurant has never dimmed in popularity. It’s a big dining room, comfortable chairs, white linen, and classic Michelin-style service from the staff. Somehow I expected a “Social” to be more… I dunno, sociable? Anyway, that’s what you’re gonna get. The wine list matches; the handful of under fifty quid bottles looking a bit lost and nervous among all their three digit colleagues.

The meal started well with some delicious snack bites; salt/sweet churros to dip in truffle oil, a powerful gulp of mushroom broth under a light parmesan foam, sweet red pepper financiers. The starters took off very nicely from here. White bean soup had another hit of truffle and came with a little beignet of slooooow braised rabbit and tarragon flavours. Next was a tiny bowl of – in appearance – spaghetti bolognese, but which was actually kohlrabi and potato spaghetti with crumbled haggis, and a nice note of thyme through it all. Our third starter was the best yet, a delicious crab salad with specks of black garlic giving it punch, tiny blobs of lemon goo giving it zing, and a puree of the brown crab giving it grunt. Yumyumyum.

Spag bol of haggis and kohlrabi

Spag bol of haggis and kohlrabi

The fish course was good, if restrained. Quite a thick piece of John Dory, roasted crisp on the outside, maybe a tad over on the inside, accompanied by glistening salty cockles and a wilted leaf of wild garlic. Mmm… wild garlic. Two more leaves would’ve been nice.

Our main course was roast lamb, a nice slice of braised chard, some sticky-delicious brown onion puree and mushrooms (though sadly not the hedgehog mushrooms promised – I guess it can be hard to consistently source a wild variety?). The accompanying side, potato fondue with some little blobs of braised lamb and onion, was unctuous heaven. Taken as a whole, a rock-solid main, though it didn’t really keep up the momentum of the starters.

Pretty solid main - lamb, full fat

Pretty solid main – lamb, full fat

So, those three desserts. Admittedly all a bit of a blur (dig-dig). First a muscat grape granite with a delicate foam on top, perfectly decent palate cleanser and unmemorable. The beetroot and blood orange sorbet was also nice. That’s faint praise, that is. And I actively disliked the pink foam it was bathed in. Pink room-temperature foam coating my icy sorbet just had a weird and phlegm-y feel in the mouth. Chilled it would have been fine. The main dessert was the only real cracker here, a cake of sticky flaky pastry with gooey caramel-coated bits of apple nestled within. The pieces of sweet pickled apple alongside were a good touch, but the ice wine vinegar ice-cream was honestly too subtle for a rustic like me. Hey, at least it scores on originality – I’d never seen that flavour before.

For a £90 tasting menu this was really only just up to scratch, perhaps saved by some spiffing starters. As I perused the business cards at the front desk, for the half dozen other outings by Jason Atherton in London, Shanghai and Singapore, I wondered if he might have taken his foot off the pedal back home? This certainly didn’t seem like a meal worth raving about. Jolly good, though.

Apple pud, not refined but yum

Apple pud, not refined but yum

Review: Montpellier Cafe, Cheltenham

It took us a while to find our local restaurant in Cheltenham. We certainly spent our first year roaming around trying everything; the overpriced but unique Daffodil, the un-ironically retro Number Seven, the decently Swedish Svea, the zut-alors-tres-French L’Artisan, and a bunch more. We may live ten minutes walk from the 2 Michelin star Champignon Sauvage but popping down there every week or two would have a horrible effect on the arteries and waistline!

Proper fish and chips, Montpellier Cafe

Proper fish and chips, Montpellier Cafe

The trouble was, our favourite local restaurant hadn’t opened then. In fact the Montpellier Cafe only opened a few months ago, but we’re now pretty much regulars for brunch, dinner and the occasional cake. I can’t link you – they haven’t troubled themselves with a website, which is a shame because a clean and uncluttered site to match their smart grey-wood-red-white decor would certainly pull in a few punters.

Please, don’t go expecting fine dining miracles. Focus on the fact that main courses in the evening are seldom more than a tenner, and Sunday brunch is a ridiculous £6.50. Ssssh… don’t tell them… but they could charge a couple of quid more for everything on the menu and it would still be good value! Whoever the chef is in the kitchen, he or she just knows how to turn out a well seasoned, balanced, delicious plate of food.

Burger time at Montpellier

Burger time at Montpellier

Brunch first. They knock up a nice eggs benedict, with a properly tangy hollandaise. In spite of that, my order is usually the vegetarian breakfast with a side of black pudding. If that sounds contradictory, it’s because (a) I don’t need all the meat involved in sausage, bacon and black pud, and (b) the veggie breakfast comes with a helping of smashing bubble-and-squeak with just the right amount of leftover brassicas in with the potato and all blackened in places from frying. Mmmmm. The butter-roasted mushrooms are good too.

On to dinner. Well, I can talk to you about a beautifully char-grilled tuna steak, served with fresh asparagus and a jolly punchy sauce vierge. Or a really scrunchy-perfect pub style fish and chips, with creamy/tangy tartare sauce and “mushy peas” made with fresh peas instead – a much lovelier flavour, to my mind. On another occasion we tried their burger; good brioche bun, nicely crunchy skin-on fries, juicy meat cooked pink and flavoured with flames. I had a great piece of swordfish, cooked perfectly, on an artichoke and red pepper salad.

That's how to cook tuna

That’s how to cook tuna

So, yeah, don’t expect anything new and unexpected on the menu. But do expect it to taste great. They’ve chosen their wines and beers well too – the list is small and of course good value. If you live in Cheltenham, pop in. And if you’re visiting Cheltenham for a slap-up meal at the Champ. Sauvage, you know where Sunday brunch oughta be!

Review: Harry’s Place, Grantham

Blatant list-following: we only went to Harry’s Place because they got themselves into the top 10 of the annual Times 100 Best Restaurants in the UK list. And it was a unique and delightful experience, a lovely evening out, with some exceptional cooking. But I can see how your enjoyment could depend upon both you and your fellow diners.

The dining room is the front room of a Georgian house on Great Gonerby high street, and so it has just three tables and ten covers. Yes, only ten. And the menus are hand-written and they don’t have a website! The decor is comfortable and informal, deep red walls and rustic tables with pale green tops. This is a family business, just Caroline as front of house and Harry Hallam in the kitchen. And they’ve been here since 1988, a time when my idea of dining out was a birthday trip to the Beefeater with my parents. So, with Caroline’s serene attention and only a handful of other diners whose conversations you cannot help but overhear, you’ll have to decide whether it’s for you. For ourselves, we felt very much at home, and on a mid-week in cold February we had the room to ourselves by the time starters were cleared.

Oh, short menu too: two starters and two mains, so if you have dietary requirements then phone ahead! We both chose the scallops to start, and the lamb to follow. The scallops were magnificent specimens from Orkney, thoroughly caramelised on the outside but very toothsomely translucent within. They were dressed with a thoroughly delicious Thai-inspired concoction and garnished with (from memory) tomato and chive. Corals intact, of course. These were simply some of the best scallops I’ve ever enjoyed.

The lamb was roast loin, the delicate slices a beautiful pink inside and packed with flavour. Not half as packed as the gloriously boozy armagnac gravy, though. This had a deep, rich, sweet flavour with a shameless kick of booze on the end. I can count the number of sauces I’ve enjoyed this much on my fingers. On the side were cracking roast spuds and a delicate little salad of all my favourite veggies.

Puds were good, though low key after the great courses preceding. Maureen had a cherry brandy jelly absolutely brimming with great flavour and balanced with a clean cream. I got a big scoop of some very rhubarb-y rhubarb ice cream on a tangy puree. Comfortably full after all that, we chatted a while with our hosts while waiting for the taxi.

Three courses is somewhere just over £60 at Harry’s, and it’s exceptional cooking in a very personal setting. The wine list is short, but the four glasses we enjoyed were all excellent selections, including a luverly Sauternes. Now I just need to find another excuse to visit Grantham… any suggestions?

Review: Turners, Birmingham

I thought Alimentum had an odd choice of location, on a main road out of Cambridge near a trading estate. But Turners has it totally beat for “least likely place to expect fine dining”, squashed between hairdressers and carpet retailers in a drab parade of local shops with a squat row of 1970’s flats above. Who cares though, right? It’s all about the food. And to be fair, Harborne looks to be an up-and-coming area of Birmingham. I would have been tempted by the retro ice cream parlour up the road, if it hadn’t been 2 degrees and a biting wind outside.

Inside Turners things are more tranquil, decorated in modern masculine grey and black. The walls are covered in mirrors, to open up the narrow dining room, and all the mirrors say “TURNERS” in huge letters as a helpful reminder to those who eat out so often that they lose track of which restaurant they’ve wandered into. Service was a bit on the starchy side, only relaxed by one of our waiters being a bit new and making a couple of little cock-ups that he was unsure how to fix. Guys, just lighten up a bit.

I really enjoyed our lunch menu, though. Three little canapes, including a well tasty brown shrimp cracker, were followed by an oyster amuse. Maureen’s starter was a bright scallop ceviche, with plenty of zingy citrus in the luminous scallops and a nice horseradish snow on top. The cubes of pickled apple looked great but were really pretty vinegary. My starter, a plate of quail, was definitely my dish of the day. Confit leg, breast stuffed in cabbage leaf, liver parfait and a smokey quail egg with a runny yoke, all bound together with a splendid truffled jus and accompanied by crispy cabbage and very good cubes of salt-baked celeriac. Balance of flavours: perfect.

They pulled a cheeky number on the main course: lobster tortellini on the menu, langoustine tortellini when served at the table (and that mumbled pretty quiet). Served with sea bass and pronounced good. My main was beef, the usual pairing of a piece roasted pink and a slow-cooked element. The

slow bit was cheek, in a reasonably crispy potato tube, and jolly good. The other piece was sirloin, quite a dense piece and not particularly well chosen for flavour. Nice bourguignon-style accompaniments and jus.

Hm. Actually, pud was another contender for dish of the day. A really glorious prune souffle, full of flavour, with some very naughty armagnac ice cream and an earl grey caramel sauce poured in for good measure. Filthy good, when souffles are so often meekly angelic. That said, Maureen enjoyed the heck out of her rhubarb souffle and a neat brick of apple cheesecake was praised by our friends. And it wouldn’t be right to leave without mentioning the veritable regiment of petit fours that marched out with coffee, all good.

So we enjoyed dining at Turners and while a couple of dishes were good enough, a couple of others were really excellent. The three course a la carte we had was £55 at lunch and that’s about right. Richard Turner’s cooking is interesting enough that I’m happy to put him up with Purnell’s and Adam’s in the list of “fine dining places in Birmingham worth your time”. The wine list was a bit low on cheaper options, and the wines we had by the glass also weren’t quite up to what I’d have hoped. We may just have picked wrong.

Pedantic Postscript: why is it “Turners” restaurant? If this is the restaurant of Richard Turner, then it should be “Turner’s” as in “Richard Turner’s restaurant”. But it’s not, it’s “Turners”. So perhaps it is actually a restaurant where you might hope to find several Turners. Hence the plural, “Turners”. Perhaps it is actually owned by someone else, and employs a number of members of Richard’s family? Who can say.

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